The Final Act in the Theater of God
Desiring God 2009 National Conference
With Calvin in the Theater of God
This message appears as a chapter in With Calvin in the Theater of God: The Glory of Christ and Everyday Life.
On August 5, 1563, John Calvin wrote a letter of encouragement and counsel to Madame de Coligny, the wife of one of the more important leaders of the Protestant Reformation in France. She had recently recovered from a struggle with numerous physical afflictions. In direct reference to her diseases, and all of ours as well, Calvin said,
They [that is, our physical afflictions and diseases] should, moreover, serve us for medicines to purge us from worldly affections, and retrench [i.e., remove] what is superfluous in us, and since they are to us the messengers of death, we ought to learn to have one foot raised to take our departure when it shall please God. (John Calvin, Selected Works, Vol. 7, 1551, [Baker, 1983], 331, emphasis mine)
We ought to learn from our physical afflictions, said Calvin, to live every day with “one foot raised” to take our departure into heaven when it shall please God. Do we live every day with one foot lifted ever so deftly off the ground in constant alert and anxious expectation of the moment when we will depart this world and enter into the splendor of heaven and the presence of God himself? I strongly suspect that Calvin did and that there is much about living in expectation of that day that we can learn from him.
Calvin is a remarkably helpful guide, a man of great wisdom, insight, and personal energy when it comes to thinking about the resurrection of the body and our anticipation of eternal life in the new heavens and new earth. We see this in no fewer than four ways.
A PILGRIM ON THIS EARTH
First, Calvin was in the truest sense of the term a pilgrim on this earth. Calvin knew from personal experience what it meant to be a sojourner and an exile in this life. As he reflected on Paul’s exhortation in Colossians 3:1 that we “seek the things that are above,” he argued that only in doing so shall we embrace our identity as “sojourners in this world,” that is to say, people who “are not bound to it” (Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians, [Baker Book House, 2005], Vol. 21, 205).
Nowhere does this emphasis in Calvin come out with greater clarity than in his comments on Hebrews 11 and 13. Calvin concludes from 11:16 (where the author mentions the patriarchs’ “desire” for “a better country, that is, a heavenly one”) “that there is no place for us among God’s children, except we renounce the world, and that there will be for us no inheritance in heaven, except we become pilgrims on earth” (Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews, [Baker Book House, 2005], Vol. 22, 285).
His observations on 13:14 are especially instructive. There the author of Hebrews describes the perspective of all believers in saying: “For here [i.e., on this earth] we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.” In light of this, says Calvin, we should consider that
we have no fixed residence but in heaven. Whenever, therefore, we are driven from place to place, or whenever any change happens to us, let us think of what the Apostle teaches us here, that we have no certain abode on earth, for heaven is our inheritance; and when more and more tried, let us ever prepare ourselves for our last end; for they who enjoy a very quiet life commonly imagine that they have a rest in this world: it is hence profitable for us, who are prone to this kind of sloth, to be often tossed here and there, that we who are too much inclined to look on things below, may learn to turn our eyes up to heaven. (Ibid., 349)
This keen sense of being a pilgrim and sojourner on earth was reinforced in Calvin’s heart by the harsh realities of his life. Forced to flee Paris because of his inflammatory remarks about the Roman Catholic Church and the need for reform, Calvin is reported to have descended from a window by means of bedsheets and escaped from the city disguised as a vinedresser with a hoe on his shoulder.
The next two years were spent as a wandering student and evangelist. He settled in Basel, hoping to spend his life in quiet study. Calvin returned to Paris in 1536 to settle some old financial matters. He decided to go from there to Strasbourg to be a scholar, but as a result of his famous encounter with William Farel, ended up in Geneva. Trouble erupted when he and Farel sought to administer church discipline and to restrict access to the Lord’s Table to those who were spiritually qualified. The two were literally kicked out of town in April 1538.
“There will be for us no inheritance in heaven, except we become pilgrims on earth.” –John Calvin
Calvin was determined to return to Basel and resume his studies, but Martin Bucer (who was won to the Reformation while listening to Luther at the Leipzig debate in 1519) persuaded him to come to Strasbourg. Evidently Bucer was having a difficult time at first persuading Calvin to come to Strasbourg. He sent word to Farel, asking his advice on how to deal with the matter. “Pronounce the wrath of God,” said Farel. In a thunderous letter to Calvin, Bucer wrote, “God will know how to find a rebellious servant, even as he found Jonah!” Frightened by the comparison with Jonah, Calvin reluctantly said yes and went to Strasbourg.
There he taught theology and trained candidates for the ministry while working on a revision of his Institutes and writing a commentary on Romans. He also pastored the church in the city and was convinced Strasbourg would be his permanent home. But the situation in Geneva had deteriorated. The political forces sympathetic to Calvin had regained power and issued him an urgent call to return. He declined.
Farel again intervened, and Calvin found himself once more in Geneva, of which he was heard to have said, “There is no place under heaven of which I have greater dread.” It was there that he labored under almost unimaginable conditions, and where for the majority of his adult life he was not granted citizenship but was made to feel, in every way, that he was but a pilgrim passing through.
