As I committed to reading through Calvin’s Institutes with a friend, in honour of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017, I thought it would be worth jotting down some bits that I found particularly interesting. Here’s the quote for today:
For man, blinded and drunk with self-love, must be compelled to know and to confess his own feebleness and impurity. If man is not clearly convinced of his own vanity, he is puffed up with insane confidence in his own mental powers, and can never be induced to recognise their slenderness as long as he measures them by a measure of his own choice.
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 2, 7.6
I really like this quote! Just to get you clear on context: Calvin is discussing the law of God and why it’s important for humans to have it. And there’s this quite a harsh tone he brings in here, which is hilarious but on the money!
He’s saying here that people are full of self-love and pride, to the point that they will think they are in the right almost all the time, even if they have broken some rule. But the law given by God actually clears this up, we have an external measuring stick to show our “feebleness and impurity”.
He goes on to say later that “schooled in the law, [man] sloughs off the arrogance that previously blinded him”. It’s true, we are blinded by our own ignorance of the law! But when we learn about the law of God suddenly we can’t claim ignorance any longer.
For example, imagine that you were illegally downloading music and movies because you had no idea that this was classed as stealing and against the law. You might trundle along for years, believing yourself to be someone who has never infringed any law, a perfect citizen! Then one day, someone actually reads you the section of the law pertaining to stealing digital content. Your wall of pride and bravado of perfection would tumble down in an instant, you can no longer deny that you have been in the wrong this whole time! The measuring stick you used to gauge your own moral standing was faulty.
That’s what it’s like when we’re confronted with God’s law. It’s always going to be a humbling thing, as we’re suddenly reminded not only that we are impure but also the massive confidence we have in “being a good person” evaporates immediately. Sure, you might have thought you were a good person when you made up your own standard, but you can’t cling to that anymore.
All I can say is how grateful I am that the story doesn’t end here. That God didn’t just point out our faults with the law and then leave us with an impossible task of keeping it. Because we all know we can’t—the only one who can save us is God himself! Which, if you know the Easter story, is what he did.