Category Archives: Understanding Ourselves

The not so super-natural

The Man Who Knew Infinity tells the story of a young genius mathematician from India who can see formulae for incredibly complex theories as if they are simply colours in the rainbow. He explains (spoiler alert!) that these equations are given to him by the goddess he worships. Is it possible that the gods and goddess communicate with their followers? And if so can they help them find eternal peace?

This is the question that Augustine is wrestling with in Book 9 of the City of God. Perhaps a question unfamiliar territory for modern day Western minds, but maybe not so for Eastern religions. The issue Augustine is addressing is the problem of our separation from God. He is seeking to understand how a being who is infinite and spirit, can be known by those who are finite and physical.

In the ancient world (and still today in some parts of the world) this problem was attempted to be solved through the mediation of gods on behalf of people to the supreme being and vice versa. But does this solution withstand closer scrutiny? Augustine takes what their own philosophers have said about these beings and challenges the logic to see if there is any real possibility that they can help humans bridge the divine divide.

He starts by asking, are there good and bad gods? Followers of Plato saw all gods as good. So, how then to explain the things they do that we disapprove of? The bad ones some call demons, those who do evil activities and have degraded passions. These philosophers believed that gods have no contact with man, so gods are established midway, to carry men’s requests and bring back the benefits the gods have granted.

In order to more accurately define what we are talking about Augustine uses the definition of Apuleius, saying that these beings (described as demons throughout the chapter) are “animals in respect of species; in respect of soul, liable to passions; in mind, capable of reason; in body, composed of air; in life-span, eternal“. Some of these characteristics these creatures share with humans, some with the supreme being.

Humankind is described as having “a lowly abode, mortality & misery“, while gods are described by “the sublimity of their abode, the eternity of their life, the perfection of their nature“. Thus we can see three key elements that distinguish people, demons and God: i) their mortality, ii) their location and iii) their nature. People are temporal, earthly and unhappy, demons are eternal, ethereal and miserable, while God is eternal, spirit and forever blessed.

Augustine says these demons are worse than men, “older in wickedness and incapable of being reformed by the punishment they deserve” and so they are tossed about on “the raging sea of their minds“. He says that “only truth and virtue can offer a centre of resistance against the turbulent and degraded passions” if we are not to be carried along with them on the path to destruction.

To all this Augustine poses the question, can such beings that share our misery help us acquire the eternal blessedness of God? Can they aid us to achieve that which they are unable of accomplishing themselves? No, says Augustine, we need a mediator that has the opposite characteristics to demons, something, or someone who is mortal, earthy and perfectly blessed:

all men, as long as they are mortals, must needs be also wretched. If this is so, we must look for a mediator who is not only human but also divine, so that men may be brought from mortal misery to blessed immortality by the intervention of the blessed mortality of this mediator. It was necessary that he should not fail to become mortal, equally necessary that he should not remain mortal“.

In order to bridge the gap between two worlds a mediator must share common ground with each side of the divide. In theory it may seem that demons could do this as “they are immortals, like the gods, and wretched, like men“. However, their desires are corrupted and even if they could help humankind reach the divine, they would not want to unite people with their sworn enemy. In fact they would do everything in their power to separate them from their eternal home.

In Augustine’s time they did this through creating a counterfeit religion which attempted to divert people from worshiping the true God. In our day they do it through covert means of maintaining the illusion that the only reality is the visible realm. Hiding behind the curtain they use their power to filter out the ripples of real supernatural activity, and hide their true nature from prying eyes.

These days we would never ask the same questions Augustine does of these beings. The average Westerner would claim they couldn’t care less about whether such demons exist, they are the thing of reality TV shows in haunted houses, and gory Hollywood horror movies. Our fascination is less about salvation and more about sensation – helping us escape from the real world for a few hours in our imagination.

We would do well to reconsider our limited view of the supernatural if we would avoid the twin errors of a counterfeit religion and a covert deception. We must find our refuge in the one true mediator who truly has our best interests at heart and has once and for all bridged the chasm between the divine and the debased. God the Son fulfilled the criteria perfectly by demonstrating that “the mediator between God and man should have a transient mortality, and a permanent blessedness“. And he invited each of us into that blessedness through his atoning death on the cross.

