Category Archives: The Trinity

The curse of the cross

Screen Shot 2017-12-31 at 11.25.37Book 2 Chapter 16 Section 1-19

Having spent a good few weeks now meditating on the incarnation, person and offices of Christ, I feel as if that there is enough mystery in these truths to spend the rest of our lives in wonder and study and still never plumb their depths. And yet this is only the beginning of the story. It is as if we have been going through the first few chapters of a biography and have only covered the scene-setting for what is to come as the main part of the life story.  We all want our lives to mean something, to have some greater significance, but we have here a man who lived the first 30 years of His life in obscurity. A man who knew the most significant act He would do would be His death – He really lived to die.

Thus, in this chapter Calvin describes the impact of the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. Calvin describes the following important aspects of Christ’s death:

1. His voluntary subjection. Of His own free will Christ came to earth, laid down His life and gave up His Spirit (John 10.15+18, 19.30). Christ chose to come, He chose to go to the cross, He chose to be a willing sacrifice. The Father did not force Jesus to do anything, He acted in willful submission to the divine will, for it is impossible for their to be any disunity in the Trinity. Christ cast away all care of Himself that He might provide for us. He even “submitted to be condemned by a mortal, nay a wicked and profane man” – in the form of Pontius Pilate. Although He could command all the legions of angels to His defense, instead He was led like a lamb to the slaughter, silent and submissive before a blasphemous mob.

2. Condemned as a criminal. Calvin makes the point that “in order to remove our condemnation, it was not sufficient to endure any kind of death. To satisfy our ransom, it was necessary to select a mode of death in which He might deliver us, both by giving Himself up to condemnation, and undertaking our expiation. Had he been cut off by assassins…there could have been no kind of satisfaction in such a death. But when He is placed as a criminal at the bar, where witnesses are brought to give evidence against Him, and the mouth of the judge condemns Him to die, we see Him sustaining the character of an offender and evil-doer.” Calvin concludes that “thus we perceive Christ representing the character of a sinner and a criminal, while at the same time, His innocence shines forth, and it becomes manifest that He suffers for another’s and not His own crime.”

3. A propitiatory victim. Here Calvin focusses on the method of Jesus’ death – the cross. He died a death that was cursed in Jewish tradition – “anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse” (Deuteronomy 21.23). He was the fulfillment of the sacrificial system, which had been established as a purification for sin. By bearing the just punishment for all our sin, and even becoming sin for us (1 Peter 2.24), Christ through the imputation of our wickedness was offered to the Father as a propitiatory victim. But Calvin reminds us that we should not think that the curse of the cross overwhelmed Him, but rather “by enduring it He repressed, broke and annihilated all its force.”

Calvin concludes by lifting our eyes to the wonder and glory of the cross, for rather than it being the reason for our defeat, it is the centerpiece of our victory. For “faith apprehends acquittal in the condemnation of Christ, and blessing in His curse.” The Apostle Paul even celebrates the triumph which Christ obtained upon the cross “as if the symbol of ignominy, had been converted into a triumphal chariot.”

Response

We are now at the heart of God’s plan to rescue His children from their rebellion. The death of Christ describes the means whereby God was able to both judge sin and forgive sinners whilst retaining His integrity. In the first few chapters of Book 3 we will learn how this act becomes effective in reconciling us to God through the channel of faith.

Unfortunately some Christians today feel uncomfortable with the idea of Jesus’ death being a wrath-appeasing sacrifice.  I admit that it is a difficult truth to comprehend. How could the Father ask His only Son to undergo such pain and suffering? How could He think to sacrifice His only Son – the uncreated for the sake of the created? But this is the true love of God, the costly, self-sacrificing love of God.

Looking back to what God asked Abraham to do in sacrificing Isaac, what appears to be madness suddenly becomes a clear picture of what God Himself was going to do – sacrifice His only Son. What Abraham was asked to do but stopped from completing, God the Father carried through to its conclusion.

It seems to me that we should not question God’s actions as a Father towards His own Son. We who are fathers sometimes have to make impossible decisions that no one else can make. But if we being imperfect reflections of the divine Father seek to do what is right, then will not the true and perfect Father always act with the utmost honour and integrity? Rather than cast doubt on what the bible clearly teaches we should recognise our distorted view of love and confess our wonder that the Father, Son and Spirit would go to such lengths for creatures such as us.

“And having disarmed the powers and authorities, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” Colossians 2.15

Father, we praise you that you were willing to give up your one and only Son to the disgrace of the cross and Jesus we praise you that you were willing and obedient to do all that the Father asked. Help us to cling to the victory you gained by becoming a curse for us. 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.