Category Archives: God

The Master’s mind

At the start of Ephesians Paul has been praising and adoring God. Although he writes about “us” and “we” in verses 3-14 he is really inviting us to view God’s wonderful acts on our behalf…it is as if he is stood in front of a beautiful picture and is helping us admire it…do you see this bit? And this? How wonderful the artist is! He says to us. From verse 15 he changes his focus – he moves from adoration to intercession, from worship to supplication.

We are no longer stood beside him viewing the picture – we are now the recipients of a gift he wants to give us. I am praying for you he says…ever since the first day that I heard about your faith. I am praying for all of you, without faltering, without stopping …but what is he praying for them? He wants them to know God. He is praying to God the Father that He would help them to know him better.   Paul knows that this is the most important and vital prayer he can pray for another believer. He knows that we struggle to really comprehend the truths of verses 3-14 and our knowledge of God is at times superficial and transient. I want us to notice three things about this request for the knowledge of God:

i) A spiritual knowledge – firstly it is a spiritual knowledge. He prays that God would give them the “spirit” of wisdom and revelation. Over Christmas I had the pleasure of sitting with the in-laws to watch Mastermind. Do you know how this programme works? Have you seen it? Each person has a specialist topic that they answer questions on in round one and then general knowledge questions in round 2. Here are some specialist subjects that were considered not suitable to be used:

  • Routes to anywhere in mainland Britain by road from Letchworth.
  • Cremation practice and law in Britain.
  • The banana industry.
  • Orthopaedic bone cement in total hip replacement.

Now maybe you wouldn’t chose those topics, but how would you revise for your own specialist topic? You would get films, books, Internet – whatever you could to research everything about you topic…and hope for the best! Paul says knowing God is not like this. The most learned (but unsaved) university theology professor has less true insight into the knowledge of God than a young child who has come to faith in Jesus. Amassing facts is a futile task, if we come to them as we come to every other piece of knowledge.

So what is spiritual knowledge? It is the ability to understand, accept and hold a conviction about truth that is granted completely and utterly dependent on the movement of the Spirit of God. And it comes to us Regardless of intelligence, race, gender, wealth, age – or any other human quality. We come to understand something we didn’t before, we come to accept something we previously rejected, we come to believe something we previously denied, we come to trust in someone who was previously unknown to us. In essence it is not becoming a mastermind on a favourite subject, but coming to a place where we understand the Master’s mind.

ii) A hidden knowledge – secondly, it is a hidden knowledge. Paul is praying that God would open the eyes of our hearts to help us see the unseen. What is truly humbling is that none of us have the slightest chance of finding this spiritual knowledge on our own, unless God opens our eyes. Yes, there are glimpses that we can get of the divine being from creation, but left to our own we are utterly incapable of discovering truth about God. If God had chosen to remain unknown there would have been absolutely nothing any of us could have done about it. If we come to really understand this it should deeply trouble us…if what I have said is true, then nothing in the strength of my human wisdom can fathom the mysteries of God.

Is this not what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1.20-31? “The world in its wisdom did not know him”. He is beyond our reach. He must reveal himself, and to whom and when and how is entirely at his discretion. The wind blows where it pleases, so does the self-revealing almighty God. It is a knowledge that we are at first entirely ignorant of – all of us at one time were outside of Christ and cut off from this knowledge. As we shall see next time, we were by nature objects of wrath and dead in our sins. This is the natural condition of men and women. We should not be surprised at people’s response to the gospel.   To the natural man it is foolishness.

There is nothing wrong with the message, it is not a secret knowledge, it is plain for all to see, but it is us who must be changed to understand it. We must come to know the unknown, and see the unseen. What is hidden must be revealed – that is why the preaching of the gospel is so important. For in proclaiming Christ crucified to a lost world we are the means by which God has chosen to open blind eyes.

iii) A gradual knowledge – thirdly it is a gradual knowledge. Look at what he says…I keep asking… Not only is it spiritual and hidden but it is also gradual in our experience of it. there are times when we receive fantastic new insight into God, but it is not always like this. Remember how it was for the blind man in Mark 8.22 – after Jesus touched his eyes the first time he could see people moving like trees, then Jesus puts his hands on the mans eyes again and he can see clearly. Was Jesus suffering from a temporary problem with his healing power? No, it was a metaphor for how we come to see spiritually, that was immediately played out by Peter – who has been shown by the Spirit who Jesus is…the Messiah, but is blind as to why he came v33 as he tries to rebuke Jesus for talking about going to the cross.

