Sacraments in Space and Time

lord's supperFollowing Paul’s argument first letter against the licentious Corinthians (10:1-13), Calvin makes an interesting comment on the work of the Holy Spirit worth briefly exploring.

Apparently many were hiding behind the efficacy of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper as a sort of prophylactic against judgment, or temptation to sin in spiritually dangerous situations like eating meat in pagan temples. Paul challenges their comfortable assumptions by reminding them that the Israelites had those same sacraments in their own Old Covenant form as well. Just as the Christians were baptized into the name of Christ with the Spirit, Israelites were baptized into Moses through the cloud and sea. Just as Christians ate spiritual food in the Supper, the Lord fed the Israelites with spiritual food of manna and drank water from the Rock that is Christ. And yet, as Paul will go on to point out, through their sin, the Lord became displeased with them and many of them were struck down in the desert. In which case, Corinthians ought not sit too easily in their lax approach toward temple idolatry.

Towards the end of his comment on verse four, Calvin takes up an interesting objection:

There remains another question. “Seeing that we now in the Supper eat the body of Christ, and drink his blood, how could the Jews be partakers of the same spiritual meat and drink, when there was as yet no flesh of Christ that they could eat?” I answer, that though his flesh did not as yet exist, it was, nevertheless, food for them. Nor is this an empty or sophistical subtilty, for their salvation depended on the benefit of his death and resurrection. Hence, they required to receive the flesh and the blood of Christ, that they might participate in the benefit of redemption. This reception of it was the secret work of the Holy Spirit, who wrought in them in such a manner, that Christ’s flesh, though not yet created, was made efficacious in them. He means, however, that they ate in their own way, which was different from ours, and this is what I have previously stated, that Christ is now presented to us more fully, according to the measure of the revelation. For, in the present day, the eating is substantial, which it could not have been then — that is, Christ feeds us with his flesh, which has been sacrificed for us, and appointed as our food, and from this we derive life.

Assuming the relationship of type to antitype between Old Testament and New Testament, Calvin says that believers in both are partakers of the same spiritual meat and drink, the flesh of Christ. That they drank from the rock that was Christ, means they participated in the sacraments of Christ. But the problem is that Christ wasn’t incarnate, sacrificed, risen, and ascended in the time of the Exodus. So how can that relationship hold? Here we get an interesting glimpse into the all-important role the Holy Spirit plays in Calvin’s view of the sacraments.

It’s more commonly known that Calvin’s view of the sacraments is a “spiritual” one, in that the Spirit is the one who makes Christ present to believers in the Supper, or rather, makes believers present to Christ. Lutherans leaned on the idea of Christ’s ubiquity, or the idea that even Christ’s physical nature became omnipresent because of its hypostatic union with the divine nature. Calvin, however, emphasized the importance of the ascension of Christ’s physical, glorified body that has occupies a particular space as a body, seated at the right hand of the Father in the heavenlies (wherever that happened to be). In other words, “where is Christ?” is a question that can legitimately asked.

If they were to be present to the Risen Lord, it would be by the action of the Holy Spirit who “makes things which are widely separated by space to be united with each other, and accordingly causes life from the flesh of Christ to reach us from heaven” (Calvin, quoted by Michael Horton in The Christian Faith,  pg. 814). So the Spirit unites things in space, bridging the distance between the Ascended Lord and his people who depend on him for heavenly life.

What is so fascinating about this passages is that apparently the Eternal Spirit also bridges the distance between the ages and unites them across times. For Calvin, believers in the Old Testament were fed and sustained by the benefits of Christ’s future life, death, and resurrection as the Spirit miraculously applied it to them then. There was an eschatological dimension to the sacraments for Old Testament believers then, just as there is one now.

Remember, every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we proclaim his death until he comes again. And not only that, we must also remember that the Christ who is present to us now through the power of the Holy Spirit is the Risen Christ. We participate by faith in the receiving the life of the age to come now, but also by entering into communion with the Lord who is the age to come in his own person.

Soli Deo Gloria

Calvin’s Multi-faceted Atonement (TGC)

cross calvinIf there’s one thing anybody knows about Calvin’s doctrine of salvation it’s that he taught the doctrine of double-predestination. If people venture beyond that, according to the popular picture of 20th-century theology, Calvin is basically the creative chap who invented penal substitutionary atonement as a variation on Anselm’s theme, and most of his thought was concerned with Christ satisfying the wrath of God. End of story, right?

