Editor's note:

Intro­duc­tion to John Calvin
Born at Noy­on, France, and edu­cat­ed at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Paris, John Calvin (1509 – 1564) grew up in an atmos­phere of wealth and nobil­i­ty. His father want­ed him to study the­ol­o­gy, but John felt a yearn­ing to study law. How­ev­er, he had keen insight as a the­olo­gian and the heart of a pas­tor. Although he was nev­er ordained, he became the curate of St. Mar­tin de Marteville in 1527. In 1534 he was con­vert­ed to Protes­tantism, which result­ed in two short imprisonments.

In 1536 he wrote his famous Insti­tutes of the Chris­t­ian Reli­gion at the young age of twen­ty-six. By 1541 he had gone to Gene­va, Switzer­land, and had influ­enced that city to the point that he had gained a large fol­low­ing. Under Calvin’s leader- ship, and in spite of oppo­si­tion to him, Gene­va became famous for its high moral stan­dards, eco­nom­ic pros­per­i­ty, and edu­ca­tion­al sys­tem. Many con­sid­er him to have been the father and founder of both the Pres­by­ter­ian and the Reformed Protes­tant churches. 

He was deeply influ­enced by the writ­ings of Mar­tin Luther and St. Augus­tine, espe­cial­ly Augustine’s strong pre­des­ti­nar­i­an the­ol­o­gy. It is safe to say that no the­olo­gian holds a high­er or clear­er under­stand­ing of the sov­er­eign­ty of God than John Calvin. He was well known for his stern tem­pera­ment and aus­tere lifestyle. The fol­low­ing selec­tion deals with self-denial, which Calvin believed to be essen­tial in the life of every Chris­t­ian. As with oth­er devo­tion­al mas­ters, the words of Calvin are sober­ing to the mod­ern mind-set that sees restraint in whol­ly neg­a­tive terms. 

—Renovaré Team

Excerpt from Devotional Classics

EXCERPTS FROM Gold­en Book­let of the True Chris­t­ian Life

1. A Very Excel­lent Key Principle 

The Divine law con­tains a most fit­ting and well ordered plan for the reg­u­la­tion of our life; yet it has pleased the heav­en­ly Teacher to direct us by a very excel­lent key prin­ci­ple. It is the duty of believ­ers to present your bod­ies a liv­ing sac­ri­fice, holy, accept­able unto God” (Rom. 12:1, KJV); this is the only true worship. 

The prin­ci­ple of holi­ness leads to the exhor­ta­tion, Be not con­formed to this world; but be ye trans­formed by the renew­ing of your mind, that ye may prove what is the will of God” (Rom. 12:2). It is a very impor­tant con­sid­er­a­tion that we are con­se­crat­ed and ded­i­cat­ed to God. It means that we will think, speak, med­i­tate, and do all things with a view to God’s glory. 

2. Our Only Legit­i­mate Goal 

If we are not our own, but the Lord’s, it is clear to what pur­pose all our deeds must be direct­ed. We are not our own, there­fore nei­ther our rea­son nor our will should guide us in our thoughts and actions. We are not our own, there­fore we should not seek what is only expe­di­ent to the flesh. We are not our own, there­fore let us for­get our­selves and our own inter­ests as far as possible. 

We are God’s own; to him, there­fore, let us live and die. We are God’s own; there­fore let his wis­dom and will dom­i­nate all our actions. We are God’s own; there­fore let every part of our exis­tence be direct­ed towards him as our only legit­i­mate goal. 

3. The Most Effec­tive Poison 

Oh, how great­ly we have advanced when we have learned not to be our own, not to be gov­erned by our own rea­son, but to sur­ren­der our minds to God! The most effec­tive poi­son to lead us to ruin is to boast in our­selves, in our own wis­dom and willpow­er. The only escape to safe­ty is sim­ply to fol­low the guid­ance of the Lord. 

Our first step should be to take leave of our­selves and to apply all of our pow­ers to the ser­vice of the Lord. The ser­vice of the Lord does not only include implic­it obe­di­ence, but also a will­ing­ness to put aside our sin­ful desires and to sur­ren­der com­plete­ly to the lead­er­ship of the Holy Spirit. 

