Part 7: Weaving a wicker basket god (1.4)
The knowledge of God is freely available to anyone with a microscope, telescope or just the naked eye. But we commit something awfully criminal to this knowledge. We see theimage of God displayed in the universe, but similar to a weaver twisting wicker into a basket, we twist the inclination towards Him into our own image of who we think He should be. Our twisting and distorting of God produces our own flimsy and crunchy god.
The knowledge of God is all around us. Our consciences tell us He exists. We cannot run away from Him. So what causes us to twist the knowledge of God? This is the next step in Calvin’s thought.
Calvin says every sinner twists the knowledge of God because we don’t want to humble ourselves to fear and love the God who is holy, just and absolute.
1. All sinners weave their own god (1.4.1)
Calvin writes, hardly one in a hundred sinners fosters the knowledge of God implanted within, and for these few that do, there is no permanent fruit that results. At best, the sinner’s search to know God is fruitless. Sinners compare and contrast themselves to the god of their imagination and seek to make a god in their own image.
Sinners “do not therefore apprehend God as he offers himself, but imagine him as they have fashioned him in their own presumption” (47). We naturally measure God in our “by the yardstick” of our own “carnal stupidity” (47). In the end, the sinner does not worship God but a “figment and a dream of their own heart” (48). Or to say it another way, sinners like myself, worship our own twisted wicker baskets.
2. Weaving an unjust and untrue god (1.4.2-3)
Here Calvin begins to talk of atheism, but not because God’s reality is in question. Remember Calvin showed us (and Scripture defends) that no eraser can remove the knowledge of God etched into our hearts. True atheism is not possible. So why does Calvin here talk of the atheist?
For Calvin, “atheism” is not the erasing of all religious inclinations from the soul but stripping and twisting the character of God into a ‘new and improved’ non-god. The justice God displays in condemning sinners guilty of this is proof enough that it happens (Ps. 50:21). God hates it when we fashion our own understanding of who He should be.
Naturally, all sinners run away from God to avoid judgment for our wickedness, and all sinners run from the light of truth (see John 3:16-21). When we feel a religious inclination bubbling from our hearts, we weave a god who is not holy, who is not angry towards sinners and who rests content with sinners living in their own sin.
But God hates sin and judges sinners. As Calvinist D. Clair Davis wrote, “Don’t be misled by that talk about how the Lord hates sin, but loves the sinner. It’s people he gets angry with and sends to Hell, not boxes fThe Practical Calvinist, p. 31). All sinners know they should bow and worship the just God of creation. God has shown Himself to them (Rom. 1:19-20). But we do not honor Him or give thanks to Him and so our thinking becomes futile, our hearts grow darker, we create wicker gods and tumble further and further into sinfulness (Rom. 1:18-32). This is the radical depravity of the sinner’s soul.ull of sin” (
The path towards atheism is clear to Calvin. First, a sinner indulges in sinful living. Second, the sinner must either be faced to repent and turn from that sin or weave a god who isn’t bothered by his sin. Once the sinner lives in sin and fashions a god who is “okay” with that sin, atheism is birthed. It’s not a total denial of the divine (that’s not possible) but because – in the mind of the sinner – the true God has been gagged and handcuffed. This is atheism!
Calvin writes, “whoever heedlessly indulges himself [in sin], his fear of heavenly judgment extinguished, denies that there is a God” (48). Atheism is a moral conclusion rooted in the sinner’s sought out freedom to sin (see Ps. 14:1; Matt. 13:14-15; Isa. 6:9-10; Ps. 36:1, 10:11). Yet God will constantly bring these sinners back to His judgment seat and ever remind them that He is here, He is un-gagged, He is just, and He is angry towards sinners.
So central to God is His perfect holiness and power to judge sinners that a denial of these is to be miles away from knowing Him. It is to be an atheist.
So don’t be deceived by religion. Sinners worship wicker-basket gods. We all naturally create gods suitable to our own sinfulness, fashioned in our own sinful suppression of the truth. False gods are non-gods (Gal. 4:8). And Humble Calvinism reminds us that atheism frequently disguises itself under a “zeal for religion” (49). Thus genuine religion must be determined by its truthfulness.
3. Weaving an easily-pleased god (1.4.4)
Sinners weave a god who is pleased with religious ritual. Calvin writes, “lest they should everywhere seem to despise him whose majesty weighs upon them, they perform some semblance of religion” (50). All sinners feel the weight of God, and we are driven to do something. But to preserve our sinfulness, we reduce religion to rituals. “Where we ought to serve him in sanctity of life and integrity of heart [that’s piety], they trump up frivolous trifles and worthless little observances with which to win his favor” (51).
