Category Archives: Derek Thomas
John Owen and Communion with the Triune God
Interview with Dr. Derek Thomas
What comes to mind when you think of communion? Bread, wine, and religious ordinance? The following interview is for fellow 21st century pilgrims unfamiliar with the term ‘communion’ and specifically ‘communion’ with God.
October 12th is the scheduled release date of Justin Taylor and Kelly Kapic’s newest volume in the writings of Puritan John Owen, Communion with the Triune God (Crossway: 2007). Communion was first published in 1657. The original edition is in the public domain, has been printed in various shapes and sizes, and is available for free online. In the past 50 years this work has been known as the second volume of The Works of John Owen (Banner of Truth).
The 2007 Crossway edition includes several enhancements like helpful indexing, introductions, extensive outline and glossary. Owen’s work has never been more accessible for readers (see our review here).
Dr. Thomas is from Wales and currently serves as John E. Richards Professor of Systematic and Practical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi. After pastoring for 17 years in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Dr. Thomas returned to the United States in 1996 and also serves as the Minister of Teaching at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson. He has lectured extensively on Owen (listen to his lectures on Owen here).
TSS: Dr. Thomas, it is always an honor to have you join us here on The Shepherd’s Scrapbook! Being a scholar of John Owen and well-acquainted with his works, what are your initial thoughts of this classic, Communion with the Triune God?
DT: Thank you, Tony. It is a great honor for me to join you here at The Shepherd’s Scrapbook. It is one of my favorite sites to visit.
I am also delighted to speak about John Owen. Along with John Calvin, he has been the most influential theologian in my life (at least, among dead ones!). I think I “commune” with him most days about something. That’s the great value of books. The authors may have died, but their writings live on.
I’m as excited as you about the forthcoming publication of Communion with the Triune God, after the splendid job they did with Overcoming Sin and Temptation (Crossway, 2006).
What comes to mind about Owen’s volume, Communion with the Triune God, is its essential Trinitarianism. Owen does a number of things that are important for us to see.
First, he is thoroughly indebted to Calvin and the Fathers in his Trinitarian theology. In an age when the church would find it difficult to expound the Trinity in any meaningful way, Owen assumes a line of theological continuity from the early centuries to his own day (thereby removing the charge made by Rome that Protestantism was ‘new’ and therefore suspect). He cites, for example, the classic formula of Augustine that the external acts of the Trinity cannot be divided (opera ad extra Trinitatis indivisa sunt) without any embarrassment! And, if my memory serves me correctly, we’re only a few pages into the volume!
The second thing about this volume is not only its catholicity (linking with the Fathers), but its centrality. In focusing on the believer’s fellowship with God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), Owen is picking up what Calvin had insisted lay at the heart of the all theology – union with Christ. Owen is doing so in a more overtly Trinitarian fashion than perhaps Calvin did; but he is bringing to surface what is at the heart of God’s covenant relationship with redeemed sinners. In doing so, of course, Owen can’t help but be experiential in his theology. In that sense, Owen is a perfect example of the puritan oeuvre.
TSS: At first glance of the title people may confuse this book as a long work on prayer or the spiritual disciplines. Or it may be shelved in bookstores with purely subjective books on how to experience some divine warm-fuzzy. Communion with the Triune God is very unique. What does Owen mean when he talks about “communion”?
DT: This is a really good question! And if the publication of this volume can do something to displace these unhelpful books to which you refer, then all the better for it!
Why is the reformed church so confused about reformed spirituality? This is where a volume like Owen’s Communion with the Triune God is so valuable at this present time.
Owen has a fairly complicated view of what communion in this context means. It begins with the idea of what “communion” or “fellowship” in Greek (koinia) means: to share in common with. This raises some important theological (and practical) distinctions: union and communion are not synonyms for Owen. Our union with Christ, brought about by God’s initiative and covenant. It introduces into a status from which flows (as fruit) communion with God. Kelly Kapic summarizes it this way:
- God communicates of himself to us.
