A Note for Thanksgiving

This Thanksgiving Eve, I thought I’d take a break from the study of Jeremiah Burroughs’ work on the Causes, Evils, and Cures of Divisions in the Church, and offer, instead, a brief word from John Calvin on Gratitude.  This comes from the “Golden Book of the True Christian Life,” which was originally part of Calvin’s Institutes of Christian Religion, and is a wonderfully practical devotion on  basic Christianity.  I share today just a couple of his concluding points as a guide to gratitude in the coming celebrations.

Earthly things are gifts of God.

  • The first principle we should consider is that the use of gifts of God cannot be wrong if they are directed to the same purpose for which the Creator himself has created and destined them. For He has made the earthly blessings for our benefit, and not for our harm.
  • If we study why he has created the various kinds of food, we shall find that it was His intention not only to provide for our needs, but likewise for our pleasure and for our delight. If this were not true, the psalmist would not enumerate among the divine blessings “the wine that makes glad the heart of man, and the oil that makes his face to shine.”
  • Even the natural properties of things sufficiently point out to what purpose and to what extent we are allowed to use them. Should the Lord have attracted our eyes to the beauty of the flowers and our sense of small to pleasant odors, and should it then be sin to drink them in? Has he not made the colors so that one is more wonderful than the other? Has he not made many things worthy of our attention that go far beyond our needs (Ps. 104:15)?

True gratitude will restrain us from abuse.

  • Let us discard, therefore, that inhuman philosophy which would allow us no use of creation unless it is absolutely necessary.  Such a malignant notion deprives us of the lawful enjoyment of God’s kindness. And, it is impossible actually to accept it, until we are robbed of all our senses and reduced to a senseless block. On the other hand, we must with equal zeal fight the lusts of the flesh, for if they are not firmly restrained, they will transgress every bound.
  • If we want to curb our passions we must remember that all things were made focus, with the purpose that we may know and acknowledge their Author. We should praise his kindness toward us in earthly matters by giving Him thanks. But what will become of our thanksgiving if we indulge in dainties or wine in such a way that we are too dull to carry out those duties of devotion or of our business? Where is our acknowledgement of God, if the excesses of our body drive us to the vilest passions and infect our mind with impurity, so that we can no longer distinguish between right and wrong?
  • For many so madly pursue pleasure that their minds become enslaved to it. Many are so delighted with marble, gold, and painting, that they become like statues. The flavor of meats and the sweetness of odors make some people so stupid that they have no longer any appetite for spiritual things. And his holds for the abuse of all other natural matters.  Therefore, it is clear, that the principle of gratitude should curb our desire to abuse the divine blessings.

In short, enjoy the bounty of creation, this is God’s good gift to you. But always keep in mind it is His gift, meant to direct our devotion and gratitude, not to the gift, but to the giver.  Let gratitude keep you from taking God’s gifts for granted, and from overindulging in His gifts.

Have a very blessed Thanksgiving!

SDG

The Aproachable John Calvin

As a good Presbyterian, my first exposure to classic Systematic Theology was reading John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. At first, I wondered if I really wanted to study theology. The two-volume systematic was a different kind of reading. It wasn’t overly complicated, but it was exhaustive. Written in the 16th century, it was foreign to me culturally and methodically.  I still have the highlights and notes in the margins from my first reading, but those treasures then were rare.  After the first reading, I hoped that the readings would get better, and I purposely kept Calvin at arm’s length.

Then I came across something called The Golden Book of the True Christian Life.*  It is a sampling from Calvin’s Institutes that focuses in specifically on the meaning of the Christian life. This booklet completely changed my view of Calvin, and sent me back to the Institutes. It wasn’t that I needed to find better writing, but that I needed a better understanding of what was written.

I wanted to share with you excerpts from the opening chapter of the Golden Book, that you too may find the always approachable nature of John Calvin’s teaching on the meaning of the Christian life.


Scripture is the Rule of Life

The goal of the new life is that God’s children exhibit melody and harmony in their conduct. What melody? The song of God’s justice. What harmony? The harmony between God’s righteousness and our obedience. Only if we walk in the beauty of God’s law do we become sure of our adoption as children of the Father. The law of God contains in itself the dynamic of the new life by which his image is fully restored in us; but by nature we are sluggish, and, therefore, we need to be stimulated, aided in our efforts by a guiding principle.

Holiness is the key Principle

The plan of Scripture for a Christian walk is twofold: first, that we be instructed in the law to love righteousness, because by nature we are not inclined to do so; second, that we be shown a simple rule that we may not waver in our race. Of the many excellent recommendations, is there any better than the key principle: Be thou Holy, for I am holy? Holiness is not a merit by which we can attain communion with God, but a gift of Christ, which enables us to cling to him and to follow him.

Holiness means full obedience to Christ

Scripture does not only show the principle of holiness, but also that Christ is the way to it. Because the Father has reconciled us to himself in Christ, therefore he commands us to be conformed to Christ as to our pattern.  The Lord has adopted us to be his children on this condition that we reveal an imitation of Christ who is the mediator of our adoption. Therefore:

  • Since God has revealed himself as a Father, we would be guilty of the basest ingratitude if we did not behave as his children.
  • Since Christ has purified us through the baptism in his blood, we should not become defiled by fresh pollution.
  • Since Christ has united us to his body as his members, we should be anxious not to disgrace him by any blemish.
  • Since Christ, our head, has ascended into heaven, we should leave our carnal desires behind and lift our hearts upward to him.
  • Since the Holy Spirit has dedicated us as temples of God, we should exert ourselves not to profane his sanctuary, but to display his glory.
  • Since both our soul and body are destined to inherit an incorruptible and never-fading crown, we should keep them pure and undefiled till the day of our Lord.

External Christianity is not enough

Let us ask those who possess nothing but church membership, and yet want to be called Christians, how they can glory in the sacred name of Christ? External knowledge of Christ is found to be only false and dangerous make-believe, however eloquently and freely lip servants may talk about the gospel. The gospel is not a doctrine of the tongue, but of life. Let nominal Christians cease from insulting God by boasting themselves to be what they are not, and let them show themselves disciples not unworthy of Christ, their Master. Our religion will be unprofitable if it does not change our heart, pervade our manners, and transform us into new creatures.

Spiritual Progress is necessary

We should not insist on absolute perfection of the gospel in our fellow Christians, however much we may strive for it ourselves. There would be no church if we set a standard of absolute perfection, for the best of us are still far from the ideal, and we would have to reject many who have made only small progress. Perfection must be the final mark at which we aim, and the goal for which we strive. But let everyone proceed according to his given ability and continue the journey he has begun. Let us not cease to do the utmost, that we may incessantly go forward in the way of the Lord; and let us not despair because of the smallness of our accomplishment.  Though we fall short, our labor is not lost if this day surpasses the preceding one. The one condition for spiritual progress is that we remain sincere and humble. Let us keep our end in view, let us press forward to our goal. Let us steadily exert ourselves to reach a higher degree of holiness till we shall finally arrive at a perfection of goodness which we seek and pursue as long as we live, but which we shall attain then only, when, freed from all earthly infirmity, we shall be admitted by God into his full communion.


* Calvin, Jean. Golden Book of the True Christian Life; a modern translation from the French and the Latin by Henry J. Van Andel. (Baker Book House; Grand Rapids, MI, 1952).