Book II Chapter III Section 1-14
The opening chapters of Book II are returning again and again to the key question of how far reaching was the effect of Adam’s fall; and how from such depravity our hearts are turned and yielded to God. Having established that Adam’s fall resulted in a permanent rupture in mankind’s ability to know God (Chapter 1), Calvin has gone on to demonstrate that our wills are free only in so much as we act voluntarily (Chapter 2). We freely follow the instincts of our sinful heart.
In this chapter Calvin wants to understand the process by which the will is yielded to a God it is in rebellion against and how it is sustained to preserve in that new obedience. He sets before us two seemingly contradictory truths. Firstly, that there is no intermediate state between our old natures and the regenerating Spirit. All that belongs to our natural condition belongs to the sinful nature, including our desires, motivations and choices. On the other hand he recognises that “all these iniquities do not break our in every individual” and that some have even spent “all their lives devoted to virtue”. How then do we reconcile the depth of the corruption within each and every heart with the lives of those who attain to a level of purity in their conduct?
In answer, Calvin argues that God is active by His Spirit in the lives of individuals to restrain them from sin, preventing them from becoming as sinful as they could be and by His grace creating a civil and ordered society. However, he argues that while the Spirit acts to restrain them from evil acts, it does not cleanse them from the impurity of their nature. Their fallen natures are not regenerated.
Calvin then turns his attention to the work of God in regenerating the soul to be born again. If we are completely powerless to change the natural bias of our hearts then how does this change occur and what role does our will play in the change? Calvin argues that from first to last, from the very first faintest desire for spiritual things, it is all of God. By drawing on the analogues used in scripture of our hearts as stone (Ezekiel 36.26) and as a vine (John 15) he argues against those that claim our regeneration is dependent upon our will responding to God’s grace. He demonstrates from scripture that God even supplies the new will within us. “Were it said that God gives assistance to a weak will, something might be left in us; but when it is said that he makes the will, everything good in it is placed without us”.
So how does the Christian continue to follow this new will? Only by the sustaining grace of God. The One who began the change, moment by moment sustains it by His Spirit. Grace is not given in proportion to human merit, but in proportion to the overflowing abundance of God.
This is the grace they call amazing! This is the worker paying his labourers a day’s wages for one hour’s work, the rejected father being the first to crack open the bubbly when his son returns home. This is the heart of the doctrines of grace. That it is all of God from first to last. Our first impulse to love Him, our daily desire to follow Him, our best moment of adoration, our most sacrificial act, our daily plodding on the narrow way – ALL of it is to be sourced back to His pre-eminent grace in the heart of the believer.
What do we have that we did not receive? Nothing. The new heart came from Him, the longing for His presence came from Him, the gifts and blessings of the Spirit came from Him. There is no place for self-praise in the presence of God. Only humble adoration and thanksgiving that such a one as I was given such precious treasure. Not because of who I am, but because of who He is.
So what is our part in all this? Is it a life of ease as we sit back and enjoy the ride? Not at all. Our part is to daily take up our cross and follow a crucified Saviour. To yield our wills completely and utterly to God and then to be led by the indwelling Spirit in our daily life.
“For it is God who works in you to will and to act according to His good purpose”. Philippians 2.13
I am reminded of the verse from Augustus Toplady’s Rock of Ages that sums this up so well:
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to the cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Saviour, or I die.