Here is a message I shared with Cupar Baptist Church in May on Mark 15 where Jesus is before Pilate, as we see the innocent presented as guilty and the guilty presented as innocent. Hope you enjoy it.
Recently I have started reading the bible in what I would call the Countdown style. 2 from the back, 1 from the front and 1 from the middle – ie 2 chapters from the Old Testament, 1 from the New and 1 psalm. It has brought up some interesting insight as I mediate on such a broad sweep of redemptive history.
This morning I read Genesis 21 & 22, Matthew 11 and Psalm 11 and found an interesting parallel. In Genesis Abraham’s love for his son is tested, in Matthew John the Baptist’s quest for the Messiah is answered, and in the Psalm David’s refusal to flee from his enemies is declared.
It struck me that each of these passages shows us an important but different aspect of obedience. Obedience in the bible is always in the context of relationship with the Creator. As our maker and father he instructs us in the best way for us to walk, he guides us towards the best pasture to feed on. The question is, will we follow?
Abraham’s obedience overcomes paternalistic love; John’s obedience overcomes nationalistic apathy; David’s obedience overcomes hostile attack. In each the test is different but similar. Do you love me more than your greatest love? Will you follow me if you are the only one? Are you prepared to trust in my protection?
Sometimes we are tempted to think of obedience as this impossible standard of perfection that encompasses everything we think, say or do…and that would be correct. On this level our every action is marred by our tainted motives. Much of this is innate and only slowly and painstakingly redeemed.
However there is another aspect of obedience which is the deliberate choices we make to either follow or reject God’s leading in our lives. This is conscious, deliberate, stumbling toward God in faith moment by moment. We will never defeat our every sinful motive (who can know all their hidden faults?), but we are expected to choose the path of obedience over family love, fear of enemies and paralysing apathy.
In this place if we are only willing to give God 95% of our hearts, then this is not obedience. Full and unreserved surrender is the currency of heaven. Yes we stumble in times of weakness, yes we have a backlog of bad tendencies to work through, but in the moment by moment relationship we are holding nothing back. This is the outworking of Jesus’ call to remain in him and bear much fruit.
Father, help us to submit our lives to your care, enable us to overcome our hesitation and fall forever into the ocean of your unconditional love. Amen
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.
Book 3 Chapter 10 Section 1-6
If there is a motto for the 21st century Brit, this is it! Our media screams out day after day as a mantra for modern day living, “Go on spoil yourself you deserve it”. We know that we don’t really need that flat screen TV, ipod, new mobile phone, anti-aging cream, XBOX 360 (delete as appropriate!) but we buy them, why? “Because we are worth it”. We deserve the best that life can offer and no one has the right to tell us otherwise. Restraint and moderation have been forgotten and our society has embraced materialism with a religious fervour – that is until the credit crunch hit.
Calvin takes a very different approach to our possessions. He poses the refreshing suggestion that we should use the various things in creation for the purpose they were created. Why did God make food, clothing, flowers, or precious stones? Not only for our sustenance but also our enjoyment. But this enjoyment should not go to excess, so that we over-indulge our appetites and end up abusing the God-ordained purpose of the object. We should bear in mind that “the object of creating all things was to teach us to know their author, and feel grateful for his indulgence.” In regard to food, Calvin asks “where is the gratitude, if you so gorge or stupify yourself with feasting and wine as to be unfit for offices of piety, of the duties of your calling?”
If we become so obsessed with the gifts and forget the Giver we risk becoming like the gifts. As Calvin says “for many are so devoted to luxury in all their senses, that their mind lies buried: many are so delighted with marble, gold and pictures that they become marble-hearted…The kitchen, with its savoury smells, so engrosses them that they have no spiritual savour.” Rather we should view ourselves as stewards of all that we have, recognising that in fact we really own nothing (1 Cor 7.29).
How refreshing it would be for us all to use things for the way they were created, if we all used food for the pleasure and nourishment it provided without becoming anorexic or obese. What would society look like if we all used clothes for the simple purposes they were created? No fashion industry would be needed, no sweat shops in Asia, no competing to keep up with the latest look.