Atheism flows from the desire to avoid God’s justice, but a true knowledge of God (you will remember) flows from genuine piety towards God. We must be driven towards God to find humility and victory over sin. If our god does not produce humility and give victory over sin, our god is “scarcely even worth being called a shadow” (50). Growth in godliness is not optional to the child of God, it’s a very tangible evidence of genuine piety. It’s the one certain evidence that ‘religious atheism’ has been destroyed by the Gospel.
Our lives are transformed! Hopefully you love and fear God. He invaded our atheistic hearts by His sovereign grace. “Frivolous trifles” of religious devotion are now insufficient for our hearts. We want the Cross! We want to die to the world as the world died to us. We want to kill sin and boast in the foolishness of God! A fear and love of God drives our lives. This is to be bound to the genuine God!
The alternative is atheism – resting upon “frivolous trifles” of religion to please the wicker-basket god twisted into your own image. So to be religious but not godly is the hypocrisy of the ‘religious atheist.’
Calvinistic meditations …
1. Our natural atheistic hearts must drive us to the Word. I frequently think of bible reading as a hobby, of something I want to do more often (like playing more basketball). Scripture frequently becomes a routine. Humble Calvinism shows us the necessity of Scripture – we must be driven back to Scripture to understand the biblical God. Frequently we need Scripture to smash our wicker-basket-gods. Why do people not read the Old Testament? Because God seems to be different than we suppose He should be. Smash! We need to approach the Bible, not to be theologically comforted, but to receive theological correction. God hates it when sinners think He is just like us (Ps. 50:21). And that’s exactly what happens when sinners are left to their own. We cannot overstate the importance of Scripture to worshipping God in truth. We must humbly and persistently ask ourselves if the God of Scripture is the God we worship.
2. The gospel and the sinner are steaming towards a head-on collision! Why is evangelism hard? Because we are breaking into sinners’ worlds with the message that they must give up the one thing that gives them pleasure (sin) because the Cross has something so much better for them! The gospel meets ‘religious atheism’ like a meat mallet coming towards a tough steak. The gospel (lovingly) pounds our hearts soft and this directly confronts our sinful addictions. Pray that God would sovereignly bless your evangelism to be fruitful, but don’t expect evangelism to be easy. And likewise we should never expect the church – which is the pillar and support of God’s knowledge in the world – to be a place where sinners feel comfortable to bring their wicker baskets. Invite sinners to church in the hopes that God will reach out His sovereign foot and step on their basket. As soon as we twist our evangelism and sermons because we think sinners will be offended, we’ve bowed in admiration to the wicker baskets coming in the front door. Let them collide.
3. Unbelievers are not unreligious. We are all religious. The question is this: Are my religious beliefs confirmed by the revelation God gives us about Himself? In my experience people get really nervous when you look beyond the trifles of religious observance to look at the truth claims behind one’s beliefs. There is an overwhelming pull in the American church to separate life and doctrine, to say that one is a good and religious person without asking ‘what is the doctrine they believe?’ How many funerals have you attended where one’s life accomplishments were listed? How many funerals have you attended where one’s personal doctrines of God were listed out? Both are equally important in the end. Life and doctrine must go together: “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:16, NIV). Being religious without being humbled under the theology of God’s holiness, justice and wrath is ‘religious atheism.’
4. Churches that understand the inclination of the sinful heart will place great stress on biblical preaching and theology. I fear many churches get bored with scriptural preaching and offer only ‘practical’ messages on finances, children, marriage, etc. because they fail to see the inclination towards ‘religious atheism’ in our hearts. Nothing is more central to Christianity than a proper understanding of God that brings humility and fear of Him. Preaching about God’s wrath and holiness and judgment upon sinner, preaching about His Son Who lived a perfect life and died a wretched death because I lived a wretched life and want a glorious death … These doctrines bring us back to the love of God and humble us for a life of godliness. Theology – a true knowledge of God – requires a life-long re-calibration of the sinner’s mind and heart.
Humble Calvinism forces introspection. Have I been broken under the holiness, wrath and justice of God? Has God crushed my wicker-basket god? Have I been illuminated to the forgiveness and love of God in the Gospel? Do I boast in the Cross? Do I hate sin? Am I drawn to, or repelled by, the God of Scripture? These questions of Humble Calvinism are central to understanding our authenticity before God.
Humble Calvinism humbles, because it reminds sinners like myself of our theologically twisted past. In some landfill in Nebraska rots the crushed wicker basket I formerly called ‘god.’ Such amazing grace!
Click here to access previous posts in the Humble Calvinism index.