Week 26 of 50 in the Institutes: A Pernicious Hypocrisy

This week’s assignment begins with 3.12.6 where we encounter Calvin’s description of what humility before God looks like.  Both the Beveridge and Battles translations aligned in their rendering of the Latin here in describing any attempt to hold onto any notion of humility and self-righteousness simultaneously as a “pernicious hypocrisy”:

But what means is there of humbling us if we do not make way for the mercy of God by our utter indigence and destitution? For I call it not humility, so long as we think there is any good remaining in us. Those who have joined together the two things, to think humbly of ourselves before God and yet hold our own righteousness in some estimation, have hitherto taught a pernicious hypocrisy.

Instead of “make way for the mercy of God” as we read in the above by Beveridge, Battles translated as “yield to God’s mercy.”  These two phrases may serve us well for meditation on the truths Calvin sets before his reader with regard to the poor in spirit (humble) being the inheritors of the kingdom of God.

Calvin didn’t refer to the parable of the wedding feast here, and his commentary on Mt. 22:1-14 doesn’t share the following interpretation, but that parable came to my mind as a perfect illustration.  When the king asked the guest who had no wedding garment how it came to be that he gained entry to the feast, the man was speechless.  The reason he was speechless was because he had, in all likelihood, refused to wear one of the wedding garments provided by the host.  So the guest’s “pernicious hypocrisy” was his very undoing.  And so it will be for everyone who presumes to stand before the thrice holy God on the basis of his own righteousness, instead of accepting the righteousness of the Son.

Such “pernicious hypocrisy” runs rampant because, as Calvin noted early on in the Institutes (1.11.8), man’s heart is a perpetual idol factory.  No one in Adam’s fallen race voluntarily surrenders the idols of the heart.  They have to be forcibly removed by a gracious work of the Spirit.  And since man’s heart is a perpetual idol factory, idols must be continuously removed from the heart (Romans 8:13).

The products of this idol factory manifest themselves in a myriad of forms.  We laugh at some of them, such as the stereotypical male who, out of pride, never wants to ask for directions.  We root and cheer for others (e.g., any number of sporting events and spectacles). We also devote ourselves relentlessly in pursuit of what the Puritans described as the carnal trinity:  possessions, pleasure, and power.  Thousands of corporate logos may be associated with those objectives, partially or entirely.  All such pursuits ultimately end in destruction, as the prophet Hosea warned:

“They made kings, but not through me.  They set up princes, but I knew it not. With their silver and gold they made idols for their own destruction.”  (Hos. 8:4, ESV)

Since all idolatry and pernicious hypocrisy end in complete destruction, it behooves us to consider carefully the definition of “hate-speech” today.  If a bridge over a wide and raging river is out, and a bystander seeing cars whizzing by at 55 mph waves every car on saying, “Keep going, no problems ahead”, would that be “love-speech” or “hate-speech”?  Obviously “love-speech” and loving behavior in that instance would consist of waving off and shouting as loudly as possible: “Stop!  Danger!  Bridge out ahead!”

This comparison is not hypothetical.  Paul used similar imagery but he replaced water with fire and connected two things we don’t often associate: obedience and the gospel, in 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10.  This brings us back to Calvin’s notion of either yielding to God’s wonderful mercy, or perishing eternally:

5This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering— 6since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you,7and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels 8in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, 10when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.  (2 Th. 1:5-10, ESV)

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes:

June 29: 3.12.6 – 3.13.3

June 30: 3.13.4 – 3.14.5

July 1: 3.14.6 – 3.14.11

July 2: 3.14.12 – 3.14.18


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