While some may say Calvin is advocating an Amish-type existence, he is no kill-joy. He is all for enjoying the good things in life, but framing that enjoyment within the purposes of the Creator. What advice would Calvin have for us regarding our possessions? I think he would say, use it, enjoy it, but don’t let it master you or abuse it beyond its natural purpose. Best of all, be content with whatever God has given you, patiently bear hard times, use what you have to bless others and realise that you have these things, not because you are worth it, but because He entrusted you with it.
“Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say “Who is the Lord?” Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonour the name of God.” Proverbs 30.8-9
Book 3 Chapter 9 Section 1-6
2.5 billion – that’s the estimated number of heartbeats of someone who lives until they are age 70, at 35 million heartbeats a year. That means if I live until 70 I only have some 1.2 billion heartbeats to go. That’s all that separates us from eternity – just the thump, thump, thump of our cardiac muscle. Obviously many never reach the ripe old age of 70, and a few find that their tired heart can keep going for a few more million beats.
Calvin’s message in Chapter 9 is that Christians should look forward to the end of this life, not from a morbid fascination with death, but because this is when life really begins. He’s not just saying this to make us feel better, he really believes that the best is yet to come. It reminds me of CS Lewis’ play The Great Divorce, when the people in heaven were more real and joyful than they had ever been on earth. There is something coming on the other side of death that will make this life seem like a rainy bank holiday weekend in Llandudno (no offence meant, but you can’t argue with childhood memories!).
Calvin ties this topic into the theme of bearing our cross that we were looking at last time by pointing out that one of the effects of the many afflictions that we bear is that they make us despise the present life. We yearn for an end to our sufferings that sometimes almost make us hate our earthly life. Calvin says that this is one of the legitimate goals that God would has in giving us a cross to bear. The cross is our remedy to an over-indulgence in this life, Calvin recognises the danger that “our minds being so dazzled with the glare of wealth, power and honours, that they can see no further.” In fact, “the whole soul, ensnared by the allurements of the flesh, seeks its happiness on the earth.” So God shows us the “vanity of this present life, by a constant proof of its miseries.”
But alongside the danger of becoming too besotted with the glitter of earth, is the other extreme of becoming so disillusioned that we begin to hate our life on earth. As someone once said, we risk becoming so heavenly-minded to be of no earthly use. Calvin warns against ingratitude to God who has given us numerous divine blessings in this life that we should be thankful for. These are a foretaste of what is to come – “before openly exhibiting the inheritance of eternal glory, God is pleased to manifest Himself to us as a Father by minor proofs – i.e. the blessings which He daily bestows on us.” We must never let our weariness of the troubles of life become a weariness of life itself.
And yet how few believers truly live in the light of these realities, having a desire to depart, while also having proper thankfulness and joy at the simple pleasures of this temporary life? How infrequently we meditate on the reality of the brevity of this life and the certainty of our future life. As Calvin says “there is no fact which we ponder less carefully, or less frequently remember.” But our attitude in this area is a sure sign of the depth of our Christian maturity, for “no man has made much progress in the school of Christ who does not look forward with joy to the day of death and final resurrection.”
Chapters 9 & 10 form two bookends of the Christian life – the former driving us to meditate on the glory of the future life, the latter reminding us of the importance of our stewardship in the present life. It’s vital we hold the present and future life in balance. Without a right focus on both we will become inbalanced and unstable, either becoming intoxicated with the futility of this present life or overly comfortable with our temporal blessings. How hard it is to be both content with what we have, as well as eager to leave the body and be with the Lord. There are many times when I have been more than ready to go, but now with the blessings of a young family and a faithful companion my heart desires to see them grow.
