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We are much worse than we think

I recently posted a somewhat funny post calling Andy Stanley a Calvinist. The quote I mentioned there got me thinking about the larger context in which Calvin used it. I’ve always been struck by this section in Institutes. Calvin has such an adept sense of the real condition of our hearts. He says:

For (such is our innate pride) we always seem to ourselves just, and upright, and wise, and holy, until we are convinced, by clear evidence, of our injustice, vileness, folly, and impurity. Convinced, however, we are not, if we look to ourselves only, and not to the Lord also—He being the only standard by the application of which this conviction can be produced. For, since we are all naturally prone to hypocrisy, any empty semblance of righteousness is quite enough to satisfy us instead of righteousness itself…

So long as we do not look beyond the earth, we are quite pleased with our own righteousness, wisdom, and virtue; we address ourselves in the most flattering terms, and seem only less than demigods. But should we once begin to raise our thoughts to God, and reflect what kind of Being he is, and how absolute the perfection of that righteousness, and wisdom, and virtue, to which, as a standard, we are bound to be conformed, what formerly delighted us by its false show of righteousness will become polluted with the greatest iniquity; what strangely imposed upon us under the name of wisdom will disgust by its extreme folly; and what presented the appearance of virtuous energy will be condemned as the most miserable impotence. So far are those qualities in us, which seem most perfect, from corresponding to the divine purity.

John Calvin and Henry Beveridge, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2010).

 

Andy Stanley is a Calvinist?

My father attends Andy Stanley’s church, North Point. I am personally thankful for Andy’s church as it has been there that my dad has surrendered his life to the gospel. Whenever I visit with my dad, I often take the occasion to attend church at North Point.

Several years ago I remember Andy preaching on sin and he gave an illustration using some figures cut out from pieces of bright orange cardboard. He explained how we often look around and judge ourselves righteous because we live in a bright orange world and when we look at ourselves (bright orange people) we think we’re ok. However, take that bright orange cardboard person and stick them in front of a solid white background, and you suddenly realize how extremely different you are than that white color.

The point was one of God’s holiness, our sinfulness, and the tendency to look at our sin in comparison to the world around us as opposed to the holiness of God. It was a great illustration that has stuck with me to this day. I found it humorous the other day while reading Institutes when Calvin gave the exact word picture (though Calvin used black instead of orange). I couldn’t help but wonder if Andy pulled his example from Calvin.

And since nothing appears within us or around us that is not tainted with very great impurity, so long as we keep our mind within the confines of human pollution, anything which is in some small degree less defiled delights us as if it were most pure: just as an eye, to which nothing but black had been previously presented, deems an object of a whitish, or even of a brownish hue, to be perfectly white.

John Calvin and Henry Beveridge, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2010).

Calvin’s Aim in Writing Institutes

In the prefix to the 1545 French edition of Calvin’s Institutes, Calvin seeks to explain to his readers why he wrote Institutes to begin with. While he goes into more detail, the third paragraph has some amazingly interesting nuggets of insight for the reader. I will include it with my observations below.

Seeing, then, how necessary it was in this manner to aid those who desire to be instructed in the doctrine of salvation, I have endeavoured, according to the ability which God has given me, to employ myself in so doing, and with this view have composed the present book.

Calvin wrote Institutes in order to instruction people “in the doctrine of salvation.” It is interesting to note this because many today are intimidated by Institutes. The shear size of the volume and the weight of Calvin’s name often make people feel like this is a book for scholars. However, Calvin wrote it simply for those wanting to know the doctrine of salvation. As I’ve told many people, Institutes seems to me one of the most approachable systematic theologies I’ve ever read.

And first I wrote it in Latin, that it might be serviceable to all studious persons, of what nation soever they might be; afterwards, desiring to communicate any fruit which might be in it to my French countrymen, I translated it into our own tongue.

This was really cool to read. Calvin wrote it in Latin so that it might have the most broad reach. That it might make it to all the learned persons of any country and they would be able to read it (and by inference, teach it rightly to others). Then, because of his love for his homeland, he also wrote it in French, so that all his countrymen, scholar and non, would have access to the volume. This speaks highly of his passion for the spread of the gospel around the world and specifically to his country.

