Blogging the Institutes
Excerpts taken from Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin
Translation by Robert White
Chapter 1: The Knowledge of God
It is easy indeed to see how, the victim of its own empty illusions, superstition mocks God whenever it tries to please him. It only fastens on the things which God expressly says mean nothing to him. It ignores those which he has commanded and which he has said are acceptable to him; or else it openly rejects them. Therefore all who, wishing to honour God, set up religions of their own devising, are merely worshiping their own fantasies. For they would never have ventured to trifle with God if they had not first fashioned him according to their whims.
Superstitious worship is the first of two great evils Calvin identifies in the realm of professing Christianity. Superstition is an irrational belief usually founded on ignorance or fear and characterized by obsessive reverence for omens, charms, etc. People will focus on the dice rolls of fate, accompanied by serendipitous trinkets, prophetic words and meaningless rituals. They believe these things will increase their chances at good fortune and a favorable countenance from the god of their fevered imaginations. Such a nebulous, hopeless ploy at finding comfort and approval in falsehood is the height of human folly. God is not pleased by our cleverly devised fables.
Hebrews 11:6 tells us that only faith pleases God. A devoted trust to His promises of redemption and eternal life through Christ is the only religious act of worship that accounts for anything. Trust God to give us everything we need for everlasting peace and joy and cast all idols and idolatrous worship aside.
The second error which men commit is that they think about God only reluctantly, when necessity compels them. They are not moved by fear born of reverence for his majesty, but only by dread of his judgment, which fills them with terror because they cannot escape it.
So in order not to appear utterly contemptuous of his majesty, they observe some form of religion such as it is. Yet all the while they persist in defiling themselves with all kinds of vice and in heaping one sin upon another, until they have wholly transgressed the Lord’s holy law and put his righteousness to flight.
This quote hits home for me, personally. Anybody who reads this blog probably knows about the time in high school I read one of those Chick tracts and became obsessed with God’s dreadful judgment and subsequent punishment of sinners. It lead to a temporary, yet intense period of church attendance, public confession, baptismal dunking and a false sense of eternal security. All the fear and false reverence for God ended almost as soon as I pocketed my fire insurance card. I fabricated my own ideas of who God is and worshiped him for awhile. He loved me just the way I was and lauded my desires and ambitions.
I refused to confront the hard truth that I had defiled myself, heaped a huge mountain of sin to my account and put God’s righteousness to flight. The very tribunal I feared the most had set itself up against me. My blindness made me oblivious.
And so it is with many of us who have had a only a casual encounter with religion in our lives.
Dead men make poor disciples. We need an infusion of spiritual life to turn lifeless orthodoxy into a living faith.
But God, who is rich in mercy, with the great love in which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved (Eph 2:4).
There was a most fitting quote in my daily reading today. I was reading Calvin’s Commentary on Amos 5:8, and he said, “We know how heedlessly hypocrites trifle with God, as though they had to do with a child: for they imagine a god according to their own fancy; they even transform him whenever they please, and think him to be delighted with frivolous trifles. Hence it is, that the way of pacifying God is with them so easy. When in various ways they provoke God’s wrath, there is in readiness some little expiation, and they think that it is a satisfaction to God.”
Calvin is certainly consistent in his writings!