Calvin on the Nature and Requirements of the Christian Life


by Matt Wilson

Editor’s Remarks

Mr. Wilson is a high school teacher and coach at East Coweta High School, Senoia, GA. He is also a member of and deacon at the White Oak AR Presbyterian Church, Senoia, GA. The article below is a paper that he wrote for his MA in Leadership, Liberty University.


In studying the Institutes, the systematic expression of Calvin’s theology and the Calvinistic worldview, one is overwhelmingly impressed by the proper balance of emphasis placed on doctrine and practicality; however, this sense of balance and practicality is not the impression that most people today have of John Calvin’s system of thought. Far too often he has been caricatured by those who do not understand his system as the “dark theologian” who sat in his study in Geneva expounding and glorying in the “monstrous” doctrines of limited atonement, reprobation, and absolute determinism – the man whose system of thought and way of life was that of mind and not that of the heart or of practical Christian living. This impression of Calvin and Calvinism which is current today is far from being true. Calvin was, if not a God-intoxicated man, at least a God-possessed man, and every expression of his theological system was a Biblically based attempt on his part to enable the Christian to attain to his chief end, which is “to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.” It was a practical system based on Scripture and the classic interpretive authorities of the Ancient Church – a system based on the foundational principle that he would not go beyond what Scripture plainly expressed and authorized. Calvin’s Calvinism is not principally a theological system; rather, it is a way of life based mainly on these doctrines:

  1. God’s sovereignty and
  2. man’s absolute dependence on his Creator

that is, God has created the world for man’s use and man’s purpose is to glorify God whether it is wittingly or unwittingly.

This idea is expressed in these words: “Our salvation was a matter of concern to God to such a way that, not forgetful of himself, he kept his glory primarily in view, and therefore created the whole world to this end, that it might be the theatre of his glory.” Accordingly, God is the Law-giver, Savior, and Ruler whose honor, glory, and will are supreme in all the different realms of life. Calvinism, as defined by Calvin, is a total life view that seeks to glory in and serve God and die to self. To Calvin, God’s will and glory are the first and last words, the primary thoughts ALWAYS, that is, the Christian’s life is one that is absolutely possessed by the thought of God.

This paper deals with Calvin’s view of the nature and requirements of the Christian life. The points to be discussed are:

  1. Religion and life;
  2. Christian denial;
  3. The good life and the life to come;
  4. Christian liberty;
  5. Prayer; and
  6. Rules for Christian living.

I. Religion and Life

For Calvin, the life of the Christian is not something that can be compartmentalized into sections for the sacred and sections for the secular. The Christian life is a worldview that does not differentiate between the sacred and the secular. Every life, whether it is lived to God’s glory or not, is governed by a certain set of rules of conduct. Those who have not tasted of God’s love find the basis for their way of life in “self” while the Christian finds the basis for his/her conduct in obedience to God’s will. The end of regeneration is “that the life of believers may exhibit a symmetry and agreement between the righteousness of God and their obedience.” God’s plan for the Christian’s life consists chiefly in these two things: “the first, that of righteousness, to which we have otherwise no natural propensity, be instilled and introduced into our hearts; the second that a rule be prescribed to us, to prevent our taking any devious steps in the race of righteousness.” And what is this pattern? Since “God the Father has reconciled us to himself in Christ, so he has exhibited to us in him a pattern to which it is his will that we should be conformed.”

The “half-hearted” Christian is repulsive to Calvin, for the Christian life is an absolute affair. It is impossible to have the name and symbol of Christ without having Him as Lord. Concerning the “half-hearted” Christian Calvin says “Let them . . . either cease to insult God by boasting themselves to be what they are not, or show themselves disciples not unworthy of Christ, their Master.” Yet, by saying this, Calvin is not rejecting the weak Christian or advocating perfection; rather, he is attacking those who know the import of the Christian message and seek to make a “compromise with God, as to undertake a part of the duties prescribed . . . and to omit part of them” for the sake of pleasure or safety. Sanctification is the end of the Christian life – an eschatological perfection and not something that is obtained within this “veil of tears.” However, if the obtaining of the earthly part of that goal is slow, Calvin would not attack that brother who was progressing more slowly than he might think proper. Rather, his attitude would be one of exhortation. Calvin saves his attack for those who openly choose compromise. His attitude is this: “Let us every one proceed according to our small ability, and prosecute the journey we have begun,” and

