Category Archives: Humble Calvinism
John Newton, Memoirs of the Life of the Late Rev. William Grimshaw (London: 1799), pages 86–87:
They who avow the doctrines distinguished by the name of Calvinism, ought, if consistent with their own principles, to be the most gentle and forbearing of all men, in meekness instructing them that oppose. With us, it is a fundamental maxim, that a man can receive nothing but what is given him from heaven (John 3:27). If, therefore, it has pleased God to give us the knowledge of some truths, which are hidden from others, who have the same outward means of information; it is a just reason for thankfulness to him, but will not justify our being angry with them; for we are no better or wiser than they in ourselves, and might have opposed the truths which we now prize, with the same eagerness and obstinacy, if his grace had not made us to differ. If the man, mentioned in John 9, who was born blind, on whom our Lord graciously bestowed the blessing of sight, had taken a cudgel and beat all the blind men he met, because they would not see, his conduct would have greatly resembled that of an angry Calvinist.
It’s too easy to get puffed up, and not puffed up in a post-Thanksgiving way, but in a doctrinal way as those who pride themselves in the doctrines of grace (ie Calvinists, aka young restless reformed rascals). Those of us that believe in total depravity tend to forget that this doctrine paints a dark portrait of ourselves. And those of us that pray to the Sovereign God of the universe and who orchestrated all of history, tend to get distracted easily in our prayers by passing butterflies of whimsical thoughts.
We Calvinists have much to be humbled about.
John Newton (1725–1807) was no stranger to controversy, but he didn’t stir it up either. In fact Newton served as a peacemaker in the Calvinist vs Arminian debates of his time. This excerpt from one of his letters is worthy of a careful read.
To be enabled to form a clear, consistent, and comprehensive judgment of the truths revealed in the Scripture, is a great privilege; but they who possess it are exposed to the temptation of thinking too highly of themselves, and too meanly of others, especially of those who not only refuse to adopt their sentiments, but venture to oppose them.
We see few controversial writings, however excellent in other respects, but are tinctured with this spirit of self-superiority; and they who are not called to this service, if they are attentive to what passes in their hearts, may feel it working within them, upon a thousand occasions; though, so far as it prevails, it brings forcibly home to ourselves the charge of ignorance and inconsistence, which we are so ready to fix upon our opponents.
I know nothing, as a means, more likely to correct this evil, than a serious consideration of the amazing difference between our acquired judgment, and our actual experience; or, in other words, how little influence our knowledge and judgment have upon our own conduct. This may confirm to us the truth and propriety of the Apostle’s observation, “If any man think that he knoweth any thing, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know” [1 Cor. 8:2].
Not that we are bound to be insensible that the Lord has taught us what we were once ignorant of; nor is it possible that we should be so; but because, if we estimate our knowledge by its effects, and value it no farther than it is experimental and operative, we shall find it so faint and feeble as hardly to deserve the name. …
John Newton had the gift of deflating the heads that knowledge puffed up.
So how can young restless reformed rascal (like me) find humility? It’s a two-step process. First, look at the depth of your theological convictions. Thank God for that–it’s a gift. Second, compare those convictions with the shallow daily decisions that are made totally uninfluenced by them. And if that doesn’t work, look at how easily you are tempted to fear, to anxiety, to anger, and to idolatry, and then ask if those responses jibe with the God of Calvin’s Institutes.
May God grant us fresh eyes to see the chasm that separates our reformed convictions and our daily practices. This will work humility into our orthodoxy.
Here is an 11-minute overview of John Calvin’s life and surroundings. The video is a bit dated but it does a good job illustrating the harsh conditions Calvin endured in Geneva, his banishment and amazing return to Geneva.
Few things have been more surprising to me at TSS than the overwhelmingly positive response to the Humble Calvinism series we began at the start of this year. The series was birthed out of a personal interest in John Calvin — a man I knew was important, but for whom I had little direct exposure.
I should not have been surprised, though! The response to the series was a fitting illustration of the influx of Calvinism within the broader American Christian culture.
