Calvin on Christian Sobriety

One of the devotional habits I have practiced over the past few summers is to read slowly, section-by-section, through A Guide to Christian Living. A gift from a friend, this small book is taken from Book 3 of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. The teachings are laid out clearly in short sections. I find these meditations orient heart and life, for Calvin helps the believer see how union with Christ leads to the proper practice of our Christian duties.

I share now a short section on sobriety with you I recently read and, in the battle with my own flesh, keep striving to practice. Calvin is commenting on Titus 2:11-14, where we are told that Christ’s salvation teaches us to cast away “all ungodliness and worldly desires, and thus to live sober, righteous, and holy lives in this world” as we await Christ’s final coming. Note that by speaking of sobriety Calvin does not just mean abstaining from drunkenness, though certainly that would be included. Rather, he means the moderate use of any of God’s gifts to us.

Sobriety designates chastity and moderation, and a pure and disciplined use of God’s gifts, together with patience in a time of poverty…Nothing, however, is harder for us than to abandon reason, master our appetites and indeed totally renounce them, in order to devote ourselves to God and our brethren, and to contemplate, while mired in earth’s slime, the life of the angels. Paul therefore seeks to free our souls from all their bonds by reminding us of the hope of blessed immortality. He declares that we do not have to fight in vain, because Jesus Christ, our Redeemer once and for all, will at his final coming display the fruit of the salvation he has won for us. In this way the apostle weans us from all the seductions which habitually dazzle us, and which prevent us from longing for the glory of heaven. In the meantime, he urges us to walk as pilgrims in this world, so that the inheritance above is not lost to us.

Purposefully thinking each day of living in preparation for Christ’s return, as Paul instructs and Calvin reminds, is a wonderful tonic for shaking off the effects of this world’s intoxicating pleasures.

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