If asked to describe, as briefly as possible, the marks of a strong Christian, what comes to mind? Would it be faith? Love? Assurance of salvation?
We do well to consider the prayer what Paul prayed for the Ephesians, as found in Eph. 4:14-19, when defining spiritual strength, because that text paints a picture of spiritual strength that catches the casual reader off guard, and at the same time it reveals how diametrically opposed spiritual strength is to every form of idolatry. So keep reading and I will show how it ties in with the origin of idolatry which Calvin exposes in 1.11.8 of the Institutes.
Let’s consider briefly the context of Ephesians 4:14f. Paul wrote this epistle to the church at Ephesus during his first Roman imprisonment, so it would seem natural for the believers there, the recipients of his letter, to be concerned, not only about Paul, but about themselves. After all, if the apostle Paul himself wound up in prison for believing and preaching the gospel, what is to prevent any disciple of his from experiencing a similar fate? Paul seems to have anticipated this concern, since he added in 4:13 “So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory.” (ESV) Thereafter Paul shares his prayer for them:
14 Because of this I bow my knees to the Father, 15 by whom every family is named, in heaven and on earth, 16 that he would grant you, according to the wealth of his glory, to be strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man, 17 so that Christ would settle down in your hearts through faith, having been rooted and grounded in love, 18 in order that you may be strong enough to grasp with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and so to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, in order that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (my translation)
I have translated the first part of verse 17 “so that Christ would settle down in your hearts” which more accurately reflects the meaning of the verb in its context here, and is key to understanding the picture of spiritual strength which I think Paul has in mind here. Paul is not praying that the Ephesians would come to faith in Christ in 3:17. The larger context prohibits such an interpretation. We see this in the opening of the letter which began with praise to God for the salvation they have experienced (1:3-14). He also described the Ephesians as those who were formerly dead in trespasses and sins (2:1-3), but who now have been made alive, raised with Christ, and seated with Him in the heavenly places (2:4-6), all because of God’s almighty work of salvation in their lives. So it is unthinkable that he is praying for their conversion in 3:17.
Rather, Paul is praying that the Ephesians will come to know Christ in such a way that, despite whatever circumstances in which they may find themselves, they will be rooted and grounded in the love of Christ with the result that nothing can ever call into question His love for them. This is the essence of what it means to be spiritually strong, and is so far removed from what I’m going to call the weak, immature, daffodil believer. Like a child plucking petals from a daffodil, when bad things happen, the daffodil believer concludes God doesn’t love him. When good things happen, he concludes God loves him. So he goes through life never settled in the love of God, like so: “He loves me . . . He loves me not . . . He loves me . . . He loves me not . . . Oh, I don’t know whether He loves me or He loves me not!” So how is it possible to move beyond this doubtful state? How does a person become assured of God’s love? The answer isn’t found in circumstances. Rather, we must look to one place only: the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. There is the place we know the love of God: But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom. 5:8, ESV)
But the next two words in the passage are very important: so that Christ would settle down in your hearts through faith. The way a person comes to know the love of Christ is by faith. This is what it means to be spiritually strong. But it takes a work of the Spirit in our heart, as Paul puts it, to be strong enough to grasp with all the saints what is truly inexhaustible and unknowable: the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge.
And now we come to consider the origin of idolatry which Calvin identified in 1.11.8, and I hope we can perceive it as the epitome of spiritual weakness, because it must operate by sight instead of the currency of true spiritual strength, which is faith:
“That idolatry has its origin in the idea which men have, that God is not present with them unless his presence is carnally exhibited, appears from the example of the Israelites: ‘Up,’ said they, ‘make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wet not what is become of him’ (Exod. 22:1). They knew, indeed, that there was a God whose mighty power they had experienced in so many miracles, but they had no confidence of his being near to them, if they did not with their eyes behold a corporeal symbol of his presence, as an attestation to his actual government. They desired, therefore, to be assured by the image which went before them, that they were journeying under Divine guidance. And daily experience shows, that the flesh is always restless until it has obtained some figment like itself, with which it may vainly solace itself as a representation of God. In consequence of this blind passion men have, almost in all ages since the world began, set up signs on which they imagined that God was visibly depicted to their eyes. (1.11.8)
And while Calvin was directing his comments against the use of images found in the worship of the Roman Catholic Church, we must not fail to recognize the idolatry that is alive and well throughout secular society today in the 21st century. Man’s heart is a perpetual idol factory, as Calvin also noted in 1.11.8, and the output is so immense that I cannot chronicle it here. But any image used in the worship of what the Puritans called the carnal trinity, known as the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is an idol, whereby significance, status, prestige, security, sensuality, power or acquisition is pursued. In this generation they are manifest as any number of fortune 500 company trademarks or those of their products, team logos (be it NFL, NBA, NHL, NCAA, etc.), or the obscene images spewed out by peddlers of the multibillion dollar porn industry. Yes, idolatry thrives in our midst today such that we fool ourselves if we attempt to relegate it to the past or to less developed cultures.
So we must pray fervently and frequently, as Paul did: Your face, full of grace and truth, Lord, do I seek.
Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes (all by Phil Ryken for this week):