Contrary to this opinion, Calvin was not a one-trick pony when it came to the expansive work of Christ’s cross. Robert Peterson wrote an excellent book on Calvin’s Doctrine of the Atonement, attempting to exposit the great reformer’s thought in order to display the multi-faceted, biblical character of theology of salvation. In three early chapters, Peterson establishes a foundation that Christ’s work first of all rooted in the free love of God. He didn’t need to be persuaded to care for us, but of his own initiative, God sent the Son to save us. What’s more, it is a work grounded in a solidly soteriological and Chalcedonian doctrine of the incarnation of the Son; the Son became the Godman that he might save sinners. Then, he moves on to show the way that Christ’s atonement accomplished this in his role as the mediator who redeems us in each of his offices of prophet, king, and priest.

Beyond that, Peterson highlights six key biblical themes Calvin used to explain Christ’s work on the cross. While the six are clearly intertwined, nonetheless, they all do specific work in Calvin’s thought. Following Peterson’s framework, I’d like to introduce and highlight selected quotations from Calvin in order to show that he taught a densely woven tapestry bright with the many threads of our redemption.

You can read the rest here at The Gospel Coalition.

Soli Deo Gloria

Calvin v. Sadoleto on Justification, Sanctification, and Union

CalvinCalvin’s theology of salvation is all about the double-gift of grace given to us in union with Christ. This is why he can so strongly insist that justification is by faith alone, not by works, and yet there is no danger of cutting the nerve of pursuing personal holiness. No matter what has been said in pop Reformed circles, there is no room for license or true antinomianism in Calvin’s thought. “Christ justifies no one he does not also sanctify.” Justification does not mean there is no room for works at all in the Christian life.

One Calvin’s most concise articulations of that understanding comes in his celebrated reply to Cardinal Sadoleto in September of 1539. The Cardinal had been trying to win back Geneva into the fold of the Roman Catholic church and wrote a letter arguing the Reformers, their theology, and their efforts. After an invitation to respond by some worried Genevans, Calvin replied while in exile in Strasbourg. At the center of his reply was his parry against Sadoleto’s charges at a Reformed understanding of justification:

You, in the first place, touch upon justification by faith, the first and keenest subject of controversy between us. Is this a knotty and useless question? Wherever the knowledge of it is taken away, the glory of Christ is extinguished, religion abolished, the Church destroyed, and the hope of salvation utterly overthrown. That doctrine, then, though of the highest moment, we maintain that you have nefariously effaced from the memory of men. Our books are filled with convincing proofs of this fact, and the gross ignorance of this doctrine, which even still continues in all your churches, declares that our complaint is by no means ill founded. But you very maliciously stir up prejudice against us, alleging that, by attributing every thing to faith, we leave no room for works.

I will not now enter upon a full discussion, which would require a large volume; but if you would look into the Catechism which I myself drew up for the Genevans, when I held the office of Pastor among them, three words would silence you. Here, however, I will briefly explain to you how we speak on this subject.

First, We bid a man begin by examining himself, and this not in a superficial and perfunctory manner, but to sift his conscience before the tribunal of God, and when sufficiently convinced of his iniquity, to reflect on the strictness of the sentence pronounced upon all sinners. Thus confounded and amazed at his misery, he is prostrated and humbled before God; and, casting away all self-confidence, groans as if  given up to final perdition. Then we show that the only haven of safety is in the mercy of God, as manifested in Christ, in whom every part of our salvation is complete. As all mankind are, in the sight of God, lost sinners, we hold that Christ is their only righteousness, since, by his obedience, he has wiped off our transgressions; by his sacrifice, appeased the divine anger; by his blood, washed away our stains; by his cross, borne our curse; and by his death, made satisfaction for us. We maintain that in this way man is reconciled in Christ to God the Father, by no merit of his own, by no value of works, but by gratuitous mercy. When we embrace Christ by faith, and come, as it were, into communion with him, this we term, after the manner of Scripture, the righteousness of faith.

What have you here, Sadolet, to bite or carp at? Is it that we leave no room for works? Assuredly we do deny that, in justifying a man, they are worth one single straw. For Scripture everywhere cries aloud, that all are lost; and every mans’s own conscience bitterly accuses him. The same Scripture teaches, that no hope is left but in the mere goodness of God, by which sin is pardoned, and righteousness imputed to us. It declares both to be gratuitous, and finally concludes that a man is justified without works, (Rom. iv. 7.) But what notion, you ask, does the very term Righteousness suggest to us, if respect is not paid to good works? I answer, if you would attend to the true meaning of the term justifying in Scripture, you would have no difficulty. For it does not refer to a man’s own righteousness, but to the mercy of God, which, contrary to the sinner’s deserts, accepts of a righteousness for him, and that by not imputing his unrighteousness. Our righteousness, I say, is that which is described by Paul, (2 Cor. v. 19,) that God bath reconciled us to himself in Jesus Christ. The mode is afterwards subjoined — by not imputing sin. He demonstrates that it is by faith only we become partakers of that blessing, when he says that the ministry of reconciliation is contained in the gospel. But faith, you say, is a general term, and has a larger signification. I answer, that Paul, whenever  he attributes to it the power of justifying, at the same time restricts it to a gratuitous promise of the divine favor, and keeps it far removed from all respect to works. Hence his familiar inference — if by faith, then not by works. On the other hand — if by works, then not by faith.

