Calvin’s Institutes — Family Devotional Edition
Everyone knows God
It is beyond dispute that there exists some sense of deity in the human mind by natural instinct. God himself has endued all men with some idea of his Godhead, and he constantly renews the memory of it to prevent any man from pretending ignorance; so that every man, being aware that there is a God and that he is their Maker, may be condemned by their own conscience when they neither worship him nor dedicate their lives to his service. There is no nation so barbarous and no race so brutish as not to be imbued with the conviction that there is a God. Idolatry itself is ample evidence of this fact. We know how reluctant man is to lower himself beneath other creatures. Therefore, when he chooses to worship wood and stone rather than be thought to have no God, it is evident how very strong this impression of a deity must be.
It is most absurd, therefore, to maintain, as some do, that religion was devised by the cunning and craft of a few individuals as a means of keeping the body of the people in due subjection. I readily acknowledge that designing men have introduced a vast number of fictions into religion to inspire the populace with reverence or strike them with terror, thereby rendering them more servile. They never could have succeeded in this, however, had the minds of men not been previously imbued with that uniform belief in God, from which, as from its seed, the religious propensity springs.
Although in old times there were some, and today not a few, who deny the being of a God, yet they occasionally feel the truth whether they want to or not. We do not read of any man who broke out into more unbridled and audacious contempt of the deity than Caligula, and yet none showed greater dread when any indication of divine wrath was manifested. Thus, however unwilling, he shook with terror before the God whom he professedly studied to condemn. You may every day see the same thing happening to his modern imitators. They all look out for hiding places to conceal themselves from the presence of the Lord and efface it from their mind; but after all their efforts they remain caught within the net. Any interval of relief from the gnawing of conscience is not unlike the slumber of the intoxicated, who have no quiet rest in sleep, but are continually haunted with horrific dreams. Even the wicked themselves, therefore, are an example of the fact that some idea of God always exists in every human mind.
Moreover, if all are born and live for the express purpose of learning to know God, it is clear that all those who do not direct their whole thoughts and actions to this end fail to fulfill the law of their being. This did not escape the observation even of philosophers. For it is the very thing which Plato meant when he taught that the chief good of the soul consists in resemblance to God—that is, when by means of knowing him, she is wholly transformed into him. Thus Gryllus in Plutarch reasons most skillfully that if once religion is banished from the lives of men, they not only in no respect excel, but are in many respects much more wretched than beasts, since, being exposed to so many forms of evil, they continually drag along in a troubled and restless existence. The only thing, therefore, which makes them superior is the worship of God, through which alone they aspire to immortality.
Questions for Devotion
- Atheists often argue that God has not provided any evidence of Himself? What is Calvin’s view of every man’s knowledge of God?
- What is one evidence of this universal knowledge of God among fallen mankind?
- What false image of God does the atheist, in his denial, worship then?
- To what kind of person does Calvin compare the atheist with his gnawing of conscience?
- For what express purpose does Calvin say we are all born and we all live?