On August 5, 1563, John Calvin wrote a letter of encouragement and counsel to Madame de Coligny, the wife of one of the more important leaders of the Protestant Reformation in France. She had recently recovered from a struggle with numerous physical afflictions. In direct reference to her diseases, and all of ours as well, Calvin said:
“They [that is, our physical afflictions and diseases] should, moreover, serve us for medicines to purge us from worldly affections, and retrench [i.e., remove] what is superfluous in us, and since they are to us the messengers of death, we ought to learn to have one foot raised to take our departure when it shall please God” (John Calvin, Selected Works, Vol. 7; 1551; ed. H. Beveridge and J. Bonnet [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983], 331ff.; emphasis mine).
We ought to learn from our physical afflictions, said Calvin, to live every day with “one foot raised” to take our departure into heaven when it shall please God. Do we live every day with one foot lifted ever so deftly off the ground in constant alert and anxious expectation of the moment when we will depart this world and enter into the splendor of heaven and the presence of God himself? I strongly suspect that Calvin did, and that there is much about living now in expectation of that day that we can learn from him.
Calvin is a remarkably helpful guide, a man of great wisdom, insight, and personal energy when it comes to thinking about the resurrection of the body and our anticipation of eternal life in the New Heavens and New Earth. We see this in no fewer than four ways.
First, Calvin was in the truest sense of the term a pilgrim on this earth. Calvin knew from personal experience what it meant to be a sojourner and an exile in this life. In his commentary on 1 Peter 2:11, Calvin describes the children of God, “wherever they may be, as “only guests in this world” (Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles, translated and edited by the Rev. John Owen [Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2005], Vol. 22, p. 78). As he reflected on Paul’s exhortation in Colossians 3:1 that we “seek the things that are above,” he argued that only in doing so shall we embrace our identity as “sojourners in this world,” that is to say, people who “are not bound to it” (Commentaries on The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to The Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians, translated by the Rev. John Pringle [Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2005], Vol. 21, p. 205).
Nowhere does this emphasis in Calvin come out with greater clarity than in his comments on Hebrews 11 and 13. Calvin concludes from 11:16, where the author mentions the patriarchs’ “desire” for “a better country, that is, a heavenly one,” “that there is no place for us among God’s children, except we renounce the world, and that there will be for us no inheritance in heaven, except we become pilgrims on earth” (Commentary on The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews, translated by the Rev. John Owen [Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2005], vol. 22, p. 285 [yes, Calvin believed Paul wrote Hebrews]). His observations on 13:14 are especially instructive. There the author of Hebrews describes the perspective of all believers in saying: “For here [i.e., on this earth] we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.” In light of this, says Calvin, we should consider that
“we have no fixed residence but in heaven. Whenever, therefore, we are driven from place to place, or whenever any change happens to us, let us think of what the Apostle teaches us here, that we have no certain abode on earth, for heaven is our inheritance; and when more and more tried, let us ever prepare ourselves for our last end; for they who enjoy a very quiet life commonly imagine that they have a rest in this world: it is hence profitable for us, who are prone to this kind of sloth, to be often tossed here and there, that we who are too much inclined to look on things below, may learn to turn our eyes up to heaven” (ibid., 349).
This keen sense of being a pilgrim and sojourner on earth was reinforced in Calvin’s heart by the harsh realities of his life. Forced to flee Paris because of his inflammatory remarks about the Roman Catholic Church and the need for reform, Calvin is reported to have descended from a window by means of bed-sheets and escaped from the city disguised as a vine-dresser with a hoe upon his shoulder. The next two years were spent as a wandering student and evangelist. He settled in Basel, hoping to spend his life in quiet study. Calvin returned to Paris in 1536 to settle some old financial matters. He decided to go from there to Strasbourg to be a scholar, but as a result of his famous encounter with William Farel ended up in Geneva. Trouble erupted when he and Farel sought to administer church discipline and to restrict access to the Lord’s Table to those who were spiritually qualified. The two were literally kicked out of town in April of 1538.
