Calvin on “He descended into Hell” (Guest Post by Tim Keller)

KellerToday I have the honor of hosting an original, guest post by Dr. Timothy Keller, chairman and co-founder of Redeemer City to City, VP of The Gospel Coalition, and former pastor and founder of Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan. 

Is it right for preachers to speak of Jesus experiencing the loss of the Father’s love on the cross?  After all, orthodox Trinitarian theology teaches that at the ultimate level, ontologically, the Father did not ever hate the Son. The Trinity remains completely unbroken. Indeed, when the Son was dying for us he was offering the Father a ‘pleasing sacrifice’ and a ‘satisfaction’ for sin.

But then what was the “forsakenness” that Jesus experienced on the cross? If in the ultimate sense he did not lose the Father’s love, what did he lose?  Is it wrong to say that when Jesus was on the cross he experienced estrangement from God? Is it wrong to say that he lost any sense and even assurance of God’s love?

Preachers will do well to read Calvin closely when he expounds the line in the Apostles’ Creed, “He descended into hell.” (Institutes II. 16. 8-12)

Calvin argues this Jesus ‘descent into hell’ was not merely descending into physical death and the grave. He believes it represents biblical teaching that Jesus suffered not just bodily pain but all the torments that a soul in hell, cut off from God’s presence, would experience. He “bore all the punishments [evildoers] ought to have sustained” with only one exception, that those torments could not keep hold of him forever. He “suffered the death that God in his wrath had inflicted upon the wicked.” (II.16.10). Calvin does not mince words here. “Not only that Christ’s body was given as the price of our redemption, but that he paid a greater and more excellent price in suffering in his soul the terrible torments of a condemned and forsaken man. (II.16.10) And he says: “Surely no more terrible abyss can be conceived than to feel yourself forsaken and estranged from God; and when you call upon him, not to be heard. It is as if God himself had plotted your ruin.”  (II.16.11)

That is what Jesus experienced on the cross. As far as Christ’s experience was concerned, he lost everything he had with the Father, just as a damned soul would. He lost God’s presence, favor, communication, and therefore any feeling sense of God’s love.

Calvin knows that the strength of his language will make some people nervous. He rightly assures readers that there is no rupture in the Trinity. Though Christ experienced God’s wrath, “Yet we do not suggest that God was ever inimical or angry toward him…. How could Christ by his intercession appease the Father toward others, if he were himself hateful to God?” (II.16.11) This of course sounds confusing to many listeners. Jesus received the wrath of God and yet God was not angry with him? But that fits the Biblical data. Calvin sifts this data and shows us that ontologically, there was no alienation. Perhaps we could go so far as to say that Father never loved and admired his Son more than when he was dying to save us.

But existentially, Calvin wants us to know and preach that Jesus was as bereft of God’s love and presence as a damned soul. Of course the Father continued in his love for his Son, but on the cross Jesus lost all sense and experience and any practical possession of it. He felt like a soul in hell. On that Calvin is emphatic. He goes on to argue against those who rightly stress this continual love of the Father to the Son but who go on to over-emphasize it to the point of trivializing or minimizing what Jesus suffered. Here Calvin speaks directly to those who don’t want us to ever say that Jesus existentially “lost the Father’s love.”

Calvin engages those who say, for example, that Jesus did not actually feel forsaken or estranged. “They hold it incongruous that he would fear for the salvation of his soul.” (II.16.12)  But Calvin insists that Jesus did indeed lose his assurance of God’s love and did fear for his soul. He insists that Jesus “wrestled hand to hand with the devil’s power, with the dread of death, with the pains of hell” and so “he was victorious and triumphed over them.” (II.16.11)

Calvin addresses others who say that although Christ feared death, he did not fear God’s curse and wrath, from which he knew himself to be safe.”  (II.16.12) These are people who say that Jesus never feared or felt the loss of God’s favor and presence. He feared, perhaps, the pain of physical death, but he never felt damned and cut off from the Father’s love. They believe that Jesus on the cross thought, as it were, “Though I’m physically suffering I know the Father loves me, and this will be over soon.” Calvin says this makes Jesus more “unmanly and cowardly than most men of the common sort”. Why, he asks, was Jesus in such torment in Gethsemane? If Jesus was only afraid of physical pain and death, then plenty of human beings, who “bear it calmly” have faced death better than Jesus. (II.16.12) Instead, Calvin argues, he was trembling before the spiritual torments, “the terrible abyss”, of the loss of God’s presence and love, the experience of being “estranged and forsaken.”  If Jesus did not face and experience the dreadfulness of damnation, and the feeling that he was not “safe”, but lost and cursed, then he didn’t really take the penalty we deserved.

In summary, Calvin goes so far as to say that Jesus, in order to truly be our substitute and pay our penalty, had to have feared for his soul and his eternal safety. That is how severe a loss of the Father’s favor and love he experienced.

I think Calvin’s warnings are important.  If we say that Jesus never felt the loss of God’s love on the cross, then it diminishes his astonishing faithfulness. When he quotes Psalm 22, calling the Father “My God”, he not only calls God by his covenant name, but he is invoking a Messianic psalm with a triumphant ending.  If he did this when he felt nothing of God’s love and presence—as Calvin argues—it was then an act of obedience unique in the history of the universe. He clung in hope to God’s covenant love even when feeling utter divine abandonment, even when in hell.  Jonathan Edwards’ great sermon Christ’s Agony explains why. To the first Adam God said—obey me and I will be with you. But he didn’t. To the second Adam he said—obey me and I will forsake you and cut you off. Yet Jesus still obeyed.  Unlike Captain Ahab, who said, “from Hell’s heart I stab at thee”, Jesus said, as it were, “from Hell’s heart I will obey you still.” Calvin adds,  “For even though he suffered beyond measure, he did not cease to call him his God, by whom he cried out that he had been forsaken.” (Institutes, II.16.12).

Let’s heed Calvin’s warning not to think or hint that, ontologically, the Father ceased to love Jesus or, existentially, that Jesus did not lose all sense and assurance of that love. We must neither veer into the appearance that the Father was abusing Jesus nor into minimizing the depths of the suffering of Jesus on the cross for us.

