Category Archives: Calvin’s Institutes

What a piece of work is a man

Book 4 Chapter 3 Section 1-16

“What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how
infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and
admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like
a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet,
to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me—
nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so”
Hamlet Act 2 Scene 2

So muses Hamlet to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as he confesses his depressive spirit to them. What an amazing creature man is, but at the same time what weakness he has. In this chapter of the Institutes we turn to the election and office of teachers and ministers in the church. What an honour for man that God should bestow the priviledge of being his representatives on earth. And yet no other aspect of Christian life better illustrates Shakespeare’s reflections on man than this one. History shows what great heights pastors and teachers have attained over the years in their faithful ministry of the gospel. But along the way there have been many notable and costly failures. As Franklin Roosevelt reminded us “with great power comes great responsibility.”

First of all Calvin recognises that God could have acted on his own, or use angels, but that there are several reasons why he chooses to use  men and women. He states that in this way God further condescends to our level, “he shows us by experience that it is not to no purpose that he calls us his temples”. In addition this method provides “a most excellent and useful training to humility when he accustoms us to obey his word though preached by men like ourselves, or, it may be, our inferiors in worth.” Calvin argues that if God spoke to us directly it would not be suprising if we obeyed his commands, but “when a feeble man, sprung from the dust, speaks in the name of God, we give best proof of our piety and obedience, by listening with docility to his servant.” Thirdly, using men for the ministry binds us together through our common need, each serving the other in a mutual bond of unity. We cannot say we do not need each other when it is by the ministry of our fellow man that God has appointed our instruction and edification.

Calvin then moves on to consider the honour and importance placed upon the office. He argues that “neither are the heat and light of the sun, nor meat and drink, so necessary to sustain and cherish the present life, as is the apostolical and pastoral office to preserve a church in the earth.” This is no optional extra that can be dispensed with at a whim, says Calvin. No, it is vital for sustaining the church in each generation. Calvin refers to Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, where Paul states that “there is nothing in the church more noble and glorious than the ministry of the gospel, seeing it is the administration of the Spirit of righteousness and eternal life.”

Next Calvin looks at the various types of offices within the church – apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. And concludes that only the latter two have a continual place in the church, the former three being raised up when “the necessity of the times requires”. Calvin describes the difference between pastors and teachers as being “teachers preside not over discipline , or the administration of the sacraments, or admonitions, or exhortations, but the interpretation of scripture only.” Whereas all these aspects are contained in the pastoral office.

Calvin then turns to the call of the ministry. He asks “who are to be appointed ministers, in what way, by whom and with what rite or initiatory ceremony”. Here he is only dealing with that external confirmatory call of the church towards an individual who has already received the secret call of God. Who? Only those who are of a sound doctrine and holy life, with a good testimony within the church and without. They should be men who are “not unfit for or unequal to the burden imposed upon them” for they should be “provided with the means which will be necessary to fulfill their office.” How? With great seriousness in those appointing them, in earnest prayer for the mind of Christ. By whom? While the apostles were called “at the sole command of God and Christ”, in our day it is by affirming response of the elders in the presence of the people. The form of ordination? The laying on of hands of the elders. That he who is ordained may know that “he is no longer his own, but is bound in service to God and the church.”


Calvin’s chapter on the ministry is a timely reminder of the honour and priviledge that has been bestowed on the office by God. To be God’s representative to his people in his church is surely the greatest of all callings and the highest of all honour. And yet if this is so, it makes me wonder why our colleges struggle to fill places and churches struggle to fill vacancies? Why is it that so few men come forward for the ministry? Has God stopped calling his ministers to this blessed vocation? Or are we failing to find, inspire, train, equip, empower, resource and commission these men?

I must confess that I do not believe God has stopped his calling work in the lives of young men. I believe he is still prompting, challenging and calling men to consecrate their lives to him. But when their are so many distractions and competing voices I believe that still small voice needs fanning into flame. I can think of a number of friends who have the gifting to be great pastors, but in the absence of opportunities and mentoring the call gets stifled. What opportunities are there for aspiring pastors and teachers at your church to gain experience in the ministry of the word? Are we willing to share the limelight to enable those less gifted and less mature to test their gifting? Is our church set up to regularly give opportunities and training to the next generation of leaders? If not then where are they to go to get this experience?

In the sovereignty of God he is able to overcome these problems and raise up his people. But must we make it so hard for his purposes to be accomplished? In an age when millions and millions of pounds are poured into finding the next singing sensation who will be unknown in five years time, can we not invest our time, energy and money in finding and training the next generation of leaders for the greatest of all callings, whose results will remain for eternity?

“For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to men…To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless.” 1 Corinthians 4.9+11

Oh that you would raise up an army from your people to live and die for the cause of Christ in Scotland and beyond. That there would not be enough churches to hold all those responding to your call. That your Spirit would move in power to take our eyes off this world and onto the eternal issues of heaven and hell. Father that you would prepare their hearts for the battle ahead and the sacrifice demanded. That they would ask for nothing but souls, expect nothing but a cross and see nothing but Christ crucified. Amen.

