Category Archives: Book III

Away beyond the blue

Book 3 Chapter 25 Section 1-12

In the final chapter in Book 3 Calvin brings us back to the heart of the gospel and the subject of the last resurrection. After the complex sections on election and predestination, this is a welcome return to the centre of Christianity and a great way to finish off what has been a fruitful journey through the life of the Christian. I have broken this chapter down into three sections:

1. The difficulty of faith – Calvin introduces his topic by stating that unless we understand the nature of hope we will find the path too hard and soon become discouraged with the many difficulties we face. Our hope and faith are in things unseen, and yet our many trials are all too readily before our eyes – how important it is then to have a sure foundation for our hope lest “worn out with fatigue we either turn backwards or abandon our post.” Indeed, we can now understand why faith is so rare in the world for “nothing being more difficult for our sluggishness than to surmount innumerable obstacles in striving for the prize of our high calling.” So how does this tie in with the resurrection? Well, Calvin reminds us that “he alone has made solid progress in the gospel who has acquired the habit of meditating continually on a blessed resurrection.”

2. The importance of the resurrection – as we have seen above, the promise of the resurrection is important in sustaining our hope. However, Calvin recognises how rare a belief in the resurrection is among the mankind, particularly the philosophers. Indeed, while many assert the immortality of the soul, few believe in the resurrection of the body. Calvin admits that a belief in a bodily resurrection is above natural human apprehension, but “to enable faith to surmount this great difficulty” scripture has provided two auxiliary proofs: firstly, “the one the likeness (example) of Christ’s resurrection, and the other the omnipotence of God.” Calvin exhorts us to remember our union with Christ in his death and resurrection. Knowing that this union must be completed one day by our resurrection to join him where he is. All our hope rests on Christ’s resurrection, for if Christ be not raised from the dead then our faith is in vain (1 Cor 15.13-17). Secondly, if God is omnipotent, then nothing is impossible for him – Calvin reminds us of Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones and Paul’s reference to the grain of wheat that even in the midst of its corruption is able to bring forth new life (1 Cor 15.36).

3. The nature of the resurrection – Calvin considers it futile to speculate where the place of abode is until they are raised for “the dimension of the soul is not same as that of the body”. The faithful depart to “the bosom of Abraham”, meaning the presence of the Lord. Calvin also considers the nature of the resurrection body and has little time for those who expect to “obtain a new and different body”. He explains that we shall posses the same body in regard to substance but it will different in quality. The mode of the resurrection will depend on whether we are alive at the time of the last day or whether we died long ago. For the former “it will not be necessary that a period should elapse between death and the beginning of the new life.” Finally we are reminded that “there will be one resurrection to judgement and another to life”, for all will be raised to receive the just reward for their life on earth.

Calvin issues a stark contrast between the destinations for the faithful and the rebellious. For the former he exhorts us to “always remember that the end of the resurrection is eternal happiness, of whose excellence scarcely the minutest part can be described by all that human tongues can say.” However, for the latter, “as language cannot describe the severity of the divine vengeance on the reprobate their pains and torments are figured to us by corporeal things such as darkness, wailing and gnashing of teeth, unextinguishable fire and the ever-gnawing worm.”

Response

“Away beyond the blue,
One star belongs to you.
And every breath I take
I’m closer to that place.
Yeah baby,
I’m gonna meet you there,
On the outskirts of the sky.
Yeah baby,
I’m gonna meet you there.
And we will fly”

These are the lyrics of Beyond the Blue, a beautiful, soulful song by Beth Neilson Chapman, a song that reminds us of our mortality and the longing for reunion beyond the grave. But in contrast to the ethereal hope described in this song, the resurrection of the believer is something much more down-to-earth. In fact our hope is to come up-from-the-earth, that rather than being a vague spirit wondering the universe, we will once again fill our fleshly bodies. Bodies that will be undeniably and individually “us”, but at the same time have a depth of quality that we have never experienced. Ours is to be a fully human resurrection. This is our hope, and our expectation.

But let us not forget the fate awaiting those without Christ on that day. When they will see the glory revealed in the children of God, the majesty of their creator, the beauty of Jesus, and yet be eternally banished from his presence. They will be given their bodies back, but not for eternal blessedness and communion with God, rather for eternal separation from God. While our minds struggle to grasp the depth of this judgement may we live in such a way as to rescue many “brands from the fire”. Brands that on the final day we will meet again and who will thank us for extending the love of Jesus to them.

“Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.” Daniel 12.3

He loves me, he loves me not…

Book 3 Chapter 24 Section 1-17

In the last two chapters we have considered God’s actions before the world was created – his electing purposes before the dawn of time. We can spend our days searching the scriptures to  try and discern what God determined back then, but a more pressing question is, how do I know if I am one of the elect or not? How do these secret decrees and plans become woven into my life? Can I ever know if I am one of the elect? At his heart Calvin is a pastor and as such he is not content to leave his teaching of predestination and election in the recesses of theory. He wants his people to know the assurance of being part of God’s family.

He begins by considering the calling of the elect – the process by which the elect are brought out of their spiritual deadness to newness of life. He recognises that while there is a universal call that extends to all who hear the gospel, within this general call is a special call that the elect hear and respond to. The preaching of the word  when combined with the illumination of the Spirit results in a powerful call able to raise the dead. Those who respond find that God “admits them to his family, and unites them to himself, that they may be one with him.” Calvin wants the called to know that “this inward calling is an infallible pledge of salvation.”

Calvin is also keen to stress that the power of our election is not dependent on the faith by which we perceive we are elected. It is not the strength of our faith that makes our salvation secure, but the strength of the one calling. If we feel unsure as to our election we should “begin with the calling of God and to end with it.” Rather than try and penetrate the hidden recesses of the divine wisdom, which only keeps someone “perpetually miserable”. Calvin summarises it in this way: “For as a fatal abyss engulfs those who, to be assured of their election, pry into the eternal counsel of God without the word, yet those who investigate it rightly, and in the order by which it is exhibited in the word, reap from it rich fruits of consolation.”

Christ is the source and security of our election, “if we are in communion with Christ we have proof sufficiently clear and strong that we are written in the Book of Life”. Indeed, Calvin sees little point in looking inwards, for “if we are elected in him, we cannot find the certainty of our election in ourselves”. Christ “would have us to rest satisfied with his promises and not to inquire elsewhere whether or not he is disposed to hear of us.”

Response

The twin perils of election are either to become fascinated with it to the extent of never being sure of our own election, or completely ignoring it as something that is too divisive and too complicated to understand. In this chapter Calvin gives us a middle way – to look to what God has done in us and our union with Christ for the evidence of our election, not at our faultering faith. In this way we can have a healthy approach to the doctrine of election.

By some election is seen as a hinderence to our evangelism. But contrary to this position it should actually drive us to reach out – knowing that the call of God is powerful and will bring the elect to himself wherever Christ is preached. But let us not try and discern who amongst the crowd is elect, for the only person we can ever know for sure whether they are elect or not is ourselves. As we work out our own salvation “with fear and trembling”, we can find assurance that Christ lives within us and has redeemed us. When rightly understood and applied the doctrine of election can bring wonderful assurance and peace to a believer’s life. God wants us to know that we are in his family, he wants us to be sure of his love and our eternal destination. May each of us reach this place of peace and rest so that we are not endlessly wondering whether he loves me, or he loves me not.

“In him we were also chosen, having being predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.” Ephesians 1-11-12

Where angels fear to tread

Book 3 Chapter 23 Section 1-14

I would doubt that there is any other topic in Christianity that draws forth such strong emotions as the topic of election. Love it or hate it it is the doctrine with which the name of Calvin has become synonymous. After reading these chapters in the Institutes I can see why! The few chapters which speak of election and reprobation must have been revolutionary at the time and even today their impact is undiminished. Election is a double-sided coin – on one side the comforting thought that God chooses a people for himself, but on the other side, the disturbing question of what happens to those outside this group?  Whatever our answer to this question (if we attempt to provide one) it is certainly a deep mystery.

In this chapter Calvin addresses the issue of those outside the family of God and various solutions that have been proposed to how God treats them before the world began:

