Category Archives: Humble orthodoxy
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.
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.
Oh, how I need to hear this continually! From Mark Lauterbach at the Gospel Driven Life blog:
It takes no advanced degree to find fault with another man — or to show the stupidity of someone else’s thinking. It takes much grace to see God at work in a fellow redeemed sinner whose life is marred by sin and marked by grace. It takes grace to see it and strengthen it. It takes grace to encourage them in a way that glorifies God and strengthens faith…
My children tell me I am very hard to please. I do not think I am — I think I have very good standards and they need to measure up. I wake up in the morning and the first thing I see is what has not been done. I see faults all over. I am God’s agent to make them excellent.
A few years ago a friend saw my sin and encouraged me to spend a whole summer doing nothing but encouraging my children. It was one of the hardest things I have ever done. Every day I would look for grace in them but find faults. I had to bite my tongue all the time. But the fruit on their lives and our relationship was amazing.
So — as I lead my family, do they hear my criticism more than my commendation? Do I see myself as the great and indispensable fault-finder? As I relate to fellow-Christians, am I more aware of their sin or of their growth in sanctification?
I am learning this most crucial element of fellowship — and seeing it as the first step. Until I see grace in others I am in no position to help them grow by pointing out their sin.
I say: Well done, Mark. Thank you for this reminder!
On this topic Mark also recommends C.J. Mahaney’s message: Grace and the Adventure of Leadership. How would you respond to the incestuous, sin saturated Corinthians? Be humbled by this message. Another excellent (and now free) audio message from Sovereign Grace Ministries.
The importance of God’s wrath
Yesterday I posted some comments about my gratefulness to Christ for escaping the horrifying consequences of my own sinfulness, namely escaping God’s wrath (see Saved from the wrath of God). Today I want to return to the topic and post from a slightly different angle.
From my perspective – and knowing my own heart — we sinners are apt to forget the gospel. When we become ignorant of the gospel, we make unwise life decisions, bear children ignorant of the gospel, and live in marriages where the Cross is not central (Eph. 5:22-33). It’s to our benefit, humility, and joy to be reminded of Scripture’s emphasis upon the wrath of God poured out towards sinners. This is what Christians have been saved from. The wrath of God is absorbed in the substitutionary work of Jesus Christ as our judicious and forensic Savior, and we are never beyond need of reminding.
So why is the doctrine of God’s wrath so important? For starters, the gospel – that the wrath of God resting upon the heads of all sinners, is, in Christ, absorbed when He drank the cup of our condemnation and substitutes Himself for the redeemed – is always in a process of erosion. This is especially true today.
One of the most noted dangers of the New Perspective(s) of Paul is the de-emphasis on Christ as the substitute who absorbs the wrath of God. After citing direct quotations from prominent NPP writer N.T. Wright, T. David Gordon writes, “The enemies and powers defeated by Christ do not (for Wright) include God’s own wrath or judgment … when he explains Paul’s narrative theology, and the cross and resurrection as the center of that narrative, he is entirely right, but when he explains precisely what Christ therein triumphed over, the wrath of God is not among the panoply” [in Gary L.W. Johnson and Guy P. Waters, editors. By Faith Alone: Answering the Challenges to the Doctrine of Justification (Crossway: 2006), p. 63].
The point is we are always in danger of forgetting God’s wrath. By sheer volume of Bible references, the wrath of God towards every sinner is the central consequence of our sinfulness. It is central to the work of Christ, central to the gospel, and central to living the Cross centered life.
So in hopes of stirring you up by way of reminder, here is a (short) list of some reasons why the theme of God’s wrath is important:
1. God’s wrath is biblical. The Scriptures are saturated with the wrath of God. Look for yourself. Talking about God’s wrath is nothing but letting the priorities of Scripture become our own priorities. We should be humbled and sobered by God’s wrath, but never silent. God has promised that sinners – all who are sexually impure, covetous, idolatrous, or otherwise impure and unrighteous – will face the wrath of God (Jam. 2:10; Eph. 5:3-6). Those who say otherwise are speaking empty and deceptive words.
2. God’s wrath reveals God. The wrath of God reveals His holiness, envy, perfections, an intense hatred of rebellion, His righteousness, His justice, His power. “I will make myself known among them, when I judge you” (Ezek. 35:11). Soberly, God reveals Himself in the damnation of the wicked. “What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory” (Rom. 9:22-23). The beauty of the Cross and the redeemed shines with greater luster when compared to the coming condemnation coming upon the wicked. Until we understand God’s holiness and wrath, we will only have wrong conceptions of Him.
