New Horizons

Counseling with John Calvin

John W. Mallin III

Counseling, like preaching, requires the counselor to illustrate points and make them clear. To do so, the counselor draws on personal experience and reading, and develops a repertoire of illustrations and quotes. I recently added John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion to my list. The germ of Calvin's insights follows.

Calvin's Concern: the Heart

Calvin recognizes the central importance of the heart, which must be addressed in counseling, as in preaching. It is not enough to seek only a change in behavior. Calvin states:

The Word of God is not received by faith if it flits about in the top of the brain, but when it takes root in the depth of the heart that it may be an invincible defense to withstand and drive off all the stratagems of temptation. But if it is true that the mind's real understanding is illumination by the Spirit of God, then in such confirmation of the heart his power is much more clearly manifested, to the extent that the heart's distrust is greater than the mind's blindness. It is harder for the heart to be furnished with assurance than for the mind to be endowed with thought. (Institutes, 3.2.36)

Calvin understands the heart as the battleground on which the Spirit of God vies for territory with the world, the flesh, and the devil—a struggle in which the believer is embroiled. Temptation is the deceptive stratagems of the devil. Assurance is a matter of the heart, not merely the mind. Earlier, Calvin describes the heart of every counselee this way:

Man's nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.... Man's mind, full as it is of pride and boldness, dares to imagine a god according to its own capacity; as it sluggishly plods, indeed is overwhelmed with the crassest ignorance, it conceives an unreality and an empty appearance as God.... To these evils a new wickedness joins itself, that man tries to express in his work the sort of God he has inwardly conceived. Therefore the mind begets an idol; the hand gives it birth.... Daily experience teaches that flesh is always uneasy until it has obtained some figment like itself in which it may fondly find solace as in an image of God. (1.11.8)

Calvin points us to the fundamental problem of the sinner's heart: idolatry. From the heart pours forth every sort of evil as water from a fouled spring or fruit from a bitter root. Idols include anything that promises righteousness, "blessing," or security, by means of authority and knowledge, experience and favor, power and control. Counselors must address these issues of the heart. Calvin points to our task in counseling:

All that Scripture teaches concerning devils aims at arousing us to take precaution against their stratagems and contrivances, and also to make us equip ourselves with those weapons which are strong and powerful enough to vanquish these most powerful foes.... We have been forewarned that an enemy relentlessly threatens us.... We should not let ourselves be overwhelmed by carelessness or faintheartedness, but on the contrary, with courage rekindled stand our ground in combat. Since this military service ends only at death, let us urge ourselves to perseverance. Indeed, conscious of our weakness and ignorance, let us especially call upon God's help, relying upon him alone in whatever we attempt, since it is he alone who can supply us with counsel and strength, courage and armor. (1.14.13)

The counselor trains the counselee from Scripture to use the weapons that God provides and encourages him to persevere.

The Chief Rule in the Christian Religion: Humility

But what is our objective in this warfare? Of course, it is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. Calvin puts that in focused terms, quoting Augustine:

"When a certain rhetorician was asked what was the chief rule in eloquence, he replied, ‘Delivery'; what was the second rule, ‘Delivery'; what was the third rule, ‘Delivery'; so if you ask me concerning the precepts of the Christian religion, first, second, third, and always I would answer, ‘Humility.'"... Again, "When anyone realizes that in himself he is nothing and from himself he has no help, the weapons within him are broken, the wars are over. But all the weapons of impiety must be shattered, broken, and burned; you must remain unarmed, you must have no help in yourself. The weaker you are in yourself, the more readily the Lord will receive you." (2.2.11)

Humility is not, for Calvin, merely one of several virtues for which we are to strive. It is grasping with the heart that one is utterly dependent upon God in absolutely everything—even to the cohesion of the air we breathe at the subatomic level and the ability to breathe it. Calvin points to the practical application of such a realization for counseling. Neither the counselee nor the counselor has in himself what it takes to achieve any desired end.

With humility one may grasp the three things that it is necessary to know in order to live and die in the comfort of the gospel. These three things provide the structure of the Heidelberg Catechism (see Question and Answer 2): my sin, my Savior, and how to show my gratitude.

Humility recognizes not only our dependence upon God as creatures, but our further dependence upon him because of the consequences of sin. Calvin points out:

In one respect we are indeed unalike, because each one of us privately forges his own particular error; yet we are very much alike in that, one and all, we forsake the one true God for prodigious trifles. (1.5.11)

This similarity enables the counselor to relate to the counselee with confidence that he really understands the issues of the counselee's heart, insofar as he understands his own heart. At the same time, however, the counselor will need to help the counselee see his own particular error, the trifles for which he has forsaken the one true God. The counselee must see the lies he has believed, practically, so that he may embrace the corresponding truths of Scripture that he has practically ignored. Thus the counselor calls the counselee to repentance in terms of practical, specific issues of the heart, seeking fruit in terms of behavior. Writing of repentance according to 2 Corinthians 7:11 (the section is worth reading in its entirety), Calvin says:

Nothing more readily happens to fearful consciences than falling into despair. And also by this stratagem, whomever Satan sees overwhelmed by the fear of God he more and more submerges in that deep whirlpool of sorrow that they may never rise again. That fear cannot, indeed, be too great which ends in humility, and does not depart from the hope of pardon. (3.3.15)

Calvin points to the importance of humility, while also exposing the danger in it, if it does not carry hope.

Calvin is always concerned to point the sinner to Christ, in whom is the counselee's only hope. So the application of the gospel is always the objective of the counselor. Every counselee needs to be reminded of the point that Calvin makes in a section on justification:

Scripture, when it speaks of faith righteousness, leads us ... to turn aside from the contemplation of our own works and look solely upon God's mercy and Christ's perfection. (3.11.16)

The counselee (and the counselor) must be continually reminded of this. Calvin's words are no less relevant if applied to sanctification, for the counselee is sanctified by the same faith by which he is justified. The humble counselee will see this and find hope in Christ's person, work, and word, when he falls and fails and sees his own weakness.

Calvin treats the subject of our duty, how we show our gratitude, throughout the Institutes. For example, he says this about the duties of the subjects of an unjust civil magistrate:

Indeed, all ought to try ... not to inquire about another's duties, but every man should keep in mind that one duty which is his own. This ought particularly to apply to those who have been put under the power of others.... By this, humility will restrain our impatience. (4.20.29)

These words apply not only to civic affairs, but also to the family or workplace. How often do we encounter the complaining wife or child or employee who seems able to focus only on the fault of husband, parent, or employer and fails to consider his or her own responsibility in such a hard place? Without humility, they are unable to bear the difficulties of life patiently under the good hand of God who loves them. The sovereignty of God seems to them irrelevant. "First, second, third, and always," Calvin calls us to humility.

Whether you counsel others or counsel yourself, I encourage you to read the Institutes, take notes, and add Calvin to your repertoire.

The author is an OP minister and an independent pastoral counselor. He quotes the Battles translation of Calvin's Institutes (Westminster Press, 1960). Reprinted from New Horizons, January 2010.

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