Calvin was determined to return to Basel and resume his studies, but Martin Bucer (who was won to the Reformation while listening to Luther at the Leipzig debate) persuaded him to go to Strasbourg. Evidently Bucer was having a difficult time at first persuading Calvin to come to Strasbourg. He sent word to Farel, asking his advice on how to deal with the matter: "Pronounce the wrath of God," said Farel. In a thunderous letter to Calvin, Bucer wrote: "God will know how to find a rebellious servant, even as he found Jonah!" Frightened by the comparison with Jonah, Calvin reluctantly said yes and went to Strasbourg.
There he taught theology and trained candidates for the ministry while working on a revision of the Institutes and writing a commentary on Romans. He also pastored the church in the city and was convinced Strasbourg would be his permanent home. But the situation in Geneva had deteriorated. The political forces sympathetic to Calvin had regained power and issued him an urgent call to return. He declined. Farel again intervened and Calvin found himself once more in Geneva, of which he was heard to have said: "There is no place under heaven of which I have greater dread." There he labored under almost unimaginable conditions, and where for the majority of his adult life was not granted citizenship but made to feel, in every way, that he was but a pilgrim passing through.
At one point, he wrote a letter to the English refugees in Zurich explaining that there was much sorrow in being banished from one’s home country. But there is another side: “Yet for the children of God, who know that they are the heirs of this world, it is not so difficult to be banished. It is in fact even good for them, so that through such an experience they can train themselves in being strangers on this earth” (Selderhuis, John Calvin, p. 83).
A second factor that contributed immensely to Calvin’s longing for resurrection and heaven, and makes him a wise and faithful guide for us, was his physical and emotional suffering. His physical health was aggravated by working late into the night and waking up at 4 a.m. every day. Added to this was the stress he faced daily from pastoral duties, a lack of exercise, too much work, and relentless insomnia.
Calvin's afflictions read like a medical journal. He suffered throughout his adult life from painful stomach cramps and recurring digestive problems, intestinal influenza, and constant migraine headaches. He was subject to a persistent onslaught of fevers that would often lay him up for weeks at a time. He experienced problems with his trachea, in addition to pleurisy, gout, and colic. He suffered from hemorrhoids that were often aggravated by an internal abscess that would not heal. He had severe arthritis and acute pain in his knees, calves, and feet. Other maladies included nephritis (acute, chronic inflammation of the kidney caused by infection), gallstones, malaria, and kidney stones. He once passed a kidney stone so large that it tore the urinary canal and led to excessive bleeding.
Due to his rigorous preaching schedule (he preached twice on Sunday and every day of the week, every other week) he would often strain his voice so severely that he experienced violent fits of coughing. On one occasion he broke a blood-vessel in his lungs and hemorrhaged. When he reached the age of 51 it was discovered that he was suffering from pulmonary tuberculosis, which ultimately proved fatal. Much of his study and writing was done while bed-ridden. In the final few years of his life he had to be carried to work.
There’s simply no way to read Calvin’s comments on the glory of heaven and the passionate intensity of his longing for entrance into that phase of eternal life and not recognize how it was largely shaped by the daily agonies and anguish that he endured while a pastor in Geneva.
The weakness and persistent frailty of his own physical constitution must have influenced Calvin’s belief that nothing is more at variance with human reason than the notion that our bodies will be raised up and glorified on the last day. “For who but God alone could persuade us that bodies, which are now liable to corruption, will, after having rotted away, or after they have been consumed by fire, or torn in pieces by wild beasts, will not merely be restored entire, but in a greatly better condition. Do not all our apprehensions of things straightway reject this as a thing fabulous, nay, most absurd?” (Commentary on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, translated by the Rev. John Pringle [Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2005], vol. 20, p. 46 (commenting on 1 Cor. 15:35). Therefore, “we must not here form our judgment according to our own understanding, but must assign to the stupendous and secret power of God the honour of believing, that it will accomplish what we cannot comprehend” (ibid., p. 47).
The third reason why Calvin is so helpful to us in cultivating a passion for heaven was his vision and understanding of Jesus Christ as the reason why heaven will be heavenly. If Calvin longed for the resurrection and glorification of the body only or even primarily to escape the manifold agonies that he suffered throughout the course of his life, he would not be for us the faithful guide that he is. If Calvin wrote of heaven and spoke of its glory only or primarily because there, in the New Heaven and New Earth, he would find a permanent and eternal residence, he would be unworthy of our attention. What made heaven heavenly for Calvin was Christ!