- Union with Christ establishes our relationship with God.
- The resulting overflow of union is our returning unto God what is both required and accepted by him (i.e. communion). [endnote 1]
The union with Christ is brought about unilaterally; the communion on the other hand is a bi-lateral issue. Our communion with God can be affected by our sin, unresponsiveness, and especially neglect of the ordinary means of grace.
It is Owen’s Trinitarian emphasis, based to be sure on a disputed text (1 John 5:7), that enables him to expound a multi-faceted dimension to communion. Communing with the Father helps us appreciate the nature of love and reciprocate it; fellowshipping with the Son helps us appreciate and reciprocate grace; fellowshipping with the Holy Spirit encourages assurance as he draws us back to the embrace of Jesus Christ offered to us in the gospel of the Father’s love.
TSS: Communion with the Triune God is rightly hailed as a masterpiece on the Triunity of God. Why is this Triune distinction important in Owen’s understanding of communion?
DT: I have preempted this question somewhat already. But allow me to narrow the focus a little.
The obvious place to begin is to state that for Owen God is Trinitarian in nature. The only fellowship with God that is possible is with the entirety of the Godhead and therefore with each Person that constitutes the One God. If the place of any of the three persons is misconceived or denied, the gospel falls. Thus Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons or liberal Protestants who deny the Trinity as empty verbiage can never state the gospel properly because their view of God is all wrong.
The gospel in both its accomplishment and application involves a salvation planned, an atonement made and a salvation applied and none of these are possible apart from the work of all three Persons. For Owen, then, communion with all three keeps the gospel straight and the Christian life in good shape. From it flowed all manner of issues relating to the assurance of salvation – too often argued subjectively without recourse to the nature of salvation itself.
TSS: I’ve watched enough YouTube videos to notice that a large segment of professing Christianity in America dogmatically assert that Christianity is a relationship whereas theology is peripheral. For Owen, experiencing God personally and knowing God accurately are inseparable. Can you explain further how this is revealed in Owen’s thought and why this is important for us to grasp today?
DT: I’ll have to take your word about YouTube, but it is time for us to announce a Declaration of War against the creeping influence of Schleiermacher on modern evangelicalism.
I draw your attention to an essay by Carl Trueman called “John Owen as a Theologian” in a volume of essays on Owen, John Owen: The Man and His Theology (P&R and EP, 2002). These were lectures delivered at a conference on Owen in 2000. It says everything that needs to be said, first of all, about Owen’s distinctive theological emphases, and secondly why theology must be in the service of the experiential and not vice versa.
Owen was no different here than his Calvinstic predecessors, or for that matter, John Calvin himself. From Calvin’s opening sentence of the Institutes, which declared that nearly all the wisdom we possess consists in knowing God and knowing ourselves, comes the distinction that knowledge of God is more than knowing about God. There is a difference between knowledge by description and knowledge by acquaintance.
I had a student in my office recently who obviously loves Sinclair Ferguson. He had listened to what sounded like hundreds of Ferguson’s taped messages. I listened with interest and then (half anticipating the reaction), I said with cool detachment, “I’ve known Sinclair for 30 years and he’s a close, personal friend.” There was an awed silence! “Really!”
Well, Owen would say, Christians brought into a saving relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ can say, “I know God – personally.” True, the descriptive “personally” is a modern one and not one the seventeenth century would have employed in quite the same way, but the intent is precisely the same.
For Owen, as for Calvin, there is no sense in trying to talk about knowing God by experience if we don’t know how to articulate who God is! The only God there is has revealed himself to us in creation and providence, but supremely in the Scriptures and in his Son’s incarnation. But to have those things clear in our minds and be able to articulate them is not yet to know God. To know God, cognitio Dei is relational knowledge, knowledge that comes to us, in the relationship of faith.
TSS: You mention the “personal” aspects of a relationship with God would have been stated differently by Owen and the Puritans. Explain this further. How is this differently stated? Why?