Calvin summarizes his argument against those who, he believes, diminish the sufferings of Christ.

“From this it appears that these quibblers with whom I am contending…. have never earnestly considered what it is or means that we have been redeemed from God’s judgment. Yet this is our wisdom: duly to feel how much our salvation cost the Son of God.” (II.16.12)

Unlock Truth for Your Kids with a Reformation Key

calvin-troubleWhen John Calvin settled into the work of Reformation in Geneva in the fall of 1536, it wasn’t because he was impressed with the state of affairs he found. In fact, Guillaume Farel had to threaten him with divine judgment on his studies if he should abandon the work Farel was certain God had placed on Calvin. But that’s another story.

Commenting on the state of affairs in Geneva, Calvin recalls:

When I first came to this church, there was next to nothing. There was preaching, but that was all. Images were hunted and burned, but there was no reform. Everything was in tumult.

He wasn’t exaggerating by much. When Geneva declared for Reformation a few months earlier, nearly the entirety of its clergy (between 5 and 10 percent of the city’s population) cleared out, leaving little in the way of an organized church.

Calvin and Farel had their work cut out for them.

You can find out the rest of the story and read about the importance of catechesis in the rest of my article at The Gospel Coalition.

Soli Deo Gloria

Remembering the Reformation Less Like Luther, More Like Calvin

luther-and-calvinWith the 500th anniversary of the Reformation (marked by Luther’s nailing of the 95 Theses to the Wittenberg door) approaching, there’s an increasing amount of celebration going on in Evangelical circles.

But Carl Trueman is a bit skeptical (which, given my respect for him, I tend to take seriously). It seems to him this may be celebration with much zeal that is unfortunately “not according to knowledge.” He wonders, “Evangelicals may well be remembering the Reformation in 2017, but what exactly will they be celebrating?”

In other words, the question is whether doctrinally-relativistic Evangelicals haven’t whitewashed the Reformers (with their passion for hard-edged, doctrinal-ecclesial distinctions) and simply recast them in their own image. In other words, have all you smiling Baptists stopped to think about why Luther thought you were a bunch of enthusiasts, or have you sanitized him and made him safe for generic Evangelical consumption?

This is a problem because if we launch into these “Evangelical jamborees” as an exercise in self-affirmation, we lose the opportunity for historically-informed self-reflection.

Now, so far as it goes, I think Dr. Trueman’s point should be heeded. Evangelicals do often tend to “bowdlerize” its saints to make them comfortable members of the local small group. We ought to be attentive to history for more than hagiography and self-affirmation.

That said, foolish, young man that I am, I have a few quibbles with the piece. Or more positively, I’d like to suggest a few reasons to ground Dr. Trueman’s hope that next year’s round of Evangelical jamborees will be “much more than that.”

I suppose I’ll focus mostly on this paragraph:

The problem is that the Reformation is only really congenial to modern American evangelicalism if it is reduced to little more than the doctrine of justification by grace through faith. The sixteenth-century Reformation was about a whole lot more—and a whole lot that sits uncomfortably with the modern evangelical faith. So, like Bonhoeffer and C. S. Lewis, the Reformers and the Reformation must be bowdlerized, and by a strange domesticating metamorphosis, become modern American evangelicals. The truth is: The priorities and concerns of American evangelicalism have a highly tenuous and ambiguous relationship to those we find embodied in the confessions and catechisms of the Reformation and exemplified in the attitudes and actions of the Reformers.

One waggish initial response is to ask what the Fathers at Nicaea might make of the broader “priorities and concerns” of the local Presbytery meeting in Philadelphia 1500 years later, (which would presumably also want to cling tightly to Nicaea’s confession).

More seriously, though, while it’s wrong to collapse the distance of 500 years by simply remaking it in our image, its also seems easy to ignore the possibility that some of the differences between modern evangelical faith and that of the sixteenth century Reformation are a legitimate development of that faith in response to those 500 years. In which case, yes, there’s still much to be dismayed over in contemporary Evangelicalism. But I think we ought to be slower to find it wanting according to the standards of its 16th century forebears.

What’s more, I do wonder if Dr. Trueman’s being very fair to speak of Evangelicalism’s sharing “little more than the doctrine of justification by faith” with the Reformation. In the first place, as I’m sure Dr. Trueman (and maybe Luther himself?) would agree, justification by faith is no small thing to share.

While some might have qualms about calling it the “doctrine of standing or falling in the church”, it is a nodal doctrine that touches on a host of issues. All who affirm it must begin to approach each other on issues like imputation, atonement, the fundamentally gracious character of God, the nature of ecclesial mediation, and so forth (cf. Michael Allen’s Justification and the Gospel).

Another way of putting it is that sola fide begins to imply the other five solas as a whole. In which case, that celebration may include the recovery of a focus on the preaching and final authority of the Word of God, or the singularity of Christ’s priesthood, the rejection of the cult of saints, and so forth.

All of these are huge issues that even Evangelicals who disagree on some of the same issues the Reformers did (Lord’s Supper, Baptism), can still agree upon now, celebrate, and retrieve together. And this is even more so against a radical, secularizing culture, progressivism, or the inroads Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox apologists are trying to make among younger Evangelicals.

And now I speculate a bit: I wonder if Dr. Trueman’s confession that he is a “Reformed person who loves Luther more than Calvin” doesn’t have more than a little to do with his skepticism?

I’ll gladly cede to Dr. Trueman’s historical expertise at this point, but it seems Luther’s ecumenical style was a bit more bullish, and far less concessive than Calvin’s. Calvin thought Luther a great man, a latter-day apostle even. But Calvin (and a decent number of other Reformers) did not seem to follow him as a model in ecumenical matters. Indeed, he seemed to overlook the great man’s faults there.

Rather, it was Calvin who signed Augsburg. It was Calvin who tried to mediate between the Zwinglians and the Lutherans on the Supper on their commonalities, in order to present a more unified, strengthened Evangelical front in mission and in the struggle against the papacy. As doctrinaire as he could be, he seemed to possess something of a tactical relativizing streak when needed. What’s more, his confessionalism had ecumenical aims–in the preface to the Geneva Catechism, one of his chief stated reasons for presenting doctrine clearly is so that other churches might approve of it.

