Monthly Archives: January 2015

Midweek Rambling: The Crook In the Lot – Contrasting Pride & Humility

It wouldn’t be right to go a whole year on a site founded on the premise of promoting Puritan writings without citing one every now and then (even if we are reading Calvin’s Institutes most of 2015!).  I know I find it hard to go very long without reading something by the Puritans, and this week I found myself returning to one that is on my top 10 list: Thomas Boston’s The Crook in the Lot.

To those who may not be familiar with this little jewel, the title isn’t referring to a criminal on a small piece of real estate.  Boston uses that phrase to refer to afflicting incidents and circumstances in life, which everyone encounters without exception.  This short but powerful little book consists of seven sermons: three on Eccl. 7:13, one on Prov. 16:19, and three on 1 Pet. 5:6.  The excerpt below is from the one on Prov. 16:19 (“Better it is to be of an humble spirit with the lowly, than to divide the spoil with the proud.”  -KJV), and the book is accessible online at CCEL (emphasis added):

III. I am to confirm the doctrine, or the decision of the text, that the case of the former is better than that of the latter. It is better to be in a low afflicted condition, with the spirit humbled and brought down to the lot, than to be of a proud and high spirit, getting the lot brought up to it, and matters going according to one’s mind. This will appear from the following considerations.

1. Humility is so far preferable to pride, that in no circumstances whatever its preferableness can fail. Let all the afflictions in the world attend the humble spirit, and all the prosperity in the world attend pride, humility will still have the better. As gold in a dunghill is more excellent than so much lead in a cabinet, For,

(1.) Humility is a part of the image of God. Pride is the master-piece of the image of the devil. Let us view Him who was the express image of the Father’s person, and we shall behold Him meek and lowly in heart. None more afflicted, yet His spirit perfectly brought down to His lot. ‘He was oppressed, and He was afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth. ” That is a shining part of the Divine image; for though God cannot be low in respect of His state and condition, yet He is of infinite condescension. None bears as He, nor suffers patiently so much contradiction to His will; which is proposed to us for our encouragement in affliction, as it shone in Christ. ‘For consider Him that endures such contradiction of sinners against Himself, lest you be wearied, and faint in your minds. “

Pride, on the other hand, is the very image of the devil. Shall we value ourselves on the height of our spirits? Satan will vie with the highest of us in that point. Though he is the most miserable, yet he is the proudest in the whole creation. There is the greatest distance between his spirit and his lot; the former is as high as the throne of God, the latter as low as hell. As it is impossible that ever his lot should be brought up to his spirit; so his spirit will never come down to his lot. Therefore he will be eternally in a state of war with his lot. Thus, even at this time, he has no rest, but goes about, seeks rest indeed, but finds none.

 

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Midweek Rambling: Sermon Recommendation Related to Week 4 Post

As a follow up to some of the things I discussed in this week’s post on the Institutes, I recommend Ligon Duncan’s sermon delivered this past Sunday at FPC Columbia, SC: “How Jesus Gives Us Peace.”  His starting text was 1 Thessalonians 3:16, and he eventually touched on Ephesians 4:14-19 as it relates to the difficulties many Christians encounter when it comes to experiencing both God’s peace and love.    Wonderfully encouraging sermon!

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Week 4 of 50 in the Institutes: Idolatry Is the Epitome of Weakness

If asked to describe, as briefly as possible, the marks of a strong Christian, what comes to mind?  Would it be faith?  Love?  Assurance of salvation?

We do well to consider the prayer what Paul prayed for the Ephesians, as found in Eph. 4:14-19, when defining spiritual strength, because that text paints a picture of spiritual strength that catches the casual reader off guard, and at the same time it reveals how diametrically opposed spiritual strength is to every form of idolatry.  So keep reading and I will show how it ties in with the origin of idolatry which Calvin exposes in 1.11.8 of the Institutes.

Let’s consider briefly the context of Ephesians 4:14f.  Paul wrote this epistle to the church at Ephesus during his first Roman imprisonment, so it would seem natural for the believers there, the recipients of his letter, to be concerned, not only about Paul, but about themselves.  After all, if the apostle Paul himself wound up in prison for believing and preaching the gospel, what is to prevent any disciple of his from experiencing a similar fate?  Paul seems to have anticipated this concern, since he added in 4:13 “So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory.” (ESV) Thereafter Paul shares his prayer for them:

14 Because of this I bow my knees to the Father, 15 by whom every family is named, in heaven and on earth, 16 that he would grant you, according to the wealth of his glory, to be strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man, 17 so that Christ would settle down in your hearts through faith, having been rooted and grounded in love, 18 in order that you may be strong enough to grasp with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and so to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, in order that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.  (my translation)