DT: Well, forgive me, but I think we tend to use the word “personally” in some quasi-therapeutic sense, often at some disparagement to anything cerebral or structured. The puritans adopted (on the whole) a very definite faculty-psychology in which the mind must govern the will and the affections. Personal knowledge of God comes through the integration of this faculty psychology and through some back door to the heart.
TSS: This is very helpful in light of earlier questions. Thank you! … Owen seems to balance well an understanding of our Father who remains transcendent, majestic and holy but for the saint is also their loving, adoptive Father who “from eternity … laid in his own bosom a design for our happiness.” Owen calls us to “rejoice before him with trembling” and of course says if we don’t understand the deep love of the Father we will not draw to Him in communion. Owen writes, “So much as we see of the love of God, so much shall we delight in him, and no more. Every other discovery of God, without this, will but make the soul fly from him; but if the heart be once much taken up with this the eminency of the Father’s love, it cannot choose but be overpowered, conquered, and endeared unto him” (p. 128). How does Owen excel in this theme of communion with the Father?
DT: Of course, ravishing as this language is, it should be recalled that Owen is expounding the Father’s love for us employing the Song of Solomon (Canticles) as background. This was typical of the puritans as a whole to view the Song as an allegory of salvation.
Owen is dealing with a surprisingly modern problem at this point: that in communing with Jesus it is all too possible to draw the conclusion that whereas the Son loves us, the Father is angry with us. From such a distorted view emerges a misshaped view of the gospel, of course. Jesus has no need to make the Father love us because his coming into the world is evidence of it. The Father is the “fountain” or “source” of love.
“Though there be no light for us but in the beams, yet we may by beams see the sun, which is the fountain of it. Though all our refreshments actually lie in the streams, yet by them we are led up unto the fountain. Jesus Christ, in respect of the love of the Father, is but the beam, the stream; wherein though actually all our light, our refreshment lies, yet by him we are led to the fountain, the sun of eternal love itself. … (Communion with the Father) begins in the love of God, and ends in our love to him” (2:23-24).
TSS: That’s a helpful quote that captures Owen well. Thank you! … A year ago I interviewed Kris Lundgaard, an author who has taken John Owen and rewritten his books for contemporary audiences. He said he was surprised that sales of his book on overcoming sin (The Enemy Within) far outsold his book on the beauty of Christ (Through the Looking Glass). This was to him a surprise because seeing the glory of Christ is critical in the fight against sin (2 Cor. 3:18)! It’s likely that the overtly practical Overcoming Sin and Temptation from last year will outsell Communion with the Triune God (or any other Owen titles for that matter). What are the practical implications of Communion with the Triune God to the mortification of sin and the pursuit of holiness?
DT: Well, there’s no way I can come up to Kris standard, but I along with others am so grateful for his love for Owen and his publication. He manages to make Owen appear user-friendly to those who might otherwise be intimated.
I think I can understand why a volume on mortifying sin and dealing with temptation outsells because we all feel the need for help in this area. But perhaps this is a reflection of what another theologian-preacher once called, “sanctification by vinegar,” meaning we are sometimes forced into a set of behavioral responses by the fear of being caught or the being punished rather than because we have a desire to do it.
Only by a grasp of the true nature of God and the delights of communing with him can we really respond in the way we should. Owen, as all good theologians of Paul, observed what we might call gospel grammar. The imperative must follow the indicative. Holiness follows from what grace has reckoned us to be in Christ. What this volume does is tell us who we are. It solves the identity crises which sin can so easily bring. The volumes ought to be read in that order – Communion with the Triune God followed by Overcoming Sin and Temptation. It would be the Bible’s way.
TSS: Dr. Thomas, I love this: “What this volume does is tell us who we are”! This is a helpful observation on the importance of Communion with the Triune God. … Again, thank you for joining on TSS. You are a valued friend in our ministry. Blessings to you!
Related: Read our full review of Communion with the Triune God.
