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Religion Library: Presbyterian and Reformed

Human Nature and the Purpose of Existence

Written by: Ted Vial

The purpose of all existence, according to Reformed theology, especially human existence, is to glorify God.  The first question of the Westminster catechism (a short summary of belief intended to instruct newcomers) asks: "What is the chief end of man?"  The answer is: "Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever."  The same idea is expressed in the first sentence of contemporary evangelical pastor Rick Warren's bestseller, A Purpose Driven Life (Warren is a Calvinist): "It's not about you."  For Warren it is about God's plan.

The problem for humans is that, since the fall, they place themselves rather than God in the center of creation and in the center of their own existence.  This self-centeredness is what Zwingli and Calvin meant by original sin.  Sin is not doing something wrong.  One is born a sinner before one has a chance to do anything, because one is born self-centered.

If you rank the opinions that famous Christians held of human nature from high to low, Calvin's opinion would be at the very bottom of the scale (along with Augustine's and Martin Luther's).  For Calvin, human nature has been totally corrupted by sin.  Calvin is eloquent on human depravity.  Our minds are dark labyrinths, "factories of idols."  We are placed in the theater of God's glory but are too warped to see it without the "spectacles" provided by scripture.  It is not merely that we lack the will power to do what we know is right, although that is certainly true; our senses and our reason are also corrupted, and so our judgment of right and wrong is also unreliable. 

There are Christians who have held that God would not give laws in the Bible (the Ten Commandments, for example), and punish us for violating them, if it were not possible for us to fulfill them successfully.  Pelagius was one such Christian, and in a different sense Roman Catholics and Methodists have made a similar case (at least after the gift of forgiveness, and with additional outpourings of divine grace).  Calvin and Zwingli do not agree.  The commandments given in scripture remind us how incapable we are of doing anything without God's help.  This low view of human nature applies not just to the damned, but also to the saved.  Those chosen by God for forgiveness are no better than those chosen for damnation-they remain sinners, but forgiven ones.

What is at stake is divine sovereignty.  Any amount of self-reliance for salvation takes away from the power and glory of God, and our reliance on God.  This often makes modern people uncomfortable because it runs against our assumptions about humans as agents creating-at least to some extent-their own lives and history, and our assumptions about responsibility.  But it is critical to understanding the Reformation that this is precisely the message that struck people as a great relief.  The Reformers were confident that if salvation rested in our own hands we would inevitably fail.  We are much better off if it salvation rests completely in God's hands.  One factor in the rapid spread of the Reformation is that, in a time of religious unease, many Europeans agreed.

 

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