Category Archives: Book II

Don’t stop buying the flowers!

Book 2 Chapter 7 Section 1-17

What relevance is the law to the Christian? If we are “not under law but under grace” (Romans 6.14) can we just ignore the law? Also, if some of the law clearly doesn’t apply (such as the sacrificial system), then how do we know which bits to ignore and which bits to keep today? It is to these questions that Calvin addresses himself in Chapter 7 of Book 2. He is setting the scene to ensure we have a correct understanding of the use and purpose of the law before we get to his exposition of the 10 commandments in Chapter 8.

Calvin outlines the office and use of the law in three parts:

1. The law brings knowledge of sin – like a mirror held up to our face, the law reveals our true nature. Though we are “blind and intoxicated with self-love” as long as we we measure ourselves with the standard of our own choice, as soon as we behold the perfect law we begin to understand our own sinfulness. In fact, of itself, this knowledge can only lead to a conviction of  a certain judgement. Thus, we can either rush headlong into despair, or cast ourselves on Christ for mercy.

2. The law curbs outward depravity – like  a bridle placed on the head of a horse to control its movement, the threatenings of the law can curb the natural inclinations of the wicked by the fear of punishment. While they may be restrained from external acts “they are not on this account either better or more righteous in the sight of God”. Indeed, “the more they restrain themselves, the more they are inflamed”. Their outwards obedience betraying their inner hatred. However, Calvin recognises that this “forced righteousness is necessary for the good of society”.

3. The law presents a perfect pattern of righteousness – the law is our schoolmaster or teacher to bring us to Christ. This works on two levels, firstly to humble those who have “excessive confidence in their own virtue” and secondly once they are believers to “learn with greater truth and certainty what the will of the Lord is which they aspire to follow, and to confirm them in this knowledge”. Calvin argues that if the law “contains a perfect pattern of righteousness, then unless we ought not to have any proper rule of life, it must be impious to discard it”. Indeed, “there are not various rules of life, but one perpetual and inflexible rule”, and if David exhorts us to spend our whole like meditating on it (Psalm 1.2), “we must not confine to a single age, an employment which is most appropriate to all ages, even to the end of the world”.

Calvin finishes off the chapter by considering how we distinguish between what parts of the law have been fulfilled and thus no longer apply and those parts that remain in force (sections 14-17).  He reminds us that we are not under the curse of disobedience to the law. This is Paul’s point in the Romans passage quoted above. The demands of the law have been fully met in Christ.

He then turns his attention to the case of “ceremonies” of the sacrificial system, which have been fulfilled in their use, but not their effect. For “as these ceremonies would have given nothing to God’s ancient people but empty show, if the power of Christ’s death and resurrection had not been prefigured by them – so, if the use of them had not ceased, it would, in the present day, be impossible to understand for what purpose they were instituted”.

Response

Reading the mosaic law in the 21st century can seem very bewildering at times, particularly the laws about ceremonial cleanness and unclean animals.  Many laws obviously do not apply for new testament believers and the discussion in Acts 15 regarding circumcision is a good example of believers working through the implications of their faith against traditional Jewish culture and laws. We also know that Jesus and the NT authors reaffirmed many of the old testament laws in their teaching, often with a fuller explanation of the spirit of the law.

What Calvin is arguing for here is that we do not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Although we rightly see the fulfilment of many types and patterns by Christ in the law, what remains is an expression of the character of God. If we want to find out what pleases the Lord, as we are exhorted in Colossians 1.10, then where better to learn what He desires than by studying His commands?

What God’s people have recognised throughout the ages is that we do not try to keep these laws in order to gain acceptance with God, but rather that by them we learn that we need His mercy. And if we have received the Spirit of obedience (Galatians 5.16) how can we not seek to keep those laws that we know will please our heavenly Father out of a thankful heart? Should love not be a greater motivation than fear, particularly now that our wills have been released from bondage to sin?

It reminds me of when I was dating my wife. I would buy her flowers and presents and make myself look presentable in order to impress her and win her love. Now that I know she loves me should I not bother buying her flowers? By no means, my gifts of flowers are one of the ways I express my love for her, not as an act of duty but an act of love.

