Building a Reformed Life: Recovering John Calvin's Theology of the Christian Life for the Church Today

Neil E. Trainer


The problem addressed by this dissertation may be stated as follows: How can members of First Presbyterian Church, and others like it, be assisted in both their understanding of God's plan and their appropriation of God's power for their growth toward maturity in Christ's likeness? To address the stated problem, we propose to recover John Calvin's theology of the Christian life, which understands spiritual formation as the necessary and progressive reformation of the deformed image of God after the pattern of Christ through spiritual union with Christ by the process of repentance. In this light, spiritual formation is viewed as a "(re )formation," as what was formed holy and whole, but is now deformed by sin, is formed again in Christ. In chapter one, the ministry problem is described through narrative accounts of church members, and the problem is substantiated by citing the national polling data of recognized research firms. With such, it is demonstrated that many American Christians have adopted a soteriology that fails to capture the essential and unavoidable nature of spiritual formation. The second chapter will first show that the soteriology of John Calvin was threefold in its emphases. Specifically, salvation was held to include the interrelated (re )formations of our communion with God, our community with others, and our character within us, each of which has been deformed by sin. Chapter 2 will then show that, as an essential part of soteriology, spiritual formation as the (re )formation of character is necessary and includes ( 1) the restoration of the divine image, (2) through spiritual union with Christ, (3) worked out through repentance. The subsequent chapters will explore separately each of these three elements of spiritual (re )formation, particularly from the perspective of Calvin. Further, because the problem being addressed inherently includes not only the need for a practical theology but also its effective communication, the metaphor of construction or building a (re)formed life will be used to facilitate understanding. Chapter 3 establishes the image of God or imago Dei as providing both the materials and the blueprint for spiritual formation. It looks first at the imago Dei in humanity's Creation and Fall, and then at Christ Jesus as the true imago Dei and our model for spiritual (re )formation. In chapter 4, it is shown that, to have the deformed imago Dei within us (re )formed, we must be united to the one who is the perfect image of God, Christ. Thus, we see that the foundation upon which one builds a (re)formed life is the spiritual union with Christ or the unio mystica. Chapter 5 explores the building process and plans for spiritual (re)formation, namely, repentance and regeneration. Specifically, these include the practices of mortification and vivification, or the dying of the old self and the birth of the new self. The concluding chapter explores the implications of this study for discipleship and evangelism in the local church, and suggests further areas of study.