I dare not bear too strong a testimony in its favour, and declare how profitable the reading of it will be, lest I should seem to prize my own work too highly.

There is no doubt that by the final edition of Institutes Calvin knew how important his book had become. It is nice here to seem him attempt to keep his pride in check, despite the obvious success and impact that this volume had, even in his own short life.

However, I may promise this much, that it will be a kind of key opening up to all the children of God a right and ready access to the understanding of the sacred volume.

So beautiful is the fact that one of his main goals in writing Institutes is to help God’s children to open and understand the Bible.

Wherefore, should our Lord give me henceforth means and opportunity of composing some Commentaries, I will use the greatest possible brevity, as there will be no occasion to make long digressions, seeing that I have in a manner deduced at length all the articles which pertain to Christianity.

This final note in the paragraph is interesting because it helps inform the reading of any of his commentaries. For those who access any of Calvin’s commentaries, he makes the point that having read Institutes is a key in getting the most out of his other works. I just think that is fascinating and wonder how many who consult his commentaries have actually read through Institutes.

John Calvin and Henry Beveridge, vol. 1, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2010), 30.

The Cause is Worthy

In his prefatory address to his last edition of Institutes, Calvin pens a letter to the King of France. While this prefatory letter contains many great statements, one line in particular stood out to me as I read:

Your duty, most serene Prince, is, not to shut either your ears or mind against a cause involving such mighty interests as these: how the glory of God is to be maintained on the earth inviolate, how the truth of God is to preserve its dignity, how the kingdom of Christ is to continue amongst us compact and secure. The cause is worthy of your ear, worthy of your investigation, worthy of your throne.

John Calvin and Henry Beveridge, vol. 1, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2010), 6.

Besides the shear beauty of the sentence, I believe Calvin’s call to the seriousness of the need for all readers to carefully consider the doctrines of God. Not just for the sake of it being a good endeavor for one’s soul, but that the cause is “worthy.” All that Calvin poured over into Institutes, the laying out of layer upon layer of systematic doctrine, is worthy of your ear, your investigation, and while I doubt any royalty will stumble upon this blog post, it is worthy of your very life, your throne.

From the outset of Institutes, Calvin reminds all readers, including the King, the there is something greater out there that has worth beyond ourselves and it is becoming of us to seek to know and understand it.

Changing the 5 Points of Calvinism

Despite the popular misconception, John Calvin never wrote the five points of Calvinism, also know as TULIP. These however were five points that were drawn up some time after his death in an effort to summarize the key doctrines for which Calvin and the Reformed faith stood. While anyone who is well read in Calvin will attest, these five points are probably a very narrow view of Calvin’s theology, none-the-less, they can be helpful in thinking through some of the key points of the Reformed faith.

The other day I began reading a book by Roger Nicole entitled, Our Sovereign Saviour. In chapter 4, Nicole seeks to reword the five points in an effort to, in his words, “prevent misunderstandings.” I found his rewordings and thoughts interesting and thought I’d share them briefly here (please note the paragraphs quoted after each section are but a small part of Nicole’s argument, but I thought they best captured his intention):

Total Depravity Radical and Pervasive Evil

May I suggest that what the Calvinist wishes to say when he speaks of total depravity is that evil is at the very heart and root of man. It is at the very foundation, at the deepest level of human life. This evil does not corrupt merely one or two or certain particular avenues of the life of man but is pervasive in that it spreads into all aspects of the life of man. It darkens his mind, corrupts his feelings, warps his will, moves his affections in wrong directions, blinds his conscience, burdens his subconscious, afflicts his body. There is hardly any way in which man is called upon to express himself in which, in some way, the damaging character of evil does not manifest itself. Evil is like a root cancer that extends in all directions within the organism to cause its dastardly effects

Unconditional Election Divine Initative

What we need to recognize here is that the sovereign initiative in salvation is with God. It is not with man. It is not by virtue of something that God has foreseen in a man, some pre-existing condition which is the source or root of the elective purpose of God, that God saves him. God in his own sovereign wisdom chooses, for reasons that are sufficient unto himself, those who shall be saved. We may, therefore, much better speak of ‘sovereign election and preterition’.