Rage against the machine

Book 4 Chapter 2 Section 1-12

Following Calvin’s description of the characteristics of the true church, he now turns his analysis on the Church of Rome. Calvin asks; is it a true church with its fair share of problems or is it actually a false church? It’s important to remember that at this point in history there was only one church and that to leave that church effectively meant being excommunicated from the body of Christ. Notwithstanding the consequences, Calvin concludes that according to the two criteria of the preaching of the word and the institution of the sacraments, the 16th century Roman Catholic church is not a true church.

Calvin says that the corruptions present in Lord’s supper and doctrine had become so bad that the Roman Catholic church had forfeited its status as the true church of God. Thus he argues that it is possible to separate from this false church and yet remain faithful to the true church. He argues that contrary to what the bishops were saying, “in declining fatal participation in such wickedness, we run no risk of being dissevered from the church of Christ.”

How did the bishops respond to such accusations? Well, surprisingly rather than argue on issues of doctrine and practise, they claim that the perpetual succession of the papacy at Rome is evidence of their heritage and authenticity. They appealed to ancient records describing the perpetual succession of bishops from the time of Peter to the present day. They say that history and tradition is on their side and establishes Rome as the centre for ecclesiastical heirarchy. Calvin argues that “the pretence of succession is vain, if posterity did not retain the truth of Christ.” He compares this argument to that of the Jews who believed that as long as the temple and ark of the covenant were present in Jerusalem, then they would be victorious in their battles (Jeremiah 7.4).

Calvin warns them against placing too much emphasis on external evidences as a measure of faithfulness. He says that they should remember the example of Ishmael who was circumcised, and was even the firstborn. And yet for all his outward advantages he was rejected by God in favour of Isaac.  Calvin also points to the perpetual succession of the Jewish priesthood as a warning against relying on succession on its own. He argues that “as soon as they are convicted of having revolted from their origin, (they) are deprived of all honour”, that is, unless we are prepared to say that Caiaphas and the first century Sanhedrin also belonged to the true church of God.

As a result of this teaching Calvin was accused of being a heretic and a schismatic. He describes the former as those who “corrupt the purity of the faith by false dogmas”, the second as those who “even while holding the same faith, break the bond of union.” Does Calvin admit to these charges? Well, he admits that they “preach a different doctrine, and submit not to their laws, and meet apart from them for prayer, baptism, the administration of the Supper and other sacred rites.” Well not surprisingly Calvin does not accept their criticisms. He argues that as communion is held together by “consent in sound doctrine and brotherly charity”, and that this latter element is dependent upon the unity of faith, to leave those who have previously betrayed the faith is not breaking communion, for it has already been destroyed.

Finally Calvin admits that although the Roman Catholic church had disqualified itself from being the true church, there was still some good within it and does not want to discard it root and branch. He recognises that although there was much decay, it retained “those vestiges of a church”, reflected in his comment that “while we are unwilling to simply concede the name of Church to the Papists, we do not deny that there are churches among them.”


Its hard to put yourself in Calvin’s shoes and imagine a time when there was only one authority, one church, one ruling power. Like rebelling against George Orwell’s Big Brother in his book 1984, there could be terrible consequences to fighting the establishment. But that is exactly what Calvin did. His language pulls no punches and in these chapters becomes the most direct and vocal against his opponents of anywhere in the Institutes. He has finally come to the most direct point of conflict – the very right of the Roman Catholic church to impose its authority and demands on the people. Calvin discards this right at its very core, not arguing about superficial rituals or unbiblical doctrines, but as a master lumberjack he aims directly for the trunk of the tree and attacks.

It’s important we don’t confuse the 16th century Catholic church with our modern version. I am sure many of my Catholic friends are uncomfortable with Calvin’s language and views in this chapter. But looking back and reflecting on the depth of corruption prevalent at the time, I believe that drastic reformation was inevitable. Perhaps we wish it had been kept within the one church, perhaps we wouldn’t now have the plethora of denominations and branches of the Christian faith if it had been reformed from within. But it is all speculation now, the Reformation swept away the old ways and provided a credible, alternative church; one which had a renewed focus on the bible and practical godliness.

But in the 500 years since Calvin, who can deny that many of the same problems have not crept into the various branches of the protestant church? By God’s grace there have been instances of reformation across the demonination, but some of these branches stand in great need of a new reformation back to the word of God, back to sola scriptura, sola fide etc. If God tarries and the decline continues then may reformation come again, one day.

“If my people, which are called by my name, will humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.” 2 Chronicles 7.14

Father restore us to a purity of doctrine and practise, reform our ways individually and corporately. Bring times of refreshing back to your people and bring a revival in this land of truth and godliness. For Jesus sake, Amen.