Our knowledge of God generally comes to us little by little and is a slow process! Sure there is the moment when our eyes are first opened and we see Jesus for who he really is, and we are overcome with adoration and awe. By God’s grace he grants more experiences like that throughout our life, but the norm for us seems to be a gradual opening in our understanding to the radiant brilliance of his beauty. Like the years and decades that it takes us to get to know our wife, so knowing God takes a lifetime and beyond, into eternity.

The shadow and the substance

Book 2 Chapter 9 Section 1-5

This chapter forms an introduction to the subsequent two chapters, which deal with the similarities (Chapter 10) and differences (Chapter 11) between the Old and New Testaments. The main thrust of this short chapter is to demonstrate that although Christ is only fully revealed in the New Testament, he was known to the believers in the Old Testament, albeit as a foretaste to what was to come.

Even Abraham, who lived before the law was given, understood something of the promised messiah (John 8.56). “For though the event being remote, his view of it was obscure, he had full assurance that it would one day be accomplished”. The giving of the law and the ministry of the prophets shed further light upon our eternal inheritance.

Throughout these chapters Calvin is keen to stress the close relationship between promise and fulfillment in scripture. In particular Calvin mentions the teaching of Servetus, who “abolishes the promises entirely” from a misguided desire to promote the greatness of Christ. Servetus goes on to teach that as all the promises are fulfilled in the gospel then “we are now put in possession of all the blessings purchased by him”. But as Paul says “who hopes for what he already has?” (Romans 8.24). It is true that we have received many blessings, but many promises are as yet unfulfilled and we wait for their fulfillment patiently (1 John 3.1).

Calvin is keen to stress the unity of God’s plan of salvation across the entire scriptures. He complains against those who “in comparing the Law with the Gospel, represent it merely as a comparison between the merit of works and the gratuitous imputation of righteousness”. In contrast he states “the Gospel has not succeeded the whole Law in such a sense as to introduce a different method of salvation. It rather confirms the Law and proves that everything which is promised is fulfilled. What was shadow, it has made substance”.

Response

There has only ever been one means of salvation, from Adam to Abraham to David to Daniel. Each has come to God by faith alone through grace alone in Christ alone. No one was ever saved through obeying the law, indeed, those born before the advent of Christ who were the true children of Abraham have always understood this. When Christ came, he did not introduce an alternative means of salvation but made possible the one means promised to Adam in Genesis 3.15. Christ satisfied the righteous demands of the law that we might be accepted in Him. We are made righteous through His blood and come into fellowship with God through His Son.

What we see in the Old Testament is, as it were, the base colours God paints across the canvass of salvation. Once the foundation is in place He adds the fine detail on top of the base colours through the life and ministry of Christ and the apostles.  As Christians we should value and treasure the Old Testament as we see Christ portrayed in types and symbols. To only study the finer details of the picture is to miss something of the beauty and wonder of the entire canvass.

“But when the time had fully come God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive the full rights of sons”. Galatians 4.4

Father, enable us to see your plan of salvation across the entire scriptures, that we may not neglect to meditate on any part of your word. Open our eyes to help us see Christ in all the scriptures, for His sake, Amen.