let us not cease to strive, that we may be incessantly advancing in the way of the Lord; nor let us despair on account of the smallness of our success; for however our success may not correspond to our wishes, yet our labour is not lost, when this day surpasses the preceding one; provided that, with sincere simplicity, we keep our end in view, and press forward to the goal, not practicing self-adulation, nor indulging our evil propensities, but perpetually exerting our endeavours after increasing degrees of amelioration, till we shall have arrived at a perfection of goodness, which, indeed, we seek and pursue as long as we live, and shall then attain, when divested of all corporeal infirmity, we shall be admitted into complete communion with him.

II. Christian Denial

To understand Calvin’s doctrine of the Christian life, one needs to realize that Calvin is attempting to make 1 Corinthians 6:20 applicable to Christian living. There are two parts to this aspect of the Christian life: self-denial and the bearing of the Cross. Both of these are a denial of man’s will and obedience to God’s will. Self-denial has far-reaching implications. The Christian has to renounce his/her own point of view, turn from all covetous desires of the flesh, and become as nothing in order that God may live in him/her and control him/her so that His glory might be manifested among men. But this is not a monastic self-renunciation of the world, but it is the Christian finding the Source of happiness, that is, “Man becomes happy through self-denial,” because he has “come even to despise the most precious thing in the world so that he might have more room in his heart to love Christ.”

The second part of Christian denial is the bearing of the Cross. By means of the Cross God disciplines and tames man’s pride and flesh, and that in manifold ways. as is required by the needs of each. By sending misfortune and sorrows God breaks man’s will to His will and trains the Christian mind and body in obedience. The Cross which He lays on the Christian promotes self-renunciation and brings the Christian to cast himself/herself wholly upon Christ. This is not a Cross of dishonor even though men/women may look at it with sorrowful eyes. The Cross is the glory of the Christian, and it is an honor to carry it for it shows whether a person is a son or not. This bearing is a permanent aspect for the Christian: “even though swords are not always drawn against us we must be prepared, because we are nevertheless members of Christ, always to share His cross of suffering,” and where there is a refusal to carry the Cross “there is no genuine fear of God in us. . . .” However, to carry the Cross does not mean stoic resignation. The patient bearing of the Cross does not mean that the Christian is to brace himself/herself so as not to feel pain; rather, it is a patient abiding that brings assurance of God’s love.

III. The Good Life and the Life to Come

Calvin is not negativistic in his description and judgments concerning the present life. The present life is an exile “if heaven is our country”; however, the situation is not absolute bleakness, for God watches over the Christian and sees to his/her joy. He writes: “We shall find that he consulted not only for our necessity, but also for our enjoyment and delight.” “If this was not true,” Calvin argues, “the Prophet would not enumerate among the mercies of God wine that maketh glad the heart of man, and oil to make his face to shine.”

The believer’s attitude toward this life should be one of contempt, not one of hatred of life or ingratitude to God for life. This life is not the Christian’s end, but a means to an end, “for the Lord has ordained, that they who are to be hereafter crowned in heaven must first engage in conflicts on earth, that they may not triumph without having surmounted the difficulties of warfare and obtained the victory.

The Christian must be grateful to God for this life because God has placed him/her here so that through its sorrows the Christian may reach the life of eternity. Never would the heart of a person knowingly school itself to desire and long for the future life without having first come to feel contempt for the earthly life. There can be no mean between the extremes – either the Christian must despise the earthly life or he/she must find himself/herself bound by intemperate self-love.

IV. Liberty

In Calvin’s discussion on the liberty of the Christian man, he treats the subject under three points:

  1. Christian liberty assures justification;
  2. Christian liberty demands responsibility; and
  3. Christian liberty imposes limitations.

Because of the blood of Christ the Christian can turn away from working for justification, “for the question, is not how we may be righteous, but how, though unworthy and unrighteous, we may be regarded as righteous.” The mind of the Christian is freed to concentrate on God. No longer is there concern for absolute obedience to the law for salvation; rather, the Christian is able to turn all his/her efforts to honoring God’s will. Here Calvin distinguishes between the moral law and the ceremonial law. The moral law cannot be done away with, but the ceremonial law of works of righteousness has been abrogated by the finished work of Christ.

