Man, Know Thyself

Institutes 2.1.1 – 2.1.4

In Book 1 of the Institutes, Calvin taught us about God the Creator. In Book 2 Calvin will teach us about “God the Redeemer in Christ.”

Calvin begins his teaching on God’s redemption in Christ with a discussion of man and man’s desperate need to rightly know himself and his need for a Savior.

There are two ways, we are told, that man “knows” himself. There is the “wrong” way and there is the “right” way.

The “wrong” way tells man that he innately possesses “excellence and dignity” (2.1.1) and can “rest in himself.” (2.1.2.)

Owing to the innate self-love by which all are blinded, we most willingly persuade ourselves that we do not possess a single quality which is deserving of hatred; and hence, independent of any countenance from without, general credit is given to the very foolish idea, that man is perfectly sufficient of himself for all the purposes of a good and happy life.”

There were “certain philosophers” in Calvin’s day who taught men this and there are certainly men today who teach it to those who desire is to have their ears tickled, their egos inflated and their minds flattered. (2.1.2)

Speaking of those teachers and preachers who expound such a man-centered philosophy and theology, when they pronounce a discourse “which flatters the pride spontaneously springing up in man’s inmost heart, nothing seems more delightful. Accordingly, in every age, he who is most forward in extolling the excellence of human nature, is received with the loudest applause.” (2.1.2)

Calvin says that this belief in the innate excellence of self drowns “in perdition all who assent to it. For what avails it to proceed in vain purpose, and, at the very outset, prove deficient and destitute both of sound intelligence and true virtue, though we still confidently persist till we rush headlong to destruction?”

Calvin’s warns us against this vain pursuit.

Whosoever, therefore, gives heed to those teachers, who merely employ us in contemplating our good qualities, so far from making progress in self knowledge, will be plunged into the most pernicious ignorance.” (2.1.3)

So, the “wrong” way of “knowing” oneself is self-deluding and destructive.

But, Calvin informs us, there is a “right” way for man to “know” himself and we know this way by the grace of God.

Calvin writes in 2.1.1 and 2.1.3 that the beginning of a “right” knowledge of ourselves is to reflect on two truths:

  1. The “primeval dignity” – the excellence of our nature – that God bestowed on man when man was first created. It was a dignity that depended entirely on God. From this original condition man has fallen.
  2. Since Adam’s fall into sin, there is nothing about who we are, nothing about anything that we do, that gives us cause to boast or place confidence in ourselves.

Reflecting on our original “primeval dignity” and our current condition resulting from sin, we are humbled and “inflamed with new desires to seek after God, in whom each may regain those good qualities of which all are found to be utterly destitute.”

To me this simply means that man is a sinner in need of a Savior.

These two truths will annihilate all confidence that we have in ourselves and will urge us to “meditate on divine worship and the future life” that is ours by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.

In the final section of this reading, Calvin speaks about the sin that plunged man into his fallen state. What was the sin? It was simply disobedience, the abandoning of the command of God and a revolting against God’s authority over our lives.

The strongest curb to keep all of his (Adam’s) affections under due restraint, would have been the belief that nothing was better than to cultivate righteousness by obeying the commands of God, and that the highest possible felicity was to be loved by him.” (2.1.4)

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The Bible says,

“Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God.” II Corinthians 3:5

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