But, it seems, injury is done to Christ, if, under the pretence of his grace, good works are repudiated; he having come to prepare a people acceptable to God, zealous of good works, while, to the same effect, are many similar passages which prove that Christ came in order that we, doing good works, might, through him, be accepted by God. This calumny, which our opponents have ever in their mouths, viz., that we take away the desire of well-doing from the Christian life by recommending gratuitous righteousness, is too frivolous to give us much concern. We deny that good works have any share in justification, but we claim full authority for them in the lives of the righteous. For, if he who has obtained justification possesses Christ, and, at the same time, Christ never is where his Spirit in not, it is obvious that gratuitous righteousness is necessarily connected with regeneration. Therefore, if you would duly understand how inseparable faith and works are, look to Christ, who, as the Apostle teaches, (1 Cor. i. 30,) has been given to us for justification and for sanctification. Wherever, therefore, that righteousness of faith, which we maintain to be gratuitous, is, there too Christ is, and where Christ is, there too is the Spirit of holiness, who regenerates the soul to newness of life. On the contrary, where zeal for integrity and holiness is not in vigour, there neither is the Spirit of Christ nor Christ himself; and wherever Christ is not, there in no righteousness, nay, there is no faith; for faith cannot apprehend Christ for righteousness without the Spirit of sanctification.

Since, therefore, according to us, Christ regenerates to a blessed life those whom he justifies, and after rescuing them from the dominion of sin, hands them over to the dominion of righteousness, transforms them into the image of God, and so trains them by his Spirit into obedience to his will, there  is no ground to complain that, by our doctrine, lust is left with loosened reins. The passages which you adduce have not a meaning at variance with our doctrine. But if you will pervert them in assailing gratuitous justification, see how unskillfully you argue. Paul elsewhere says (Eph. i. 4) that we were chosen in Christ, before the creation of the world, to be holy and unblameable in the sight of God through love. Who will venture thence to infer, either that election is not gratuitous, or that our love is its cause? Nay, rather, as the end of gratuitous election, so also that of gratuitous justification is, that we may lead pure and unpolluted lives before God. For the saying of Paul is true, (1 Thess. iv. 7,) we have not been called to impurity, but to holiness. This, meanwhile, we constantly maintain, that man is not only justified freely once for all, without any merit of works, but that on this gratuitous justification the salvation of man perpetually depends. Nor is it possible that any work of man can he accepted by God unless it be gratuitously approved. Wherefore, I was amazed when I read your assertion, that love is the first and chief cause of our salvation. O, Sadolet, who could ever have expected such a saying from you? Undoubtedly the very blind, while in darkness, feel the mercy of God too surely to dare to claim for their love the first cause of their salvation, while those who have merely one spark of divine light feel that their salvation consists in nothing else than their being adopted by God. For eternal salvation is the inheritance of the heavenly Father, and has been prepared solely for his children. Moreover, who can assign any other cause of our adoption than that which is uniformly announced in Scripture, viz., that we did not first love him, but were spontaneously received by him into favor and affection?  —Calvin’s Reply to Sadoleto

I think Calvin’s said enough for himself. But, just in case, you may also want to consult this summary by Robert Letham of what the doctrine of union with Christ does to secure and link firmly our justification, sanctification, and glorification.

Soli Deo Gloria

Rules for Reading Calvin After Reading Muller

unaccommodated CalvinStudent of Calvin that I am, I was very excited to receive Richard Muller’s The Unaccommodated Calvin: Studies in the Foundation of a Theological Tradition. It’s supposed to be the book when it comes to Calvin that you have to reckon with, if you’re going to get an accurate and adequate picture of Calvin. As soon as I got it, I broke down and put it the front of the list and began reading. Soon, though, I realized that this was not the book I expected, but maybe the one I needed. 

In his work, Muller points out that Calvin has been accommodated over the years to any number of widely diverging portraits designed, intentionally or not, to fit him into their own current theological program or grid. Depending on the theologian, Calvin comes out as the rigid systematician, or the scornful humanist who wouldn’t approach anything like a scholastic system. The problem is that most have done so without any serious care to set him deeply within his 16th-Century historical and intellectual context, or dealt properly with the variety of source material when it comes to Calvin’s works. Muller wants to set the record to straight and do the kind of historical work necessary to set Calvin in his proper context and trace out the shape of Calvin’s program. It’s not so much a study in Calvin’s theology (for that, I’d recommend Billings or Horton), so much as a study in Calvin the theologian; his method, more than his results; how to read him, not so much what you’ll find when you do.

