Week 10 of 50 in the Institutes: Calvin, Owen & Sanctification

Before putting down my thoughts on the upcoming week’s reading assignments in the Institutes, I like to peruse the Reformation 21 blogs to see if the assigned blogger back in 2009 addressed any of the issues that stood out to me (to save time such can I can merely point to them).  Those with rapid recall of everything we have read to this point may begin to have some consternation by this coming Friday when you read 2.3.11 in the Institutes and mentally compare it to what John Owen had to say in Mortification of Sin. So as point man for the group, let me try to save you a headache, or at least a little consternation.

First let’s go back to the following passage from On the Mortification of Sin, where Owen answers the question of why a person is exhorted to mortify sin, if such mortification is the work of the Spirit (at the end of chapter 3):

Secondly. If this be the work of the Spirit alone, how is it that we are exhorted to it? — seeing the Spirit of God only can do it, let the work be left wholly to him.

[1.] It is no otherwise the work of the Spirit but as all graces and good works which are in us are his. He “works in us to will and to do of his own good pleasure,” Phil. ii.13; he works “all our works in us,”  Isa. xxvi. 12, — “the work of faith with power,” 2 Thess 1. 11, Col. ii. 12; he causes us to pray, and is a “Spirit of supplication,” Rom. viii. 26, Zech. xii. 10; and yet we are exhorted, and are to be exhorted, to all these.

[2.] He doth not so work our mortification in us as not to keep it still an act of our obedience. The Holy Ghost works in us and upon us, as we are fit to be wrought in and upon; that is, so as to preserve our own liberty and free obedience. He works upon our understandings, wills, consciences, and affections, agreeably to their own natures; he works in us and with us, not against us or without us; so that his assistance is an encouragement as to the facilitating of the work, and no occasion of neglect as to the work itself.

With reference to the believer’s duty to mortify sin (Romans 8:13), Owen clearly affirmed the responsibility of man, and the idea that God doesn’t do this work “against us or without us”.  Compare this to Calvin’s remarks in 2.3.11 in regard to our efforts to cooperate in sanctification or perseverance:

As to the common saying, that after we have given admission to the first grace, our efforts co-operate with subsequent grace, this is my answer:—If it is meant that after we are once subdued by the power of the Lord to the obedience of righteousness, we proceed voluntarily, and are inclined to follow the movement of grace, I have nothing to object. For it is most certain, that where the grace of God reigns, there is also this readiness to obey. And whence this readiness, but just that the Spirit of God being everywhere consistent with himself, after first begetting a principle of obedience, cherishes and strengthens it for perseverance? If, again, it is meant that man is able of himself to be a fellow-labourer with the grace of God, I hold it to be a most pestilential delusion.

Putting these two passages side by side without careful consideration might leave the casual reader scratching his head and wondering: “So who’s right, Calvin or Owen?”  The answer is both, and I don’t think they are truly contradicting one another (read above excerpt more closely).  How could they, since they were both called “the theologian of the Holy Spirit” in their respective generations?

Louis Berkhof comes in handy here, in the following excerpt from his Systematic Theology, in the section on sanctification (note: we are talking about sanctification here, NOT justification):

It [sanctification] is a work of God in which believers co-operate.  When it is said that man takes part in the work of sanctification, this does not mean that man is an independent agent in the work, so as to make it partly the work of God and partly the work of man; but merely, that God effects the work in part through the instrumentality of man as a rational being, by requiring of him prayerful and intelligent co-operation with the Spirit.  That man must co-operate with the Spirit of God follows: (a) from the repeated warning against evils and temptations, which clearly imply that man must be active in avoiding the pitfalls of life, Rom. 12:9, 16, 17; 1 Cor. 6:9,10; Gal. 5:16-23; and (b) from the constant exhortations to holy living.  These imply that the believer must be diligent in the employment of means at his command for the moral and spiritual improvement of his life, Micah 6:8; John 15:2, 8, 16; Rom. 8:12, 13; 12:1, 2, 17; Gal. 6:7, 8, 15.

So the resolution lies in the affirmation of both the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man.  Both Owen and Calvin cited Philippians 2:13 when dealing with this issue, which is one of the most remarkable passages in all of Scripture with regard to the affirmation of both of these non-contradictory doctrines.  John Murray had an excellent interpretation of Phil. 2:12-13 (as cited by Moises Silva in his commentary on Philippians):

God’s working in us is not suspended because we work, nor our working suspended because God works.  Neither is the relation strictly one of cooperation as if God did his part and we did ours so that the conjunction or coordination of both produced the required result.  God works and we also work.  But the relation is that because God works we work. All working out of salvation on our part is the effect of God’s working in us. . . . We have here not only the explanation of all acceptable activity on our part but we also have the incentive to our willing and working. . . . The more persistently active we are in working, the more persuaded we may be that all the energizing grace and power is of God.

Now if you still have a headache, I recommend aspirin at this point!

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes:

Mar. 9:  2.2.18 – 2.2.23

Mar. 10:  2.2.24 – 2.2.27

Mar. 11:  2.3.1 – 2.3.4

Mar. 12: 2.3.5 – 2.3.9

Mar. 13: 2.3.10 – 2.3.14


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