You’re probably already aware of this sharp increase in interest for Calvinism and the Reformed faith. Spearheaded by men like John Piper, Sam Storms, Wayne Grudem, C.J. Mahaney, Mark Driscoll, John MacArthur, Albert Mohler, Josh Harris and movements like Together for the Gospel, the Resolved conference, New Attitude, and a host of other conferences, aggressive church planting ministries, global evangelism, influential preachers, theologians and leaders, Calvinism is noticeably on the rise. Interestingly, this list of names and movements committed to Reformed theology includes diverse groups like Missional, Charismatic, Non-Charismatic, Baptist, Presbyterian, traditional and modern.
But most interesting to me, all of these characters and movements are having a strong impact on the 16-30 age group, sewing seeds of a Reformed theology that will blossom for many years to come. Christianity Today captured this trend in a cover story aptly titled, “Young, Restless, Reformed: Calvinism is making a comeback, and shaking up the church.”
The Church is shaking because Calvinism — an understanding of God as He acts and moves according to His own purposes and for His own glory — is on the move.
Roots of Calvinism
So the question many younger Christians are asking now is simply, What is Calvinism and where did it come from? And that probably explains why our series Humble Calvinism has caught the attention of so many blog readers.
Our goal in Humble Calvinism is not to explore the whole body of Reformed faith. Nor are we here trying to trace out the developments of Calvinistic theology. Our goal is simply to get back to our roots by familiarizing ourselves with the teaching of John Calvin, a reformer who lived between 1509-1564. We are not attempting to canonize Calvin’s works, nor induct him into the hall of sainthood. His teaching is only valuable to the level that it faithfully represents the Word of God.
No single individual is more central to Calvinism than John Calvin.
You would think this obvious fact would protect Calvin from neglect. Not so! Just this year a book was written that concluded with a lament over the neglect of Calvin’s sermons and commentaries by scholars [Herman J. Selderuis, Calvin’s Theology of the Psalms (Baker Academic: 2007) pp. 284]. For all the talk of a sharp rise in Calvinistic theology in our culture, there is an odd silence over Calvin’s works among the academia.
What better time to study Calvin for ourselves?
If Calvin today suffers from neglect, he also suffers from inaccurate historical slander, too. The caricature of Calvin as a harsh, grumpy, heretic-burning fundamentalist bent on ridding the world of dissent is sadly misinformed fiction. Physically he may resemble an anemic Saruman, but his godliness is well documented, his compassion was rich, and his piety was genuine.
Yet slanderous caricatures of Calvin flourished throughout church history. One angry author wrote that Calvin was “a persecutor of the first class, without one humane or redeeming quality to divest it of its criminality or to palliate its enormity … one of the foulest murders recorded in the history of persecution” (Wallace; 1850). Ouch!
Truthfully, in an age of heretic-burning, Calvin’s Geneva was a place of compassion. During Calvin’s entire stay at Geneva only one man was burned for his heretical beliefs (Servetus). And this fate was decided by a secular lawcourt – Little Counsel – that openly opposed Calvin! But Calvin did play a role in Servetus’ arrest and this one burning was one burning too many.
Without glorifying Calvin’s errors here, this lone event must be contrasted to the myriads of executed Protestants by the hands of Rome (as fill the pages of Foxes’ Book of Martyrs). If we take care to understand the times, we see John Calvin was a man of compassion in an age of theological intolerance.
The truth is that Calvin was no stoic! He enjoyed jokes and publicly taught his people to appreciate laughter as a gift of God. And Calvin enjoyed the gift with a mouth wide open! But he also cried in the sorrows of life. Aware of God’s sovereignty in all things, Calvin was acquainted with grief, personal loss, and persecution.
Striking to me is John Calvin’s character. He was orthodox, magnetic, humble, beloved, followed, and esteemed. He attracted a large following, which accounts for the massive movement he left at his death. He led a theologically rich movement that — because of its biblical fidelity — continues to shake the Church!
So what did Calvin teach? Next time we resume this question. And more specifically we ask a question Calvin is ready to answer: What is genuine saving faith?
Related: see all posts in the Humble Calvinism series index.
From time to time we like to feature parody on TSS.
But this is no joke.
Recently NavPress published a book titled I’m OK – You’re Not: The message we’re sending nonbelievers and why we should stop by John Shore. It was written by a humorist, but it’s not going in the “funny” folder.
The book’s purpose:
“Pretty much every last, single person in America has heard the word of God! The Great Commission has gone a very long way toward being completely fulfilled right here in our own backyard! …
So. Now what?
