Book 3 Chapter 2 Section 1-43
Last week I was at a seminar about convergent technologies in science and one talk described a new technology that allows ground telescopes to see through disturbances in the earth’s atmosphere. The result is that they can produce images with as good a resolution as those taken from telescopes in space. The same technology can also be used to image individual cells on the retina of the eye by correcting for the disturbances within the eyeball. It struck me this last week that society has become so advanced that we have almost conquered every last frontier. Maybe its also because I watched the Star Trek film last week, but I wondered whether the real final frontier for our society is not space, or the intricate working of our bodies, but faith. For it seems to me that this is the last mystery that society is yet to discover.
In this epic chapter on faith Calvin looks at the nature and power of faith and the various understandings of what faith that are presented in the scriptures and church history. Calvin defines faith as “a firm and sure knowledge of the divine favour toward us, founded on the truth of a free promise in Christ, and revealed to our minds, and sealed on our hearts, by the Holy Spirit.” Hence we can see that faith must:
1. Be grounded in knowledge. Calvin’s first topic is “implicit faith”, which describes those individuals who differ to the church in all matters of salvation and allow the church to determine what is true even though they may not understand it. Calvin is directly countering those who believe that blind acceptance of anything the priests proclaim is enough to save them. Calvin argues that although we cannot know everything, our faith must be based on a knowledge of divine truth revealed in scripture. We may not know all truth but we can truly understand and know what is sufficient for salvation.
Indeed, Calvin considers this attitude to be nothing else than a preparation for faith – real saving faith. He gives examples of those in scripture, such as the nobleman (John 4.53) and the Samaritans (John 4,42) as those who had pious feelings without the substance of saving faith. On issues of secondary importance that we cannot understand fully he agrees that we should “suspend our judgement, and resolve to maintain unity with the church.” Moreover, we should “endeavour in a calm and teachable spirit to make further progress.”
2. Assure of us the divine favour. But knowledge in itself is not enough, as Calvin explains “faith includes not merely the knowledge that God is, but chiefly, a perception of His will toward us.” How do we come to know what God’s attitude towards us is? Through His word. Indeed, “it were presumptuous of us to hold that God is propitious to us, had we not His own testimony.” Here we see that faith is closely related to assurance, for as we believe in the promises of God to us, the Spirit confirms His work in us with a feeling of acceptance in the family of God.
3. Rest on a confidence in the word. Thus it follows that our assurance of His favour toward us will be in proportion to our persuasion of the truth of this word. For “so long as your mind entertains any misgivings as to the certainty of the word, its authority will be weak and dubious, or rather it will have no authority at all. Nor is it sufficient to believe that God is true, and cannot lie or deceive, unless you feel firmly persuaded that every word which proceeds from Him is sacred, inviolable truth.”
4. Be confirmed through testing. While it is easy to confess we believe when everything is going well, it is only when our faith is tested that we know whether it is real or not. Only after it has been refined in the fire of suffering can we attain to a “sure and firm” faith. There is much life experience wrapped into Calvin’s assessment of how we grow in faith: “So deeply routed in our hearts is unbelief, so prone are we to it, that while all confess with the lips that God is faithful, no man ever believes it without an arduous struggle.”
I found this chapter on faith to be very thought-provoking. Regarding point 3, how many problems have been caused by the undermining of the truth of the scriptures? When once we allow this citidel to be breached and allow doubts to undermine our confidence in the absolute truth of God’s word, it is no suprise that our assurance of our salvation and His favour toward us are shaken to the core. We seem to think that we can edit our bibles to fit our contempory scruples and not suffer any consequences. But if we cut the staps of the parachute before putting it on we shouldn’t be suprised that it doesn’t slow us down when we pull the cord.
“Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for He who promised is faithful.” Hebrews 10.22+23
Father, grow this assurance within us – both in the truth of your word and your paternal favour toward us. Enable many others to discover this faith, not blind, unthinking, wishing-for-the-best faith, but the trust that comes from meeting and knowing the risen Saviour, for His sake, Amen.