At one point, he wrote a letter to the English refugees in Zurich explaining that there was much sorrow in being banished from one’s home country. But there is another side: “Yet for the children of God, who know that they are the heirs of this world, it is not so difficult to be banished. It is in fact even good for them, so that through such an experience they can train themselves in being strangers on this earth” (Selderhuis, John Calvin, 83).
PHYSICAL AND EMOTIONAL SUFFERING
A second factor that contributed immensely to Calvin’s longing for resurrection and heaven, and makes him a wise and faithful guide for us, was his physical and emotional suffering. His physical health was aggravated by working late into the night and waking up at 4 a.m. each day. Added to this was the stress he faced daily from pastoral duties, a lack of exercise, too much work, and relentless insomnia.
Calvin’s afflictions read like a medical journal (The following description is adapted from my book Chosen for Life: The Case for Divine Election [Crossway, 2007], 46–52). He suffered throughout his adult life from painful stomach cramps and recurring digestive problems, intestinal influenza, and constant migraine headaches. He was subject to a persistent onslaught of fevers that would often lay him up for weeks at a time.
He experienced problems with his trachea in addition to pleurisy, gout, and colic. He suffered from hemorrhoids that were often aggravated by an internal abscess that would not heal. He had severe arthritis and acute pain in his knees, calves, and feet. Other maladies included nephritis (acute, chronic inflammation of the kidney caused by infection), gallstones, malaria, and kidney stones. He once passed a kidney stone so large that it tore the urinary canal and led to excessive bleeding.
Due to his rigorous preaching schedule (he preached twice on Sunday and every day of the week, every other week), he would often strain his voice so severely that he experienced violent fits of coughing. On one occasion, he broke a blood vessel in his lungs and hemorrhaged. When he reached the age of fifty-one, it was discovered that he was suffering from pulmonary tuberculosis, which ultimately proved fatal. Much of his study and writing was done while bedridden. In the final few years of his life, he had to be carried to work.
There is simply no way to read Calvin’s comments on the glory of heaven and the passionate intensity of his longing for entrance into that phase of eternal life and not recognize how it was largely shaped by the daily agonies and anguish that he endured while a pastor in Geneva.
(The weakness and persistent frailty of his own physical constitution must have influenced Calvin’s belief that nothing is more at variance with human reason than the notion that our bodies will be raised up and glorified on the last day. “For who but God alone could persuade us that bodies, which are now liable to corruption, will, after having rotted away, or after they have been consumed by fire, or torn in pieces by wild beasts, will not merely be restored entire, but in a greatly better condition. Do not all our apprehensions of things straightway reject this as a thing fabulous, nay, most absurd?” (Commentary on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, commenting on 1 Corinthians 15:35. Therefore, “we must not here form our judgment according to our own understanding, but must assign to the stupendous and secret power of God the honour of believing, that it will accomplish what we cannot comprehend” [ibid., 47]).
WHY HEAVEN WILL BE HEAVENLY
The third reason why Calvin is so helpful to us in cultivating a passion for heaven was his vision and understanding of Jesus as the reason why heaven will be heavenly. If Calvin longed for the resurrection and glorification of the body only, or even primarily, to escape the manifold agonies that he suffered throughout the course of his life, he would not be for us the faithful guide that he is. If Calvin wrote of heaven and spoke of its glory only or primarily because there, in the new heavens and new earth, he would find a permanent and eternal residence, he would be unworthy of our attention. What made heaven heavenly for Calvin was Christ!
Calvin was deeply moved by Paul’s declaration that “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (Philippians 3:20–21). Therefore, wrote Calvin, “as Christ is in heaven, in order that we may be conjoined with him, it is necessary that we should in spirit dwell apart from this world. . . . Christ, who is our blessedness and glory, is in heaven; let our souls, therefore, dwell with him on high” (Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians, 21:109).
Again, it was not primarily his anticipation of his “lowly” body being transformed that stirred his heart to look forward to the resurrection and the new heavens and new earth, but rather that “in heaven” we find Christ! Christ, who is our blessedness and glory, is in heaven. Let our souls, therefore, dwell with him on high.
In a similar vein, Calvin had much to say about our Lord’s prayer in John 17:24 — “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.” In this passage, Calvin writes,
Christ speaks of the perfect happiness of believers, as if he had said, that his desire will not be satisfied till they have been received into heaven. In the same manner I explain the beholding of the glory. At that time they saw the glory of Christ, just as a man shut up in the dark obtains, through small chinks, a feeble and glimmering light. Christ now wishes that they shall make such progress as to enjoy the full brightness of heaven. In short, he asks that the Father will conduct them, by uninterrupted progress, to the full vision of his glory. (Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel According to John [Baker Books, 2005], 187)
Thus to “enjoy the full brightness of heaven” is to see and savor God in all his glory! Indeed, “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, as we are taught in many passages” (Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, [Westminster Press, 1975], 3.25.10).