Well, the contention of this book is that now that it’s safe to assume that all of our neighbors already know the story of Christ and the Bible and so on, it might be a good time to take some of that enormous energy we currently spend on converting those same people, and to focus it instead on ‘just’ loving them as much as we love ourselves.
In other words, I think that here in the great, gospel-saturated U.S. of A., it’s time to shift our concentration from fulfilling the Great Commission to fulfilling the Great Commandment.
I do want to be clear about the caveat, though, of ‘only’ meaning that we should ease off trying to tell people about Christ who haven’t first asked us to tell them about Christ. If someone has indicated to us that they’re open to hearing the Good News, then by all means let us share until we’re hoarse (or until it’s clear they’d like us to go home so that they can go to bed). By extension, then, I’m also not in any way meaning to suggest that preachers should stop preaching, or that stadium-filling Billy Graham-style revival meetings should stop happening. Of course they shouldn’t. Because again: Those kinds of public or corporate affairs are presented to people who have asked to participate in them, who have willingly volunteered to hear the Word of God. Such people are fair game — and have at ‘em then, I say! Praise the Lord, and save me a front row seat” (pp. 14-15).
I’m aware this quote probably reflects the sentiments of a broad stroke of American Christianity. So in no way am I singling this author out (he is merely a representation). But so many things come to mind after reading this, I hardly know where to begin. In part, this reveals an overly-optimistic view of our country’s understanding of the Cross, a market-driven evangelism outlook, a misunderstanding of human nature, and a deficient understanding of the Great Commission (as being limited to media saturation and evangelism). Quite obvious is the purposeful disconnect between service and persuasion. Where to begin?
Serving up persuasion
The truth is, our acts of obedience and kindness are used to ‘win’ unbelievers to Christ. “Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct” (1 Pet. 3:1-2). It’s okay to have evangelistic motives behind your obedience. We can (and should) love and serve our neighbors, motivated that God would use that service in some way to radically change them (as He has changed us!).
And our evangelism must be done with humility. Certainly! But our humility comes from realizing that we are absolute failures before God. The Cross tells me I’m not okay with God and my neighbor is not okay with God either. The Gospel tells me (in myself) I am an absolute failure before God because of my sinfulness. Only in Christ do sinful failures have the hope of eternal life. So any pridefulness in Christian evangelism – which is what this book aims at stopping – is a derivative of misunderstanding of the Gospel itself.
If Christians act with belligerence in evangelism, and this reveals a lack of understanding in the Gospel, how misunderstood is the Gospel in the rest of “gospel-saturated U.S. of A”?
Ironically, the assumption of a widespread understanding of the Gospel affirms a superficial understanding of the Gospel, and this fuels pride in evangelism! This book unwittingly incubates what it sets out to cure.
We interrupt this program …
But enough about us, Christ is coming back in flames with a host of angels to “inflict vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thes. 1:7-8). That’s news worthy of interruption.
Remember Paul’s conversion? God apparently did not feel restrained to await Paul’s permission before knocking the Gospel-despiser down blind into the dust (Acts 9:1-9). Even before his conversion, Paul heard the Gospel and knew why the message was dangerous to his self-righteous religion. He was out to stop the spread of the Gospel. God interrupted his program.
But what incredible grace was shown to Paul! How does Paul recall this event in his life? Does he say it was unfair for God to have dropped him in the dust like that? No. Does he reprimand God for not asking permission first? No! He says, “though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 1:13-14). The blinding interruption in Paul’s life was mercy and grace!
Paul soberly reminds us from his own testimony that knowing about the Gospel does not disqualify us from being “ignorant” of the Gospel. Which is why evangelism must continue — no matter how pervasive the Christian message seems on the outside, nor how oppressive the influence to “stop” comes from the inside.
Pursue, persuade, serve, and share. But do it all in the strength of the Spirit and the humility so fitting the message.
Part 19: What is Faith? Pt. 1 (3.2)
What is faith? Maybe because it sounds elementary, this is not a question we ask much anymore. But church history reminds us of the dangers of an improperly defined (or undefined) answer to this question. Often this question has been wrongly answered by the fruit of faith – like peace, patience, joy, love, etc. — without first coming to understand the object of that faith. The nature of saving faith can never be assumed.
