As I passed by the closeout section at a not-so-local Christian bookstore, I couldn’t pass this one up for $3.75. I now know this will be my first dip into the Theologians on the Christian Life series. I am happy to have stumbled upon a great bargain, and a great read to start the new year. Broadly speaking, the series aims to get beyond the common caricatures of popular pastors & theologians. Too often, folks grab hold of the wildest imaginative exaggeration of a person’s beliefs and build an unfortunately lasting case. Or, as is often the case with matters of religion, the summaries of critics – written in response to “followers” who themselves misinterpret original intentions – rule the day in terms of determining an individual’s legacy. I am thankful for a series whose outright aim is to dispel the fiction that has all-too-long cast harsh dividing lines among Christian brothers and sisters.
The book is well written and engaging, not a doctrinal defense but rather an engagement of Calvin’s life in light of his beliefs. His writings are widely quoted, not just from the Institutes, but also from letters and commentaries that provide greater insight into the heart behind the weighty texts. It is encouraging to read of Calvin’s engagement with his supporters as well as his critics, of his love for his wife Idelette, and his involvement in matters of the public arena.
I found the final chapter, regarding Calvin’s view of the future life while simultaneously looking at his own death, to be the most moving. In particular, the words of his last will and testament reveal not a cold Christian (again, the all-too-common caricature), but rather a man humbly dependent on the grace of God in the sacrifice of Christ.
“I have no other defense or refuge for salvation than his gratuitous adoption on which alone my salvation depends. With my whole soul I embrace the mercy which he has exercised towards me through Jesus Christ, atoning for my sins with the merits of his death and passion, that in this way he might satisfy for all my crimes and faults, and blot them from his remembrance.
I testify also and declare that I suppliantly beg of Him that he may be pleased so to wash and purify me in the blood which my Sovereign Redeemer has shed for the sins of the human race, that under his shadow I may be able to stand at the judgment seat. I likewise declare that, according to the measure of grace and goodness which the Lord hath employed toward me, I have endeavored, both in my sermons and also in my writings and commentaries, to preach his Word purely and chastely, and faithfully to interpret His sacred Scriptures.
But, woe is me! My ardor and zeal (if indeed worthy of the name) have been so careless and languid, that I confess I have failed innumerable times to execute my office properly, and had not He, of His boundless goodness, assisted me, all that zeal had been fleeting and vain. Nay, I even acknowledge that if the same goodness had not assisted me, those mental endowments which the Lord bestowed upon me would, at His judgment seat, prove me most guilty of sin and sloth. For all these reasons, I testify and declare that I trust no other security for my salvation than this, and this only, viz., that as God is the Father of mercy, he will show himself such a Father to me, who acknowledge myself to be a miserable sinner.”
In his death, he longed to be buried in obscurity, to give all he had to those in need, and to move one step closer to the future life. Never desiring a movement or theological position to be based upon his name, witnesses testify that he spent his final weeks in prayer, attending worship and meeting with friends and city officials. He served the Lord faithfully to the end.
Many of the Reformed church, as well as those under the Calvinist moniker, are known for intellectual and theological rigor. Yet the example of Calvin was one of heart and humility, all too aware of human frailty, yet confident in the goodness of God as Creator, Sustainer, Provider, Redeemer, and Joy. His views of common grace opened the door to an appreciation of creation and human creativity. His veracity in pursuit of God through the Scriptures is encouraging to any who seek to know God through his inerrant Word.
Indeed, many disagree with his theological positions. But in an age where we reduce individuals to a label, I am grateful for a book (and a series) which serves to restore humanity and compassion to the individuals who so faithfully gave themselves to the bride of Christ.