MEDITATING ON HEAVEN
Fourth, Calvin is exceptionally helpful to us because of the way he instructs us to meditate on heaven and the final resurrection. Could it be that the indescribably practical, productive, and life-changing value of his labors and all that he accomplished during his earthly sojourn were due to his incessant and focused meditation on heaven? Yes!
There are several places in his commentaries on the New Testament where we see this emphasis. In Romans 8:23, Paul speaks of the inward “groaning” of both the natural creation and the children of God to enter into the fullness of our heavenly reward. Paul’s point, wrote Calvin, is this:
The excellency of our glory is of such importance even to the very elements, which are destitute of mind and reason, that they burn with a certain kind of desire for it; how much more it behooves us, who have been illuminated by the Spirit of God, to aspire and strive with firmness of hope and with ardour of desire, after the attainment of so great a benefit. (Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans [Baker Book House, 2005], 308)
Speaking once again in the light of Philippians 3:21 and the transformation of our bodies, Paul stirs us up to lift our minds to heaven,
because this body which we carry about with us is not an everlasting abode, but a frail tabernacle, which will in short time be reduced to nothing. Besides, it is liable to so many miseries, and so many dishonourable infirmities, that it may justly be spoken of as vile and full of ignominy. Whence, then, is its restoration to be hoped for? From heaven, at Christ’s coming. Hence there is no part of us that ought not to aspire after heaven with undivided affection. (Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians, 110, emphasis mine)
In his commentary on 1 Peter 1:9, Calvin highlights how “the Apostle sets before us this future life as a subject of deep meditation” (Calvin, Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles, 36). To allow our souls “to grovel on the earth would be inconsistent and unworthy of those whose treasure is in heaven” (Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke [Baker Books, 2005], 334, emphasis mine). Again, commenting on 1 Peter 1:4, he contends that the apostles’ words are designed “to impress our minds thoroughly as to its [heaven’s] excellency” (Calvin, Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles, 29). And what is the “excellency” of heaven? Peter mentions three things.
Our heavenly inheritance, says Peter, is imperishable. One thing that makes life so hard now is that virtually everything we love and cherish and trust ultimately dies. Our bodies decay and die. Our friends and family decay and die. The animal kingdom decays and dies. Plants and flowers and the beauty of nature ultimately decay and die. But the glory and splendor of life in the new heavens and new earth will never decay or die. No disintegration. No dissolution. Constantly and forever renewed and refreshed. Always and ever alive. Always and ever vibrant. Always and ever fresh and new.
“There is no part of us that ought not to aspire after heaven with undivided affection.” –John Calvin
Our heavenly inheritance is undefiled. No matter how much we try in the present day to keep things clean, they get dirty. We buy detergent and spot remover and cleansing agents and soap and disinfectants of every conceivable sort. Yet all that we see and touch and taste and own suffers defilement and is subject to impurity, both physically and morally. But not on the new earth! Nothing in that place of glory will ever be anything but pristine and pure and clean and devoid of spot or wrinkle.
Finally, this inheritance is unfading. Everything now is subject to the ravages of time. All creation is breaking down and losing its luster. All beauty now is fast fading away. Not all the tummy tucks or face-lifts or Botox or plastic surgery in the world can slow down the steady onslaught of time and age. The most beautiful sculptures eventually wear away. The colors and hues in the most beautiful paintings eventually lose their brilliance.
But not on the new earth! Nothing there will ever get old or ugly or become outdated or obsolete. With each passing moment in the new heavens and new earth, there will be new colors and new sounds and new discoveries of the beauty of God. Our inheritance, unlike every possession and experience in this life, will never lose its capacity to bring happiness and joy, to enthrall and excite.
This, says Calvin, is the “excellency” of heaven. This is the living hope to which you have been born again because Jesus was raised from the dead. And in this, says Peter, you find great and deep and lasting joy. In this you find strength to endure trials and setbacks and disappointments. In this, says Peter, you find hope when everything else is hopeless. This glorious truth is what will sustain and empower you for everything that lies ahead.
THE PRACTICAL POWER OF MEDITATING ON THE HEAVENLY LIFE
Unlike Jonathan Edwards, Calvin did not make an effort to provide us with an extended or detailed description of the beauty of heaven and all that awaits the believer. (He did, however, speak of the eternal happiness of the final resurrection and heaven as “a happiness of whose excellence the minutest part would scarce be told if all were said that the tongues of all men can say. For though we very truly hear that the Kingdom of God will be filled with splendor, joy, happiness, and glory, yet when these things are spoken of, they remain utterly remote from our perception, and, as it were, wrapped in obscurities, until that day comes when he will reveal to us his glory, that we may behold it face to face” [Institutes, 3.25.10]).
There is nothing in Calvin’s writings comparable to Edwards’s Heaven, A World of Love. But equally, if not more so than Edwards, Calvin spoke and wrote and preached often of the way in which the reality and certainty of heaven affects and empowers us now. For Calvin, as much as for anyone I have ever encountered or read, the certainty of the future impinges on and invades the circumstances of the present.