I have translated the first part of verse 17 “so that Christ would settle down in your hearts” which more accurately reflects the meaning of the verb in its context here, and is key to understanding the picture of spiritual strength which I think Paul has in mind here.  Paul is not praying that the Ephesians would come to faith in Christ in 3:17.  The larger context prohibits such an interpretation.  We see this in the opening of the letter which began with praise to God for the salvation they have experienced (1:3-14).  He also described the Ephesians as those who were formerly dead in trespasses and sins (2:1-3), but who now have been made alive, raised with Christ, and seated with Him in the heavenly places (2:4-6), all because of God’s almighty work of salvation in their lives.  So it is unthinkable that he is praying for their conversion in 3:17.

Rather, Paul is praying that the Ephesians will come to know Christ in such a way that, despite whatever circumstances in which they may find themselves, they will be rooted and grounded in the love of Christ with the result that nothing can ever call into question His love for them.  This is the essence of what it means to be spiritually strong, and is so far removed from what I’m going to call the weak, immature, daffodil believer.  Like a child plucking petals from a daffodil, when bad things happen, the daffodil believer concludes God doesn’t love him.  When good things happen, he concludes God loves him.  So he goes through life never settled in the love of God, like so:  “He loves me . . . He loves me not . . . He loves me . . . He loves me not . . . Oh, I don’t know whether He loves me or He loves me not!”  So how is it possible to move beyond this doubtful state?  How does a person become assured of God’s love?  The answer isn’t found in circumstances.  Rather, we must look to one place only: the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.  There is the place we know the love of God: But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom. 5:8, ESV)

But the next two words in the passage are very important: so that Christ would settle down in your hearts through faith. The way a person comes to know the love of Christ is by faith.  This is what it means to be spiritually strong.  But it takes a work of the Spirit in our heart, as Paul puts it, to be strong enough to grasp with all the saints what is truly inexhaustible and unknowable: the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge.

And now we come to consider the origin of idolatry which Calvin identified in 1.11.8, and I hope we can perceive it as the epitome of spiritual weakness, because it must operate by sight instead of the currency of true spiritual strength, which is faith:

That idolatry has its origin in the idea which men have, that God is not present with them unless his presence is carnally exhibited, appears from the example of the Israelites: ‘Up,’ said they, ‘make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wet not what is become of him’ (Exod. 22:1). They knew, indeed, that there was a God whose mighty power they had experienced in so many miracles, but they had no confidence of his being near to them, if they did not with their eyes behold a corporeal symbol of his presence, as an attestation to his actual government. They desired, therefore, to be assured by the image which went before them, that they were journeying under Divine guidance. And daily experience shows, that the flesh is always restless until it has obtained some figment like itself, with which it may vainly solace itself as a representation of God. In consequence of this blind passion men have, almost in all ages since the world began, set up signs on which they imagined that God was visibly depicted to their eyes.  (1.11.8)

And while Calvin was directing his comments against the use of images found in the worship of the Roman Catholic Church, we must not fail to recognize the idolatry that is alive and well throughout secular society today in the 21st century.  Man’s heart is a perpetual idol factory, as Calvin also noted in 1.11.8, and the output is so immense that I cannot chronicle it here.  But any image used in the worship of what the Puritans called the carnal trinity, known as the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is an idol, whereby significance, status, prestige, security, sensuality, power or acquisition is pursued.  In this generation they are manifest as any number of fortune 500 company trademarks or those of their products, team logos (be it NFL, NBA, NHL, NCAA, etc.), or the obscene images spewed out by peddlers of the multibillion dollar porn industry.  Yes, idolatry thrives in our midst today such that we fool ourselves if we attempt to relegate it to the past or to less developed cultures.

So we must pray fervently and frequently, as Paul did: Your face, full of grace and truth, Lord, do I seek.

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes (all by Phil Ryken for this week):

Jan. 26:  1.9.3 – 1.11.1

Jan. 27:  1.11.2 – 1.11.6

Jan. 28:  1.11.7 – 1.11.12 

Jan. 29:  1.11.13 – 1.12.2 

Jan. 30:  1.12.3 – 1.13.3 

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Week 3 of 50 in the Institutes: Your face, LORD, do I seek (in this labyrinth)

In John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life, Herman J. Selderhuis notes how Calvin took the term labyrinth from the humanistic tradition where it was used in a pejorative way against scholasticism, and re-cast it to refer to a type of thinking that kept a person from a true knowledge of God and self.  In the reading assignment for January 20th, we discover Calvin referring to God’s countenance as an inextricable labyrinth such that a person cannot keep to the path without the thread of God’s word (1.6.3, emphasis added, Beveridge translation):

