Part 9: Clinging to a thread (1.6)
With the help of microchips and electrical pulses, scientists are confident that the blind will one day see again. In our study of God, we now come to the reality that God confronts our spiritual blindness with His own advancements.
As we’ve seen in our series on Humble Calvinism, God’s glory is displayed in the universe for all to see with the hopes that we will honor and thank Him (Rom. 1:21). We don’t. We’re blind and we suppress Him to preserve our sinfulness (Rom. 1:18). The revelation God shines in the natural world is loud and bold but because of our sinful ignorance and suppression of this truth, it calls out “in vain” (73). Our hardened hearts miss the point. We need more than brighter colors, louder sounds or more complex genetic structures in creation. We need God to reveal Himself in a new way. We need new revelation.
God must speak more directly of Himself. For Calvin, Scripture is a “better help,” a “special gift,” the “pure knowledge of Himself,” and a “more direct and more certain mark whereby he is to be recognized” (69-70). Scripture is a bold solution directed at the blindness due to our depravity.
Calvin will not address our need for Scripture to understand the way of salvation until later. Here he says, merely to see God as the Creator of the universe, we need Scripture! Even though creation screams the glory of God every day through landscapes, microscopes and telescopes we need Scripture to tell us that God is the One who “founded and governs the universe” (70).
It would be accurate to subtitle Scripture “The Working of God in the Created Order for Dummies.” Merely the need for Scripture reminds us that we sinners just don’t get the point. The need for the bible reveals our ‘radical’ depravity. We walk blind in broad daylight.
Question. Has anyone ever tapped your head with their knuckles when you didn’t get something? Now pick up your bible and smack yourself on the forehead. In love, that’s what it was made for. We should have first seen God through His creation and pursued Him. We don’t.
So by giving us His special, more specific Word (the bible) and opening its meaning to our hearts, God gives sinners the precious gift of sight! This revelation through His Word now renders faith “unambiguous forever” and “superior to all opinion” (71). His Word opens the eyes of the blind to Himself. Through Scripture we can see again. Through Scripture we are given the content of faith that no human opinion can shake!
Even here, piety is central to Calvin. We understand God rightly in the Word only when we “reverently embrace” what God reveals of Himself because “all right knowledge of God is born of obedience” (72). Again and again, Calvin protects us from the idea that knowledge of God is gained just like knowledge of biology. Genuine piety (otherwise known as ‘reverence’) is central to understanding God. We must come to Scripture to learn about God in fearfulness, not flippancy. God says we must come to Him as one who is “humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at My word” (Isa. 66:2). How does a rebel sinner come to this place? God must subdue him. We’ll talk more about this amazing work of God in the coming weeks.
There are other reasons we must have special revelation from God in His Word. Our hard hearts (even regenerated hearts!) are naturally inclined to forget God, slide towards errors and create our own empty religions. Calvin writes, “how slippery is the fall of the human mind into forgetfulness of God, how great the tendency to every kind of error, how great the lust to fashion constantly new and artificial religions” (72). Scripture protects us from these errors because it elevates truth beyond our “depraved judgment” and into the “rule of eternal truth” (73).
When you add our depravity and blindness together with the gift of the truth we make one conclusion: We must always be pressing closer to Scripture as our guide. We must walk by faith and not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7). Scripture must be the computer chip and electrical pulses to override our spiritual blindness. Calvin illustrates the concept like this,
“If we turn aside from the Word … though we may strive with strenuous haste, yet, since we have got off the track, we shall never reach the goal. For we should so reason that the splendor of the divine countenance [or God’s presence], which even the apostle calls ‘unapproachable,’ is for us like an inexplicable labyrinth unless we are conducted into it by the thread of the Word; so that it is better to limp along this path than to dash with all speed outside it” (73).
