...Until We Contemplate The Face of God
At the very outset of his magnum opus, the Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin famously explained that no man can come to a true knowledge of himself if he does not first "contemplate the face of God." He wrote:
Man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he have previously contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into himself. For (such is our innate pride) we always seem to ourselves just, and upright, and wise, and holy, until we are convinced, by clear evidence, of our injustice, vileness, folly, and impurity. Convinced, however, we are not, if we look to ourselves only, and not to the Lord also--He being the only standard by the application of which this conviction can be produced. For, since we are all naturally prone to hypocrisy, any empty semblance of righteousness is quite enough to satisfy us instead of righteousness itself. And since nothing appears within us or around us that is not tainted with very great impurity, so long as we keep our mind within the confines of human pollution, anything which is in some small degree less defiled delights us as if it were most pure just as an eye, to which nothing but black had been previously presented, deems an object of a whitish, or even of a brownish hue, to be perfectly white.
While theologians have made frequent appeal to this statement (both for its profound truthfulness, as well as for its place at the opening of one of the greatest writings in all of church history), it is a truth that held a place of primacy to Calvin in his preaching.
David Steinmetz explained how the Genevan Library, in 1805, made the enormous mistake of selling 45 of the 48 extant manuscripts of Calvin's sermons; and, when they realized what they had done could only recover 35 volumes--roughly 1,460 remaining texts of the 2,304 sermons that were transcribed by Denis Raguenier. Thankfully, his sermons on Genesis 1-20 are among those recovered by the Library. This past year, I turned to Calvin's on Genesis (vol. 1 and vol. 2) as I've worked through my own sermon series on Genesis at New Covenant. One of the things you discover from reading Calvin's sermons is that while there is a wealth of material in his Commentary, there is an gold mine for the life of faith in his sermons. While his sermons on Genesis, on the whole, lack a consistent redemptive-historical and Christological element (as is true of many of his Old Testament sermons) they are nevertheless full of valuable exposition and application. Quite a number of scholars have noted that Calvin's application of Scripture was found in his exposition of the text and that his exposition of the text was found in his applications--the two being, as it were, imperceptibly tied together. The truths conveyed at the beginning of the Institutes find their way into almost every sermon he preached--namely, discovering the sinfulness of man in light of the glory, majesty and holiness of God.
While Calvin weaved, into almost every sermon that he preached, the principle truth that "man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he have previously contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into himself," he did so in a exemplaristic manner in his sermon on Abraham pleading with God for the salvation of Sodom. There, Calvin said:
The more Abraham approaches God, the more he is led to humble himself. Why do men, making themselves believe they are wonderful, take pride in their worth or their godly lives, or you name it? And there are even many, even a majority, so foolish and mindless that they find grounds for boasting of their wealth, their heritage, their good reputation and dignity. What is the reason for all that? It is because they do not draw near to God and give Him any consideration. For as long as we remain here below in this life and have our affection attached to things created, those things dazzle us because we find in ourselves something to esteem and we always have some foolish notion of ourselves. But when we come to God, at that moment everything vanishes.
That, then, is good and useful information if we know how to use it to our advantage. For it is when we are tempted by vainglory and ambition to boost our reputation that, in order to erase everything, to correct it and destroy it, we say: 'Alas, and when I appear before my God, how will I be able to stand there? His majesty causes the mountains to flow as if they were only snow or butter; it splits the rocks asunder (Nahum 1:6). And how can it cast me into the abyss a hundred thousand times when I am there before Him? What constancy is there within me? What worth?' That, I say, is what can reduce a man to strict humility to bring himself to obedience to God so that he does not deceive himself by arrogance. And that is when he will know that God is at work within him. For, as I said, it is at that time they will be stripped of everything they might conjure up to exalt and magnify themselves. That, then, is what happened to Abraham.
In fact, that is also why Isaiah says the angels of paradise hide their faces when they are in God's presence because they cannot bear His majesty, which would dazzle them (cf. Isaiah 6:2). If the angels of paradise are brought to that understanding, what must that mean for us by comparison? For we must always return to the realization that we are but dust and ashes (cf. Gen. 18:27). All the more must we practice that teaching, for it is the main point of our wisdom. We are to ponder the kind of people we are so we will scorn ourselves.
It is true that we are told hold in high regard the gifts of God which are conferred on us so we will give Him the praise He deserves; but it is not a matter of our keeping back a smidgen of it to say that we are to be esteemed. For the very good things that God confers upon us will make us more confused because we abuse them. But after we are reduced to nothing, after we attribute to Him everything without depriving Him of His right, and after we confess His power, it is certain that power will support and sustain us. For God abases us, not to abandon us, but to life us up to Himself so that we will know that He alone is all powerful. For when we confess God's power and righteousness, they will be like intellectual concepts to us unless we are first stripped of any righteousness we think we have in ourselves. The same is true of our reason and wisdom so long as we choose to give too much competencies and usurp for ourselves a part of God's honor. So we must rid ourselves of that and be enlightened by God's wisdom. And, being blind, we will see much more clearly than when we think we understand what surpasses our understanding.2
In a day when self-promotion is at its height with the accessibility of social media and platforms, when we can all subtly and imperceptibly slide into a mode of drawing attention to our gifts and supposed abilities, it would do us a world of good to come to a place where we recognize what Calvin says in the Institutes and in his sermons about man's sinfulness seen in the light of God's majesty and glory. As we do so, we will find that we, like Abraham, will long to draw near to God even as we humble ourselves in the dust before Him.
1. John Calvin Institutes of the Christian Religion
2. John Calvin Sermons on Genesis (ch. 11-20) (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2012) pp. 713-715