Obviously, I would be committing the very error Dr. Trueman is warning against if I tried to suggest that, without question, Calvin would fit right in on the podium at the next TGC “jamboree” or something. Then again, I suppose I wouldn’t rule out his showing up.

Dr. Trueman says that true ecumenism must begin with an honest statement of disagreement. I agree that an honest statement of disagreement has to happen. But surely prioritizing of an honest statement of agreement ought to come first, so that we can then properly move on to the areas of disagreement in the right attitude?

Yes, beginning with commonalities like justification by faith often can often be used to relativize differences in a bad way—the kind of way that thinks that just because we agree on justification, I should never tell my Zwinglian friend to allow Jesus to attend his own Supper.

Still, there does appear to be a proper “relativization” that confessing Nicaea, Chalcedon, and, yes, justification by faith, ought to have on that discussion—a relativization to its proper place within the whole structure of the faith. It is that sort of relativization without relegation makes recovering a proper appreciation for dogmatic rank such an important task. It’s that key tool in the toolkit that allows us to keep ecumenism properly confessional and confessionalism properly ecumenical.

There’s more to say than I can here. Obviously, I share his hope that Evangelicals will take this time to dig deep into Protestant history and do more than pat themselves on the back. I guess I’m just more sanguine about the prospects.

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. On this whole subject, Kevin Vanhoozer’s forthcoming Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestantism is relevant on a number of these issues.

Calvin on Forgiveness and Perfectionism in the Church

church-stepsThere has always been a temptation towards perfectionism in the Church.

And this is understandable. Rightly we are reminded in the Creed that the Church is “holy.” Invoking the word of YHWH in Leviticus, Peter commands his church to “be holy” as the Lord their God is holy (1 Peter 1:16). The Church of God is a set apart people who are to live set apart lives as they honor the Lord who set himself apart in order to redeem them (John 17:19).

And yet, as with every biblical prerogative, when there is sin, pride, myopia, and folly, even the good commands of the Lord can be taken and distorted.

While it may surprise some, Calvin spends a great deal of time in the Institutes warning against a false perfectionism that would tempt people to draw away from fellowship with true churches despite the fact that they preach the Word and administer the sacraments. (Note: he has a section on right division when these marks are absent).

Many times, in the case of great scandal in the church, people are tempted to be discouraged or disgusted with the church, pick up their pews in a huff, and head towards the back door. But Calvin urges us that “in bearing with the imperfections of life we ought to be more considerate” (4.1.13).

He notes a couple of impulses that drive us towards the exit.

First, he there have always been those who “imbued with a false conviction of their own perfect sanctity, as if they had already become a sort of airy spirits, spurned association with all men in whom they discern any remnant of human nature.” In other words, plain, old-fashioned pride and blindness towards your own sin, will cause you to self-righteously separate from the body.

Second, he notes a “very legitimate complaint”, which comes more from an “ill-advised zeal for righteousness than out of insane pride.” In this case, a person might look around a church and see that they quality of life doesn’t seem to match the “doctrine of the gospel” and so they conclude that there is no true Church there.

There he says that churches should bear some responsibility in our slowness to encourage people towards fidelity and obedience. But even still, Calvin says that this latter group is still sinning in cutting ties with the church because “they do not know how to restrain their disfavor.” Indeed, they act foolishly because “where the Lord requires kindness, they neglect it and give themselves over completely to immoderate severity.”

Instead, Calvin reminds his readers of Jesus parables of the net which catches all kinds of fish (Matt 13:47-58), or that of the wheat and tares (Matt 13:24), and calls them to understand that though the church is holy (Eph. 5:26), “if the Lord declares that the church is to labor under this evil—to be weighed down with the mixture of the wicked—until the Day of Judgment, they are vainly seeking a church besmirched with no blemish.”

He continues on for several sub-chapters noting the example of Paul’s patience with his own congregations (especially the Corinthians whose sins run the gamut), the prophets of old who did not separate themselves from Israel, and, of course, Christ himself. Paul didn’t tell people to examine the congregation to see whether they should partake, but rather that individuals should examine themselves. To not partake of the Supper for fear of eating with an unworthy person is to be “much more rigid than Paul” (4.1.16).

Among the various wise counsels Calvin offer, it is noteworthy that he sees failure within the church as an opportunity for Christian discipleship. This is so in at least two ways.

First, he sees it as an opportunity for gracious correction, he quotes Augustine saying, “Holy Scripture bids us correct our brothers’ vices with more moderate care, while preserving sincerity of love and unity of peace…Mercifully correct what they can; patiently to bear and lovingly to bewail and mourn what they cannot; until God either amends or corrects or in the harvest uproots the tares and winnows the chaff.”

Second, in another section ponder the true meaning of the forgiveness of sins: “I admit that in urging men to perfection we must not toil slowly or listlessly, much less give up. However, I say it is a devilish invention for our minds, while as yet we are in the earthly race, to be cocksure about our perfection. Thus in the Creed forgiveness of sins appropriately follows mention of the church” (4.1.20)

Indeed, this is why the power of the keys have been given to the church. No one comes into the family of God except through baptism and the forgiveness of sins: “Forgiveness of sins, then, is for us the first entry into the church and Kingdom of God.” And this is a continual ministry of the church: “Not only does the Lord through forgiveness of sins receive and adopt us once for all into the church, but through the same means he preserves and protects us there” (4.1.21).

And so this offers motive for people not to depart from the church. For one thing, they themselves regularly need to hear the forgiveness of sins pronounced. But they also need to be regularly invited to practice the forgiveness of sins towards their brothers and sisters.

While there’s much more to say from these rich subsections, I’d like close on a significant chunk in which Calvin calls us to remember just how limited our judgment in these matters can be:

Let them ponder that in a great multitude there are many men, truly holy and innocent in the Lord’s sight, who escape their notice. Let them ponder that even among those who seem diseased there are many who in no wise are pleased with, or flatter themselves in, their faults, but aroused again and again by a profound fear of the Lord, aspire to a more upright life. Let them ponder that a man is not to be judged for one deed, inasmuch as the holiest sometimes undergo a most grievous fall. Let them ponder how much more important both the ministry of the Word and participation in the sacred mysteries are for the gathering of the church than the possibility that this whole power may be dissipated through the guilt of certain ungodly men. Finally, let them realize that in estimating the true church divine judgment is of more weight than human. (4.16)

Soli Deo Gloria

 

Calvin: Troubler of Israel?

