“And I will make them and the places all around my hill a blessing, and I will send down the showers in their season; they shall be showers of blessing.”-Ezekiel 34:26
Institutes: Book 3. Chapter 7. Section 8, Part b
“In order not to be caught in such snares [see post #15], godly men must hold to this path. First of all, let them neither desire nor hope for, nor contemplate, any other way of prospering than by the Lord’s blessing. Upon this, then, let them safely and confidently throw themselves and rest. For however beautifully the flesh may seem to suffice unto itself, while it either strives by its own effort for honors and riches or relies upon its diligence, or is aided by the favor or men, yet it is certain that all these things are nothing; nor will we benefit at all, either by skill or by labor, except in so far as the Lord prospers them both.” (3.7.8b)
Has Calvin been teaching us to be legalistic with all this emphasis on self-denial? First, self-denial and legalism are not synonymous terms. To practice self-denial is not to be legalistic. Most of the time when I equate self-denial and legalism, I am usually (unknowingly at the time) providing justification/rationalization for failing to practice my spiritual disciplines, namely, Bible reading, prayer, sacraments, etc. So, I redefine important biblical words and concepts to suit my selfish needs. Second, when the Institutes are considered in their entirety, it is clear that Calvin understands the harmful effects of legalism, properly defined. And that legalism is different than self-denial. Third, when we reflect upon today’s quotation, we notice he places great emphasis upon not thinking we will prosper because of our efforts. However legalism is defined, it at least includes the notion of prospering somehow by our effort. Instead, Calvin holds that we will receive prosperity or blessing if the Lord freely chooses to give it. (It is true that Calvin is not speaking narrowly here about spiritual disciplines per se, but I think it’s a warranted assumption to think he would say the same about those things as well.)
Is it not so difficult at times to remain ‘on the path’? I have found this to be especially true in my life when I’m really busy, stressed, fatigued, and when the battle with temptation is unusually intense. “I am prone to wonder, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.” Others are a great blessing to me during those times. Self-denial involves others. Who do we have in our lives that can help us with the practice of denying self?
God can keep the wandering Christian from straying too far and he can draw the non-Christian to himself and to his path of salvation. What is God doing in your life?