Posts Tagged ‘Calvin’

Before Jesus’ death and Resurrection, he told his disciples that the Holy Spirit would “glorify” him (John 16:14). Nevertheless, the person and work of the Holy Spirit in relation to the Son has always been confused and distorted by sinful man since the beginning of Christianity. Rome, Islam, and Fanaticism/Pentecostalism all err in this regard. Calvin had a great point:

Christ now reminds them that the Spirit will not come to erect any new kingdom, but rather to confirm the glory which has been given to him by the Father. For many foolishly imagine that Christ taught only so as to lay down the first lessons, and then to send the disciples to a higher school. In this way they make the Gospel to be of no greater value than the Law, of which it is said that it was a schoolmaster of the ancient people, (Galatians 3:24.)

This error is followed by another equally intolerable, that, having bid adieu to Christ, as if his reign were terminated, and he were now nothing at all, they substitute the Spirit in his place. From this source the sacrileges of Popery and Mahometanism have flowed; for, though those two Antichrists differ from each other in many respects, still they agree in holding a common principle; and that is, that in the Gospel we receive the earliest instructions to lead us into the right faith, but that we must seek elsewhere the perfection of doctrine, that it may complete the course of our education. If Scripture is quoted against the Pope, he maintains that we ought not to confine ourselves to it, because the Spirit is come, and has carried us above Scripture by many additions. Mahomet asserts that, without his Alcoran, men always re-main children. Thus, by a false pretense of the Spirit, the world was bewitched to depart from the simple purity of Christ; for, as soon as the Spirit is separated from the word of Christ, the door is open to all kinds of delusions and impostures. A similar method of deceiving has been attempted, in the present age, by many fanatics. The written doctrine appeared to them to be literal, and, therefore, they chose to contrive a new theology that would consist of revelations. – Commentary on the Gospel of John

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Have you ever read a passage in the Bible and wondered how it applied to your own life? I have. All the time! But sometimes (many times) this can actually be a very harmful ‘first-principle’. The Scriptures are not a collection of moral stories which we can mine for ethical principles. If they were, what could we do with stories like Abraham sacrificing Isaac, Jephthah’s daughter, etc.?  Calvin helpfully comments on what he calls “thoughtless imitation”:

… a false, and ill-regulated, or thoughtless imitation; that is, when we, though not endued with the same spirit, or authorized by the same command, plead as our example what any of the Fathers did; as for instance, if any private individual resolved to revenge the injuries done to brethren, because Moses did this, (Exodus 2:12;) or if any one were to put fornicators to death, because this was done by Phinehas, (Numbers 25:7.) That savage fury in slaying their own children originated, as many think, in the wish of the Jews to be like their father Abraham, as if the command, Offer up thy son Isaac, (Genesis 22:2,) were a general command, and not rather a remarkable trial of a single man. Such a false imitation is generally produced by pride and excessive confidence, when men claim more for themselves than they have a right to do; and when each person does not measure himself by his own standard. Yet none of these are true imitators of the Fathers, most of them are apes. That a considerable portion of ancient monachism flowed from the same source will be acknowledged by those who shall carefully examine the writings of the ancients. And, therefore, unless we choose to err of our own accord, we ought always to see what spirit each person has received, what his calling requires, what is suitable to his condition, and what he is commanded to do. (Commentary on John 4:20).

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Calvin, Divine Mercy, and Assurance

“There are very many also who form such an idea of the divine mercy as yields them very little comfort. For they are harassed by miserable anxiety while they doubt whether God will be merciful to them. They think, indeed, that they are most fully persuaded of the divine mercy, but they confine it within too narrow limits. The idea they entertain is, that this mercy is great and abundant, is shed upon many, is offered and ready to be bestowed upon all; but that it is uncertain whether it will reach to them individually, or rather whether they can reach to it. Thus their knowledge stopping short leaves them only midway; not so much confirming and tranquillising the mind as harassing it with doubt and disquietude. Very different is that feeling of full assurance which the Scriptures uniformly attribute to faith an assurance which leaves no doubt that the goodness of God is clearly offered to us.”

“Doubtless, if we are to determine by our works in what way the Lord stands affected towards us, I admit that we cannot even get the length of a feeble conjecture: but since faith should accord with the free and simple promise, there is no room left for ambiguity.”

“Therefore, if we would know whether God cares for our salvation, let us ask whether he has committed us to Christ, whom he has appointed to be the only Saviour of all his people. Then, if we doubt whether we are received into the protection of Christ, he obviates the doubt when he spontaneously offers himself as our Shepherd, and declares that we are of the number of his sheep if we hear his voice (John 10: 3, 16). Let us, therefore, embrace Christ, who is kindly offered to us, and comes forth to meet us: he will number us among his flock, and keep us within his fold.”

