Monthly Archives: May 2015

Week 22 of 50 in the Institutes: The Vomit of the Soul

I can recall the events that occurred in music class as if they were yesterday, which is pretty remarkable considering how long ago they occurred.  I was in third grade, and not feeling very well.  Paying attention was difficult because of the nauseous feeling that had been coming on steadily.  Then immediately after our teacher said, “Turn to page . . . (whatever it was)”, that was it.  I vomited, right there, all over the floor in music class.  I ran to the restroom immediately afterwards, but that was all there was.  So I went back to the classroom.  Our teacher had left to fetch the janitor, and all of my classmates were huddled over in the far corner of the room.  No one wanted to come near me then (can you blame them?), despite my confessing to them that “I feel much better now,” as we waited for the janitor to come and tidy up the place.  Of course, the school called my mother and I was sent home for the rest of the day.

That episode from my childhood came to mind while reading tomorrow’s assignment in the Institutes (3.4.12), along with one Puritan’s assertion that “repentance is the vomit of the soul” (was it Thomas Brooks or Thomas Watson who said that?).

Vomiting is not something a person really likes to do in public.  I have never invited an audience to join me in the bathroom whenever I have a stomach virus, for instance, and I would have preferred much less company that day in music class, of all places!  So likening repentance to “the vomit of the soul” helps convey a sense of how humiliating and humbling it is, especially when it comes to confession, which is just one crucial aspect of repentance.

Whenever the Spirit is at work convicting of sin and working true repentance, there is this inevitable desire to confess that sin at least to God, and sometimes to men.  This is what Calvin sets before us in 3.4.12:

Let every believer, therefore, remember, that if in private he is so agonized and afflicted by a sense of his sins that he cannot obtain relief without the aid of others, it is his duty not to neglect the remedy which God provides for him—viz. to have recourse for relief to a private confession to his own pastor, and for consolation privately implore the assistance of him whose business it is, both in public and private, to solace the people of God with Gospel doctrine. But we are always to use moderation, lest in a matter as to which God prescribes no certain rule, our consciences be burdened with a certain yoke. Hence it follows first, that confession of this nature ought to be free so as not to be exacted of all, but only recommended to those who feel that they have need of it; and, secondly, even those who use it according to their necessity must neither be compelled by any precept, nor artfully induced to enumerate all their sins, but only in so far as they shall deem it for their interest, that they may obtain the full benefit of consolation. Faithful pastors, as they would both eschew tyranny in their ministry, and superstition in the people, must not only leave this liberty to churches, but defend and strenuously vindicate it.

I recall another day as an adult, when I made an appointment to go see my pastor to confess something to him I had never told another living soul.  After having unburdened myself to him, unlike my classmates, he didn’t run to the opposite corner of the room. But rather, I experienced what Jacob described in Genesis 33:10.  Upon meeting his brother Esau after years of estrangement and expecting nothing but wrath and fury, Jacob beheld the face of God in his brother’s mercy: “For I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me.” (ESV)

I love the words to the hymn, Approach My Soul, the Mercy Seat, wherein John Newton tells us how we may face our fierce accuser, Satan:

Bowed down beneath a load of sin, by Satan sorely pressed, by war without and fears within, I come to thee for rest.

Be thou my shield and hiding place, that, sheltered near thy side, I may my fierce accuser face, and tell him thou hast died.

O wondrous love! To bleed and die, to bear the cross and shame, that guilty sinners, such as I, might plead thy gracious name!

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes:

June 1:  3.4.10 – 3.4.15

June 2:  3.4.16 – 3.4.20

June 3:  3.4.21 – 3.4.26

June 4:  3.4.27 – 3.4.31

June 5:  3.4.32– 3.4.35


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Week 21 of 50 in the Institutes: The Fruits of Repentance

In his little book, The Grace of Repentance, Sinclair Ferguson took note of “a medieval darkness encroaching on evangelicalism.”  Dr. Ferguson went on to enumerate five signs of this encroaching darkness, the first of which had to do with repentance:

“1. Repentance is seen as an initial emotion, not as a vital part of a lifelong restoration of godliness.”  (Sinclair Ferguson, The Grace of Repentance, Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010; p. 41).

Contrary to that popular misperception, Calvin sets his readers’ feet on the right path.  If we look back to last week’s assignment, we find the following definition of repentance (3.3.5):

A real conversion of our life unto God, proceeding from sincere and serious fear of God; and consisting in the mortification of our flesh and the old man, and the quickening of the Spirit.

We see from this that repentance is tied to the new birth, but doesn’t end there, but commences a lifelong process of mortification and vivification that never ends in this life, as Calvin went on to say in 3.3.9:

Accordingly through the blessing of Christ we are renewed by that regeneration into the righteousness of God from which we had fallen through Adam, the Lord being pleased in this manner to restore the integrity of all whom he appoints to the inheritance of life. This renewal, indeed, is not accomplished in a moment, a day, or a year, but by uninterrupted, sometimes even by slow progress God abolishes the remains of carnal corruption in his elect, cleanses them from pollution, and consecrates them as his temples, restoring all their inclinations to real purity, so that during their whole lives they may practice repentance, and know that death is the only termination to this warfare.