The trans­for­ma­tion of our lives by the Holy Spir­it, which St. Paul calls the renew­al of the mind, is the real begin­ning of life but for­eign to pagan philoso­phers. These philoso­phers set up rea­son as the sole guide of life, of wis­dom and con­duct. But Chris­t­ian phi­los­o­phy demands of us that we sur­ren­der our rea­son to the Holy Spir­it. This means that we no longer live for our­selves, but that Christ lives and reigns with­in us (Eph. 4:23; Gal. 2:20).

4. A Great Advantage 

Let us there­fore not seek our own, but that which pleas­es the Lord and is help­ful to the pro­mo­tion of his glo­ry. There is a great advan­tage in almost for­get­ting our­selves and in sure­ly neglect­ing all self­ish aspects; for then only can we try faith­ful­ly to devote our atten­tion to God and his commandments. 

For when Scrip­ture tells us to dis­card all per­son­al and self­ish con­sid­er­a­tions, it does not only exclude from our minds the desire for wealth, the lust of pow­er, and the favor of oth­ers, but it also ban­ish­es false ambi­tions and the hunger for human glo­ry with oth­er more secret evils. Indeed, Chris­tians ought to be dis­posed and pre­pared to keep in mind that they have to reck­on with God every moment of their lives. 

5. Leav­ing No Room 

Chris­tians will mea­sure all of their deeds by God’s law and will sub­ject their thoughts to God’s will. If we have learned to regard God in every enter­prise, we will be deliv­ered from all vain desires. The denial of our­selves (which Christ has so dili­gent­ly com­mand­ed his dis­ci­ples from the begin­ning) will at last dom­i­nate all the desires of our heart. 

The denial of our­selves will leave no room for pride, haugh­ti­ness, or vain­glo­ry, nor for avarice, licen­tious­ness, love of lux­u­ry, wan­ton­ness, or any sin born from self-love. With­out the prin­ci­ple of self-denial we are either led to indul­gence in the gross­est vices with­out the least shame, or, if there is any appear­ance of virtue in us, it is spoiled by an evil pas­sion for glo­ry. Show me a sin­gle per­son who does not believe in the Lord’s law of self-denial who can will­ing­ly prac­tice a life of virtue! 

6. Near­er to the Kingdom 

All who have not been influ­enced by the prin­ci­ple of self-denial and yet have fol­lowed virtue have done so out of a love of praise. Even those philoso­phers who have con­tend­ed that virtue is desir­able for its own sake have been puffed up with so much arro­gance that it is evi­dent they desire virtue for no oth­er rea­son than to give them a chance to exer­cise pride. 

God is so far from being pleased either with those who are ambi­tious of pop­u­lar praise, or with hearts full of pride and pre­sump­tion, that he plain­ly tells us they have their reward” (Matt. 6:5) in this world and that repen­tant har­lots and pub­li­cans are near­er to the king­dom of heav­en than such persons. 

7. The Rem­e­dy of All 

There is no end and no lim­it to the obsta­cles of the one who wants to pur­sue what is right and at the same time shrinks back from self-denial. It is an ancient and true obser­va­tion that there is a world of vices hid­den in the soul, but Chris­t­ian self­de­nial is the rem­e­dy of them all. There is deliv­er­ance in store only for the one who gives up self­ish­ness and whose sole aim is to please the Lord and to do what is right in his sight. 

8. A Well-Reg­u­lat­ed Life 

The apos­tle Paul gives a brief sum­ma­ry of a well-reg­u­lat­ed life when he says to Titus: The grace of God that bringeth sal­va­tion hath appeared to all, teach­ing us that deny­ing ungod­li­ness and world­ly lusts we should live sober­ly, right­eous­ly, and 

god­ly in this present world; look­ing for that blessed hope, and the glo­ri­ous appear­ing of the great God and our Sav­ior Jesus Christ who gave him­self for us, that he might redeem us from all iniq­ui­ty and puri­fy unto him­self a pecu­liar peo­ple, zeal­ous of good works” (KJV).

Paul declares that the grace of God is nec­es­sary to stim­u­late us, but that for true wor­ship two main obsta­cles must be removed: first, ungod­li­ness (to which we are strong­ly inclined), and sec­ond, world­ly lusts (which try to over­whelm us). 

