Category Archives: Original sin

Total Forgiveness

Amish-women-mournLast Sunday I spoke on the subject of biblical forgiveness from Matthew 18. The message is available to download here or listen online here.

The main theme for the sermon was how can God ask us to forgive everyone and yet, he requires reconciliation before restoring relationship, i.e. why do we have to say sorry before we can become part of God’s family? I also used the Amish shootings to try and understand what happens when someone doesn’t ask for forgiveness? Should we still forgive? The article I refer to at the end that was written about the incident can be found here.

We also touched on some of the practicalities of how this works in the church in the midst of our messy lives and unfinished characters. How can we live in unity whilst not overlooking areas of sin in the church family? It was a tough subject and worthy of much deeper study, but ultimately a vital issue to understand as forgiveness is one of the chief characteristics of a genuine faith. It is the litmus test of the reality of God’s grace in our lives. I pray it will be a blessing to you.

Nothing in my hand I bring

Book II Chapter III Section 1-14

The opening chapters of Book II are returning again and again to the key question of how far reaching was the effect of Adam’s fall; and how from such depravity our hearts are turned and yielded to God. Having established that Adam’s fall resulted in a permanent rupture in mankind’s ability to know God (Chapter 1), Calvin has gone on to demonstrate that our wills are free only in so much as we act voluntarily (Chapter 2). We freely follow the instincts of our sinful heart.

In this chapter Calvin wants to understand the process by which the will is yielded to a God it is in rebellion against and how it is sustained to preserve in that new obedience. He sets before us two seemingly contradictory truths. Firstly, that there is no intermediate state between our old natures and the regenerating Spirit. All that belongs to our natural condition belongs to the sinful nature, including our desires, motivations and choices. On the other hand he recognises that “all these iniquities do not break our in every individual” and that some have even spent “all their lives devoted to virtue”. How then do we reconcile the depth of the corruption within each and every heart  with the lives of those who attain to a level of purity in their conduct?

In answer, Calvin argues that God is active by His Spirit in the lives of individuals to restrain them from sin, preventing them from becoming as sinful as they could be and by His grace creating a civil and ordered society. However, he argues that while the Spirit acts to restrain them from evil acts, it does not cleanse them from the impurity of their nature. Their fallen natures are not regenerated.

Calvin then turns his attention to the work of God in regenerating the soul to be born again. If we are completely powerless to change the natural bias of our hearts then how does this change occur and what role does our will play in the change? Calvin argues that from first to last, from the very first faintest desire for spiritual things, it is all of God. By drawing on the analogues used in scripture of our hearts as stone (Ezekiel 36.26) and as a vine (John 15) he argues against those that claim our regeneration is dependent upon our will responding to God’s grace. He demonstrates from scripture that God even supplies the new will within us. “Were it said that God gives assistance to a weak will, something might be left in us; but when it is said that he makes the will, everything good in it is placed without us”.

So how does the Christian continue to follow this new will? Only by the sustaining grace of God. The One who began the change, moment by moment sustains it by His Spirit. Grace is not given in proportion to human merit, but in proportion to the overflowing abundance of God.

Response

This is the grace they call amazing! This is the worker paying his labourers a day’s wages for one hour’s work, the rejected father being the first to crack open the bubbly when his son returns home. This is the heart of the doctrines of grace. That it is all of God from first to last. Our first impulse to love Him, our daily desire to follow Him, our best moment of adoration, our most sacrificial act, our daily plodding on the narrow way – ALL of it is to be sourced back to His pre-eminent grace in the heart of the believer.

What do we have that we did not receive? Nothing. The new heart came from Him, the longing for His presence came from Him, the gifts and blessings of the Spirit came from Him. There is no place for self-praise in the presence of God. Only humble adoration and thanksgiving that such a one as I was given such precious treasure. Not because of who I am, but because of who He is.

So what is our part in all this? Is it a life of ease as we sit back and enjoy the ride? Not at all. Our part is to daily take up our cross and follow a crucified Saviour. To yield our wills completely and utterly to God and then to be led by the indwelling Spirit in our daily life.

“For it is God who works in you to will and to act according to His good purpose”. Philippians 2.13

I am reminded of the verse from Augustus Toplady’s Rock of Ages that sums this up so well:

Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to the cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Saviour, or I die.

Free to do what you love

Book II Chapter II Section 1-27

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

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

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

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

Response

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

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

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

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

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