Calvin trouble.jpgIt seems obvious enough to say that trouble is often a matter of perspective. In a marriage, one spouse might think everything is hunky-dory (a phrase whose original meaning still escapes me), while the other is thoroughly convinced that things are in need of an intervention.

From another angle, even when you both may agree that there is trouble, that there are “tumults”, but there’s no consensus about who the main “troubler” is. Indeed, some of our biggest disputes from childhood on revolve around the question “who started it?”

Concerns such as these are, in part, what motivated John Calvin to write his Institutes of the Christian Religion. While later editions were intended for a variety of purposes like introducing theological students to the proper entryway for reading Scripture, he initially wrote his brief outline of the Christian faith as a defense, an apologia, of the new Evangelical faith of his fellow-believers against violent persecution, especially in France.

Indeed, in his preface to King Francis I, he states this is part of his goal, and then within the preface he sets about answering a number of the charges typically lodged against the Reformation of his day such as novelty, the violation of custom, and so forth. The preface as a whole is classic Calvin and worth your time. (I enjoy the section on the Fathers, in particular).

What caught my eye this read through was his segment on the charge that the Reformation brought about “disturbances, tumults, and contentions” that preaching Evangelical doctrine seemed to produce. In the eyes of their critics, Medieval and contemporary, the Evangelical reform was a destructive event, disturbing the peace of the Church. Obviously, true doctrine would not have such negative effects on the holy Church of God.

Calvin’s response is instructive.

First, Calvin takes the objection and flips it. He says that instead of blaming the Evangelicals, critics should have blamed “Satan’s malice.” Because it is “a certain characteristic of the divine Word, that it never comes forth while Satan is at rest and sleeping.” While the Word was buried, Satan “lay idle and luxuriated in deep repose.” But now, one of clearest signs that this Evangelical preaching is the work of God is precisely the tumults that the Word is provoking! Just as it was in the days of Jesus, when the strong man assaulted the kingdom of darkness, so now, Satan stirs up trouble from all sectors to stop the movement of the kingdom of God.

Second, and this is the part that caught my eye, Calvin notes that it’s frequently the case that the Word of God stirs up accusation against it.

Elijah was asked if it was not he who was troubling Israel [1 Kings 18:17]. To the Jews, Christ was seditious [Luke 23:5; John 19:7 ff.]. The charge of stirring up the people was laid against the apostles [Acts 24:5 ff.]. What else are they doing who blame us today for all the disturbances, tumults, and contentions that boil up against us? Elijah taught us what we ought to reply to such charges: it is not we who either spread errors abroad or incite tumults; but it is they who contend against God’s power [1 Kings 18:18].

When Elijah went preaching in Israel and proclaimed the drought against it for its idolatries under Ahab and Jezebel, Ahab called him “you troubler of Israel.” In Ahab’s mind, if Elijah weren’t around, things would be running smoothly. The drought is Elijah’s fault. A similar situation was true of the apostles’ preaching and, of course, Jesus himself.

But Calvin’s point is that the critics have it exactly backwards. The truth is not the source of the trouble. It only shines a light on the darkness, exposing what has hitherto gone unnoticed. Yes, it is the occasion of outrage, but it is not the true cause. Ahab and the Baals he supported were the true troublers of Israel. Or again, it wasn’t Christ who troubled Israel, but the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law who had the people following the traditions of men as the Law of God. It wasn’t the apostles who were at fault for proclaiming the true God in the face of the pagan idols, but the idolaters.

In other words, “we didn’t start the fire.”

Calvin’s counterpoint is interesting because the charge against the Reformation of inciting “tumult” of various sorts is still with us. Only now we’ve got scholarly monographs arguing that the Reformation with its doctrines of the clarity of Scripture, sola Scriptura, and so forth, unleashed tumults of a different sort: individualism, skepticism, rationalism, and the evils of the Enlightenment. Brad Gregory’s widely-influential (even among Protestants prone towards guilty conscience) and widely-criticized The Unintended Reformation is one such work.

In an older review to which I return regularly with great delight, Carl Trueman makes a Calvinian point about Gregory’s criticism of all the ills following the interpretive diversity fostered by the doctrines of sola scriptura and the clarity of Scripture. He points out a number of objective, unpleasant facts about the Papacy of the Medieval period prior to the Reformation (disorder, multiple popes, corruption, etc). And then he drops this humdinger of a paragraph:

Perhaps it is somewhat aggressive to pose these points in such a blunt form. Again, I intend no disrespect but am simply responding with the same forthrightness with which certain writers speak of Protestantism. The problem here is that the context for the Reformation – the failure of the papal system to reform itself, a failure in itself lethal to notions of papal power and authority – seems to have been forgotten in all of the recent aggressive attacks on scriptural perspicuity. These are all empirical facts and they are all routinely excused, dismissed or simply ignored by Roman Catholic writers. Perspicuity was not the original problem; it was intended as the answer.   One can believe it to be an incorrect, incoherent, inadequate answer; but then one must come up with something better – not simply act as if shouting the original problem louder will make everything all right. Such an approach to history and theology is what I call the Emerald City protocol: when defending the great and powerful Oz, one must simply pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

In other words, even if you grant that the Reformation troubled the Church, it was the trouble that follows another, arguably deeper trouble by way of response.

I wouldn’t dare claim that the Reformation was without its faults. Nor do I think that Luther, Calvin, and the crew were necessarily on par with the apostles. Nor am comparing the whole Medieval Catholic Church to the teachers of the Law, or Israel under Ahab. (And actually, in that same preface, Calvin himself refutes the idea that the Church was absent until the Reformation.)