(Calvin’s Institutes, Book III).

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After teaching the disciples, Jesus asked them:

“Have you understood all these things?” They said to him, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matt. 13:51-52).

John Calvin comments on this somewhat difficult parable:

We must keep in recollection what we have formerly seen, that all the parables of Christ were explained in private. And now the Lord, after having taught them in this kind and familiar manner, warns them at the same time, that his object, in taking so much pains to instruct them, was not merely that they might be well informed, but that they might communicate to others what they had received. In this way he whets and excites their minds more and more to desire instruction. He says that teachers are like householders, who are not only careful about their own food, but have a store laid up for the nourishment of others; and who do not live at ease as to the passing day, but make provision for a future and distant period. The meaning, therefore, is, that the teachers of the Church ought to be prepared by long study for giving to the people, as out of a storehouse, a variety of instruction concerning the word of God, as the necessity of the case may require. Many of the ancient expositors understand by things new and old the Law and the Gospel; but this appears to me to be forced. I understand them simply to mean a varied and manifold distribution, wisely and properly adapted to the capacity of every individual. – Calvin, Commentary on Matthew


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Have you ever tried hewing orcs and hacking goblins? Every once in a while you happen across some fell beast whose armor is just too strong and whose orc-hide is too thick. No matter how much you hack and hew, your sword just won’t do the trick. Like in the Beowulf epic, some monsters are too big.

If your answer is no, then I confess: neither have I.

But as Christians we are always doing battle: “Not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12). Paul exhorts all Christians (women included) to “be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power” and to “put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes” (Eph. 6:10-11). But how are we supposed to “put on” this “full armor of God”? Indeed, if this is how we take our “stand against the devil’s schemes,” then we ought to know what Paul is talking about. And so he explains:

Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.  In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.  Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests (Eph. 6:14-18).

The belt of truth, breastplate of righteousness, gospel greaves, shield of faith, helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit “which is the word of God.” And though all of the above are important (indeed indispensable), it is to the last item that I wish to draw our attention — the sword of the Spirit “which is the word of God.” And so let us follow Paul’s metaphor a little bit.

Nothing is worse then a dull blade — a sword that doesn’t work. You hack at helmets and nothing happens. You expend all your might and mane yet your enemies remain, standing and undaunted. And conversely, nothing is better then a sharp blade — a sword well-forged and proven in battle. In the Beowulf epic mentioned above, the hero is unable to subdue his enemy (Grendel’s mother) until he reaches for a special sword presented to him at the very last moment. Without it he would have failed. With it he was able to smite his monstrous foe. Likewise J.R.R. Tolkien, in the Lord of the Rings, contrasts those swords which are well-forged (by Elves and Dwarfs in ages past) with the poor contrivances of lesser men. Andúril (Aragorn’s sword) is featured prominently as the “Flame of the West.” And in the hands of the king it strikes fear into enemy hearts. This is because it had been re-forged from the shards of Narsil, that blade which had cut the One Ring from Sauron’s hand, sending the Dark Lord into hiding.

And yet these myths tell us something true about reality itself: What matters is not merely the man, and how valiantly he fights, nor how sincerely and earnest.  What matters is also the weapon with which he fights. And not all weapons are created equal. Some weapons are made of “better stuff.” Some swords by better smithies. And the difference between the two can determine either victory or defeat — life or death. And yet I believe this analogy holds when considering the sword of the Spirit as well.

What is the sword of the Spirit? Paul says it is the word of God (Eph. 6:17). Thus, it is not the word of men, or angels, or demons, but the word of God. In many ways, words are like swords. Not all words are “created” equal (as it were). Some are stronger, sharper, and more “cutting.” Some are made of “better stuff.” Others are constructed poorly. Some words are simply more powerful and can “do things” that other words cannot. As the wise man said, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov. 15:1). A man can be built up or ruined by the words of others. A father can either devastate his daughter with cruel words, or establish her with loving words that tell her she is cherished.

But God’s word is unlike and above all the words of men. It is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). It kills and makes alive. Thus, it wasn’t without reason that our Lord quoted from Scripture when he did battle against Beelzebub. And by the word of God, the Son of God routed the enemy, sending him fleeing into defeat. God’s word is a powerful word, and thus a powerful sword. Indeed, there is none like it. So the psalmist writes, “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. In God, whose word I praise” (Ps. 56:3-4). And again, “You have exalted above all things your name and your word” (Ps. 138:2).

But after telling us to take up the “sword of the Spirit,” notice how Paul also instructs us to “pray in the Spirit” (Eph. 6:18) And so there is this connection, between the “sword of the Spirit” and our praying “in the Spirit.” As Calvin notes:

Having instructed the Ephesians to put on their armor, he now enjoins them to fight by prayer. This is the true method. To call upon God is the chief exercise of faith and hope; and it is in this way that we obtain from God every blessing (Calvin’s Commentary on Ephesians).

