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Enjoying God Blog


We’ve come to the third practical effect, cited by John Calvin, of meditating on the glory and beauty of heaven.

Third, thinking often of heaven and the age to come not only enables us to hold onto this life loosely, but also helps us to respond properly to the death of others and to be prepared for our own departure. Keep reading...

We’ve come to the third practical effect, cited by John Calvin, of meditating on the glory and beauty of heaven.

Third, thinking often of heaven and the age to come not only enables us to hold onto this life loosely, but also helps us to respond properly to the death of others and to be prepared for our own departure.

We need to begin with the clear understanding that as much as Calvin spoke of longing for death, he never despised life. He regarded it as an indescribably immense blessing from God. One need only observe how incredibly productive he was during his short time on earth.

But what of our Lord’s statement in John 12:25ff. that we are to “hate” “life in this world” (v. 25)? Jesus does not mean, says Calvin, that we are “absolutely to hate life, which is justly reckoned to be one of the highest of God’s blessings” (Commentary on the Gospel According to John, 29). Rather we should “cheerfully” lay it down when it “retards” us from coming to Christ (ibid.). In other words, “to love this life is not in itself wrong, provided that we only pass through it as pilgrims, keeping our eyes always fixed on our object” (ibid.). We “hate” this life only to the extent that it “retards” or inhibits or detracts from our intimacy with Jesus. Jesus thus speaks of hating this life “to strike terror into those who are too desirous of the earthly life; for if we are overwhelmed by the love of the world, so that we cannot easily forget it, it is impossible for us to go to heaven” (ibid., 30).

We must also reckon with the pointed and sometimes painful way in which Calvin spoke of how God uses trials and sufferings and tragedies in this life to wean us from excessive dependence upon the present and to turn our attention to heaven. Indeed, “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” (Institutes, Book III, chapter ix. 1).

Why do we not aspire more passionately to the heavenly life? “Now our blockishness arises from the fact that our minds, stunned by the empty dazzlement of riches, power, and honors, become so deadened that they can see no farther” (ibid.). And thus “to counter this evil the Lord instructs his followers in the vanity of the present life by continual proof of its miseries” (ibid.).

Here Calvin’s robust belief in the absolute sovereignty of God over all of life permeates his thought. Lest we be seduced by “peace” God permits wars and robbery and other “injuries” (ibid.). Lest we be seduced by riches he sometimes “reduces them to poverty, or at least confines them to a moderate station” (ibid.). Lest we become complacent in the benefits of marriage God “either causes them to be troubled by the depravity of their wives or humbles them by evil offspring, or afflicts them with bereavement” (ibid.). We conclude from this “that in this life we are to seek and hope for nothing but struggle; when we think of our crown, we are to raise our eyes to heaven. 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 the present life” (ibid.).

When Calvin speaks, as often he does, about this life as one that should be “despised and trampled under foot” (Institutes, Book III, chapter ix. 4), it is only the result of having compared it with the heavenly life to come. We only hate this present life “in so far as it holds us subject to sin” (ibid.). There should be no “murmuring and impatience” (ibid.) should God choose to leave us here for a while.

Calvin reserved some of his most pointed observations on death and our attitude toward it in his commentary on 2 Corinthians 5. The wicked and unbelieving cling to life and view death with horror. “The groaning of believers, on the other hand, arises from this – that they know, that they are here in a state of exile from their native land, and that they know, that they are here shut up in the body as in a prison. Hence they feel this life to be a burden, because in it they cannot enjoy true and perfect blessedness, because they cannot escape from the bondage of sin otherwise than by death, and hence they aspire to be elsewhere” (Commentary on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, 218-19).

There is nothing sinfully morbid in longing for death, says Calvin, because “believers do not desire death for the sake of losing any thing, but as having regard to a better life” (ibid., 219). The way we overcome the natural fear of death is by thinking of it as the discarding of a “coarse”, “dirty”, “tattered” garment, all with a view toward “being arrayed in an elegant, handsome, new, and durable one” (ibid.). Christians should not break down “under the severity of the cross” or be “disheartened by afflictions,” says Calvin. In fact, such experiences ought to make us even more courageous. We “long” for death, not from a perverse desire for pain but because it is “the commencement of perfect blessedness” (ibid., 222). And again:

“For nothing is better than to quit the body, that we may attain near intercourse with God, and may truly and openly enjoy his presence. Hence by the decay of the body we lose nothing that belongs to us.

Observe here – what has been once stated already – that true faith begets not merely a contempt of death, but even a desire for it, and that it is, accordingly, on the other hand, a token of unbelief, when dread of death predominates in us above the joy and consolation of hope” (ibid.).

Calvin speaks very boldly on this point, arguing that one of the clearest indications of a false faith is the lingering fear of death:

“In the mean time, believers do not cease to regard death with horror, but when they turn their eyes to that life which follows death, they easily overcome all dread by means of that consolation. Unquestionably, every one that believes in Christ ought to be so courageous as to lift up his head on mention being made of death, delighted to have intimation of his redemption (Luke xxi.28). From this we see how many are Christians only in name, since the greater part, on hearing mention made of death, are not merely alarmed, but are rendered almost lifeless through fear, as though they had never heard a single word respecting Christ” (Commentaries on The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to The Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians, 43-44).

Fixing our eyes on heaven helps us overcome the fear of death by producing hope.

“There is, however, an implied contrast between the present condition in which believers labour and groan, and that final restoration. For they are now exposed to the reproaches of the world, and are looked upon as vile and worthless; but then they will be precious, and full of dignity, when Christ will pour forth his glory upon them. The end of this is, that the pious may as it were, with closed eyes, pursue the brief journey of this earthly life, having their minds always intent upon the future manifestation of Christ’s kingdom. For to what purpose does he make mention of His coming in power, but in order that they may in hope leap forward to that blessed resurrection which is as yet hid?” (ibid., 319).

As noted earlier, a proper perspective on the certainty of resurrection and the beauty of heaven will keep us from excessively mourning the death of other believers. This was Paul’s point in 1 Thessalonians 4:13 where he warned us against grieving “as do others who have no hope.” We must not “bewail the dead beyond due bounds,” said Calvin, “inasmuch as we are all to be raised up again” (ibid. 279). It is unbecoming for a Christian “to mourn otherwise than in moderation” (ibid.). Indeed, it is “the knowledge of a resurrection,” says Calvin, that serves as “the means of moderating grief” (ibid.). Calvin isn’t recommending Stoical indifference toward the reality of death and the departure of our loved ones. It is “one thing to bridle our grief, that it may be subject to God, and quite another thing to harden one’s self so as to be like stones, by casting away human feelings. Let, therefore, the grief of the pious be mixed with consolation, which may train them to patience. The hope of a blessed resurrection, which is the mother of patience, will effect this” (ibid., 280).

In any case, since we both live and die unto the Lord, let it be in such a way that we “burn with the zeal for death and be constant in meditation” (Institutes, Book III, chapter ix. 4). It is in fact “monstrous” (Institutes, Book III, chapter ix. 5) that Christians should ever be gripped by a fear of death. Indeed, “let us . . . consider this settled: that no one has made progress in the school of Christ who does not joyfully await the day of death and final resurrection” (Institutes, Book III, chapter ix. 5).

To be continued . . .

1 Comment

In one sense, death is simply that moment in time when God decides that we are more useful to Him in heaven than we are on this earth.

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