Calvin understood the absolute contrast between the sinfulness of man and the majesty of God, what theologians refer to as the Creator-creature distinction. In a typical lucid moment, the French reformer writes, “… Man is never sufficiently touched and affected by the awareness of his lowly state until he has compared himself with God’s majesty.” Such is the pattern of Calvin’s humility. This man was humble before his God.
John Calvin’s gaze was Godward. He was a pious man, driven by God’s majesty and a love for Scripture. His holy pursuit, as we shall see, was to live according to Isaiah’s timeless wisdom, “… But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word” (Isa. 66:2b). But aspiring to live according to Isaiah 66 and actually carrying it out are two different things. Like you and I, Calvin was a fallen man, a sinner. He battled sin and stared temptation in the face. He went into the “boxing ring” of life each day and fought the world, the flesh, and the devil.
The first sentence in the Institutes demonstrates how keenly aware he was of his own finitude and propensity to sin. He writes, “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” Calvin understood that apart from grace, sinners would flee from God and forsake his law. Apart from sovereign grace, sinners would utterly repudiate the Word of God and the promises of God.
Calvin continues, “Because of the bondage of sin by which the will is held bound, it cannot move toward good, much less apply itself thereto: for a movement of this sort is the beginning of conversion to God, which in Scripture is ascribed entirely to God’s grace.” The grace that Calvin speaks about, not only delivered him from the bonds of a Roman Catholic system of works; it freed him from the penalty of sin and the power of sin.
He adds: “On the other hand, it may be proper to consider what the remedy is which divine grace provides for the correction and cure of natural corruption … God, therefore, begins the good work in us by exciting in our hearts a desire, a love, and a study of righteousness, or (to speak correctly) by turning, training, and guiding our hearts unto righteousness; and he completes this good work by confirming us into perseverance.”
While Calvin frequently acknowledged the sin that he was delivered from, he also rejoiced in the Savior who enabled him to live a life to the glory of God. The same regenerating work of the Holy Spirit that transformed his stony heart into a heart of flesh was also responsible for sanctifying Calvin’s thoughts, will, desires, and the general course of his life. It was the Spirit of God who prompted saving faith. It was the Spirit of God who prompted obedience. Indeed, it was the Spirit of God who led Calvin down the narrow path (Matt. 7:14), the pathway of the blessed man (Ps. 1:1-3). It was the Spirit of God who prompted his Godly gaze and his holy pursuit. It was the Spirit of God who guided Calvin to the shores of the Celestial City. It was the Spirit of God who transformed John Calvin into a man of humility, a man of contrition, and a man who trembled before the Word of God.
A Humble Man
A humble man is someone who is lowly in disposition. Here is a man of low position, one who is undistinguished and has a modest opinion of himself. A humble man behaves in an unassuming manner and is devoid of haughtiness.
C.J. Mahaney writes, “Humility is honestly assessing ourselves in light of God’s holiness and our sinfulness.” Mahaney’s approach to humility finds deep support in the Bible:
“Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind” (1 Pet. 3:8).
“Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:4).
“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8).
Note: This is an excerpt from David Steele’s book, A Godward Gaze: The Holy Pursuit of John Calvin.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Philadelphia: Westminster Press), 35.
 Ibid, 2.3.5.
 Ibid., 2.3.6.
 C.J. Mahaney, Humility: True Greatness (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2005), 22.