[endnote 1] Kelly Kapic, Communion with God: The Divine and the Human in the Theology of John Owen [Baker Academic, 2007], 157.
Christians suffer. So does God cause His children to suffer as punitive judgment for their personal sin? Walter Kaiser today at CT explains why Job’s friends were wrong in saying ‘yes.’ On a similar note, Derek Thomas’ book, Calvin’s Teaching on Job (Christian Focus, 2004) is excellent here, too. As one of Job’s friends (Elihu) realized, suffering is God’s means of instructing (not judging) His children.
“… affliction serves several ends: it is ‘the true schoolmistresse to bring men to repentance'; it weans us from dependence on the things of this world; it provokes us to prayer. Significantly, afflictions are the voice of God and a sign of his providence. They are by God’s appointment; they are God’s ‘archers,’ his artillery. Afflictions are a part of God’s ‘double means’ whereby he humbles us (the other being his Word). Yet, at the same time, they are ‘stirred up’ by Satan. … afflictions show us our sins and cause us to flee in repentance. … Afflictions also drive us to desire more of God’s help, provoking us to return to him, by drawing us to him, taming us, and teaching us to pray” (Calvin’s Teaching on Job, 227-228).
John Owen’s Pastoral Theology
Lectures by Dr. Derek Thomas
Here are the valuable lectures of Dr. Derek Thomas on the Pastoral Theology of John Owen delivered at the Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary this past Spring. They are here posted with the kind permission of Dr. Thomas and the President of PRTS, Dr. Joel Beeke. Here you can stream the audio through this page or download the lecture audio files. The course description and objectives are below.
Lecture 1 (1:33:29, 37.5 MB) download
Lecture 2 (1:21:15, 37.3 MB) download
Lecture 3 (1:33:58, 43.1 MB) download
Lecture 4 (1:27:10, 40.0 MB) download
Lecture 5 (1:20:11, 36.8 MB) download
Lecture 6 (1:28:23, 40.5 MB) download
Lecture 7 (1:23:48, 38.4 MB) download
Lecture 8 (1:31:14, 41.8 MB) download
“I owe more, I think, to John Owen than to any other theologian, ancient or modern” (J.I. Packer).
John Owen (1616-1683) was perhaps the weightiest of the Puritan theologians, often mentioned in the same breath as John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards as one of three greatest reformed theologians of all time. Remarkable though it is that he lived through the period of the Westminster Assembly without ever having been asked to take part in it, Owen nevertheless towers over this period, rising to the post of Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University.
His thoughts are massive, even intimidating; but a closer reflection reveals a man absorbed by the demands of piety and Christ-likeness, a truly humble man who could say “I hold myself bound in conscience and in honour, not even to imagine that I have attained a proper knowledge of anyone article of truth, much less to publish it, unless through the Holy Spirit I have had such a taste of it, in its spiritual sense, that I may be able, from the heart, to say with the psalmist, ‘I have believed, and therefore have I spoken.'”
The course will focus on those aspects of his theology which relate immediately to concerns of spiritual piety, including Owen’s view of the Christian life and the demands of mortification.
Initially lectures on Owenian theology will be given in order to introduce the student to the finer points of Owenian/Puritan theology and distinctives. At some point (to be determined) the format will assume the form of a seminar where participation (involving some preparation) will be expected.
According to Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “Owen on the whole is difficult to read” (Preaching and Preachers, London, 1971, p. 175). Similar sentiments are expressed by J. I Packer when he says, “There is no denying that Owen is heavy and hard to read” (Introductory Essay to The Death of Death, London, 1959, p. 25). But this need not be the case. Recalling that Owen wrote for teenagers at Oxford university, and that, in the main, his concerns were pastoral and eminently practical, Owen can be read, if not with ease, then with profit. A rule of thumb here may be to avoid beginning at the beginning! Several volumes contain some of Owen’s sermons (and it needs to be recalled that much of Owen was at one time sermonic in nature before being committed to writing); these might seem an ideal place to start. Choosing volumes for special study for this course has been difficult since there is a desire perhaps to obtain some knowledge of the whole range of Owen’s corpus. But we shall concentrate on a little with a view to the student gaining sufficient skill and interest to make the rest of Owen a lifetime’s study.
