Calvin had philosophical and academic interests, but he was, first of all, a doctor of the church. We might call the Institutes his life work in two senses: 1) They summarize Calvin’s lifetime of ministry and theological reflection, and 2) They are Calvin’s testimony to the power of the gospel in his own life. They have a life-giving word to a church like our own that has become so highly politicized about “the holy life.”
One thread of Calvin’s life work is the life work that awaits every Christian — of growing more fully into the stature of Christ (what theologians call “sanctification”). As my colleague Charles Partee recently noted in his magisterial work, The Theology of John Calvin, behind Calvin’s interest in sanctification lies the central theme of his entire theological enterprise: union with Christ. Here more than anywhere else Calvin’s language becomes explicitly confessional: “I am overwhelmed by the depth of this mystery, and with Paul am not ashamed to acknowledge in wonder my ignorance. … Reason itself teaches us whatever is supernatural is clearly beyond the grasp of our minds. Let us therefore labor more to feel Christ living in us, than to discover the nature of that communion.”
Because Calvin so carefully grounds sanctification in Christ’s union with us, Calvin’s theology of the Christian life shines forth with special brilliance. In Partee’s words, “Calvin’s doctrine of sanctification is a facet of his theology that glitters with purest ray serene.” A few sentences later, he adds, “As distinct from Luther, Calvin must be called the theologian of sanctification.”
A wonderful legacy, 500 years later — or is it? I worry that today the Reformed emphasis on the holy life keeps tripping us up, and that Calvin’s legacy has been too many angry church fights. Recently I received a telephone call about a looming presbytery vote relating to the holy life. The stranger quickly identified which side he/she stood on, and then asked, “Can we count on your support?” I fell silent and thought to myself: Is this what presbytery has come to? Is our life together no different from just another election season or local public radio fundraising drive? How is it possible that Reformed churches, whether self-identified as liberal or conservative, progressive or evangelical, often replace the mystery of union with Christ with moral causes that deteriorate into moralizing?
Some scholars (including Partee) blame the Westminster Confession of Faith. I myself am less convinced. But Westminster aside, Calvin himself cannot be the culprit. Sanctification, in Calvin’s understanding, is a process that focuses us not on winning the vote, but rather, “win” or “lose,” on a whole way of life characterized by submission to God.
Sanctification is not first of all our doing but rather God’s work by the dynamic impetus of the Holy Spirit, who nevertheless enables us to act. The Spirit guides and directs us, corrects and reorients us. The Spirit draws us into Christ and forges a bond so deep and so intimate that Christ’s life becomes ours. As Calvin so magnificently states, the Spirit “so breathes divine life into us that we are no longer actuated by ourselves but are ruled by [Christ’s] action and prompting.” Ruled by Christ, we know God as gracious Father/Parent and offer him thanks.
Calvin insists that the sanctified, thankful life is, above all, a life of self-denial that leads us to seek the good of others. Life in Christ includes a readiness to accept whatever good or evil befalls us as “from God’s hands” and “with calm assurance and expectation of eternal victory” (Partee, 218).
Calvin does not dispute that we should care about particular ethical issues. Presbytery votes inevitably take place. But we desperately need to think morally without becoming moralistic. We need biblical law to guide us without allowing ourselves to succumb to legalism. We need to become better students of Calvin, and to remember that our life work is simply this — to grow more and more into a living of the faith that is simultaneously a confessing of the faith. At the climax of his thoughts on the holy life, Calvin proclaims:
We are not our own: let not our reason or our will, therefore, sway our plans and deeds. We are not our own, let us therefore not set it as our goal to seek what is expedient for us according to the flesh. We are not our own: in so far as we can, let us therefore forget ourselves and all that is ours.
Conversely, we [belong to God]: let us therefore live for him and die for him. We [belong to God]: let his wisdom and will therefore rule all our actions. We [belong to God]: let all the parts of our life accordingly strive toward him as our only lawful goal. (Institutes, III.7.1)
What I wish for each of us in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) during this season of discernment is a greater capacity to give thanks for this our life work, the lifelong process of experiencing and confessing the wondrous mystery of faith in Jesus Christ, in whom we receive grace upon grace.
John P. Burgess is professor of theology at Pittsburgh (Pa.) Theological Seminary.