Let’s now direct our attention to what Calvin had to say on the practical benefits of meditating on heaven. I would like us to think together and be inspired and energized by what Calvin had to say concerning the manifold ways in which being “heavenly minded” is the pathway to becoming of profound “earthly good.” We begin by looking at 2 Corinthians 4:16–18 and Calvin’s observations on this remarkable text.
CALVIN AND 2 CORINTHIANS 4:16–18
Paul’s comments in 2 Corinthians 4:16–18 have in view the experience he described in verses 8–12 — an experience that entails affliction, perplexity, persecution, and being struck down. What that meant for Paul and his ministry in Corinth might not be the same for you and me, but all of us, including Calvin, perhaps especially Calvin, face disappointment and suffering that threaten us with discouragement. So how does one not “lose heart,” to use Paul’s words? Where does one find the power to persevere? Here is what the apostle said:
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16–18)
The outer nature in verse 16 is not a reference to the old man of Romans 6:6 (or Col. 3:9 or Eph. 4:22). The old man refers to the moral or ethical dimension of our fallen, unregenerate nature. Outer nature, on the other hand, refers to our bodily frame, our physical constitution, our creaturely mortality, the “jars of clay” or “earthen vessels” of 2 Corinthians 4:7. Therefore, the “decaying” or “wasting away” of our “outer nature” is most likely a reference once more to the hardships of verses 8–9, and our carrying about in our bodies the dying in Jesus of verse 10, and our being handed over to death in verse 11, and the death that is at work in us in verse 12.
You will never get bored with heaven’s joys.
The “renewal” of the “inner nature,” therefore, is probably synonymous with what Paul earlier said in 3:18 when he declared that “we . . . are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” By the “outward man,” Calvin believes that Paul intends “everything that relates to the present life,” such as “riches, honours, friendships, and other resources,” as well as the physical body. Our outward man is being corrupted anytime we “suffer a diminution or loss of these blessings” (Calvin, Commentary on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, 211).
As you might expect from Calvin, he argues that because we are “too much taken up with the present life,” (Ibid.) it is God himself who is responsible for this “wasting away” of the outer man. By orchestrating our lives in this way, God “calls us back to meditate on a better life” (Ibid.). It is, therefore, “necessary,” said Calvin, not fortuitous or simply bad luck, but “necessary” by God’s design “that the condition of the present life should decay” (Ibid.) It is necessary, says Calvin, “in order that the inward man may be in a flourishing state; because, in proportion as the earthly life declines, does the heavenly life advance, at least in believers” (Ibid.).
What does that tell us about our response to hardship and affliction and deprivation and suffering? If Calvin is right in his interpretation of Paul, and I think he is, it tells us that if we want our “heavenly life” to advance and to be as glorious and deeply satisfying as it possibly can be, it is necessary that our “earthly life declines.”
Paul explains this in greater detail in verse 17. There he says, in utterly stunning terms, that the persecution he endures and the trials he confronts daily are but “light momentary affliction”! Paul was no Pollyanna. The suffering in his life was very real, not imaginary, and if viewed only from an earthly or temporal perspective would probably be, more than any human might endure. But when viewed through the eye of faith and from the vantage point of eternity, a new vantage is attained, and suffering is seen in an altogether different light.
Note carefully the contrasts in view: “momentary” is contrasted with “eternal,” “light” is set over against “weight,” and “affliction” is counterbalanced by “glory.” Similar language is used by Paul in Romans 8:18, where he says that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” Calvin was quick to point out that since we can only see the outward decay but not the inward renovation, “Paul, with the view of shaking us off from a carnal attachment to the present life, draws a comparison between present miseries and future felicity” (Ibid., 212).
Because we so naturally tend to recoil from suffering and loss of comfort, “Paul on that account admonishes us, that the afflictions and vexations of the pious have little or nothing of bitterness, if compared with the boundless blessings of everlasting glory” (Ibid.). The apostle, therefore, “prescribes the best antidote against your sinking down under the pressure of afflictions, when he places in opposition to them that future blessedness which is laid up for thee in heaven (Colossians 1:5)” (Ibid.).
What Calvin called “the common miseries of mankind” are, he says, “a blessing from God” because they prepare us “for a blessed resurrection” (Ibid., 213). And the only way to endure and profit from such miseries is “if we carry forward our thoughts to the eternity of the heavenly kingdom” (Ibid., 214). God is not asking us to treat pain as though it were pleasure, or grief as though it were joy, but to bring all earthly adversity into comparison with heavenly glory and thereby be strengthened to endure. It is encouraging to know that whatever suffering we might endure now, in this age characterized by pain and injustice, cannot overturn or undermine the purposes of God!
But note well. This inner transformation in the midst of outer decay does not happen automatically. Carefully observe the relation between verse 16 and verse 18. The renewal Paul describes (verse 16) only occurs while or to the extent that “we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (verse 18). As we fix the gaze of our hearts on the glorious hope of the age to come, God progressively renews our inner beings, notwithstanding the simultaneous decay of our outer beings!
