Blogging Through the Golden Book: Meditation on the Future Life
Perspective, having the right perspective, is often times the difference between life and death. It was Joseph’s unique perspective that allowed him to look back on all the suffering he endured, all the evil done to him, and be able to conclude it was all meant for good under God’s hand of providence (see Genesis 50:20). Hindsight is twenty-twenty, as the saying goes, and so often we’re able to look back on some event from a new perspective and see something which we couldn’t quite see in the midst of it. This lies at the heart of Paul’s conviction that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” Paul’s perspective was increasingly heavenly oriented as he experienced the sufferings of this fallen world.
For Calvin, this is exactly why God allows present sufferings in the Christian’s life: to reorient our perspective away from this world and more to the world to come. He moves from the pain and suffering of bearing our cross, to now, in Book 3 and chapter 9, what that suffering is intended to produce within the Christian: “contempt for the present life and to be aroused thereby to meditate upon the future life.” Is that language too strong? Should we really hold in contempt all that this world, given as it is by God, offers? Here Calvin brings all the weight of heavenly-minded logic to bear on our thinking. “When it comes to a comparison with the life to come, the present life can not only be safely neglected but, compared to the former, must be utterly despised and loathed. 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?”
Calvin is quite explicit that God will give and use crosses to draw our minds toward glory. Without such thorns our perspective is woefully limited. “Our blockishness arises from the fact that our minds, stunned by the empty dazzlement of riches, power, and honors, become so deadened that they can see no farther… For since God knows best how much we are inclined by nature to a brutish love of this world, he uses the fittest means to draw us back and to shake off our sluggishness, least we cleave too tenaciously to that love.” As David Calhoun understands Calvin here, “Cross-bearing gives the believer an eschatological perspective – it serves to create in us a longing for heaven.”
To be sure, Calvin is not teaching believers to be ungrateful for all the good things the Lord does provide his children in and through this world. There ought not be any “hatred or ingratitude against God. Indeed, this life, however crammed with infinite miseries it may be, is still rightly to be counted among those blessings of God which are not to be spurned.” For Calvin, even the good things of this life ought to direct our hearts heavenward toward the Giver of such gifts. Though Calvin is often seen as overly austere by later historians, the truth of his life was far different. Later in Book 3 Calvin writes that, “we have never been forbidden to laugh, or to be filled, or to delight in musical harmony, or to drink wine.” Indeed, in chapter 10 he says “if we ponder to what end God created food, we shall find that he meant not only to provide for necessity but also for delight and good cheer... For if this were not true, then God would not have told us in Psalm 104 that “wine is given to gladden the heart of man.”
For Calvin, something like drinking the good gift of wine deepens our sense of joy, gratitude, and wonder in a loving Father, but ultimately it exhilarates our minds to say “wow, God, I can’t believe you created this for me to enjoy and through it to enjoy you!” Apparently, Calvin was often paid for many of his preaching appointments with wine; the modern Calvin scholar John T. McNeil estimates that Calvin was given an approximate 250 gallons of wine annually!
The danger arises at the moment the things of this world cease to point our attention and our hope toward glory, and we begin to enjoy this world more than we do God. One of the things One of Calvin’s insights is that more often than not, it is this inordinate and disordered love for this world that lies behind our fear of death. Why? Because we’re afraid to face the judgment that awaits us for loving this world more than we did our Creator! “Those impious ones who have flourished on earth he will cast into utter disgrace; he will turn their delights into tortures, their laughter and mirth into weeping and gnashing of teeth…”
But for the truly heavenly-minded Christian, death is far from something to fear. “Monstrous it is that many who boast themselves Christians are gripped by such a great fear of death, rather than a desire for it, that they tremble at the least mention of it, as of something utterly dire and disastrous… [Rather], if we should think that through death we are recalled from exile to dwell in the fatherland, in the heavenly fatherland, would we get no comfort from this? …For Paul very well teaches that believers eagerly hasten to death not because they want to be unclothed but because they long to be more fully clothed.”
In April 1552, five young Frenchmen, who had just recently gone to meet and learn from the pastoral ministry of John Calvin, were arrested and imprisoned in the Roman Catholic city of Lyon, France. Their crime? Alleged heresy, which meant teaching doctrines contrary to Roman Catholicism. Their time in prison would last for over a year and during that time John Calvin wrote many wonderful letters of encouragement, hoping to keep their spirits up and to show his solidarity with their suffering, and letting them know that he was trying everything he could to get them released. When it became more and more obvious to everyone that these five young men were going to be put to death, martyred by being burned at the stake, the five men wrote one last time to Calvin. This is what they said:
We want you to know that although our body is so confined here between four walls, yet our spirit has never been so free and so confident. We are so far indeed from wishing to regard our affliction as a curse of God as the world and the flesh wish to regard it, that we regard it rather as the greatest blessing that has ever come upon us.
A few weeks later they were burned alive and left this world and entered into the glorious presence of their King, Jesus Christ. These men knew deeply what Paul wrote in Romans 8:18, that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” Oh, may we too live our lives here with that same glorious perspective.
Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC. He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill (Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 3.9.1
 See Sinclair Ferguson in Zeal for Godliness: Devotional Meditations on Calvin’s Institutes, ed. Derek W.H. Thomas and R. Carlton Wynne (EP Books, 2011), p. 138
 Calvin, Institutes, 3.9.4
 Calvin, Institutes, 3.9.1
 David B. Calhoun, Knowing God And Ourselves: Reading Calvin’s Institutes Devotionally (Banner of Truth, 2016), p. 177
 Calvin, Institutes, 3.9.3
 Calvin, Institutes, 3.19.9
 Calvin, Institutes, 3.10.2
 See Gisela H. Kreglinger, The Spirituality of Wine (Eerdmans, 2016), p. 77
 Calvin, Institutes, 3.9.6
 Calvin, Institutes, 3.9.5
 You can read these letters in John Calvin: Tracts and Letters, volume 5: Letters, Part 2, 1545-1553, edited by Jules Bonnet (The Banner of Truth Trust, 2009).