As I write this the UK is reeling from the use of chemical weapons on its home soil. It was a deadly attack and left two people in a critical condition and injured a third. We are rightly appalled at the blatant disregard for public safety and national sovereignty. It makes us thankful for our scientists who seek to ensure that should something like this happen we have the right antidotes to treat people who have been exposed.
As I have studied Book 8 of Augustine’s City of God this week I have been struck by its profound relevance for our contemporary situation. We are deep into the study now, and Book 8 is a masterpiece in unravelling the deepest desires of the human heart. As I have studied Augustine’s reasoning, it has forced me to wonder whether our modern UK society has been exposed to some sort of spiritually engineered soporific.
Could it be that our spiritual senses have been numbed into a Candy Crush-induced coma? Could our emoji expressions and 140 character limit be trivialising our soul? Like bodies that are weakened by an endless diet of donuts and Danish pastries, we have been feeding our souls on what is neither nourishing nor natural.
If Augustine was alive today I believe he would stand at the highest point of our nation and sound a clarion call for us to reclaim our souls. In this section of the City of God he explores what is the true food for our souls, he calls to us to feed on the right substance, for our souls were not made to consume, but to admire, to aspire, to adore. But what should we adore? Nothing that is of less worth than our soul, he says, for “the homage due from the soul cannot be due to something which is inferior to the soul”.
Throughout this section Augustine is seeking to find the true purpose and calling of our soul worship. To what do the wisest men of his time say we should direct our soul? If we ask people today, many may say that our greatest good is to be happy and to be true to yourself. But is this the right approach? Are we ourselves more worthy of the praise and adoration we give ourselves than anything else in the universe?
To answer these questions Augustine plunges into the philosophy of theology – the study of the divinity. Augustine wants to understand what we can learn from those thinkers who share a belief in a supernatural being. He works his way through the history of philosophers, until he reaches Socrates and Plato. They strived to answer this question by seeking to find the highest good, for when we know what that is, it is only right that we should adore only that which is worthy of adoration. Like a compass pointing to north, our souls will naturally turn towards it.
Socrates was the “first to turn the whole of philosophy towards the improvement and regulation of morality” as his predecessors had focussed on the study the natural sciences. Moreover, Socrates “saw that man had been trying to discover the causes of the universe”. He believed it had its “first and supreme cause in nothing but the will of the one supreme God, hence he thought that the causation of the universe could be grasped only by a purified intelligence”.
“He thought it essential to insist on the need to cleanse one’s life by accepting a high moral standard” in order to “behold, thanks to its pure intelligence, the essence of immaterial and unchangeable light where dwell the causes of all created things in undisturbed stability”. If only we could rid ourselves of our corrupted thinking and deeds, reasoned Socrates, we could as a clean mirror more clearly perceive the mind of God. A noble aim no doubt, but is it possible? Can we lift ourselves up to this spiritual level?
If Socrates was clear on the process he thought would work, he was less clear on what we would discover behind the veil. He sought to understand and identify the Summum Bonum – the Highest or Final Good. “Everything else we desire for the sake of this, this we desire for itself alone” as it alone conveys blessedness. But his approach of refuting various hypotheses and countering every argument left his followers with different opinions on what this Final Good was – was it pleasure or virtue or something else?
Where Socrates brought questions, Plato brought structure. Up until Plato philosophy had been conducted along two lines, one concerned with action, the other with pure thought. Or in other words, practical and speculative philosophy, the former dealing with the conduct of life and establishment of moral standards, the latter concerned with the theory of causation and nature of absolute truth. Plato “brought philosophy to perfection by joining together these two strands”. He then divided philosophy into three parts:
- Moral, relating to action (i.e. ethics…the Summum Bonum);
- Natural, devoted to speculation; and
- Rational (logic) which distinguishes truth from falsehood
Augustine summarises these three elements as relating to questions about:
- “the blessedness of life” – ie how do I live a good life?
- “the origin of existence” – ie why am I here?
- “the truth of doctrine” – ie what is truth?
