The Reformers on the Meaning of Life
Much has been said and written in our century about the meaning of human life, or the lack thereof. A general feeling of a crisis that was present earlier as well came to a breakthrough point. Art and literature illustrate this. Several books were published about the crisis: Untergang (German for “downfall”), nihilism, defeatism. Does our existence have meaning? Does human life serve a purpose? Why are we here, and why are we the way we are? What is the destiny of man and his world? Those are typical questions that our generations are dealing with.
The question about the meaning of life is in fact already a very old one. Man has always been wondering why he exists, and whether or not there is a masterplan as the foundation for his life. This question is, as it were, an integral part of being human. The answers were sought in philosophy and in religion.
But in times of crisis these questions gained extra attention. We can think of days of sickness, famine and danger of death, but also of critical times when people ended up in political, social or spiritual upheaval. When all the certainties were shaken, when the foundations were demolished, this question about meaning became acute.
The Christian church, during all the centuries of its existence, has also given an answer to the question about meaning. The church derived that answer from the testimony of Holy Scripture. Already in the first pages we read about the world and man’s position in it. And at the end of the Bible it deals with the future of the world and of mankind. The Bible does not speak about these matters in a philosophical manner; it is not an ideological book. The word of Scripture about the meaning of man and his world bears the stamp of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. Man and the world would have been relegated to doom and destruction if it were not for Jesus Christ’s coming into the world, completing his work of salvation. All hope for man and the world lies in our Saviour.
The intent of this chapter is for us to review how the Reformers of the 16th century, at the time that the Christian church learned to understand Scripture in a new way, have spoken about the meaning of human life. We are convinced that in doing so we will discover much that still carries great value.
Luther’s Sermon About Dying
The 16th century was also a turbulent age. Tensions and threats were plentiful. People lived during the transition time of the late Middle Ages, a time characterized by Huizinga as an “autumn season”. Not that there were a lot of new ideas and things, but a certain feeling of doom was quite noticeable. To a high degree this was encouraged by the uncertainty of life. All his life Erasmus was trying to escape the dreaded pestilence. There were wars being fought all throughout Europe. The number of men, especially of young men, who lost their lives somewhere on some battleground was innumerable. Numerous young women died in childbirth. The death rate for young children had a chilling frequency.
The paintings of Jeroen Bosch as well as the sketches of Albrecht Dürer teach us in what kind of an apocalyptical atmosphere these people were living. Luther spoke during his entire life about the Last Day, which he presumed was very near. Melanchton already noted the “collapse of the age”. Calvin lived in a strong expectation of the resurrection of the dead.
In the late Middle Ages an entire ars moriendi, an art of dying, had been developed. The illustrations of these types of books are rather expressive. You see a dying person lying on his deathbed, surrounded by God himself, with saints and angels. But devils or hosts of demons are also present. It was prescribed how one could experience a Christian death; there were rules for it. Luther has purified this ars moriendi. Unbiblical elements were removed. And yet, his “Sermon about dying” still shows the influence of the medieval literature on this topic. For our intentions we are mostly interested in the “reasons of comfort” that Luther included in this Sermon. These provide evidence of how he interpreted the meaning of life. For it is true, situations of crisis (and dying is certainly one of these) bring these to light. The question of “Why am I here” or “Why did I exist” are never more urgent than at the end of the journey of life.
Three things strike us as we read Luther’s sermon about dying. In the first place he mentions that for a Christian the comfort in life and death is that he belongs to Jesus Christ. Not only does it provide safety, but meaning as well. He knows why he exists, or to put it more succinctly: for Whom he exists. Luther says, “When death takes hold of you and assails you, then let this be your comfort: that you belong to the Lord!” In this great moment of crisis — for such is death — the Christian who truly lives by faith does not need to say, “My life served no purpose; I only lived my life but it had no meaning.” He may fall back on him whose property he is. He was never entirely alone in the world. He was not a plaything of various dark and incalculable powers. There was One who cared for him as he was, with all his errors and faults, with all his failures, and who made him his own, to be his saving Lord and Master. That is all implied in the words “you belong to the Lord”. These are words taken from Scripture, and those provide support to Luther, when he brings this to the fore with such emphasis in his sermon about dying.
In the second place the words “I belong to the Lord” render evidence of faith. They are an expression of faith. Only through faith can people belong to the Lord. True, God has a right to every human being — Luther was aware of that — but only by faith do we become his possession. You could say, “Only then does life receive meaning when we become Christ’s possession through the surrender of our faith.” Outside of faith only meaninglessness would stare us in the face. We would be looking down into an abyss. Then the question will arise: “How did we get here? Why do we exist?” And then it is no wonder that we rebel against our existence. A note of bitterness may be detected in the question of “Why am I here?” And that bitterness will definitely be present when our life is tormented by all sorts of suffering and ultimate death. Dying may be experienced as a relief. But yet it is not a true relief — not salvation, but an emergency solution.
Luther is quite correct in his sermon about dying in his two-fold emphasis on the need for faith. In the first place, because we can only belong to God through faith. But in the second place also because faith alone can give us true peace and rest in crisis situations. Faith in Christ is never only a once-gained possession. It is always being assailed. A Christian is not someone who “has arrived”; someone who has it all together and never feels anything of the temptations that others need to suffer. He is in solidarity with the needs and the guilt of the world. The cold winds of our times of crises affect him as well. He does not stand high upon a rock, far removed from everything, but he stands in the midst of the struggles. For him as well death is a radical event. Even though he may know to have surrendered to Christ and to be his possession, every time again he goes through the crucible, and certainly so when death comes closer. That explains why it also depends on faith, right then. Perhaps then more than at any other time. This can also be found in Luther’s sermon. The Christian can be struggling with the meaning of life. Luther calls out to the dying Christian, “Believe in Christ!” and he urges him to prayer.