In a nutshell, you are to enjoy this course. Owen is one of those figures that will take a lifetime to master (and then some!). My hope is that I will whet your appetite to make him a companion who will accompany you on the journey of service for our Master.
Session 5 – (Wed. 7:00 PM)
“Mortification and Vivification: The Shape of Holiness in Calvin’s Institutes”
GRANTHAM, PA – Thomas returned to the Institutes to look at the shape of holiness according to John Calvin, but he began the session with a reference to his current study of John Bunyan (for a future biography). Referring to his own personal friendships with the men in the chapel, Thomas noted that in reading The Pilgrim’s Progress he was struck by how Bunyan weaves friendships into Christians’ sharing of the joy, temptations and losses of the Christian life.
Thomas would especially draw attention to mortification rather than vivification [mortification is dying to self and sin, vivification is coming alive to righteousness in Christ]. The focus in this session would be on the struggle against sin, bearing the Cross in affliction and self-denial.
Thomas opened by reading Colossians 3 with a special emphasis on verse 5: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.”
Calvin expands on the relationship of union and communion with Christ. Justification, sanctification and glorification all flow from an existential union and this union is now being worked out in our lives by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the “comforter,” which is Latin meaning “to strengthen” or “to enable.” Calvin expounds on this in a John/Paul fashion. Our union with Christ takes the shape of death and resurrection. We are involved in a union, a template of death/resurrection, so our lives take the shape of this death/resurrection pattern. Calvin develops this like Paul in Romans 8:13 (“For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live”) and Colossians 3:3 (“For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God”). This same twin element of crucifixion/death/burial/resurrection is seen in Colossians 2:12 — “having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.” There are Romans 6 parallels to Colossians as we commune and take part in the death of Christ that works itself out in mortification. Mortification identifies us with Christ. Christ calls His sheep to follow His life as a pattern.
In Matthew 16:13-20 Jesus says the Church will grow and prevail although She is being built in enemy-controlled territory. This is the program of the New Covenant age between the two comings of Christ. This is now where we live, too. In this program of church growth in enemy territory, Jesus establishes the pattern of the Christian life. And this life is one of self-denial and Cross-bearing (see vv. 24-28). We are called to deny ourselves and pick up our Cross and “own” the life of Christ. “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (v. 25). Only as we identify with the life of Christ will we save our lives. Any other course of life is to lose one’s life.
In Cross-bearing and self-denial we are putting to death the remaining sinful corruptions. On mortification Calvin builds especially off Romans 8:13 and Colossians 3:5. Calvin says, prepare for the knife.
Before continuing, Thomas makes two notes. First, he feared that by talking about mortification it makes him look as an expert who has made great advancements over sin in his own life. He humbly admitted that he is not superior in holiness to those in the room. Mortification actually becomes more difficult as you mature, he said. And second, talking about mortification makes guilt easier to communicate than grace. Calvinists who believe in the third use of the Law are very capable of generating guilt. This is easy. But the more Thomas reads Calvin and volume 6 of John Owen (‘the quintessential book’ to understanding the Puritan concept of mortification) the more he sees an emphasis on grace in Calvin that excels Owen. Calvin wants to emphasize grace in mortification. We need mortification because we are sinners, but we can never forget our justification!
The Struggle of Mortification
There is a reality of indwelling sin and remaining corruption. A war rages within. Calvin does not see Romans 8 as a progression from Romans 7. There is no way out of chapter 7 and into chapter 8 in the Christian life. In other words, chapter 7 is not a sub-Christian experience. For Calvin, chapter 7 and especially verses 14-ff are not the struggle of an unconverted Jew but the paradigm of the Christian life. The “I” later in chapter is the same “I” that is in union with Christ early in the chapter.
