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Quotes from the Valley of the Shadow of Death: John Calvin (1509-1564)

calvinThe first post in this series consisted of quotes from Charles Spurgeon. The second from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. John Calvin probably did more (outside of God and His Word) to help drag me through the Valley of the Shadow of Death than any other person.

Calvin lived 500 years ago but God saw fit to have me read his majestic Institutes of the Christian Religion throughout 2013. I know, the Institutes sounds incredibly boring, but it is the most devotional work I have ever read. Spending time with Calvin is like spending time close to someone burning white hot for Jesus. I’ve written about the life of John Calvin here if you’d like to learn more about him.

Calvin spends Book 3 Chapter 8 and Chapter 9 focused primarily on the subject of living through painful circumstances. These words have been water to a thirsty soul on many occasions. I pray the Lord would allow you to get through these dense selected sentences and drink deeply of the goodness of Jesus in the midst of the valley:

But it behooves the godly mind to climb still higher, to the height to which Christ calls his disciples: that each must bear his own cross [Matt. 16:24]. For whomever the Lord has adopted and deemed worthy of his fellowship ought to prepare themselves for a hard, toilsome, and unquiet life, crammed with very many and various kinds of evil. It is the Heavenly Father’s will thus to exercise them so as to put his own children to a definite test. Beginning with Christ, his first-born, he follows this plan with all his children. For even though that Son was beloved above the rest, and in him the Father’s mind was well pleased [Matt. 3:17], yet we see that far from being treated indulgently or softly, to speak the truth, while he dwelt on earth he was not only tried by a perpetual cross but his whole life was nothing but a sort of perpetual cross. The apostle notes the reason: that it behooved him to “learn obedience through what he suffered” [Heb. 5:8]

Therefore, he afflicts us either with disgrace or poverty, or bereavement, or disease, or other calamities. Utterly unequal to bearing these, in so far as they touch us, we soon succumb to them. Thus humbled, we learn to call upon his power which alone makes us stand fast under the weight of afflictions. But even the most holy persons, however much they may recognize that they stand not through their own strength but through God’s grace, are too sure of their own fortitude and constancy unless by the testing of the cross he bring them into a deeper knowledge of himself.

And it is of no slight importance for you to be cleansed of your blind love of self that you may be made more nearly aware of your incapacity; to feel your own incapacity that you may learn to distrust yourself; to distrust yourself that you may transfer your trust to God; to rest with a trustful heart in God that, relying upon his help, you may persevere unconquered to the end; to take your stand in his grace that you may comprehend the truth of his promises; to have unquestioned certainty of his promises that your hope may thereby be strengthened.

For he afflicts us not to ruin or destroy us but, rather, to free us from the condemnation of the world. That thought will lead us to what Scripture teaches in another place: “My son do not despise the Lord’s discipline, or grow weary when he reproves you. For whom God loves, he rebukes, and embraces as a father his son” [Prov. 3:11-12].

For it ought to occur to us how much honor God bestows upon us in thus furnishing us with the special badge of soldiery. I say this not only to they who labor for the defense of the gospel but they who in any way maintain the cause of righteousness suffer persecution for righteousness. Therefore, whether in declaring God’s truth against Satan’s falsehoods or in taking up the protection of the good and innocent against the wrongs of the wicked, we must undergo the offenses and hatred of the world, which may imperil either our life, our fortunes, or our honor. Let us not grieve or be troubled in thus far devoting our efforts to God, or count ourselves miserable in those matters in which he has with his own lips declared us blessed [Matt. 5:10].

We are pressed in every way but not rendered anxious; we are afflicted but not left destitute; we endure persecution but in it are not deserted; we are cast down but do not perish” [2 Cor. 4:8-9]. Now, among the Christians there are also new Stoics, who count it depraved not only to groan and weep but also to be sad and care ridden…Yet we have nothing to do with this iron philosophy which our Lord and Master has condemned not only by his word, but also by his example. For he groaned and wept both over his own and other’s misfortunes…And that no one might turn it into a vice, he openly proclaimed, “Blessed are those who mourn” [Matt. 5:4]. No wonder! For if all weeping is condemned, what shall we judge concerning the Lord himself, from whose body tears of blood trickled down [Luke 22:44]? If all fear is branded as unbelief, how shall we account for that dread with which we read, he was heavily stricken [Matt. 26:37; Mark 14:33]? If all sadness displeases us, how will it please us that he confesses his soul “sorrowful even to death” [Matt. 26:38]?

Whatever kind of tribulation presses upon us, we must ever look to this end: to accustom ourselves to contempt for the present life and to be aroused thereby to meditate upon the future life. For 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. There is not one of us, indeed, who does not wish to seem throughout his life to aspire and strive after heavenly immortality…But if you examine the plans, efforts, the deeds of anyone, there you will find nothing but earth. Now our blockishness arises from the fact that our minds, stunned by the empty dazzlement or riches, power, and honors, become so deadened that they can see no farther. The heart also, occupied by avarice, ambition, and lust, is so weighed down that it cannot rise up higher. In fine, the whole soul, enmeshed in the allurements of the flesh, seeks its happiness on earth. To counter this evil the Lord instructs his followers in the vanity of the present life by continual proofs of its miseries. Therefore, that they may not promise themselves to a deep and secure peace in it, he permits them often to be troubled and plagued either with wars or tumults, or robberies, or other injuries…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 this present life.

John Calvin goes on for many pages dropping weighty truth. Karl Barth, in his quirky way, has said this about Calvin:

Calvin is a cataract, a primeval forest, a demonic power, something directly down from the Himalayas, absolutely Chinese, strange, mythological; I lack completely the means, the suction cups, even to assimilate this phenomenon, not to speak of presenting it adequately…I could gladly and profitably set myself down and spend all the rest of my life just with Calvin.

If you find yourself walking through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I recommend Calvin by your side encouraging you to behold your Jesus.

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2 Responses to “Quotes from the Valley of the Shadow of Death: John Calvin (1509-1564)”

  1. Although the “contempt for this earthly life” concept might be fortified somewhat by the Gospels, I find no reason that this is the primary, or even a very effective, way to enter the joy of our life in Christ, here and to come. The Holy Spirit is our Counselor and Comforter, and is most effective, it seems, when we are at our weakest.
    In short, to say that I have it all together because of my contempt is to wrest some of the glory away from God and attribute it to my success.

  2. We are to judge ourselves according to 1 Corinthians 11:31,32, ” For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged. But when we are judged, we are chastened of the Lord, that we should not be condemned with the world.” This is how we keep from condemnation. Romans 8:1 speaks to this also. “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who ‘walk not after the flesh’, but after the Spirit” These scripture speak of what we the ‘diligent’ do as opposed to how the ‘slothful’ are dealt with. We are told, not to love this world, 1 John 2:15, but yet God gives us all things to enjoy!1 Timothy 6:17. Were just Pilgrims.

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