3. God’s wrath reveals who we are. We are sinners. We exchange the glory of God for created things. We happily replace the joy of God for collecting Hallmark figurines, antiques and Beanie Babies (Rom. 1:18-23). We would rather treasure the fleeting things of the world and forfeit our souls (Mark 8:36). We are His subjects, but we do everything in our power to reject Him. We will abandon the natural biological creation to invent our own unnatural means of rebellion (Rom. 1:27). Every act of rebellion stokes the wrath of God (Rom. 1:18). If we have become honest with ourselves, we know that we are wrath-deserving, glory-exchanging, sin-pursuing sinners that (apart from Christ) can only expect the eternal wrath of God’s holiness. This is who we are. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, one of the great preachers of the 20th century, writes: “The way to appreciate your own sinfulness is not to look at your actions, nor your life, but to come into the presence of God” (Great Doctrines, 1:72). Step close enough to feel the heat of God’s holiness.
4. Importance of God’s wrath in the daily life of the Christian. To the question, “How are you today?”, C.J. Mahaney has popularized the response: “Better than I deserve.” Try it sometime. The barista behind the counter at Starbucks will give you a very puzzled look. But this will also be a great opportunity to share that an understanding of God’s wrath has made a permanent impact in your heart. So what do you deserve? Do you deserve perfect health? A venti Americano? Comfortable finances? An early retirement? Comforts? Vacations? The Christian knows better. Sinners (of which Christians will be until we see Christ face-to-face and have our sin burned away) deserve the wrath of God. It’s only because of God’s graciousness in the death of His Son that some sinners will be spared. Most sinners will get exactly what they deserve — the undiluted, eternal torment of God’s burning wrath. So why do we get angry when our comforts are disrupted by our spouse or children? Take a look into your own heart and ask: What upsets me? These disruptions are typically rooted in a misunderstanding that we are entitled to something other than wrath.
5. God’s wrath kills self-righteousness. If ever there was a truth that would break a self-righteous sinner like me, it’s the truth that God’s wrath rests upon me eternally if I am uncovered by the righteousness of Christ. My church attendance and good works and kindness and charity are a flick of water into a raging furnace. What can I do to cool the wrath of God? In light of His blazing holiness, what efforts, what works, will extinguish His wrath towards each of my sins? The popular wax gospel of human invention — that God will be pleased with me because I am not as bad as others – melts near the furnace of God’s wrath. Even a great and righteous prophet must pronounce condemnation upon himself in the presence of a holy God (Isa. 6:1-7).
6. God’s wrath exalts the work of Christ. How easily we forget that the searing pain and scorching suffering of Christ can never be pictured by His lacerated back and the holes in His hands, feet and side. These physical pains are only a surface-level visual to the horrors of the Son drinking down the cup of God’s wrath (Mark 14:32-36 with Jer. 25:15-38). “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). Or to put it another way, “But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed” (Isa. 53:5). The Gospel is centered around God’s wrath. For in His anger towards sinners He transferred the wrath from His children onto His only Son and then crushed that only Son. Until we catch a glimpse of the horrors of God’s wrath, we will never begin to see the horror and the beauty of the Cross.
7. God’s wrath motivates evangelism. How can we be quiet? “Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others” (2 Cor. 5:11). The thought that sinners would rest content in self-righteousness was appalling to the Apostle Paul. All self-righteous sinners, and especially the religious, need to hear the gospel to be saved from the wrath of God. This gospel travels on the wings of preachers sent out with the self-righteous killing Gospel (Rom. 10:1-21). What loosens the mouth to speak the Gospel is a heart that has seen a glimpse of the eternal wrath awaiting sinners (Acts 17:30-31).
8. God’s wrath drives me deep into doctrine. I can only escape God’s wrath if I am justified. So what is justification? Justification is the transfer of Christ’s righteousness to me, whereby God declares me “righteous” and takes my sin and wrath and transfers these upon the account of Christ, whereby He is declared “guilty” and endures the wrath I deserve. By faith, I entrust my salvation alone to Jesus Christ, my sin is atoned, I am declared righteous, I have the hope of eternal life and enjoy peace with God (Rom. 3:9-5:21; Gal. 3:1-14; Phil. 3:1-11; 2 Cor. 5:21). If I am not justified, I am not safe from the wrath of God. “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Rom. 5:9). The wrath of God gives significance to doctrines like justification.
