Calvin on the Image of God in All Men

I don’t listen to many podcasts. Only a few, really, and, even then,  only one regularly. The only podcast that I listen to regularly is Dr. James White’s The Dividing Line. A few weeks ago, Dr. White read this quote from Calvin in the context of being fair to others, and doing whatever possible not to misrepresent their views. I found it extremely challenging, and convicting. You’ll find the text below, with some comments of mine following.

Looking around today’s landscape, we see the buildup of racial tensions, of tensions between social classes, tensions between civil authorities, and calls for people’s lives mattering. Of course they matter. And, of course, we should offer our assistance to them. But, we should ask ourselves: Why do they matter? Calvin is brilliant in his answer to that exact question.

Moreover, that we may not weary in well-doing (as would otherwise forthwith and infallibly be the case), we must add the other quality in the Apostle’s enumeration, “Charity suffereth long, and is kind, is not easily provoked,” (1 Cor. 13:4). The Lord enjoins us to do good to all without exception, though the greater part, if estimated by their own merit, are most unworthy of it. But Scripture subjoins a most excellent reason, when it tells us that we are not to look to what men in themselves deserve, but to attend to the image of God, which exists in all, and to which we owe all honour and love. But in those who are of the household of faith, the same rule is to be more carefully observed, inasmuch as that image is renewed and restored in them by the Spirit of Christ. Therefore, whoever be the man that is presented to you as needing your assistance, you have no ground for declining to give it to him. Say he is a stranger. The Lord has given him a mark which ought to be familiar to you: for which reason he forbids you to despise your own flesh (Gal. 6:10). Say he is mean and of no consideration. The Lord points him out as one whom he has distinguished by the lustre of his own image (Isaiah 58:7). Say that you are bound to him by no ties of duty. The Lord has substituted him as it were into his own place, that in him you may recognize the many great obligations under which the Lord has laid you to himself. Say that he is unworthy of your least exertion on his account; but the image of God, by which he is recommended to you, is worthy of yourself and all your exertions. But if he not only merits no good, but has provoked you by injury and mischief, still this is no good reason why you should not embrace him in love, and visit him with offices of love. He has deserved very differently from me, you will say. But what has the Lord deserved? Whatever injury he has done you, when he enjoins you to forgive him, he certainly means that it should be imputed to himself. In this way only we attain to what is not to say difficult but altogether against nature, to love those that hate us, render good for evil, and blessing for cursing, remembering that we are not to reflect on the wickedness of men, but look to the image of God in them, an image which, covering and obliterating their faults, should by its beauty and dignity allure us to love and embrace them (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.7.6).

For Calvin, rendering good for evil, and blessing for cursing is extremely difficult, and bordering on the impossible. Moreover, he claims it’s against nature. And how can it not be, in a world that has traded the Lord of Glory for a particularly deceptive form of secular humanism?

Ponder those situations where we need to demonstrate love for God by loving our neighbor. Think on those in your circles that need help, and proceed to offer it to them regardless of their disposition towards you. If you are united to Christ, then, as Calvin says, you have no good reason to pass them by.