So what should we learn about Calvin the theologian? What should we avoid and what should we expect? Well, I can’t give you everything because that would take the couple of hundred pages, plus the eighty pages of endnotes (yes, endnotes) to do what Muller did. Still, I’ll try to summarize a few highlight takeaways. As always, this is rough.

Yes, Calvin was trained as a humanist. Does that make him “anti-scholastic”? Well, yes and no. Muller makes a very convincing case that Calvin was mostly directly acquainted with the ‘scholastic’ theologians of the Sorbonne of his day and that most of his harsh polemics is aimed at them. Indeed, the French translation of the Institutes especially makes the case as the term scholastic is often translated “Sorbonnist theologians.” Beyond that, he probably wasn’t deeply as acquainted with scholastic theology personally as some have imagined. Calvin learned theology as he studied and taught, in the thick of ministry. That said, there are strong evidences of its influences in his theology in terms of classical distinctions he used, and argument forms he deployed.

The same thing is true, apparently, of Aristotle. While most of his references to Aristotle are negative, Aristotelian thought-forms and categories are still present in his work, because they were shared by a lot of the common intellectual culture at the time. Actually, a lot of what you see in Calvin is a shift in his form of argument influenced by Agricolan logic, and the greater emphasis on rhetoric and persuasion that the humanists had. When you compare him to what came before and what followed, he actually makes a lot of sense as something of an in-between figure, because really, it’s historically anachronistic to separate out ‘humanism’ as a theology and method too cleanly from ‘scholasticism’ as a theology and method at the time.

Does that make him anti-systematic? We should also scrap any idea that Calvin was, therefore, as a humanist, totally anti-systematic. Muller makes the case that Institutes are something in-between a full-blown, modern system, and something else. Instead, they are arranged as a set of loci communes, or commonplaces. In other words, it’s a work where special topics addressed and arranged to provide a gateway into Scripture. It’s not supposed to be a total system of doctrine, or Calvin’s final or only word on any issue. This was the place where Calvin wanted to address key topics, issues, arguments, and disputed doctrines so that he wouldn’t have to clutter up his commentaries with lengthy appendices or sections devoted to them. He wanted his commentaries to be marked by ‘clarity’ and brevity, following the logic of the text, unlike some of his contemporaries. Also, we should know that our modern translations kind of muck with the work a bit. A lot of the technical theological terms of argument that scholastically and humanistically trained types would have picked up on are no longer there, making it feel less systematic than it would have to an early reader.  So yes, it’s clearly a system, but maybe not the kind of system that many of us are used to now.

How to Read The Institutes. Here are a few tips on how to read the Institutes, or, well–you’ll see.

Read Him With Paul in Mind. There’s been a lot of argument about how Calvin organized his Institutes, or whether there is some correct order that makes sense of the way Calvin placed the topics, especially since he rearranged it a few times through various editions. After a lot of very detailed reading and argumentation, Muller basically comes out saying there are three noted organizing themes. First, and most important, Calvin, influenced by Philip Melancthon and his own reading, organized along the Pauline order of salvation as it is found in the book of Romans. If you look at the two books, there’s a generally recognizable flow and similarity to structure. So, if you want to understand Calvin’s logic in presenting the subjects in the order he does, go read Romans a few times and it will start to make more sense.

Second, yes, there is a bit of a credal structure as Calvin does base a lot of his exposition on the Apostles’ Creed, but that is broken up a lot over the course of the editions. Finally, you can see the structural theme of the duplex cognitio Dei, or the twofold knowledge of God. This is not so much the knowledge of God as Creator and then as Redeemer, although that’s there. It’s the “knowledge of God and ourselves”, insofar as we can only know our nature and our sin in light God’s nature and revelation.

Read the Commentaries too. I’ve talked a bit about this before over at The Gospel Coalition, but Calvin never wanted the Institutes to be read alone. Calvin’s magnum opus was developed through various editions, starting from a brief exposition of the creed, the commandments, etc. into the work we currently have through his life-long conversation with Scripture, churchly theological disputes, and so forth. Again, if you recognize that it was supposed to be a collection of topics in order to leave his commentaries uncluttered, then you realize that you really need to read the commentaries on relevant texts in order to get Calvin’s “theology” on a given subject.

In that sense, you have to read the Institutes knowing that Calvin’s many “proof-texts” are more like footnotes. Calvin wrote commentaries on over 2/3 of the books of the Bible. So when he cites a text, odds are, tucked away somewhere is a discussion on the subject in his commentary, or, also, the commentaries of contemporary or classical exegetes like Chrystostom. He’s kind of like the Westminster divines that way. One more tidbit there. You need to know that not all the proof-texts cited in modern editions are his but have been added by editors. So, if you do go check the commentary and there’s nothing there on the subject, Calvin may not be to blame.

