The Final Act in the Theater of God
Calvin on the Joy of the Last Resurrection
Desiring God 2009 National Conference
These are notes taken during the session, not a manuscript.
Turn to 2 Corinthians 4. When John invited me a considerable number of months ago to come and share on this topic, I began a journey of reading through Calvin's New Testament commentaries. I read through any passage that had anything to do with heaven, the resurrection, and its effect on us. There was hardly any text on which he spoke with such eloquence and power as 2 Corinthians 4:16-18. Let's pray.
On August 5, 1563 Calvin wrote a letter to the wife of one of the Reformation leaders in France. She was experiencing physical illness and he wrote to her, "They [our physical afflictions] should serve us as medicine to purge us from worldly affections and 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."
I read that a few weeks ago and I began to ask myself, "Do I live with one foot raised in expectation of seeing my Savior face to face?" Calvin did, I'm convinced. And there is ever so much of living now in expectation of that day that we can learn from him.
Why is Calvin such a helpful guide for us in this area? I'll mention four reasons:
First, Calvin is a pilgrim on this earth, as Julius Kim told us last night. Calvin speaks often in his commentaries of being a sojourner on this earth. Two of the more recent biographies about Calvin highlight this theme. One title is, "John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor" (W. Robert Godfrey). Another is "John Calvin: A Pilgrim's Life" (Herman J. Selderhuis).
In Colossians 3:1 Paul exhorts us to seek the things that are above. Calvin said that in doing so we can "embrace our identity as sojourners in this world without being bound to it."
In Hebrews 11 the author refers to the patriarchs' desire for a better country, a heavenly one. Calvin wrote on Hebrews 13:14, "We should consider that we have no fixed residence but in heaven. Whenever, therefore, we are driven from place to place, whenever any change happens to us, let us think about what the author teaches here, let us think that our abode is not on earth…they that enjoy a common life here believe that they have rest on this world. It is profitable for us, who are prone to sloth and have often become comfortable in this world, to be tossed to and fro."
Lest you be misled, when Calvin talks about turning our eyes away from earth and toward heaven, you should never think that he was somehow some sort of other-worldly dualist who despised God's creation. Far from it. Whenever Calvin talked about his passion to leave this earth and go to heaven, it was driven by 1) his hatred of sin, 2) his own bodily suffering, and 3) his desire to see God.
Calvin was not negligent toward matters of this life or basic responsibilities. Think of his remarkable productivity. This is no other-worldly dualism. This is no "Left Behind" escapist mentality. He knew the better country he desired was the new earth.
To remind you, Calvin was forced to flee Paris early because of his inflammatory comments about the Roman Catholic Church. The next two years he spent as a piilgrim, a wandering student and evangelist. He eventually decided to go to Strausburg to be a scholar, in rest. The next couple of years were difficult. Farrell intervened and Calvin was recalled to Geneva. He labored under almost unimaginable conditions.
Second, Calvin is a helpful guide because of his physical afflictions. Calvin's health was aggravated by the fact that he worked late into the night and rose every morning at 4 am. Added to this was stress from pastoral duties, not enough exercise, too much work, and relentless insomnia. One author said, "He hardly had a body." His afflictions read like a medical journal: painful stomach cramps, intestinal influenza, constant migraine headaches. He had a persistent onslaught of fevers, he had problems with his trachea, he suffered from pleurisy, gout, severe arthritis, acute chronic inflammation of the kidneys, gallstones, malaria, kidney stones. His voice was strained so severely through preaching that he would have coughing fits. At 51 he discovered he had pulmonary tuberculosis, which probably eventually killed him.
Third, Calvin is a helpful guide to us because of his vision of Jesus Christ as that which made heaven heavenly. If Calvin longed for the resurrection and glorification of the body primarily to escape his physical agonies, he would not be worthy of our attention. What made heaven heavenly for Calvin was Christ. That's what energized his longing. Philippians 3:20—"Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ."
It is Christ who is the blessedness and glory and beauty of heaven. Calvin had much to say on John 17, verse 24 especially. "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." Calvin said, "Christ speaks of the perfect happiness of believers as if he had said that his desire would not be satisfied until they have been received into heaven. In the same manner I explain the beholding of the glory of Jesus…"
"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 for the highest good and all the elements of happiness."
Fourth, Calvin is helpful because of the way he instructs us to meditate on heaven and the final resurrection. He disciplined himself on a daily basis to focus on the future resurrection.
On Philippians 3:20: "He wrote this 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 time be reduced to nothing…From where then is its restoration to be hoped for? From heaven at Christ's coming. Therefore there is no part of us that should fail to aspire after heaven with undivided affection."
Calvin loved 1 Peter 1:4: "[God has called us to be born again] to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you…" We have an imperishable inheritance. One of the most difficult things about this life is that things decay and die. But the glory and splendor of our inheritance on the new heavens and the new earth will never decay and die. Our inheritance is also undefilable. Isn't it amazing how much we try to keep things clean? We buy detergent, soap, etc., and yet all we see suffers defilement. Not in heaven. Nothing in that place of glory will ever be anything but pristine and pure because Christ is there.