When the Christian views these three categories we get a deeper appreciation for how our divine creator fulfils and satisfies each question in turn. As Augustine says, the Christian finds in God “the rule of life (moral), the cause of existence (natural) and the principle of reason (rational)”. He then goes on to say that if we have been created to attain to the knowledge of God then “we should seek him in whom for us all things are held together, we should find him in whom for us all things are certain, we should love him, in whom is found all goodness.”
Is this not the true north of our souls? Finding the greatest source and fountain of goodness, the reason for our existence and the source of all truth can only lead to adoration, thankfulness and worship. Only by centring our souls on this spring of life can we avoid the temptation for self-love and discover the satisfaction of all our souls could ever desire.
Always you Lord; I do not seek success today, I seek only you
Before all others, you are the one I seek first and constantly
Consciously I turn from all other loves and choose to love only you
Dependent upon your Spirit I ask only to hear your voice and be with you
Everything else fades away when I steadfastly seek your face, help me stay in your presence each moment
Father, I desire you when I do not understand you; I love you when I cannot see you
Great God of the whole universe, help me to trust you are guiding me home and be thankful for your blessings
Hardness of heart is my enemy; give me a tender spirit and a fresh love for others
I am resolved not to base your love for me on my achievement; you love me as I love my children – unconditionally
Just one thing I seek; a full heart of blazing love for you Lord
Knackered is what I am expecting to be for most of the year; help me to accept this is your plan
Life is short and death comes quickly; I have everything I ever needed because I have you
Measure not my life by my accomplishments, or abilities, or reputation but my nearness to you Lord
Nothing… is what I need to be content, fulfilled, at peace. Help me remember this in the bustle of life
Only one day at a time, do not fret about what’s to come or what’s been done…
Peace comes from acceptance and resignation; I completely surrender my life to your hands
Quietness and silence – help me to meditate on you and be still in your presence
Restless is my spirit until you remove all the distractions and I see only you
Spirit, come fill me, lead me, mould me, shape me, satisfy me; all that I desire is more of you
Turn my eyes from worthless things Lord; do not let them dazzle me
Use me as you see fit Lord, no holding back; I do what I do today for you only – show me if you desire something else
Very short is the time I have with my children, they grow so quickly; help me make the most of each day
Work will demand much of me, help me Lord to be strong and do my best every day
X, the sign of the cross upon me wherever I go; always with me, marking me as your property Lord
Youth is disappearing; help me to live each day without deceit, regret or vanity
Zero… the credit in my spiritual account; never more or less than a sinner saved by grace
This post was written for the Scottish Baptist Lay Preachers Association – click here
Reader Question: From a Reformed perspective (I am relatively new to this thinking in many ways), assuming the Doctrine of Election is true (I believe this to be true myself), what is the role of parenting? Knowing that there is no way to know whether or not your children are “elect”, how can a loving parent subject his children to Biblical teaching – assuming that teaching could some day be held against them on judgement day? (wouldn’t it be better for Sodom and Gomorrah than those who know the Gospel and don’t respond?). If they are elect anyway, perhaps telling them once and seeing how they respond is better than consistent training?
Again, I am not being facetious or devious- but really struggling through this. I grew up in a church and always assumed I was a Christian. Lately, I have doubted that as I have not seen the Spirit’s activity in my life, nor fully reflect the fruit of the Spirit, nor am I sure that I have fully repented from my sin. You may say to just repent and believe, but I am finding it more difficult than that and wondering whether or not I could possibly not be “elect”. Having sat through countless sermons and podcasts and books, am I more accountable?
Then, I take that to my children and wonder if I teach them the Gospel and they don’t respond, are they destined for a much more difficult eternity? Wouldn’t love for them wish for them to find Christ, yet not subject them to countless hours of instruction knowing that they may not choose that?
I am really confused, discouraged and honestly disheartened. I feel like my efforts to find God or grow closer to Christ or even to repent are “works” of my own and can’t any longer separate the true work of the Spirit from my own efforts.
I guess I am not looking for a counselling session, rather perhaps a perspective on what my responsibility is as a parent from the Reformed perspective. Thanks for your time and consideration on this (you can pray for me as well if you desire- I would not pass on that!).