Point is, read the Institutes, but don’t read them alone.

Read the Sermons. On a similar note, we need to remember to read Calvin’s sermons. Calvin preached multiple sermons per week through various books of the Bible for years. Often the commentaries are the fruit of his labor in the sermons. What’s more, the sermons are usually thicker and more theologically developed than the commentaries, at least the early ones (Calvin got a bit more long-winded in his later, post-1559 Institutes commentaries).

Read Developmentally. Calvin almost never cut stuff out, but he did a heck of a lot of re-organizing of his Institutes, and often that did change the shape of his exposition enough. Also, you have to know that while Calvin was fairly solid throughout his career, he was human, so his thought did develop. In which case, comparing commentaries and Institutes without respect for when the commentary was written might skew your perception.

Conclusion

My big conclusion when it comes to reading Calvin after Muller? Well, it’s something I sort of already knew, but now begin to grasp in a way I couldn’t before: Calvin was a complex, historically-situated theologian, pastor, and commentator. In other words, before you go making sweeping claims about Calvin’s work, do your homework. As an example, Muller read William J. Bousma the riot act for his reading of Calvin as being some unsystematic thinker driven by anxieties based on his (misreading) of Calvin’s use of few phrases like “abyss” and “labyrinth.” Muller goes on to show that Calvin wasn’t suffering some grave anxiety–at least, you can’t come to that conclusion based on those texts. Instead, he was using common literary tropes as they were appropriate to discussing the texts he was commenting on, and they served specific polemical purposes in his writing. Indeed, words like “way” and “order” were far more common in his work, indicating a mind concerned to illustrate the sure, comforting path offered by the light of Scripture. But it takes more than quick, cursory, or even broad readings of Calvin to see that. It needs the patience to set Calvin in his proper historical and theological context, to appreciate him for the thinker he was, instead the accommodated intellectual prop we’d like him to be.

Soli Deo Gloria

God, the Holy One of Israel, Has Chosen To Be *Your* God. This Is Good News.

Even though I’ve known this for a while, I’m still constantly amazed at how helpful Calvin’s commentaries are. I’m preaching through a passage in Isaiah 43 this week, so I’ve dug into a number of solid, modern commentaries, but I still come back to Calvin and am pleasantly surprised to see how well they hold up.

In any case, I ran across a passage that “warmed my heart”, so to speak, that I thought was worth highlighting.

It comes in his comment on Isaiah 43:3, but before I quote it, here is the scriptural passage:

But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
    he who formed you, O Israel:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
    I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
    and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
    and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
    the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I give Egypt as your ransom,
    Cush and Seba in exchange for you. (Isaiah 43:1-3)

In the context, Isaiah is presenting us with YHWH’s speech to the future Exiles, promising his salvation to come. Despite their idolatry and faithlessness, YHWH will come, punish the Babylonians through the hand of Cyrus and the Persians, and save his people. He will redeem them. Why? Because, “I am the YHWH your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.” God’s identity is the guarantee of Israel’s salvation.

CalvinCalvin comments here:

For I am Jehovah thy God. He confirms the preceding statement by the experience of the past; for the Lord had formerly assisted his people in such a manner that it was reasonable and proper that believers should safely rely on his grace. We must always remember what we had in the former verse, — “Fear not, for I have redeemed thee; I am thy Lord.” These ought to be read unitedly and in immediate connection, because they have the same object; for if the Lord is our God, it follows that he is on our side, and therefore we shall find that he is our Savior.

But if we wish to know by experience that he is our Savior, we must be a part of Israel, not in name only, but so as to give true evidences of godliness during the whole course of our life. This is therefore the foundation of our confidence, that “Jehovah is our God;” and hence it follows that they who do not acknowledge God to be their Father, and who do not rely on his kindness, are wretched, and tremble continually. Wicked men, indeed, indulge in mirth, and even act disdainfully towards God; but their indifference is intoxication and madness of mind, by which they are the more rapidly carried headlong to their destruction. To believers alone this brings the assurance, that he who hath chosen them wishes to be continually their God, and to preserve them; and therefore hath separated them to be his inheritance.

In this sense he calls himself The Holy One of Israel, because while the whole human race is by nature estranged from him, he hath chosen his people that he might set them apart to be his own. Now, though external separation is of little moment, unless God sanctify the elect by the power of his Spirit, yet, because Israel had openly polluted himself, God declares that still his covenant shall not be made void, because he is always like himself. Besides, it is well known that the word holy is used in an active sense for “him who sanctifies;” and therefore if we wish to be certain of God’s love towards us, let us always remember the testimony of our adoption, by which we are confirmed in our hearts, as by a sure pledge, and let us with all earnestness ask it from God.