One man to reverse the curse

Book II Chapter VI Section 1-4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Response

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

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

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

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

Faith acquires what the law requires

Book II Chapter V Section 1-19

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

Some of the questions he tackles in this chapter are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The law of unintended consequences

Book II Chapter IV Section 1-8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Response

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

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

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

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

A straight line with a crooked stick

Book I Chapter XVIII Section 1-4

If God controls all things and directs them according to His plan and purpose, including even the actions of Satan himself, then how can He also be free from all blame as well? This is the most common objection to the doctrine of providence and it is to this that Calvin applies himself in this chapter. He  tries to understand the issue by laying out some proposed solutions:

1. God permits evil but does not will it. This is the idea that God sits back and does nothing when evil occurs, He allows it to happen but does not want it to. The question here is if God “permits” things to happen does He do so willingly or unwillingly? Does He turn a blind eye as a passive spectator or does He in some sense will these things to happen? We know that God cannot be completely in control of all creation, and yet not also be completely in control of evil events occurring in that creation. God Himself testifies in His word that He is in control of events, whether good or evil (e.g. Isaiah 45.7, Amos 3.6). So if we agree that in some sense He is willing, or controlling, these events, that are against His declared will written in the law, does that mean He has two wills?…

2. There are two contrary wills in God. This tries to address the question of how God can decree by a “secret counsel” what He openly prohibits in His law. In Himself His will “is one and undivided, to us it appears manifold, because from the feebleness of our intellect, we cannot comprehend how, though after a different manner, He wills and wills not the very same thing”.

Calvin uses the example of the death of Christ as an event which was against the precept of God (“thou shalt not murder”) but at the same time it was willed by God to happen (Acts 4.28). Augustine puts it this way when speaking of that which is done contrary to His law “nor does He permit it unwillingly, but willingly; nor would He who is good permit evil to be done, were He not omnipotent to bring good out of evil”. Or as Luther put it, “God can use a crooked stick to draw a straight line” or as Dr David Calhoun says in lecture 6 of his lectures on the Institutes: “we do not know how God wills to take place what He forbids to be done”.

3. God is the author of sin. If we agree that God uses the agency of the wicked but also governs their “counsels and affections” for His own purposes then are not the wicked unjustly punished for only doing what He wanted? Is He not complicit in their crimes? But Calvin argues we are confusing God’s will with His precept. for while evil men “act against the will of God, His will is accomplished in them”. He argues that these men are following the evil desires of their hearts and that “they are not excusable as if they were obeying His precepts, which of set purpose they violate according to their lust”. Each is responsible for his own sin, irrespective of how God overrules the outcome.

Response

Confused? That’s probably a good sign, my head hurts. Well does Calvin say “the feebleness of our intellect” in understanding such deep truth. This is a hard teaching and at this point its important not to react by throwing our hands up in the air and saying its impossible to understand any of this so why bother. Calvin recognises this danger and warns against discarding a truth revealed in scripture just because it exceeds our capability to understand it!

He also reminds us that if these truths were not useful to be known God would never have ordered his prophets and apostles to teach them. Even though we cannot understand how God accomplishes His will through evil instruments we cannot deny that this is what the scriptures teach. How should we deal with these hard truths? “Our true wisdom is to embrace with meek docility, and without reservation, whatever the Holy Scriptures have delivered”.

“I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things.” Isaiah 45.7

Father, once again we have reached the end of human wisdom. Help us to trust in Your wisdom and gracious loving care. As a child trusts their father to do right, we trust you even when we can’t understand you. We are the creatures, you are the Creator. You are infinite, we are finite. Bring us all to the place of clearly understanding what the scriptures teach, and there may we stop and gaze, lost in wonder and adoration at Your infinite wisdom. Amen.

The Triune God, part 2

Book I Chapter XIII Section 14-29

In this section Calvin seeks to demonstrate the divinity of the Spirit as the third person of the Trinity. He points to the Spirit’s omnipresent ministry as an evidence of His divine nature. He also points out the indiscriminate way that scripture ascribes authoritative utterances from God to the Holy Spirit – thus making the Spirit equivalent with God. Finally he raises the question that if the Spirit is the author of our spiritual gifts and means of regeneration and sanctification then how can He not be divine and yet accomplish all this?

In the final section Calvin moves on to discuss in more detail some of the controversies that have arisen over the issue of the Trinity. His strategy to counter them is to repeatedly draw out the unity and distinction within the Trinity found in the scriptures. The Persons of the Trinity are united in respect to their substance and yet distinct in respect to their relationship to each other and role in the creation and redemption of the world.