That conceded, I do think it’s worth stopping and considering whether in our dismay about some of the ills of Western Christendom, we have paid enough attention to Calvin’s logic in defense of the Evangelicals: when the Word of God goes forth, we ought to expect tumults, both from the light it shines as well as the opposition it provokes.

I’ve written about moving past my shame-faced Protestantism before, so I guess what I’m saying is that the more I read and study, the less I’m convinced we ought to buy the line that Luther and Calvin were the troublers of God’s Israel, the Church.

Soli Deo Gloria  

The Secret Things Belong to the Lord (Evil, the Will of God, and the Cross)

GrunewaldWhy should the nations say,
“Where is their God?”
 Our God is in the heavens;
he does all that he pleases.

(Psalm 115:2-3)

Believers will always have questions about the will of God.

For instance, can God do whatever he wants?

Well, when reading texts like that posted above, it seems quite obvious that he can: “he does all that he pleases.” Other translations say, “he does whatever he wants.”

Beyond a simple proof-text, though, it seems very apparent in Scripture that God is not hedged in or boxed in at all. The Triune Creator freely brought everything into existence out of nothing by his word and maintains it at every moment (Col. 1:15-20; Heb. 1:1-3). He is all-powerful—there are no metaphysical limits to stop him.

And he seems to have the right to dispose of all of his works as he sees fit—I mean, doesn’t a potter have the right to do what he wants with his works? (Isaiah 45; Romans 9) He is the Lord of history who directs the courses of nations, which are but a drop in the bucket compared to him (Isaiah 40-55). Certainly the Author has authority over his creation?

Whatever He Wants? Really?

At the same time, there’s a scary edge there, if you’re paying attention. Some people have worried about this kind of talk. I mean, can God really do whatever he wants? Can he make what we currently call evil good and vice versa? Can he break his promises or violate his word just because he feels like it at a given moment?

In other words, when some hear the phrase, “God can do whatever he wants”, they hear “God is arbitrary and capricious—he might do good and he might do evil. He can do whatever he wants.”

Now, this could truly fall into a dark, arbitrary understanding of God’s “sovereignty.” In some of the grizzlier versions of Calvinism and pop-level preaching, you can unfortunately find that. We can call that a caricature if we want, but sadly the caricatures live in real churches. For that reason, some imagine that’s the only or classic version of what that doctrine teaches.

And I get how things can get that way. Reformed theology has typically followed the great Church Father Augustine in affirming that the will of God is the deepest cause of all that exists, and why it exists. Augustine, assuming he was summarizing Scripture (especially the Apostle Paul), taught that nothing precedes God’s will or even causes God’s will to will what he does.

Of course, the hitch is in what sense have people accepted Augustine’s claim here as true?

A Non-Arbitrary God

John Calvin was very clearly (and to some, notoriously) on Augustine’s side in saying that there is no cause beyond God’s will. Quotes to this effect can be found all over his works. But at the same time, it’s often not noticed he also repeatedly condemns “that absolute will of which the Sophists babble, by an impious and profane distinction separating his justice from his power” (Institutes 1.17.2).

In other words, Calvin was critical of a certain ham-fisted view of God’s will. God’s enacting of his power is never divorced from the rest of who he is: loving, just, wise, holy, merciful, gracious, and so forth. God is one and so traditionally it is taught that God is simple (not made up of different, separable parts). So his act of willing is consistent with all of what he is. God won’t will or want something out of the character he has shown himself to be in history and Scripture, so to speak.

A contemporary of Calvin’s, Wolfgang Musculus, similarly said that while we should accept Augustine’s statement in the sense that “there is nothing prior to or greater than the will of God…if we understand it of those things that are not in God” (cited in R. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Vol 3: The Divine Essence and Attributes, p. 437). In other words, God’s will is not forced by things outside of God (creation, other wills, etc). The things that God causes directly, or permits to happen indirectly, and so forth, happen because God has chosen to act this way or allow these things for his own reasons.

Now, God either permits something willingly or unwillingly. If he permits it unwillingly, then it’s not really permission. It’s coercion. And to say that God can be coerced—that there is a power that is greater than God and can force his hand—is repugnant to Scripture and absurd. This is why Musculus says we ought to agree with that God’s will is ultimate over and against anything outside of him.

What’s more, it should be noted that for the Reformed tradition, creation is a free act of God. The only necessary object of God’s will is his own perfect life—the eternal love and delight of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Triune God’s perfect aseity or independence means that God is complete within himself. For that reason, God does not need to create, to initiate history as some sort of self-completion project.

As Dutch theologian Wilhelmus à Brakel puts it, “God is all-sufficient in himself, having had no need to create any of his creatures. The creature can neither add glory nor felicity to him” (The Christian’s Reasonable Service, Vol. 1, 193-194).

But none of this means that God’s will is absolutely arbitrary in the sense that God wills things for no good reason at all or that his will could wander in any direction regardless of God’s character. As Bavinck says, “God’s will is one with his being, his wisdom, his goodness, and all his other perfections” (Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 2: God and Creation,  240).  God’s will is what it is—good—because he is eternally and un-changingly good.

So God can do whatever he wants, but what he wants is not arbitrary.

At this point we run up against a number of issues when we think about things like God’s will for history, his will for humans, his will for good, and the problem of evil.

Are Sinners “Doing” the Will of God?

Let’s get at the question another way. When we look at someone who is committing a sin, can we say that they are fulfilling the will of God in any sense?

When it comes to God’s will for history, Scripture points in some complicated directions worth exploring first.

Let’s start with a modest case. God tells Abraham in Genesis 15:12-16 that his descendants would be taken as slaves in a foreign land for hundreds of years before they inherit the promised lands he will give them. Surely we see that he knows the evil that’s going to happen–the hundreds of years full of generations born into cruel slavery, violence, oppression, and death–and he just as surely could stop it. I mean, given the Exodus, the mighty signs and wonders he works there to set them free, and the dozens of miracles, providential turns that he works later in Scripture, he very obviously could have stopped it. But he very clearly doesn’t. Here we reach at least one sense where the evil that occurs happens only because God willingly allows it. And if he willingly allows it, then there is a clear sense in which it happens “according to his will”—at least in the sense that he doesn’t step in to stop what he could. He wills not to interfere.

