Book 3 Chapter 7 Section 1-10
In this chapter Calvin continues his contemplation of the Christian life by doing a two-part exposition of Matthew 26.24, looking at the practice of self-denial. He begins by reminding us that we are not our own:
- “We are not our own: therefore, neither is our own reason or will to rule our acts and counsels
- We are not our own: therefore, let us not make it our end to seek what may be agreeable to our carnal nature
- We are not our own: therefore, as far as possible, let us forget ourselves and the things that are ours”
So who do we belong to now?
- “We are God’s: let us, therefore live and die to Him
- We are God’s: therefore let His wisdom and will preside over all our actions
- We are God’s: to Him, then, as the only legitimate end, let every part of our life be directed”
Calvin would have us realise that it is only in giving away our lives that we can rescue them from destruction, for “the only haven of safety is to have no other will, no other wisdom, than to follow the Lord wherever He leads. Let this then be the first step, to abandon ourselves and devote the whole energy of our minds to the service of God.”
Calvin divides the rest of this chapter into two parts, namely how self-denial has respect to our fellow man and, most importantly, to God.
- Our fellow man – while keeping ourselves humble by a diligent examination of our faults we should “behold the gifts of God in others, so to reverence and respect the gifts, as also to honour those in whom they reside. God having been pleased to bestow honour upon them, it would ill become us to deprive them of it.” Denial of self also means we do not use our gifts for our edification or promotion, rather “whatever we obtain from the Lord is granted on the condition of our employing it for the common good of the church, and that, therefore, the legitimate use of all our gifts is a kind and liberal communication of them with others.”
- God – our self-denial calls us to “resign ourselves, and all we have, to the disposal of the Lord.” Calvin recognises our “frenzied desire” for wealth, prosperity, honour and power, but the Christian is to seek none of these things as an end in themselves. Rather we do not “think of any prosperity apart from the blessing of God.” We are not to trust our own “dexterity and assiduity” (i.e. ingenuity) or leaning on the favour of men (i.e. networking) or empty imagination of fortune (i.e. visualisation techniques). Rather than standing on anyone who gets in our way, this way of thinking will mean “we will only follow such fortune as we enjoy with innocence.”
How refreshing this attitude toward our fellow man is! How easy it is to focus on the weaknesses and faults of those in Christian leadership – both in the local church and those with a global profile. Calvin warns us against have a critical spirit against them, not because of the perfection of their Christian character, but because they have been appointed by God to their position for the good of the church. Keeping our own faults at the forefront of our mind should keep us humble, but how well do we do at this? Do we lift up those in leadership among us in our conversation or do we bring them down? Its interesting to think of the parallels with David’s attitude to Saul in this regard. Knowing Saul was “the Lord’s anointed”, David abhorred the thought of inflicting the slightest injury on him. Do we really believe that our leaders were appointed by God for the good of His people? If so then this is not a million miles away from David’s attitude to Saul. We would do well do emulate David’s holy respect and loyalty to his (weak and tormented) king.
Self-denial is something much bigger than a private battle against besetting sins. It encompasses our entire lives – are they directed to the call of God, or are we living our lives on our agenda, with only the most fleeting acknowledgment of our Lord? Self-denial only makes sense when we understand that the reason we are called to lay down our own will and desires is that we might learn the will and desires of our Lord and Saviour. Only then do we learn that we have actually sacrificed nothing of any value, and yet we have gained the most priceless of all pearls.
“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” Jim Elliot.