“If we want our heavenly life to advance and to be as glorious and deeply satisfying as it possibly can be, it is necessary that our earthly life declines.”
Note also that this is no fleeting or casual glance or occasional thought concerning the “glory” of the age to come. The apostle has in mind a fixity of gaze, an attentive and studious concentration on the inestimable blessings of heaven. The contrast between “the things that are seen” and “the things that are unseen” has in view the distinction between the present age and all that is temporal and subject to sin and decay, as over against the unchanging righteousness and incorruptible reality of the age to come.
We must never use this passage to justify a careless, indifferent, or neglectful disregard for the daily responsibilities of life in the present day. Paul is simply warning us against a carnal fixation on what this world system can provide and calling us to set our hope and confidence on the eternal values of God’s kingdom. Here, then, is the power to persevere: by setting your mind and fixing your gaze and focusing your heart on the unseen yet eternal realities of what God has secured for you in Christ.
So how does this actually work in daily experience? If we follow Paul’s counsel, what difference does it make now, amidst the struggles and disappointments and pain of earthly life? Here is where Calvin is so immensely helpful. As I earlier cited four reasons why Calvin is a competent guide for us as we think of the final resurrection and heaven, let me now mention four practical benefits identified by Calvin that come to us from looking “not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen.” So here we have the practical, life-changing, sin-killing, hope-inspiring effect of meditating on the glories of heaven and the life to come.
ENDURING UNJUST SUFFERING
First, contemplating the splendor of heaven empowers the believer to patiently endure unjust suffering. Calvin’s life was in some ways an unending, torturous ordeal in which he was subjected to slander, reproach, vilification, hatred, taunting, incessant resistance to his proposals, and public mockery of his attempts to proclaim the gospel and pastor the people of Geneva.
Perhaps nothing exacted a greater toll on his spirit and body than the aftermath of the execution of Michael Servetus. Many believe it contributed to his early death. In a letter to Johannes Wolf, we get a sense for the devastating effect it had on him. He wrote this on Christmas Day in 1555 when he was only forty-six years old.
Believe me, I had fewer troubles with Servetus . . . than I have with those who are close at hand, whose numbers are beyond reckoning and whose passions are irreconcilable. If one could choose, it would be better to be burned once by the papists than to be plagued for eternity by one’s neighbours. They do not allow me a moment’s rest, although they can clearly see that I am collapsing under the burden of work, troubled by endless sad occurrences, and disturbed by intrusive demands. My one comfort is that death will soon take me from this all too difficult service. (Cited in Bruce Gordon, Calvin [Yale University Press, 2009], 233. Letter to Johannes Wolf, 25 December, 1555. Rudolf Schwarz, Johannes Calvins Lebenswerk in seinen Briefen [J. C. B. Mohr, 1909], 2:118–119)
As we consider his observations on the many biblical texts that address this theme, we must not think for a moment that Calvin writes as a detached and distant observer, as if he were only concerned with the academic accuracy of his interpretations. These passages were his very life. They sustained him and gave him hope.
Consider Jesus’ encouragement in Matthew 5:12 where he responds to the reality of persecution and slander against those who follow him: “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” The meaning, said Calvin, is that “a remedy is at hand, that we may not be overwhelmed by unjust reproaches: for, as soon as we raise our minds to heaven, we there behold vast grounds of joy, which dispel sadness” (Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, 267). Calvin never suggests, as do the purveyors of health, wealth, and the power of positive thinking, that if we but “raise our minds to heaven” all such pain and persecution will disappear. No, but there, in the midst of unending pain and persecution, we “behold vast grounds of joy, which dispel sadness.”
Calvin must have resonated in an unusually personal and vivid way with Paul’s language in Romans 8:23, where the apostle speaks of “groaning” in anticipation of the redemption of our bodies. Don’t merely listen to Calvin the commentator. Hear the heart of a suffering man whose grip was strengthened by the promise of resurrection:
[Paul] requires that there should be a feeling of two kinds in the faithful: that being burdened with the sense of their present misery, they are to groan; and that notwithstanding they are to wait patiently for their deliverance [both groaning and waiting]; for he would have them to be raised up with the expectation of their future blessedness, and by an elevation of mind to overcome all their present miseries, while they consider not what they are now, but what they are to be. (Ibid., 308.)
Note again: It is by “an elevation of mind” to contemplate your “future blessedness” that you can overcome all your “present miseries.” He says much the same thing in view of Paul’s comments in Romans 8:25.
It may be added, that we have here a remarkable passage, which shows, that patience is an inseparable companion of faith; and the reason of this is evident, for when we console ourselves with the hope of a better condition, the feeling of our present miseries is softened and mitigated, so that they are borne with less difficulty. (Ibid., 310)
Merely being aware of how bad things are in the present and speaking at length of the pain they inflict does nothing to help us persevere. In 2 Corinthians 5:1, the apostle reminds us that notwithstanding the decay and destruction of our earthly bodies we have “a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”
It is not enough, says Calvin, “to be aware of the miseries of this life” (Calvin, Commentary on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, 216). That will only serve to create a morbid and sullen existence. He insists that at the same time we must have in view “the felicity and glory of the future life.” It is thinking often and deeply of “the supreme and perfect blessedness, which awaits believers in heaven after death” that empowers us to endure (Ibid.).