  • Admit election but deny reprobation. Firstly, Calvin speaks to those who believe in saving election but deny that God intentionally predestines anyone to destruction. Calvin believes this is inconsistent with how the bible speaks of God’s actions on the wicked. For example the hardening that is spoken of in Romans 9 of Pharaoh’s heart. Here God is active in confirming Pharaoh’s stubbornness and sealing his condemnation. Calvin extrapolates this case to apply to the rest of the non-elect – but is this a fair deduction? Is this going further than Paul in Romans 9? If not then what alternatives are there in how God acts?
  • God waits in suspense. Calvin next deals with those who think this issue can be solved by proposing that God purposefully elects some to salvation, but leaves the others to make their own way. God is portrayed here as a bystander, with no final decision on the non-elect, but waiting to see if any seek him. But this implies that some who have not been elected could, by some unknown means, find their way to God. But this is at odds with everything we know of man’s inability to seek for God. It is also at odds with what we understand of God’s providence, where nothing is uncertain.
  • Permits but doesn’t will. Well perhaps God allows the non-elect to die without Christ, but doesn’t purposefully decree it. This view would say that the Pharaoh example mentioned above is a unique event and normally God would not actively harden the hearts of unbelievers – he just doesn’t intervene to stop them being condemned. Again this view does not sit with what we know of God’s providence – particularly our previous discussion on suffering. There is nothing in all of creation that is simply “allowed” to happen.
  • Intentionally decrees. So we are back to where we started, does God elect some to death before they are even born? The human logic of a biblical theologian may say that this is the most logical given what we read in Romans 9 and what we know of God’s providence. But is it beyond what the bible itself teaches? Even Paul does not go this far – he puts the question out there (Romans 9.22-24, assuming it is a question in the original!!) but then doesn’t answer it as far as I can see. Paul challenges us to consider the implications of God creating objects of wrath, whose destruction glorifies his name amongst the elect, but then moves on to the gathering of the Gentiles (v25-33).

I find myself agreeing with Calvin’s statement that “believing ignorance is better than presumptuous knowledge.” There are some things that remain hidden in the mind of God that it is best not to delve into too far or speculate about too excessively, based only on logic and not scripture. In a wonderful section Calvin directly addresses the reader and is lost in wonder and amazement at the height and depth of the hidden counsel of God – “O the height! Peter denies, a thief believes. O the height! Do you ask the reason? I will tremble at the height. Reason you, I will wonder; dispute you, I will believe. I see the height, I cannot sound the depth. Paul found rest because he found wonder.”

Response

Consider the following illustration. What is there was a ship sinking in the sea and you had a lifeboat with room for 50 people. You can choose any 50 to rescue from the ship but have to leave the rest behind. How would you choose who to bring – it wouldn’t be based on the character of their lives for you don’t know them. You would have to make a quick decision who to rescue. But as you sail away from the thousands left on the boat you would feel that you did all you could – you only had limited resources and acted in kindness to rescue innocent victims of a disaster. This is a completely understandable human action – nobody would blame you for not helping the ones left for you only had space for 50 people.

But what if you did have the resources? What if instead of being “innocent” the people needing rescuing were actually your sworn enemies? Imagine a U-boat sinking in the North Sea during WWII, and you are passing by on your British Destroyer. As you near them there are thousands swimming away from the sinking ship – those same soldiers that hours before were killing your friends. How would we react now? Would we be unjust to keep on sailing by? Would we stop and save every last enemy? In the spectrum of human reaction, both could be justified from a certain perspective. Both responses would incite criticism from people on shore – what would we do in the heat of battle? This is a flawed illustration, but it begins to put the question in context.

Does God have the ability to save everyone? Certainly it is within his power to save all if he so chose. By having the ability to save all and not doing so God is leaving many to their destruction. The question is – does God do this by default or intentionally? I.e. does he deliberately determine that some will be lost or is this just a by-product of his saving of others (as in the lifeboat example above)? As Paul I leave the question out there.

“Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few. As a dream comes when there are many cares, so the speech of a fool when there are many words.” Ecclesiastes 5.2-3

Amen! Give us a healthy fear of you Father, for your wisdom is immeasurable, your justice unfathomable and your love unscalable.

The Good, the Bad and the Elect

Book 3 Chapter 22 Section 1-11

In Calvin’s second chapter on election and predestination we are taken through the scriptural justifications for this doctrine. Calvin begins by challenging us to remember that God is ultimately free in every regard – even including the incarnation. Why do we not complain that it was unfair of God to choose to only fill Christ with all his fullness? “He did not become the Son of God by living righteously, but was freely presented with this great honour.” If concede that God was free in this respect, then it is inconsistent to complain when that freedom also includes his eternal electing purposes concerning us. In his decisions, either he is free with all, or not at all.

How were the elect chosen? Was it with a view to those who would respond to the call of God? Many would claim that “God distinguishes between men according to the merits which he foresees that each individual is to have, giving the adoption of sons to those whom he foreknows will not be unworthy of his grace, and dooming those to destruction whose dispositions he perceives will be prone to mischief and wickedness.” Thus, foreknowledge is used as the cause of election, ultimately having its foundation in our good or bad works. This leaves mankind as the ultimate decider of their election.