Many thanks for your questions, these are real heart-felt issues that we all sometimes struggle with as we seek to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. I will try and provide some help on the issue of election before then turning to how this impacts our parenting.
As an opening comment I would say that election can be a very controversial subject and, not rightly handled, thinking deeply about it over a prolonged time can get us tied in knots. In some ways I would compare it to a person’s life assurance policy – it needs to be understood and applied, but then put in the back drawer and not obsessed over. Similarly with election, if not rightly understood and applied, rather than confirming and assuring our faith, it can actually have the opposite effect and undermine and make us doubt our faith. But once, in God’s mercy, we are granted a true understanding of the doctrine, we should allow it to support our devotion and growth, without being the test of it.
It might help to think of election as God’s side of the salvation story. Our side is the call to repent and believe and live a life of obedience in thankful response. From God’s side there are the eternal decrees determining each day of his children’s lives, from our side it is the moment by moment experience of living in this world and responding to his word. From God’s side there is ultimate and supreme sovereignty and freedom of will, from our side there is the wrestling with the sinful nature and the secret work of the Spirit in the inner life. No one can understand both sides of these things. We can see our side, and God has revealed some of his side through the scriptures. But much remains hidden and we must eventually reach a place of trust and submission if we would ever achieve assurance of our faith and peace of conscience.
It’s also important to realise that an assurance of our own faith is something that must be nurtured. Like a flower that will eventually bloom under the right conditions of soil, water and sun, so too our faith will be confirmed if we nurture the means to grow that faith. We will come to hear his Spirit confirming with our spirit that we are the children of God (Romans 8.16). At the moment of first confession we may have been told that we are saved, and some may feel assurance based on this their entire lives, but most of us will question it at some point in our lives. You certainly are at the moment, and this is a healthy thing if done for a season.
I’m sure you have heard and read many sermons and books on assurance of faith, so I’ll not go into that in detail. I just want to outline a few practical thoughts that I have found helpful:
1. The danger of relying on our feelings (and ignoring them completely) – do we feel elect when times are good and doubt our election when times are hard and we sin? The question we need to ask is what do we really believe to be true? Do we really truly believe that Jesus died for my sin – and if we do believe have we honestly asked him to forgive us. If so then we have planted the seed of the word in our hearts – we must then examine ourselves to see if the word is bearing fruit. But what is the fruit that we look for? If we seek perfection then we will be disappointed, if we seek love, joy, peace etc, then we will only see partial fruit, for we all are a pale reflection when it comes to these attributes. Perhaps a better indicator is how our desires, motivations, even feelings are being renewed. Do we grieve for sin when once we could have sinned without a second thought? Do we wish we were a better disciple and become frustrated when we fail? Good – so we should, for our desires are sometimes a better indicators than our characters, for character takes years to cultivate and while desires come and go, the fact that they do come sometimes should encourage us that God is at work.
2. The danger of self-deception – the false disciples of Matthew 7 thought they knew Christ when they only knew about him. Many people in churches will realise on the last day that this is true of them. The key question here is – have I personally appropriated the salvation which is freely given? I preached on this topic last year (click here).
3. The danger of despair – we should recognise that our minds are not infallible and are a battle ground for spiritual warfare – the helmet of salvation as Paul describes it, protects our minds. We should guard against entertaining every doubt, and emulate David in preaching God’s truth to ourselves. Don’t let our insecurities trump the truths of God’s word – for example, God has said “Never will I leave you never will I forsake you” – if we have addressed the first two items above then even though we might not feel in our experience the presence of the Lord, if doesn’t mean it is not true. The same can be said about forgiveness of sin – 1 John 1.9 promises complete and utter forgiveness of confessed sin – even if we don’t feel guiltless, or like we have been forgiven.
4. Sin, doubt or fear does not mean you are unelect – each of us face periods of failure and darkness, but like a life jacket that is pressed under the water, we are inevitably brought back to the surface again by the inner workings of the Spirit. The time to worry is when this no longer happens are we are content to wallow in our sin – then we are in danger of having our consciences seared and proving our profession to be false. If we have (as honestly as we are consciously able to) repented of our sins and confessed Jesus as our Lord, then it comes down to trusting in the promises that God has made to us – not the other way around. The promise is clear – “if you repent in your heart and confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, you will be saved” (Romans 10.10). If we do this and then doubt it, it doesn’t render the promise void – “for if we are faith-less, God will remain faithful” (2 Timothy 2.13).