Limited Atonement Particular Redemption

We ought rather to talk about ‘definite atonement’. We ought to say that there was a definite purpose of Christ in offering himself. The substitution was not a blanket substitution. It was a substitution that was oriented specifically to the purpose for which he came into this world, namely, to save and redeem those whom the Father has given him. Another term that is appropriate, although perhaps it is less precise than ‘definite atonement’, is ‘particular redemption’. For, the redemption of Christ is planned for particular people and accomplished what it purposed. The only alternative is that Christ redeemed no one in particular.

Irresistible Grace Effectual Grace

We ought not to give the impression that somehow God forces himself upon his creatures so that the gospel is crammed down their throats, as it were. In the case of adults (those who have reached the age of accountability) it is always in keeping with the willingness of the individual that the response to grace comes forth. This is surely apparent in the case of the Apostle Paul, for whom God had perhaps made what might be called the maximum effort to bring him in. He resisted, but God overcame his resistance. The result is that Paul was brought willingly and happily into the fold of the grace of God.
What we mean here is not ‘irresistible’—it gives the impression that man continues to resist—but ‘effectual’. That is, the grace of God actually accomplishes what he intends it to accomplish.

The Perseverance of the Saints Perseverance of God with the Redeemed

The advantage of this formulation is that there is, indeed, a human activity in this process. The saints are active. They are not just passive. In a true sense they are called upon to persevere. But there is a devastating weakness in this formulation in that it suggests that the key to this perseverance is the activity of the saints. It suggests that they persevere because they are strong, that they are finally saved because they show that kind of stability and consistency which prevents them from turning back into their original wickedness. This is never the case. The key to perseverance is the preservation by God of his saints, that is, the stability of his purpose and the fixity of his design. What is to be in view here is not so much the perseverance of those who are saved, but the perseverance of God with the sinners whom he has gloriously transformed and whom he assists to the end. We ought to talk about ‘God’s perseverance with his saints’. That is the thing that we need to emphasize.

Taken from, Roger Nicole, Our Sovereign Saviour (Fearn, Ross-shire, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2002), 47-54.

Calvin Didn’t Master the Languages

It seems to be the common opinion that John Calvin was neither a master of Greek or Hebrew, yet he passionately perused them and encouraged and instructed all pastors to do the like. I find encouragement in the fact that Calvin wasn’t a master of the languages. It helps me see that some things were hard work for Calvin, yet he persisted because the worth of the goal was great. He believed in the importance of the original languages and it showed in all he did.

Calvin firmly believed in an educated pastorate, and part of this eruditio was mastery of the languages of Scripture. Prudence and fairness requires us to agree with the assessment of David Puckett when he concludes that Calvin ‘probably should not be regarded as a expert Hebraist, as was Münster, but he did know the language a great deal better than the seventeenth-century Roman Catholic scholar Richard Simon believed.’ Basil Hall perhaps provides an accurate judgment when he says that Calvin was ‘competent in Hebrew without being a distinguished Hebraist’ and that he was an ‘homme trilingue, a worthy representative of French biblical humanism.’ The reality is that ‘there is scarcely a Reformed exegete of the sixteenth century who did not have a good knowledge of Hebrew and was passionately concerned to establish the hebraica veritas.’ Calvin was an excellent Greek scholar, yet, again, he was not alone. Indeed, Reformed interpreters of the sixteenth century were masters of the Greek language, and men like Beza even surpassed Calvin in it.

John D. Currid, Calvin and the Biblical Languages (Fearn, Ross-shire, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2006), 77-78.

Calvin’s Thoughts on Seminary

John Calvin’s aim of the Genevan Academey is inspiring and should most certainly be applied, or should I say adopted, by more seminaries today:

The creation of the Academy was perhaps Calvin’s crowning achievement. However, it needs to be noted that Calvin’s purpose in establishing this enterprise was not merely to produce scholars. In reality, ‘one of its chief titles to renown has always been, up to very recent times, that of having formed a body of pastors provided with a high degree of intellectual culture.’ His aim in the schola publica was to raise up and train pastor-scholars. These were men who could work well with the original languages of Hebrew and Greek, who could perform proper exegesis of a text, and who understood theology and philosophy; yet, they could take all that intellectual work and translate it to the masses. These were pastor-scholars who did not stay in the ivory tower, but they sought to find the truth and then apply it to the people. The purpose of the academic work was to affect the church and the world with the truth and power of the Word of God.