Those two names: YHWH, your God (Jehovah, the Lord), and “The Holy One of Israel” are to anchor and ground Israel’s hope. This is YHWH your God, the one who has covenanted himself to be your God. He has “chosen to be your God continually.” This isn’t a temporary, passing fancy with him. He has adopted you for life and bound himself to you. As Calvin notes just a bit earlier on verse 1:

I have called thee by thy name. To “call by one’s name” means here, to admit into close relationship, as when we are adopted by God to be his children…For the same reason he adds, Thou art mine, that believers may know that there will always be left a Church among the elect people, because God refuses to be deprived of his rightful possession. In short, he declares that they are his dear inheritance, of which he will never suffer himself to be robbed.

If God has promised to be your God, and you his children, his people, his inheritance, then he is on your side. He is for you.

Of course, Calvin brings out the implied exhortation, which is to demonstrate that you truly are Israel, by clinging to him with our hearts, calling him Father from our soul and walking in growing godliness before him. It is here, of course, where some of us can get discouraged. Who feels that they are showing evidence in their life of holiness? Who isn’t constantly aware of the hundreds of daily failures in their life? The petty thoughts, cheap words, and selfishness the seems to cling to even our best efforts?

It is here that YHWH’s second name comes in. Yes, God is the Holy One of Israel because he has set Israel apart for himself, unlike the other nations. God is the Holy One of Israel because Israel is holy to God. But pushing even deeper, Calvin calls our attention to the promise and comfort attached in that name. God is the Holy One of Israel precisely because he makes Israel holy, not only externally according to the covenant, but eventually in their own nature. In other words, when God adopts you, sets you apart as his own, by his Holy Spirit he’s going to sanctify you, clean you up, change your heart. Why? Because God is unstoppably unchanging. He is not going to let your sin stand in the way of the reality that he has committed himself to being your God. He will be your God and you will be holy to him because he is unchangingly the Holy One.

YHWH God, the Holy One of Israel, has promised to be your God in Christ. That’s enough good news to rest in today

Soli Deo Gloria

Deal Gently with Bruised Reeds

bruised reedThinking about Robin Williams’ passing I was reminded of this text in Isaiah, speaking of the ministry of the coming Servant of the Lord:

“a bruised reed he will not break,
and a faintly burning wick he will not quench” (Isaiah 42:3)

Calvin commenting on the text says:

“…This is what he means by the metaphor of ‘the bruised reed,’ that he does not wish to break off and altogether crush those who are half-broken, but, on the contrary, to lift up and support them, so as to maintain and strengthen all that is good in them…Isaiah ascribes to Christ that forbearance by which he bears with our weakness, which we find to be actually fulfilled by him; for wherever any spark of piety is seen, he strengthens and kindles it, and if he were to act towards us with the utmost rigor, we should be reduced to nothing. Although men therefore totter and stumble, although they are even shaken or out of joint, yet he does not at once cast them off as utterly useless, but bears long, till he makes them stronger and more steadfast.”

As Christians we are to deal gently with the broken and mournful. It is in this way we follow the Christ we have in the gospel. We follow a Messiah who was a man of sorrows, well acquainted with the painful way of the world we live in. Indeed, it’s precisely to bring comfort and relief to those who mourn that he took up his own cross; he came that he might end their suffering in his own.

If you haven’t already read it, I’d also point you to Alan Noble’s beautiful piece “When Existence Becomes Seemingly Impossible.” He concludes:

What I want to say is that life is harder than most of us will let on, and probably the deepest struggles we’ll face will be silent and petty — things like choosing to get out of bed and get dressed. Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof, but so too is Christ’s Grace. So, get up, when you can, and carry on. Rest your burdens on He who loves you, and turn to the pilgrims alongside you. Some days, rising out of bed is a great act of worship. And when you can’t get up, let those around you bear you up as Christ’s body, always remembering that you are loved. And then, carry that mercy and grace to your neighbor, who needs it no less.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

Pastors Aren’t Born, But Formed (TGC)

calvin as scholarCruising through Bruce Gordon’s masterful biography on Calvin, I’ve been struck to see that pastors aren’t born but formed. It’s easy when reading the final edition of the Institutes or the later commentaries, at such a historical remove, to forget the development and the formative influences involved in turning the proud young legal scholar into a mature churchman and theologian.

As a young pastor myself, one theme that caught my attention was the formative influence of mentors and friends. In what follows I’d like to highlight three lessons on mentorship for both younger and older pastors drawn from Calvin’s early years.