“Direct me in the path of your commands, for there I find delight “- David. Psalm 119.35

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them” – Jesus. Matthew 5.17

“We know that we have come to know Him if we obey His commands. The man who says “I know Him” but does not do what He commands is a liar and the truth is not in him. But if anyone obeys His word, God’s love is truly made complete in Him” – John. 1 John 2.3-5

One man to reverse the curse

Book II Chapter VI Section 1-4

This chapter is a turning point in Calvin’s thought. Up until this point in the Institutes we have been on a downward spiral beginning at what we were like when first created, then how that nature was marred by our first father’s rebellion, then how the curse put on him spread to all future generations, then how this corruption permeates the depths of our hearts and finally how we are powerless to alter our condition. But now we have the first glimmer of hope for mankind. If we have been sinking deeper and deeper into the blackness of the human condition, we have finally hit the bottom. There is no bad news left, we now have a correct view of the reality of the human heart and the abyss separating us from God. Now it is time for the long journey back to God.

Calvin begins this journey by briefly outlining the key concepts in the work of the Saviour, namely Jesus is the:

One True Seed – Christ is the One promised seed of Abraham, in whom all nations of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 3.16). For although the entire Jewish nation was physically the seed of Abraham, many were not Abraham’s seed spiritually (Romans 9.6).

One Mediator – Through the ceremonial law God sought to develop the concept of a mediator in the minds of the Israelites. They had an elaborate system of priests who daily interceded on the behalf of the people through sacrifices and offerings. But this was never an end in itself and was to be understood as a type of the One Mediator who would be the perfect priest, without any sin of His own, able to always live and intercede for them as both man and God (Hebrews 10.4).

One Redeemer – although the Israelites willing committed themselves to the conditions of the covenant, they were unable to keep it and repeatedly strayed from their obligations. But despite their failure, the covenant could not be broken and God would Himself provide the One to redeem them from their spiritual slavery. The Redeemer was promised who would bring them back to God once and for all.

One Shepard – many judges, prophets and kings would rule over Israel, but they would only ever have one Shepard. God promised to care for them as a loving shepard, to protect them from harm and deliver them safe home. One day the true Shepard would come to rid the land of the false shepards, who only loved to feed themselves (Ezekiel 34).

One Deliverer – throughout their history the Israelite nation experienced many great deliverances from their enemies. However, as the nation slipped into apostacy, God called to them through the prophets that one day they would not only be delivered from their enemies but also from themselves. A deliverance that would last beyond a temporal military victory. There would be a deliverer, of the line of David, who would deliver them from the power of a fallen nature.

Response

One man to do all this? One man to reverse the effects of the fall? No one tainted with the corruption of our nature could accomplish this. No one bound under the love of sin could break these chains. No one struggling with his own obedience could bear this burden. This person must enter the world with the same free will as Adam had, the freedom to choose to obey God from an innocent nature. The man must not have a single stain his character if he is to stand before God as the representative of others rather than himself. He must live his whole life in complete obedience if he would seek to redeem his people through a spotless sacrificial death. He must face the greatest ever onslaughts of the Devil himself if he would fulfill his mission.

The entire history of the human race lay in the hands of one man.  A man who hungered, wept, slept, worked and died. A real physical man. A man who lived the life that Adam should have, whose perfect life and undeserved death destroyed the curse of the fall and the condemnation of the law. One man to vanquish the curse – this would be God’s strategy to deal with the mess we made of creation. It would cost this man his life, but his blood would remove the curse of the law on us forever.

“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us…He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Jesus Christ, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit”. Galatians 3.13+14

Father, we thank you that before we were born you were preparing the way back to You. Thousands of years ago You were laying the foundation for the sending of Your Son to provide a solution to the corruption and bondage we were under. We thank you for Jesus’ willingness to come and suffer in our place, we give Him all the glory and praise, Amen.

Faith acquires what the law requires

Book II Chapter V Section 1-19

In this final chapter on the subject of free will Calvin addresses some of the questions that are raised in response to his teaching on this topic. So far Calvin has argued that our will is free only in so far as it means we act voluntary and not under compulsion, in our natural state we willingly choose to do what we love – sin. He claims that we are not ultimately free to choose whether to do good or evil until we are created anew by the indwelling Spirit. He recognises that the Spirit acts in the heart of people to restrain them from evil, but this is not sufficient to transform them. We need a new heart. A living soul of flesh implanted by God that wills to serve Him and is enabled by His grace to have the power to serve Him.

