Taking the red pill

Book 3 Chapter 14 Section 1-21

Sometimes we are unexpectedly faced with a life-changing decision that will effect our whole life. In The Matrix Neo faces the choice of whether he really wants to know the true nature of reality. He can stay as he is, blissfully unaware of the terrors that surround him, or enter the real world with its pain and suffering. At the critical moment Morpheus says to Neo:

You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.

Neo takes the red pill and life is never the same again. He realises he has been decieved all his life, and that the real world is far more disturbing than he could have ever imagined. In this chapter Calvin brings a similar challenge – do you really want to understand yourself as God sees you, or are you happy in your self-deception? Are you prepared to do whatever is necessary to really see yourself as you are, not how you see yourself? Beware! It will shake your comfortable life, but it will lead you to a deeper understanding of who God is and His great love for you.

This chapter is one of the key sections on Calvin’s discussion of justification by faith, in it he divides all mankind into four sections – as he calls them the “idolarous, profane, hypocritical and regenerate.” He goes on to consider each in turn in a display of penetrating analysis of mankind’s true nature. His key question throughout is, do any of these groups possess any kind of righteousness that could justify them before God? 

1. Those with no knowledge of God (1-6). Can those with no knowledge of God please God by their good works? No, according to Calvin. While he doesn’t deny that many in this category do have admirable virtues, “or rather images of virtues”. Since they do not possess the life that comes only through Christ (1 John 5.12), no matter how far they progress in character it will always be polluted. What is more, as they have an impure heart they are incapable of true righteousness, for “duties are estimated not by acts but by motives.”

2. The religious & hypocrites (7&8). Calvin sees this group as those who while “acknowledging themselves to be unrighteous, because they cannot deny it, they yet arrogate to themselves some degree of righteousness.” They have a form of godliness – but deny its power (2 Timothy 3.5).  This group have an appearance of righteousness for they partake in religious ceremonies, but underneath their hearts are not right with God – and they know it. This shallow spirituality does not impress God, for their “works are not pleasing to God unless the person has previously found favour in his sight.” 

3. The saved (9-21). Here Calvin addresses those who recognise that nothing good in them commends them to Almighty God, rather they trust in another’s righteousness.  Calvin lays out this in stark truth when he says “no believer ever performed one work, which, if tested by the strictest judgement of God, could escape condemnation.” And “that all the righteousness of men collected into one heap would be inadequate to compensate for a single sin.”

Lest we should remain in any doubt that even the works of believers are never 100% pure and holy Calvin finishes us off with this challenge: “Let the holy servant of God, I say, select from the whole course of his life the action which he deems most excellent, and let him ponder it in all its parts; he will doubtless find in it something that savours of the rottenness of the flesh, since our alacrity in well-doing is never what it ought to be, but our course is always retarded by much weakness.”


Whew! This is Calvin at his sharpest. He would not have believers under any illusions that their good works are able to justify them before God. Let us truthfully examine ourselves and we will have to agree with him – is their any action that I have done that has been wholly and utterly pure and self-less? Is there not always a taint of our own selfishness and pride in every “good” work?

Reading this kind of language for the first time it may seem as though this would drive believers to despair, but actually it is the ground of all our confidence. For once we come to this place of complete and utter bankruptcy then we give up all hope of ever repaying the debt ourselves. Then we are either completely without hope and lost, or someone must intervene for us on our behalf. There is no shame in casting ourselves on another to save us once we have realised that all our attempts are futile. Then and only then do we really understand that we need a Saviour. This is the reality that we must face if we would know God – painfully uncomfortable at first and then joyfully exhilerating.

“Not the labour of my hands, can fulfil Thy law’s demands; could my zeal no respite know, could my tears forever flow. All for sin could not atone, Thou must save and Thou alone.”
Rock of Ages, Augustus Toplady.

Father, break through our self-deception and comfort with the burning, illuminating light of your word. May the trail blazed by Calvin be re-traced by your people to fall at your feet in wonder and adoration at your mercy and grace. Thank you Jesus for saving me through your death and resurrection.

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