You can read the rest of my reflections over at The Gospel Coalition. Pastors especially, I’d ask you to click through and read.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Fiery Breath of Pentecost

pentecostToday we celebrate the coming of the Spirit upon the Church at the feast of Pentecost. Luke gives us the account in Acts:

The Coming of the Holy Spirit When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2:1-4)

While there’s much to draw our attention here, the connection with the feast of Pentecost, the giving of the Law, the divided tongues connecting to the preaching of the Gospel in diverse languages, one feature in particular deserves our attention today: fire.

Why is it that the Spirit’s gift appears in the form of flaming tongues? As usual, Calvin’s comments are wise and instructive:

Without all doubt, it was a token of the (force and) efficacy which should be exercised in the voice of the apostles. Otherwise, although their sound had gone out into the uttermost parts of the world, they should only have beat the air, without doing any good at all. Therefore, the Lord doth show that their voice shall be fiery, that it may inflame the hearts of men; that the vanity of the world being burnt and consumed, it may purge and renew all things. Otherwise they durst never have taken upon them so hard a function, unless the Lord had assured them of the power of their preaching. Hereby it came to pass that the doctrine of the gospel did not only sound in the air, but pierce into the minds of men, and did fill them with an heavenly heat (and burning.) Neither was this force showed only in the mouth of the apostles, but it appeareth daily. And, therefore, we must beware lest, when the fire burneth, we be as stubble. Furthermore, the Lord did once give the Holy Ghost under a visible shape, that we may assure ourselves that his invisible and hidden grace shall never be wanting to the Church.

Commentary on Acts 2:4

Without going into the biblical-theological appropriateness of associating the work of the Spirit with fire in the OT and so forth, Calvin cuts to the heart of the matter: “the Lord doth show that their voice shall be fiery, that it may inflame the hearts of men.”

The giving of the Spirit at Pentecost is what gives life to the preaching of the Gospel through the church. Without the efficacious work of God’s own Spirit, we should have no confidence in our own faulty and paltry voices. Yet now, because of Pentecost, we are called to preach the Gospel boldly, with great power because through it, God is working to “purge and renew all things.”

Soli Deo Gloria

Honestly, I Don’t Think About Calvinism *That* Much

Irresistible grace never tasted so good.

Irresistible grace never tasted so good.

It just struck that I’ve been thinking about Calvinism a lot lately. This is weird, because, honestly I’m usually not given to exhausting myself with the subject.

Honestly, most of the time, when I’m thinking about theology at all, (which is admittedly a lot), I’m thinking about many other issues. For instance, the idea of union with Christ is a big theme I give thought to. Or what about atonement? How can I show that penal understandings aren’t at odds with Christus Victor elements. Or what about the pressing issues of cultural engagement in world where different understandings of sin have become problematic? Or what about the right way of thinking about the attributes of God? How much to philosophical argument is admissible after grappling with the text? Or how about church and state relations? There are like 15 variations in Reformed social thought I’m trying get a handle on. Is it Reformed Two-Kingdoms, or Kuyperian NeoCalvinism, or something else?

And these are just a few examples.

For some of you that’s weird to hear, right? It’s especially the case, I think, for the non-Reformed. There’s this odd thing that I’ve noticed in conversations over the past couple of years, where I’ll be talking to someone online about some issue (any issue), whether atonement, moral authority, the nature of Scripture, why pale ales are just sad excuses for IPAs and so forth, and like a shot out of the blue, I’ll get, “But, you know, predestination, right?”

I mean, I get it to some degree. I’m Reformedish, I write for Reformed websites, just wrote a review on a book about Calvinism, read John Calvin constantly, and all that, but there seems to be this general impression among non-Reformed types that this is all we think about. Like I’m thinking every 5 seconds, “You know what makes this ice cream sandwich even better? Supralapsarian double-predestination.” Honestly, for many, if not most, it’s not like that.

It’s like I was chatting with my podcast buddies about this in the last episode (which you should go listen to!), and Andrew off-handedly commented about the fact that not every sermon in a Reformed church is going to be about providence. Believe me, the doctrine of providence matters, and so do our beliefs about God’s initiative in salvation. That said, it’s not the sum total nor even the center of all of my thoughts about God, the gospel, pastoral care, grace, and so forth.

Incidentally, the same is true for Calvin. That’s one of the points that Alastair made in the same conversation. Many have this impression that at the center of Calvin’s thought stands predestination and that everything else was worked and subordinated to his thought in that one area, when the Institutes devotes only around 60 out of 1500 pages to the topic and Calvin, while defending his views staunchly, is the first one to caution against prying too deeply into God’s decree apart from Christ. Calvin did not idolatrously reduce the doctrine of God to the doctrine of the decree but had, as Alastair said, a “richly textured” and non-speculative view of God that encompassed far more that.

