Part 5: The all-sufficient God of Scripture (1.2)
So we lay in the dust of a dark cave in our filthy rages, covering our eyes to flee the presence of a perfect God. We are shattered. Our self-sufficiency has been replaced with a dread of God and our self-righteousness has been muffled by hopelessness. We lay in naked perversity before the holy God of the universe.
If we understand God and understand ourselves we become painfully aware of our empty hearts. In the last chapter Calvin wrote, “Each of us must, then, be so stung by the consciousness of his own unhappiness as to attain at least some knowledge of God” (p. 36). As sinners we become aware of our insufficiency. We cannot produce our own joy. We must fearfully seek our joy in the all-sufficient, unchanging God of Scripture.
Seeking the sufficient God (1.2.1)
Piety forms the foundation for all of Calvin’s theology. Piety is “that reverence joined with love to God which the knowledge of his benefits induces” (p. 41). Prior to understanding God’s motives and plans we must love and fear Him.
We will not run towards God until we are convinced that our joy depends upon it! Calvin writes, “it will not suffice simply to hold that there is One whom all ought to honor and adore, unless we are also persuaded that he is the fountain of every good, and that we must seek nothing elsewhere than in him … unless they [men] establish their complete happiness in him, they will never give themselves truly and sincerely to him” (p. 40).
It is here that Calvin showcases his experiential understanding of faith. We worship what promises to satisfy us. If we believe sex will satisfy us we worship sexual sin. If we think a beautiful appearance will bring us satisfaction we worship the outward beauty of others. If we think religion will satisfy us we worship our self-righteousness. We worship what holds the promise of our satisfaction. We will only come to God after being fully convinced our entire good rests in Him alone.
True piety is expecting full joy from God alone. Here Calvin says we seek knowledge of God by recognizing His all-sufficiency. So the act of seeking this all-sufficient God is not to be confused with saving grace. “It is one thing to feel that God as our Maker supports us by his power, governs us by his providence, nourishes us by his goodness, and attends us with all sorts of blessings – and another thing to embrace the grace of reconciliation offered to us in Christ” (p. 40).
But don’t miss this! Calvin has not yet brought us to the place where sinners are reconciled to God. That will come later. A conviction that God is our all-sufficient source of joy is not saving faith. It’s no wonder that Calvin lays great importance upon the sovereign grace of God opening the eyes of blind sinners like myself.
Seeking the revealed God (1.2.2)
Piety is seeking our sufficiency in the true God (not a god of our imagination). Piety involves a fear of God because God is what He is and not what the sinner deems appropriate.
Calvin uses one especially powerful example: Do we truly believe the “punishment of the impious and wicked and the reward of life eternal for the righteous equally pertain to God’s glory” (p. 43)? Clearly Calvin is building from Romans 9:22-23.
The god I naturally imagine is a politician polishing his persuasive speeches because his success rests upon a popular applause. This politician/god gets no glory from his enemies. Not so with God. Impenetrable divine wisdom uses the judgment of unrepentant sinners to exalt God’s own glory.
True piety pursues this sovereign God of Scripture, not the democratic god of my imagination. Calvin writes, “the pious mind does not dream up for itself any god it pleases, but contemplates the one and only true God. And it does not attach to him whatever it pleases, but is content to hold him to be as he manifests himself” (p. 42).
Without seeking the Scriptural God, a true fear will be replaced by “vague general veneration” of God (p. 43). Sinners can show respect for God without a fear of God. Here’s where the mere outward display of veneration in religious ceremonies becomes dangerous. A sinner may tip his hat at God without fearing Him. Without a genuine fear of God there is no genuine piety and without piety we will never truly know the saving knowledge of God.
We must fear and seek after God as He reveals Himself. Again, seeing this in the backdrop of my blinding, deadening sin I cry out as a helpless sinner dependent upon the sovereign work of God!
Calvinistic meditations …
1. A genuine fear of God authenticates our pursuit of the one, true God. True piety fears God because God is altogether different than we naturally imagine. The god of my imagination is a lot like myself. I don’t fear those who are like me (I only fear people who are larger than me!). “You thought I was altogether like you. But I will rebuke you and accuse you to your face” (Psalm 50:21, NIV). What shock must overwhelm the damned soul to be trampled under the winepress of God’s wrath after thinking He was a 5-foot-8 pushover.
Use your fear of God to gauge how well your imagined god is replaced by the sovereign God! It’s good to ask: Do I live with a healthy fear of God or a “vague general veneration” of God? Fear is piety, vague veneration is pride.
2. We must never rest content in general notions of God as our source of all joy. Every sinner using natural revelation and a natural sense of the divine can make this conclusion. It is something altogether different when sinners confess Christ is our “wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30).
In a secularized culture, the church naturally lowers its expectations of faith. If someone believes God is the source of their entire good, can’t we assume that they are genuine Christians? No. What false religion advertises an insufficient god? Believing God is all-sufficient is not itself saving. Salvation comes through faith in the very specific revelation we call the gospel. Jesus Christ died my death to pay for my sin by bearing my wrath to free me from the power of my sin.
The Reformed/Puritan tradition used the phrase “almost Christian” to designate those drawn to the all-sufficient God but who had not “closed” with Christ. When a vague understanding of God’s sufficiency is mistaken for saving faith in the Cross the phrase “almost Christian” becomes foreign, the doctrinal core of the gospel becomes vague, religious relativism runs rampant and the church begins reading books by mystics because they mistake an author’s seeking of joy alone in God with authentic Christianity. Humble Calvinism will not allow it.
We must not grow content with an ecumenical journey of desire but press on in pursuit of an all-satisfying righteousness that comes by faith alone, in Christ alone, from the Cross of Christ alone!
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