Monthly Archives: August 2015

Week 35 of 50 in the Institutes: Five Cautions to the Schismatic

I want to call attention again to Calvin’s ecumenical tone which continues to spill over into this week’s assignment.  In 4.1.16, Calvin exposes the pride and ill-advised zeal for righteousness of any who would seek to justify withdrawal from the church because of its defects, whenever the church still preaches the word and ministers the sacraments:

Still, however, even the good are sometimes affected by this inconsiderate zeal for righteousness, though we shall find that this excessive moroseness is more the result of pride and a false idea of sanctity, than genuine sanctity itself, and true zeal for it. Accordingly, those who are the most forward, and, as it were, leaders in producing revolt from the Church, have, for the most part, no other motive than to display their own superiority by despising all other men.

Calvin then quoted Augustine at length:

Well and wisely, therefore, does Augustine say, “Seeing that pious reason and the mode of ecclesiastical discipline ought specially to regard the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, which the Apostle enjoins us to keep, by bearing with one another (for if we keep it not, the application of medicine is not only superfluous, but pernicious, and therefore proves to be no medicine); those bad sons who, not from hatred of other men’s iniquities, but zeal for their own contentions, attempt altogether to draw away, or at least to divide, weak brethren ensnared by the glare of their name, while swollen with pride, stuffed with petulance, insidiously calumnious, and turbulently seditious, use the cloak of a rigorous severity, that they may not seem devoid of the light of truth, and pervert to sacrilegious schism, and purposes of excision, those things which are enjoined in the Holy Scriptures (due regard being had to sincere love, and the unity of peace), to correct a brother’s faults by the appliance of a moderate cure” (August. Cont. Parmen. cap. 1).

He then added his own counsel on the matter, and concluded with five cautions or reflections for those considering withdrawal from the church in such an ill-advised manner:

To the pious and placid his advice is, mercifully to correct what they can, and to bear patiently with what they cannot correct, in love lamenting and mourning until God either reform or correct, or at the harvest root up the tares, and scatter the chaff (Ibid. cap. 2). Let all the godly study to provide themselves with these weapons, lest, while they deem themselves strenuous and ardent defenders of righteousness, they revolt from the kingdom of heaven, which is the only kingdom of righteousness. For as God has been pleased that the communion of his Church shall be maintained in this external society, any one who, from hatred of the ungodly, violates the bond of this society, enters on a downward course, in which he incurs great danger of cutting himself off from the communion of saints. Let them reflect, that in a numerous body there are several who may escape their notice, and yet are truly righteous and innocent in the eyes of the Lord. Let them reflect, that of those who seem diseased, there are many who are far from taking pleasure or flattering themselves in their faults, and who, ever and anon aroused by a serious fear of the Lord, aspire to greater integrity. Let them reflect, that they have no right to pass judgment on a man for one act, since the holiest sometimes make the most grievous fall. Let them reflect, that in the ministry of the word and participation of the sacraments, the power to collect the Church is too great to be deprived of all its efficacy, by the fault of some ungodly men. Lastly, let them reflect, that in estimating the Church, divine is of more force than human judgment.


Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes:

Aug. 31: 4.1.15 – 4.1.21

Sep. 1: 4.1.22 – 4.1.29

Sep. 2: 4.2.1 – 4.2.5

Sep. 3: 4.2.6 – 4.2.12

Sep. 4: 4.3.1 – 4.3.7


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Week 34 of 50 in the Institutes (Part 2 of 2): Calvin, the Ecumenist

There was so much to feast on in this week’s assignment, I had to make two entries.

