Book Review: A Little Book on the Christian Life
If all you know of John Calvin is the five points bearing his name, or perhaps that he was a depressing and fatalistic theologian, you are selling yourself short. Calvin was primarily a pastor, a fact that is not often associated with him. Now, thanks to the translation and editorial work of Aaron Denlinger and Burk Parsons, we can experience John Calvin, the pastor, in our modern language.
Originally part of the revision to Calvin's most famous theological work, the Institutes of the Christian Religion, early readers saw that it could be published on its own. Nine years after the publication of this booklet (originally in Latin and French), it was published in the English language. The year was 1549. 468 years later, a modern translation has been published. Not only does this recent publication display that the contents of this book stand the test of time, it tells us that what is written on its pages are valuable for Christians almost 500 years after it was written.
In just over 100 pages, this book packs a punch. It seems as though every word of every sentence holds weight. Although this is the case, it is very easy to read. In this book, you will find a very different John Calvin than is often portrayed in many evangelical circles. Calvin, as is seen through this work, is not just concerned with filling people's heads with theological knowledge, but seeks to stir the heart to greater affections for Christ.
The first chapter is dedicated to describing the life of the Christian. We see his insight, pastoral care, and understanding of the Christian life in the first sentence. Calvin begins by stating, "The goal of God's work in us is to bring our lives into harmony and agreement with His own righteousness, and so to manifest to ourselves and others our identity as His adopted children."
The second and third chapters are dedicated to the aspect of suffering and self-denial in the Christian life. He asks the question in regard to self-denial, "How, unless we forsake ourselves and commit ourselves wholly to others, can we bring forth those works that Paul identifies with love?" As we see further on, self-denial means the acceptance of suffering. This is not pleasant for us to hear in our time and culture, yet it is necessary and biblical. By bearing our cross, we are committed to a life of suffering. However, Calvin argues that the "sufferings themselves not only become blessings to us, but they also serve to promote our salvation."
In the fourth chapter, Calvin directs our attention to the future life. We may not have the enjoyments, opulence, and luxuries this life offers, and that is fine. In fact, it may be best we don’t. Calvin properly asserts the indictment against us. "In sum, our entire soul, entangled in the enticements of the flesh, seeks its happiness on earth." However, we ought to seek our happiness in heaven. What we find here on earth is ultimately misery, and so we find great hope and consolation in the promise of the resurrection. This, according to Calvin, must be the believer's focus.
The final chapter deals with the question, how do we use all that God has given us here on this earth? Again, Calvin's answer is not what we would like to hear, but is necessary for us. And again, Calvin gives us the biblical answer we wish wasn’t there. Yet, when heeded, it brings tremendous hope and satisfaction because it places our focus on the world to come rather than this present world. As we see in his scriptural answer, the pursuit of the next life should be our priority, not the fleeting pleasures of this life.
It is clear to me after reading this small book that Christians would be better Christians after spending time with John Calvin. Those who drag his name through the mud have clearly never read his works or sermons. The clarity in which he addresses the various aspects of the Christian life is as crystal, and the pastoral care in which he applies the Scripture to the hearts of the readers is inspiring. Calvin, in all his writing, seeks to move the reader to joy in a promised hope. He is constant in his passion for the spiritual well-being of his listeners, and this book is no exception. You will find Calvin to be a warm and wise friend. A Little Book on the Christian Life is sure to be a great blessing for your soul on this pilgrim journey. This little book is more than worthy to be used as a primer for Christians just starting out in the faith, and ought to be re-read yearly – even by the most mature Christians. It is a valuable gem for the church and will be as long as the Lord tarries.
By: John Calvin, Edited By: Aaron Denlinger and Burk Parsons, Reformation Trust, 2017, 132 pp.