5. The doctrine of election does not necessarily lead to complacency – unfortunately some who have misunderstood election have thought that this gives them a carte blanche to behave how they want. Like those objectors in Romans 6.1 who, after hearing that where sin abounds, grace abounds more said “well lets keep on sinning so that God’s forgiveness looks even better.” Election should be viewed holistically – not just in relation to salvation, but also sanctification and glorification (Romans 8.30). God has elected that we will be those who not only begin the Christian walk, but finish it and we will surely finish it more like Christ than when we began. Moreover, he has elected us to one day be glorified in his presence. God has not only ordained (or elected) the end (Christ-likeness in his presence), but also the means (life by the Spirit through our active obediance Galatians 5.16ff).
6. Works are not all bad – at one point Jesus was asked “what are the works that God requires” and he answered “to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6.28-29). So we see belief is a work of God. Not all works are to be despised, spiritual disciplines are works that can greatly help us in our daily obedience. The works that are condemned are the reliance on these things for acceptance with God. We should, we must, be a people of (godly) works – abundant in our labour of love, but these are in response to the mercy and grace of God, not a way to gain that favour, or even as a means to confirm our election.
Consider this illustration – election is like the engines of a plane, in the same way that the engines power the uplift and flight of the plane and enable it to make progress towards its destination, so our election is the secret working that enables us to believe, preserve and overcome. But if during the flight the pilot decided to stop the engines while he inspected whether they were really working as efficiently as possible, or if they were needing a service, the result would be disastrous. So too with election – our object and goal in life should be a close walk with the Lord Jesus, filled with His Spirit and obeying his commands, not always scrutinising the reality of our faith.
Once we get diverted off this focus, we risk becoming introspective and our focus shifts to ourselves rather than away from ourselves. Yes, there is a time for examination and personal reflection, but constant examination and persistent introspection is more likely to lead to you coming to a complete stop. The Spirit will guide you as you seek God’s face what is required of you at this point in your spiritual journey.
Finally, all this plays itself out in our parenting. In the same way that we cannot fully see God’s side of the salvation story for ourselves, so we cannot see it for our children. We must allow only God to know his ultimate decrees for their lives. We do not have any guarantees for them. Rather we must see that we are seeking to follow our side of the story – doing the things that we have been commanded by God to do – instruct them in the fear and knowledge of the Lord (Deut 6.7-9, Proverbs 22.6, Matthew 19.4). We must use the means God has given us, if we would have the ends that we desire for them. Again I say that I cannot see any guarantee that God has given Christian parents, and as a father of three beautiful, precious children this scares me. But I believe that God is a good God and that as he used the means of Grace in my life to save my at 9 years old, so he is able to bring my children to himself.
But we must seek to move beyond simply indoctrinating them with abstract truths, to demonstrating the reality of our own faith in the life that we live. We must open our hearts to them that they would see our vulnerability and honest struggles. They must see that it is more than a tradition or a culture for us – that it is our lifeblood. We must exhibit the graces and character that we want them to grow towards, to make room for their questions and doubts, to have spontaneous times of prayer and thanksgiving. Oh that God would grant us the immeasurable blessing of believing children and the grace to love them (and him) no matter what happens.
I hope this is of some help for you in your struggles. I pray that the God of all compassion would make himself known to you in such a powerful and real way that your faith is confirmed, your hope renewed and love deepened. In His name, Martyn
PS You can read my four posts on Calvin’s chapters on election and predestination here:
Book II Chapter III Section 1-14
The opening chapters of Book II are returning again and again to the key question of how far reaching was the effect of Adam’s fall; and how from such depravity our hearts are turned and yielded to God. Having established that Adam’s fall resulted in a permanent rupture in mankind’s ability to know God (Chapter 1), Calvin has gone on to demonstrate that our wills are free only in so much as we act voluntarily (Chapter 2). We freely follow the instincts of our sinful heart.