How little we ponder these things, even as Christians. Do we dwell on the reality of the temporary nature of everything we see? Have we grasped that one day, even though none will realise it, there will be the last ever Premiership season, the final Wimbledon Championship, the final season of Formula 1 (this may be nearer than the others!!)…there will be the last house sold but never lived in, the last person poked on Facebook, the final Twitter tweeted. Our task is to live in the constant reality of these truths, while simultaneously finding joy and delight in the momentary sparkle of creation.
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade – kept in heaven for you.” 1 Peter 1.3+4
Father, we know our lives are fleeting in our heads, but we sometimes convince ourselves us we are here to stay. Help us to number our days aright and avoid either extreme. Inflame our hearts until we meet, that every heartbeat would be full of love for you, Amen.
Book 3 Chapter 8 Section 1-11
In this second chapter on self-denial, Calvin focuses our thoughts on what it means to “bear the cross”. He begins by stating that our example and model in this should come from our Lord, who, despite being the most beloved Son and completely sinless, was subjected to a “perpetual cross” while on earth. The only reason He carried His cross was “to testify and prove his obedience to the Father.” On the contrary, there are many reasons which make it necessary for us to bear our cross:
- To reveal our false confidence in the flesh – because we estimate our virtue above its proper worth
- To prove to us our great weakness and frailty – thus teaching us true humility
- To learn to invoke His strength – teaching us to daily rely on the grace of God, not our own strength
- To try our patience and train us in obedience – that we might “display striking proofs of the graces” He has given us to withstand such trials
- To prevent us from becoming corrupted by His indulgence – and so not become like the children of Israel who kicked against the father who reared them (Deut 32.15)
- To correct our past faults – treating us as children who are rightly disciplined (Heb 12.8)
- To suffer for the sake of righteousness – which is singled out as being particularly glorifying to God (Mat 5.10).
Calvin goes on to say that without trials there would be no such thing as patience. For patience only grows in adversity, never peace. God would have us display the glory of the gifts He has given us, that His grace and power may be demonstrated to the world. As Calvin says “But if God Himself, to prevent the virtues which He has conferred upon believers from lurking in obscurity, nay lying useless and perishing, does aright in supplying materials (i.e. trials!) for calling them forth, there is the best reason for the afflictions of the saints, since without them their patience could not exist.”
However, knowing that there are so many good reasons to undergo trials does not mean that believers possess a “total insensibility to pain” as if there feelings were desensitised. Our goal is not to be like the Stoics who aim to be so divested of humanity that nothing in life can affect them – treating adversity and prosperity, grief and joy all the same as if they were a stone. Even Christ himself experienced grief and “shed tears for his own and others’ woes.” We are caught between wanting to obey God and trying to avoid suffering. We by nature recoil from trials, but knowing that this is often the path we must take to obey our Father we press on, not knowing what lies ahead.
With so many good reasons for undergoing trials and tribulation its a wonder that we complain so much when we go through them! Seriously though, how hard it is for us to hold on to these truths in the midst of our sufferings. Most of the time it is only when looking back, often after many years, that we can see any positives from our ordeals. And yet Calvin reminds us that is in the midst of these trials, when they are at their fiercest, that we are virtue shines the brightest. Our patience, thankfulness and graciousness at the time of testing glorifies God and demonstrates to the world the reality of our faith.
Some trials are common to believer and unbeliever – for example disease, bereavement, redundancy and natural disasters. In addition when the believer takes a stand for his Lord he will often face persecution. In all these things, whether they come to us because we are believers or because we are living on a broken planet, we can view them all as the cross that we must bear. They can all be redeemed by embracing them for the sake of Christ. This is where the difference comes – not in the nature of the trials themselves, but in our offering of ourselves willing to God to bear them for His pleasure.
“Everyone who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” 2 Timothy 3.12
Book 3 Chapter 7 Section 1-10
In this chapter Calvin continues his contemplation of the Christian life by doing a two-part exposition of Matthew 26.24, looking at the practice of self-denial. He begins by reminding us that we are not our own:
- “We are not our own: therefore, neither is our own reason or will to rule our acts and counsels
- We are not our own: therefore, let us not make it our end to seek what may be agreeable to our carnal nature
- We are not our own: therefore, as far as possible, let us forget ourselves and the things that are ours”
So who do we belong to now?
