At times, old historical writings get the reputation of being impenetrable. This may be due to historical differences, the foreign style of writing, a poor translation (or lack of any translation), or the overwhelming options for historical writings. This is quite unfortunate, as these writings are rich with insight and continue to be relevant for the present.
John Calvin’s A Little Book on the Christian Life (Reformation Trust Publishing, 2017; source: publisher) is a simple remedy to these types of concerns. Extracted from the Institutes of the Christian Religion, this little work has continued to be published as a standalone work since Calvin’s lifetime. Through the editorial and translation work of Burk Parsons and Aaron Denlinger, we have a very readable translation of this short but perceptive work on the Christian life (the previous English translation was less than acceptable).
Calvin begins the work with the words, “The goal of God’s work in us is to bring our lives into harmony and agreement with His own righteousness, and so to manifest to ourselves and others our identity as His adopted children (The Christian Life, 3).” He goes on to argue that it is the task of scripture to instruct us towards this goal. He writes,
There are two main parts to the instruction from Scripture on the Christian life that follow. The first is that a love of righteousness —to which we are not naturally prone— must be implanted and poured into our hearts. The second is that we need some model that will keep us from losing our way in our pursuit of righteousness. Scripture contains many arguments to encourage us on the path of righteousness. (The Christian Life, 5)
Calvin warns his read that one must be “addicted” to this righteousness, lest we make the sanctuary a “filthy stable” and “fling mud or filthiness on the body of Christ.” Hence, “right living [Christian living] has a spiritual basis where the inner affection of the soul is sincerely devoted to God for the nurture of holiness and righteousness (The Christian Life, 16).”
Calvin sums up actions attributed towards the this goal of righteousness:
Now, every right action in life belongs to one of three categories: self-control, uprightness, and godliness. Of these, self-control means purity and self-restraint, as well as blamelessly and carefully using the things we have, and acting with patience when we lack anything. Uprightness means observing all the requirements of justice so that we render to each one what is rightly due him. Godliness separates us from the impurities of the world and unites us to God in genuine holiness. These three—self-control, uprightness, and godliness—when they are joined together in an unbreakable bond, make us complete. (The Christian Life, 29)
I appreciate how modern Calvin can sound. His admonishment, “Something more is required from Christians than wearing a cheerful face and rendering their duties attractive by friendly words,” reads as if spoken from a pulpit today (The Christian Life, 43). Or, his words:
We carefully conceal our abundant vices from others— and we pretend they’re small and insignificant. In fact, we so delude ourselves that we sometimes embrace our vices as virtues. When others possess gifts that we would admire in ourselves— or even better gifts— we spitefully ridicule and degrade their gifts, refusing to rightly acknowledge them as gifts. Similarly, when others possess vices, we’re not content merely to point them out and harshly and sternly reproach them, but we wickedly exaggerate them. (The Christian Life, 31)
This line of reasoning can be found in C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters.
In this short work, Calvin finds room to work in one of his favorite doctrines: divine condescension/accommodation. For instance, the “rule” of the Christian life must be “kindness and benevolence.” Calvin argues that the Christian life is a stewardship of the divinely given gifts. Hence, one must use these gifts with kindness and benevolence when someone is in need of them. The use of these gifts must be towards all people. Calvin writes:
Therefore, you have no cause to evade anyone who stands before you and needs your service. Suppose he’s a stranger. The Lord, however, has stamped him with His own mark that’s familiar to you, and for that reason God forbids you to despise your own flesh. Suppose he is contemptible and worthless. The Lord, however, shows him to be one whom He has condescended to decorate with His own image. (The Christian Life, 40)
A Christian’s duty is bond to the divine condescension of creating humankind in his image.
Divine condescension does not only apply to how we understand and interact with other. It also plays a part in how we understand ourselves and matters that impact the Christian’s life. Calvin writes, “In such persecution, we should consider how much God, thus branding us with the mark that His soldiers bear, condescends to honor us (The Christian Life, 72). ” In being faithful towards a Christian life, one receives the “branding” of God, an act of condescension. Calvin goes on to state, “We might be thrust out of our homes, but thereby we are drawn more intimately into God’s household…. We might be branded with disgrace and dishonor, but thereby we gain a more honorable rank in the kingdom of God (The Christian Life, 74.” In condescension, God honors those who face dishonor for living a Christian life.
If you haven’t read a historical writing in a while, I would highly recommend A Little Book on the Christian Life. If you have, I still recommend A Little Book on the Christian Life as an insightful and poignant piece on the Christian life. Perhaps through A Little Book on the Christian Life, the reader will be inspired to take further time and energy to tackle the ever beneficial and rewarding Institutes.