Nuggets in a Golden Booklet

Surely one of life’s greatest pleasures is a worthwhile volume that fits in a coat pocket. John Calvin’s so–called Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life qualifies as a most worthwhile volume, though the fit in the pocket is, in its most recent printing at least, snug.[1] A devotional classic to be placed alongside (but not in place of) Augustine’s Confessions and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, the Booklet is not in fact a book in its own right but an extract from Calvin’s famous Institutes of the Christian Religion. It comes not from the first (1536) but the second (1539) edition of that great work. From the second to the fourth editions of the Institutes, it served as the last chapter, “De Vita Christiana” (On the Christian Life). Calvin kept the material in the last two editions of the Institutes but divided it into five parts and placed it in Book Three as chapters 6–10 inclusive.

The Golden Booklet is written simply, elegantly, and vigorously as the best spiritual literature ordinarily is. But unlike so many comparable efforts in the history of the Church, this is no collection of silky musings on the gentle beauty of the religious or contemplative life. Here the language is punchy, brisk, and perhaps for this reason at times a bit overreaching: “always,” “only,” “never,” “no one” and “anyone” are found in connection with nearly every point made. “You cannot imagine a more certain rule or more powerful suggestion than this…” (p. 35) is a surprisingly common note that Calvin sounds in a volume made up almost entirely of quotable lines.

The openings words set the tone for what follows, which is a moving, often picturesque exploration of the Christian life: “The goal of the new life is that God’s children exhibit melody and harmony in their conduct. What melody? The song of God’s justice. What harmony? The harmony between God’s righteousness and our obedience” (15). Calvin’s Booklet unfolds not only the theological features of the “new life” but also the many motivations for its pursuit. Motivation to holiness, in fact, is at the heart of his interest here. With notable frequency, Calvin appeals to the motivating effect of honest contemplation of God’s holiness and love, Christ’s obedience and sacrifice, and the Spirit’s gracious ministry.

Calvin’s scope of interest in this material is rather narrow. He is more concerned with capturing the ethos of the Christian pilgrimage then identifying every pebble on the path. It is his ability to capture that ethos so poignantly, so honestly, that makes the Booklet not only intriguing and memorable but rich and edifying. The first of five chapters discusses the imitation of Christ and the need for personal holiness. Calvin’s strong insistence on the necessity of progress in the spiritual life is established early on, yet it is commended in biblical, paradoxical form: we must strive incessantly at nothing less than the ethical perfection to which we have been called, yet the way to such glory begins with abject humility (23).

The second chapter assumes that Christians belong to the Lord and develops the other side of this truth: if indeed we belong to him, then we are not ours and we must endeavor to deny ourselves. Self–denial belongs to the wider category of humiliation and suffering. Interestingly, while Calvin has a clear eye to the vertical dimension (man in relation to God), it is the horizontal (man in relation to himself and his fellow man) that occupies most of his attention here. The Christian is obliged to treat others with due respect and charity. He is not free to pursue his own good without regard for the effects of such a pursuit on his neighbor. This is true humility. At the heart of such a disposition, however, is a revolutionary concept of true happiness: in stunning contrast to the ways and assumptions of the evil age through which the Christian wanders, he finds happiness in God’s blessing rather than riches or honor.

The third chapter raises the stakes considerably by tying the call to self–denial more explicitly to cross–bearing. The cross makes us what we are not by nature but are becoming by grace: humble, obedient, disciplined, and penitent. Many suffer the cross in the form of great persecution, but most do not. Calvin calls us away from resisting the cross and insists on the necessity of this sanctifying work for our salvation. Thus cross–bearing is not merely suffering that must be endured patiently. It is nothing less than beneficial to us in terms of salvation. It is our union with Christ bearing its saving fruit in Christ–likeness (66).

The fourth chapter lifts our eyes from the thick darkness of cross–bearing to the simultaneous reality of resurrection life. Calvin here summons believers to heavenly mindedness. It is critical to appreciate the order, for the call to heavenly mindedness presupposes the realities of bearing the cross of Christ. For this reason Calvin opens this chapter with the reminder that we do not enjoy the crown without the cross. From here he proceeds to explain how the believer may live in a heavenly rather than earthly mode: think little of life here and much of life there, in fellowship with God and his saints. Nothing belonging to the present life is excepted: health, safety, even marriage and family must be relativized by the glories yet to be revealed. Indeed, the troubles we experience even in the midst of the highest earthly blessings are often purposed by God precisely to remind us not to be distracted by them from our heavenly inheritance. Such an orientation to the present life prepares one for death, which becomes an event of believing confidence rather than faithless fear.

The final, fifth chapter completes the thought of the present life with an encouragement to gratitude, moderation, patience, and faithfulness.

The material that became Calvin’s Golden Booklet has its origins in the years 1537–1540, the period in which Calvin labored intensively to complete two publications that lay at the heart of his work from that day forward: the second, critically important edition of his Institutes (1539) and the first edition of his commentary on Romans (1540). These two texts exist in symbiotic relationship, and one area where this is most evident is in comparing Calvin’s comments on Romans 6 and 8 with the new Institutes material on the Christian life, the material that we now call Calvin’s Golden Booklet.

Having Calvin’s Romans at hand, one discovers why this Booklet breathes the air of the ordinary and mundane, not the spectacular and dramatic. Certainly the extraordinary suffering endured by some Christians belongs to the picture Calvin paints, but they are heightened examples of what is common to all men. How so?

At the center of Calvin’s teaching on the Christian life is the Christ of history. For Calvin, in our union with Christ it is crucial that we understand we are united to this Christ. There is none other than this historical Christ, and by the ministry of his Spirit our union with him reflects his story: first humiliation, suffering, obedience; then glory and eternal life. Thus, the various dynamics of every Christian’s life are situated in this arena of Christ’s own movement from cross to resurrection. Perhaps this is clearest in Calvin’s work when he comments on Romans 8:17. Paul teaches that we are children of God, “and if children, then heirs–heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (ESV). Calvin gives full weight to the clearly conditional language of the Apostle here and explains, “Paul made this mention of Christ, because he intended to pass on to this exhortation by these steps: ‘The inheritance of God is ours, because we have been adopted by His grace as His sons. To remove any doubt, the possession of it has already been conferred on Christ, with whom we are made partakers. But Christ went to that inheritance by the cross. We, therefore, must go to it the same way.’”[2]

The Golden Booklet may fairly be seen as an extended meditation on that one point. And of all the gold nuggets in this little volume, the way Calvin colors the Christian life with the hues and shades of the historical Christ is the most valuable. In the light of Christ, our sufferings are not merely the unfortunate effects of our continuing existence in a fallen world; they are the ordinary prerequisite to eternal life. They serve this function not on their own terms, however, but only as they are bound up with Christ’s own sufferings and our union with him.Union with this Christ and his concrete, historical story is the setting for the Christian’s own progress through the present evil age to glory and eternal life. Having at hand Calvin’s pastoral guidance on what that looks like in daily life is a nugget worth its weight in gold, something more than meriting a place in one’s coat pocket.

 (This article is a lightly revised version of one previously published.)

[1] John Calvin, Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life, trans. Henry J. Van Andel (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1952). In the preface the editor refers erroneously to the Golden Booklet of the True Christian Walk (p. 9). It is unknown exactly when Calvin’s booklet gained the title “Golden Booklet,” a title used for other popular, highly regarded books in the early modern era.

[2] John Calvin, Commentary on Romans and Thessalonians, T. H. L. Parker, ed., Calvin's New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 171.