In the third place Luther clearly shows in his sermon that the meaning of life is not found in the earthly life as such. We do not exist to get totally involved in all the material aspects of this world. With such fortifications we will never be able to conquer the city. Involuntarily we would be torn away from our strongholds. Luther tells us that we need to live in such a way in this world that we would not become unwilling when God decides to terminate our existence. The sense of life does not exist in this life as such. There is Another who gives meaning to our life: God. In Christ, he wants to renew our life. Christ wants to put his hand on it. Only then does it become meaningful, in the true sense of the word.
Calvin About the Meaning of Life
Calvin too has something to say on this subject. In the famous Letter to Sadoletus, written by him in 1539, we meet a passage that teaches us like none other what, according to him, has to be the deepest intention of every human life. The Roman Catholic cardinal Sadoletus had asked for self-examination. Man needed to bend himself over backwards to find out what kind of virtue or piety could be found in himself. Calvin then writes in his letter: No, that is not a responsible action; before anything else the zeal for the honour of God must be prescribed for man as the foundation of his practical life. So Calvin identified the sense and meaning of life in this: the zeal for God’s honour. We are not in the world for ourselves, not for our own advantage, but for his glory. That is the purpose for which God created us.
The knife cuts on two sides: on the side of those who do not think about God at all and who think the material things suffice, but also on the side of those who think they themselves will be sufficient, being preoccupied with their own honour, their reputation, their position, or their religion, of whatever kind it may be. We see in the person of Sadoletus a mixture of humanism and late medieval devotion. Calvin, who knew both from his own past, sees a shortage in principle in both of these. People remain stuck in self-reflection, self-examination. You do not rise above yourself. The needle of the compass does not point to God, at least not radically — and that is what matters most. Where the honour of God is not at the foundation of your life, there neither humanism nor devotion will help us. Then we still lack the true sense of life.
Also in his Institutes Calvin has said many worthwhile things about the calling of the Christian in this life. It strikes us especially that Calvin pictures a tense relationship between, on the one hand being directed toward God, and yet on the other hand to be busy in a responsible way here on earth. The Christian is to seek God’s honour, for he has been created as man for the sake of God; that is the meaning of his life. But he also needs to keep this in focus in the practical life of every day. Calvin does not exclude the Christian from society. That is also his criticism on the monastic way of life. It is not true that only as a hermit or as a recluse, as monk or as nun, we are able to respond to the sense of our life. That is not even God’s intent, nor is it God’s will. Calvin recognizes it as an escape. That way we avoid the actual struggle.
It is characteristic in Calvin’s ethics to speak of the notion of the watchman. One must speak about the Christian life in military terms and categories. The main reason of it lies in man’s fall into sin. He turned his back on God. As a result, forces in enmity to God, have taken hold of man. Being zealous for the honour of God therefore, is accompanied with struggle. Not only external struggle, but also the struggle in one’s own heart. In this fight for God’s honour, which is the meaning of life, the Christian needs to arm himself. He needs to be on guard and persevere. He is never given any rest. It is certainly not the case that once we know the meaning of life that we can sit down on our laurels and take things easy. The struggle continues. The final post (a typical notion of Calvin) has not yet been reached.
According to Calvin, the life of a Christian has a remarkable duality, which however should not lead to dualism. On the one hand you find the self-denial, the reflection of the future life, the bearing of one’s cross, and on the other hand a complete recognition of the goodness of God’s creation, an enjoyment of the things that God gives us each day in this world, albeit that it concerns a measured enjoyment of it, for everything always hinges on the honour of God. That is the all-encompassing perspective.
With Calvin you will also find much emphasis on the Christian hope. Faith is pictured as the mother, and hope is the daughter. Anyone who seeks for the meaning of life in the honouring of God, and who does so based on his faith in Christ, such a person has a living hope. “There is hope!” Calvin could say, without taking away any aspect of the dire need of man and world. His preaching of hope was not simply an empty slogan. It was born out of the depths of what Scripture says and of what experience teaches regarding the brokenness of man and world. This hope was embodied in him who came from heaven and dwelt among us on earth: God’s own Son. We need not doubt this hope. It is not a notion, but it took on our flesh and blood. Christ is our Hope.
But it also extends itself to the future, or rather, to his future.
Calvin spoke of this future with rich and yet at the same time very sober words. He was not ashamed to acknowledge that he could not know what God had not revealed. Yet he turned against those who were of the opinion that they knew so much more, who made Scripture say what they loved to hear it say. Scripture speaks sparingly about the future. But also in its austerity it is grand. When you want to get a proper impression of what the Reformation has confessed in regard to the future, you should read Article 37 of the Belgic Confession. The meaning of the history of man and the world receives the full light in the perspective of the end that we may expect.
Now that there are so many discussions about the meaninglessness of human existence and the futility of this world, so many conferences, books and articles, and at a time that many are failing to find the true meaning, it is the task of Christians to speak expressly and succinctly about God, about Jesus Christ, about faith and hope, and in doing so to emulate the reformers of the 16th century. Life does carry true meaning, even if it is broken and decaying. The world’s existence makes sense, even when we go through various crises and catastrophes, for the Christian knows that his life is safe in Christ with God. Paul wrote: “We are the Lord’s” (Rom. 14:8). Somewhere else he writes, “So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). Those are words that Christians have to take note of — as the Reformers did. The meaning of life cannot be understood differently than from these words. Where these words are truly heard, there we overcome the need of senselessness. Then we arrive at a hope that will not be put to shame.