Calvin emphatically rejects this view, turning to Paul to exemplify his arguments. When Paul says in Ephesians 1.4-9 and 1 Timothy 2.9 that election precedes divine grace Calvin argues “how can it be consistently be said that things derived from election are the cause of election?” Again, he states that “two things are evidently inconsistent – that the pious owe it to election that they are holy, and yet attain to election by means of works.” Thus our good or bad works cannot be the ground for our election.

From considering the explicit teaching of Paul, Calvin turns to individual examples to illustrate how this doctrine works out practically. He reminds us that God is no respecter of the natural order in his electing purposes – overlooking Ishmael and Esau, both firstborn sons, to favour Isaac and Jacob, respectively. “You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you” Jesus says to the 12, and yet even amongst those who held the great privilege of apostleship, one demonstrated that he was not elect. Thus, God takes no account of office in his electing purposes; the only determining factor is his free will and sovereign plan.  

Response

The reason we struggle so much with this teaching is firstly because we feel the illusion of freedom and secondly, we cannot comprehend the idea that our fate is fixed before we are even born. We daily choose what food to eat and what clothes to wear. We choose where to live, who to marry and what to do with our money. But are we really free to choose God? Can we cause him to come near to us at our beck and call? Can we choose to love him at any point in our lives? We feel free but we are not when it comes to spiritual things. We are at the mercy of the unseen Spirit revealing himself to our human minds. Our freedom is real but limited, we are not the ultimate source of freedom in the universe.

This makes me wonder whether there can be more than one truly free entity in the universe? Perhaps the deists would claim so, but logically there cannot be two completely free agents. Two equal forces would suggest that neither is free for they are both limited by the other. To be really free is to be without limit or restraint in action, power or wisdom.  It is worth remembering that God would be completely unknowable had he not revealed himself. His ways are mysterious and wonderful and they are certainly free. Who can tell him not to do something, or make him do what they require? Who can stop his plans, or alter his purposes? The amazing thing is that this completely free and limitless God, deliberately, decisively, chose to take a people from among the mass of lost mankind and keep them for himself.

Although it grates to think that our eternal destiny is fixed before we are born, in reality because this knowledge on a personal level is hidden from us we should not claim that God is unjust. There are many things in life that are determined for us before we are born – our parents, our nationality, our physical appearance, our intelligence. All these greatly affect our enjoyment of our life and yet (for many of us) we accept our lot once we arrive in the world. If God had told us when we were born “there is nothing you can do, you are not one of the chosen so don’t even try”, then we would have had reason to charge him with injustice. But God has done exactly the opposite – everyone who hears the gospel is called to come to him. His arms are open wide, desiring that all may come to him for safety. Will you come to him today and as you come you will find that there is a room in his mansion already with your name on it. He knew you were coming and made sure that everything was ready for you.

“Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgements, and his paths beyond tracing out. Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counsellor? Who has every given to God that God should repay him? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory for ever. Amen” Romans 11.33-36

How to adore the silence of God

Book 3 Chapter 21 Section 1-7

“As we know, there are known knowns. There are things we know we know.
We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”
US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, February 2002.

So reads one of the most memorable quotes of recent years. I was reminded of this quote when reading the first in four of Calvin’s chapters on election and predestination (chapters 21-24). I think Calvin would agree that there are many things within the sovereign election of God that we know we know, there are a lot of other things that we know we don’t know, and there are some things we don’t even realise we don’t know….confused? We’ve only just started!

Calvin begins by emphasising the purpose of God in revealing these truths to us, even if we do not understand their full depth. The teaching has two aims – to humble us, making us feel how much we are bound to him, and, secondly, to give a sure ground to our confidence in him. God’s desire is not that our understanding of election leads us to insecurity or idle speculation, but a firm and secure faith. If we are trusting in Christ’s death and resurrection then we are safe, for Christ “promises safety to all that the Father hath taken under his protection.”

Secondly Calvin states that we should not be ashamed to embrace the revealed truths of scripture. God makes it clear that there are some things that he has hidden from us (for his own reasons) and there are other things that he has expressly made clear (Deuteronomy 29.29). We should not be afraid to admit our ignorance in certain issues – such as this present topic. As he elegantly states “let us not be ashamed to be ignorant in a matter in which ignorance is learning.”