The path to the presence of God is an “inexplicable labyrinth.” There are so many winding staircases and hallways, and millions of choices that will lead away from God’s presence. There is a way that seems right to a man but it’s the way of death (Pro. 14:12). So we must walk by faith and not by sight, opinion or feeling. In effect our sinful ignorance hides Him. Yet along the path God has stretched a thread. Some will chase their own opinions or hastily run into all error, but the Christian slowly limps along the path, following the thread of the Word through this stairway, over this bridge, now down these stairs and around through a narrow doorway off to the side and through another tunnel.
As soon as we take our hand off this “thread” we are lost. Calvin closes this chapter with John 4:1-45 where Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at a rest stop. Samaria itself was a bad place because of its theological heresies. The Samaritans built their religion off only the first five books of the Old Testament. This reductionism was dangerous. So dangerous, Jesus did not hesitate in telling the Samaritan woman she worshipped in “ignorance” (v. 22). Her church was worthless.
Calvin writes that when sinners begin “seeking God without the Word” they naturally “stagger about in vanity and error” (74). The Samaritans had taken their hands off the Word, were blind and now lost in the labyrinth.
So everyone who has a bible can see the spiritual realities clearly? Well, no. Before sinners put their entire trust in the message of the bible, they must first be convinced Scripture is the ‘real deal.’ So how do we convince other blind, truth-suppressing sinners to leave their own religious opinions and cling to the bible as God’s one revelation of Himself? Rational proofs? Arguments? Debates? What we will see next time is perhaps the most stunning truth I’ve ever learned from Calvin…
Calvinistic meditations …
1. Nothing cautions us of our own spiritual blindness more than Humble Calvinism. We miss God in creation every day! So how can we become prideful in our knowledge of Scripture? Why would I ever think that running a church or preaching a sermon without clinging to Scripture will lead through the labyrinth? How can we let go of the thread and think human opinion will guide the way? Scripture reminds us to be cautious of our own hearts because they are naturally inclined towards errors and false religions. The thread of God’s Word leads the way, but it also prevents empty speculation and the impulse to find a better route. (Occasionally you may find it helpful to smack yourself in the forehead with a bible to be reminded of this.)
2. Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman reminds us to beware of theological reductionism. Theological reductionism is one of the most rampant problems in contemporary Christianity. It’s not merely that gross errors abound. Many churches believe in the Trinity and seven-day Creationism and the importance of Jesus. Theological reductionism concerned with what is missing, of churches building their theology and methods off only part of Scripture. So churches now will call people to come to Jesus but not talk about sin and hell and guilt to drive them His way. People get saved from something other than God’s wrath. Other churches will talk about Jesus but not the substitutionary atonement whereby He bears my wrath and I get the grace. Both are common examples of contemporary theological reductionism. Jesus reminds the Samaritan woman that even to build a church upon part of the truth is to take both hands off the thread. So it’s no surprise that churches who struggle with theological reductionism will not place a high priority on lengthy expositions through Scripture nor doctrinal precision.
It’s important to note that John Calvin wrote the Institutes to complement his extensive expositional studies through the bible. Look to the commentaries if you want the specific details on Calvin’s systematic conclusions. Letting the full range of Scripture determine your beliefs is an excellent model for all Christians and pastors. Summarize your faith but be ready to defend its Scriptural basis as well.
Bottom line: We must never rest ourselves in vague talk about church, Jesus and Heaven lest we likewise worship in “ignorance.” Don’t be convinced a church is truly Christian just because they use the same words and terms as the bible. Search out their gospel, their savior and their hell. And if you are a pastor, make it your top aim to always be pushing yourself and your church as deep into Scripture as God allows.
3. Prepare for a long road of biblical growth. God’s special revelation is lengthy and filled with many details. God clearly did not intend it to be read in a weekend. It will take your entire lifetime and hundreds of sermons to work through. Humble Calvinism is a call to life-long, patient growth. Put both hands on the thread of Scripture. You won’t run fast, but you’ll walk securely. Resist the temptation to live faster than you can hold on to Scripture. If books encourage you to grow your church without slowly disclosing the whole counsel of God, you can be certain its author, having lost the thread, now runs ignorantly through the dark caves.
Never! Never! Never, let go of the thread! It’s your only hope into the presence of God!
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