We cross over into book four this week, where Calvin takes up the broad topic  of “the external means or aids by which God invites us into the society of Christ and holds us therein.”  When dealing with the notion of the visible church as the mother of believers, Calvin takes a very dim view of those who forsake the ministry and education provided thereby (4.1.5, bold emphasis added):

Hence it follows, that all who reject the spiritual food of the soul divinely offered to them by the hands of the Church, deserve to perish of hunger and famine. God inspires us with faith, but it is by the instrumentality of his gospel, as Paul reminds us, “Faith cometh by hearing” (Rom. 10:17). God reserves to himself the power of maintaining it, but it is by the preaching of the gospel, as Paul also declares, that he brings it forth and unfolds it. With this view, it pleased him in ancient times that sacred meetings should be held in the sanctuary, that consent in faith might be nourished by doctrine proceeding from the lips of the priest. Those magnificent titles, as when the temple is called God’s rest, his sanctuary, his habitation, and when he is said to dwell between the cherubims (Ps 32:13, 14; 80:1), are used for no other purpose than to procure respect, love, reverence, and dignity to the ministry of heavenly doctrine, to which otherwise the appearance of an insignificant human being might be in no slight degree derogatory.

Calvin deftly strips away the underlying pride of those who would seek to go-it-alone with little appreciation for the church (4.1.5):

Pride, or fastidiousness, or emulation, induces many to persuade themselves that they can profit sufficiently by reading and meditating in private, and thus to despise public meetings, and deem preaching superfluous. But since as much as in them lies they loose or burst the sacred bond of unity, none of them escapes the just punishment of this impious divorce, but become fascinated with pestiferous errors, and the foulest delusions.

Calvin, with what many will find to be a surprisingly ecumenical spirit, maintained that the church is not to be forsaken, however defective as long as the preaching of the word and the observance of the sacraments continue (4.1.10).  And as for the excuse that there are hypocrites in the church, Calvin had this rebuff (bold emphasis added):

Others, again, sin in this respect, not so much from that insane pride as from inconsiderate zeal. Seeing that among those to whom the gospel is preached, the fruit produced is not in accordance with the doctrine, they forthwith conclude that there no church exists. The offence is indeed well founded, and it is one to which in this most unhappy age we give far too much occasion. It is impossible to excuse our accursed sluggishness, which the Lord will not leave unpunished, as he is already beginning sharply to chastise us. Woe then to us who, by our dissolute licence of wickedness, cause weak consciences to be wounded! Still those of whom we have spoken sin in their turn, by not knowing how to set bounds to their offence. For where the Lord requires mercy they omit it, and give themselves up to immoderate severity. Thinking there is no church where there is not complete purity and integrity of conduct, they, through hatred of wickedness, withdraw from a genuine church, while they think they are shunning the company of the ungodly. They allege that the Church of God is holy. But that they may at the same time understand that it contains a mixture of good and bad, let them hear from the lips of our Saviour that parable in which he compares the Church to a net in which all kinds of fishes are taken, but not separated until they are brought ashore. Let them hear it compared to a field which, planted with good seed, is by the fraud of an enemy mingled with tares, and is not freed of them until the harvest is brought into the barn. Let them hear, in fine, that it is a thrashing-floor in which the collected wheat lies concealed under the chaff, until, cleansed by the fanners and the sieve, it is at length laid up in the granary. If the Lord declares that the Church will labour under the defect of being burdened with a multitude of wicked until the day of judgment, it is in vain to look for a church altogether free from blemish (Mt. 13).

Of course we know that Calvin drew the line over the lack of faithful preaching and proper administration of the sacraments when it came to the Catholic church.  His ecumenism thus had its boundaries.  But many so-called “Calvinists” today would benefit greatly by imbuing Calvin’s teaching here.  Would that I had read this section of the Institutes decades ago!