- “We are God’s: let us, therefore live and die to Him
- We are God’s: therefore let His wisdom and will preside over all our actions
- We are God’s: to Him, then, as the only legitimate end, let every part of our life be directed”
Calvin would have us realise that it is only in giving away our lives that we can rescue them from destruction, for “the only haven of safety is to have no other will, no other wisdom, than to follow the Lord wherever He leads. Let this then be the first step, to abandon ourselves and devote the whole energy of our minds to the service of God.”
Calvin divides the rest of this chapter into two parts, namely how self-denial has respect to our fellow man and, most importantly, to God.
- Our fellow man – while keeping ourselves humble by a diligent examination of our faults we should “behold the gifts of God in others, so to reverence and respect the gifts, as also to honour those in whom they reside. God having been pleased to bestow honour upon them, it would ill become us to deprive them of it.” Denial of self also means we do not use our gifts for our edification or promotion, rather “whatever we obtain from the Lord is granted on the condition of our employing it for the common good of the church, and that, therefore, the legitimate use of all our gifts is a kind and liberal communication of them with others.”
- God – our self-denial calls us to “resign ourselves, and all we have, to the disposal of the Lord.” Calvin recognises our “frenzied desire” for wealth, prosperity, honour and power, but the Christian is to seek none of these things as an end in themselves. Rather we do not “think of any prosperity apart from the blessing of God.” We are not to trust our own “dexterity and assiduity” (i.e. ingenuity) or leaning on the favour of men (i.e. networking) or empty imagination of fortune (i.e. visualisation techniques). Rather than standing on anyone who gets in our way, this way of thinking will mean “we will only follow such fortune as we enjoy with innocence.”
How refreshing this attitude toward our fellow man is! How easy it is to focus on the weaknesses and faults of those in Christian leadership – both in the local church and those with a global profile. Calvin warns us against have a critical spirit against them, not because of the perfection of their Christian character, but because they have been appointed by God to their position for the good of the church. Keeping our own faults at the forefront of our mind should keep us humble, but how well do we do at this? Do we lift up those in leadership among us in our conversation or do we bring them down? Its interesting to think of the parallels with David’s attitude to Saul in this regard. Knowing Saul was “the Lord’s anointed”, David abhorred the thought of inflicting the slightest injury on him. Do we really believe that our leaders were appointed by God for the good of His people? If so then this is not a million miles away from David’s attitude to Saul. We would do well do emulate David’s holy respect and loyalty to his (weak and tormented) king.
Self-denial is something much bigger than a private battle against besetting sins. It encompasses our entire lives – are they directed to the call of God, or are we living our lives on our agenda, with only the most fleeting acknowledgment of our Lord? Self-denial only makes sense when we understand that the reason we are called to lay down our own will and desires is that we might learn the will and desires of our Lord and Saviour. Only then do we learn that we have actually sacrificed nothing of any value, and yet we have gained the most priceless of all pearls.
“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” Jim Elliot.
Book 3 Chapter 6 Section 1-5
Calvin groups chapters 6 to 10 of Book 3 under the banner of “The Life of the Christian”. Beginning with this short chapter on how the bible exhorts us to live a holy life, he then moves onto a study of Matthew 16.24 in two part – self-denial (7) & carrying the cross (8) and finishes with two meditations on the future (9) and present life (10).
Calvin first of all presents the call of God to personal holiness. Scripture would have two things focus our attempts at holiness – 1) the love of righteousness and 2) the denial of self. Calvin reminds us that we are to be holy because God is holy. He states that holiness must be the bond in our union with God “not that by the merit of holiness we come into communion with him, but because it greatly concerns His glory not to have any fellowship with wickedness. Again “for to what end were we rescued from the iniquity and pollution of the world into which we were plunged, if we allow ourselves, during our whole lives, to wallow in them?”