Some of the questions he tackles in this chapter are:

  • Does God mock us in demanding things we are not able to do (when he commands us to obey precepts He knows we are unable to do)?
  • Does this teaching not make the promises and precepts of God pointless if we have no power to respond to their encouragements and warnings?
  • Why does God rebuke the people of Israel and blame them for things they were unable to avoid?
  • How can mankind be held accountable for things they are powerless to change?
  • If the scripture teaches that God waits for us to repent then surely something must depend on us?
  • The scripture describes good and bad works as our own, how then is it that we are held responsible for the bad works but the good ones are attributed to Him?

In answer to some of these questions Calvin repeats the comment of Augustine that “God does not measure the precepts of the law by human strength, but, after ordering what is right, freely bestows on His elect the power of fulfilling it”. Augustine himself says “God orders what we cannot do, that we may know what we ought to ask of Him…Faith acquires what the law requires…nay, more, God demands of us faith itself, and finds not what He thus demands, until by giving it He makes it possible to find it”.

Calvin argues that there is no contradiction between God demanding a new heart within us, and then declaring that He gives it. Again from Augustine: “What God promises, we ourselves do not through choice or nature, but He Himself does by Grace”.

How does all this work in practise? Does God do everything while we sit back and relax? Well, not quite. God has given the believer a new heart to love and serve Him. Now they have the Spirit within to empower them to live for Him. So we want to act righteously, and although we often fail, we freely choose to follow our Saviour. Calvin puts it this way “you act and are acted upon, and you then act well when you are acted upon by one that is good…nature furnishes the will which is guided so as to aspire to good”.

Response
What Calvin is essentially saying here is that our nature has provided the power to will, but God provides the new direction and sustaining power. We have the innate ability to reason and decide on a particular action, but like the horse illustration that was used in the last chapter, we need to be broken in. God must tame our stubborn wills and bring us to a point of submission. Although the final victory over our old nature was certain from the moment of regeneration, there is a moment by moment decision required of whether to yield or resist.

God pleads with His people to be willing, “do not be like the horse or mule, which have no understanding but must be controlled by bit and bridle or they will not come to you” (Psalm 32.9). But we are weak and our efforts half-hearted. How we need His forgiving, healing Grace. Praise Him that our salvation does not depend on us, but on our sinless, spotless, Saviour.

“For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so He condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit”. Romans 8.3+4

Father, help our weak wills and sinful hearts to long and search for You. Forgive us our sins and renew our hearts that we may walk with You in unity rather than grieving Your Spirit within us. Pour out Your Grace today Lord, for Jesus’ sake, Amen.

The law of unintended consequences

Book II Chapter IV Section 1-8

The law of unintended consequences states that any purposeful action will produce some unintended consequences.  It means that however much we try and control the effects of our actions some things will happen that we did not intend. The truth of this law seems pretty self-evident and thinking about this law can provide some insights into Calvin’s arguments in this short chapter. In it he returns to the question of God’s control over both evil and indifferent events and how He manages to overule everything to His own ends. If He is overuling such events then how much responsibility can be attributed to man and how much to the devil?

Calvin begins to answer this question by using Augustine’s analogy of comparing the human will to a horse where God and the Devil are the riders. When once the control of the will is given to the Devil “like an ignorant and rash rider, he hurries it over broken ground, drives it into ditches, dashes it over precipices, spurs it into obstinacy or fury”. By contrast when the reigns of life are given to God “like a temperate and skilful rider, guides it calmly, urges it when too slow, reins it in when too fast…and keeps it on the proper course”.

