This was originally a stand-alone chapter from Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian religion, published in 1552 as a pocket-sized French edition. The Banner of Truth has now made Robert White’s translation available in an attractive gift edition, also pocket-sized.
Calvin’s intention was to provide a basic manual for French Christians ‘hungering and thirsting for Christ’. The book has five chapters — ‘Scriptural foundations for Christian living’; ‘Denying self: the key to Christian living’; ‘Living under the cross’; ‘The glory of the life to come’; and ‘The blessings of this present life’. These chapters are subdivided by the translator into shorter sections.
The whole is clear and well integrated, bringing out the orderly exposition that makes Calvin highly readable as well as profound. The book is written against the background of ‘the philosophers’, an allusion which is helpfully referenced in brief endnotes.
The classical understanding of life and morality is weighed against the Christian one and found wanting. Calvin identifies this Christian life as one of loving righteousness (1 Peter 1:16), following Christ (Romans 6:17–18) and reflecting Christ’s image in our lives.
He develops his theme through the truth that ‘we are not our own’ in body or mind, and are to be submitted to the Lord so that vices like pride and greed are driven out. We imagine ourselves ‘steadfast and solid’, but God exposes what is ‘all a sham’ in our lives, alerting us to our ‘frailties’.
Typically, Calvin does not mince his words but writes with vigour and challenge. At the same time, at the heart of the book, is a pastoral kindness that recognises human weakness and points us to Christ. Calvin keeps a fine balance between scorning the vanities of life and not hating God’s good gifts.
He has a section which encourages us to serve diligently wherever God has placed us. White’s notes helpfully point out that Calvin advocates not the fixity of callings but the need to be realistic and content rather than waste our time and gifts pursuing an idealised life.
Is it all still relevant? Certainly! A great introduction to Calvin; and a book to return to many times.