This extract is taken from the Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III, Chapter II, Sections 16-19. John Allen’s translation is from the original Latin and collated with Calvin’s last edition in French. The punctuation and spelling have been only slightly modernized. Ed.
I. Section 16
The principal hinge on which faith turns is this—that we must not consider the promises of mercy, which the Lord offers, as true only to others, and not to ourselves; but rather make them our own, by embracing them in our hearts. Hence arises that confidence, which the same apostle in another place calls peace”;1 unless anyone would rather make peace the effect of confidence. It is a security, which makes the conscience calm and serene before the Divine tribunal, and without which it must necessarily be harassed and torn almost asunder with tumultuous trepidation, unless it happen to slumber for a moment in an oblivion of God and itself. And indeed it is but for a moment; for it does not long enjoy that wretched oblivion, but is most dreadfully wounded by the remembrance, which is perpetually recurring, of the Divine judgment. In short, no man is truly a believer unless he be firmly persuaded that God is a propitious and benevolent Father to him, and promise himself everything from his goodness; unless he depend on the promises of the Divine benevolence to him and feel an undoubted expectation of salvation; as the apostle shows in these words: “If we hold fast the beginning of our confidence steadfast unto the end.”2 Here he supposes that no man has a good hope in the Lord who does not glory with confidence in being an heir of the kingdom of heaven. He is no believer, I say, who does not rely on the security of his salvation and confidently triumph over the devil and death, as Paul teaches us in this remarkable peroration:
I am persuaded [says he] that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.3
Thus the same apostle is of opinion that “the eyes of our understanding” are not truly “enlightened” unless we discover what is the hope of the eternal inheritance to which we are called.4 And he everywhere inculcates that we have no just apprehensions of the Divine goodness unless we derive from it a considerable degree of assurance.
II. Section 17
But someone will object that the experience of believers is very different from this; for that, in recognizing the grace of God towards them, they are not only disturbed with inquietude (which frequently befalls them), but sometimes also tremble with the most distressing terrors. The vehemence of temptations to agitate their minds is so great that it appears scarcely compatible with that assurance of faith of which we have been speaking. We must therefore solve this difficulty if we mean to support the doctrine we have advanced. When we inculcate that faith ought to be certain and secure, we conceive not of a certainty attended with no doubt, or of a security interrupted by no anxiety; but we rather affirm that believers have a perpetual conflict with their own diffidence, and are far from placing their consciences in a placid calm, never disturbed by any storms. Yet, on the other hand, we deny, however they may be afflicted, that they ever fall and depart from that certain confidence which they have conceived in the Divine mercy.
The Scripture proposes no example of faith more illustrious or memorable than David, especially if you consider the whole course of his life. Yet that his mind was not invariably serene, appears from his innumerable complaints, of which it will be sufficient to select a few. When he rebukes his soul for turbulent emotions, is he not angry with his unbelief? “Why [says he] art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted in me? Hope thou in God.”5 And certainly, that consternation was an evident proof of diffidence, as though he supposed himself to be forsaken by God. In another place also, we find a more ample confession: “I said, in my haste, I am cut off from before thine eyes.”6 In another place also, he debates with himself in anxious and miserable perplexity, and even raises a dispute concerning the nature of God: “Hath God forgotten to be gracious? Will the Lord cast off for ever?” What follows is still harsher: “And I said, I must fall; these are the changes of the right hand of the Most High.”7 For, in a state of despair, he consigns himself to ruin; and not only confesses that he is agitated with doubts, but, as vanquished in the conflict, considers all as lost; because God has deserted him and turned to his destruction that hand which used to support him. Wherefore it is not without reason that he says, “Return unto thy rest, O my soul;”8 since he had experienced such fluctuations amidst the waves of trouble.
And yet, wonderful as it is, amidst these concussions, faith sustains the hearts of the pious, and truly resembles the palm-tree, rising with vigor undiminished by any burdens which may be laid upon it, but which can never retard its growth; as David, when he might appear to be overwhelmed, yet, chiding himself, ceased not to aspire towards God. Indeed, he who, contending with his own infirmity, strives in his anxieties to exercise faith, is already in a great measure victorious. Which we may infer from such passages as this: “Wait on the Lord: be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart; wait, I say, on the Lord.”9 He reproves himself for timidity, and repeating the same twice, confesses himself to be frequently subject to various agitations. In the meantime, he is not only displeased with himself for these faults, but ardently aspires towards the correction of them.
