What does the Christian life look like in practice? Will it be easy? Will it be fun? Not according to Calvin:
For whomever the Lord has adopted and deemed worthy of his fellowship ought to prepare themselves for a hard, toilsome, and unquiet life, crammed with very many and various kinds of evil (III.viii.1).
Chapters 6-10 of Book III of Calvin’s Institutes constitute a ‘classic of devotional literature’ (David Calhoun), and have often been published separately.
After introducing the topic in chapter 6, we get to the heart in chapter 7: ‘The Sum of the Christian Life: The Denial of Ourselves’. The Christian life, according to Calvin, is about radical transformation (‘repentance’): putting to death the ‘old man’, and being made newly alive in the Spirit. Here we see the two sides of repentance (cf. 1 Cor 6:19):
We are not our own: let not our reason nor our will, therefore, sway our plans and deeds. We are not our own: let us therefore not set it as our goal to seek what is expedient for us according to the flesh. We are not our own: in so far as we can, let us therefore forget ourselves and all that is ours.
Conversely, we are God’s: let us therefore live for him and die for him. We are God’s: let his wisdom and will therefore rule all our actions. We are God’s: let all the parts of our life accordingly strive toward him as our only lawful goal (III.vii.1).
This self-denial gives us a right attitude to God, and to our fellow human beings (created in the image of God, III.vii.6).
Self-denial also gives us a right attitude to adversity.
I’m not sure Calvin really enjoyed life:
Various diseases repeatedly trouble us: now plague rages; now we are cruelly beset by the calamities of war; now ice and hail, consuming the year’s expectation, lead to barrenness, which reduces us to poverty; wife, parents, children, neighbors, are snatched away by death; our house is burned by fire (III.vii.10).
All of these Calvin places under the heading of ‘Bearing the Cross’, which is the subject of chapter 8. (Is it appropriate to describe ordinary human hardships as ‘bearing the cross’? Or should we reserve that label specifically for suffering as believers?)
Facing hardships in life won’t be easy (no stoicism here), but God uses our afflictions to humble us, to deepen our faith, and to teach us patience and obedience: ‘our afflictions are for our benefit’ (III.xiii.11). (I do wonder whether there should be more space for lament. Should we really accept all afflictions without complaint?)
The other side of the coin is in chapter 9: ‘Meditation on the Future Life’. Calvin’s frankness about the hardships of life is a helpful corrective to people (such as myself) who have quite a comfortable life, but I think he takes things a bit far:
Let the aim of believers in judging mortal life, then, be that while they understand it to be of itself nothing but misery, they may with greater eagerness and dispatch betake themselves wholly to meditate upon that eternal life to come. … For, if heaven is our homeland, what else is the earth but our place of exile? If departure from the world is entry into life, what else is the world but a sepulcher? And what else is it for us to remain in life but to be immersed in death? If to be freed from the body is to be released into perfect freedom, what else is the body but a prison? (III.ix.4)
Calvin makes it clear that our life on earth is not to be hated but should be received with gratitude (III.ix.3). But what about our hope of resurrection, and of an eternal future, not in heaven, but on the renewed earth? (We might eventually reach the chapter on resurrection, at the end of Book III.)
Finally, how should we use the things of the world? Chapter 10 is refreshingly balanced: we should enjoy the good things in life, but in moderation. For example, God created food ‘not only to provide for necessity but also for delight and good cheer’ (III.x.2). And we should use our earthly things responsibly, knowing that ‘we must one day render account of them’ (III.x.5).