John D. Currid, Calvin and the Biblical Languages (Fearn, Ross-shire, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2006), 60.

Jesus Christ Invites Us so Gently to His Table

Communion was no light topic for the reformers. That’s why I’ve enjoyed reading some of Calvin’s writings on the subject. While there is a heavy emphasis on personal examination prior to coming to the table, I enjoyed finding the assurance that even our self examination is to be found wanting and that, eventually, we just have to come in faith and receive the gift of God in the table. Despite our weakness, he bids us come. In The Manner of Celebrating the Lord’s Supper Calvin puts it this way (emphasis mine):

Next, let us not be ungrateful to the infinite goodness of our Saviour, who displays all his riches and blessings at this table, in order to dispense them to us; for, in giving himself to us, he bears testimony to us that all which he has is ours. Moreover, let us receive this sacrament as a pledge that the virtue of his death and passion is imputed to us for righteousness, just as if we had suffered it in our own persons. Let us not be so perverse as to keep back when Jesus Christ invites us so gently by his word; but while reflecting on the dignity of the precious gift which he gives us, let us present ourselves to him with ardent zeal, in order that he may make us capable of receiving him.

John Calvin and Henry Beveridge, Tracts Relating to the Reformation, Volume 2 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009), 121.

Centrality of the Languages in Study

In the establishment of the Genevan Academy we see Calvin’s passion for the biblical languages shine. It is clear from the heavy emphasis on the Biblical languages that Calvin felt they were of utmost important for those who would be pastors of the church. As I read the section below, I could not help but wonder what great things might come of us leading our children towards Hebrew and Greek at young ages:

The Genevan Academy had two departments: the schola private (the lower department) and the schola publica (the upper level). The former was for children beginning school at six years of age. There were seven levels of education; the seventh class was the most rudimentary and the first class was the highest order in the school. The content of the various levels are well-known and we do not need to repeat them here. When one reads them, however, one is immediately struck by the amount and centrality of the linguistic work. Bilingual instruction commenced in level seven, that is, the opening grade: students began to learn both French and Latin at this early age. By the fourth class they were introduced to the Greek language. In the upper three class levels the students were preparing almost all of their work in the original languages of Latin and Greek: they read, for example, Homer, Virgil, Cicero from their original tongues. They also translated directly from the New Testament; in level two they were reading the Gospel of Luke and in level one they were translating the Epistles.

The schola private served as a feeder to the schola publica; the latter had its primary purpose to train future ministers of the gospel. These were students who were preparing to preach the Word of God. And since ‘the exposition of the Bible was central to the sermon, Calvin ensured that the biblical languages were given primary place in the curriculum.’ Walker concludes that Calvin’s purpose was to ‘make Geneva the theological seminary of Reformed Protestantism.’ To Calvin, the Academy was to be an institution of great learning. And he believed that erudition required mastery of three languages: Hebrew, Greek, and Latin.

John D. Currid, Calvin and the Biblical Languages (Fearn, Ross-shire, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2006), 57-58.

Of Confidence in the Forgiveness of Sins

John Calvin wrote against the Adultero-German Intrim in his tract The True Method for Giving Peace to Christendom and Reforming the Church. However, there is still some really great stuff in there . For instance, there is a great reminder to the church throughout all time the confidence which the have in the powerful blood of Christ. (emphasis mine)

“Then care must be taken that we do not either make men too secure and confident in themselves, or drive them by anxious doubting to despair. Wherefore, since Paul says, (Gal. 2.,) that he was indeed conscious of no sin, but yet by this was not justified, man cannot believe that his sins are forgiven without a doubt of his own weakness or indisposition. But although he ought not to boast in himself, he is not to be so terrified as to doubt the promises of God, and the efficacy of the death and resurrection of Christ, and despair of obtaining the forgiveness of sins and salvation. All hope, and the assurance of all confidence, ought to be in the precious blood of Christ, which was shed because of us and our salvation. In him alone we both can with certainty, and we ought, to breathe and confide, having the confirmation of the Holy Spirit, who bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God.

John Calvin and Hendry Beveridge, Tracts Relating to the Reformation, Volume 3 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009), 201-02.

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