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Living for God: Calvin on the Spiritual Life

  • Iain H. Murray Tabletalk Magazine
  • 2009 10 Jul
Living for God: Calvin on the Spiritual Life

"We are God’s: let us therefore live for him and die for him. We are God’s: let his wisdom and will therefore rule all our actions. We are God’s: let all the parts of our life accordingly strive toward him as our only lawful goal [Rom. 14:8; cf. I Cor. 6:19]. O, how much has that man profited who, having been taught that he is not his own, has taken away dominion and rule from his own reason that he may yield it to God!" (Institutes, 3.7.1)

On the opening page of every edition of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion stand the words that were the unifying motif of his life: “True and sound wisdom consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” So he first wrote in 1536, and through all the years that followed, the emphasis remained the same. Calvin saw himself as a sinner who owed all that he was to God. It was God who subdued his mind to the knowledge of Christ. The piety that was recovered at the Reformation has sometimes been caricatured as a life of cold, austere obedience to God. But the caricature rests on ignorance of the connection between the love of God and the gratitude of believing hearts. To glorify this gracious God and not to displease Him are necessarily the desires of those whom He redeems.

Yet there are dangers for those who revere the memory of Calvin, and I will mention two that present themselves to me.

First, in our circles, piety and godliness are not the characteristics of Calvinistic belief to the extent that they ought to be. We believe that divine revelation has come to us in words and in propositions, and for these we must contend. But truth is only rightly believed to the extent that it is embodied in life. The gospel spread across Europe in the sixteenth century primarily through the witness of transformed people.

Too often in our time, beliefs associated with the name of Calvin have been identified with the lecture hall and the academy. I once had the misfortune to hear addresses on “the five points of Calvinism” delivered as though we were attending a chemistry lecture.

It is not by argument or teaching alone that the current scene can be reversed. “The kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power” (1 Cor. 4:20), for the Holy Spirit alone is the source of witness that is not in talk only.

Second, our example needs to be the best argument that belief in divine sovereignty does not weaken evangelistic preaching. There are prominent exceptions to the contrary, but in surveying the Christian scene at large, there is some justification for the idea that Calvinistic belief hinders evangelistic passion. Facing this perception, we would be mistaken to suppose we are free of blame. We have found it easier to be “teachers” and “defenders” of the truth than to be evangelists who are willing to die that men might be converted. Sometimes the impression can be given to other Christians that we regard “Calvinism” as coterminous with Christianity and that we think all gospel preaching can be fitted into the five points. The five points are not to be depreciated, but God is incomprehensibly greater than our understanding, and there are other truths to be preached far beyond our capacity to harmonize.

Calvin cautions us here. In speaking of the indiscriminate invitations of Christ in John 5, he observes, “He is ready to give himself, provided that they are only willing to believe.” He can say that “nothing of all that God wishes to be saved shall perish” and yet warn his hearers lest the opportunity of salvation “pass away from us” (Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel According to John, 1:261, 407).

Where Calvinistic truth is presented as though there is no love in God to sinners as sinners — that His only regard is for the elect — it is no wonder that evangelistic preaching falters. The preacher has to be possessed with a love for all or he will not represent the Savior in whose name he speaks. The men of Calvinistic belief who have stood out as evangelists and missionaries have always been examples of this. 

Iain H. Murray, “
Living for GodTabletalk July 2009: p10–p11. © July 2009 Tabletalk Magazine. Used with permission from Ligonier Ministries and R.C. Sproul. Website: www.ligonier.org/tabletalk. Email: tabletalk@ligonier.org. Toll free: 1-800-435-4343.

Rev. Iain H. Murray is a co-founder of Banner of Truth Trust in Edinburgh, Scotland, and is minister emeritus of the Australian Presbyterian Church.

For more from Ligonier Ministries, check out Dr. R.C. Sproul's weekly devotional, In the Presence of God, appearing on Christianity.com and Crosswalk.com. Click here to read or sign up for email delivery.

Original publication date: July 10, 2009

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