Response:

This chapter has been the most challenging so far, not because of the length or depth but because of the limitations of language. The Trinity stretches the ability of English, French, Greek etc to its limit in order to try and explain the infinite, to comprehend the impossible, to express the unimaginable. It reminds me of the apocalyptic literature when John, Daniel and Ezekiel etc struggled to capture and record what they were seeing. So we have Ezekiel describing his vision of “wheels within wheels…full of eyes” (Ezekiel 1.16-18).

Similarly when we are trying to understand and describe the Trinity, we are at the limit of simile and metaphor. Even with our most precise language there is very little we can definitively say about the Trinity, but that there is one God in three Persons, each united in substance but distinct in relation to each other.

Like Calvin our response must be one of wonder and awe, not idle curiosity or vain speculation. It is easy to get lost in such mysterious truths and we would do well not to go one inch beyond the revealed truth.

“He (the Spirit) will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you.” John 16. 14-15

Father, like David we feel that such knowledge is “too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain”, help our finite minds to grasp something of the wonder of your essence – who you are within yourself – your self-existent, self-sufficient nature. Amen.

The Triune God, part 1

Book I Chapter 13 Section 1-13

Calvin now addresses the knowledge of God as He reveals Himself in three Persons. He starts by pointing out that although some have objected to the use of the word “person” to describe God, Calvin argues that it is an important term and that it, along with the word “trinity”, are invaluable to aid our understanding of God and defend against heresies (these will be addressed in more detail in Section 21-29 of this chapter).

Interestingly, Calvin confesses he would happily drop all such terms “provided all would concur in the belief that the Father, Son and Spirit, are one God, and yet that the Son is not the Father, nor the Spirit the Son, but that each has his peculiar subsistence” (persona). Unfortunately history shows that the early church was assailed with all manner of hereies about the Trinity.  Calvin mentions two characters for illustration – Arius and Sabellius.

Arius taught that although Christ was God, He had been created and had a beginning like other creatures. In response the truth was declared that Christ is the eternal Son of the Father and is “consubstantial with the Father” i.e. of the same substance. By contrast Sabellius recognised the triune Godhead, but merged the Father, Son and Spirit together so their was no distinction between them. In reply the church fathers declared that a “Trinity of Persons subsisted in the one God”.

In order to convince his readers of the truth of the Trinity, Calvin moves on to demonstrate the divinity of the Son of God. Calvin does this by firstly highlighting the role of the Son in the creation and sustaining of the world. He then moves onto a number of passages where Jesus expressly takes Old Testament references to Jehovah and applies them to Himself.

Response:

I love how Calvin uses his powers of reasoning in this chapter to expose the falsehood of the Arians and Sabellians. In Section 5 he runs through a mock conversation with them and has them openly confessing the official line on the one hand, but then muttering a whispered caveat to their followers. It’s a great technique to engage his readers and drive the point home of how they deviate from the truth.

It reminds me that heresy is not a word that we hear often these days, but it is still around. And its nature has not changed – it is still half full of orthodox doctrines (so that some would be convinced), but half full of error (so that the convinced are led astray). We still need technical terms that can provide clarity to our creed that can be used to defend against attack. Even if we can never ultimately fully understand or define something as mysterious and wonderful as the Trinity, often the critical thing is to define what it is not so that errors and hereies can be clearly ruled out.

“The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His being, sustaining all things by His powerful word.” Hebrews 1.3

Father, thank you for those early believers who fought for a correct understanding of who you are. We confess our finite minds cannot fathom the mystery of the “Trinity of persons in one Divine essence”, but we praise you Father, Son and Spirit for your external existence and redeeming work. Amen.

Images of the invisible God

invisible-man4Calvin’s Institutes (Book I Chapter XI Section 1-16)

In this chapter Calvin addresses the issue of idolatry and, interestingly, includes in the discussion his thoughts on the appropriate use of images in the worship of the church. Calvin begins by considering God’s opposition to any representation of Himself in Exodus 20.4 and how God “makes no comparison between images, as if one were more, and another less befitting; he rejects, without exception, all shapes and pictures, and other symbols by which the superstitious imagine they can bring him near to them”.

