How to be both "heavenly minded" and of "earthly good"2
Unlike Jonathan Edwards, John Calvin did not make an effort to provide us with an extended or detailed description of the beauty of heaven and all that awaits the believer. He did, however, speak of the eternal happiness of the final resurrection and heaven as “a happiness of whose excellence the minutest part would scarce be told if all were said that the tongues of all men can say. For though we very truly hear that the Kingdom of God will be filled with splendor, joy, happiness, and glory, yet when these things are spoken of, they remain utterly remote from our perception, and, as it were, wrapped in obscurities, until that day comes when he will reveal to us his glory, that we may behold it face to face” (Institutes, Book III, chapter xxv. 10).
Although there is nothing in Calvin’s writings comparable to Edwards’ Heaven, A World of Love. Calvin did speak, write, and preach often of the way in which the reality and certainty of heaven affects and empowers us now. For Calvin, as much as for anyone I’ve ever encountered or read, the certainty of the future impinges upon and invades the circumstances of the present.
I think it will be encouraging to consider what Calvin had to say on the practical benefits of meditating on heaven or the manifold ways in which being “heavenly minded” is the pathway to becoming of profound “earthly good.” Our focus will be 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 and Calvin’s observations on this remarkable text.
Paul’s comments in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 have in view the experience he described in vv. 8-12, one that entails affliction, perplexity, persecution, and being struck down. What that meant for Paul and his ministry in Corinth might not be the same for you and me, but all of us, including Calvin, perhaps especially Calvin, face disappointment and suffering that threaten us with discouragement. So how does one not “lose heart,” to use Paul’s very words? Where does one find the power to persevere? Here is what he said:
“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:16-18).
The outer nature in v. 16 is not a reference to the old man of Romans 6:6 (or Col. 3:9 or Eph. 4:22). The old man refers to the moral or ethical dimension of our fallen, unregenerate nature. Outer nature, on the other hand, refers to our bodily frame, our physical constitution, our creaturely mortality, the “jar of clay” or "earthen vessel" of 2 Corinthians 4:7. Thus, the "decaying" or "wasting away" of our "outer nature" is most likely a reference once more to the hardships of vv. 8-9 and our carrying about in our bodies the dying of Jesus of v. 10 and our being handed over to death of v. 11 and the death that is at work in us of v. 12. The "renewal" of the "inner nature", therefore, is probably synonymous with what Paul earlier said in 3:18 when he declared that “we are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” By the “outward man” Calvin believes that Paul intends “everything that relates to the present life,” such as “riches, honours, friendships, and other resources” as well as the physical body. Our outward man is being corrupted anytime we “suffer a diminution or loss of these blessings” (Calvin, Commentary on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, 211).
As you might expect from Calvin, he argues that because we are “too much taken up with the present life” (ibid), it is God himself who is responsible for this “wasting away” of the outer man. By orchestrating our lives in this way, God “calls us back to meditate on a better life” (ibid). It is, therefore, “necessary,” said Calvin, not fortuitous or simply bad luck, but “necessary” by God’s design “that the condition of the present life should decay” (ibid.). It is necessary, says Calvin, “in order that the inward man may be in a flourishing state; because, in proportion as the earthly life declines, does the heavenly life advance, at least in believers” (ibid.).
What does that tell us about our response to hardship and affliction and deprivation and suffering? If Calvin is right in his interpretation of Paul, and I think he is, it tells us that if we want our “heavenly life” to advance and to be as glorious and deeply satisfying as it possibly can be it is necessary that our “earthly life declines.”
Paul explains this in greater detail in v. 17. There he says, in utterly stunning terms, that the persecution he endures and the trials he confronts daily are but “slight momentary affliction”! Paul was no Pollyanna. The suffering in his life was very real, not imaginary, and if viewed only from an earthly or temporal perspective would probably be more than any human might endure. But when viewed through the eye of faith and from the vantage point of eternity, a new perspective is attained and suffering is seen in an altogether different light.
Note carefully the contrasts in view: “momentary” is contrasted with “eternal,” “slight” is set over against “weight,” and “affliction” is counterbalanced by “glory”. Similar language is used by Paul in Romans 8:18. There he says that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” Calvin was quick to point out that since we can only see the outward decay but not the inward renovation, “Paul, with the view of shaking us off from a carnal attachment to the present life, draws a comparison between present miseries and future felicity” (ibid., 212). Because we so naturally tend to recoil from suffering and loss of comfort, “Paul on that account admonishes us, that the afflictions and vexations of the pious have little or nothing of bitterness, if compared with the boundless blessings of everlasting glory” (ibid). The apostle, therefore, “prescribes the best antidote against your sinking down under the pressure of afflictions, when he places in opposition to them that future blessedness which is laid up for thee in heaven (Col. 1:5)” (ibid.).
What Calvin called “the common miseries of mankind” are, he says, “a blessing from God” because they prepare us “for a blessed resurrection” (ibid., 213). And the only way to endure and profit from such miseries is “if we carry forward our thoughts to the eternity of the heavenly kingdom” (ibid., 214). God is not asking us to treat pain as though it were pleasure, or grief as though it were joy, but to bring all earthly adversity into comparison with heavenly glory and thereby be strengthened to endure. It’s encouraging to know that whatever suffering we might endure now, in this age characterized by pain and injustice, cannot overturn or undermine the purposes of God!
But note well. This inner transformation in the midst of outer decay does not happen automatically. Carefully observe the relation between v. 16 and v. 18. The renewal Paul describes (v. 16) only occurs while or to the extent that “we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (v. 18). As we fix the gaze of our hearts on the glorious hope of the age to come, God progressively renews our inner being, notwithstanding the simultaneous decay of our outer being!
Note also that this is no fleeting or casual glance or occasional thought concerning the “glory” of the age to come. The apostle has in mind a fixity of gaze, an attentive and studious concentration on the inestimable blessings of heaven. The contrast between “the things that are seen” and “the things that are unseen” has in view the distinction between the present age and all that is temporal and subject to sin and decay, as over against the unchanging righteousness and incorruptible reality of the age to come.
We must never use this passage to justify a careless, indifferent, or neglectful disregard for the daily responsibilities of life in the present day. Paul is simply warning us against a carnal fixation on what this world system can provide and calling us to set our hope and confidence on the eternal values of God’s kingdom. Here, then, is the power to persevere: by setting your mind and fixing your gaze and focusing your heart on the unseen yet eternal realities of what God has secured for you in Christ.
So how does this actually work in daily experience? If we follow Paul’s counsel, what difference does it make now, amidst the struggles and disappointments and pain of earthly life? Here is where Calvin is so immensely helpful. He is a remarkably competent guide for us as we think of the final resurrection and heaven. Starting with the next article we’ll look at four practical benefits identified by Calvin that come to us from looking “not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen.”
To be continued . . .
[This and the subsequent articles have been adapted from my chapter, “Living with One Foot Raised: Calvin on the Glory of the Final Resurrection and Heaven,” in With Calvin in the Theater of God: The Glory of Christ and Everyday Life, edited by John Piper & David Mathis (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), pp. 111-32.]