Calvin’s Institutes (Book I Chapter I Section 1-3)
One of the most famous sentences in the Institutes is the opening line…”almost all wisdom consists of two parts – knowledge of God and of ourselves.” In this short chapter Calvin describes his thoughts on how we begin to come to an understanding of a real knowledge of ourselves and God. His thesis is that to know God we must also know ourselves and visa versa.
Calvin sees it as self-evident that mankind’s innate reason, sense of justice and sense of the divine are indicators of the origin of these qualities in the creator. Moreover, the constant stream of blessings from God should lead us back to the origin of such blessings. He goes on to argue that our own natural condition of moral bankruptcy resulting from Adam’s fall should cause us to seek our spiritual sustenance from God and result in humble reverence towards him.
Why then is mankind in such denial of these truths and so unwilling to turn to God? Because they are unaware of their true state. Calvin argues that man naturally doesn’t know himself or realise his true position.
Only when we look into the face of God do we really understand the depth of our corruption – as we really are and not as we see ourselves. Until we stop making created things the measure of goodness we will never realise how bad things are. Its as if we have spiritual cataract that colours everything we view in this world with a misguided view of our true nature, particularly our righteousness, wisdom and virtue. Because everything we have ever seen or contemplated in this world is also tainted we have no conception of the depths of these virtues within God’s being. To prove his point Calvin mentions the cherubim as created beings that are sinless and pure, who yet cover their faces from the holiness of the Lord.
- The best of man’s goodness, graciousness and wisdom are mere imaginings of beauty when set beside the divine attributes.
- If those created beings who are without sin are overwhelmed in God’s presence, what should our response be?
- If a glimpse of his glory made Moses’ face radiant, then to see his true majesty would truly devastate us and yet how often we come before this God so easily and cheaply.
“All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.” Isaiah 64.6
Oh Father, we confess our amazement at how patient you are with us. We think we understand ourselves and our hearts, but before you every desire and thought is laid bare. You are the one who see us as we really are, while we only skim the surface of our sinful hearts. Help us always to rely on the complete and perfect redemption that takes away all our known and unknown faults, makes us whole again and one day will set us perfect before you. We rest in you and the cross of Jesus Christ. Amen