The conscience of the believer finds assurance in this abrogation by rising above the law, and thinks no more of obtaining justification by it. Also, by the performance of God-honoring works, the Christian shows to the world that he/she is free from the condemnation of the law and that he/she is a son of God.

Christian liberty is not antinomianism. Under the law certain things were declared unclean and, therefore, evil, but, for the Christian, all things are clean and free to him/her. The “law compelled legal necessity; but being free from the yoke of the law itself Christians voluntarily obey the will of God.” However, the Christian does not have a license to sin. The main point that Calvin is trying to get across is Christian responsibility. The Christian does not live unto himself/herself, but to God. Calvin’s ideal is this:

Although you feel that sin is not yet extinguished, and that righteousness does not plainly live in you; you have no cause for fear and dejection, as if God were always offended because of the remains of sin, since by grace you are freed from the law, and your works are not tried by its standard. Let those, however, who infer that they may sin because they are not under the law understand that they have no right to this liberty, the end of which is to encourage us in self-doing.

As has been stated, the Christian is not bound, but is free to use or omit all things. In commenting on Romans 14:14, Calvin says that all external things are subject to the Christian, “provided the nature of that liberty approves itself to our minds as before God.” It is, however, to be observed that the Christian’s liberty “consists in giving peace to the trembling conscience . . .”; that is, the Christian’s liberty has certain bounds. It is not to be used as a cloak for lust or self-gratification. Calvin demands moderation so as not to offend the weaker brother. He says, “In all cases we must study charity, and look to the edification of our neighbor.” The Christian life is living to honor God and serve one’s fellow servant. The sum of the matter is this: “Our liberty was not given us against our weaker neighbor, whom charity enjoins us to serve in all things, but rather that, having peace with God in our minds, we should live peaceably among men.”

V. Prayer

“The principal exercise which the children of God have,” writes Calvin, “is prayer; for in this way they give a true proof of their faith.” Prayer is a necessity, for without it “our faith would quickly dissolve. . . .” Prayer is the perpetual exercise of faith. Prayer is faith uttering the love and desires toward God which is natural to faith, that is, prayer is the means of communication with God in the Christian life.

In prayer the Christian has a chance to examine his/her life because of the certain prerequisites that there are for prayer. First, the Christian who engages in prayer should “apply his faculties and attention to it, and not be distracted . . .” and he should be careful and not “pray for more that God permits,” for prayer is not the careless giving of rein to affections or folly and depravity.” The second prerequisite is that prayer be a serious supplication for what is needed, and this supplication should be joined with an “ardent desire of obtaining” what is needed. Third, prayer should be seen as an opportunity to glory in God and not is self. Finally, prayer is approaching God with confidence, for “God is highly incensed by our distrust, if we supplicate him for blessings which we have no expectation of receiving.”

Prayer is a vehicle by which the Christian focuses his/her attention on the work of Christ, “for even were we of our own accord to praise the name of God, we would only succeed in desecrating His by our impure lips if Christ had not once offered Himself as the sacrifice to make us and all that we do holy. No man can call God Father except through Christ. Prayer makes the Christian cognizant of Christ’s Lordship, for without His intercession the Christian’s prayers are nothing more than vain utterances. Prayer, then, is uniting oneself with Christ, and in that knowledge of His intercession there is assurance of being heard by God the Father.

Calvin stresses the fact that prayer is the disburdening of the heart before God. It is a pouring out of the soul with its complaints into His bosom. But how does the Christian know what to pray for? Calvin answers. At the start, it must be realized that faith within the Christian and his communion with God comes not from the Christian but from God’s Spirit. “Before one can utter a prayer,” Calvin says, “we must have received the first-fruits of the Spirit. For he alone is the proper teacher of the art of prayer. He not only inspires in us the words but guides the movements of the heart.” It is the Holy Spirit who “excites in us sighs, wishes, and confidence, which our natural powers are not at all able to conceive.”

