John Calvin on the Cycle of Defeat 


If they say, we are to do what in us lies, we are always brought back to the same point; for when will any man venture to promise himself that he has done his utmost in bewailing sin? Therefore, when consciences, after a lengthened struggle and long contests with themselves, find no haven in which they may rest, as a means of alleviating their condition in some degree, they extort sorrow and wring out tears, in order to perfect their contrition.

– John Calvin (Institutes, Book 3, Chapter 4, Section 2)


In this section of his book, Institutes Of The Christian Religion, John Calvin writes about the topic of repentance. Here he is responding to the teachings of the Catholic Church who say that repentance is about three things:

1) Contrition (fear of being damned)

2) Confession (to a priest and to God)

and 3) Satisfying this guilt by doing good deeds.

Although Calvin saw pros and cons to this three step process, the flaws created serious problems:

Firstly, they made repentance a self-centered act: instead of turning from your sins back to God, the idea is to turn away from your sins by making yourself feel guilty enough to not do them again.

Secondly, it became more about balancing out the scales (doing more good than bad) than forgiveness in Christ.

Thirdly, it neglected to see God as merciful and loving through Christ. It neglected to portray Christ as mediator. And finally, it missed the point of the gospel entirely.

To help us understand the three-step process mentioned above, here’s how I put it in modern language:

1) Contrition: I feel really bad for what I did. Do you think God might be sending me to Hell? I’m afraid of what He thinks about me. I’m scared of what God might do to me.

2) God, I’m sorry. I’ll never do it again. I told my Pastor about it and I promise I’ll do better. I need to make up for what I’ve done, I need to go to someone about this. I have messed up again and again but this time it’s different, I’ll change.

3) I still feel terrible. I need to make up for this. I’ve done good things in the name of Jesus, maybe this will help me feel better and get my mind off of what I did. Perhaps God grades on a curve and will forgive me.

Sound like you? This certainly sounds like some of my experiences. We go back and forth every day about whether or not we are Christians, basing our salvation on what we do or how we feel, rather than on who God is and what Christ has done and is doing. But, what is so bad about feeling bad for your sin, or trying to make up for it? According to Calvin, everything is wrong with this picture, because it’s framed incorrectly.

Repentance is not about feeling bad, it’s about understanding your sin in relation to God. It’s about understanding the separation between you and God, and the bridge made available to you because of Christ. It’s about turning away from yourself, not retreating inward. But, the teachings Calvin wrote against only guaranteed that you will be stuck in a cycle of defeat. He says that this attacks the very heart of what it means to have your sins forgiven: if repentance is all about feeling bad and making up for it, all of us are in big trouble.

The whole idea of this faulty system is to make yourself feel better. It first begins with feeling the full weight of what your sin deserves, which is impossible. Not even an eternity in Hell is long enough to help you feel the full weight of a single sin (Rom. 3:20-27; Isaiah 66). Calvin says this puts us in a cycle of defeat, and he is exactly right. None of us will ever come to a point where we will feel all the guilt and weight of our sins- we sin too often to ever have a chance of feeling this way. But, by dying on the cross, Jesus experienced what we will never have to experience. What we should feel when we sin is sorrow for realizing that we sinned against God and done wrong, and then desire to turn back. We turn from our sins by recognizing that God has forgiven us by the shed blood of Jesus and has put to death our sinful ways, so that we could live a new life under the power of His Holy Spirit.

Another important teaching we miss is that Christ’s work for us is still ongoing,

Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant. (Hebrews 9:15 ESV)

What Jesus accomplished on the cross and in the resurrection was only the beginning. He is not only your Savior and has restored your relationship to God, He also stands as mediator between you and God. When God looks at Christ, He sees you, and when He sees you, He looks at Christ. Your sins will never enter God’s sight, because they’ve already been placed on Christ, and Christ will continue to stand for you as a mediator, who will guarantee your salvation and eternity with Him.

As Calvin puts it,

But what kind of confidence is that which is ever and anon supplanted by despair? They tell you, if you look to Christ salvation is certain; if you return to yourself damnation is certain. Therefore, your mind must be alternately ruled by diffidence and hope; as if we were to imagine Christ standing at a distance, and not rather dwelling in us. We expect salvation from him—not because he stands aloof from us, but because ingrafting us into his body he not only makes us partakers of all his benefits, but also of himself. Therefore, I thus retort the argument, If you look to yourself damnation is certain: but since Christ has been communicated to you with all his benefits, so that all which is his is made yours, you become a member of him, and hence one with him. (Institutes, Book 3, Chapter 2, Section 24) 

That’s what true repentance means: turning from self to Christ.

It’s so easy to feel stuck in a pattern of repeating the same sins over and over. But, what we miss in all of this is that we were never separated from Christ in our sin. He is joined to us, and we are joined to Him, and that gives us victory over sin.

For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. (2 Corinthians 7:10 ESV)  

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. (1 John 2:1-3 ESV)


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