But there are those who say the potential implications of teaching this doctrine – that God choose a people before time began to be his and in time redeemed them through no goodness or works of their own – are too dangerous. They say it should be not be mentioned in case people fall into the traps of endless curiosity or proud presumption. While Calvin recognises the need for moderation (indeed these four chapters represent only a small proportion of his total teaching in the Institutes), he exhorts us to speak when scripture speaks and remain silent when scripture is silent. To leave no teaching of scripture neglected and no curiosity of man entertained.

He sums as a general rule that “the secret things of God are not to be scrutinised, and that those which he has revealed are not to be overlooked, lest we may on the one hand be chargeable with curiosity, and on the other, with ingratitude.” We should be thankful to God for what he has chosen to reveal, even if it is it not as much as we would want to know.

Response

How hard it is to maintain this balance that Calvin strives for – the balance of scripture. To expound those passages that speak of the call of God to all mankind, alongside those which speak of the blessedness of the chosen flock. Our task is not to join the dots, but rather to preach the whole counsel of God. Let us not shirk back from the glorious passages on election, just because we cannot answer every question that the teaching raises. If it is true it must be preached, if it is done with love and balance, God will honour the results.

This topic challenges us to come back to examine our knowledge of ourselves – are we too proud to allow God secrets from us? Do we demand that the creator God explains all his actions and justifies his every move to his creatures? Whether we would like this or not, this is not the God we worship. This doctrine is despised by many today, but for those within the family of God, submission and worship are the only right response.

We have been shown a tiny glimmer of the majesty of the divine wisdom and the blinding light almost makes us feel as though we would be better in the darkness. But what would our faith rest upon without the assurance provided by this teaching? We would be an insecure people, constantly fretting and worrying. God had good reason to reveal a glimpse of his eternal plan for his people – let us respond in wonder and adoration that he not only chose us before the beginning of the world to be his, but he also told us that is what he did through his word. Rightly taught this teaching brings great strength and security to the people of God. Let us not neglect it when we have the opportunity to teach it.

“Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few.” Ecclesiastes 5.2

“But who are you, O man to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to him who formed it “Why did you make me like this?” Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?” Romans 9.20+21

Father, here is where humility is needed most in your people, we tread on holy ground for you have condescended to let us touch the hem of your robe and understand something of your eternal plan. May we not be ungrateful but thankful that you deemed to reveal so much of your secret ways. Amen.

Read less, pray more

Book 3 Chapter 20 Section 1-52

In this epic chapter on prayer (a total of 52 sections over 58 pages) Calvin outlines his four golden rules for entering the throne-room of God. But before these four steps to heaven, Calvin outlines the reasons why we should pray at all. Firstly, we should pray so that our hearts are always aflame with a “serious and ardent desire of seeking, loving and serving him”. Secondly, that we would learn to expose every thought and desire to the presence of God. Thirdly, that we would be full of continual gratitude and thanksgiving for all his blessings. Fourthly, that as we receive what we ask for we would be “led to long more earnestly for his favour.” And finally, that we would by experience learn to recognise and submit to his providential care in our lives.

So if these are the reasons Calvin gives for encouraging us to pray, how are we to go about it? How can we approach this sovereign, righteous, omnipotent God we have heard so much about in the last three books of his Institutes? Well Calvin’s four steps to the throne-room of heaven are:

1. Reverence to God – “to have our heart and mind framed as becomes those who are entering into converse with God”. Turning all our thoughts to God and not being distracted by wandering thoughts. Calvin exhorts us to rise above ourselves – not in the sense that our minds are disengaged, but rather that we should make use of whatever is driving us to our knees to supplicate passionately, for “it is by much anxiety that the fervour of prayer is inflamed.”

2. A sense of our want – “we must always truly feel our wants, and seriously considering that we need all the things which we ask”. We should not let habit, or custom, make our prayers cold and our hearts indifferent. If we struggle to feel our need we would do well to consider that our daily inner battle with sin and temptation – then we will always have fuel to fire our hearts with supplication to God.

3. The suppression of all pride – he who comes into the presence of God to pray must divest himself of all vain-glorious thoughts, lay aside all idea of worth. We must “discard all self-confidence, humbly giving God the whole glory.” We must come humbly, seeking his pardon, for humble “confession of guilt, forms both the preparation and commencement of right prayer.”

4. A sure confidence of being heard animating us to prayer – we should be animated to pray with the sure hope of succeeding. While it may appear that there is a contradiction between “a sense of the just vengeance of God and firm confidence in his favour”, they are actually perfectly aligned for “it is the mere goodness of God that raises up those who are overwhelmed by their own sins.” For just as repentance and faith are tied together in our salvation (Book 3 chapter 3), so in prayer they must both be present.

