“Be warned. This looks like a book on how Calvin thought about living the Christian life. But open it and you will discover that Mike Horton is driving you on a grand Calvin tour of the whole of theology. And that, of course, is Professor Horton’s (and John Calvin’s) point: it takes the whole biblical gospel to make a whole Christian life. By employing the classical formulation of the two natures of Christ (‘distinct but not separate’), Dr. Horton provides readers with a key to help unlock Calvin’s teaching. But more than that, he shows why the Genevan Reformer’s vision of the Christian life remains unsurpassed. Thoroughly satisfying, thoroughly enjoyable, and thoroughly recommended.”—Sinclair B. Ferguson
“Learned and lucid, masterfully organized, and vigorously expressed, this full, solid, and exact study of Geneva’s reforming pastor is an outstanding piece of work. In all four sections Calvin comes to vigorous life. Calvin’s reputation for godly wisdom, and Horton’s for vivid writing, will certainly be enhanced.”—J. I. Packer
Michael Horton’s newest book, Calvin on the Christian Life, is now available. But before you read the excerpt that Crossway has made available (and while you wait for the Amazon drone to drop it off at your house), take a moment to read about Dr. Horton’s very personal engagement with John Calvin’s theology of the Christian life:
Most people who think of Calvin think of him as a (grumpy?) theologian who cares more about what you think about God than how you live in relation to God. Is that wrong?
It’s wrong. You just have to open the Institutes to the first page to see that he thinks of our knowledge of God and of ourselves as inseparably intertwined. His commentaries, sermons, and private letters show a man who was obsessed with God’s Word and its saving and edifying impact in every area of life. Grumpy? No. Sick? Yes, all the time. He had several illnesses that plagued him, any one of which could have been fatal. Yet he used his own suffering to help other sufferers. For Calvin, “piety” was the word. Today, piety is associated often with life as opposed to doctrine. But for Calvin piety encompassed doctrine and life. It was all of one piece. You can’t live “the Christian life” without knowing the God who has revealed himself in Christ as he is clothed in his gospel. And there’s no point in knowing the doctrine if it “merely flutters about in the brain,” as he put it himself.
You’ve studied Calvin and the Reformation for years, what surprised you most as you researched this book?
I’ve studied Calvin mainly as a student learning from a professor. For this book, though, I pored over his letters and first-hand accounts of his friends and enemies. I came to know him more as a fellow human being who frankly faces his sins and weaknesses because he has an all-sufficient Savior. His warmth, humility, and love not only for God but for other people struck me again and again. Calvin loathed talking about himself, but I think I was able to find enough material to reveal something of the man as well as his message.
Did Calvin advocate for a particular kind of spiritual life that we can emulate in our modern world?
Yes. I think in especially two ways he stood over against a medieval piety that in many ways resembles contemporary evangelicalism. First, he’s convinced that the arrow of activity points down, from God to us. Like Luther, he emphasized over against the medieval model that God descends to us because we cannot rise to him. Knowing God is really knowing God in Christ “as he is clothed in the gospel.” That means that all good gifts come down to us from God and then out, through us, to the world. We don’t bring our good works to God, but to our neighbor. Therefore, the source of the Christian life is the gospel as it’s proclaimed and ratified in baptism and the Supper. Second, and because of this first point, the Christian life moves from the public to the private rather than vice versa. “If I can just get away from the world, family life, and my worldly job, I can finally focus on my sanctification.” No, Calvin says, it’s precisely in marriage, family life, fellowship with believers, and engaging in daily callings that God shows us our warts and drives us to Christ for both justification and sanctification. The public service shapes our private disciplines. So even when we’re by ourselves, our meditation on Scripture is shaped by the church’s public confession and we pray with and for the whole church. In short, Calvin emphasizes an extroverted piety: looking outside of ourselves to Christ in faith and to our brothers and sisters as well as our neighbors in love. In his view, our relationship with Christ is always personal, but never private. I might also add his emphasis on the Spirit. His writings are suffused with Trinitarian thinking, and he had a rich understanding of and appreciation for the Spirit’s person and work.
What’s the relationship between spiritual habits or practices/disciplines and the Christian life?
It’s interesting that whenever Calvin recommends daily habits, he typically adds, “Not that this should be done superstitiously, as if to place God in our debt.” As I said above, Calvin talks a lot more about public disciplines than private disciplines. Yet what actually happened was that those were shaped by the common worship of the church carried Christ and his benefits with them in their homes, neighborhoods, and workplaces. They sang Psalms out in the field, would stop to pray with a neighbor whose child was sick, and witnessed the gospel freely to unbelievers. There was daily Bible reading, prayer, and catechism in the home. In all these ways, there was a seamless transition from Sunday to Monday.
Did your understanding of or practice of the Christian life change in any way through writing this book?
Yes, especially with respect to prayer. Calvin wrote a lot about prayer. In fact, his treatment of prayer in the Institutes is far longer than his discussion of election. What particularly struck me was how much God’s fatherhood in Christ dominated his piety. We crawl up into our Father’s lap when we pray and “give him knots that we cannot untie.” There are myriad expressions like that that I draw upon, especially from his Psalms commentary. He also talks about praying not only in Christ as our mediator, but with Christ. He prays with us and his Spirit prays within us. We can even “remind” God of his own promises, claiming the covenant as the basis for bold requests that accord with his revealed Word. I keep coming back to these points and, when I do, find myself wanting to pray.