So what are some encouraging signs or fruits of repentance that one may expect during this journey of faith?  Calvin provides three (3.3.16):

We can now understand what are the fruits of repentance—viz. offices of piety towards God, and love towards men, general holiness and purity of life. In short, the more a man studies to conform his life to the standard of the divine law, the surer signs he gives of his repentance.

Calvin’s Institutes are hence as relevant today as they were five hundred years ago.

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes:

May 26:  3.3.16 – 3.3.18

May 27:  3.3.19 – 3.3.20

May 28:  3.3.21 – 3.3.25

May 29:  3.4.1 – 3.4.3

May 30:  3.4.4 – 3.4.9

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Week 20 of 50 in the Institutes: The Holy Spirit of Promise

Those who are up to date with the reading assignments are in for a real treat tomorrow! Calvin provides us with a jewel of exegetical insight in 3.2.36 with regard to understanding the phrase, “the Holy Spirit of promise”, found in Ephesians 1:13 (“In him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation – having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise – NASB)

I am currently teaching through Ephesians in Sunday school, and I regrettably missed Calvin’s insights when we covered that passage last year.  Consider Calvin’s treatment in 3.2.36 (Beveridge’s translation, emphasis added), wherein he shows that faith is a matter of the heart:

The next thing necessary is, that what the mind has imbibed be transferred into the heart. The word is not received in faith when it merely flutters in the brain, but when it has taken deep root in the heart, and become an invincible bulwark to withstand and repel all the assaults of temptation. But if the illumination of the Spirit is the true source of understanding in the intellect, much more manifest is his agency in the confirmation of the heart; inasmuch as there is more distrust in the heart than blindness in the mind; and it is more difficult to inspire the soul with security than to imbue it with knowledge. Hence the Spirit performs the part of a seal, sealing upon our hearts the very promises, the certainty of which was previously impressed upon our minds. It also serves as an earnest in establishing and confirming these promises. Thus the Apostle says, “In whom also, after that ye believed, ye were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise, which is the earnest of our inheritance,” (Eph. 1:13, 14). You see how he teaches that the hearts of believers are stamped with the Spirit as with a seal, and calls it the Spirit of promise, because it ratifies the gospel to us. In like manner he says to the Corinthians, “God has also sealed us, and given the earnest of the Spirit in our hearts,” (2 Cor. 1:22). And again, when speaking of a full and confident hope, he founds it on the “earnest of the Spirit,” (2 Cor. 5:5).

None of my commentaries picked up on any association of sealing having anything to do with the promises.  The closest anyone in my collection came was Peter O’Brien (The Pillar New Testament Commentary, The Letter to the Ephesians), in that he pointed out that “the believing and being sealed were two sides of one event” (p. 119).  But to equate the Spirit communicating and applying the gospel to believers personally at conversion with the essence of the seal itself is profound, and a perfect example of why Calvin’s works are still consulted for his insights both as a theologian and a commentator.

In his Commentary on Ephesians 1:13, Calvin emphasized the efficacious work of the Spirit in convincing men of the truth of the gospel (emphasis added):

Our minds never become so firmly established in the truth of God as to resist all the temptations of Satan, until we have been confirmed in it by the Holy Spirit. The true conviction which believers have of the word of God, of their own salvation, and of religion in general, does not spring from the judgment of the flesh, or from human and philosophical arguments, but from the sealing of the Spirit, who imparts to their consciences such certainty as to remove all doubt. The foundation of faith would be frail and unsteady, if it rested on human wisdom; and therefore, as preaching is the instrument of faith, so the Holy Spirit makes preaching efficacious.

This work of the Spirit in affirming the truth of the gospel on the hearts of believers is such that even those who admit to a lack of assurance will not trade what little hope they have for anything in the wide world.  Such confidence, albeit weak at times, stems from the work of the Holy Spirit of promise upon the heart, sealing a sense of forgiveness in a mysterious yet indefatigable way which manifests itself in a cry of “Abba! Father!” in times of need (Rom. 8:15). And this is because, deep down, the Spirit bears witness with the believer’s spirit that he is a child of God.  What’s more, the work of the Spirit in applying the promises personally to the heart only begins at conversion, and ceases only when we reach the Celestial City where faith ends in sight.  Glory be to Him!

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes:

May 18:  3.2.32 – 3.2.37

May 19:  3.2.38 – 3.2.42

May 20:  3.2.43 – 3.3.4

May 21:  3.3.5 – 3.3.10

May 22:  3.3.11 – 3.3.15

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Week 19 of 50 in the Institutes: A Right Definition of Faith

This week’s assignment overflows with Calvin’s pastoral concern for his readers, and Carl Trueman’s blogs on the Reformation 21 website are not to be missed either (see links at bottom of post).