Passive sanctification seems to abound in the Church today. As soon as the demands of the Christian life are emphasized – ‘do this’ or ‘avoid that’ – people automatically label it ‘legalism.’ The third use of the Law for Calvin is a model for the Christian life as a man in union. But this obedience is never to gain the favor of God. Neither is obedience lessened because of grace already received.
The picture of the slow growth of the Christian striving against sin is seen in the following quotes by Calvin [and one of my personal favorites from the Institutes].
“But no one in this earthly prison of the body has sufficient strength to press on with due eagerness, and weakness so weighs down the greater number that, with wavering and limping and even creeping along the ground, they move at a feeble rate. Let each one of us, then, proceed according to the measure of his puny capacity and set out upon the journey we have begun. No one shall set out so inauspiciously as not daily to make some headway, though it be slight. Therefore, let us not cease so to act that we may make some unceasing progress in the way of the Lord. And let us not despair at the slightness of our success; for even though attainment may not correspond to desire, when today outstrips yesterday the effort is not lost. Only let us look toward our mark with sincere simplicity and aspire to our goal; not fondly flattering ourselves, nor excusing our own evil deeds, but with continuous effort striving toward this end: that we may surpass ourselves in goodness until we attain to goodness itself. It is this, indeed, which through the whole course of life we seek and follow. But we shall attain it only when we have cast off the weakness of the body, and are received into full fellowship with him” (Institutes, 3.6.5 or pp. 1:689)
This is the lifelong battle until we are glorified. Athanasius and Augustine both viewed Romans 7 as an ongoing battle between the renewed self in union with Christ and remaining corruption. In Romans 8:23 Paul says “And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” Creation groans and we, too, groan. Calvin calls this groaning a “warfare of patience” (Commentary on Rom. 8:24).
Being united to Christ we are a mass of contradiction. At our height, the good we want to do we don’t do. What we don’t want to do, we do (Rom. 7:15).
The Ground of Mortification
The ground of mortification is the simple fact that we can mortify the flesh! Reformation logic says, “If I ought to, I can.” Not by native ability, but because of our union to Christ, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and because the old Adam has died to sin. “Reckon yourselves” dead to sin (Rom. 6:11)! “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). Live as those who have died. We are dead men walking. Christ died to destroy sin. We take this view that sin and its demands have all been paid. Christ has purchased for us both justification and sanctification. God carries this out in His own people as they gain the upper hand over sin. Sin continues to dwell but no longer reigns over His people.
Evil desires take on a life force of their own. But Calvin wants us to see the basis of engaging in mortification is because we are dead to sin and alive to righteousness. Sin no longer reigns.
The Motive of Mortification
The motive of mortification is the fear of God. “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming” (Col. 3:5-6). Calvin, in his commentary, is especially clear that the wrath of God is coming upon those who do not engage in mortification. This becomes a motive to our mortification. The same theme is found in Romans 8:13: “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” If we don’t engage sin, we will die.
To say that you are united to Christ but don’t engage sin is to have, as Calvin puts it, a “mutilated faith.” Our engagement and victories over sin give us assurance that we are truly children of God.
Engaging in Mortification
So how do we mortify? First, we need a big picture. Mortification is not only concerned with specific and individual sins but all the entrails of the old man. Mortification is an engagement at the whole of sin, not just its parts.
The key to mortification is the mind. Book three and chapters 9-10 were added to the Institutes later as the whole comes to completion. It’s what we would call “faculty psychology.” For Calvin and the Puritans, the mind is the priority over the will and affections. Holiness begins in the faculty of the mind and in our thinking. For Calvin, we act according to our thoughts. So mortification begins in the mind. Remember in book one, Calvin calls the heart the “perpetual factory of idols.” And for Paul, he does not go into the details of sexual immorality but rather focuses on the idolatry of sexual sin and the idolatry of all sin. In James, the dynamic morphology of sin begins in the mind with the thoughts. So the way to deal with sin is to deal where it’s rooted – in our minds! Don’t think about sin. Guard your thought world. Guard your mind.
