Calvin’s Motto

My Heart
To Thee, O Lord I Offer
Promptly and Sincerely

What are your plans for the life you have ahead of you? You may find, as John Calvin did while a young man, that God has plans that are entirely different. Calvin writes in his preface to his commentary on the Psalms,

When I was as yet a very little boy, my father had destined me for the study of theology. But afterwards, when he considered that the legal profession commonly raised those who followed it to wealth, this prospect induced him to suddenly change his purpose. Thus it came to pass, that I was withdrawn from the study of philosophy, and was put to the study of law. To this pursuit I endeavoured faithfully to apply myself, in obedience to the will of my father; but God, by the secret guidance of his providence, at length gave a different direction to my course. And first, since I was too obstinately devoted to the superstitions of Popery to be easily extricated from so profound an abyss of mire, God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame, which was more hardened in such matters than might have been expected from one at my early period of life. Having thus received some taste and knowledge of true godliness, I was immediately inflamed with so intense a desire to make progress therein, that although I did not altogether leave off other studies, I yet pursued them with less ardour.

By the power of God’s grace, Calvin’s attitude toward God and the life and abilities that God had given to him became one of humble submission to God. This attitude he pictured in his crest or seal showing a hand holding a flaming heart. The “I” and the “C” could stand for the Latin spelling either for John Calvin or Jesus Christ: Ionnes Calvinus or Iesus Christus. The submissive attitude that this seal represents is summarized in his life’s motto: “Cor Meum Tibi Offero Domine, Prompte Et Sincere,” which can be translated “My heart to Thee I offer Lord, promptly and sincerely.” And again in his preface to his commentary on the Psalms he writes:

Although the Psalms are replete with all the precepts which serve to frame our life to every part of holiness, piety, and righteousness, yet they will principally teach and train us to bear the cross; and the bearing of the cross is a genuine proof of our obedience, since by doing this, we renounce the guidance of our own affections, and submit ourselves entirely to God, leaving him to govern us, and to dispose of our life according to his will, so that the afflictions which are the bitterest and most severe to our nature, become sweet to us, because they proceed from him.

Calvin did not put his motto into words until he faced the call to leave his peaceful studies at Strasburg to which he had retired after being driven from the rebellious tumult of Geneva, and return again to Geneva. Calvin explained why he went back to the place of bitter afflictions in a letter to William Farel in August 1541,

As to my intended course of proceeding, this is my present feeling: had I the choice at my own disposal, nothing would be less agreeable to me than to follow your advice (to return to Geneva). But when I remember that I am not my own, I offer up my heart, presented as a sacrifice to the Lord… Therefore I submit my will and my affections, subdued and held-fast, to the obedience of God; and whenever I am at a loss for counsel of my own, I submit myself to those by whom I hope that the Lord himself will speak to me (John Calvin: Tracts and Letters, Volume 4, p.280-281).

In these words we also hear the first answer of the Heidelberg Catechism, “That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.”

The world is filled with people who give themselves body and soul to their lord. Terrorists sacrifice themselves to Allah with suicide bombs. Capitalists sacrifice themselves to the almighty dollar. Everyone one of us is tempted to set up our own lords of self image, pleasure, etc. Jesus himself confronted Saul on the road to Damascus with the all important question: do you know who the Lord is? And he confronts you and me with the question as well. Do we know the one and only God of heaven and earth? Is our knowledge of him rooted soundly in his word, or do we rely on the philosophies of man, our experience, or what we see in the world around us? And when we do search the Scriptures and listen to the preaching of the word, do we look for words that make us feel good, or the truth of God’s glory?

In his confrontation with the Roman Catholic Cardinal James Sadolet, Calvin addresses the important question of what motivates us. During his absence from Geneva, Sadolet had written a letter to the city in an attempt to drive Geneva from the Reformed faith and back to the Roman Church. The Council of Geneva forwarded the letter to Calvin in Strasburg for a response. In his response, Calvin chides Sadolet with the words

“[Your] zeal for heavenly life [is] a zeal which keeps a man entirely devoted to himself, and does not, even by one expression, arouse him to sanctify the name of God.” He continues, and explains, “it is not very sound theology to confine a man’s thoughts so much to himself, and not to set before him, as the prime motive of his existence, zeal to illustrate the glory of God. For we are born first of all for God, and not for ourselves.”

Zeal to illustrate the glory of God; does this zeal burn in your heart and motivate you to offer your whole life to him? Is this the prime motive of your very existence? Calvin’s theological work reverberates with the glory of God and we today cherish the doctrines which he was able, by the grace of God, to set forth clearly and distinctly: the great truths of God’s sovereign predestination, the unconditional covenant, and irresistible grace we hold dear today. Many churches, including an institution of higher learning which holds Calvin’s seal as a registered trademark but has changed its motto to “minds in the making,” have lost this focus of God’s glory, and therefore as Calvin put it, are prone to “unsound theology.”

When we seek the glory of God, God directs our attention to his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ. Two passages make this clear: “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). “For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). In Christ we see the sovereignty of God in salvation. We also understand that our lives, even as Christ’s, must be lives of humble submission to God and not to our own glory. Calvin’s motto also included the words “promptly” and “sincerely.” Don’t wait. Begin today to hold this motto before you: “My heart to Thee I offer Lord, promptly and sincerely.” Doing this, we also will put behind us the insecurities and anxiety of confining our thought to ourselves, and begin to enjoy the only comfort in life and in death.