Jonathan Gresham Machen in his classic book, What is Faith? (1925), addressed this problem in his own day.
“Many men, as has already been observed, are telling us that we should not seek to know Him (God) at all; theology, we are told, is the death of religion. We do not know God, then – such deems to be the logical implication of this view – but simply feel Him. In its consistent form such a view is mysticism; religion is reduced to a state of the soul in which the mind and the will are in abeyance. Whatever may be thought of such a religion, I cannot see that it possesses any moral quality at all; pure feeling is non-moral, and so is religion that is not founded upon theology. What makes our love for a true friend, for example, such an ennobling thing is the recognition by our mind of the character of our friend. Human affection, so beautiful in its apparent simplicity, really depends upon a treasured host of observations of the actions of our friend. So it is also in the case of our relation to God. It is because we know certain things about Him, it is because we know that He is mighty and holy and loving, that our communion with Him obtains its peculiar quality. The devout man cannot be indifferent to doctrine, in the sense in which many modern preachers would have us be indifferent, any more than he can listen with equanimity [unmoved] to misrepresentations of an earthly friend. Our faith in God, despite all that is said, is indissolubly connected with what we think of Him” (74-75).
This emphasis on theology in understanding faith (and the impossibility of faith without theology) shows that Machen walked in the tracks left by John Calvin. For Machen and Calvin, What is Faith? is an important question worthy of consideration. Faith must center around an object, and only true faith will prove to be saving faith and bear the ripe fruit of godliness. [Faith and theology always pointed towards godly fruit (see Machen, pp. 183-218)].
This saving faith is an amazing work of a sovereign God in the heart of a spiritually dead sinner. However, as we understand the application of the Gospel to the sinner’s soul, Calvin is concerned that we not misunderstand faith as a subjective emotion bypassing the mind, but rather a faith flowing through the mind as the truth of Christ (theology) is pondered in serious thought and then clutched tightly by the affections. So what is faith?
What faith is NOT (3.2.1-5)
Like Machen, Calvin begins a chapter on faith with a restatement of the Gospel. So before we talk about faith, the object of faith (Christ in the Gospel) needs to be placed on the table. Saving faith is never separated from the Gospel; that God has stated His Law and expects perfect obedience, promises death to all who fail, that as sinners we are utterly unable to achieve perfect obedience to the Law, we have “no trace of good hope,” because we look forward only to eternal death and being cast away from the presence of a holy God. But God. By His grace there is one perfect Mediator, the savior Jesus Christ, sent by the Father in love. He will save sinners if “with a firm faith we embrace this mercy and rest in it with steadfast hope” (542-543). So as we pull a chair up to the table to learn about faith from Calvin, he first sets out the centerpiece of the Gospel. No conversation about faith can take place but in light of this theology.
Before Calvin defines what faith IS he wants to make clear what faith is NOT.
1. Saving faith is NOT a mere conviction that the Gospel is true. The centerpiece of the Gospel sits in the middle of the table. But looking at the Gospel message is not faith. This is a grave danger in Calvin’s mind. He writes “we must scrutinize and investigate the true character of faith with greater care and zeal because many are dangerously deluded today in this respect. Indeed, most people, when they hear this term, understand nothing deeper than a common assent to the gospel history” (543). It is dangerous, Calvin says, to be content with a faith that simply believes the “gospel history” is true.
Several chapters later Calvin returns to this concept in detail,
“Of course, most people believe that there is a God, and they consider that the gospel history and the remaining parts of the Scripture are true. Such a judgment is on a par with the judgment we ordinarily make concerning those things which are either narrated as having once taken place, or which we have seen as eyewitnesses. There are, also, those who go beyond this, holding the Word of God to be an indisputable oracle; they do not utterly neglect his precepts, and are somewhat moved by his threats and promises. To such persons an ascription of faith is made, but by misapplication, because they do not impugn the Word of God with open impiety, or refuse or despise it, but rather pretend a certain show of obedience” (554).
Sinners’ hearts are deceptive and this craftiness is revealed by sinners who are content with a “common assent to the gospel history.” It is one thing for the Cross to be true, still yet another altogether to say the Cross was intended to fulfill MY Law requirements, and give ME the perfect righteousness of Christ. He died for ME! A sinner may continue under the condemnation of the Law even though he believes in the historical accuracy of the Cross. It is possible to believe in truth and only shudder under greater condemnation (Jam. 2:19).