Lastly, Peter used the word "unfading." Nothing will ever become outdated or grow obsolete in heaven.
Those are just a few of the reasons why Calvin is such a faithful guide for us. Unlike Jonathan Edwards, Calvin, as far as I know, never wrote anything comparable to "Heaven, a World of Love." It doesn't seem that Calvin speculated or wrote a treatise on the beauties of heaven. But equally, if not more so than Jonathan Edwards, he spoke and wrote and preached of the way in which the reality and the certainty of heaven affects and transforms us now. For Calvin, the certainty of the future influences the circumstances of the present.
2 Corinthians 4:16-18. Paul had been struck down, persecuted, perplexed, and afflicted. Yet he says, "We don't lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day…"
Calvin included in this reference to the outer nature things like wealth, honor we receive from others, friendships, other resources, and the treatment we receive at the hands and the lips of unbelievers.
Calvin: "By orchestrating our lives in this way God calls us to meditate on a better life. It's necessary that the outer man waste away. Why? In order that the inward man may be in a flourishing state. In proportion as the earthly life declines the heavenly life advances, at least in believers."
Paul then describes all the hardship as "slight, momentary affliction" and contrasts it with the "eternal weight of glory." How does that work? Not automatically. It is only "as we look." Only to the degree that you look at what you can't see will the disillusion and decay of what you can see cease to have the embittering affect on you that it does.
Calvin wrote about this passage, "Paul prescribes the best antidote to your sinking down under the pressure of afflictions when he places in opposition to them that future blessedness that is laid up for you in heaven."
Nobody is a better guide in my opinion than John Calvin in helping us to look at what we can't see.
Let me also mention four ways in which looking at heaven, meditating upon the better country, affects us now:
First, contemplating the splendor of heaven empowers the believer to patiently endure unjust suffering. Calvin's life was one endless ordeal of suffering. We talked this afternoon about the affair with Michael Servetus. The toll that that took on Calvin's mind and spirit and body was almost unbearable. Not so much because he regretted his complicity in the matter, but because of how he was vilified by his enemies in that occasion.
When you hear in just a moment what Calvin says in some of these texts, don't listen as though you were merely listening to a biblical commentator. Calvin didn't write these things as a spectator. These passages were his very life.
Calvin said about Jesus' promise to those who are persecuted in Matthew 5, "A remedy is at hand that we might not be overwhelmed by unjust reproaches, for as soon as we raise our minds to heaven, in that way we behold vast grounds of joy which dispel sadness."
Calvin said of Romans 8:25, "For when we console ourselves with the hope of a better condition, the feeling of our present misery is softened and mitigated as we contemplate the future blessedness."
Second, meditating on the beauty of heaven strengthens the soul to overcome worldliness. Calvin wrote, "How do we avoid entangling ourselves in the snares of this world? We make it our business to meditate on the heavenly life."
Third, Calvin said that thinking often of heaven not only enables us to hold onto this life loosely, but it also helps us respond to the death of other people in an appropriate way and to prepare for our own. As much as Calvin wrote about death he never despised life. He did say much, though, about how Jesus talked of us hating our lives in John 12. "We hate this life only to the extent that it inhibits or detracts from our coming to Jesus…If we are overwhelmed with the love of the world…it is impossible for us to go to heaven."
Why do we not aspire more passionately to the heavenly life? Calvin said that it's because of our "blockishness."
He wrote, "Lest we be seduced by peace on this earth, there are wars and other injuries. Lest we be seduced by riches, God reduces us to poverty or at least confines us to a moderate station…"
"There is nothing sinfully morbid in longing for death because believers do not desire death for the sake of losing anything but out of regard for a better life…Observe here…that true faith begets not merely a contempt of death but a desire for it. It is a token of unbelief when the dread of death predominates in us above the joy and consolation of hope."
"One of the clearest indications of a false and spurious faith is the lingering fear of death."
Fourth, setting our hearts on heaven enables us to respond well to the loss of money and property. There were seasons in Calvin's life when he struggled to make ends meet. But there is no indication in his writings that he was bitter over it. One of his biographers wrote that Calvin enjoyed such things as good food and good art, but he never trusted in them.
As Calvin wrote, "we ought to learn to have one foot raised to take our departure when it shall please God." Let us diligently work at our jobs and honor our employers, but let us do it with one foot raised. Let's get married, have children, devote ourselves to our spouses, but do it with one foot raised. Educate your children, Mom and Dad, but do it with one foot raised. Weep at the gravesite of a child that has died in infancy, but do it with one foot raised. Read a book, write a book with one foot raised. Cheer for your favorite football team with one foot raised. Plant a garden, plant a church, open a savings account, invest in a stock, but do it with the anxious expectation, the joy-filled hope, the anticipation of the heavenly life and the felicity of the life that will be ours.