If we allow our minds to think about sin, the sin will develop a life of its own. Unguarded sinful thoughts motivate the will and the affections. Once the affections are set upon a sin, the sin takes on a life force of its own that will run its course. It will not be stopped. So deal with sin when it first rises in the mind. [This is a great illustration of the “life force” of sin.]
It is here that Calvin gives us one of the most eloquent passages of the Institutes.
“We are not our own: let not our reason nor our will, therefore, sway our plans and deeds. We are not our own: let us therefore not set it as our goal to seek what is expedient for us according to the flesh. We are not our own: in so far as we can, let us therefore forget ourselves and all that is ours. Conversely, we are God’s: let us therefore live for him and die for him. We are God’s: let his wisdom and will therefore rule all our actions. We are God’s: let all the parts of our life accordingly strive toward him as our only lawful goal (Rom. 14:8; cf. 1 Cor. 6:19). O, how much has that man profited who, having been taught that he is not his own, has taken away dominion and rule from his own reason that he may yield it to God! For, as consulting our self-interest is the pestilence that most effectively leads to our destruction, so the sole haven of salvation is to be wise in nothing and to will nothing through ourselves but to follow the leading of the Lord alone” [3.7.1, p. 1:690].
This is not only mortification in particular besetting sins but part of a wider picture because we live in a sinful world. We have two zip codes: one planted in this world and one planted in the world to come. Being rooted in a world that is groaning is a call to self-denial and Cross-bearing. The highest calling of the Christian is self-denial. So bear the Cross!
Of particular usefulness, Cross-bearing teaches us to trust in the grace of God. We will suffer poverty, bereavement, and disease in this world in order for God to present us faultless (Jude 1:24). In Calvin’s teaching on the book of Job, Calvin preached through the book himself in great pain and in the midst of personal warfare. Calvin was a walking encyclopedia of pain.
For Calvin, the essential message of Job is understood through the eyes of Elihu. Elihu understands pain is educative. It’s not punishment for some particular sin, but rather the pain brings out the potential sin that was resting dormant.
The climax of Job is God shutting Job’s mouth. Paul takes this same theme in saying the purpose of the Law is to shut the mouths of sinners (Rom. 3:19). Every time we speak, we spew idolatry, self-worship and self-exaltation. The beauty of the Cross is that self-denial causes us to trust patiently in God. Unbelievers are chastened and they only grow weary. Believers are chastised and they are matured. A Cross without Christ does no good, but a Cross with Christ is God pulling out His chisel on the edges of our lives and our angular characters. He will present us as trophies of grace in Christ. Afflictions teach us about Christ. Nowhere is the chasm of the 16th century church and the church today more revealed than in our understanding of trials. Calvin says, it’s not all about me! The fact is that the closer we are to the King, the more likely we are to draw enemy fire and taste affliction. As Christ suffers so shall we.
[For more on Calvin’s understanding of Job see Dr. Thomas’ excellent book, Calvin’s Teaching on Job (Christian Focus: 2004). “Elihu sees adversity as educative rather than necessarily retributive” (p. 227).]
When Paul is converted on the Damascus road, why does Christ say, “Why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4)? Because Stephen was one of His (7:54-8:1). You touch one of Christ’s little ones, and you touch Christ.
The Experience of Mortification
Calvin is not calling us to Stoicism. In our grief and sorrow, Calvin points us to our great consolation in the hands of our indulgent Father! For Calvin, what gives him joy and vigor and strength in the Romans 7 struggle with sin and Cross-bearing is the fact that this world rests in the hands of our Father. And there remain no doubts of the extent of God’s love for us — He sent His only Son for us!
In the words of Thomas a Kempis: if you bear the Cross, it will bear you. No matter where you are, carrying the Cross or burdened by sin – the Cross will bear you!
Related: For more posts and pictures from the 2007 Banner of Truth Ministers’ Conference check out the complete TSS conference index.