While the philosophers can only exhort us to live agreeably with nature, we have a higher goal. For God “has impressed His image upon us, to which He would have us to be conformed.” And that image is His Son. Calvin presses us to live a holy life and gives numerous reasons for holy living, all originating in the blessings of God:
- Ever since God exhibited Himself to us as Father…
- Ever since Christ purified us by His blood…
- Ever since He ingrafted us into His body…
- Ever since He who is our head ascended to heaven…
- Ever since the Holy Spirit dedicated us as temples to the Lord…
- Ever since our soul and body were destined to heavenly incorruptibility and an unfading crown…
“These, I say, are the surest foundation of a well-regulated life, and you will search in vain for anything resembling them among the philosophers.” He finishes this chapter by considering the challenge before us to be holy as God is holy. He admits that although all true Christians will aspire to a completely pure life, none will achieve it. Nevertheless, we should be resolved to “set this before our eye as the end at which we ought constantly to aim.” We must seek to always make progress, even in some small way – “let us not despair because of the slender measure of success.”
It is encouraging to see the compassionate Calvin in this chapter recognising the frailness of our nature and our lack of progress in genuine godliness. We must hold these two things in tension throughout our entire pilgrimage – the unadulterated call of God to complete purity and the frailty of the human nature in progressing in holiness. To over-emphasise the former leads to despair and inner condemnation, to over-emphasise the latter leads to over-indulgence and self-justification.
In all our teaching and preaching we should never water down either truth, but rather we should preach with all our heart that what is impossible with man is possible with God. Only with the Spirit’s enabling can we ever make progress in a holy life. As He enables, we are able to walk with the Spirit and as we do we find that we suddenly are not so inclined to satisfy our selfish desires. Does God call us to do the impossible? Yes, humanly speaking. But as Peter could walk on water as long as he kept his eyes focussed on Christ, so we too are able, in some measure, to live a God-honouring life.
“So I say, live by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature…Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.” Galatians 5.16+24-25
Father, enable us to keep our eyes focussed on Jesus for more of each day, every day. May we grieve the Spirit less and quench the Spirit less each day of our lives. We know we will never be perfect, but keep us from willful sins and keep us pressing on. Amen.
Book 3 Chapter 5 Section 1-10
As we saw in the previous chapter, a misunderstanding of what repentance is leads to a misunderstanding of how the penalty of our sins was satisfied. As Calvin looks back at church history he comments that “the satisfactions placed on penitents were too severe to be borne, those who felt themselves burdened beyond measure by the penance imposed petitioned the church for relaxation. The remission so given was called indulgence.” In this chapter Calvin traces the origins of the practice of various indulgences:
- The treasury of the Church. This refers to the merits of Christ, the Apostles, and the Martrys. While the bible is clear that the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1.7), the “indulgences make the blood of the martyrs an ablution of sins.” This is because they teach that “the martyrs, by their death, performed more to God, and merited more than was necessary for themselves, and they have a large surplus of merits which may be applied to others.”
- Purgatory. Calvin argues against those who believe that it is best to avoid what was such a divisive issue, rather Calvin insists that “when the expiation of sins is sought elsewhere than in the blood of Christ, and satisfaction is transferred to others, silence were most perilous.” Calvin calls this doctrine “a deadly device of Satan, that it makes void the cross of Christ.” Calvin deals with a couple of scriptural and apocryphal texts that are claimed to support the teaching, before also showing that it was not believed in the early church.
To think that we can make restitution for the offence we have caused God by buying indulgences or saying prayers for the dead directly contradicts the full and complete forgiveness that Christ purchased by His blood. To think that there is anything lacking in His sacrifice is to show we have not grasped the true extent of the grace and mercy of God. When Jesus cried “It is finished”, he wasn’t talking about His attempt to stay alive, but His work of redemption. He didn’t say “I am finished” but “IT is finished”. This was the work He had begun at His incarnation, carried on all through His perfect obedience in adult life and through to His sacrificial substitutionary death. There is nothing more to add for the forgiveness of sins, it has all been done.