Ungod­li­ness does not only mean super­sti­tions, but every­thing that hin­ders the sin­cere fear of God. And world­ly lusts mean car­nal affec­tions. Paul urges us to for­sake our for­mer desires which are in con­flict with the two tables of the law and to renounce all the dic­tates of our own rea­son and will. 

9. Sobri­ety, Right­eous­ness, and Godliness 

Paul reduces all the actions of the new life to three class­es: sobri­ety, right­eous­ness, and god­li­ness. Sobri­ety undoubt­ed­ly means chasti­ty and tem­per­ance, as well as the pure and fru­gal use of tem­po­ral bless­ings, and patience under pover­ty. Right­eous­ness includes all the duties of jus­tice that every­one may receive just dues. God­li­ness sep­a­rates us from the pol­lu­tions of this world and, by true holi­ness, unites us to God. When the virtues of sobri­ety, right­eous­ness, and god­li­ness are firm­ly linked togeth­er, they will pro­duce absolute perfection. 

10. Deliv­er­ing Our Minds from Every Snare 

Noth­ing is more dif­fi­cult than to for­sake all car­nal thoughts, to sub­due and renounce our false appetites, and to devote our­selves to God and our brethren, and to live the life of angels in a world of cor­rup­tion. To deliv­er our minds from every snare Paul calls atten­tion to the hope of a blessed immor­tal­i­ty, and encour­ages us that our hope is not in vain. 

As Christ once appeared as a Redeemer, so will he at his sec­ond com­ing show us the ben­e­fits of the sal­va­tion which he obtained. Christ dis­pels the charms which blind us and pre­vent us from long­ing with the right zeal for the glo­ry of heav­en. Christ also teach­es us that we must live as strangers and pil­grims in this world, that we may not lose our heav­en­ly inher­i­tance (Titus 2:11 – 14). 

11. Our Conqueror 

Let us dis­cuss fur­ther how real self-denial makes us more calm and patient. First of all, Scrip­ture draws our atten­tion to the fact that if we want ease and tran­quil­i­ty in our lives, we should resign our­selves and all that we have to the will of God, and at the same time we should sur­ren­der our affec­tions to him as our Conqueror. 

To crave wealth and hon­or, to demand pow­er, to pile up rich­es, to gath­er all those van­i­ties which seem to make for pomp and emp­ty dis­play, that is our furi­ous pas­sion and our unbound­ed desire. On the oth­er hand, we fear and abhor pover­ty, obscu­ri­ty, and humil­i­ty, and we seek to avoid them by all means. 

We can eas­i­ly see how rest­less peo­ple are who fol­low their own mind, how many tricks they try, and how they tire them­selves out in their efforts to obtain the objects of their ambi­tion and avarice, and then again to avoid pover­ty and humil­i­ty. If God-fear­ing peo­ple do not want to be caught in such snares, they must pur­sue anoth­er course: they should not hope, or desire, or even think of pros­per­i­ty with­out God’s blessing. 


Reflec­tions from Richard Foster

Calvin speaks life-giv­ing words when he reminds us that self-denial is an essen­tial part of any gen­uine life with God. The self-denial of which he speaks has noth­ing to do with hatred of the body, or with pun­ish­ment for the sake of pun­ish­ment, or with earn­ing mer­it through pow­ers of will and self-control. 

The more fit­ting image is of the ath­lete who enters a train­ing pro­gram appro­pri­ate for the devel­op­ment of mind, body, and spir­it. And, as we all know, self-denial is a nor­mal part of the reg­i­men of the ath­lete. We, like the ath­lete, must expe­ri­ence self-denial as a nor­mal part of our train­ing reg­i­men so that we may press on toward the goal for the prize of the heav­en­ly call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14).

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Excerpts tak­en from Devo­tion­al Clas­sics: Select­ed Read­ings for Indi­vid­u­als and Groups (Richard J. Fos­ter & James Bryan Smith, Edi­tors. Harper­Collins, 1993.). This ver­sion of John Calv­in’s text is orig­i­nal­ly from Gold­en Book­let of the True Chris­t­ian Life, Bak­er, 1952.

Originally published December 1989