2. Saving faith is NOT a mere faith in God. God dwells in an unapproachable light (1 Tim. 6:16) and we need One (Christ) to come and reveal the Father to us. That Paul called sinners to believe in Christ is proof enough that saving faith in God is to be found by saving faith in Jesus Christ (Luke 10:22; John 8:12, 14:6; Acts 20:21, 26:17-18; 1 Cor. 2:2; 2 Cor. 4:6). We know God through the One He has sent (John 17:3) because Christ “is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb. 1:3). Peter writes, “He (Christ) was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God” (1 Pet. 1:20-21). Calvin concludes, “we must be warned that the invisible Father is to be sought solely in this image” (544). Knowing Jesus Christ, the Word of God (God’s very self-disclosure), matters to faith. Vague faith in a deity will not suffice.
3. Saving faith is NOT ignorance cloaked in religious humility. Calvin goes straight after the Roman Catholic Scholastic community here. The Scholastics promoted an “implicit faith,” that sinners could remain ignorant of the details of theology but saved because they were submitted under the authority of Rome’s teachings. Thus faith becomes more about ignorance cloaked in empty humility rather than true faith in the Gospel. Faith in the specific truth of the gospel was not necessary. Calvin responded that, “this fiction not only buries but utterly destroys true faith” (545). At length Calvin wrote,
“Faith rests not on ignorance, but on knowledge. And this is, indeed, knowledge not only of God but of the divine will. We do not obtain salvation either because we are prepared to embrace as true whatever the church has prescribed, or because we turn over to it the task of enquiring and knowing. But we do so when we know that God is our merciful Father, because of reconciliation effected through Christ (2 Cor. 5:18-19), and that Christ has been given to us as righteousness, sanctification, and life. By this knowledge, I say, not by submission of our feeling, do we obtain entry into the Kingdom of Heaven. For when the apostle says, ‘With the heart a man believes unto righteousness, with the mouth makes confession unto salvation’ (Rom. 10:10), he indicates that it is not enough for a man implicitly to believe what he does not understand or even investigate. But he requires explicit recognition of the divine goodness upon which our righteousness rests. … But on this pretext it would be the height of absurdity to label ignorance tempered by humility ‘faith’!” (545).
Genuine and saving faith is an explicit (though imperfect) trust in Jesus Christ. That is, the Gospel must be clear so that sinners can see their sinfulness, see the beauty of the Savior and rest in His sufficient work by faith alone. Telling ignorant sinners to simply submit implicitly to the beliefs of the church without concern for individual clarity agitated Calvin (as is should agitate us). One of the most beautiful biblical pictures of this truth is the meeting between Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8:26-40. The Gospel expects personal and explicit faith.
But is it not true in our day that belief in the Gospel applied to the soul is substituted for a ‘faith’ that rests content in ignorance and religious ‘humility’? Is not the “gospel” of our day peace and unity over clarity and doctrine? Likewise, we are never saved because we belong to the right church. We are not saved because we rest our ignorance under those who are educated and knowledgeable of the Gospel. We are not saved because we listen to excellent Gospel sermons. We are saved when God uses Scripture to reveal that we are wicked and sinful and our salvation can be found only in clinging to Christ as our righteousness. We must understand this. If Paul condemns those who are “always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth,” how condemned are sinners ignorant of the Gospel (2 Tim. 3:7)?
Never does church membership, affiliations or religious humility overcome ignorance of the Gospel message. Saving faith is explicit.
4. Saving faith is NOT perfect faith. Calvin understands that all faith is “implicit” to some degree. Francis Turretin writes, “as sanctification is imperfect, so faith has its degrees by which it increases and grows, both as to knowledge and as to trust” (IET, 9.15.1). Saving faith is not a perfect and fully explicit faith. Many things are yet hidden from our eyes and we are surrounded by “clouds of errors” (546). The disciples are a perfect example that even the redeemed child of God needs to walk humbly in a pursuit of further wisdom. God’s children believe and will always – in this life — struggle with unbelief. God assigns to each of His children a level of faith but none have perfect faith (Rom. 12:3).