It being thus manifest that God, foreseeing the inefficiency of his image imprinted on the fair form of the universe, has given the assistance of his Word to all whom he has ever been pleased to instruct effectually, we, too, must pursue this straight path, if we aspire in earnest to a genuine contemplation of God – we must go, I say, to the Word, where the character of God, drawn from his works is described accurately and to the life; these works being estimated, not by our depraved judgement, but by the standard of eternal truth. If, as I lately said, we turn aside from it, how great soever the speed with which we move, we shall never reach the goal, because we are off the course. We should consider that the brightness of the Divine countenance, which even an apostle declares to be inaccessible (1Ti. 6:16), is a kind of labyrinth – a labyrinth to us inextricable, if the Word do not serve us as a thread to guide our path; and that it is better to limp in the way, than run with the greatest swiftness out of it. Hence the Psalmist, after repeatedly declaring (Psa. 93:1-5, Psa. 96:1-13, Psa. 97:1-12, Psa. 99:1-9, &c.) that superstition should be banished from the world in order that pure religion may flourish, introduces God as reigning; meaning by the term, not the power which he possesses and which he exerts in the government of universal nature, but the doctrine by which he maintains his due supremacy: because error never can be eradicated from the heart of man until the true knowledge of God has been implanted in it.

One of the main reasons I love to read the Puritans and Reformers is because of the light they shine on the Scriptures and the human heart (knowledge of God and of self), and thus become a means of beholding His face in a mirror more clearly, albeit dimly, in comparison to what is to come (1 Cor. 13:12; Psa. 27:8).  And so on we go, by the grace of God!

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes for upcoming daily readings:

Jan. 19:  1.5.12 — 1.6.1

Jan. 20:  1.6.2. – 1.7.2

Jan. 21:  1.7.3 – 1.8.1

Jan. 22:  1.8.2 – 1.8.9

Jan. 23:  1.8.10 – 1.9.2

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Just Being a “Five Pointer” Doesn’t Mean You Are a Calvinist

A recent blog by Mark Jones cited an article by Dr. Richard A. Muller, How Many Points? which I heartily recommend.

Dr. Muller rightly notes that many today who tout themselves as “Calvinists” actually espouse very little of Calvin’s theology, and, as he put it, would have gotten themselves tossed out of Geneva if they arrived there at any time during the late sixteenth or the seventeenth century.  Too many, I suspect, are unwittingly like the pastor Dr. Muller encountered: simply American evangelicals, without much awareness of, or interest in, the Reformed confessional standards.

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Week 2 of 50 in the Institutes: Usurpers Anonymous

The concept in the film The Bourne Identity comes to mind when considering parts of the first three chapters of the Institutes.  Like Jason Bourne, all humanity has a natural instinct or awareness of an identity that goes beyond what immediately meets the eye (in this material world), but it is suppressed in many ways, often seeping out in various forms of idolatry (1.3.1):

That there exists in the human minds and indeed by natural instinct, some sense of Deity, we hold to be beyond dispute, since God himself, to prevent any man from pretending ignorance, has endued all men with some idea of his Godhead, the memory of which he constantly renews and occasionally enlarges, that all to a man being aware that there is a God, and that he is their Maker, may be condemned by their own conscience when they neither worship him nor consecrate their lives to his service. Certainly, if there is any quarter where it may be supposed that God is unknown, the most likely for such an instance to exist is among the dullest tribes farthest removed from civilisation. But, as a heathen tells us, there is no nation so barbarous, no race so brutish, as not to be imbued with the conviction that there is a God. Even those who, in other respects, seem to differ least from the lower animals, constantly retain some sense of religion; so thoroughly has this common conviction possessed the mind, so firmly is it stamped on the breasts of all men. Since, then, there never has been, from the very first, any quarter of the globe, any city, any household even, without religion, this amounts to a tacit confession, that a sense of Deity is inscribed on every heart. Nay, even idolatry is ample evidence of this fact. For we know how reluctant man is to lower himself, in order to set other creatures above him. Therefore, when he chooses to worship wood and stone rather than be thought to have no God, it is evident how very strong this impression of a Deity must be; since it is more difficult to obliterate it from the mind of man, than to break down the feelings of his nature – these certainly being broken down, when, in opposition to his natural haughtiness, he spontaneously humbles himself before the meanest object as an act of reverence to God.