With what do we fight our battles? The word of God. Where do we fight our battles? Upon our knees. The two are vitally connected. If we are to “stand firm” we must be men and women who not only read God’s word (studying it, and meditating upon it), but who also pray God’s word. For it is in prayer that the sword of the Spirit does great battle. And it is in prayer than our knowledge and memory of the word (even our access to an english bible) become so invaluable. Here is where we fight our fiercest battles. And here is where our enemy will oppose us with all his might.

But if this is the case, how ought we best pray with Scripture — that is, praying according to God’s word? Our Lord has certainly not left us without instruction. First of all it should be recognized that the entirety of Scripture can itself be prayed and incorporated in prayer. More specifically, Jesus himself gave his disciples a most excellent example in the “Lord’s Prayer” (Matt. 6, Luke 11). And yet especially suited to the purpose of prayer God has given us the Psalter. And here is a gift most incomparable.

In the 150 psalms God gave us his very-own, ready-made, prayers. Their craftsmanship is both human and divine, capable of penetrating the depths of human weakness and despair, as well as ascending to the heights of worship and adoration. As John Calvin called them “an Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul;” a “treasury” of “resplendent riches,” the excellency of which is “no easy matter to express in words.”

[F]or there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated.

Given the incomparable richness of the Psalms, we might be surprised to realize God actually wants us to use them! But such generosity (even gratuitous extravagance) is not unlike our God.

In fact God has given us these resplendent beauties of the finest quality so that we might sing them back to him; that we might pray them from our hearts; and that we might do battle with them. For these words are not just any words — they are the words of God, forged by the breath of God. And their reliability is next to none. Indeed, the Psalter has been taken upon the lips of our Lord and King Jesus Christ himself when walking this earth and doing battle against demons and dragon. Paul likewise, and all the great host of Christians gone before, have cherished these words to ward off and contend with their bitterest enemies — the world, the flesh, and the devil. As David writes, “The words of the LORD are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times” (Ps. 12:6). The Psalter is a blade forged from that ancient hypostatic Word; expired by God himself; holy and inerrant; infallible and unbreakable.  A sword of the Lord, divinely wrought, and double-edged, for prayer and praise, now given to mortal men! …. And do we not care?

Amongst all the portions of Scripture, the psalms especially offer themselves as inspired prayers to God, ready for use, suited to our every need. How is that we are so often apt to leave this sword upon the mantel and in its scabbard? As Calvin noted:

God has furnished us with various defensive weapons, provided we do not indolently refuse what is offered. But we are almost all chargeable with carelessness and hesitation in using the offered grace; just as if a soldier, about to meet the enemy, should take his helmet, and neglect his shield. To correct this security, or, we should rather say, this indolence, Paul borrows a comparison from the military art, and bids us put on the whole armor of God. We ought to be prepared on all sides, so as to want nothing. The Lord offers to us arms for repelling every kind of attack. It remains for us to apply them to use, and not leave them hanging on the wall. – Commentary on Eph. 6:11

How is it that we often prefer our own weak and measly words when doing battle? When fighting spiritual warfare upon our knees? When all hell has broken out against us and none of our words seem to be making a single dent? Why do we choose our own ideas, our own thoughts, our own strength? Do we think we are stronger than our enemies? Or that our foes don’t really want to destroy us? How often do we reach for the sword of the flesh when we could take up the sword of the Spirit? Do we suppose that they are equally made? Do we think our words will suffice?

O how powerful God’s word really is! When taken upon one’s lips by faith; with understanding in the heart. O how mighty they are in battle, and with what ease they are sent aloft to the heavens, or fall upon our foes. With what deadly swiftness they bid our assailants depart. And with what comfort do they fill our souls. When all else fails, and we are nearly subdued by our enemies, one word sends our enemies packing. For all who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved (Rom. 10:13). As Martin Luther understood and wrote so well:

And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us:
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.

That Word “above all earthly powers,” who is himself Life indestructible, has condescended to canonize his very speech for us. And by his spirit he makes this word to live within us and thus give us life. O may we knew that word better, and understand it by his Spirit. May we allow it to dwell within us richly, with all wisdom and understanding (Col. 1:9). Then we will be able to address one another in “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord” in our hearts (Eph. 5:19). And since prayer is the chief part of our gratitude which God requires of us, and because God will give his grace and Holy Spirit only to those who earnestly and without ceasing ask them of him” (Heidelberg Catechism 116), let us ask for these things.