Recognising the high standard he has set for our prayers, Calvin adds the caveat that the four laws “are not so rigorously enforced, as that God rejects the prayers in which he does not find perfect faith or repentance.”

Response

As I meditate on this chapter on prayer it challenges me to examine my own pray life. How do I fare when assessed by these criteria? How often do I genuinely feel the weight being in God’s presence? Do I spend long enough in prayer that my coldness and apathy are burned away?

I confess that my prayer life is not what it should be. On one level the excuse of having a young family and a full-time job mean its hard to carve out time to be alone with God. However, over this year I have managed to find the time to keep up with a demanding reading and writing schedule. Through iTunes I am able to listen to preachers from all over the world on my way to work, and I get great insight from Christian blogs that I follow. But for all the great teaching that fills my thoughts how much time do I spend cementing this teaching into my life through prayer?

It is so easy to skim the surface of the Christian media and not realise that this is not feeding my soul at the deepest level. One of the great dangers of our day is to have all the best teaching in the world at our fingertips and still have a superficial relationship with Jesus. I realise that I need to read less, but pray more. I need to listen to fewer sermons and pray more. It seems to me that good teaching is like the yeast that works through the dough – only a little really good teaching is needed, the rest of the effect is produced by the kneading of prayer as I meditate on the truths and ask God to build them into my life.

[PS. I know this blog post might mean I get fewer readers, but if that is because people are praying more then great! I’m sure God would be pleased with that result!]

“Martha, Martha, the Lord answered, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” Luke 10.41-42

Father help me to take these truths that I am learning and turn them into godliness by the work of your Spirit as I spend time in your presence. Help me to discern the good from the best and prioritise above all else spending time with you. Amen

When dad lets go of the bike

Book 3 Chapter 19 Section 1-16

Three weeks ago I reached a milestone in my parental life. At the start of the summer I had taken the stabilisers off my daughter’s bike and had been teaching her how to ride on her own. Over the summer I have been running alongside her holding onto the bike teaching her all the skills necessary to ride on her own. Gradually I have been able to loosen my grip and just have my hand hovering alongside the bike as I jog with her.

Well, a couple of weeks ago we were all out as a family and I was jogging alongside her in case she fell. At one point I just knew that she really didn’t need me jogging alongside the bike, so I stopped and watched as she rode her bike down the lane on her own. I felt a strange combination of pride and anxiety – proud that she had finally managed it, but anxious in case she started wobbling. She was free to cycle on her own now, but needed to remember everything I had taught her if she was to stay upright. It is this mixture of a child’s freedom and responsibility that comes to mind when I read this chapter of the Institutes on Christian liberty.

Calvin lays the foundation for Christian liberty by reminding us that the there can only be individual discretion in things that the law is silent about. For when the law speaks on an issue we have no liberty to ignore it, we must obey. While recognising that we cannot perfectly obey, and that we are saved through faith apart from the law, it “ceases not to teach, exhort and urge us to good.” But for those things not mentioned in the law each believer is free do follow their conscience.

But recognising the dangers inherent in giving the children such free reign, Calvin cautions temperance. The danger of allowing individual freedom is that some take advantage, particularly in the area of material riches. Although Calvin admits that “ivory and gold, and riches, are the good creatures of God”, when they are used to “roll and wallow in luxury, to intoxicate the mind and soul with present and be always hunting after new pleasures, is very far from a legitimate use of the gifts of God.” These people “say they are things indifferent: I admit it, provided they are used indifferently.” Our consciences must be pure from ulterior motives and seek only to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength, for “the nourishment which God gives is for life, not luxury.”

Response

Our Christian liberty is very like our heavenly Father teaching us to ride a bike. When I let go of the bike I am trusting that my daughter remembers everything I have taught her about pedaling and steering, and in the same way God has given us his law that gives us the principles by which to use our liberty. Similarly, as I have taught my daughter to listen to her innate sense of balance to keep upright on the bike, so God has given us an inner guide, our conscience, to lead us in wisdom where his word is silent. Combining the two – the inner conscience and written law enables the believer to discern how God would have us behave in matters indifferent. As a loving parent he allows us the freedom and responsibility in many areas of life to act in a way that will please him.  

We will even be able to adapt our behaviour as the apostle Paul did in order to maximise his witness amongst unbelievers and also avoid offending the weaker brother. Calvin cites a great example for “when he (Paul) adopts Timothy as his companion, he circumcises him; nothing can induce him to circumcise Titus” (Acts 16.3 & Galatians 2.3). To some this may appear as situational ethics, but the mature believer understands that this is rather the freedom they have in neutral matters. To so sub-serve our own agendas and desires that we are willing to adapt our behaviour with the sole aim of extending the kingdom and protecting the conscience of our weaker brother.

“Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like the Jews…To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” 1 Corinthians 9.19-23

Father, help us to grow into this freedom. To know your word in our hearts and to listen to our renewed consciences that we may be guided in paths of righteousness. Show us what a life lived like this would look like today – help us to see how we must accommodate our behaviour to win those who are far from you and strengthen our fellow believers. For Jesus’ sake, Amen.

The whispered promises of a betrothed groom

Book 3 Chapter 18 Section 1-10

How willingly we make promises to each other when we are in love. Nothing compels us to commit ourselves to each other apart from our desire to intertwine our lives so they can never be separated. On the marriage day we say our vows that promise provision, protection and faithfulness. The promises spring from a well of love that desires to make the other person feel completely secure and safe.

The star-struck lover giving precious promises to his beloved is the image that springs to mind from this final chapter on justification by faith. Here Calvin deals with the passages in the bible where God is said to grant eternal life to those who act graciously and uprightly (e.g. Matthew 25.31-46) and reward those who have acted well in this present life (e.g. 2 Corinthians 5.10). Rather than demonstrating that our works are the ground for our salvation Calvin argues that these passages indicate “not the cause, but the order of sequence.” Eternal life is given to those who have previously been adopted into the family of God for “the kingdom of heaven is not the hire of servants, but the inheritance of sons.”

More than that, we can see that God promises a reward to our works in order to motivate us to keep going. Knowing how weak we are and prone to giving up he promises rewards for our efforts. “For in order to animate us in well-doing, he allows no act of obedience, however unworthy of his eye, to pass unrewarded.” But such rewards are subsequent to salvation, for as Augustine says “To whom could the righteous Judge give the crown if the merciful Father had not given grace…and how could these be paid as things due were not things not due previously given?”

Thus our reward is certain, not because we deserve such a reward, but entirely because God has promised to give us what we don’t deserve. Again Calvin quotes from Augustine, “faithful is the Lord, who hath made himself our debtor, not by receiving anything from us, but by promising us all things.”

Response

We are used to thinking that God is no man’s debtor – that He more than rewards those who give up or sacrifice things for him. However, in an important sense God has put himself in debt to his children to give them what he has promised in his word. Everything God gives us is sourced from his infinite mercy – from our adoption as sons to the rewards for our service. God is not in the least indebted to us in anyway, but he makes himself indebted because he wants to. His rewards are the promised gifts of a lover not the wages of a servant.

There is nothing within us that means we should ever expect a reward for our vain attempts at good works. The basis for our blessing lies entirely within the promises made from a free and sovereign God. Nothing external compelled God to give us these promises – they are founded on the love of a lover for his beloved. It is as if we are the betrothed bride listening to the whispers of our lover, telling us what he will do for his most precious possession.

In Jewish culture the betrothal was a definite and binding agreement upon both groom and bride, who were considered as man and wife in all legal and religious aspects, except that of actual cohabitation. It was a joining of two people that guaranteed marriage at a later stage. Thus God puts himself in our debt, the God who is completely free brings himself under obligation to his bride. He adorns us with sweet promises, the fulfillment of the promises are certain, because of his character and because of his betrothal to us.

“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law.” Romans 13.8

Father, we rejoice in the many great and precious promises you have showered upon us. Thank you that you take delight in your people, help us to live in the light of this grace and be people of mercy and compassion. Help us to respond in loving obedience, not for fear of punishment or hope of reward, but out of love for the one who has captured our hearts. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Don’t forget to count your laps

Book 3 Chapter 17 Section 1-15

My highlight from a great weekend for British sport was Alistar Brownlee’s victory in the Hyde Park Triathlon World Championship Series. A fellow Yorkshireman, Brownlee is only 21 and already tops the world ranking. He ran a fantastic race and was simply too good for the competition.

However, the race also included an amazing error from two leading triathletes. During the 40k bike ride two riders broke away from the main pack. As they approached transition for the last time they were a long way in front, but rather than stopping, they inexplicably continued cycling round for an extra 5k lap. As everyone watched amazed at the two riders, no one had the guts to stop them and tell them their mistake.

