This year, one of my goals is to work my way through Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. I found a handy one-year reading guide online and spend some time each afternoon reading a small portion of the massive 1,500 page work.
Calvin is my favorite Reformer and I find myself being daily encouraged by his writing. Today I want to share that encouragement with all of you and offer a few of Calvin’s words on the Christian walk that I think will be beneficial – especially to those of you who (like me) have felt less than close to God this week.
After a lengthy discussion against Catholic doctrine (namely, indulgences and purgatory), Calvin segues into a brief discussion on the Christian life. Calvin starts out by stating that the goal of every Christian’s life should be to, “breathe nothing but the very gospel.”* He isn’t arguing for some kind of perfectionism, in which Christians can attain a level of “un-sinnability” during this present life, but he nevertheless states that this kind of Gospel-saturated life should be the goal of every believer.
Calvin, come on now. Let’s be reasonable. For a lot of us, it takes the Holy Spirit’s restraint and unsafe levels of caffeine to get us through the day. Do you honestly expect us to strive after a life that breathes “nothing but the very gospel”?
Yes! That’s exactly what he says. He implores us, “Let that goal [Gospel-saturated living] be appointed toward which we should strive and struggle.”
A life that breathes nothing but the Gospel. That sounds like an impossibility, doesn’t it? But look at that quote again. Notice the words Calvin chooses. He doesn’t say, “Let that goal be appointed toward which we should stroll and skip.” Nor does he say, “Let that goal be appointed toward which we lackadaisically amble.”
No. He says, “Let that goal be appointed toward which we strive and struggle.” [emphasis mine]
Now that sounds a bit more like my day-to-day experience in the Christian walk. Striving and struggling. There are high points, for sure. Days when the Lord reveals great truths to me in Scripture, days when He answers prayer, days when Christ’s grace is made real in my life. But there are other days when all of those things are absent and just crying out to God in prayer is a challenge. It’s on those days that we must, as Calvin said, strive and struggle toward Gospel-saturated living.
“But,” you might be saying, “that still isn’t much of an encouragement. I already know the Christian walk is a struggle. In fact, it’s a struggle I feel like I’m losing. How does this help me?”
Listen to what Calvin says towards the end of this section: “no one in this earthly prison of the body has sufficient strength to press on with due eagerness, and weakness so weighs down the greater number that, with wavering and limping and ever creeping along the ground, they move at a feeble rate. Let each one of us, then, proceed according to the measure of his puny capacity and set out upon the journey we have begun. No one shall set out so inauspiciously as not daily to make some headway, though it be slight.” [emphasis mine]
There’s a lot there, so let’s unpack it. I want us to get three things from this. One, no one is strong enough to go at it alone. Calvin says we are “wavering and limping” and weighed down by weakness. But second, Calvin insists that although our progress might be a limping progress, even a creeping along the ground progress, we nevertheless should “proceed according to the measure of his [our] puny capacity.” In other words, no matter how slow the going is, we should still keep going. And finally, he ends by assuring us that however slowly and agonizingly our progress towards Gospel-saturated living may be, we are daily making headway. No matter what pit of sin we are in, no matter how far away God may feel, no matter how futile our efforts may seem, we press on daily, knowing that although we may be creeping along the path towards Gospel-saturated living, we are getting closer every day.
It reminds me of Philippians 1:6, which says, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” [ESV]
Jesus Christ, who began a good work in you at the moment of your salvation, will bring it to completion! However slowly that work may be completed, it will be completed. Rest in that.
I leave you with Calvin’s final thoughts on the topic: “And let us not despair at the slightness of our success; for even though attainment may not correspond to desire, when today outstrips yesterday the effort is not lost.” Start striving after Gospel-saturated living today!
*All quotations from Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion: Volume 1 published by Westminster John Knox Press
It came to my attention last week that I had somehow paused the mailing list for my subscribers. So, if you haven't been getting these posts emailed, I have remedied the situation and they should be back online today! Thanks for your understanding!