In this chapter Calvin wants to understand the process by which the will is yielded to a God it is in rebellion against and how it is sustained to preserve in that new obedience. He sets before us two seemingly contradictory truths. Firstly, that there is no intermediate state between our old natures and the regenerating Spirit. All that belongs to our natural condition belongs to the sinful nature, including our desires, motivations and choices. On the other hand he recognises that “all these iniquities do not break our in every individual” and that some have even spent “all their lives devoted to virtue”. How then do we reconcile the depth of the corruption within each and every heart with the lives of those who attain to a level of purity in their conduct?
In answer, Calvin argues that God is active by His Spirit in the lives of individuals to restrain them from sin, preventing them from becoming as sinful as they could be and by His grace creating a civil and ordered society. However, he argues that while the Spirit acts to restrain them from evil acts, it does not cleanse them from the impurity of their nature. Their fallen natures are not regenerated.
Calvin then turns his attention to the work of God in regenerating the soul to be born again. If we are completely powerless to change the natural bias of our hearts then how does this change occur and what role does our will play in the change? Calvin argues that from first to last, from the very first faintest desire for spiritual things, it is all of God. By drawing on the analogues used in scripture of our hearts as stone (Ezekiel 36.26) and as a vine (John 15) he argues against those that claim our regeneration is dependent upon our will responding to God’s grace. He demonstrates from scripture that God even supplies the new will within us. “Were it said that God gives assistance to a weak will, something might be left in us; but when it is said that he makes the will, everything good in it is placed without us”.
So how does the Christian continue to follow this new will? Only by the sustaining grace of God. The One who began the change, moment by moment sustains it by His Spirit. Grace is not given in proportion to human merit, but in proportion to the overflowing abundance of God.
This is the grace they call amazing! This is the worker paying his labourers a day’s wages for one hour’s work, the rejected father being the first to crack open the bubbly when his son returns home. This is the heart of the doctrines of grace. That it is all of God from first to last. Our first impulse to love Him, our daily desire to follow Him, our best moment of adoration, our most sacrificial act, our daily plodding on the narrow way – ALL of it is to be sourced back to His pre-eminent grace in the heart of the believer.
What do we have that we did not receive? Nothing. The new heart came from Him, the longing for His presence came from Him, the gifts and blessings of the Spirit came from Him. There is no place for self-praise in the presence of God. Only humble adoration and thanksgiving that such a one as I was given such precious treasure. Not because of who I am, but because of who He is.
So what is our part in all this? Is it a life of ease as we sit back and enjoy the ride? Not at all. Our part is to daily take up our cross and follow a crucified Saviour. To yield our wills completely and utterly to God and then to be led by the indwelling Spirit in our daily life.
“For it is God who works in you to will and to act according to His good purpose”. Philippians 2.13
I am reminded of the verse from Augustus Toplady’s Rock of Ages that sums this up so well:
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to the cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Saviour, or I die.
Book II Chapter II Section 1-27
After looking at original sin (or as Calvin calls it, hereditary sin) in Chapter 1 of Book 2, Calvin moves on to consider whether as a result of the fall man really has the freedom to choose to do good or evil. Does man really have a free will?
In order to answer this question Calvin first outlines how the mind works, how we make decisions. He identifies various elements within the soul, including the intellect, sense and appetite or will. He outlines the view of the philosophers who saw reason as illuminating the mind and informing the will to make decisions. However, they acknowledged that the will could be diverted from following reason by sense (pleasure and passion) that distort the appetite and turn will towards lust. But they believed that if man could rise above the influence of such carnal desires then he would be able to act justly and live an upright life. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is an excellent example of stoic philosophy that taught distancing ourselves from pleasure and pain in order to live a just life. Thus, the philosophers saw our innate reason as essentially pure and perceived the problem to be in trying to follow its inner light.