Lord Jesus, help us to rest fully on your mediating work, the one and only rescue to bring us safely to our eternal home. Thank you for taking on our frail humanity and weak nature to join us with you for all eternity. Amen

I am not a liar

Book 2 Chapter 8 Section 1-58

As I write this post Lewis Hamilton, the youngest Formula 1 Champion in the history of the sport is having to confess to giving “misleading information” to race stewards following his race last Sunday. Apparently he deliberately withheld information about an illegal move during the race that led to another competitor being (wrongly) penalised. For this action Hamilton was disqualified from the race and his boss was sacked, after 35 years with McLaran. In his defence Hamilton shifts the blame onto his boss who, he said, asked him to withhold the information. Despite being caught red-handed, Hamilton said “I am not a liar or a dishonest person”.

It’s interesting to consider his reasoning after just reading Calvin’s chapter on the 10 commandments. I’m not sure the logic would not have convinced Calvin. Hamilton seems to be implying that although he has been caught lying on tape he is not the kind of person who lies routinely. His explanation also seems to imply that because he only withheld information and didn’t say something that was false he didn’t lie. While both these things may be true, the law says he is a liar. For he who keeps all the law but breaks it in one place is a lawbreaker, and he who has never lied before, but lies once is a liar. The law stands there in black and white as a timeless testimony of God’s character. No matter what modern secular man thinks of the 10 commandments, the 9th commandment (“You shall not bear false testimony against thy neighbour”) is still as powerful today as it ever has been.

Perhaps we think that we would not have done the same thing. Perhaps we think we are not liars?

Calvin states the purpose of the 9th commandment is to teach us to “cultivate unfeigned truth towards each other”. That not only should we not say things that untrue about our neighbour, but that we must “faithfully assist each one, as far as in us lies, in asserting the truth, for the maintenance of his good name and his estate”. This is a proactive goodness and generosity to our neighbour. It is not good enough to stand by and not speak up for our neighbour in his support, should circumstances require our testimony. We should employ the tongue “in maintenance of truth, so as to promote both the good name and prosperity of our neighbour”.

Calvin finishes this commandment by increasing the magnification of our sin under God’s microscope. He says “let us not imagine it is a sufficient excuse to say that on many occasions our statements are not false”. Ouch! I guess I am a liar too. Have I not many times injured my neighbour’s name and reputation by complaining against him, even if it is true? What appeared like a simple and straightforward command – not to lie against a neighbour – is really a call from God to live wholeheartedly for the good of all people with a sincere heart. Which of us can claim not to be a liar now?

Response

This mammoth chapter is one of the longest in the Institutes but is full of interesting insights into the most famous laws in the world.

The example above shows how prone we are to try and wriggle out of the full demands of the 10 commandments. Indeed, while some may seek to play down the implications of the 10 commandments, in a futile attempt to “manage” our sin, Calvin is careful to stress that we should not limit the application of these laws by our ability to keep them. Rather we must allow God to set the standards, even if they are so far above our reach that it is impossible for us to attain them.

Calvin repeatedly comes back to his theme of Why are we given these commands? What is God trying to tell us through them? His answer is that God has chosen specific examples to illustrate divine principles. In some cases He has chosen the most extreme example of a particular sin (e.g. murder) to illustrate a broader principle of holding each person sacred. Or He chooses an example we are most inclined to obey (e.g. honouring our parents) in order to illustrate the principle of cultivating a respect for authority of all kinds.

This is exactly how Jesus understood the law and how explained its demands, drawing our attention to the underlying spiritual requirements of the written law. Unfortunately, while this deeper understanding of the law deepens our knowledge of what God requires, it also deepens our failure to live up to His standards. There was only ever one man who lived His entire life in every word, deed and thought to promote the truth and the good of His neighbour.  He is the only one who can help us, as we will see in the next chapter.

“Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of His love”. John 13.1

Father, thank you for the penetrating light of your word. As we gain a better understanding of its truths we are exposed as guilty before you. I thank you that there is forgiveness at the cross for everything we have done, everything we have left undone. Fill us with your Spirit of truth to think, speak and act only for the good of our neighbour, Amen.

Faith acquires what the law requires

Book II Chapter V Section 1-19

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

Some of the questions he tackles in this chapter are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The day we all died

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).

Response

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.

Look at what you could’ve been

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”.

Response:

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!

No one believes in me anymore

Book I Chapter XIV Section 1-22

In the preface to his book The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis writes “there are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.” Our society has fallen into the former error and as Keith Green had the Devil saying in one of his songs – “no one believes in me anymore“!

It is the subject of angels and demons that Calvin addresses in Chapter 14, inbetween chapters on the nature of God (Chapter 13) and the nature of man (Chapter 15). He splits the chapter according to the nature of elect angels and fallen angels (demons).

Although we are not told everything we would like to know about angels in the bible, we are told a number of important facts about angelic beings:

  • They are not self-existant, but were created
  • They were created good and the depravity of demons comes “not from nature but corruption of nature”
  • They are heavenly spirits who are messengers, or intermediates for God
  • They are employed in our protection
  • Although they know some element of the future, they have limited knowledge
  • They are not to be worshipped
  • They are not indispensible – sometimes God by-passes them to speak and act directly in human affairs
  • We do not know their nature, rank or number and it is vain to speculate beyond what the sciptures tell us

In terms of demons we are also told a number of facts:

  • There are a great host of them
  • They are led by Satan or the Devil
  • They were created good but become corrupt
  • They therefore have the same attributes as angels
  • They are bound by the will of God
  • They are allowed to wage war against the elect angels and believers
  • They are real spirits

Response:

As I read this chapter I’m reminded that there is a real and violent war happening right now in the heavenly realms between these powerful beings. How it is conducted is a mystery to me, but the bible teaches that “our war is not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers in the heavenly realms”. How do our prayers affect this battle? I do not know, but what I do know is that from the moment that Daniel set his heart to steadfastly pray and seek God and an angel was immediately dispatched in response (Daniel 10.12).

How is it that the vast majority of the (Western) world is unaware of this battle? Do we just not want to see the evidence of the war, or is it that we can only see the results of the war and not the war itself.  What is the war for? Is the war related to issues of social policy, national security, cultural values, church unity, or the souls of individual people?

I think the answer is yes for all. As the kingdom of God is established on this world through the work of the Spirit in the believer, then the forces of evil respond at the individual level (our struggle with the world, the flesh and the devil), the fellowship of believers (destroying church unity, purity and effectiveness), society’s values (eroding historic Christian values) and national (anti-Christian laws and destructive leadership).

But before we become paralysed with hopelessness, let us remember that the victory is already won and that He that is in us is greater than he that is in the world. Let us also remember the example of Daniel as how the godly can live holy and righteous lives in a depraved gentile society. How we need those like Daniel today who will not comprimise their Christian beliefs while faithfully serving a gentile king with distinction.

“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the heavenly forces of evil in the heavenly realms…With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.” Ephesians 6.12+18

Father, you know how our prayers influence the spiritual battle. We ask for faith to have confidence that You hear us and that our prayers are effective. Help us to recognise it is on our knees that we can do the most damage. For Your glory, Amen.

Every contact leaves a trace

Book I Chapter V Section 1-6

Those of you that watch CSI (Crime Scene Investigation) will recognise the motto – “every contact leaves a trace”. The evidence can always be found if you know where to look (and you’ve got the latest forensic technology!). Its uncanny how they always seem to be able to figure out the most complex crimes in around 45 minutes, but they manage it.

When it comes to investigating the evidence for a creator, Calvin makes exactly same point in this chapter.  That is, as well as the testimony of the divine seed within us (Chapter 3) we can know God through his creative activity – if we can interpret the evidence before us. We might not be able to see God directly, but Calvin argues that we can see his fingerprints on the world we live in and within our own bodies.

