When you hear people talk about Calvinism, you often hear of doctrines like predestination and total depravity and the sovereignty of God. When you actually read Calvin on the Christian life, the emphasis is quite different. He describes two chief goals: holiness and consecration.

The Scripture system of which we speak aims chiefly at two objects. The former is that the love of righteousness, to which we are not naturally inclined, may be instilled and implanted into our minds. (Calvin's Institutes III.6.2)

Calvin goes on to say that our calling is to be holy as God is holy. Unless we dedicate and devote ourselves to righteousness, we … repudiate the Savior himself. This includes a reorientation of our desires away from the things of this life: it is fitting for us to withdraw our affections from the earth, and with our whole soul aspire to heaven.

The second chief goal is consecration. We are consecrated and dedicated to God, so we should no longer think, speak, plan, or act, except with a view to his glory (III.7.1). This means union with God in will. The only safe haven is to have no other will, no other wisdom, than to follow the Lord wherever he leads. Let the first step, then be to abandon ourselves….The mind, divested of its own carnal feelings, implicitly obeys the call of the Spirit of God.

  • We are not our own, so our actions and counsels should not be ruled by our own reason and will
  • We are not our own, so let us not seek what is pleasant to our carnal nature
  • We are not our own, so let us forget ourselves and the things that are ours, as far as possible
  • We are God’s, so let us live and die to him
  • We are God’s, so let his wisdom and will preside over our actions
  • We are God’s, so let us direct every part of our lives to him

Calvin goes on to say that we have great proficiency when, almost forgetting ourselves, we postpone our own reason and make it our study to obey God and his commandments….This is that self-denial which Christ so strongly enforces on his disciples from the very outset. (Mt. 16:24)

Calvin acknowledges that only God can save us. We don’t labor to save ourselves, but there is much to do because we are saved. We

  • Take up the cross, that is, prepare for a hard, laborious, troubled life full of many and various kinds of evil (III.8)
  • Let whatever trials we face train us to despise the present life and aspire to the future life (III.9)
  • Use the comforts of this life appropriately, avoiding extremes of austerity or intemperance (III.10)

Calvin generally uses the word prayer for a solemn request to God, not in the broader sense of communion with God or desiring God. Taking the word prayer in that broader sense, I take Calvin to be saying that the Christian life is essentially a life of continuous prayer. The Christian ought to be so trained and disposed as to consider, that during his whole life he has to do with God. For this reason, as he will bring all things to the disposal and estimate of God, so he will religiously direct his whole mind to him. For he who has learned to look to God in everything he does, is at the same time diverted from all vain thoughts. This is Paul’s renewal of the mind.

Harry Plantinga

Harry Plantinga is a professor of computer science at Calvin University and the director of ccel.org and hymnary.org.