John Calvin on the Christian Life

[1] Calvin dedicated a great deal of attention to the nature and scope of the Christian life, and even wrote a section of the Institutes dedicated to this theme (Inst., which was often published on its own. However, rather than summarize the teaching of that section, I would like to raise up five themes in Calvin’s theology that could speak to us today, drawn from the full spectrum of his theological writings. First, the foundation of the Christian life is the knowledge of ourselves, which is inextricably linked to the knowledge of God, which should lead us to gratitude and humility. Second, the primary expression of the knowledge of ourselves is prayer, in which we thank God for all we have received, and humbly seek in God all that we lack. Third, the primary occupation of the Christian life is the contemplation of the works of God, both in creation and in redemption, including the relationship of God to Israel. The goal of such contemplation is to be ravished with wonder, and to be reduced to nothing by the beauty and majesty of God’s works. Fourth, we are always to contemplate the image of God that remains in all human beings, no matter how sinful, for this forms the ground of our love for our neighbors, including our enemies. Finally, the goal of the Christian life is union with God in eternal life. Even though eternal life impacts the way we live here and now, Calvin wants the attention of believers to be directed toward God, so that they seek God in all things, even as they thank God for all things.

The Knowledge of Ourselves
[2] Calvin begins the Institutes by stating that true and sound wisdom consists of the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves. The knowledge of ourselves is therefore foundational for the Christian life, and in many ways forms its central theme. The knowledge of ourselves comes to expression in two primary ways for Calvin; first, in our gratitude for all that we have received from God; and second, in our humility for all that we lack in ourselves, that must be sought in God. Calvin thinks that no one can descend into herself and not be aware of the gifts she has received from God, beginning with her life, which is nothing but participation in God. Our awareness of these gifts leads us to follow them up to their source, which is God. Hence, one foundation of the Christian life is gratitude, based on our heartfelt awareness of all the benefits that flow to us from the fountain of every good thing, which is God. However, if we descend into ourselves we also become aware of our poverty, for we are subject to many miseries, and have subjected ourselves to much sin and evil. The knowledge of our poverty and misery gives rise to humility, which leads us to seek in God alone all that we lack in ourselves. “To this extent we are prompted by our own ills to contemplate the good things of God; and we cannot seriously aspire to him before we begin to become displeased with ourselves.”1

[3] Calvin is aware, however, of the difficulty in arriving at true self-knowledge, given our inordinate love of ourselves, and our own hypocrisy. Our self-love leads us to seek to know ourselves by comparing ourselves with others, so that we either feel superior to them if we feel we have been given greater gifts than they, or we try to diminish the gifts they have been given if they make us feel inferior to them.2 We must direct our attention away from others towards God if we are truly to know ourselves. “Again, it is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself.”3 In particular, Calvin seeks to awaken our consciences, so that we stand alone before the judgment seat of God, and are no longer able to compare ourselves to others. “Even though we consider ourselves to be equal or superior to other men, that is nothing to God, to whose judgment the decision of the matter must be brought.”4 The conscience is our participation in God’s knowledge of us, so if our conscience is awakened, we can come to know ourselves the way God already knows us. Only in this way can we learn humility, and become aware of our own poverty, misery, and nothingness, so that we seek in God what we lack in ourselves.

The Chief Exercise of Faith is Prayer
[4] We can already see the way the knowledge of ourselves leads directly to prayer. The knowledge of the good things God has already lavished upon us lead us to pray to God with thanksgiving, so that we lift up our hearts to God. The knowledge of our poverty and nothingness leads us to raise our hearts to God so that we seek in God alone what we lack in ourselves. Since God has set forth in Jesus Christ all that we lack in ourselves, and since Christ offers himself to us in the preaching of the Gospel, we are led to call on God in Christ to bestow on us the gifts which God has poured out for us in God’s Son. Calvin knows that we do not know how to call on God as we ought, which is why God sends the Spirit into our hearts. The Spirit, then, leads us to acknowledge God as our gracious Father, the fountain of every good thing, in Jesus Christ, in whom we are adopted as children of God. Hence the cry inspired in our hearts by the Spirit, “Abba! Father!” is for Calvin the clearest indication of true faith, and reveals the confidence that the faithful should have when they call upon God.5

