Week 28 of 50 in the Institutes: A Hard Man?

The closing sentence of first section of this week’s reading assignment (3.17.11) where Calvin gave the reason why true faith justifies a person reminded me of the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30 (emphasis added):

The Apostle, in giving the name of faith to an empty opinion altogether differing from true faith, makes a concession which derogates in no respect from his case. This he demonstrates at the outset by the words, “What does it profit, my brethren, though a man say he has faith, and have not works?” (James 2: 14.) He says not, “If a man have faith without works,” but “if he say that he has.” This becomes still clearer when a little after he derides this faith as worse than that of devils, and at last when he calls it “dead.” You may easily ascertain his meaning by the explanation, “Thou believest that there is one God.” Surely if all which is contained in that faith is a belief in the existence of God, there is no wonder that it does not justify. The denial of such a power to it cannot be supposed to derogate in any degree from Christian faith, which is of a very different description. For how does true faith justify unless by uniting us to Christ, so that being made one with him, we may be admitted to a participation in his righteousness? It does not justify because it forms an idea of the divine existence, but because it reclines with confidence on the divine mercy.

The McNeill-Battles edition renders that last sentence as: “It therefore justifies not because it grasps a knowledge of God’s essence but because it rests upon the assurance of his mercy.”

Resting, or failing to rest, upon the assurance of God’s mercy is the difference between eternal life and eternal perdition.  Whatever a person believes about God he, or she, will inevitably find to be true personally.  We can see this from the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30.  To recount, the parable depicts a wealthy man preparing to go on a long journey.  Before his departure, he calls three of his servants and gives one five talents, another two, and to a third servant one talent.  (A talent in those days was a weight of roughly 75 pounds, and it could also indicate coinage.  An Attic talent amounted to six thousand denars, which would have taken an ordinary laborer twenty-one years to earn.  So even the servant who received just the one talent was entrusted with a great fortune.)  Upon the master’s return, the servant who had received five talents had invested it and made five additional talents.  The servant given two talents also traded and gained two more.  Both were commended by their master.  But the servant entrusted with only one talent took it and hid it in the ground.  When the master returned, he told him:  “Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.  Here you have what is yours.” (Mt. 25:24-25, ESV) The master took the servant at his word and responded: “You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed?  Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest.” (Mt. 25:26-27, ESV)

As William Hendriksen has observed in his New Testament Commentary, we must understand that the wicked and slothful servant misrepresented himself as well as his master.  His master wasn’t reaping where he did not sow, because he had indeed given the servant a whole talent.  What’s more, the servant wasn’t returning all that the master was entitled to, because he only returned what he was given, when in fact his master was also entitled to whatever gain the talent would have earned when invested.  Because of his failure to handle faithfully what was entrusted to him, the servant should have admitted his guilt, but he instead acted as if his master should give him credit for returning only what was given to him.  In so doing the servant revealed that he was utterly wicked and selfish.

Today we live in an age where the push for secularization seeks to exclude religion from the public square and confine it to the margins where it has little impact.  The important thing, it is believed, is to be authentically you.  Anything that gets in the way of that endeavor must be pushed aside.  A fundamental problem with this approach is that it takes all of God’s blessings and hides them, denying that they came from Him to begin with, and thus seeks to rob Him of his glory.  And then such secularization has the audacity to shake its fist at the Creator when things go wrong and say, “It’s your fault!  You are a hard master!”

This parable is but one of three tests depicted in Matthew 25 whereby the Lord will separate the sheep from the goats on the day of judgment.  As Calvin’s treatment of justification by faith masterfully shows, it is impossible to earn a right standing before God by works righteousness.  Only those who believe and trust in him to be merciful and good will find him to be so.  And this is why the gospel is such good news as it bids: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Mt. 11:28, ESV)

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes:

July 13: 3.17.11 – 3.17.15

July 14: 3.18.1 – 3.18.5

July 15: 3.18.6 – 3.18.10

July 16: 3.19.1 – 3.19.7

July 17: 3.19.8 – 3.19.12

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