In particular Calvin focusses on the amazing complexity of the human mind and our faculty for reason and judgement. At one point he speaks of “the swift motions of the soul, its noble faculties and rare endowments” and is amazed that the very attributes which point so clearly to the hand of God have been the very things employed to conjure up arguments against the existence of God. He is almost exasperated when he asks the rhetorical question: “are so many treasures of heavenly wisdom employed in the guidance of such a worm as man, and shall the whole universe be denied the same privilege?”.

He goes on to say  “shall we, by means of a power of judging implanted in our breast distinguish between justice and injustice, and yet there be no judge in heaven?”. Where then did this innate sense of justice come from?

Response:

We are amazing creatures, but do we really think we are the pinnacle of the universe? If in our daily lives we give so much thought and consideration to what seems a simple task to someone who might observe us, why do we observe the highly complex activities of the natural world and say that it is all driven by chance?

“When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honour…O Lord, our Lord how majestic is your name in all the earth!” Psalm 8.3-5+9

Our Father, even when we are amazed at how complex our minds and bodies are, we are microscopic when placed alongside you. Yet you care for us and are tenderhearted towards us, you know our lives intimately and watch our every step. We are humbled by your attention and grateful for all our blessings, Amen.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing

Book I Chapter IV Section 1-4

In this Chapter Calvin examines how mankind has responded to the sense of the divine that that we read about in the previous chapters. Have they gratefully acknowledged this truth and sought more light? Unfortunately not; rather than lead them to a deeper understanding of God, they have instead suppressed the truth.

Calvin admits that this suppression may be done ignorantly (and lead to superstition), or maliciously (leading to intentional rebellion against God’s rule).  When the superstition is combined with our natural spiritual blindness, as a result of original sin, it results in spiritual pride and stubbornness.  From this position true knowledge of God is impossible, instead a sanitised, impotent god is constructed in our own image and understanding.  Although Calvin has some sympathy for the spiritually blind, he states that they too are without excuse because their pride leads them headlong into error.

On the other hand there are those who willfully suppress the truth that has been revealed to them. They close their own eyes to his truth and he responds by hardening their hearts.  Calvin suggests that they do not deny God’s existence but his activity – “He (the fool) says to himself “God has forgotten; he covers his face and never sees”” Psalm 10.11. This kind of rebel does not say that God is not there, but that if he is there he will not act.

Calvin’s final point is that a man-made God is always a tame God. True religion is worshipping God on his terms or not at all. Anything else is man’s image projected onto the clouds. Indeed, although the rebel and the superstitious seem poles apart, both groups have this in common – they both abhor the right of God to govern his creatures according to his own justice and truth. The former rejects and runs, the latter kowtows and corrupts – spreading false rumours and misguided opinions from within the walls. Both would rather overthrow God than allow him to exercise his rightful rule and authority.

The true test of whether our religion be superstition or genuine is firstly whether we allow God to be God and not accommodate him to our culture or personal sensitivities and secondly whether the fruit is good. The superstitious would rather indulge than restrain and they finally become lost in “a maze of error”.

Response:

There is a lot to consider in today’s reading. I’m reminded of the passages in the scriptures that speak of those who tried to combine their own misguided views of God with the self-revelation of God through the prophets and apostles. People like Balaam in Numbers 22 and Simon the Sorcerer in Acts 8 stand out as examples of those who really got it wrong.

But the real challenge for me today is how much do I, as someone who believes in the inspiration of scripture, really allow it to alter my view of God and how much do I still try and tame him to fit my own preferences?

“For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as god nor gave thanks to him as God, but their foolish hearts were darkened.” Romans 1.21

Father we come before you to seek to know you as you truly are, not as we would like you to be or as we currently understand you to be. Only you can reveal yourself  – open our hearts and minds to spiritual truths and take down every false view of you. Broaden and deepen our understanding of your character and qualities. Open your word to us that we may see you clearly in every verse. We look to you today, Amen.