Blog 116: 3.7.8 - 3.8.3
The Institutes almost demand multiple readings. Not only because the work is so rich in doctrinal perspective, but also because it is, in fact, full of striking "one-liners." Such surely include these words: "the chief part of self-denial ... looks to God" (III. 7.8).
There is a verbal paradox here, and also a word that can prove to be a kind of salvation for earnest souls. Self-denial is not attained by self-focus, but by God-centeredness. The medicine for the self-intoxication of the narcissistic self is not reflection on the self at all. It is personal reflection on God that produces the kind of self-forgetfulness that comes to expression in the beauty of Christian character.
Yet, Calvin insists, there is something deeper--or as he says, "higher." We cannot look to God apart from Christ. Since the goal of self-denial is not merely self-forgetfulness but Christ-likeness, the "higher" dimension of self-denial is bearing the cross.
Self-denial is not a shapeless, amorphous, notion. It involves being patterned after the likeness of Christ. After all, if the Father purposes to conform his children to the image of his Son, what other instrument would he use than cross-bearing? His "whole life was nothing but a sort of perpetual cross" (III.8.1). "Why" asks Calvin, "should we exempt ourselves. . from the condition to which Christ our head had to submit?"
This is muscular Christianity indeed. But is it not all too bleak (as some have thought)? Not if we consider (i) the depravity of our hearts that requires the strongest of medicines to eradicate our self intoxication, and (ii) the wonder of the goal the Lord has in view--that we should become like Jesus. In the goal lies the comfort.
The implication? Do not underestimate the radical nature of the work that needs to be done in you if you are to become like Christ!
Surely you didn't think that would be a small thing accomplished without pain?