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes (again):

Aug. 24: 3:25.7 – 3.25.8

Aug. 25: 3.25.9 – 3.25.12

Aug. 26: 4.1.1 – 4.1.4

Aug. 27: 4.1.5 – 4.1.8

Aug. 28: 4.1.9 – 4.1.14

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Week 34 of 50 in the Institutes (Part 1 of 2): An Insightful Inversion

Since this blog is about my reflections on theological writings by dead guys (mostly Puritans along with the occasional Reformer, such as Calvin), I’m going to take a brief stroll down memory lane.  If you don’t want to accompany me on this brief excursion, you may skip down to the next paragraph.  I suspect some of you have made a pilgrimage similar to mine anyway.  Those who have may recall a song from the days of hymnals with shaped notes, “I’ll Have a New Body (I’ll Have a New Life)”.  Those who aren’t familiar with that hymn may listen to it here (if you dare).  In the Independent Baptist church I grew up in, we had a tenor who liked to be a little mischievous on occasion, and when it came to the phrase “I’ll have a new body, praise the Lord, I’ll have a new life, life, O yes”, he would change it up as follows:  “I’ll have a new body, praise the Lord, I’ll have a new wife, life, O yes!”  You had to listen carefully to catch his subtle change, and he would usually give himself away by an unusually large smile when he did it.

I share that because the words of that hymn immediately came to mind when I read 3.25.7 of the Institutes, because therein Calvin demonstrates how wrong they are!  Instead of a new body, every glorified saint receives a resurrected body.  After showing the error of those who would deny the immortality of the soul, Calvin turns his attention to another error, namely, the idea that saints receive new bodies, which is inconceivable or else the head (Christ) and the members will not match (3.25.7, bold emphasis added):

Equally monstrous is the error of those who imagine that the soul, instead of resuming the body with which it is now clothed, will obtain a new and different body. Nothing can be more futile than the reason given by the Manichees—viz. that it were incongruous for impure flesh to rise again: as if there were no impurity in the soul; and yet this does not exclude it from the hope of heavenly life. It is just as if they were to say, that what is infected by the taint of sin cannot be divinely purified; for I now say nothing to the delirious dream that flesh is naturally impure as having been created by the devil. I only maintain, that nothing in us at present, which is unworthy of heaven, is any obstacle to the resurrection. But, first, Paul enjoins believers to purify themselves from “all filthiness of the flesh and spirit,” (2 Cor. 7:1 the judgment which is to follow, that every one shall “receive the things done in his body, according to that he has done, whether it be good or bad,” (2 Cor. 5:10). With this accords what he says to the Corinthians, “That the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body,” (2 Cor. 4:10). For which reason he elsewhere says, “I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ,” (1 Thess. 5:23). He says “body” as well as “spirit and soul,” and no wonder; for it were most absurd that bodies which God has dedicated to himself as temples should fall into corruption without hope of resurrection. What? are they not also the members of Christ? Does he not pray that God would sanctify every part of them, and enjoin them to celebrate his name with their tongues, lift up pure hands, and offer sacrifices? That part of man, therefore, which the heavenly Judge so highly honors, what madness is it for any mortal man to reduce to dust without hope of revival?. . . Moreover, if we are to receive new bodies, where will be the conformity [that is, matching ] of the Head and the members? Christ rose again. Was it by forming for himself a new body? Nay, he had foretold, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up,” (John 2:19). The mortal body which he had formerly carried he again received; for it would not have availed us much if a new body had been substituted, and that which had been offered in expiatory sacrifice been destroyed. We must, therefore, attend to that connection which the Apostle celebrates, that we rise because Christ rose (1 Cor. 15:12); nothing being less probable than that the flesh in which we bear about the dying of Christ, shall have no share in the resurrection of Christ. This was even manifested by a striking example, when, at the resurrection of Christ, many bodies of the saints came forth from their graves. For it cannot be denied that this was a prelude, or rather earnest, of the final resurrection for which we hope, such as already existed in Enoch and Elijah, whom Tertullian calls candidates for resurrection, because, exempted from corruption, both in body and soul, they were received into the custody of God.

