Posted by: joelrbeeke | September 9, 2008

John Calvin on Piety – Part Elven


Self-denial is the sacrificial dimension of pietas. The fruit of the believer’s union with Jesus Christ is self-denial, which includes the following:

1.    The realization we are not our own but belong to God. We live and die unto Him, according to the rule of His Word. Thus, self-denial is not self-centered, as was often the case in medieval monasticism, but God-centered.  Our greatest enemy is neither the devil nor the world but ourselves.

2.    The desire to seek the things of the Lord throughout our lives. Self-denial leaves no room for pride, lasciviousness, and worldliness. It is the opposite of self-love because it is love for God.  The entire orientation of our life must be toward God.

3.    The commitment to yield ourselves and everything we own to God as a living sacrifice. We then are prepared to love others and to esteem them better than ourselves—not by viewing them as they are in themselves, but by viewing the image of God in them. This uproots our love of strife and self and replaces it with a spirit of gentleness and helpfulness.  Our love for others then flows from the heart, and our only limit to helping them is the limit of our resources.

Believers are encouraged to persevere in self-denial by what the gospel promises about the future consummation of the Kingdom of God. Such promises help us overcome every obstacle that opposes self-renunciation and assist us in bearing adversity.

Furthermore, self-denial helps us find true happiness because it helps us do what we were created for. We were created to love God above all and our neighbor as ourselves. Happiness is the result of having that principle restored. Without self-denial, as Calvin says, we may possess everything without possessing one particle of real happiness.


While self-denial focuses on inward conformity to Christ, cross-bearing centers on outward Christlikeness. Those who are in fellowship with Christ must prepare themselves for a hard, toilsome life filled with many kinds of evil, Calvin says. This is not simply due to sin’s effect on this fallen world, but is because of the believer’s union with Christ. Because His life was a perpetual cross, ours must also include suffering.  We not only participate in the benefits of His atoning work on the cross, but we also experience the Spirit’s work of transforming us into the image of Christ.

Cross-bearing tests piety, Calvin says. Through cross-bearing we are roused to hope, trained in patience, instructed in obedience, and chastened in pride. Cross-bearing is our medicine and our chastisement; it reveals the feebleness of our flesh and teaches us to suffer for the sake of righteousness.
Happily, God promises to be with us in all our sufferings. He even transforms suffering associated with persecution into comfort and blessing.

The Present and Future Life

Through cross-bearing, we learn to have contempt for the present life when compared to the blessings of heaven. This life is nothing compared to what is to come. It is like smoke or a shadow. “If heaven is our homeland, what else is the earth but our place of exile? If departure from the world is entry into life, what else is the world but a sepulcher?” Calvin asks.  “No one has made progress in the school of Christ who does not joyfully await the day of death and final resurrection,” he concludes.

Typically, Calvin uses the complexio oppositorum when explaining the Christian’s relation to this world, presenting opposites to find a middle way between them. Thus, on the one hand, cross-bearing crucifies us to the world and the world to us. On the other hand, the devout Christian enjoys this present life, albeit with due restraint and moderation, for he is taught to use things in this world for the purpose that God intended them. Calvin was no ascetic; he enjoyed good literature, good food, and the beauties of nature. But he rejected all forms of earthly excess. The believer is called to Christlike moderation, which includes modesty, prudence, avoidance of display, and contentment with our lot , for is the hope of the life to come that gives purpose to and enjoyment in our present life. This life is always straining after a better, heavenly life.
How, then, is it possible for the truly pious Christian to maintain a proper balance, enjoying the gifts that God gives in this world while avoiding the snare of over-indulgence? Calvin offers four guiding principles:

1.    Recognize that God is the giver of every good and perfect gift. This should restrain our lusts because our gratitude to God for His gifts cannot be expressed by a greedy reception of them.

2.    Understand that if we have few possessions, we must bear our poverty patiently lest we be ensnared by inordinate desire.

3.    Remember that we are stewards of the world in which God has placed us. Soon we will have to give an account to Him of our stewardship.

4.    Know that God has called us to Himself and to His service. Because of that calling, we strive to fulfill our tasks in His service, for His glory, and under His watchful, benevolent eye.


For Calvin, unconditional obedience to God’s will is the essence of piety. Piety links love, freedom, and discipline by subjecting all to the will and Word of God.  Love is the overarching principle that prevents piety from degenerating into legalism. At the same time, law provides the content for love.

Piety includes rules that govern the believer’s response. Privately, those rules take the form of self-denial and cross-bearing; publicly, they are expressed in the exercise of church discipline, as Calvin implemented in Geneva. In either case, the glory of God compels disciplined obedience. For Calvin, the pious Christian is neither weak nor passive but dynamically active in the pursuit of obedience, much like a distance runner, a diligent scholar, or a heroic warrior, submitting to God’s will.

In the preface of his commentary on the Psalms, Calvin writes: “Here is the true proof of obedience, where, bidding farewell to our own affections, we subject ourselves to God and allow our lives to be so governed by his will that things most bitter and harsh to us—because they come from him—become sweet to us.”  “Sweet obedience”—Calvin welcomed such descriptions. According to I. John Hesselink, Calvin described the pious life with words such as sweet, sweetly, sweetness hundreds of times in his Institutes, commentaries, sermons, and treatises. Calvin writes of the sweetness of the law, the sweetness of Christ, the sweetness of consolation in the midst of adversity and persecution, the sweetness of prayer, the sweetness of the Lord’s Supper, the sweetness of God’s free offer of eternal life in Christ, and the sweetness of eternal glory.

He writes of the sweet fruit of election, too, saying that ultimately this world and all its glories will pass away. What gives us assurance of salvation here and hope for the life to come is that we have been “chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4).  “We shall never be clearly persuaded…that our salvation flows from the wellspring of God’s free mercy until we come to know the very sweet fruit of God’s eternal election.”

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