Calvin next attempts to explain how we can attribute the same work to God, to Satan and to man without either excusing Satan or making God the author of evil. This issue was also addressed in Chapter 18 of Book I. Calvin argues that we can understand how these various factors interconnect if we look “first to the end (or purpose), and then the mode of acting” (italics mine). Using the example of the Chaldeans attack on Job’s camels in Job 1.17, we can see the three different purposes in the same act:

  1. God’s purpose is to exercise the patience of His servant through adversity
  2. Satan’s purpose is to drive Job to despair
  3. The Chaldeans purpose is to make unlawful gain by plunder

Calvin argues that “such diversity of purpose makes a wide distinction in the act”. We can also note the diversity of the mode of action:

  1. God allows Satan to afflict his servant, he hands over the Chaldeans to the impulses of Satan
  2. Satan willingly incites the Chaldeans to commit the crime
  3. The Chaldeans willingly rush to fulfil their desires

Thus, we can see how the same act can be attributed to God, Satan and man “while, from the difference in the end and mode of action, the spotless righteousness of God shines forth at the same time that the iniquity of Satan and of man is manifested in all its deformity”.

Response

This one illustration powerfully demonstrates the boundaries of the law of unintended consequences. All created creatures, whether spiritual or human beings are bounded by this law. Neither angels, or devils or people can control all the outcomes of one simple act. However, God is not bound by this law, He sustains and controls all things for His own purposes. He works within His own law of intended consequences.

Often we cannot understand what He is doing and why, and sometimes it is impossible for us to see any good to come out of an act. But we can rest in this truth that our God is able to overule the most impossible situations to bring His purposes to fulfilment. One day we will more fully understand how God has caused all things to work for the good of those that love Him. But for now we walk by faith, trusting our loving Father.

“It was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you…So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God”. Genesis 45.5+8

Father, we pray you would enable us to fully trust that you are in control of all things, overuling them for our benefit. Even in the darkest night we hold onto Your hand and look to You to lead us. We believe and know You are working for our good, help us to find our peace in acceptance of this truth, for Your sake, Amen.

Nothing in my hand I bring

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.

Response

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.

Free to do what you love

Book II Chapter II Section 1-27

After looking at original sin (or as Calvin calls it, hereditary sin) in Chapter 1 of Book 2, Calvin moves on to consider whether as a result of the fall man really has the freedom to choose to do good or evil. Does man really have a free will?

In order to answer this question Calvin first outlines how the mind works, how we make decisions. He identifies various elements within the soul, including the intellect, sense and appetite or will. He outlines the view of the philosophers who saw reason as illuminating the mind and informing the will to make decisions. However, they acknowledged that the will could be diverted from following reason by sense (pleasure and passion) that distort the appetite and turn will towards lust. But they believed that if man could rise above the influence of such carnal desires then he would be able to act justly and live an upright life. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is an excellent example of stoic philosophy that taught distancing ourselves from pleasure and pain in order to live a just life. Thus, the philosophers saw our innate reason as essentially pure and perceived the problem to be in trying to follow its inner light.

Discarding this view as not fully appreciating the impact of the Fall, Calvin then assesses the view of the church fathers on the topic of free will. He concludes that all of them, with the exception of Augustine, see man as corrupted at the sensual level only. They, like the philosophers, see our innate sense of reason as largely unaffected. He thinks this was driven by a misguided attempt to prevent people from feeling impotent to change their behaviour. Augustine defines free will in this way “it is a power of reason and will to choose the good, grace assisting, – to choose the bad, grace desisting”, emphasising man’s reliance on God’s grace for every good act. Calvin agrees with Augustine that without the transforming effect of grace man is completely powerless to live uprightly. He admits that mankind is not without the occasional spark of insight into the right path to follow, but our love for sin is such that we continue to decide to do that which we love – our sin.

Calvin goes on to describe three types of freedoms – the freedom from necessity (or compulsion), the freedom from sin, and the freedom from misery. He argues that the first freedom – the freedom from being forced how to act – is inherent to man and could not be removed, but the other two freedoms have been lost through the Fall. So, man has the free will to act however he so chooses, but he cannot act free from the power of sin. Calvin sums it up this way: “man is said to have free will, not because he has a free choice of good and evil, but because he acts voluntarily and not by compulsion”. But is this any type of freedom? “that man is not forced to be the servant of sin, while he is, however, a voluntary slave, his will being bound by the fetters of sin”.

Response

The issue of free will is contentious, we feel like we act freely and make up our minds over how to act. Indeed, it is true that even after the Fall, reason is able to act as a guide. But it is also in some measure corrupted, our conscience is not always reliable and even when it points us in the right direction we do not have the moral power to carry out our good intentions. Even when we recognise that we are caught in a trap, our will is not free to step out of the net.