[5] Calvin is aware of the difficulty of calling upon God, which is one reason he wrote his commentary on the entire Psalter, for we need to learn from the psalms how to thank and cry out to God in all circumstances of our lives. This is especially true with regard to those times in which God seems hostile to us, when God’s mercy is hidden beneath signs of God’s wrath. Even though we should come to greater knowledge of our poverty and misery at such times, we also need to fight through the sense that God is against us so that we call upon God with confidence. Calvin is especially interested in the way David acknowledges by faith that God is his God, even as he cries out that God has forsaken him (Psalm 22:1). Calvin thinks that this is the daily experience of the godly, and it was to a greater degree the experience of Jesus Christ when he died on the cross. Like David, we need to cry out to God even when God seems to be against us, so that we might once again experience the goodness and mercy of God in our hearts.

The Pious Contemplation of the Works of God
[6] One of the primary ways that the psalmists gain the confidence to call on God is by contemplating the works of God, both in creation and in the history of the godly community. According to Calvin, the works of God reveal the powers of God, such as goodness, wisdom, mercy, and power; and these powers, in turn, reveal the nature of God. Since God always remains like God, our contemplation of the works of God gives us confidence that God will act in the present and future as God has acted in the past. Calvin thought that the powers of God were clearly portrayed as in a painting in all the works of God, not only in redemption, but also in creation. Indeed, the whole universe is a living image of God, and we were given eyes to contemplate God in so beautiful and magnificent an image. Such contemplation can only take place when our eyes have been clarified by the spectacles of Scripture, but once we have Scripture, we should spend every day contemplating the goodness, wisdom, power, and justice of God portrayed in the works God does around us and within us. The goal of such contemplation is to be ravished with admiration, and reduced to nothing, by our awareness of the infinite majesty of God in God’s works.

[7] Calvin was convinced that the Spirit of God gave the liberal arts to us from the pagans of antiquity, so that by their aid we might come to a better understanding of the powers of God set forth in the world. “Indeed, men who have either quaffed or even tasted the liberal arts penetrate with their aid far more deeply into the secrets of the divine wisdom.”6 This was especially true of astronomy for Calvin, for the heavens are the clearest image of the wisdom of God, with which we ought always to begin our contemplation.7 However, Calvin also wanted the godly to descend from the heavens to contemplate the works of God on earth, especially the care of God for all creatures, including those who are of no benefit to humanity. God provides food, water, shelter, and habitat for all creatures, even in the wilderness, and our own sense of God’s care is grounded in our appreciation of the care of God for all creatures.8

[8] Calvin also exhorts the godly to contemplate the works of God in redemption, including the works of God for Israel, as well as the works of God in Jesus Christ. Since the God of Israel is one with the God of Jesus Christ, our consideration of God’s relationship to Israel vastly enriches our knowledge of the God of Jesus Christ, beginning with the adoption of Abraham and his children, the confirmation of that adoption in the exodus and giving of the law by Moses, the presence of God among the people in tabernacle and temple, and the faithfulness of God in restoring the people once they had been led into exile in Babylon.9 The awareness of God’s faithfulness to the Israelites and Jews through the centuries of their relationship with God builds a solid foundation for our confidence that God will act in the same way towards us.

The Image of God in All Human Beings
[9] Our contemplation of the works of God in the universe rightly culminates for Calvin with the contemplation of the image of God in every human being. Although Calvin initially claimed that the image of God was deleted and obliterated in the fall of Adam into sin, he began to insist on the presence of the lineaments of that image in every human being, for without it he could not understand how it would be possible to obey Christ’s injunction that we love our enemies. The image of God means that every human being is related directly to God, and in a sense reflects the powers of God in herself, so that we ought not to contemplate our neighbors, including our enemies, in themselves, but only in God, and love them because we love God.10 Calvin thought that our contemplation of the beauty of that image would overcome any animosity that the sight of the enemy might awaken in us, so that we might be drawn by the image to love those who hate us.11 In sum, since all human beings manifest the image of God in themselves, we ought to honor and love every human being, male or female, Jew or Greek, and ought to regard any mistreatment of our fellow human beings as a sacrilegious assault on our Creator.