Following this, Calvin exclaims how absurd it is when mankind tries to represent the invisible, omnipresent Spirit by a visible, inanimate piece of wood or stone. God Himself is at liberty to manifest His presence by signs – but each of these point to His “incomprehensible essence”. For example the cloud, smoke and flame on Mount Sinai and the Shekhinah glory over the ark of the covenant, both illustrate His unapproachable and awesome nature. Other manifestations of God in the bible include the figure who had a form of a man walking in the fiery furnace (which may be a theophany – or pre-incarnate appearance of the Son of God) and the dove at Jesus’ baptism.

For the remainder of the chapter Calvin addresses the issue of images and pictures in the church. He traverses many topics, including statues, crosses and pictures (either historical or pictoral). He concludes that only the historical pictures, which “give a representation of events” are of some use “for instruction and admonition”. In fact he is in favour of having no representations of any kind within the church, pointing to the success of the early church in its first 500 years when there were no images in the churches. Moreover, he points out that the church already has two “living symbols, which the Lord has consecrated by His word”, ie baptism and the Lord’s supper.

Response:

It is sad to think that while God was manifesting His presence at Mt Sinai, Aaron was leading the people in the worship of a golden idol. Moreover, even the ark of the covenant, which represented God’s presence among the people, became something of a lucky charm to the people. They believed that it would lead them to victory irrespective of their covenantal backsliding.

Although I may draw the line on what images and pictures are acceptable in the worship of the church in a slightly different place to Calvin, I agree with his principles on imagery. In driving the Reformation away from the intense pageantry that had been associated with the worship of God he called for a clearer statement of what was essential. In examining the two images that are essential we find that they are also are most instructive. We ourselves become part of the living illustration of Jesus’ death and resurrection (baptism) and His coming again (communion). Let us not neglect these symbols that have been given to us as divinely appointed reminders of God’s redeeming work.

“To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal? Says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens; who created all these?” Isaiah 40.25+26

Father, grant us to make use of the symbols you have given us to illustrate your great love and forgiveness. Help us to remember and be thankful for the opportunity to demonstrate our obedience and love for you in our act of baptism and fellowship around the Lord’s table. Amen.

The relational God

labyrinth2Calvin’s Institutes (Book I Chapter X Section 1-3)

In Chapter 10 Calvin returns to the theme of the knowledge of the Creator God as found in the scriptures. By now we appreciate how hard it is to come to a real understanding of who God is. Indeed in Chapter 6 Calvin is honest enough to recognise how hard it is for anyone to come to a true understanding of the Living God. He says “we should consider that the brightness of the Divine countenance, which even the apostle declares to be inaccessible, is a kind of labyrinth, – a labyrinth to us inextricable, if the Word does not serve as a thread to guide our path: and that it is better to limp in the way, than run with the greatest swiftness out of it.” (I.VI.3).

But now Calvin is ready to introduce us to God as he reveals himself in His interactions with mankind.  This enables us to more fully understand and appreciate his attributes as He relates to us as our Creator. The three foundational attributes that God reveals about himself are His:

  1. Loving-kindness – His loving care for His children
  2. Judgment– His disciplining work as a just Sovereign
  3. Righteousness – His saving and preservation of the righteous

His other attributes of truth, power, holiness and goodness are encompassed by these three.

Response:

How true it is that so many today are lost in this labyrinth, dashing headlong towards another dead-end. If, by the Grace of God, we have been shone upon by a shaft of divine light illuminating His character, let us give thanks rather than pretend it was any wisdom or virtue of ours.

God reveals Himself as the relational God, but no one ever said that a relationship with God would be easy. We can’t pick and choose the attributes we would like God to have. We may wish he only had certain attributes that we are comfortable with, but if we are to have a true and meaningful relationship with Him then we must come to Him as He is, not how our culturally moulded sensitivities dictate.

“As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.” Psalm 103.13+14

Father thank you for revealing something of Your character to us, we confess our limited understanding and corrupt minds. Help us to love and adore you as you are and not try to make you fit into our finite minds. We embrace your Fatherhood today and your right to govern this world by Your wisdom and truth, Amen.