Fuel for Godward Living: Calvin and Christian Hedonism

The way we think about God shapes the way we think about everything else. This goes much further than deny or accepting God’s existence. The way we understand God’s nature, character, and relation to his creation is reflected in the way we live. To think that our theology of God is not formative in our daily lives is to be shortsighted. Take John Frame’s definition of theology for example. It presupposes a direct connection between understanding of God and practical living. Frame writes, “theology is the application of Scripture, by persons, to every area of life” (Systematic Theology, 8, emphasis added).

In the same vein, John Calvin once wrote, “For until men recognize that they owe everything to God…they will never yield him willing service” (Institutes, I.II.1). Clearly, the way we think about God directly affects our lives. So it is vital to continue shaping and refining our knowledge of God. To do this, we must dive deep into Scripture and search for the God of the Bible refusing to come up until we find him. Since God has made himself known in his word, we can confidently give ourselves to diligent study of holy Scripture. Not just any vision of God will do. Only a vision of God that matches the biblical witness and only a vision that accurately portrays a God worthy of knowing will do.

The God of Calvin has often been characterized (more like caricatured) as a big bully, moral monster, and even as the very essence of the devil himself. However, even a meager study of Calvin’s writings will show that this is far from the case. Sure, Calvin viewed God as being a massively sovereign being whose glory is incomparable and his ways inscrutable in his dealings with sinners. However, what I have recently been seeing in my weekly reading through Calvin’s Institutes is that his doctrine of God is predicated on something so sweet and delightful. Calvin was a Christian hedonist.

Calvin believed God is only worthy of supreme worship under one primary condition—that he can satisfy human hearts. He writes, “Moreover, although our mind cannot apprehend God without rendering some honor to him, it will not suffice simply to hold that there is One whom all ought to honor and adore, unless we are also persuaded that he is the fountain of every good, and that we must seek nothing elsewhere than in him” (I.II.1). God is honored and adored when we come to him with nothing in order to be supplied or satisfied. God, according to Calvin, is not to be honored if we have to bring anything to the table. Calvin goes so far as to say, “you cannot behold him clearly unless you acknowledge him to be the fountainhead and source of every good” (I.II.2). If we supply anything, then he is not worthy of our honor and adoration. However, because he is the cause of all things “we may learn to await and seek all these things from him, and thankfully ascribe them, once received, to him” (I.II.1).

True and sincere devotion to God is not found in a God who is merely big, grand, sovereign, gracious, and merciful. True and sincere devotion to God is found when the God who is the sovereign is the satisfier. According to Calvin, “[U]nless they establish their complete happiness in him, they will never give themselves truly to him” (I.II.1). God is worthy of relentless devotion and highest honor primarily because he is a fountain from which every good flows.

Let me show you why this is the best news possible for man and why this vision of God is the greatest of them all. Calvin believed God is most honored when we come to him as the fountain of every good and to “seek nothing elsewhere than in him.” This means that in Calvin’s doctrine of God, God is honored by our delight. He is honored by our empty souls coming to him for sustenance. This is great news, because from birth we are both empty and hungry. We are both dry and thirsty. Our hearts long for joy. Our souls crave satisfaction that will last. God is the best of all beings because he is a fountain of overflowing joy that will never run dry. “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Ps. 16:11, emphasis added). It is in fact this fullness in God that makes him so desirable. God is the fountain of joy and “from this too would arise the desire to cleave to him and trust him” (I.II.2).

When we come to God with our dry hearts and thirsty souls to drink from his fountain, we greatly honor him. A world-class chef is most honored when his guests receive his meal with delight more so than if they bring their own measly dish. Calvin saw God in this same light. He is most honored not when we merely ascribe worship to him for his greatness, but when we come to him in our emptiness to be sustained and satisfied.

Calvin’s doctrine of God is so helpful for daily Christian living. “Nay, unless they establish their complete happiness in him, they will never give themselves truly and sincerely to him” (I.II.1). Unless God the sovereign is God the satisfier, there will be no motivation for godly living. Oh, but when we seek to honor God by being filled with delight in him, our devotion to him will be fueled. Yes, even all of our efforts to kill sin is best motivated not by a dread of a God who punishes, but love for a God who provides greater satisfaction.

“Besides, this mind restrains itself from sinning, not out of dread of punishment alone; but, because it loves and reveres God as Father, it worships and adores him as Lord” (I.II.2).

A God who is merely big is not worthy of our risk-taking. But a God who can supply satisfaction even in the face of persecution and death is worthy of full devotion and glad risk-taking for his renown.


Mathew Gilbert (B.A. Boyce College) is Associate Pastor for Children and Preschool at The Church at Trace Crossing in Tupelo, MS. He is a M.Div student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mathew is married to his high school sweetheart, Erica. Mathew and Erica live in Tupelo with their son, Jude. You can follow him on Twitter @mat_gilbert.

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