We find much the same emphasis in his comments on 1 John 3:2 where we are assured of being conformed to the image of Christ. Our bodies are but dust and a shadow, and death is ever before our eyes. We are, said Calvin, “subject to [a] thousand miseries, and the soul is exposed to innumerable evils; so that we find always a hell within us” (Calvin, Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles, 204).
This is what makes it necessary to turn our thoughts from the present, lest “the miseries by which we are on every side surrounded and almost overwhelmed, should shake our faith in that felicity which as yet lies hid” (Ibid. “For in heaven is our felicity, and we are now far away traveling on the earth; for this fading life, constantly exposed to hundred deaths, is far different from that eternal life which belongs to the children of God; for being enclosed as slaves in the prison of our flesh, we are far distant from the full sovereignty of heaven and earth” [Ibid.]). Nowhere does Calvin say it with more passion and energy than in his Institutes. There you can hear the echo of his own suffering and the heaviness of the constant reproach that he endured, yet also through it all is the hope of heaven that sustained him.
To the huge mass of miseries that almost overwhelms us are added the jests of profane men, which assail our innocence when we, willingly renouncing the allurements of present benefits, seem to strive after a blessedness hidden from us as if it were a fleeing shadow. Finally, above and below us, before us and behind, violent temptations besiege us, which our minds would be quite unable to sustain, were they not freed of earthly things and bound to the heavenly life, which appears to be far away. Accordingly, he alone has fully profited in the gospel who has accustomed himself to continual meditation upon the blessed resurrection. (Institutes, 3.25.1)
OVERCOMING THE SNARES
Second, meditating on the beauty of heaven strengthens the soul to overcome the snares of this life. Let me simply cite several of Calvin’s statements on this point so that you might feel the cumulative impact of how his own contemplation of heavenly glory strengthened him in the battle.
They are said to do so [i.e., to lay up for themselves treasures in heaven], who, instead of entangling themselves in the snares of this world, make it their care and their business to meditate on the heavenly life. (Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, 332)
But if we were honestly and firmly convinced that our happiness is in heaven, it would be easy for us to trample upon the world, to despise earthly blessings, (by the deceitful attractions of which the greater part of men are fascinated,) and to rise towards heaven. (Ibid., 334)
If meditation on the heavenly life were the prevailing sentiment in our hearts, the world would have no influence in detaining us. (Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel According to John, 30)
The lusts of the flesh hold us entangled, when in our minds we dwell in the world, and think not that heaven is our country; but when we pass as strangers through this life, we are not in bondage to the flesh. (Calvin, Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles, 78)
The apostle John stated in 1 John 3:3 that “everyone who thus hopes in him [i.e., in Christ] purifies himself as he is pure.” The meaning of this, says Calvin, is “that though we have not Christ now present before our eyes, yet if we hope in him, it cannot be but that this hope will excite and stimulate us to follow purity, for it leads us straight to Christ, whom we know to be a perfect pattern of purity” (Ibid., 207). Although Calvin would never have endorsed the last days madness so prevalent not long ago in our Western world, he asks, “For whence is it that flesh indulges itself except that there is no thought of the near coming of Christ?” (Ibid., 420).
Perhaps Calvin’s greatest insights in this regard are found in his commentary on 1 Corinthians 15:58. Paul’s exhortation is that we “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” How do we know that our labor is not in vain? Because there is a reward laid up for us with God. This is the hope, says Calvin, that “encourages believers, and afterward sustains them, so that they do not stop short in the race” (Calvin, Commentary on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, 66).
The Pauline exhortation to remain steadfast is based on the sure foundation that “a better life is prepared” for us “in heaven” (Ibid.). It is “the hope of a resurrection [that] makes us not be weary in well-doing” (Ibid.). In the face of so many temptations to quit and fall into despair, our only hope, says Calvin, is “by thinking of a better life” (Ibid.). Indeed, “if the hope of a resurrection is taken away, then, the foundation (as it were) being rooted up, the whole structure of piety falls to the ground. Unquestionably, if the hope of reward is taken away and extinguished, alacrity in running will not merely grow cold, but will be altogether destroyed” (Ibid.).
RESPONDING RIGHTLY TO DEATH
Third, thinking often of heaven and the age to come, not only enables us to hold onto this life loosely, but also helps us to respond properly to the death of others and to be prepared for our own departure. We need to begin with the clear understanding that as much as Calvin spoke of longing for death, he never despised life. He regarded it as an indescribably immense blessing from God. One need only observe how incredibly productive he was during his short time on earth. But what of our Lord’s statement in John 12:25 that we are to “hate” life in this world?