A diamond in the dust

Book 4 Chapter 1 Section 1-29

If there is one issue that divides modern evangelicalism then it is our ecclesiology – our doctrine of the church. Whether we are denominational, independent or emerging there is a wide disagreement over what the church is. So why did God establish the church and what advice does Calvin have for our 21st century predicament?  Well, after nine months of plumbing the depths of our vertical relationship with our maker, in the early chapters of book 4 Calvin switches the focus to our horizontal relationship with our fellow believer. This first chapter considers the nature and characteristics of the true church.

Why the church?

Why did God institute the church? For two principal reasons says Calvin, firstly to aid believers in their faith and secondly to secure the effectual preaching of the gospel throughout the generations. How does the church strengthen our faith? Well, through the teaching and example we receive from his appointed leaders and through the experiential instruction of the sacraments. Rightly applied, these means will enable us to grow in maturity. But why does it take so long? As Calvin points out “God, who might perfect his people in a moment, chooses not to bring them to manhood in any other way than by the education of the church” and “all without exception are brought into the same order, that they may with meek and docile spirit allow themselves to be governed by teachers appointed for this purpose.” Calvin sees an important lesson in the fact that we must seek our instruction from our fellow man, for having to submit ourselves to the instruction from our equal’s tests our obedience and humility.

But this means of growth is not an optional extra for the believer. For Calvin, the church is the source of God’s forgiveness and salvation and he has little sympathy for those who separate themselves from the church. In a very strong statement he says “all who reject the spiritual food of the soul divinely offered to them by the hands of the church, desire to perish of hunger and famine.” If this sounds harsh to modern ears perhaps we have become too blasé about living as lone-ranger Christians.  But surely Calvin would not have us remain in any church no matter how bad it is? No, we must discern the faithfulness of our church to the standards of scripture.

What are the marks of a true church?

So how can we know the marks of a true church? Calvin states that the two essential features of a genuine church is one where the word is preached and the sacraments are administered. “Wherever we see the word of God sincerely preached and heard, wherever we see the sacraments administered according to the institution of Christ, there we cannot have any doubt that the Church of God has some existence.” Calvin says that these two things should be the yardstick by which we determine whether a church is a true church, “for these cannot anywhere exist without producing fruit and prospering by the blessing of God.” This is a surprisingly short list for us, and Calvin is quick to point out that even if there are many things wrong with a church, if these two things are there then it is a true church.

So when can we call it a day with a church and move on? Not without much soul searching, for “we are not on account of every minute difference to abandon a church, provided it retain sound and unimpaired that doctrine in which the safety of piety consists.” Calvin uses the example of the church in Corinth where he points out that “it was not a few that erred, but almost the whole body had become tainted; there was not one species of sin merely, but a multitude, and those not trivial errors but some of them execrable crimes.” And what was Paul’s response to this situation, does he separate from them? “Does he discard them from the kingdom of Christ? Does he strike them with the thunder of a final anathema? He not only does none of these things, but he acknowledges and heralds them as a church of Christ, and a society of saints.”  If Paul will not separate himself from one of the most corrupt churches of the New Testament era, then, providing the pure ministry of the word and sacrament are still present, we should follow his example in our present-day churches and work for reformation from within, rather than separation and division.


The fact is that we need each other. Despite all the pain that many of us hold in our hearts from our fellow brothers and sisters we cannot live without each other. Yes, there is a time to breakaway from the mainstream church, as Calvin, Luther and many others did during the Reformation. Yes, there are times when new works must be started in order for renewal and revival to take place. But how cautious we should be in separating ourselves from our brothers and sisters. I confess I was impressed with Calvin’s generous response to imperfect churches in this chapter – he warns us to make sure we have the strongest grounds before considering leaving a church. Is it really essential that we start a new church with our own personal brand of Christianity down the road from the established one? Are the differences so great that we can no longer fellowship together? Are the wounds so deep that forgiveness and restoration are impossible? The grace of God is greater than our expectations and deeper than our disappointments.

But we are only human, and we will let each other down and continue to hurt each other. Oh that God would raise up a people who are so passionate for the gospel and are in such unity that other secondary issues remain just that, secondary. Oh that he would raise up leaders of deep conviction and godliness that could lead his people with justice and compassion. For how wonderful it is when brothers and sisters live together in unity, as the Psalmist says, it is like the warm, comforting feeling of the anointing oil running down Aaron’s beard. There is something in the make up of a child of God that makes them crave for genuine fellowship and the opportunity to hear the voice of God expounded from the scriptures. And although it may mean that we get ourselves a bit dirty looking, when we find a family with this kind of genuine warmth we know that it is as precious as finding a diamond in the dust.

“How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity! It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron’s beard, down upon the collar of his robes. It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion. For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore.” Psalm 133

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.”


“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.”


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.”


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.  


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.


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.”


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.”


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.