Discarding this view as not fully appreciating the impact of the Fall, Calvin then assesses the view of the church fathers on the topic of free will. He concludes that all of them, with the exception of Augustine, see man as corrupted at the sensual level only. They, like the philosophers, see our innate sense of reason as largely unaffected. He thinks this was driven by a misguided attempt to prevent people from feeling impotent to change their behaviour. Augustine defines free will in this way “it is a power of reason and will to choose the good, grace assisting, – to choose the bad, grace desisting”, emphasising man’s reliance on God’s grace for every good act. Calvin agrees with Augustine that without the transforming effect of grace man is completely powerless to live uprightly. He admits that mankind is not without the occasional spark of insight into the right path to follow, but our love for sin is such that we continue to decide to do that which we love – our sin.
Calvin goes on to describe three types of freedoms – the freedom from necessity (or compulsion), the freedom from sin, and the freedom from misery. He argues that the first freedom – the freedom from being forced how to act – is inherent to man and could not be removed, but the other two freedoms have been lost through the Fall. So, man has the free will to act however he so chooses, but he cannot act free from the power of sin. Calvin sums it up this way: “man is said to have free will, not because he has a free choice of good and evil, but because he acts voluntarily and not by compulsion”. But is this any type of freedom? “that man is not forced to be the servant of sin, while he is, however, a voluntary slave, his will being bound by the fetters of sin”.
The issue of free will is contentious, we feel like we act freely and make up our minds over how to act. Indeed, it is true that even after the Fall, reason is able to act as a guide. But it is also in some measure corrupted, our conscience is not always reliable and even when it points us in the right direction we do not have the moral power to carry out our good intentions. Even when we recognise that we are caught in a trap, our will is not free to step out of the net.
We need help from outside to change. Just like the English rugby player who after he was caught for doing cocaine was actually pleased that he had been found out before his addiction completely ruined his life, we need someone to step in and save us. Someone who has the power to overcome our weak will and set it in a new direction.
The case for the Saviour is being steadily built as each chapter unfolds. He is able to take us from being voluntary slaves to sin and make us willing love slaves to Him, so that we desire to do what’s right and have the power to carry it out. Then and only then are we willing and able to do what pleases Him. The struggle with sensual desires still wages but we have a new power within to will and to do what we now love – live a godly life.
“I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin…So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed”. John 8.34
Father, if we are completely honest we recognise that there is nothing in us that desires you. It is only by your Spirit working in us that we desire to draw near to you and begin to love and serve you. Thank you that you have taken away our heart of stone and given us a heart of flesh. Fan into flame this desire and give us a steadfast heart to seek Your face, for your name’s sake, Amen.
Book II Chapter I Section 1-11
The theme of Book II is the knowledge of God the Redeemer and in the opening chapters Calvin considers why we need a redeemer at all. The first reason is because of original (or inherited) sin and in Chapter 1 he examines the fall of Adam. We have already considered something of Adam’s pre-fall character in Chapter 15, when we thought about what mankind would have been like had Adam never sinned. Now we are examining what actually happened and the extent to which our nature has been corrupted.
Calvin divides the knowledge which we must seek about our true nature into two categories. Firstly we must strive to understand the end for which mankind was created and the qualities with which he was endued; and secondly to consider “his faculties, or rather want of faculties – a want which, when perceived, will annihilate all his confidence”. The former view teaches man what his duty is and the latter makes him aware how far he is able to perform those duties.
What was Adam’s sin? Calvin argues that it must have been a very serious crime to have justified such a punishment on the whole human race. He argues that it was not just a case of “sensual intemperance” but it was a deeper, more sinister act. It began with pride by trying to be equal with God, but also included a revolt against the authority of God, a despising of the truth and turning aside to lies. “From infidelity, again, sprang ambition and pride, together with ingratitude”. He goes on to argue that it was not even a simple apostacy, as the guilty pair effectively charged God with “malice, envy and falsehood”.
So if that was the crime, what was the nature and extent of the punishment? Calvin argues that it was:
- Not only on Adam and Eve, but the entire human race as Adam was the “root” that spread the deadly infection through the tree
- Not propagated by imitation but innate corruption, i.e. we bring our sin with us from our birth, not because we begin innocent and later sin
- Not propagated from parents to children, i.e. the godliness of believing parents does not prevent their children from being born spiritually dead. Original sin is inherited, but not from our parents but Adam, our first father.
