I received this classic gem in the mail Sunday and I could not wait to sink my teeth into it. John Calvin was one of the greatest theologians ever to walk the face of the earth, and it is such a privilege to be able to open up the Institutes of the Christian Religion and see his thoughts available to be engaged. So here I would like to share my thoughts and some of his quotes as I work through this magnum opus of doctrine gleaned from the Holy Scriptures through years of study.
The first chapter has to do with the knowledge of God and of ourselves, which he says consists of two parts, which I mentioned in the first sentence of this paragraph. He then poses his thought as to which one comes before the other. As I pondered it, my thoughts were taken to Proverbs 1:7 which tells us that the beginning of all knowledge, both spiritual and natural, is the fear of the Lord. Calvin stated it this way: "No man can truly survey himself without forthwith turning his thoughts toward the God in whom he lives and moves," which reminded me of Acts 17:28. It is in God alone that we live, move, and have our being -- Him alone. And according to Colossians 1:17, He holds all things together. Now imagine if God allowed one of your molecules to slip away, or if He allowed the earth to spin a little slower, or tilt a little sharper, where would we be? Think about the composition of our atmosphere, and if he changed one of the elements one-tenth of a percent...where would we be? Where would anything be? As Shai Linne so eloquently stated, "Without Christ, reality would collapse on itself." As Calvin says, "Our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone."
Calvin moves on to speak of God's infinite goodness, and the fact that we cannot truly see it, nor enjoy it, unless we confess our poverty (Matt. 5:3). But it can be difficult to see because we live in a fallen world, and it is necessary for us to realize that His goodness is not just there to provide for us our daily needs; it is there also to teach us humility. None of us is as well off as we may think. Calvin says that, "Our feeling of ignorance, vanity, want, weakness, in short, depravity and corruption, remind us that in the Lord, and none but He, well the true light of wisdom, solid virtue, and exuberant goodness." The Bible is deafeningly clear that there is nothing good in us (Rom. 3), therefore any goodness that we may produce is derivative from God's infinite storehouse.
The problem is that we don't think we're impoverished. We act like the Laodiceans and declare our self-sufficiency. But Jesus declared in John 4:10 that if the woman at the well KNEW the gift of God, then she would have given Him a proper response, that is, to ask for the living water. But as Calvin stated in his commentary on that verse:
"Knowledge of Christ begins with a conviction of our poverty; for, before anyone desires a remedy, he must be previously affected with the view of his distresses...Why would Christ be sent with the fullness of the Spirit, if we were not empty?
When Christ appears, we no longer wander in vain, seeking a remedy where none can be obtained, but we go straight to Him. The only true and profitable knowledge of the grace of God is, when we know that it is exhibited to us in Christ, and that it is held out to us by His hand."
We can't begin to "aspire to Him" until we have developed an utter displeasure with ourselves, and that is the major problem that lies within each of us. Have we truly contemplated God in all of His self-disclosure? We may say that we have, we may even know how to regurgitate what we have learned of Him...and yet, we still parade around our peacock feathers of self-righteousness. Why is that? Calvin declares that it is because we have not been truly convinced "by clear evidence" of how foolish we are to think in such a manner. He says that "The Lord is the only standard by which conviction can be produced." But when we see any inkling of self-righteousness, of self-empowered living, we place God on the back burner and become satisfied as if somehow we have accomplished something. This is folly at its finest. Calvin says that we know how to speak concerning ourselves by using the "most flattering terms," puffing ourselves up to a little "less than demigods."
But if we ever keep a constant eye upon God, if we ever keep our thoughts constantly on Him, and contemplate His attributes, His character, and His glory, "what formerly delighted us will become polluted with the greatest iniquity." Those respectable sins, as Jerry Bridges calls them, will become the utmost of disrespect to the holy God. Those sins that you sweep under the rug will become an eyesore that must be removed from the house. Those "little" sins that you think are of no consequence will become the ultimate treason before God, and you will fight tooth and nail to eradicate them so that you can see the God who is rich in all things more clearly, and in turn understand yourself more clearly. All knowledge, whether of God or of man, begins by fearing God and then grows by continued devotion of every fiber of your being to build upon that foundation of truth that God has entrusted to your care.