9. God’s wrath reveals the beauty of our adoption. We are all by nature sinners and this makes us naturally “children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3). But now the enemies of God can be reconciled to God (Rom. 5:10). We are more than justified and declared righteous, we are taken into the family of God! Through Christ, our relationship to God radically changes! By faith alone, we come back to our Father in all our filthy sinfulness and He runs to us, grabs us, kisses us, celebrates over us, and calls us His children (Luke 15:11-32). If you are justified, God has taken His judgments away from you and now sings over you with loud singing (Zeph. 3:14-17)! The wrath of God was paid in Christ and through this beautiful Gospel I am now accepted. It’s not because I am good enough or ever will be obedient enough, rather because of His graciousness alone. Every day I can wake up knowing I am a child of God and that will never depend upon my own appeasement of God. Jesus, Thank you!
Jesus, Thank You (song by Pat Sczebel, Sovereign Grace Ministries)
The mystery of the cross I cannot comprehend
The agonies of Calvary
You the perfect Holy One, crushed Your Son
Who drank the bitter cup reserved for me
Your blood has washed away my sin
Jesus, thank You
The Father’s wrath completely satisfied
Jesus, thank You
Once Your enemy, now seated at Your table
Jesus, thank You
By Your perfect sacrifice I’ve been brought near
Your enemy You’ve made Your friend
Pouring out the riches of Your glorious grace
Your mercy and Your kindness know no end
Related: Propitiation is the theological term for the appeasement of God’s wrath in Christ’s substitutionary work for sinners. Theologian John Murray writes, “Sin is the contradiction of God and he must react against it with holy wrath. Wherever sin is, the wrath of God rests upon it (cf. Rom. 1:18). Otherwise God would be denying Himself, particularly His holiness, justice, and truth. But wrath must be removed if we are to enjoy the favor of God which salvation implies. And the only provision for the removal of wrath is propitiation. This is surely the import of Romans 3:25, 26, that God set forth Christ a propitiation to declare His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the ungodly.”
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 16: God is Three (1.13)
German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) once concluded: “The doctrine of the Trinity provides nothing, absolutely nothing, of practical value even if one claims to understand it; still less when one is convinced that it far surpasses our understanding. It costs the student nothing to accept that we adore three or ten persons in the divinity … Furthermore, this distinction offers absolutely no guidance for his conduct.”
Kant needed a healthy dose of Humble Calvinism.
In our series on The Shepherd’s Scrapbook, we’ve been tracing out Calvin’s thought through the Institutes to see just how applicable theology is. Here, in a lengthy chapter on the Triunity of God, Calvin does not disappoint. For the sake of brevity, we’ll be narrowing our attention away from Servetus and the evidence for the doctrines of the Trinity to focus on the consequences of this Triunity of God.
So how would Calvin respond to the idea that the Triunity of God is without practical value? Here are some thoughts from this chapter.
1. Triunity abolishes vain thoughts of God. Calvin writes, “Indeed, his spiritual nature forbids our imagining anything earthly or carnal of him … because he sees that our slow minds sink down upon the earth, and rightly, in order to shake off our sluggishness and inertia he raises us above the world” (121). This fits in the context of idolatry we’ve seen in the past two chapters. Sinners naturally weave gods for themselves, made in their own images according to their own whims. God says, ‘Look at my majesty and see that I am higher and deeper than your little mind could imagine.’ The Triunity of God as a doctrine is useful to confront our theological laziness and pushes us into divine mystery.
2. Triunity is central to our knowledge of God. Calvin writes that unless we grasp the nature of God in three persons, “only the bare and empty name of God flits about in our brains, to the exclusion of the true God” (122). As long as we think God is primarily found in religious rituals, icons, statues, and visual reminders, we’ll never understand Him to any degree. We are prone to make a god in our own image instead of resting in the Scripture-revealed God. Faith in the mysterious Trinity is both an axe at the root of idolatry and the path to a true knowledge of God. Without knowing of God’s Triunity, we cannot know Him.
3. Triunity highlights our need for revelation. A significant shift in the Institutes is taking place. Calvin was showing the limits of general revelation (visual and created world), but now is shifting to show the importance of special revelation (in Scripture). We cannot understand the nature of the Trinity without God’s revelation in the Word. Philosophers beware. Calvin writes,
“Here, indeed, if anywhere in the secret mysteries of Scripture, we ought to play the philosopher soberly and with great moderation … For how can the human mind measure off the measureless essence of God according to its own little measure … let us not take it into our heads wither to seek out God anywhere else than in his Sacred Word, or to think anything about him that is not prompted by his Word, or to speak anything that is not taken from that Word” (146).