I want to draw attention to Calvin’s definition of saving faith in 3.2.7 and note its agreement with the Heidelberg Catechism and the Westminster Confession.  So let’s begin with Calvin’s definition:

We shall now have a full definition of faith if we say that it is a firm and sure knowledge of the divine favor toward us, founded on the truth of a free promise in Christ, and revealed to our minds, and sealed on our hearts, by the Holy Spirit. (Beveridge)

The notable feature of this definition of faith for twenty-first century Christendom is the role of the Holy Spirit in assurance of salvation (as opposed to man, or the mere utterance of a prayer).  As Trueman observed (May 11 blog), assurance is indeed central to Christianity.  But today, I’m afraid that assurance is taken for granted in a presumptive, automatic, name-it, claim-it approach: “I prayed the prayer, so I’m saved.  Why the concern about assurance?”  Calvin went on in the next section (3.2.8) to assert that faith goes beyond a mere assent to certain truths, and that true assent itself is more “a matter of the heart than of the head, of the affection than the intellect”.

When we compare Calvin’s definition of saving faith to that found in the Heidelberg Catechism (Q&A 21), we find assurance worked by the Holy Spirit common to both:

Question 21. What is true faith? Answer: True faith is not only a certain knowledge, whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in his word, but also an assured confidence, which the Holy Ghost works by the gospel in my heart; that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sin, everlasting righteousness and salvation, are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.

The Westminster Confession of Faith (Chapter 14) elaborates more, but contains the same emphasis on the Holy Spirit, with an acknowledgement that there may be saving faith where full assurance is lacking:

  1. The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the word: by which also, and by the administration of the sacraments, and prayer, it is increased and strengthened.
  2. By this faith, a Christian believeth to be true whatsoever is revealed in the word, for the authority of God himself speaking therein; and acteth differently upon that which each particular passage thereof containeth; yielding and embracing the promises, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life and that which is to come.  But the principal acts of saving faith are, accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace.
  3. This faith is different in degrees, weak or strong; may be often and many ways assailed and weakened, but gets the victory; growing up in many to the attainment of a full assurance through Christ, who is both the author and finisher of our faith.

For his part, Calvin balanced the certainty inherent to true faith with the weakness found therein as well, due to indwelling sin.  Hence the need to work out one’s salvation with fear and trembling (3.2.23), which is a far cry from “name-it, claim-it.”

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes:

May 11:  3.2.7 – 3.2.10

May 12:  3.2.11 – 3.2.15

May 13:  3.2.16 – 3.2.21

May 14:  3.2.22 – 3.2.27

May 15:  3.2.28 – 3.2.31

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Week 18 of 50 in the Institutes: Rightly Appraising Christ’s Descent Into Hell

This week’s assignments in the Institutes have no blog entries on the Reformation 21 website, just an entry indicating that they are not available and will be posted later for 2.16.12 through 3.2.6.

It would seem that the closest they ever came was a series of articles in January of this year on the statement in the Apostles’ Creed that Christ “descended into hell.”  Rick Phillips began it all by sharing how his current church had already abandoned the phrase when he became pastor there (see link below for his article: “Vos on the Descent of Christ into Hell”).  Upon investigation, he decided that abandoning the phrase was the best thing to do, for lack of clear biblical testimony.  Four hours after Phillips’ post,  Mark Jones gave a response titled, “Keeping ‘Christ’s Descent into Hell’”.  Eric Hutchinson posited another article five days later, “Should We Assent to the Descent”, and Rick Phillips did a follow up on January 9th, “Still Dissenting to the Descent”.  If you read those four articles, you may learn more than you wanted to know about the phrase.

For my part, I agree with the Reformed view expressed in the confessions (HC Q&A 44; WLC Q&A 50), and as articulated by Calvin in 2.16.10 of the Institutes, that “he suffered the death that God in his wrath had inflicted upon the wicked” (McNeill Battles ed.).

Everything to this point in this post, though, merely functions as an introduction to my main concern here (especially since 2.16.10 is from last week’s assignment).  In 2.16.12 Calvin brings us to holy ground which lies beyond the wrangling over the nuances of meaning of “He descended into hell” to ponder the magnitude of the Savior’s suffering on our behalf as evidenced by his agony beginning in Gethsemane.  This is where I need to sit and gaze for long periods of time, so that sin will become infinitely heinous in my sight, and Christ all the more precious.  As Calvin put it:

“From this it appears that these quibblers with whom I am contending boldly chatter about things they know nothing of. For they 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.”  (McNeill-Battles)

“Hence it appears that these triflers, with whom I am disputing, presume to talk of what they know not, never having seriously considered what is meant and implied by ransoming us from the justice of God. It is of consequence to understand aright how much our salvation cost the Son of God.”  (Beveridge)

Mark Jones has written another article to assist with this contemplation as well: Hell’s Horrors vs Heaven’s Happiness.

Links to Reformation 21 Articles on Christ’s Descent Into Hell, in sequence:

1.  Rick Phillips – Vos on the Descent of Christ Into Hell  (Jan. 2, 2015 8:57 am)

2.  Mark Jones – Keeping “Christ’s Descent Into Hell”   (Jan 2, 2015  12:58 pm)

3.  Eric Hutchinson – Should We Assent to the Descent?  (Jan 7, 2015  9:25 am)

4.  Rick Phillips – Still Dissenting to the Descent (Jan 9, 2015 2:15 pm)

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