In the end they did a complete extra lap and raced each other to finish last. You can just imagine the second guy thinking to himself “well I thought this was the last lap, but if they guy in front thinks there is another one, then I better keep going”. What a fatal assumption! What a bizarre way to go from first to last in a flash! In this chapter we see the danger of assumptions as Calvin deals with many of our false assumptions in interpreting the promises held out in the law.

Verses such as Leviticus 18.5 “Keep my decrees and laws, for the man who obeys them will live by them” (referenced in Romans 10.5 as the righteousness promised in the law) indicate that perfect obedience to the law would bring life. The question is, if God knew this was not possible then why make these promises? Is God taunting us to offer us something that is forever out of our reach, or is he promising something that he knows will never be given, or is there ultimately some contribution of our works to our salvation?

In response Calvin argues that these promises only apply to perfect obedience, and as none of us ever make this grade then they are out of our grasp. However, this does not make them fruitless for we do receive the benefits of these promises when we turn to Christ. “For what the law was unable to do in that it was weakened by sinful nature (that is bring life), God did by sending his son (Romans 8.3)”. Through Christ’s perfect obedience, and our union with Christ, we now receive the benefit of the life that results from his complete obedience.

So, thanks to Christ, we receive the blessings that rest upon those who obey perfectly, but not through the direct route of our response to the promise, but rather indirectly through our in-grafting into him. Not only that, but as we have seen earlier, God even rewards the “works of the faithful”. He does this by first of all embracing his servants in Christ, “reconciling themselves to himself without the aid of works”. Then he views the works, “not being estimated by their own worth, he, by his fatherly kindness and indulgence, honours so far as to give them some degree of value.” Finally, he extends his pardon to them, “not imputing the imperfection by which they are all polluted, and would deserve to be regarded as vices rather than virtues.”

Thus, God redeems our faltering works, “because everything otherwise defective in them being buried by the purity of Christ is not imputed.” And Calvin concludes with the profound thought that “not only ourselves, but our works also, are justified by faith alone.”

Response

So the promises of God found in the law are not without effect. They point to the end result that God wants to give his people. However, they do not specify the means to get there. We assume it has to be our effort, but through the wonder of the gospel we can take advantage of the obedience of another – the perfect, sinless, sacrifice. The one who represented us, and more than that, united us to himself, so that his obedience was our obedience and his victory was our victory. So don’t assume that just because we are unable to meet the requirements for the promised blessings held out in the law we can never receive them – God knew we would need help when he gave these promises, and he graciously provided it.

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 law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.” Romans 8.3-4

There is no such thing as safe grace

Book 3 Chapter 16 Section 1-4

In this very short chapter on Justification by Faith Calvin addresses two objections that people raise against this teaching – firstly that this doctrine destroys our motivation for good works and secondly, by making salvation too easy, people will be emboldened to sin more. The question at the heart of these objections is this – will people live a more upright life if they believe that this is contributing to their salvation? And even if we recognise that this isn’t what the bible teaches, is it better to keep them obedient and respectable than tell them the truth and risk them abusing the grace of God?

Calvin starts by reminding his readers that contrary to his opponents view, justification by faith actually solidifies the place of works as being fundamental to the presence of a real and living faith. Calvin readily admits that “we are justified not without, and yet not by works.” For “we dream not of a faith which is devoid of good works, nor a justification which can exist without them.” There is most certainly a place for the good works that have been prepared in advance for us to do, but that place is within service, not salvation.

Calvin next reminds us that God demonstrates His generousity just as much when He rewards good works as when He justifies freely. Calvin will deal with this in more detail in the next chapter. However, Calvin stresses that the rewards for our work should not be the motivation for our service, for God “desires to be freely worshipped, freely loved” and seeks those who “even if all hope of reward were cut off, would cease not to worship Him.”

Response

Arguing that the implications of a certain doctrine are too risky has no bearing whatsoever on the truth of that doctrine. If God is prepared to risk His grace being abused by people taking Him for granted, then who are we to be wiser than God in how people should be motivated to obey? God wants our motivation for serving Him to be love, not fear of punishment. He is happy to reward us, but he wants us to serve Him from a secure and thankful heart. However, in the final analysis God is not taking a risk, for He knows and sees our every desire and will one day separate those who are His from those who are taking advantage of His mercy.

Paul preached this dangerous grace and was criticised for it by people who believed that it would lead others into sinning more. But Paul did not modify his teaching, instead he appealed to believers to remember the devastating effect of their sin and the height of their new position in Christ. We too must be prepared to take the risk of people taking grace for granted if we would be faithful to the God of grace.

“What shall we say then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” Romans 6.1+2