At the beginning of the next section (3.25.8), Calvin talked at some length about the significance of rites honoring the body.  He pointed out that the etymology of the word “cemetery” (sleeping place) underscores the truth of the nature of the resurrection.  Scripture, Calvin contends, constantly “exhorts us in Scripture to hope for the resurrection of our flesh.” The sacraments also point to the reality of the resurrection:

For this reason Baptism is, according to Paul, a seal of our future resurrection; and in like manner the holy Supper invites us confidently to expect it, when with our mouths we receive the symbols of spiritual grace. And certainly the whole exhortation of Paul, “Yield ye your members as instruments of righteousness unto God,” (Rom. 6:13), would be frigid, did he not add, as he does in another passage, “He that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies,” (Rom. 8:11). For what would it avail to apply feet, hands, eyes, and tongues, to the service of God, did not these afterwards participate in the benefit and reward? This Paul expressly confirms when he says, “The body is not for fornication, but for the Lord; and the Lord for the body. And God has both raised up the Lord, and will also raise up us by his own power,” (1 Cor. 6:13, 14).

At the end of the section (3.25.8), Calvin went on to describe what the manner of the resurrection involved, saying that it would be a resurrection in the same body we now bear, but that the “quality” will be different.  His emphasis, in terms of sheer number of words, however, was on the continuity, rather than the discontinuity between the two states, because of the errors he felt compelled to correct in his day.  In so doing, his treatment of the subject constitutes a very interesting inversion, with primary emphasis on the sameness of the body now and hereafter.

Could it be that the hymn writer of that old “convention” song unwittingly imbibed a spirit of Gnosticism which has subtly been passed along to everyone who has ever heard that song (and made popular way back in the day by Hank Williams)?  After all, why bother so much with holiness and sanctification here if every believer gets a new body hereafter (and maybe even a new wife!)?

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes:

Aug. 24: 3:25.7 – 3.25.8

Aug. 25: 3.25.9 – 3.25.12

Aug. 26: 4.1.1 – 4.1.4

Aug. 27: 4.1.5 – 4.1.8

Aug. 28: 4.1.9 – 4.1.14

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Week 33 of 50 in the Institutes: The Right and Wrong Way of Seeking Assurance

In 3.24.4 Calvin describes the great peril a soul hazards when seeking assurance “outside the way” (McNeill-Battles rendering), or “out of the proper way” (Beveridge) by seeking to inquire into the secret things of God:

Among the temptations with which Satan assaults believers, none is greater or more perilous, than when disquieting them with doubts as to their election, he at the same time stimulates them with a depraved desire of inquiring after it out of the proper way.  By inquiring out of the proper way, I mean when puny man endeavors to penetrate to the hidden recesses of the divine wisdom, and goes back even to the remotest eternity, in order that he may understand what final determination God has made with regard to him. In this way he plunges headlong into an immense abyss, involves himself in numberless inextricable snares, and buries himself in the thickest darkness. For it is right that the stupidity of the human mind should be punished with fearful destruction, whenever it attempts to rise in its own strength to the height of divine wisdom. And this temptation is the more fatal, that it is the temptation to which of all others almost all of us are most prone. For there is scarcely a mind in which the thought does not sometimes rise, Whence your salvation but from the election of God? But what proof have you of your election? When once this thought has taken possession of any individual, it keeps him perpetually miserable, subjects him to dire torment, or throws him into a state of complete stupor. I cannot wish a stronger proof of the depraved ideas, which men of this description form of predestination, than experience itself furnishes, since the mind cannot be infected by a more pestilential error than that which disturbs the conscience, and deprives it of peace and tranquillity in regard to God. Therefore, as we dread shipwreck, we must avoid this rock, which is fatal to every one who strikes upon it.

Instead of seeking to pry into the secret things of God, Calvin counsels his readers to seek assurance in Christ alone by resting on the promises found in Him (3.24.5), that is, the revealed things:

For though a belief of our election animates us to involve God, yet when we frame our prayers, it were preposterous to obtrude it upon God, or to stipulate in this way, “O Lord, if I am elected, hear me.” He would have us to rest satisfied with his promises, and not to inquire elsewhere whether or not he is disposed to hear us. We shall thus be disentangled from many snares, if we know how to make a right use of what is rightly written; but let us not inconsiderately wrest it to purposes different from that to which it ought to be confined.