Next time Calvin explains what saving faith IS.
This post is one in a series titled Humble Calvinism, a study through John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. For more information see the Humble Calvinism series index.
Part 18: The Spirit’s Application of the Gospel (3.1)
Here at The Shepherd’s Scrapbook we are taking time in 2007 to work through John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (McNeill/Battles edition). The Humble Calvinism series was intended to prepare for the Banner of Truth Minister’s Conference and to promote the humble orthodoxy of the New Attitude conference (both are later this month). Time is running out and the series has been sidetracked by other important concerns over the past several weeks. To speed the series up a bit, we’ll be jumping into book three of the Institutes. To catch up, we recommend reading the earlier archives in the Humble Calvinism series index.
Well, we have flown over a very large and important section detailing the work of Christ as our Mediator. I do not intend to downplay book 2, but jump into the content of the Holy Spirit’s application of redemption and Calvin’s teaching on godliness (our series goal). Where possible I’ll be threading the themes of the second book into our study of book three. Let’s jump in!
The Cross applied
We can learn about the offices and work of Christ, of His fitness as our Redeemer, of the death He endured for sinners, the Law-inflamed guilt He bore in His body, the wrath He absorbed, the righteousness He emanates, and yet not experience this Atonement work. “As long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us” (537). So how is Christ applied in us?
In short, it’s through the “secret energy of the Spirit, by which we come to enjoy Christ and all his benefits” (537). We must be “grafted into” and “put on” Christ (Rom. 11:17; Gal. 3:27). This application of the Gospel by genuine faith is the work of the Holy Spirit.
Holy and hopeful
But the Holy Spirit not only applies the precious Blood of the Son to our hearts, He also works to “separate us from the world and to gather us unto the hope of the eternal inheritance” (538). First, He separates us from the world system as our “Spirit of sanctification” (2 Thess. 2:13; 1 Pet. 1:2; Rom. 1:4). The Spirit becomes “the root and seed” of holiness in our lives (538).
This is an amazing truth given the spiritual dullness and deadness we display as sinners, being ignorant enemies of God, chained in our sin, “having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12). But the Spirit of God breaks into our darkness and deadness to sovereignly plant the seed of life and holiness in our hearts!
Secondly, the indwelling Spirit gives us the hope of eternal life! “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom. 8:11). If you have the Spirit, you have the same resurrection hope of Christ!
This gift of the Holy Spirit — indwelling sinners with the application of the Gospel, holiness and hope — flows from a very gracious Redeemer. Everything for Calvin returns to the Cross. The work of the Holy Spirit is no different. Every gracious, divine gift (which includes the work of the Holy Spirit) is given to each soul “according to the measure of Christ’s gift” (Eph. 4:7). For Paul, the “grace of the Lord Jesus Christ” is never far removed from “the fellowship of the Holy Spirit” (2 Cor. 13:14). “The first man Adam became a living being; the last Adam [Christ] became a life-giving spirit” (1 Cor. 15:45). Christ is the “life-giving spirit.”
Calvin then breaks into a fuller (but concise) list of the Spirit’s work in the lives of the redeemed.
1. He is the “Spirit of adoption” (Rom. 8:15). The Spirit, through the work of Christ, is the means whereby the Father “embraced us” as His adopted children (540)! It’s this “Spirit of adoption” that supplies us the words so we can pray to our Father. “And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Rom. 8:15).
2. The Holy Spirit is the “guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it” (Eph. 1:14). Our eternal hope is safely ensured in the hands of God the Holy Spirit. He has given us righteousness and this is to give life and the hope of life eternal. “But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness” (Rom. 8:10).
3. The Spirit is the One who waters our lives for spiritual refreshment and fruitfulness. “For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants” (Isa. 44:3). This water of life and refreshment is given to sinners from Christ, the “life-giving spirit” (1 Cor. 15:45 with John 7:37).
4. The Holy Spirit “restores and nourishes unto vigor of life those on whom he has poured the stream of his grace” (540). Thus, the Holy Spirit is called “oil” and “anointing” (1 John 2:20, 27).
5. In short, the Holy Spirit is the “spring” where all heavenly riches flow. “For by the inspiration of his power he so breathes divine life into us that we are no longer actuated by ourselves, but are ruled by his actions and promptings” (541). Whatever is good in our hearts is from Him, everything that flows from our own hearts is perversity and sinfulness (Gal. 5:19-21).