That the Triunity of God surpasses knowledge has great practical use. It reminds us that natural revelation and philosophy are insufficient to know the deep mysteries of God. We must worship God in spirit and that assumes worshipping Him with truth otherwise invisible to our eyes (John 4:23). Our knowledge and worship of God wholly depend upon biblical revelation.
4. Triunity of God shows the importance of preaching. We should leave God’s explanation of Himself to Himself. But this revelation of God in His Word should be preached with boldness. Calvin here pushes past all the apparent ‘dangers’ of the doctrine of God’s Triunity. Don’t neglect it, he says.
In this chapter Calvin showed us the distinctions between the Father (as the wellspring), the Son (as the ordered disposition of all things) and the Spirit (as the powerful working in all things). Here Calvin was cautious of his distinctions that they may give “calumny to the malicious” or a “delusion to the ignorant.” But even in light of these dangers Calvin concludes it is “not fitting to suppress the distinction that we observe to be expressed in Scripture” (142). In other words, take God at His word.
The Triunity of God may at first appear to have no practical value, or appear open to misrepresentation, but Calvin was fully aware of Scripture’s power. If you trust in the power of Scripture, you’ll preach the doctrines contained. All Christians are called to “yield” and “be ruled by the heavenly oracles” even if we “fail to capture the height of the mystery” (146-147). Paul reminds us that God transforms us as we behold His glory with unveiled hearts (2 Cor. 3:17-18). So what God has revealed, preach boldly!
5. Triunity as central to our experience of God. We cannot know God if we don’t grasp the Trinity. John Owen’s masterpiece, Communion with God, is formed around the Triunity of God. Calvin would agree wholeheartedly – to know the true God we must know and experience Him in His three ‘persons.’
6. Triunity as central to the health of Christianity. Because the glory of God stands at the center of Christianity, a denial of the Triunity of God is a major danger (147). It embraces the very nature of God, the deity of the Son and the Holy Spirit. Without this foundation, all other knowledge of God will be false. Calvin writes that Satan has always sown heresies “in order to tear our faith from its roots” (145). And Calvin concludes this lengthy chapter by revealing his motive to dwell on the nature of the Triunity of God: “I am zealous for the edification of the church” (159). Calvin does not write and debate over the Triunity of God because he enjoys theological speculation. The health of the church is at stake.
7. Triunity as central to salvation. To deny that the Holy Spirit is God is to deny all of God. Salvation cannot be had if we deny the Triunity of God. Scripture severely warns us that to deny the Son (for example) is to deny the Father also (1 John 2:23, 4:15, 5:1).
8. Triunity brings the believer assurance. It was Francis Turretin, a close follower of Calvin’s theology, that concluded the Triunity of God has everything to do with our own assurances. Our hearts find consolation in the triple security of the the Son, the Father and the Spirit (see Elenctic, 3.24.18).
And our points could go on…
So why does a philosopher say the Triunity of God has no practical importance and Calvinists like John Owen center all experiences of God within the framework of the Trinity? The philosopher starts with man in order to interpret God. The Calvinist starts with God and then interprets herself. The Humble Calvinist begins with the core of all reality – that God’s own glory is the most important fact of human history. Only when we start with God does this Triunity become the most profound, ineffable, sweet and practical doctrine in the world!
Richard Muller writes a fitting conclusion: “The Reformed orthodox theologians’ profound sense of the ultimate and foundational nature of the doctrine of the Trinity for faith and worship and for the architecture and content of theological system frequently leads them to discuss at length the ‘practical use’ of the doctrine in the church” (Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 4:154).
The Triunity of God was (and remains) at the heart of all Christian life and practice.
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This all-embracing predestination
“The determination of the existence of all things to be created, or what is to be camellia or buttercup, nightingale or crow, hart or swine, and equally among men, the determination of our own persons, whether one is to be born as boy or girl, rich or poor, dull or clever, white or colored or even as Abel and Cain, is the most tremendous predestination conceivable in heaven or on earth; and still we see it taking place before our eyes every day, and we ourselves are subject to it in our entire personality; our entire existence, our very nature, our position in life being entirely dependent on it. This all-embracing predestination, the Calvinist places, not in the hands of man, and still less in the hand of blind natural force, but in the hand of Almighty God, sovereign Creator and Possessor of heaven and earth; and it is in the figure of the potter and the clay that Scripture has from the time of the prophets expounded to us this all-dominating election. Election in creation, election in providence, and so election also to eternal life; election in the realm of grace as well as in the realm of nature.”
- Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism, as quoted by Loraine Boettner in the excellent book The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination (P&R; 1932) p. 17.
Click here to access previous posts in the Humble Calvinism index.