Later in Genesis we encounter a far bolder sense of God’s will in relation to evil, when we read of Joseph being sold into slavery by the wickedness, jealousy, evil, and malice of his brothers. Yet when talks to them years later, he doesn’t excuse them or say they didn’t really do evil, but he also says that they did these things according to God’s will. Indeed, he goes further and said that there is a way that God was working good through their evil. Given his position in the kingdom of Egypt, he can say, “you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life” (Gen. 45:5), and “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen. 50:20). God did not only work good after the fact–after the brothers did what he couldn’t prevent–no, God sent Joseph ahead.

Now, we could examine any number of similar Old Testament narratives, but this isn’t only an Old Testament thing.

Indeed, we see the same thing in the preaching of the apostles about the death of Jesus. Peter preached that Jesus was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” to be “crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23). Or again, in his prayer after being released from being beaten, he states that “in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4:27-28).

On this apostles’ read, the free actions of the evil-doers who crucified Jesus were decreed and predestined by God to take place so that the world might be saved.

In this, the disciples didn’t depart from their master. When he sent them out, Jesus told them “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father” (Matt. 10:29). Jesus’ comfort to his disciples is not merely that God sees sparrows fall. The point is that even sparrows are under God’s providence. No evil can befall them without his permission, so they should take heart in God since they are worth more than mere sparrows.

More importantly, in his hour of fear, it was to that same Father that the Beloved Son prayed in the Garden of Gethesemane “not my will, but thine be done” (Luke 22:42)—right before he was led away by the hands of sinful men to be crucified so that Scripture might be fulfilled. Indeed, it was precisely for that hour that he had come (John 12:27). It is quite clear that Christ understands the events to follow—the perversity, rebellion, and blasphemy of the High Priest and Pilate—as in some sense conforming to the will of his Father. Otherwise, “you would have no power over me” (John 19:11).

The Secret Things Belong To the LORD

And with these kinds of testimonies in mind, we come to some helpful dead guy distinctions.

Even though they said that God had only one will (in the sense of “faculty of willing”), and ultimately one will for everything, texts like these pushed the older theologians to distinguish between aspects or dimensions of God’s will. While Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and others carved things up a little differently, the Reformed most typically spoke of God’s “prescriptive will” and God’s “decretal will”, or God’s “revealed will” and his “will of good pleasure.”

The first is God’s revealed “will” consisting in his commands for us and our good like the 10 commandments, the promises we’re supposed to believe, specific commands given to historical figures, and so forth. There is the will of command which we can obey or disobey which verses like Psalm 143:10 talk about (“teach me to do your will”). It is moral will for our conduct that conforms to our nature as his dependent, obedient creatures.

The second is God’s ultimate will for what he will either do or permit to be done “according to his good pleasure” (Eph. 1:5; 5:10; cf. Matt. 11:26; Romans 9:19; Phil. 2:13), as we have been examining in the preceding passages. It is this God’s will of decree which is sure, constant, and unchanging like we read in other verses like Romans 9:19 (“For who has resisted his will?”), or Ephesians 1:11 which speaks of God working out his predestined purposes according to his “eternal counsel” to work out all things.

So then, there are two senses (at least) in which we can talk about humans relating to God’s will.

Many theologians have pointed out that Moses sums this dynamic up well in the covenant renewal ceremony at Sinai. After warning the Israelites of the (likely) judgments they would suffer for their (likely) disobedience, he says, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deut. 29:29). It’s almost as if to say, “The future is in God’s hands, though—for now your only concern is to be obedient to what he has openly commanded us.”

Of course, these sorts of distinctions are not without tensions, but I think you can see that none of this is speculative. It’s not about coming up with some perfect idea of God and then shoving it onto the Scriptures to make the verses fit. These are the kinds of distinctions that arise when you try read the narrative of Scripture, the Gospels, the epistles, and especially the story of Jesus as one grand, singular drama with the Lord of Heaven and Earth as the prime (though not sole) Author and character.

So what’s the answer to our question? How are creatures who are sinning relating to the will of God?

Well, in the sense of God’s will of command, they’re obviously being disobedient. What’s more, there is a clear sense in which God hates and is opposed to those things he forbids us. And yet, it’s also clear (in at least those cases listed above) that they’re conforming to God’s will of decree. God could at any time stop, hinder, influence, etc. any of them to do otherwise and yet he does not, so at least in the minimal sense of permission, they are sinning “according to his will.”

It’s important to note that these “wills” are not ultimately at odds, since in God they are angles on one ultimate act of willing. Nor is it inconsistent for God to forbid the human sins God know he will end up incorporating his ultimate plan for all things. This is where the Creator/creature distinction plays a role in reminding us, as Bavinck puts it, that a father may forbid his child to use a sharp knife, though he himself may use it without any harm.

I should say more here, but God’s infinity needs to play a greater role in our thinking in these areas. Far too much theology operates under the assumption that God is simply a much larger version of ourselves. That God must related to creatures and the creation in the same way that we do. We forget that God’s relationship to creation is sui generis, utterly unique.

Evil, Complex Goods, and God’s Will

All the same, it’s not a wild question to ask how could God will to allow evil? Or even ordain and intend it in the case of Joseph at the hand of his brothers, or Christ at the hand of persecutors?

Well, C.S. Lewis has a very helpful passage here in his classic The Problem of Pain where he delineates varieties of goods and evils. In the first place, there are simple goods, unproblematically considered in themselves to be good (ice cream, love, sunsets). Second, there are simple evils (paper cuts, murder, 3rd degree burns). Third, there are “complex goods”, which are packages of events, states of affairs, etc. that contain “simple evils” within them, but which God uses to produce more complex, redemptive goods. The cross and resurrection of Jesus is the prime example of this, but Joseph’s story is as well. And this seems amply demonstrated in Scripture beyond these two.

Now, we must say a few things here.

First, simple evils can be part of complex goods doesn’t mean that—considered in themselves—they don’t remain evil. Cancer, in itself, is evil. Murder, in itself, is evil. Divorce, in itself, is evil. But what these distinctions remind us is that these simple evils take place within a nexus of a broader context that as a total state of affairs cannot be considered unremittingly evil.