The aim of prayer, according to Calvin, is not that the Christian should carry through his/her own will, but that he/she should allow God to bestow upon him/her what He has planned for him/her. The chief wish of the Christian should be, above all things, to be in harmony with God’s will. This, however, does not mean that the Christian should not pour out his/her desires to God. In fact, the Christian is commanded to do just that so that God may be sensitive to his/her needs. To those who would discard prayer because of the difficulty of knowing God’s will, Calvin, quoting from Augustine, says the following: “How do the saints pray in faith when they ask from God contrary to what he has decreed? Namely, because they pray according to his will, not his hidden and immutable will, but that which he suggests to them, that he may hear them in another matter; as he wisely distinguishes.”

The important point for Calvin is communion with God. By means of prayer, everything that the Christian needs for his/her earthly sojourn is given to him/her, for when one belongs to God, God’s providence is active on the Christian’s behalf and he/she stands under the control God’s power and mercy.

VI. Rules for Christian Living

For Calvin the Christian life is one of moderation and regulation. As Calvin looked at life, he saw four basic rules. First, the realization that life is not a negative affair; rather, everything that is in the world is good because it is a gift from God. Another rule is that those who do not possess much, as far as the goods of this world are concerned, are to be patient and content in their state and not become tormented with immoderate desires for riches. The third rule is the realization that each Christian is a steward of the things he/she has been entrusted with and that one day he/she must give an account. Finally, Calvin would have every Christian regard his/her vocation as the post that God has assigned to him/her. According to Calvin, when a Christian is able to realize these points, he/she is able fully to serve and honor God with his/her life.


The grandeur of Calvin is that he is practical. He is not a scholastic theological intellectual developing God-ideas for the joy of doing it; rather, Calvin is a life-inspiring Christian pastor-theologian who has attempted to give us a store of knowledge concerning God that has quickening power in the everyday life. His definitions of the doctrines of justification and sanctification are not exercises in theoretical knowledge, but of the Christian’s witnessing and living before the living God of the Bible in evangelical obedience, before the God who has adopted him as His own. Calvin does not content himself with showing that the Christian’s justification and sanctification flow form Christ; rather, he shows even in the textures of the Christian’s daily life what it means to be a disciple of Christ. Calvin’s system is a life-view that seeks an imitation of Christ. Perfection is the goal, and “if during the whole course of our life we seek and follow, we shall at length attain it, when relieved from the infirmity of flesh we are admitted to full fellowship with God.”


  1. The Westminister Shorter Catechism. Q. 1.
  2. A. Mitchell Hunter. The Teaching of Calvin (Westwood, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1950, 45.
  3. Reinhold Seeberg, History of Doctrine, trans. Charles E. Hay, vol. I (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House. 1966. 397.
  4. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge, vol. II (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1964), III. 6. 1.
  5. Institutes, III. 6. 2.
  6. Institutes, III. 6. 3.
  7. Institutes, III. 6. 4.
  8. Institutes, III. 6. 5.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Wilhelm Niesel, The Theology of Calvin, trans. Harold Knight (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1956) 44.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Institutes, III. 6.1.
  14. Niesel, p. 146.
  15. Ibid., 147.
  16. Institutes, III. 8. 9.
  17. Institutes, III. 8. 1.
  18. Institutes, III. 9. 4.
  19. Institutes, III. 10. 2.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Institutes, III. 9. 2.
  22. Institutes, III. 9. 1.
  23. Institutes, III. 19. 2.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Institutes, III. 19. 5.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Institutes, III. 19. 18.
  29. Institutes, III. 9. 9.
  30. Institutes, III. 19. 12.
  31. Institutes, III. 19. 11.
  32. Ronald S. Wallace, Calvin’s Doctrine of the Christian Life (London: Oliver and Brown, 1959), 271.
  33. Neisel, 152.
  34. Institutes, III. 20. 2.
  35. Institutes, III. 20. 5.
  36. Institutes, III. 20. 6.
  37. Institutes, III. 20. 8.
  38. Institutes, III. 20. 11.
  39. Neisel, 154.
  40. Institutes, III. 20. 18.
  41. Neisel, 155.
  42. Institutes, III. 20. 5.
  43. Institutes, III. 20. 2.
  44. Institutes, III. 20.15.
  45. Institutes, III. 20. 21.
  46. Institutes, III. 10. 2.
  47. Institutes, III. 10. 5.
  48. Ibid.
  49. Institutes, III. 10. 6.
  50. Institutes, III. 6. 5.
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