Purgatory is a classic example of man-made religion. We really don’t like being excluded from the work of salvation, so we devise a way in which we are responsible for working our way up to God. But the glory of Christianity is that it is not man-made, but God-ordained. God was the initiator in seeking us out, God entered our world, God became man, God died for our sins, Jesus is the author and finisher of our faith – there is no room for us to add anything. There is no small print in the Book of Life, there are no hidden catches to God’s offer of salvation. This is why we call God’s grace Amazing!
“Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of one man the many will be made righteous. Romans 5.18-19
Book 3 Chapter 4 Section 1-39
In seeking to understand the vital topic of forgiveness of sins, Calvin addresses two areas that he sharply disagrees with Rome in the next two chapters. The issue at stake is real forgiveness – firstly, how can one be sure that someone is really repentant? and, secondly, does the forgiveness of our sins require satisfaction (in particular regard to the teaching on indulgences and purgatory)?
The Catholic theologians had defined repentance in three parts: contrition of the heart, confession of the mouth and satisfaction of works.
- Contrition of the heart. They taught that forgiveness of sins is “merited by a full and complete contrition” for all sins committed. That is a recounting of all the sins we have committed. But they have no way of knowing when this has been done. Indeed, it is impossible to ever exhaust the depths of our corruption and provide a full account of our sinful ways. Calvin rightly points out that this can only lead to despair or pretended contrition. Moreover, Calvin argues “that repentance cannot be the cause of forgiveness of sins”, it is not the purity and depth of our repentance that enables forgiveness, but the blood of Christ covering all who look to Him, however feebly we may look.
- Confession of the mouth. Here Calvin addresses the teaching that every person must once a year confess his sins to his own priest. He quickly covers the history of the confessional within the Catholic church. He deals with the various passages put forward to support the practice and concludes that it is without scriptural authority or historical grounding. Calvin is all for private confession, and even, when appropriate, private confession to a pastor. But always with the aim of applying the remedy of Christ’s forgiveness to the individual circumstances of the repentant believer.
- Satisfaction of works. This is the subject of Chapter 5.
While Calvin recognises that the motivation of the Catholic church in imposing these rituals was to exhort penitents not to fall into sin, forgiveness for Calvin is not something that can be produced or monitored by the observance of religious ceremonies. It is an affair of the heart. We cannot remember all our faults and outward rituals only numb the conscience and give false confidence if not accompanied with an inward reality.
But isn’t there a danger of licentiousness in leaving this a personal matter for believers and God? Surely only those who are really penitent and serious about changing should be forgiven, surely the church should make sure that people keep their promises? Surely not monitoring the people will lead to them abusing His grace and forgiveness and taking it for granted? Perhaps so.
Is God too generous? Is He more willing to allow us greater freedom than we are comfortable with? The answer appears to be yes. The bible is full of examples of God’s extravagant grace & forgiveness and our inability to deal with it – witness Jonah’s exasperation at God’s forgiveness of the people of Nineveh (Jonah 4.11), or Judas’ bitterness at Jesus’ acceptance of a sinful woman (compare Mark 14.4 & 10) and the grumbling of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20.12-15) at the landowner’s generosity.
Whether we like it or not, the truth is that God is more willing to forgive than we are. Our natural inclination is to try and control forgiveness and contain it within reasonable limits, so we can understand it. But God’s forgiveness is the real thing. He promises immediate, complete and free forgiveness and He delivers it – guaranteed! No strings attached. Then He tells us to go and live in the light of that forgiveness with a thankful, joyful heart and by His Spirit to walk in purity and holiness.
“What shall we say then? Shall we go on sinning that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” Romans 6.1+2
Father, thank you for opening your heart to us and pouring your grace and forgiveness into our lives. How we need to learn to be as gracious as you are. We all too easily forgive ourselves anything but hold the least offence against our brother or sister. Transform us to be as self-giving and grace-filled as you are, Amen.