Calvin’s Institutes — Family Devotional Edition
Suppressing the Knowledge of God
Although a seed of religion is divinely sown in all, hardly one in a hundred cherishes it in his heart, and not one in whom it grows to maturity, much less yield fruit in its season. While some lose themselves in superstitious observances, and others wickedly revolt from God, all are so degenerate that genuine godliness cannot be found anywhere in the world.
For those that fall away into superstition, their excessive absurdity does not free them from guilt; for their blindness is almost invariably accompanied with vain pride and stubbornness. When they seek after God, instead of ascending higher than themselves as they ought to do, they measure him by their own carnal stupidity. Hence, they imagine him to be whatever their own rashness has devised. With such an idea of God, nothing they may attempt to offer as worship or obedience can have any value in his sight, because it is not him they worship, but the dream and figment of their own heart. This corrupt procedure is admirably described by Paul, when he says, that “thinking to be wise, they became fools” (Rom. 1:22). He afterwards adds that they were deservedly blinded because, arrogating to themselves more than they have any title to do, they of their own accord bewitch themselves with perverse, empty show.
As a just punishment of the wicked, after they have closed their own eyes, God makes their hearts dull and heavy, and hence, seeing, they see not. Thus, David says the wicked has “no fear of God before his eyes” (Psalm 36:1), and, “He has said in his heart, God has forgotten; he hideth his face; he will never see it.” Thus, although they are forced to acknowledge that there is some God, they rob him of his glory by denying his power. For, as Paul declares, “If we believe not, he abideth faithful, he cannot deny himself” (2 Tim. 2:13); so those who feign to themselves a dead and dumb idol, are truly said to deny God.
Many people think it enough to have some kind of zeal for religion, however preposterous it may be. They would never dare trifle with God like they do if they had not previously fashioned him after their own childish conceits. It makes little difference at that point whether you hold the existence of one God or a plurality of gods, since you have nothing left but idols.
To this fault they add a second: when they do think of God, it is against their will. They never approach him without being dragged into his presence. Once there, instead of voluntary fear flowing from reverence, they feel only that servile fear which divine judgment extorts. Those who are at variance with the justice of God, and know that his tribunal has been erected for the punishment of transgression, earnestly wish that tribunal were overthrown. Under the influence of this feeling they are actually warring against God. Accordingly, to avoid the appearance of condemning a majesty by which everyone is overawed, they have recourse to some species of religious observance. But they never cease to defile themselves with every kind of vice until they have broken the law of the Lord in every one of its requirements. Thus, they are not so restrained by their semblance of fear that they do not take pleasure in iniquity.
Still, however, the conviction that there is some deity continues to exist, like a plant which can never be completely eradicated, though so corrupt it is only capable of producing the worst of fruit.
Questions for Devotion
- If everyone knows God, why do none of them naturally embrace Him?
- By what standard does the fallen man measure or understand God?
- How does God punish the false worship of man?
- What second fault does fallen man’s rejection of God produce? What further sins can result from this rebellion?
- Does the total depravity of man totally eradicate the knowledge of God within him?