“The lusts of the flesh hold us entangled, when in our minds we dwell in the world, and think not that heaven is our country.” –John Calvin
Jesus does not mean, says Calvin, that we are “absolutely to hate life, which is justly reckoned to be one of the highest of God’s blessings” (Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel According to John, 29). Rather, we should “cheerfully” lay it down when it hinders us from coming to Christ (Ibid.). In other words, “to love this life is not in itself wrong, provided that we only pass through it as pilgrims, keeping our eyes always fixed on our object” (Ibid.).
We “hate” this life only to the extent that it hinders or inhibits or detracts from our intimacy with Jesus. Jesus thus speaks of hating this life “to strike terror into those who are too desirous of the earthly life; for if we are overwhelmed by the love of the world, so that we cannot easily forget it, it is impossible for us to go to heaven” (Ibid., 30).
We also must reckon with the pointed and sometimes painful way in which Calvin spoke of how God uses trials and sufferings and tragedies in this life to wean us from excessive dependence upon the present and to turn our attention to heaven. Indeed, “since God knows best how much we are inclined by nature to a brutish love of this world, he uses the fittest means to draw us back and to shake off our sluggishness, lest we cleave too tenaciously to that love” (Institutes, 3.9.1).
Why do we not aspire more passionately to the heavenly life? “Now our blockishness arises from the fact that our minds, stunned by the empty dazzlement of riches, power, and honors, become so deadened that they can see no farther” (Ibid.). And therefore, “to counter this evil the Lord instructs his followers in the vanity of the present life by continual proof of its miseries” (Ibid.).
Here Calvin’s robust belief in the absolute sovereignty of God over all of life permeates his thought. Lest we be seduced by “peace,” God permits wars and robbery and other “injuries” (Ibid.). Lest we be seduced by riches, he sometimes “reduces them to poverty, or at least confines them to a moderate station” (Ibid.). Lest we become complacent in the benefits of marriage, God “either causes them to be troubled by the depravity of their wives or humbles them by evil offspring, or afflicts them with bereavement” (Ibid.).
We conclude from this “that in this life we are to seek and hope for nothing but struggle; when we think of our crown, we are to raise our eyes to heaven. For this we must believe: that the mind is never seriously aroused to desire and ponder the life to come unless it be previously imbued with contempt for the present life” (Ibid.).
When Calvin speaks, as often he does, about this life as one that should be “despised and trampled under foot,” (Institutes, 3.9.4) it is only the result of having compared it with the heavenly life to come. We only hate this present life “in so far as it holds us subject to sin” (Ibid.). There should be no “murmuring and impatience” (Ibid.) should God choose to leave us here for a while.
Calvin reserved some of his most pointed observations on death and our attitudes toward it in his commentary on 2 Corinthians 5. The wicked and unbelieving cling to life and view death with horror. “The groaning of believers, on the other hand, arises from this — that they know, that they are here in a state of exile from their native land, and that they know, that they are here shut up in the body as in a prison. Hence they feel this life to be a burden, because in it they cannot enjoy true and perfect blessedness, because they cannot escape from the bondage of sin otherwise than by death, and hence they aspire to be elsewhere” (Calvin, Commentary on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, 218–219).
There is nothing sinfully morbid in longing for death, says Calvin, because “believers do not desire death for the sake of losing any thing, but as having regard to a better life” (Ibid., 219). The way we overcome the natural fear of death is by thinking of it as the discarding of a “coarse,” “dirty,” “tattered” garment, all with a view toward “being arrayed in an elegant, handsome, new, and durable one” (Ibid.). Christians should not break down “under the severity of the cross” or be “disheartened by afflictions,” says Calvin. In fact, such experiences ought to make us even more courageous. We “long” for death, not from a perverse desire for pain but because it is “the commencement of perfect blessedness” (Ibid., 222). And again:
For nothing is better than to quit the body, that we may attain near intercourse with God, and may truly and openly enjoy his presence. Hence by the decay of the body we lose nothing that belongs to us. Observe here — what has been once stated already — that true faith begets not merely a contempt of death, but even a desire for it, and that it is, accordingly, on the other hand, a token of unbelief, when dread of death predominates in us above the joy and consolation of hope. (Ibid.)
Calvin speaks very boldly on this point, arguing that one of the clearest indications of a false faith is the lingering fear of death:
In the mean time, believers do not cease to regard death with horror, but when they turn their eyes to that life which follows death, they easily overcome all dread by means of that consolation. Unquestionably, every one that believes in Christ ought to be so courageous as to lift up his head on mention being made of death, delighted to have intimation of his redemption (Luke xxi.28). From this we see how many are Christians only in name, since the greater part, on hearing mention made of death, are not merely alarmed, but are rendered almost lifeless through fear, as though they had never heard a single word respecting Christ. (Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians, 43–44)
Fixing our eyes on heaven helps us overcome the fear of death by producing hope.