- Not only the removal of our original righteousness, but possessing a nature of active, prolific rebellion
- Not limited to our sensuality only, but this heredity disease effects every part of our mind (intellect), heart (affections) and soul (spirit)
Thus, “the cause of the contagion (infection) is neither in the substance of the flesh (our bodies) nor the soul, but God was pleased to ordain that those gifts which He had bestowed on the first man, that man should lose as well for his descendants as for himself” (italics mine).
As I meditate on what happened when Adam sinned and the extent of the punishment inflicted on mankind, well did God say that on the day you eat it you will surely die. Better for Adam to immediately die physically, than live with the curse of this corrupt nature, apart from God and under His wrath and transmit it to all his offspring that they too would share in his curse. How deep and all pervasive is this corruption of every part of our lives. What remedy could possibly reverse the effects of this poison? We can fight against a disease that spreads in the atmosphere, but how to fight a disease that comes from within our own body? When we have peered with sobering gaze at the infected human heart we would almost give up all hope of a cure, were it not for the fact that we know one day God would provide a Saviour.
“What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks by to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Romans 7.24+25
Father, we know that if we had been in Adam’s place we would have also fallen. Help us to remember his failure with humility, may it remind us of the weakness and frailty of our own hearts. Thank you for rescuing us from the penalty of this failure, Spirit work in us to diminish the power of our innate corruption and we look forward to the day we will be freed from even the presence of our inherited sin. Worthy is the lamb who has rescued and redeemed us, Amen.
Well I’ve finally finished the first of the four books – the knowledge of God and ourselves. I’m taking a quick break from the regular posts to share some of my thoughts after reading Book I of Calvin’s Institutes over the last two months. Four things have struck me:
1. He doesn’t try to square the circle. I have been impressed with how far Calvin will go to grapple with complex issues such as the trinity and providence. He uses many different approaches to try and understand these truths and interacts with many controversial views. But he is also more than willing to stop when human intellect can go no further. He is content to submit himself to the Word as the final authority on these doctrines, not human reason.
2. More apologetics than I expected. I expected lots of teaching on the doctrine of God, but there has been much more apologetical reasoning on the credibility of the scriptures, how we know truth, understanding atheists and assessing false religion. It has been great to see how someone of Calvin’s ability writing in the 16th century approached these issues. The truth is that there were many of the same issues back then as there are now… nevertheless, Calvin was…
3. A man of his time. Living and teaching in the 16th century Calvin had no idea the challenges that were to assail the church from evolution and higher criticism (to name just two). For him it was self-evident that even the non-church goer would acknowledge the divine craftsmanship within the universe. While Calvin does spend time arguing for a Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, some of his arguments need to be supplemented with modern evangelical scholarship.
4. More devotional than academic. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by Calvin’s warmth and devotion during these chapters. He was a man of deep passion for God’s truth. It is clear he loved his Saviour intensely. Calvin sometimes gets a bad press as cold and calculating, but reading his work for yourself its clear these are more characterures than reality.
So onto Book II – the knowledge of God the redeemer. I’m just about managing to keep up with the blogging and reading, lets see how this next book goes, the plan says I’ll be finished on 21st April… God willing.
Book I Chapter XV Section 1-8
Growing up in our house in the 1980s there were a few shows that became part of the family culture. One of these institutions was the darts & quizz game Bullseye. I know it doesn’t sound exciting but it was so tacky it was brilliant. There were three teams of two, each consisting of a good darts player and a really rubbish darts player (supposedly on the show for their trivia knowledge). As the game progressed there was finally one team left and they had three darts each to get the required score to win the big prize.
You can call us sadistic but our family’s favourite part was when they failed to make the total required and, just to rub their noses in it, they would show them the prize behind the screen…with the immortal line “lets have a look at what you could’ve won.” It was always entertaining seeing the dissapointment on their face when they realised they had blown their chance to win the top prize (normally a speedboat or something equally unpractical).