I’m not sure I’m making a substantial point here other than to say, honestly, not all Reformed types are obsessed with the providence/election, or reduce all that we say about God to these issues. Make of that what you will.

Soli Deo Gloria

God Gives the Growth (Or, Unexpected English Fruit)

vineI’ve never been a farmer, nor have I ever planted a tree. I think the closest I’ve come to sustained attempts at horticulture was a 3rd-grade science experiment involving a lima bean. Even from that limited experience, though, I suspect I’d be a terrible farmer, especially if I had to work with crops that yield fruit only with great lengths of time and enormous amounts of cultivation. I can just imagine myself, planting a seed, covering it, pouring water on it, and then just staring, waiting for something to happen.

Planting. Watering. Staring. Waiting. Planting. Watering. Staring. Waiting…

Of course, the terrible thing about a realization like that is that, as a pastor, that’s essentially my job. Yes, the shepherding metaphor is prominent, but cultivation metaphors for ministry abound in scripture as well (1 Cor. 3:5-9). Being young, impatient, and foolish is terrible sometimes. Actually, impatience and foolishness are always terrible.

In any case, my horticultural reflections on ministry were sparked by a little section in Bruce Gordon’s biography of John Calvin where he details the Genevan Reformer’s efforts in England. While Calvin never personally travelled to the Isles, for many years he followed the Reform efforts there with great interest. Through an extensive letter-writing ministry, he corresponded with men like Cranmer, the Duke of Somerset, and others in the later Elizabethan period trying to encourage the Reform efforts and goad them in more “pure” direction.

While his name and theology carried some definite influence in England, he never really had the effect he hoped for, especially in the reform under Elizabeth, in his lifetime. Due to his association with John Knox and Knox’s ill-advised publications on female rulers (written in the reign of Mary but known and hated by Elizabeth), Calvin was persona non grata in Elizabeth’s court and therefore any advice he might give would fall on deaf ears. The widespread reform of the Church of England and unification with the continental churches was not to be.

And yet, that’s not the whole of the story by a long shot. Gordon is worth quoting here at length:

Calvin and England is a curiously enigmatic subject. He died only six years after the accession of the Protestant queen. Their relationship had begun disastrously and never recovered, yet that was only part of the story. Through the stranger churches, French and Dutch, Geneva continued to be a major presence in England, and Calvin’s name most prominent. He and Heinrich Bullinger were the continental patriarchs of the British reformations. Those who had been in exile in Calvin’s city never forgot the experience: in marked them for life. They remained committed to what they had been taught there and never felt comfortable in the compromised world of the Elizabethan settlement. Many of these ‘Genevans’ kept themselves apart from English churches in order to preserve discipline, preferring to attend the services of the Dutch and French churches in London with their Geneva-style discipline rather than their own parishes. They belonged to the generation that had been shaped by the experiences of exile and through their contacts with Geneva and Zurich they became part of the Reformed church, which had been rejected by the Lutherans. When they died, the legacy remained. The stranger churches were the principal line of contact to Geneva, the practical means by which correspondence was exchanged. And Puritanism took from those churches Calvin’s theology, which it made its own. We are now aware of the astonishing quantity of Calvin’s works translated into English during the sixteenth century, far outstripping his contemporaries, even Bullinger. The 1559 Institutes was printed in translation in 1561, but that was just the tip of the iceberg, for it was soon followed by the biblical commentaries particularly during the 1570s. Calvin was long dead, but in England he was now reaching the lay audience he had so vigorously pursued.

–Bruce Gordon, Calvin, pg. 266

It wasn’t so much through all of his direct efforts to influence Reform from the top down in the English church, but in the slower, smaller, long-range work that he had his effect. It was in his efforts to find places for exiles in other communities, especially his personal hospitality towards exiled ministers, to secure properly trained pastors for churches in other nations, and the slow, steady stream of scholarship that ended up exerting the widespread reach he ended up having. In other words, the growth of English fruit was slow, indirect, and not the sort that it seems Calvin had hoped for most.

I don’t know that there are any easy moral lessons here, except to wonder at the odd, providential ways that our work bears fruit. I don’t think it’s a matter of saying “See, look, it’s the grass-roots stuff that works! Not that top-down Constantinianism!” I don’t particularly think it was a bad thing for Calvin to occupy himself writing the top leaders of the Reformation, or dedicating a commentary to Queen Elizabeth in order to gain her ear. It didn’t work, but I don’t think it would have been an insignificant or bad thing if he had. It had certainly had an impact in other situations.

All I will say is that it’s worth reflecting on the fact that we cannot predict what impact our faithful labors. Remember that it is “God who gives the growth.” Ours is only to obediently plant, water, and wait–maybe with a little less staring, as that tends to keep us from more planting and watering.

Soli Deo Gloria