By a right use and reliance upon the promises of God to receive all who come to him for mercy, the believer may safely navigate the perilous waters of predestination and find comfort and consolation therein, knowing that salvation is of the Lord:

And though the discussion of predestination is regarded as a perilous sea, yet in sailing over it the navigation is calm and safe, nay pleasant, provided we do not voluntarily court danger. For as a fatal abyss engulfs those who, to be assured of their election, pry into the eternal counsel of God without the word, yet those who investigate it rightly, and in the order in which it is exhibited in the word, reap from it rich fruits of consolation.The_calm_after_the_storm_-_Port_Lincoln_-_South_Australia_(Explored)

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes:

Aug. 17: 3:24.1 – 3.24.5

Aug. 18: 3.24.6 – 3.24.11

Aug. 19: 3.24.12 – 3.24.17

Aug. 20: 3.25.1 – 3.25.3

Aug. 21: 3.25.4 – 3.25.6

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Week 32 of 50 in the Institutes: Objections Against Election In Calvin’s Day and Ours

In 3.23 of the Institutes, Calvin responds to five objections to the doctrine of election which were common in his day, but by no means unique to it.  Just this morning, for instance, someone asked me about the doctrine of double-predestination, or reprobation, passing along some objections he had received from an acquaintance who dismissed the doctrine out of hand.

Calvin himself took a lot of flak in his day for his teaching on predestination, in no small measure due to misperceptions about his views.  Jerome Bolsec (d. 1584) contended that Calvin’s doctrine made God the blame for sin’s entrance in the world.  Bolsec’s zeal in opposing Calvin and other ministers on the subject wound up getting him banned from Geneva by the city council.  When Jean Trolliet later picked up where Bolsec left off, the city council read the Institutes for itself and concluded that Calvin’s views were fully biblical (try to imagine a government body doing that today!).  [Source: Herman J. Selderhuis, John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life (Downer’s Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2009), 192]

So before rejecting Calvin’s views on predestination, the prudent course is to give him a full hearing, because he was a careful student of Scripture.

Right off the bat even before responding to the usual objections, Calvin addressed the repugnancy, common in his day and ours, of the whole concept of reprobation, or double predestination.  Calvin had the insight to recognize that the bone of contention was not really with reprobation itself, but rather with the doctrine of election and a misguided attempt to rescue God from a charge of inequity.  But as Calvin noted, for there can be no election without reprobation (3.23.1):

Many professing a desire to defend the Deity from an invidious charge admit the doctrine of election, but deny that any one is reprobated. This they do ignorantly and childishly since there could be no election without its opposite reprobation. God is said to set apart those whom he adopts for salvation. It were most absurd to say, that he admits others fortuitously, or that they by their industry acquire what election alone confers on a few. Those, therefore, whom God passes by he reprobates, and that for no other cause but because he is pleased to exclude them from the inheritance which he predestines to his children. Nor is it possible to tolerate the petulance of men, in refusing to be restrained by the word of God, in regard to his incomprehensible counsel, which even angels adore.

Calvin went on to say, in light of Romans 9:22-23, that: it by no means follows, that he transfers the preparation for destruction to any other cause than the secret counsel of God.” 

And now we consider the objections to the doctrine of election, common then and now (a Reader’s Digest summary version):

Objection #1: The doctrine of election makes God a tyrant.
Answer: The Lord’s will is the cause of all things, God is just toward the reprobate, and God’s hidden decrees are not to be searched out, but marveled at in obedience.

Objection #2: The doctrine of election takes guilt and responsibility away from man.
Answer: The reprobate want an excuse for sinning, and seek to find such an excuse in the secret counsel of God, but their sin springs from their own nature, and they are hence accountable and guilty before God.