Now if we enter into a close and correct examination of his character and conduct, and compare him with Ahaz, we shall discover a considerable difference. Isaiah is sent to convey consolation to the anxiety of the impious and hypocritical king. He addresses him in these words: “Take heed, and be quiet; fear not,” etc.10 But what effect had the message on him? As it had been before said, that “his heart was moved as the trees of the wood are moved with the wind,”11 though he heard the promise, he ceased not to tremble. This therefore is the proper reward and punishment of infidelity—so to tremble with fear that he who opens not the gate to himself by faith, in the time of temptation departs from God. But, on the contrary, believers, whom the weight of temptations bends and almost oppresses, constantly emerge from their distresses, though not without trouble and difficulty. And because they are conscious of their own imbecility, they pray with the Psalmist, “Take not the word of truth utterly out of my mouth.”12 By these words we are taught that they sometimes become dumb, as though their faith were destroyed; yet that they neither fail nor turn their backs, but persevere in their conflict, and arouse their inactivity by prayer, that they may not be stupefied by self-indulgence.
III. Section 18
To render this intelligible it is necessary to recur to that division of the flesh and the spirit which we noticed in another place and which most clearly discovers itself in this case. The pious heart therefore perceives a division in itself, being partly affected with delight, through a knowledge of the Divine goodness; partly distressed with sorrow, through a sense of its own calamity; partly relying on the promise of the gospel; partly trembling at the evidence of its own iniquity; partly exulting in the apprehension of life; partly alarmed by the fear of death. This variation happens through the imperfection of faith; since we are never so happy, during the present life, as to be cured of all diffidence and entirely filled and possessed by faith. Hence those conflicts in which the diffidence which adheres to the relics of the flesh rises up in opposition to the faith formed in the heart.
But if, in the mind of a believer, assurance be mixed with doubts, do we not always come to this point, that faith consists not in a certain and clear, but only in an obscure and perplexed knowledge of the Divine will respecting us? Not at all. For, if we are distracted by various thoughts, we are not therefore entirely divested of faith; neither, though harassed by the agitations of diffidence, are we therefore immerged in its abyss; nor, if we be shaken, are we therefore overthrown. For the invariable issue of this contest is that faith at length surmounts those difficulties, from which, while it is encompassed with them, it appears to be in danger.
IV. Section 19
Let us sum it up thus: As soon as the smallest particle of grace is infused into our minds, we begin to contemplate the Divine countenance as now placid, serene, and propitious to us: it is indeed a very distant prospect, but so clear, that we know we are not deceived. Afterwards, in proportion as we improve—for we ought to be continually improving by progressive advances—we arrive at a nearer, and therefore more certain view of Him, and by continual habit He becomes more familiar to us. Thus we see that a mind illuminated by the knowledge of God is at first involved in much ignorance, which is removed by slow degrees. Yet it is not prevented either by its ignorance of some things or by its obscure view of what it beholds from enjoying a clear knowledge of the Divine will respecting itself, which is the first and principal exercise of faith. For, as a man who is confined in a prison, into which the sun shines only obliquely and partially through a very small window, is deprived of a full view of that luminary, yet clearly perceives its splendor, and experiences its beneficial influence—thus we, who are bound with terrestrial and corporeal fetters, though surrounded on all sides with great obscurity, are nevertheless illuminated, sufficiently for all the purposes of real security, by the light of God shining ever so feebly to discover his mercy.
†John Calvin (1509-1564) is one of the foremost Reformers and biblical exegetes in the history of the Church. Raised and reared a Roman Catholic in his native France, Calvin received an excellent classical education and became a master of Latin style as well as of French.
After his conversion to the evangelical faith of the Reformation, he eventually settled in Switzerland and carried on a widespread preaching, writing, and training ministry centered in Geneva. Ed.