Hearing about the Gospel is insufficient! We must experience the Cross through the application of the Holy Spirit! “As has already been clearly explained, until our minds become intent upon the Spirit, Christ, so to speak, lies idle because we coldly contemplate him as outside ourselves – indeed, far from us” (541).
To know Christ personally in a saving way is not to simply know about Christ and His Cross. To know Christ is to experience the saving, sanctifying, purifying and hope-sustaining work of the Holy Spirit.
So where does personal faith fit? It fits here because “faith is the principal work of the Holy Spirit” (541). Calvin brings out the beauty of God’s sovereignty in personal faith. We are sinners and that means we don’t get spiritual truth. As our earlier studies in the Humble Calvinism series revealed, sinners like us are deaf and blind to God in the world (Rom. 1:18-32). God must give us wisdom and the eyes of our mind must be enlightened by the Spirit (Eph. 1:17-18). Without the Spirit, all is dark and dim.
Earlier in book 2, Calvin illustrated the fallen mind of the philosopher like the traveler in the black darkness of a stormy night.
“The (philosophers) are like a traveler passing through a field at night who in a momentary lightning flash sees far and wide, but the sight vanishes so swiftly that he is plunged again into the darkness of the night before he can take even a step – let alone be directed on his way by its help. Besides, although they may chance to sprinkle their books with droplets of truth, how many monstrous lies defile them! In short, they never even sensed that assurance of God’s benevolence toward us (without which man’s understanding can only be filled with boundless confusion). Human reason, therefore, neither approaches, nor strives toward, nor even takes a straight aim at, this truth: to understand who the true God is or what sort of God he wishes to be towards us” (277-278).
Without the Spirit, all is hopeless. Our personal faith is a special work of God! “Paul shows the Spirit to be the inner teacher by whose effort the promise of salvation penetrates into our minds, a promise that would otherwise only strike the air or beat upon our ears” (541). Indeed, without the Spirit, the Gospel message and the hope of the Cross would have fallen upon deaf ears! Genuine belief in the Gospel is a profound spiritual work of God. Just begin by reading a few examples for yourself: John 1:12-13, 6:44, 12:32, 14:17, 17:6; Matt. 16:17; 2 Thess. 2:13.
Faith, for Calvin, is no mere intellectual conviction of truth, but a Spirit-given relationship of the sinner’s soul to Christ. We must experience the Christ of the Gospel! This experienced relationship of Christ is what Calvin means when he talks of “faith.” And it’s this faith that will provide the content for Calvin’s next (very lengthy) chapter in the Institutes.
Part 17: Viewing God’s Theater (1.14)
After 24-inches of snow last week and 50-degree weather this week, I grabbed a book and headed to a favorite reading spot along a creek near my house. As I expected, the water was higher and swifter than I’ve seen. The loud creek provided the perfect silence for a good book.
The edge of the swift creek was a front-row seat to view the stage of God’s majesty, a special transcendent gaze into God’s glory and power. Calvin writes, “let us not be ashamed to take pious delight in the works of God open and manifest in this most beautiful theater” (179). Yesterday was “pious delight” in God’s “theater.”
But in chapter 14 of the Institutes, Calvin reminds us that God’s “theater” is much larger than what our eyes and ears can absorb from a metal bench along a swiftly running creek. Scripture opens us to a theater of God’s works that reveal an even larger and deeper glimpse into the power and might of God. God’s creative powers fashioned the visible, and He formed the elements of this universe that are largely invisible to the natural eye.
As Calvin transitions us from God’s general revelation (what can be seen with our eyes, usually encapsulated in the study of natural sciences) into God’s special revelation (what can only be seen through Scripture by faith, usually focused on salvation) the angels often fall forgotten in the middle. They are part of creation but only ‘visible’ through special revelation. So “if we desire to recognize God from his works, we ought by no means to overlook such an illustrious and noble example” (162).
First a warning. Human speculation corrupts our understanding of angelic beings. Every generation has attempted to explain angels apart from Scripture. Paul, having been taken to the third heavens, would not even trust his own observations but pointed people to the Word of God to understand the spiritual beauties (2 Cor. 12:1-4). “Therefore, bidding farewell to that foolish wisdom, let us examine in the simple teaching of Scripture what the Lord would have us know of his angels” (165).