Second, the older Reformed theologians were careful to point out that God’s “willing” of simple evils, sins, is not on the same plane, or in the same way as he willed positive goods. Yes, evil only comes about by God’s permission or ordination, but God does not have a “flat” will, so to speak. He only “wills” to permit evil events in a derivative way, as a necessary constituent of complex goods which are the proper object of his good will.

This, incidentally, is why I think it’s a mistake (both theological and pastoral) to speak so straightforwardly or bluntly about God “ordaining” this or that specific instance of evil. Yes, it does have its place somewhere in God’s broader providence because it happened. But very often (indeed, most often) we have absolutely no idea where it fits or why it was included. As such, it is misleading to suggest that God wanted x-event to happen for its own sake. It is wise to remember that “the secret things belong to the Lord.” In any case, we have a great many other doctrines with which to comfort the grieving, so it’s not always pastorally necessary or wise to immediately pull out or doctrine of providence in any given situation. (Though, see Heidelberg Catechism Q& A 26).

Third, some of you may be wondering about my jumping back and forth between the language of “ordination” and “permission.” For many this might seem like impermissible fudging. It might be. But without going into all the distinctions that I probably should, I will simply note that despite Calvin’s criticisms of abuses of the language of “permission”, the majority of the tradition still thought it useful (on this see J. Todd Billings Rejoicing in Lament).  This language of permission helps preserve the different ways that God’s preserving activity and causality are involved in human free acts.

God at every moment preserves and sustains all persons, things, acts in existence. In that sense (at least), he is the primary cause of all secondary causes. He is also the primary, non-competitive cause of free causal agents such as humans and angels. But with this in mind, we also want to say that God is positively involved causally in the good acts of creatures, enabling, encouraging, guiding, and so forth. This is essential (though maybe not exhaustive) for not being a reductionist about human freedom and divine sovereignty–recognizing that divine and human agency operate on different levels of being.

At the same time he is involved only negatively, or by a sort of absence, in not restraining the free, sinful acts of fallen humans who tend towards evil without his sustaining activity. It’s sort of like the difference between the Sun being the “cause” of heat directly (by way of proximity) and indirectly the “cause” of cold (by way of distance or a cloud-cover, etc). As Francis Turretin says, “So although sin necessarily follows the decree, it cannot be said to flow from the decree. The decree does not flow into the thing, nor is it effective of evil, but only permissive and directive” (Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 4.4.10).

In that sense, we can speak of this permission of evil acts as a form or a part of God’s ordination of history, as long as we think of this as part of the broader work of God in predestining, creating, preserving, and sustaining all things in order that he might sum them up in Christ (Eph. 1:10).

The Horror of Purposeless Evil

Now, admittedly this is not all easy to swallow. It doesn’t take much imagination to think of any number of horrible events and ask, “Are you saying that God ordained this as part of his will? That it’s part of some greater good? What possible good could come from this? No, to say that this was in any way a part of the eternal plan of God is to justify it and make God complicit with evil and this something we cannot do when we look at Christ. God is entirely only opposed to evil and only ever redemptively works after the fact, fixing what we have broken, but not purposing the break which has absolutely no place in God’s eternal purposes.”

I get this line of thought. Honestly, I do. But I think it fails us for a couple of reasons we have already raised.

First, simply consider the absolute horror of what it would mean for God to have no good purposes or reasons whatsoever for allowing all of the evil that he clearly could stop. Every example of every horrible event that you just came up with, would be totally and utterly pointless in every sense, and yet something God is still responsible for because he could have stopped it.

Because—unless you’re working with a tiny, little mythological Zeus-god—the Triune Creator of heaven and earth could stop each and every act of evil should he desire it; again, either God’s permission is willing or coerced. Assuming it’s not coerced, if he doesn’t stop an act of evil, he either has a good enough reason or purpose for it or not.

On this point even the Arminian and the Calvinist is agreed. It’s only that the Arminian typically appeals to a general good reason or purpose (libertarian free will or libertarian-freely chosen love) and that the Calvinist some more meticulous, specific (though probably unknown) providential purposes. So if you appeal to the mystery of free will which is necessary for love, moral choice, etc. (a venerable move), you’re still saying God had a good enough reason for evil. It’s just happens to be a very, very generic one.

At which point, you have to begin to push further back into and beyond the act of creation. Unless you’re an Open Theist or a Process Theist, you still have to face the fact that God freely created this world with a perfect knowledge of every nook and cranny of sin, evil, and the goods connected to them that would unfold. He willed to create this world and derivatively these evils exist as a part of his providential order. I know there are important distinctions to be made there and I’m glancing over them far too quickly, but the point stands. It’s not only the Reformed Calvinist who must reckon with God’s eternal plan or divine reasons, at this point.

Coming back around, let me just put it this way: many will object that sounds awful, cruel, or crass to tell someone who has suffered the loss of child some pious platitude about “God had a reason”, or “it’s all a part of God’s plan.” And done crassly, it is. But consider that it is equally awful, if not more so, to crassly say, “Thank God that was pointless”, or “Isn’t it a comfort to know that preventable evil and your suffering were allowed to come to pass for no reason whatsoever? That God stood there, doing nothing, for no purpose at all.”

Unless you can say that God had purposes for his permission of evil, you’re just left with a black hole of the collateral damage of either divine apathy or incompetence.

The Comfort of a Purposeful Cross

Secondly, the “hands-off” view fails us more clearly because we have already seen in Scripture that God ordained, according to his plan and foreknowledge, the very great and glorious salvation of the the human race through the damnable evil of Christ’s crucifiers. God handed the Son over to be betrayed into the hands of sinful men in order to raise him up, justify him and thereby justify us in him.

This was no purposeless evil, then. Nor was the resurrection a happy result of God’s clever ability to turn a frown upside down—it was the center of God’s eternal plan for redemptive history.

My focus on the God’s handing over a Christ to suffer, be crucified, and then rise again is purposeful. It is important for us to know that this is not an abstract or distant will. Scripture is clear that God planned beforehand to sum up all things in Christ (Eph. 1:11), and that he was “foreknown” for this task “from before the foundations of the earth” (1 Peter 1:20).  But this is only the case as he is also the “Lamb that was slain before the foundations of the earth” (Rev. 13:8) in order to ransom his people from their sin.

