John Calvin’s Serious Error on Self-Denial and Taking Up Our Cross

In John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, The Westminster Press (1960), (Edited by John T. McNeill, translated by F. L. Battles), there is serious error regarding the Lord Jesus’ teaching about denying ourselves and taking up our cross [Matthew 16:24].

Faith in Christ is not the sum of the Christian life, but denial of ourselves according to Calvin. John Calvin’s title for Book III, chapter VII, says, ‘The Sum of the Christian Life: The Denial of Ourselves.’

Is denial of self really the sum of the Christian life? It is most certainly a part of the Christian life, but is it the sum of it? To be the sum of the Christian life means that it is the most concise explanation of what it is to be a Christian. It is what is paramount, what is most essential, what is the very thing that defines us as Christians. The sum of the Christian life cannot be something that can merely be done in the flesh, which many monasteries are filled with.

Ironically, to make self-denial the sum of the Christian life is to fail to deny the very thing we must deny, our self-righteous.

For in making it the sum of the Christian life means that our self-denial is what makes us a Christian. It is this serious error by Calvin that has been so influential to Christians. It is not our denial of ourselves that defines us as Christians, but simply our faith in Jesus Christ. This is because no measure of self denial can equate to what we obtain when we put our faith in Jesus and His righteousness for us [Phil 3:7-9]! Paul the apostle said this about the sum of the Christian life: ‘For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “BUT THE RIGHTEOUS man SHALL LIVE BY FAITH.”’ [Romans 1:16,17]

Calvin taught that the righteous man shall live by denial of self!

In Calvin’s treatment of this denial of self he teaches that by denial of ourselves we will be shaped, so as to be acceptable to Him. By denial we lay the foundation to be in a right relationship with God. He says, ‘We are not our own: let not our reason nor our will, therefore, sway our plans and deeds. We are not our own: let us therefore not set it as our goal to seek what is expedient for us according to the flesh. We are not our own: in so far as we can, let us therefore forget ourselves and all that is ours.’ [3.7.1]

Calvin is not just saying that Christians should deny themselves for the cause of Christ, he is saying that our denial of self is the sum of what it means to be a Christian, that our denial determines if we are a Christian. We should think that we are not our own, but acts of self denial cannot make us right before God! Hence, the sum of the Christian life cannot be according to mere acts of denial throughout our life.

The problem with this is simply that it is putting the cart before the horse. It is by faith that we become a Christian and it is by faith that we live out the Christian life, which includes acts of self-denial. There is no emphasis on faith under this section that Calvin says is the sum of the Christian life. He is placing denial of self as the foundation instead of faith.

In 3.7.2 he says, ‘This, then, is that denial of self which Christ enjoins with such great earnestness upon his disciples as the outset of their service [cf. Matt. 16:24]. When it has once take possession of their hearts, it leaves no place at all first either to pride, or arrogance, or ostentation; then either to avarice, or desire, or lasciviousness, or effeminacy, or to other evils that our self-love spawns [cf II Tim. 3:25]’.

He, of course, goes on and on. The point of objection that I am making here is that Calvin attributes self-denial as the means by which Jesus’ disciple then can be rid of what is sinful in their lives. If we listen to this carefully what then is the difference to listening to a Pharisee instructing us to obtain the godly life but by acts of self-denial?

He then goes on in 3.8.1-11 explaining how we can understand bearing the cross. The eighth chapter is titled: ‘Bearing The Cross: A Part of Self-Denial.’ He says ‘that each must bear his own cross [Matt. 16:24]’ and he renders it a thing that can be equated to things in our lives. He says that as Christ endured suffering so we must. He says, ‘It is the Heavenly Father’s will thus to exercise them so as to put his own children to a definite test. Beginning with Christ, his first-born, he follows this plan with all his children.’

The problem with this is not that God disciplines His children or that Christians are called to a life of self-denial, but that Calvin uses Jesus’ teaching to burden the people of God by equating cross-bearing with mere acts of self-denial and suffering found in their imperfect lives.

Calvin constructs a burdensome view of Jesus’ teaching by placing the people of God ‘under a continual cross’ that is never completely fulfilled [3.8.2]. No amount of self-denial and suffering can exhaust all that is corrupt in our flesh. Even if we are hung upon a literal cross, it is still only our sinful flesh upon a cross that merits us nothing.

According to Calvin, the cross that Jesus said we had to take up in order to come after Him becomes whatever is a trial in our life, if properly submitted to, and is then said by Calvin as that which removes what is sinful and diminishes any confidence in our flesh.

How is this not Roman Catholicism?

Why listen to John Calvin when we can learn the right way of understanding Jesus’ great teaching by studying Paul the Apostle?

Here is John Calvin’s opening up of Jesus’ great statement: “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me” and he has not opened up what Paul taught on the subject!

Galatians 2:20 I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.

Paul understood Jesus’ teaching as referring to being crucified with Christ and that this singular event had ongoing and marvelous implications for his life in Christ. Calvin did not understand this.

To understand how Paul the Apostle understood Jesus’ teaching about denying ourselves and taking up our cross, read my book, Take Up Your Cross: Our Only Power to Live and Walk by the Spirit.