5. The Goal of Human Life is Union with God
[10] The knowledge of ourselves as created in the image of God, and our contemplation of that image in ourselves and others, is meant to awaken us to the fact that we were created for eternal life, which we attain by union with God. “In the beginning God fashioned us after his image [Gen. 1:27] that he might arouse our minds both to zeal for virtue and to meditation upon eternal life.”12 We fundamentally deny and pervert our created nature when we seek to find the goal and purpose of our lives in this world. Calvin of course wants us to be grateful for all of the gifts God gives us in this life, beginning with our emergence from our mother’s womb, as well as all of the good things we experience in this life. “For before he shows us openly the inheritance of eternal glory, God wills by lesser proofs to show himself to be our Father. These are the benefits that are daily conferred on us by him.”13 However, the good things of this life are only enjoyed with true gratitude when we use them as vehicles to raise our hearts on high to God, and do not seek our goal in the good things of this life. After all, if the source of every good thing is to be found only in God, then we should seek our greatest happiness in God, and not in this life. “If God contains the fullness of all good things in himself like an inexhaustible fountain, nothing beyond him is to be sought by those who strive after the highest good and all the elements of happiness.”14

[11] Our union with God, in turn, is based on our being fully renewed in the image and likeness of God. The knowledge of ourselves that forms the basis of the Christian life means that we are always to seek to be transformed more and more into the image of God, and are therefore to die to all those things in our lives that keep us from expressing the image of God. We should put to death our destructive self-love, which leads us to judge our neighbors harshly and ourselves leniently. We should show ourselves to be children of God by loving those who hate us, by doing good to those who do evil to us, by blessing those who curse us, by praying for those who persecute us. We should learn to place our hope in God, and not in the good things of this life, so that we are not led to luxuriate in the good things that come our way, or despair when poverty and suffering become our lot in life.

[12] In sum, we can see that the Christian life is dramatically theocentric for Calvin. We are to thank God for what we are given, and humbly acknowledge our self-imposed poverty and misery, so that the sense of our own nothingness might lead us to seek God anew. We are to call on God at all moments of our lives, in the intimate conversation with God that is prayer, from the conviction that God alone is our only hope. We are to contemplate all the works of God in creation and redemption, so that we might be ravished with astonishment and reduced to nothing by what we behold. We are to contemplate all our neighbors, including our enemies, in God and not in themselves, so that we might love and honor all people equally, women as well as men, enemy as well as friend. And we are to place our hope only in God, and seek the meaning of our lives in God, and not in the good things of this life, looking forward to the day when even Christ will hand the kingdom over to God, so that God might be all in all.


1. Inst. I.i.1, Ioannis Calvini opera selecta, edited by Peter Barth, Wilhelm Niesel, and Dora Scheuner (Munich: Chr. Kaiser, 1926-52), Vol. III, p. 32, lines 1-4; henceforth OS III.32.1-4; Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, edited by John T. McNeill and translated by Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 37; henceforth LCC 37.

2. Inst. III.vii.4, OS IV.154; LCC 693.

3. Inst. I.i.2, OS III.32.10-12; LCC 37.

4. Inst. III.xii.2, OS IV.209.27-30; LCC 756.

5. Inst. III.ii.11, OS IV.21; LCC 555.

6. Inst. I.v.2, OS III.46.11-14; LCC 53.

7. Inst. I.xiv.21, OS III.171-172; LCC 180-181.

8. Inst. I.xiv.1, OS III.187-188; LCC 197-198.

9. Inst., OS III.320-436; LCC 340-464.

10. Inst. II.viii.55, OS III.393-394; LCC 418-419.

11. Inst. III.vii.6, OS IV.156-157; LCC 696-697.

12. Inst. II.i.1, OS III.228.29-31; LCC 242.

13. Inst. III.ix.3, OS IV.173.5-8; LCC 715.

14. III.xxv.10, OS IV.453.9-12; LCC 1005.

Randall C. Zachman

Randall C. Zachman is Professor of Reformation Studies, University of Notre Dame.