Over the course of 2013, it’s my goal to read through John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion with this reading group. I haven’t planned to write a full series, but I’m sure I will occasionally share some thoughts from this theological masterpiece. Today marks my first.
“Because nothing appears within or around us that has not been contaminated by great immorality, what is a little less vile pleases us as a thing most pure–so long as we confine our minds within the limits of human corruption (Calvin’s Institutes, 1.1.2).”
Our standard of measurement heavily impacts our perception. A small child will view his or her 5’1″ mother as a big person. A person stranded without food for several days will look upon the most disgusting of foods as a delicacy. Why is this the case? Because their standards are faulty. Sure, a 5’1″ woman is large in comparison to a small child. And disgusting food is much better than no food at all. But that doesn’t mean the woman is truly big or the food is truly tasty.
This is what Calvin is explaining in the quote. In our sinful world, people will appear to be holy and righteous in comparison to other sinful individuals, that is, until they are compared to the true standard: God’s character and nature.
The fact that God holds us to a perfect standard hugely affects the way that we view the world around us. There is both a negative and positive sense in which we are affected.
First, man is more sinful than we like to think. Most people that you meet on the street will consider themselves a good person. Why? “Because I haven’t killed anyone or anything like that.” Do you see the standard? As long as your errors in life don’t go to the depths of Adolph Hitler or Jeffrey Dahmer, then you’re on the good list.
But God’s standard is Himself: perfection. Anyone who is not perfectly holy is unholy and guilty before our infinitely righteous God.
This is important when it comes to sharing the gospel with those around us. We only see our utter need for Jesus Christ when we see the dire situation that we face. It’s important that we help others see the true standard of righteousness that we all face. Good people don’t go to heaven. Only perfectly righteous ones. And that’s a serious problem for every person in the universe, except the righteous One who came to set us free from the bondage of sin.
When we faithfully communicate the depths of our sin and the holiness of God, that’s when the gospel truly becomes the Good News. That’s when we fly to Christ for forgiveness and grace.
Second, man is loved so much more than imagined. Fatherhood here on earth is a beautiful picture of our Father in heaven. As my wife is due to give birth to our first child in two weeks, I’m starting to get a fuller grasp of the love of a father, though I’m sure it will grow once I finally meet the little guy.
But what’s incredible about Calvin’s quote is that it also applies to God’s love for His children. Our love for our children is finite and incomplete, though it may be deep. God’s love, on the other hand, is perfect. It’s mind-blowing to think that God loves us far more than a human father can love his own son or daughter, but that’s the glorious truth. In spite of our many mistakes, if we are in Christ, we are loved infinitely and perfectly.
When we are sharing God’s Word with those around us, we should strive to clearly communicate both of these realities. We are so sinful in light of God’s perfection, and yet He still loves us far more deeply than we can imagine.
Glory be to our perfect Father who is in heaven!