There is, however, an implied contrast between the present condition in which believers labour and groan, and that final restoration. For they are now exposed to the reproaches of the world, and are looked upon as vile and worthless; but then they will be precious, and full of dignity, when Christ will pour forth his glory upon them. The end of this is, that the pious may as it were, with closed eyes, pursue the brief journey of this earthly life, having their minds always intent upon the future manifestation of Christ’s kingdom. For to what purpose does he make mention of his coming in power, but in order that they may in hope leap forward to that blessed resurrection which is as yet hid? (Ibid., 319)
As noted earlier, a proper perspective on the certainty of resurrection and the beauty of heaven will keep us from excessively mourning the death of other believers. This was Paul’s point in 1 Thessalonians 4:13 where he warned us against grieving “as others do who have no hope.” We must not “bewail the dead beyond due bounds,” said Calvin, “inasmuch as we are all to be raised up again” (Ibid., 279). It is unbecoming for a Christian “to mourn otherwise than in moderation” (Ibid.). (Thus Paul’s point in this passage was “simply to restrain excessive grief, which would never have had such an influence among them, if they had seriously considered the resurrection, and kept it in remembrance” [Ibid.]).
Indeed, it is “the knowledge of a resurrection,” says Calvin, that serves as “the means of moderating grief” (Ibid.). Calvin is not recommending stoical indifference toward the reality of death and the departure of our loved ones. It is “one thing to bridle our grief, that it may be subject to God, and quite another thing to harden one’s self so as to be like stones, by casting away human feelings. Let, therefore, the grief of the pious be mixed with consolation, which may train them to patience. The hope of a blessed resurrection, which is the mother of patience, will effect this” (Ibid., 280).
In any case, since we both live and die unto the Lord, let it be in such a way that we “burn with the zeal for death and be constant in meditation” (Institutes, 3.9.4). It is in fact “monstrous” (Institutes, 3.9.5) that Christians should ever be gripped by a fear of death. Indeed, “let us . . . consider this settled: that no one has made progress in the school of Christ who does not joyfully await the day of death and final resurrection” (Institutes, 3.9.5).
RESPONDING WELL TO LOSS
Fourth and finally, setting our hearts on heaven enables us to respond well to the loss of money and property in this present life. Although there were seasons in Calvin’s early life when he struggled financially to make ends meet, he rarely if ever gave any indication of avarice or resentment or bitterness. Toward the end of life and ministry in Geneva, he was paid well but never became presumptuous or dependent on earthly comforts. Bruce Gordon argues that “his sermons reveal a man whose attitudes towards material things were far more interesting and textured than his reputation suggests” (Gordon, Calvin, 147). He enjoyed good wine, good conversation with friends, good music, and good art. But he never trusted in them.
Calvin’s perspective is best seen in his comments on Hebrews 10:34. There we read, “For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.” Calvin is quick to point out that these people had feelings and that the loss of their property undoubtedly caused them grief, but not to such an extent that all joy was taken. “As poverty is deemed an evil, the plunder of their goods considered in itself touched them with grief; but as they looked higher, they found a cause for joy, which allayed whatever grief they felt. It is indeed thus necessary that our thoughts should be drawn away from the world, by looking at the heavenly recompense” (Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews, 254).
Whatever pain they endured, such “feelings never so prevail in overwhelming them with grief, but that with their minds raised up to heaven they emerge into spiritual joy” (Ibid.). Because “their minds were fixed on the recompense, they easily forgot the grief occasioned by their present calamity. And indeed wherever there is a lively perception of heavenly things, the world with all its allurements is not so relished, that either poverty or shame can overwhelm our minds with grief. If then we wish to bear anything for Christ with patience and resigned minds, let us accustom ourselves to a frequent meditation on that felicity, in comparison with which all the good things of the world are nothing but refuse” (Ibid., 255).
WITH ONE FOOT RAISED
In closing, let us return briefly to where we began, with Calvin’s pastoral counsel to Madame de Coligny: “We ought to learn to have one foot raised to take our departure when it shall please God.” Were he with us today, I suspect his advice would remain unchanged.
“No one has made progress in the school of Christ who does not joyfully await the day of death and final resurrection.” –John Calvin
Young man, young woman, go to school, study hard, prepare yourself for fifty or more years in a productive and exciting career. But do it with one foot raised!
Let all of us diligently labor at our place of business. Honor our employers by giving them a good day’s work for a day’s wage. But always work with one foot raised!
By all means, get married. Enjoy the delight of romantic affections.
Devote yourself to your spouse, yet do it with one foot raised!
Be quick to educate your children. Prepare them for life. Raise them in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, but always with one foot raised!
Study Greek and Hebrew and Latin! But study with one foot raised!
Celebrate life with your friends over a good steak and your beverage of choice. But eat and drink with one foot raised!
Weep at the grave site of a child. Mourn at the loss of a friend. But may it always be with one foot raised!
Read a book. Write a book. But read and write with one foot raised!
Cheer for your favorite football team and celebrate wildly with every victory. But do it with one foot raised!
Labor to enact legislation to improve life in your city, your state, your country, but always with one foot raised!
Plant a garden. Plant a church. Open a savings account. Purchase a thirty-year certificate of deposit. Invest in a stock. But do it all in anticipation and heightened expectancy of the life to come. Do it all with one foot raised!