Calvin was deeply moved by Paul’s declaration that “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (Philippians 3:20-21a). Thus, wrote Calvin, “as Christ is in heaven, in order that we may be conjoined with him, it is necessary that we should in spirit dwell apart from this world. . . . Christ, who is our blessedness and glory, is in heaven; let our souls, therefore, dwell with him on high” (Commentaries on The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to The Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians, vol. 21, p. 109). Again, it wasn’t primarily his anticipation of his “lowly” body being transformed that stirred his heart to look forward to the resurrection and the new heavens and new earth, but rather that “in heaven” we find Christ! Christ, who is our blessedness and glory, is in heaven. Let our souls, therefore, dwell with him on high.
In a similar vein, Calvin had much to say about our Lord’s prayer in John 17:24 – “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.” In this passage,
“Christ speaks of the perfect happiness of believers, as if he had said, that his desire will not be satisfied till they have been received into heaven. In the same manner I explain the beholding of the glory. At that time they saw the glory of Christ, just as a man shut up in the dark obtains, through small chinks, a feeble and glimmering light. Christ now wishes that they shall make such progress as to enjoy the full brightness of heaven. In short, he asks that the Father will conduct them, by uninterrupted progress, to the full vision of his glory” (Commentary on the Gospel According to John [Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005], p. 187).
Thus to “enjoy the full brightness of heaven” is to see and savor God in all his glory! Indeed, “if God contains the fullness of all good things in himself like an inexhaustible fountain, nothing beyond him is to be sought by those who strive after the highest good and all the elements of happiness, as we are taught in many passages” (Institutes of the Christian Religion edited by John T. McNeill, translated and indexed by Ford Lewis Battles [Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1975], Book III, chapter xxv 10).
Fourth, Calvin is exceptionally helpful to us because of the way he instructs us to meditate on heaven and the final resurrection. Could it be that the indescribably practical, productive, and life-changing value of his labors and all that he accomplished during his earthly sojourn were due to his incessant and focused meditation on heaven? Yes!
There are several places in his commentaries on the New Testament where we see this emphasis. In Romans 8:23 Paul speaks of the inward “groaning” of both the natural creation and the children of God to enter in to the fullness of our heavenly reward. Paul’s point, wrote Calvin, is this:
“The excellency of our glory is of such importance even to the very elements, which are destitute of mind and reason, that they burn with a certain kind of desire for it; how much more it behoves us, who have been illuminated by the Spirit of God, to aspire and strive with firmness of hope and with ardour of desire, after the attainment of so great a benefit” (Commentary on The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to The Romans [Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2005], p. 308).
Speaking once again in the light of Philippians 3:21 and the transformation of our bodies, Paul stirs us up to lift our minds to heaven “because this body which we carry about with us is not an everlasting abode, but a frail tabernacle, which will in short time be reduced to nothing. Besides, it is liable to so many miseries, and so many dishonourable infirmities, that it may justly be spoken of as vile and full of ignominy. Whence, then, is its restoration to be hoped for? From heaven, at Christ’s coming. Hence there is no part of us that ought not to aspire after heaven with undivided affection” (Commentaries on The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to The Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians, p. 110).
In his commentary on 1 Peter 1:9, Calvin highlights how “the Apostle sets before us this future life as a subject of deep meditation” (Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles, p. 36).To allow our souls “to grovel on the earth would be inconsistent and unworthy of those whose treasure is in heaven” (Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke [Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005], p. 334). Again, commenting on 1 Peter 1:4, he contends that the apostles’ words are designed “to impress our minds thoroughly as to its [heaven’s] excellency” (Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles, p. 29).
This, then, is the living hope to which you have been born again because Jesus was raised from the dead! And in this, says Peter, you find great and deep and lasting joy. In this you find strength to endure trials and setbacks and disappointments. In this, says Peter, you find hope when everything else is hopeless. This glorious truth is what will sustain and empower you for everything that lies ahead.
[Adapted in part from my article, "Living with One Foot Raised: Calvin on the Glory of the Final Resurrection and Heaven," in With Calvin in the Theater of God: The Glory of Christ and Everyday Life, edited by John Piper and David Mathis (Crossway, 2010).]