While you may be wondering what connection this has to do with Calvin’s Institutes, it will become clear when we consider that in Chapter 15 Calvin considers the true nature of man as if Adam had never sinned i.e. as if the fall had never happened. Calvin attempts to imagine what we would have been like in an innocent world without the corruption of our nature brought on by Adam’s fall. As Calvin draws the screen back on the innocent and pure world before the fall, the sense of disappointment and failure is just as tangible. Here is what we could’ve been, who we could’ve been…
As hard as it is for us to imagine Adam’s pre-fall nature, Calvin attempts it by considering what it means for humans to be made in the image of God (before that image was tainted by sin). Calvin believes that this term describes “the integrity with which Adam was endued when his intellect was clear, his affections subordinated to reason, all his senses duly regulated, and when he truly ascribed all his excellence to the admirable gifts of his maker”.
Calvin also reasons that if we can see what qualities are most changed by the regeneration of man’s nature by the Holy Spirit in conversion, then we can reasonably assume that these were the qualities that were most defaced at the fall. And that they are indicators of the qualities Adam would have had in his sinless state. He points to Ephesians 4.24 as describing these qualities – namely knowledge, true righteousness and holiness.
Calvin argues in this chapter for the immortality of the soul. He says that the conscience is an “undoubted sign of an immortal spirit”. He then dissects the soul into two parts – the intellect and the will. The intellect is to us “the guide and ruler of the soul” while the will’s role is to “choose and follow what the intellect declares to be good, to reject and shun what it declares to be bad”. At least this was the case before the fall when “man possessed freedom of will, by which, if he chose, he was able to obtain eternal life”.
It’s a chilling thought to contemplate how life might have been so very different if the fall had never happened. But it did. There is no turning back the clock. The corruption that followed the fall is so woven into our very being that it is difficult to even comprehend life without it. Thankfully this is not some academic thought experiment with no application in the real world. Understanding the height from which we have fallen helps us to also understand the glory that is to be revealed in the children of God at the final day. We look back in order to look forward – to a day when we, like innocent Adam, will be sinless, pure and undefiled. To the day when we will be like Him for we shall see Him as He is.
“The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed… we will be changed, in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet”. Romans 8.19 & 1 Corinthians 15.51
Amen. Come Lord Jesus, come!
Calvin’s Institutes (Book I Chapter I Section 1-3)
One of the most famous sentences in the Institutes is the opening line…”almost all wisdom consists of two parts – knowledge of God and of ourselves.” In this short chapter Calvin describes his thoughts on how we begin to come to an understanding of a real knowledge of ourselves and God. His thesis is that to know God we must also know ourselves and visa versa.
Calvin sees it as self-evident that mankind’s innate reason, sense of justice and sense of the divine are indicators of the origin of these qualities in the creator. Moreover, the constant stream of blessings from God should lead us back to the origin of such blessings. He goes on to argue that our own natural condition of moral bankruptcy resulting from Adam’s fall should cause us to seek our spiritual sustenance from God and result in humble reverence towards him.
Why then is mankind in such denial of these truths and so unwilling to turn to God? Because they are unaware of their true state. Calvin argues that man naturally doesn’t know himself or realise his true position.
Only when we look into the face of God do we really understand the depth of our corruption – as we really are and not as we see ourselves. Until we stop making created things the measure of goodness we will never realise how bad things are. Its as if we have spiritual cataract that colours everything we view in this world with a misguided view of our true nature, particularly our righteousness, wisdom and virtue. Because everything we have ever seen or contemplated in this world is also tainted we have no conception of the depths of these virtues within God’s being. To prove his point Calvin mentions the cherubim as created beings that are sinless and pure, who yet cover their faces from the holiness of the Lord.
- The best of man’s goodness, graciousness and wisdom are mere imaginings of beauty when set beside the divine attributes.
- If those created beings who are without sin are overwhelmed in God’s presence, what should our response be?
- If a glimpse of his glory made Moses’ face radiant, then to see his true majesty would truly devastate us and yet how often we come before this God so easily and cheaply.
“All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.” Isaiah 64.6
Oh Father, we confess our amazement at how patient you are with us. We think we understand ourselves and our hearts, but before you every desire and thought is laid bare. You are the one who see us as we really are, while we only skim the surface of our sinful hearts. Help us always to rely on the complete and perfect redemption that takes away all our known and unknown faults, makes us whole again and one day will set us perfect before you. We rest in you and the cross of Jesus Christ. Amen