Objection #3: The doctrine of election leads to the view that God shows partiality.
Answer: The fact that God chooses one and rejects another arises not from regard for the man (i.e., his riches, power, pedigree, etc.) but solely from His own mercy.

Objection #4: The doctrine of election destroys all zeal for an upright life.
Answer: The goal of election is holiness, and so it ought to arouse and goad a person to set his mind on holiness rather than use it for an excuse for doing evil, or nothing at all.

Objection #5: The doctrine of election makes all admonitions meaningless.
Answer: Scripture teaches both man’s responsibility and God’s sovereignty, and rightly preaching the gospel must include both.

The more things change, the more they stay the same, eh?

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes:

Aug. 10: 3:22.4 – 3.22.7

Aug. 11: 3.22.8 – 3.22.11

Aug. 12: 3.23.1 – 3.23.5

Aug. 13: 3.23.6 – 3.23.10

Aug. 14: 3.23.11 – 3.23.14
(Skipped – no blog entry)

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Week 31 of 50 in the Institutes: Ministers Wiser Than God?

In blog 116 on the Reformation 21 Blogging Through the Institutes (sections 3.7.8 – 3.8.3), Sinclair Ferguson noted (week 24 of our trek):

“The Institutes almost demand multiple readings. Not only because the work is so rich in doctrinal perspective, but also because it is, in fact, full of striking ‘one-liners.’”

This week is no exception.  When dealing with the alleged peril in teaching the doctrine of predestination, Calvin observed (3.21.4):

Those, however, who are so cautious and timid, that they would bury all mention of predestination in order that it may not trouble weak minds, with what color, pray, will they cloak their arrogance, when they indirectly charge God with a want of due consideration, in not having foreseen a danger for which they imagine that they prudently provide? Whoever, therefore, throws obloquy on the doctrine of predestination, openly brings a charge against God, as having inconsiderately allowed something to escape from him which is injurious to the Church.

Apparently Calvin encountered ministers in his day who were also wiser than God, in that they considered it best not to teach predestination and election lest such doctrines confuse people.  In so doing, they are wiser than God, because He forgot to omit them from Scripture!  Sadly, many today do indeed skip over these doctrines, as you may know from personal experience as well.

After I had graduated from seminary, my wife and I were visiting our old home church one Sunday morning.  The senior pastor had been preaching through the book of Romans.  It so happened that the Sunday we visited he had finished preaching through Romans 8.  We were expecting to hear a sermon from Romans 9, but to our surprise, the minister announced that he would be skipping Romans 9 entirely and proceeded to preach from Romans 10!  So much for preaching the full counsel of God!

A Reformed Baptist minister I know once related something that happened in Sunday school at a church plant early in his ministry.  A family visiting that day attended Sunday school, and the teacher was reading through Romans 9 in a modern translation.  Since it didn’t have all of the thee’s and thou’s of the KJV, the father of this visiting family was hearing and actually following (apparently for the first time ever) Paul’s line of argument, which begs the question about fairness in regard to election.  When the teacher came to Romans 9:19 (“You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’” ESV), the father of this visiting family stood up and exclaimed: “You’re blaspheming the Scriptures!”  The Sunday school teacher calmly replied, “I’m just reading the Scriptures!”  But it was too late.  They had already yanked their kids out of class and were making a beeline for the front door.

And here is a great one-liner (in bold) as to how to tread with true wisdom here:

Only I wish it to be received as a general rule, that the secret things of God are not to be scrutinized, and that those which he has revealed are not to be overlooked, lest we may, on the one hand, be chargeable with curiosity, and, on the other, with ingratitude. For it has been shrewdly observed by Augustine, that we can safely follow Scripture, which walks softly, as with a mother’s step, in accommodation to our weakness.

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes:

Aug. 3: 3.20.43– 3.20.44

Aug. 4: 3.20.45 – 3.20.47

Aug. 5: 3.20.48 – 3.21.1

Aug. 6: 3.21.2 – 3.21.5

Aug. 7: 3.21.6 – 3.22.3

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