We know angels are real beings only because Scripture reveals them to us. They are part of God’s creation we need Scripture to help us “see.” Calvin relates this to an old man with dim eyes trying to read without his glasses (160-161). We need Scripture to make God’s creation clear. We need to pray that God would open our eyes to see these angelic beings. Calvin uses this story in 2 Kings as an example:
When the servant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. And the servant said, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?” He said, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Then Elisha prayed and said, “O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. (2 Kings 6:15-17)
We need Scripture to see God’s protection around us. Revelation of the angels is not to satisfy our vain curiosity but to provide peace and comfort that God is protecting His children. May God grant us eyes to see.
Work of angels
The majesty of God’s creation in the angels is revealed in the work and power of the angels because they “in some respect exhibit his divinity to us” (165). The angels reveal this divinity in their works as God’s messengers and as “dispensers and administrators of God’s beneficence towards us” (166). Amazingly, the angels played a central role in the transmission of the Law (Acts 7:53; Gal. 3:19; Heb. 2:2). Beyond this angels protect, defend and direct the believers just as the angels ministered to Christ (Matt. 4:11; Luke 22:43). And “to fulfill the task of protecting us, the angels fight against the devil and all our enemies, and carry out God’s vengeance against those who harm us” (166-167).
So do we have guardian angels? Maybe. Some passages, like Acts 12:15, make it sound as though each believer has one primary angel. But this conclusion is uncertain and to Calvin unnecessary. “For if the fact that all the heavenly host are keeping watch for his safety will not satisfy a man, I do not see what benefit he could derive from knowing that one angel has been given to him as his especial guardian” (167). Good point.
Don’t worship angels
The warning is this: Don’t look so highly upon angels that you begin to worship them. We’ve already seen in our study of Humble Calvinism that John Calvin forcefully turns us away from everything that dilutes our worship of God. The angels are no different.
Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians displays this caution well. Christ created all things, even the angels (Col. 1:16). Paul does this so “that we may not depart from Christ and go over to those who are not self-sufficient but draw from the same well as we” (170). The angels are just as dependent upon God for their lives as we are for ours. “How preposterous, then, it is for us to be led away from God by the angels, who have been established to testify that his help is all the closer to us! But they do lead us away unless they lead us by the hand straight to him, that we may look upon him, call upon him, and proclaim him as our soul helper” (172).
But there are angels seeking to turn us away from God.
This would be the best place to insert a discussion of our angelic enemies. Satan is a powerful deceiver of souls. He deceives in order to lead sinners away from God, away from the Gospel, and blindly into eternal judgment (Matt. 13:25). “For he opposes the truth of God with falsehoods, he obscures the light with darkness, he entangles men’s minds in errors, he stirs up hatred, he kindles contentions and combats, everything to the end that he may overturn God’s Kingdom and plunge men with himself into eternal death” (174).
“We have been forewarned that an enemy relentlessly threatens us, an enemy who is the very embodiment of rash boldness, of military prowess, of crafty wiles, of untiring zeal and haste, of every conceivable weapon and of skill in the science of warfare. We must, then, bend our every effort to this goal: that we should not let ourselves be overwhelmed by carelessness or faintheartedness, but on the contrary, with courage rekindled stand our ground in combat” (173). While Satan roams and deceives, he is allowed only to do what God sovereignly allows (Job 1:6,12; 2:1,6; 2 Thes. 2:9-11).
Now back to the good angels. In all of this Calvin does not want us to forget about the full theater of God’s creative power. Look to His angels and be amazed at God’s power and glory. Be amazed at His thoughtfulness, love and protective power of us through them. The angels that we see with our eyes of faith are just as real and God-glorifying as the rushing stream that exalts God through the physical eye. Don’t wait until you are on top of the Rocky Mountains to worship God in His creation. Open Scripture!
Not only do we seek to know that God is the Creator of all things but in watching the theater of His creating power we feel His goodness which affects our hearts to service and comforts us in trials. But even more important to Calvin, it’s in Scripture’s revelation of this incredible God that we find assurance that the One we worship is in fact the One True and Living God, Maker of the universe. We worship no dead idol.