Yes, it was an hour that made the soul of the Son of Man “greatly troubled”, that tempted him to ask, “Father, save me from this hour”, but about which eventually resolved, “for this purpose I have come to this hour” (John 12:27). In this, the Triune God is not immune from his own sovereignty, so to speak. Rather, we see God’s will to “do whatever he wants” most clearly in his willing to be the Father who sends the Son in the power of the Spirit to become incarnate, live under the conditions of a weakness, suffer brutally, die forsaken, and rise again in glory on our behalf.

At the center of the divine will for the history of the cosmos, then, shines the blinding light of God’s self-giving beauty in the face of Christ.

Post-Script

Of course, there are are probably a dozen or so sub-topics I barely grazed in this discussion and so if you’re far from convinced, especially on the difficult issues of freedom and sovereignty, that’s more than reasonable. This is a limited (if absurdly lengthy) blog post. I think some of the resources I pointed to above are good places to go digging (Herman Bavinck, Richard Muller, and especially Todd Billings).

For instance, some will object that none of this proves his ordination of every matter in history. Yes, but I do think it does show that God has ordained, permitted, or purposed at least some. Therefore he can do so in others. And then from there it’s a matter of seeing whether the categories provided seems to present an overall consistent picture with Scripture.

To cap it off, though, for those who find themselves put off by the whole discussion, or disturbed, I’ll simply point out that Calvin himself warned that the one who tries to pry too deeply into God’s secret counsels “plunges headlong into an immense abyss, involves himself in numberless inextricable snares, and buries himself in the thickest darkness.” (Institutes. III.xxiv.4) Instead, it’s best to simply look to Christ, rest in his grace, trust that “although there were wise and holy reasons” for God’s decrees about history, “nevertheless these reasons, though known to him, are not known to us.”

The secret things belong to the Lord, but Christ crucified and risen is what he has revealed to us.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

We Can’t Say He Didn’t Warn Us

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” (Matthew 7:15)

Night of the HunterWe can’t say he didn’t warn us.

I was struck by that thought as I was watching the opening of the classic, 1955 Southern Gothic film The Night of the Hunter the other night. The film opens with a saintly, older Sunday School teacher Rachel Cooper (played by Lillian Gish), reading these verses to her children, then leads into the story of Rev. Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a melodramatic huckster, traveling preacher who makes a habit of ingratiating himself with widows, killing them, and using the money to further his ministry to the Lord.  I won’t go into the film, at length, but I’ll simply say that it’s one of the most brilliant explorations of true and false religion in modern times.

Back to Jesus, though, I find it fascinating that he goes out of his way to tell us that false teachers are coming. And it’s not like he was the only one, either. In many ways, he was just following the warning of the Old Testament Law and Prophets that warned against false, abusive religion. What’s more, he was echoed this warning by most of the apostles in the New Testament letters–correcting false teachers was about half of what they seemed to spend their time doing. So the Bible is thick with warnings about the distortion and corruption of religion truth for power and gain.

And yet despite all that material and some 2,000 years of Christian history to confirm it, we’re still surprised when it happens. We’re shocked at false religion. We’re astonished to hear about the abuses of power that happens in the church up the street. We turn on the TV and we’re outraged at the way so many of these televangelists are out there fleecing people for all their worth, leading them astray with all sorts of blatantly absurd heresies and false teachings. We still have trouble heeding Christ’s warning.

Commenting on Jesus’ warning here, Calvin gives us two helpful insights on what it means to “beware of false prophets.”

These words were intended to teach, that the Church would be exposed to various impositions, and that consequently many would be in danger of falling from the faith, if they were not carefully on their guard. We know what a strong propensity men have to falsehood, so that they not only have a natural desire to be deceived, but each individual appears to be ingenious in deceiving himself. Satan, who is a wonderful contriver of delusions, is constantly laying snares to entrap ignorant and heedless persons.

Essentially, where there’s a demand, there’s usually a supply. There are false teachers–and an abundance of them–because there are false hearers. Something in us loves to be lied to. As Calvin says there is a “strong propensity” in humanity to accept what false–we have a “natural desire to deceived.”

This isn’t very groundbreaking, but the point is that some part of us actually wants to believe in the prosperity gospel. It’s attractive to me. And so, for that reason I ought to be on guard against temptations in my own heart that render me prone to believe false teachers. I am not above being deceived and, in many ways, am prone to complicity with deceivers. I am not above this.

 

Second, to the discouraged, Calvin offers a surprising word of comfort:

Hence too we infer, that there is no reason why believers should be discouraged or alarmed, when wolves creep into the fold of Christ, when false prophets endeavor to corrupt the purity of the faith by false doctrines. They ought rather to be aroused to keep watch: for it is not without reason that Christ enjoins them to be on their guard. Provided that we are not led astray through our own sluggishness, we shall be able to avoid every kind of snares; and, indeed, without this confidence, we would not have the courage necessary for being on our guard.

Commentary on Matthew 7:15

The presence of false teachers in the church doesn’t threaten to disconfirm the truth. Nor should we be worried that the church will be overcome because of it. As Calvin notes elsewhere in the passage, Christ has promised to preserve his church and his sheep will recognize the voice of their master (John 10:3-5). No, instead of discouraging us, this ought to put us on our guard. Indeed, Christ himself puts us on guard against those who would pervert his work. This warning is actually part of how he cares for us and confirms his lordship to us.

Actually, this is one of those important apologetic points to preachers ought to regularly remind their people of: many of us are often tempted to chuck the whole thing because of the repeated failures we see among religious leaders and within the Church as a whole. We see it as proof that the whole thing’s a sham, a joke, a set-up. And yet here we see that Christ himself says that Christianity will be twisted. So how is that evidence against it, when the founding documents of the New Testament say its going to happen?

In any case, to wrap up, when we run across false teaching and are threatened with discouragement and despair, we should take heart. Jesus warned us this was coming, so we can trust him to bring us through it.

Soli Deo Gloria