John Calvin’s Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life
is not a book in and of itself, but rather an excerpt of the second edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion
(1539). Instead of reflecting on otherworldliness, Golden Booklet
focuses on the importance of living today as an active and devoted Christian. The selection that follows comes from Chapter 5, “The Right Use of the Present Life.”
Just as Scripture points us to heaven as our goal, so it fully instructs us in the right use of earthly blessings, and this ought not to be overlooked in a discussion of the rules of life.
[A]s we run the danger of falling into two opposite errors, let us try to proceed on safe ground, so that we may avoid both extremes. For there have been some people, otherwise good and holy, who saw that intemperance and luxury time and again drive man to throw off all restraints unless he is curbed by the utmost severity. And in their desire to correct such a pernicious evil, they have adopted the only method that they saw fit, namely to permit earthly blessings only insofar as they were an absolute necessity. This advice showed the best of intentions but was far too rigid. For they committed the dangerous error of imposing on the conscience of others stricter rules than those laid down in the Word by the Lord.
On the other hand, there are many nowadays who seek a pretext to excuse intemperance in the use of external things, and who desire to indulge the lusts of the flesh. Such people take for granted that liberty should not be restricted by any limitations at all; but to this we can never agree. They clamor that it ought to be left to the conscience of every individual to use as much as he thinks fit for himself.
We must grant, indeed, that it is not right or possible to bind the consciences of others with hard and fast rules. But since Scripture lays down some general principles for the lawful use of earthly things, we certainly ought to follow them in our conduct (1 Cor. 7:30-31).
Earthly Things Are Gifts of God
The first principle we should consider is that the use of gifts of God cannot be wrong, if they are directed to the same purpose for which the Creator himself has created and destined them. For he has made the earthly blessings for our benefit, and not for our harm. No one, therefore, will observe a more proper rule than he who will faithfully observe this purpose.
If we study, for instance, why he has created the various kinds of food, we shall find that it was his intention not only to provide for our needs, but likewise for our pleasure and for our delight. If this were not true, the psalmist would not enumerate among the divine blessings “the wine that makes glad the heart of man, and the oil that makes his face to shine” (Ps. 104:15).
Even natural properties of things sufficiently point out to what purpose and to what extent we are allowed to use them. Should the Lord have attracted our eyes to the beauty of the flowers and our sense of smell to pleasant odors, and should it then be sin to drink them in? Has he not even made the colors so that the one is more wonderful than the other? In one word, has he not made many things worthy of our attention that go far beyond our needs (Ps. 104:15)?
True Gratitude Will Restrain Us from Abuse
Let us discard, therefore, that inhuman philosophy that would allow us no use of creation unless it is absolutely necessary. Such a malignant notion deprives us of the lawful enjoyment of God’s kindness. And it is impossible actually to accept it, until we are robbed of all our senses and reduced to a senseless block.
On the other hand, we must with equal zeal fight the lusts of the flesh, for if they are not firmly restrained, they will transgress every bound. As we have observed, licentiousness has its advocates: there are people who under the pretext of liberty will stop short of nothing.
First of all, if we want to curb our passions we must remember that all things are made for us, with the purpose that we may know and acknowledge their Author. We should praise his kindness toward us in earthly matters by giving him thanks. But what will become of our thanksgiving if we indulge in [his gifts] in such a way that we are too dull to carry out the duties of devotion or of our business?
For many so madly pursue pleasure that their minds become enslaved to it. Therefore, it is clear, that the principle gratitude should curb our desire to abuse the divine blessings. This principle confirms the rule of Paul, that we may “not make provision for the flesh to fulfill its lusts.” For if we give our natural desires free rein, they will pass all the bounds of temperance and moderation (Rom. 13:14).
Be Faithful in Your Divine Calling
Finally we should note that the Lord commands every one of us in all the actions of our life to be faithful to our calling. For he knows that the human mind burns with restlessness, that it is swept easily hither and thither, and that its ambition to embrace many things at once is insatiable. Therefore, to prevent that general confusion being produced by our folly and boldness, he has appointed to everyone his particular duties in the different spheres of life. And, that no one might rashly go beyond his limits, he has called such spheres of life vocations, or callings. Every individual’s sphere of life, therefore, is a post assigned him by the Lord.
Our present life, therefore, will be best regulated if we always keep our calling in mind. No one will then be tempted by his own boldness to dare to undertake what is not compatible with his calling, because he will know that it is wrong to go beyond his limits. Anyone who is not in the front ranks should be content to accomplish his private task, and should not desert the place where the Lord has put him. It will be no small comfort for his cares, labors, troubles, and other burdens, when a man knows that in all these matters God is his guide.
The magistrate will then carry out his office with greater willingness. The father of a family will then perform his duties with more courage. And everyone in his respective sphere of life will show more patience, and will overcome the difficulties, cares, miseries, and anxieties in his path, when he will be convinced that every individual has his task laid upon his shoulders by God. If we follow our divine calling, we shall receive this unique consolation that there is no work so mean and so sordid that does not look truly respectable and highly important in the sight of God (Gen. 1:28; Col. 1:1ff).