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Book Review of John Calvin's Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life

By Paul Shirley | 12.29.16 | The Expositors Blog

    John Calvin’s Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life may be the most beneficial Christian book you have never heard of. First published in 1550 in Latin and French under the title, De Vita Hominus Christiani (On the Life of the Christian Man), the edited form of the material from Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life was eventually incorporated into Calvin’s Institutes under the heading “On the Christian life” (III. Ch. 6-10).

    In this brief volume, Calvin demonstrates the heart of a shepherd as he instructs his readers on the realities and responsibilities of the Christian life. “This Booklet was purposely written in a simpler style than the other parts of the Institutes. On account of its spiritual and realistic nature it made an indelible impression…. It must also have had a tremendous appeal… to all groups which felt the need of a balanced application of Christianity” (2).

    Calvin begins in chapter 1 by addressing the need for “humble obedience and the true imitation of Christ.” He makes holiness the priority for the Christian life and roots the pursuit of holiness in the power of Christ. Calvin concludes this chapter with an appeal to his readers:

    Let us steadily exert ourselves to reach a higher degree of holiness till we shall finally arrive at a perfection of goodness which we seek and pursue as long as we live, but which we shall attain then only, when, freed from all earthly infirmity, we shall be admitted by God into his full communion (19).

    Chapter 2 confronts readers with the importance of self-denial in the pursuit of holiness. Calvin makes it clear that a believer cannot progress in holiness without denying himself. The believer must deny his own personal sensibilities, selfishness, ambitions, and standards in order to whole-heartedly pursue Christ. “The denial of ourselves will leave no room for pride, haughtiness, or vainglory, nor for avarice, licentiousness, love of luxury, wantonness, or any sin born from selflove” (23).

    In chapter 3 Calvin carefully equips his readers for “patience in cross-bearing.” When Calvin speaks of cross-bearing, he is referring to the adversities and afflictions that come with following Christ. As he describes it, when “we endure many miseries, which are called adversities and calamities, that we partake of the sufferings of Christ, in order that we may pass through our different tribulations as He escaped from an abyss of all evils to the glory of heaven” (46). Readers will find this chapter to be one of the most scripturally saturated and pastorally thoughtful treatments on trials and patience that they have ever read. In fact, this chapter alone is worth the price of the book!

    Chapter 4 transitions from the trials of this present age to the hope of the eternal age. Calvin reminds his readers that both the trials and the luxuries of this world are temporary while the hope of heaven is eternal. Christians are encouraged to remember that “with whatever kind of trials we may be afflicted, we should always keep our eye on this goal, that we accustom ourselves to the contempt [of the vanities] of the present life in order that we may meditate on the future life” (67).

    Finally, in chapter 5, Calvin shepherds his readers to think rightly about their earthly responsibilities even as they look forward to their eternal rewards. In other words, after encouraging readers with the rest of heaven, Calvin reminds them that they still have work to do on earth. “Just as Scripture points us to heaven as our goal, so it fully instructs us in the right use of earthly blessings, and this ought not to be overlooked…” (84).

    Most books don’t make it to a second printing; to find a book that has remained in print since 1550, therefore, is noteworthy. The depth of the biblical implications brought out through Calvin’s exposition and the penetrating nature of his pastoral observation are the reasons why this book has remained a valuable resource for so long. I heartily recommend this book to all believers as an immensely valuable resource for Christian living. It would be particularly useful in the context of a discipleship relationship (i.e., two people reading it together), family worship, or personal devotions. It would also be a great introduction to Calvin for readers who might be intimidated by the length of some of his other works. I found it so helpful that I anticipate incorporating it into my annual reading schedule and making it a part of my regular discipleship resources.

    Paul Shirley is a graduate of The Expositors Seminary and has served as the pastor of Grace Community Church in Wilmington, Delaware since 2011.

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