Blogging The Institutes
Excerpts taken from The Institutes of the Christian Religion (1541 Edition) by John Calvin
Translated by Robert White
Chapter 1: The Knowledge of God
The Lord has instilled in everyone some understanding of his majesty, so that all, having learned that there is one God and that he is their Creator, should be condemned by their own testimony because they have failed to honour him and to devote their lives to doing his will.
Just as birds, by instinct, build elaborate nests and even the smallest ants, by nature, construct labyrinthine underground cities, man has an innate understanding that there is a creator who is worthy of all honor and praise. However, unlike the animals, who do just as God has created them to do, the human race, made in the very image and likeness of God, does not give God the glory He is due. How this apparent contradiction exists will be discussed in detail later on in Calvin’s works. For now, it is important to understand that all people know God exists and the conscience is a constant reminder we owe him our whole-hearted allegiance. The problem is we suppress the truth by our unrighteousness (Rom 1:18). Calvin explains the most fundamental way man does this:
Therefore since from the beginning of the world no country, town or even household has managed to do without religion, there we have a tacit admission that in the heart of every human being is stamped a feeling for divinity. Idolatry itself gives abundant proof of this idea. For we know how far man contrives to abase himself, however reluctantly, and how ready he is to honour other creatures in preference to himself. So because he would rather honour wood and stone than be reckoned to have no god at all, we can clearly see how strong is this perception of divine majesty: man can less easily wipe it from his mind than he can deny his own natural inclinations. Deny them he does, when he lays aside his haughty arrogance and willingly humbles himself before the vilest creatures on earth, in order to pay homage.
When you combine man’s rebellious, god-hating orientation with the undeniable sense of the existence of a supreme being we come up with idolatry. John Piper defines idolatry like this:
What is an idol? Well, it is the thing. It is the thing loved or the person loved more than God, wanted more than God, desired more than God, treasured more than God, enjoyed more than God. It could be a girlfriend. It could be good grades. It could be the approval of other people. It could be success in business. It could be sexual stimulation. It could be a hobby or a musical group that you are following or a sport or your immaculate yard.
Calvin argues that the innate knowledge of God is so strong in us that it will even overcome our arrogant self-sufficiency. Yet we spurn the Creator and substitute a more palatable ‘higher power’, a pliable plaything that we throw our heart and devotion toward. In days of old, man carved images of their made-up gods out of wood, stone or metal. In today’s more sophisticated western culture our idols are less graven, yet no less worshiped. They are more benign to moral sensibilities, less visible to the naked eye. Yet our blind devotion is no less real. Idolatry is nothing more than looking to a substitute source of happiness other than God Himself. In the end analysis our gods are only a mental construct to appease our own in-born desire to worship, while at the same time obscuring our obligations to the one true God, who we despise and refuse to acknowledge in our fallen state.
Our need of the redeeming blood of Jesus Christ is greater than we realize!
And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Little children, keep yourselves from idols. (1 Jn 5:20)