And let us give thanks to God for his Word and Spirit, and for the Psalter. And let us take it upon our lips, speaking with faith hearts these psalms which cause our enemies to shrink back in dismay. Calvin wrote, “By faith we repel all the attacks of the devil, and by the word of God the enemy himself is slain.” Now we have been given a better sword. By faith and prayer, let us wield it wisely.

Contend, O LORD, with those who contend with me;
fight against those who fight against me!
Take hold of shield and buckler and rise for my help!
Draw the spear and javelin against my pursuers!
Say to my soul, “I am your salvation!” (Ps. 35:1-3)

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What is good preaching? Or better, What is preaching at all? Some people talk about “speech acts” where people (or preachers) actually ‘do’ things with words. Thus, preaching is less about just ‘teaching’ about certain doctrines that are true, or even about telling people what to do. True preaching actually ‘does things’ to people — then and there.  Preaching the law ‘kills’ us while preaching the gospel brings us to life.  Bad preaching will do neither. ‘Perlocutionary preaching’ describes that kind of preaching which actually ‘effects’ that which it speaks.  This distinction is brought out quite helpfully by Michael Horton in the following excerpt from Covenant and Eschatology. I would highly encourage reading on…


Within the context of the covenant, one can distinguish two subsets of divine discourse–two distinct illocutionary forces or stances: commanding and promising. This is one of the insights of the Reformers and their successors. Both Luther and Calvin insisted upon the distinction (though not separation) between law (command) and gospel (promise). In defending this distinction, Melanchthon points out that it is sanctioned not merely by an observation of the whole, but by explicit exegetical references. While in the law God promises eternal life on the condition of perfect obedience, in the gospel God promises the same on the basis of Christ’s perfect obedience. Melanchthon unfolds this argument by means of a summery of redemptive history and its covenants, including the one [with Abraham]. These categories do not coincide with Old Testament and New Testament [respectively], as if the former were “law,” while the latter were “gospel.” Rather, as Theodore Beza put it,

We divide this Word into two principal parts or kinds: the one is called the “Law,” the other the “Gospel.” For all the rest can be gathered under the one or the other of these two headings. What we call Law… is a doctrine whose seed is written by nature in our hearts…. What we call the Gospel is a doctrine which is not at all in us by nature, but which is revealed from heaven (Mt. 16:17; Jn. 1:13), and totally surpasses natural knowledge. By it God testifies to us that it is His purpose to save us freely by His only Son (Rom. 3:20-22), provided that, by faith, we embrace Him as our only wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption. (1 Cor. 1:30).

According to the Reformed and Lutheran scholastics, law and gospel are actually the means by which the Holy Spirit effects what is promised. “The letter kills, the Spirit makes alive.” “Law” creates terror in the hearer because of the awareness of sin it engenders, while “gospel” actually brings life: “By it, I say, the Lord testifies to us all these things, and even does it in such a manner that at the same time he renews our persons in a powerful way so that we may embrace the benefits which are offered to us (1 Cor. 2:4)” [Beza]. Here it seems to me that we have, as in Ezekiel 37 and Romans 10, an example of a perlocutionary speech act. In the Discourse of judging and justifying, individuals are actually judged and justified.

This is amply demonstrated throughout scripture: “This is my comfort in my distress, that your promise gives me life” (Ps. 119:50). “So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isa. 55:11). Jesus adds, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.” But he was hardly pitting the Spirit against the word and the ordinary means of grace, adding, “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63). The words spoken are themselves life-giving, not because there is a magical power inherent in a string of utterances, but because of the efficacy of the Holy Spirit working through the faith-creating promise. By this word God actually performs what is threatened in the law and what is promised in the gospel.

– Michael Horton, Covenant and Eschatology: The Divine Drama, (WJK: 2002), 136.


So by hearing the gospel we are actually ‘enabled’ to accept its terms — something we would not be able to do if the gospel itself doesn’t ‘do’ something to us when we hear it. That is why we need to hear the true preaching of the gospel, not just when we first believe, but every week and for the rest of our lives. For this is the ordinary means by which God makes us continually alive to himself, and preserves us unto eternal life.  Let us never tire of hearing that word of good news. For, “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63).

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Painting Christ?

Calvin talks about how preachers ought to ‘paint’ Christ in their sermons so that hearers don’t feel like they need any images.

Let those who would discharge aright the ministry of the gospel learn, not merely to speak and declaim, but to penetrate into the consciences of men, to make them see Christ crucified, and feel the shedding of his blood. When the Church has painters such as these, she no longer needs the dead images of wood and stone, she no longer requires pictures; both of which, unquestionably, were first admitted to Christian temples when the pastors had become dumb and been converted into mere idols, or when they uttered a few words from the pulpit in such a cold and careless manner, that the power and efficacy of the ministry were utterly extinguished.

Good old Calvin…

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