Book 4 Chapter 8 Section 1-16
Over Christmas I listened to a great programme on Radio 2. It was all about the Salvation army’s Family Tracing Service – this group work tirelessly to reunite loved ones who have lost contact for one reason or another. The one story that stood out to me was of a young mum who had lost touch with her Dad because of her parent’s divorce. She had little hope that the FTS could help, but sent the application form in anyway. One day she was just about to leave for the shops when the phone went. As she answered she was suprised to hear it was one of the FTS’s workers on the phone. She was expecting bad news, but instead the voice said “Hi Rebecca, I wanted you to know that I have found your Dad.” After 12 years of separation, Rebecca was overcome with emotion to hear that he was found and wanted to meet with her. It reminded me that delivering a simple and honest message, when delivered faithfully can often have a great impact on the hearer.
In this chapter of the Institutes Calvin presents the minister of Christ as the messenger bringing another’s message. It is precisely because the message did not originate in the messenger that it is both authoritative and unchanging. It is authoritative because it is a message from God, delivered to mankind through their peers. It is unchanging because the messengers have no remit to modify that message as they deem fit. Their job is to present the message with clarity and conviction, not decide which bits fit their or their hearer’s scruples.
Calvin begins by address the question: what are the limits of ecclesiastical power? That is, what was the nature of the authority conferred on ministers of the gospel? He begins be reminding us that authority is conferred on the position, not the person. The authority comes from delivering the word of the Lord, “for whenever they are called to office, they are enjoined not to bring anything of their own, but to speak by the mouth of the Lord.” Thus the importance of having a deep understanding of God’s word, that we may have something to say when we stand before people as God’s mouthpiece.
Progressive revelation is the theme of the next section, with Calvin recognising that as redemptive history unfolds, God’s ministers possess an increasing understanding of God’s character and plan of salvation. So, the resolution of the message becomes clearer from the patriarchs, to the prophets and then the apostles, and finally with the revelation of the Son, God’s testimony is now complete. No new teaching, prophecy or revelation is to be added to the testimony of scripture. Thus ministers are to cling solely to the revealed word, and not attempt to “coin some new doctrine”. Why did God do this? Well, “God deprives man of the power of producing new doctrine in order that he alone may be our master in spiritual teaching, as he alone is true, and can neither lie nor deceive.”
If that is what should have happened, Calvin laments how far the reality is from the ideal. For the 16th century Roman Catholic church maintained that “a universal council is a true representation of the Church” and that “such councils are under the immediate guidance of the Holy Spirit”. But these councils are called, organised and run by fallen men who then demand that we “assent to all their dogmas, affirmative as well as negative.” Calvin agrees that the Spirit guides the people of God, but it does not perfect them in this life. Contrary to the claims of his opponents, who reason that “since the church is governed by the Spirit of God, she can walk safely without the word”, believers “confine themselves anxiously within the limits of the word of God, lest in following their own sense too far, they forthwith stray from the right path.” True, we enjoy the first-fruits of the Spirit in this present life, but we are also acutely conscious of our great weakness and fallibility. In summary Calvin describes his opponents as placing “the authority of the Church without the word of God: we annex it to the word, and allow it not to be separated from it.”
Far from divesting the messenger of his responsibility for, and connection to, the message he delivers, this knowledge of its divine source affirms and secures such a bond. This is not some dreary announcement by a middle manager of the new company branding – a message that has no interest for the hearers and no conviction from the messenger. No, the gospel must be delivered by people who have so consumed its elements that it has been branded onto their soul. It is a message of life, joy and hope – not unlike the news that a loved one has been found after years of seperation. The way of restoration has already been secured, our duty is to simply deliver this message, faithfully, clearly and with conviction to enable both parties to finally meet. We share in the joy of reuniting family members – lost sons and daughters to their heavenly Father. Our message of reconciliation has never changed and will never change. May we be always found with that message on our lips.
“Son of man, I have made you a watchman to the house of Israel, therefore hear the word at my mouth and give them warning from me….We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: be reconciled to God.” Ezekiel 3.17 & 2 Corinthians 5.20
Father, rise up those who will faithfully & lovingly proclaim your message to a lost world, a message of hope, life and joy. May we see many come back to their only true Father and be reunited with the parent who formed them before they were born. For your sake, Amen