Whenever God isn’t acknowledged, man acts as a usurper of his glory, because, as Calvin points out in 1.2.1, all human skill, intellect, and power (indeed, life itself) are gifts from God:

My meaning is: we must be persuaded not only that as he once formed the world, so he sustains it by his boundless power, governs it by his wisdom, preserves it by his goodness, in particular, rules the human race with justice and judgement, bears with them in mercy, shields them by his protection; but also that not a particle of light, or wisdom, or justice, or power, or rectitude, or genuine truth, will anywhere be found, which does not flow from him, and of which he is not the cause; in this way we must learn to expect and ask all things from him, and thankfully ascribe to him whatever we receive.

And so, working backwards, we can appreciate the wisdom in the opening of the Institutes where Calvin declares the absolute necessity of two kinds of knowledge: knowledge of self and knowledge of God.  Any individual or society which lacks a knowledge of God will remain oblivious to its true identity, and perpetual usurpers of God’s glory, claiming for self what belongs to God alone.  In the end, the very definition of what it means to be human is lost.

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes for the upcoming week’s reading assignments:

Jan. 12 – 1.1.1 thru 1.2.1

Jan. 13 – 1.2.2. – 1.3.3

Jan. 14 – 1.4.1 – 1.5.1

Jan. 15 – 1.5.2 – 1.5.5

Jan. 16 – 1.5.6- 1.5.11

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Week 1 of 50 in the Institutes: Much Maligned, Was He!

Since I will be referencing the Reformation 21 blogs from 2009 throughout this fifty week excursion through the Institutes, I feel no compulsion to give an overview or a lot of background, or even to make any profound observations, as if I had any to share, since the scholars and gentlemen over at the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals have already done that for every daily assignment (follow the links at the bottom of this entry).  For the first time since the formation of our group, I feel as if I’m along for the ride, and free to share as much, or as little, as comes to mind.

I take great delight in the little tidbits encountered whenever dealing directly with primary sources, and right at the outset we encounter a morsel which I never discovered from any secondary source.  In Calvin’s opening remarks to his readers, first affixed to the Institutes in 1559, we find the following comment (from Beveridge’s translation, bold added):

And truly it would fare ill with me if, not contented with the approbation of God alone, I were unable to despise the foolish and perverse censures of ignorant as well as the malicious and unjust censures of ungodly men. For although, by the blessing of God, my most ardent desire has been to advance his kingdoms and promote the public good,—although I feel perfectly conscious, and take God and his angels to witness, that ever since I began to discharge the office of teacher in the Church, my only object has been to do good to the Church, by maintaining the pure doctrine of godliness, yet I believe there never was a man more assailed, stung, and torn by calumny [as well by the declared enemies of the truth of God, as by many worthless persons who have crept into his Church—as well by monks who have brought forth their frocks from their cloisters to spread infection wherever they come, as by other miscreants not better than they.]

To whatever degree Calvin found himself to be much maligned in his own day, it has certainly been multiplied more than a hundredfold over the past five hundred years!  It seems many times people make up things to say against Calvin, without any basis whatsoever.  Many years ago I had the sad experience of hearing a pastor say, from the pulpit, that Calvin didn’t believe in the eternal punishment of unbelievers in hell.  (Obviously he never read the Institutes, 3.25.12, for example).

I appreciate the snippets Jeremy Walker included in An Outline of the Life of John Calvin which show some of the derision Calvin faced in his own day.  Far from having the universal acclaim and esteem of his contemporaries, Calvin found his name used derisively for many of the mutts running through the streets of Geneva, and worse:

The opposition was private and public, political and personal: children referred to him as ‘Cain’ rather than ‘Calvin’; a good number of Geneva’s dogs answered to his name; he was publicly abused whenever he went out, and called the second-ranked devil in hell.

Walker’s citation of Calvin’s reflections in April 1564, a month before his death, is especially telling with regard to the opposition he faced throughout his ministry:

When I first came to this church, I found almost nothing in it. There was preaching and that was all. They would look out for idols it is true, and they burned them. But there was no reformation. Everything was in disorder . . . I have lived here amid continual bickering. I have been from derision saluted of an evening before my door with forty or fifty shots of an arquebuse [musket]. . . . They set the dogs at my heels, crying, Here! here! and these snapped at my gown and legs. . . . though I am nothing, yet know I well that I have prevented three thousand tumults that would have broken out in Geneva. But take courage and fortify yourselves, for God will make use of this church and will maintain it, and assures you that he will protect it.

Along with the Institutes this year, I plan on reading John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life by Selderhuis to gain additional insights on Calvin’s life and times.  I look forward to getting to know Calvin the man, as well as his theology, better in 2015.

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes:

Jan 5:  To the Reader

Jan 6:  Prefatory 1-2

Jan 7:  Prefatory 3-4

Jan 8:  Prefatory 5-6

Jan 9:  Prefatory 7-8

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