We need help from outside to change. Just like the English rugby player who after he was caught for doing cocaine was actually pleased that he had been found out before his addiction completely ruined his life, we need someone to step in and save us. Someone who has the power to overcome our weak will and set it in a new direction.

The case for the Saviour is being steadily built as each chapter unfolds. He is able to take us from being voluntary slaves to sin and make us willing love slaves to Him, so that we desire to do what’s right and have the power to carry it out. Then and only then are we willing and able to do what pleases Him. The struggle with sensual desires still wages but we have a new power within to will and to do what we now love – live a godly life.

“I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin…So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed”. John 8.34

Father, if we are completely honest we recognise that there is nothing in us that desires you. It is only by your Spirit working in us that we desire to draw near to you and begin to love and serve you. Thank you that you have taken away our heart of stone and given us a heart of flesh. Fan into flame this desire and give us a steadfast heart to seek Your face, for your name’s sake, Amen.

The day we all died

Book II Chapter I Section 1-11

The theme of Book II is the knowledge of God the Redeemer and in the opening chapters Calvin considers why we need a redeemer at all. The first reason is because of original (or inherited) sin and in Chapter 1 he examines the fall of Adam. We have already considered something of Adam’s pre-fall character in Chapter 15, when we thought about what mankind would have been like had Adam never sinned. Now we are examining what actually happened and the extent to which our nature has been corrupted.

Calvin divides the knowledge which we must seek about our true nature into two categories. Firstly we must strive to understand the end for which mankind was created and the qualities with which he was endued; and secondly to consider “his faculties, or rather want of faculties – a want which, when perceived, will annihilate all his confidence”. The former view teaches man what his duty is and the latter makes him aware how far he is able to perform those duties.

What was Adam’s sin? Calvin argues that it must have been a very serious crime to have justified such a punishment on the whole human race. He argues that it was not just a case of “sensual intemperance” but it was a deeper, more sinister act. It began with pride by trying to be equal with God, but also included a revolt against the authority of God, a despising of the truth and turning aside to lies. “From infidelity, again, sprang ambition and pride, together with ingratitude”. He goes on to argue that it was not even a simple apostacy, as the guilty pair effectively charged God with “malice, envy and falsehood”.

So if that was the crime, what was the nature and extent of the punishment? Calvin argues that it was:

  • Not only on Adam and Eve, but the entire human race as Adam was the “root” that spread the deadly infection through the tree
  • Not propagated by imitation but innate corruption, i.e. we bring our sin with us from our birth, not because we begin innocent and later sin
  • Not propagated from parents to children, i.e. the godliness of believing parents does not prevent their children from being born spiritually dead. Original sin is inherited, but not from our parents but Adam, our first father.
  • Not only the removal of our original righteousness, but possessing a nature of active, prolific rebellion
  • Not limited to our sensuality only, but this heredity disease effects every part of our mind (intellect), heart (affections) and soul (spirit)

Thus, “the cause of the contagion (infection) is neither in the substance of the flesh (our bodies) nor the soul, but God was pleased to ordain that those gifts which He had bestowed on the first man, that man should lose as well for his descendants as for himself” (italics mine).

Response

As I meditate on what happened when Adam sinned and the extent of the punishment inflicted on mankind, well did God say that on the day you eat it you will surely die. Better for Adam to immediately die physically, than live with the curse of this corrupt nature, apart from God and under His wrath and transmit it to all his offspring that they too would share in his curse. How deep and all pervasive is this corruption of every part of our lives. What remedy could possibly reverse the effects of this poison? We can fight against a disease that spreads in the atmosphere, but how to fight a disease that comes from within our own body? When we have peered with sobering gaze at the infected human heart we would almost give up all hope of a cure, were it not for the fact that we know one day God would provide a Saviour.

“What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks by to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Romans 7.24+25

Father, we know that if we had been in Adam’s place we would have also fallen. Help us to remember his failure with humility, may it remind us of the weakness and frailty of our own hearts. Thank you for rescuing us from the penalty of this failure, Spirit work in us to diminish the power of our innate corruption and we look forward to the day we will be freed from even the presence of our inherited sin. Worthy is the lamb who has rescued and redeemed us, Amen.