Humble Calvinism: (10) The Institutes > The self-authenticated Word (1.7)


Part 10: The self-authenticated Word (1.7)

Sinners are in bad shape. We neglect as much of God’s glory as we can and the unmistakable evidence we do see is quickly suppressed and ignored. We want to live autonomously. We want to be independent from God, making our own decisions and choosing what we think is good for us. We are not merely ignorant of God, we are01spurgeoncalvin1.jpg enemies of God (Rom. 5:10). We let our worldly, temporal appetites guide our lives and become enemies of the Cross in the process (Phil. 3:18-19). We are not ignorant biology students needing more information, we are sinners actively resisting truth and rebelling against God.

So when the Roman Catholic catechism of 1997 (π 154) teaches, “Trusting in God and cleaving to the truths he has revealed is contrary neither to human freedom nor to human reason” I can only shake my head. It contradicts both depraved bondage and a mind that suppresses truth like a boot suppresses an empty pop can.

The big question of the day is this: For the sinner to give the Word of God the full weight of her reverence and obedience, God must first burn these convictions supernaturally into her heart. For the Word of God to truly impact our lives, God must abduct us! He must convince us of the authenticity of His Word. He must convince us that His words are “sweeter than honey to my mouth” (Ps. 119:103). We must be given “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16).

Once again, it goes back to the sovereign intervention of God. He alone can cause His elect to submit to the full authority of the Word by convincing them of the authenticity of the Word. This is exactly what God does.

The church and religious authority are insufficient (1.7.1-3)

The church does not have the authority to authenticate the Word. In Calvin’s day (and to our day), Roman Catholicism believed the authority of Scripture was authenticated via the authority of the papacy. This is impossible. According to Ephesians 2:20 the Word of God’s authority and authenticity preceded the church! No church ruler, pope, cardinal or pastors can authenticate the Word because the Word preceded the church.

In fact, no human authority can authenticate the Word. Calvin writes, “what will happen to the miserable conscience seeking firm assurance of the eternal life if all promises of it consist in and depend solely upon the judgment of men?” (75). It is absurd to think that the authenticity of Scripture rests upon council or decree.

Here’s the punch line: “Scripture exhibits fully as clear evidence of its own truth as white and black things do of their color, or sweet and bitter things do of their taste” (76). Scripture is self-authenticated!

Where “divine majesty lives and breathes” (1.7.4-5)

No sinner gives their life to the biblical God and the doctrines and truths contained in the Word until they are “persuaded beyond doubt that God is its Author” (78). And later, “For even if it wins reverence for itself by its own majesty, it seriously affects us only when it is sealed upon our hearts through the Spirit” (80). In other words, you can take the “Bible as Literature” course in college and be amazed at the literary styles and structure of the Bible and yet never be changed by the eternal truths contained within. God must sovereignly burn the authenticity of the Word into our hearts. He must authenticate in our own rebellious hearts that God is the Author. He must give us spiritual eyes and tongues to see and taste that God’s Word is what it claims.

Calvin references Isaiah 43:10: “’You are my witnesses,’ declares the LORD, ‘and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am He.’”

We must rest upon a divine power stronger than rational evidence and scientific proofs because even if the Word is authenticated by rationalism and proofs we will “ever waver among many doubts.” Rather, “those whom the Holy Spirit has inwardly taught truly rest upon Scripture, and that Scripture indeed is self-authenticated; hence, it is not right to subject it to proof and reasoning” (80). The authenticating power of the Spirit is “more excellent than all reason” (79).

By not resting in proofs and human reasoning, the authority and authenticity of Scripture rest upon something higher and stronger. “We seek no proofs, no marks of genuineness upon which our judgment may lean; but we subject our judgment and wit to it as to a thing far beyond any guesswork” (80). When the Holy Spirit confirms Scripture in our hearts “we feel that the undoubted power of his divine majesty lives and breathes there. By this power we are drawn and inflamed, knowingly and willingly, to obey him, yet also most vitally and more effectively than by mere human willing or knowing!” (80).

In summary, Calvin teaches us that Scripture is self-authenticated (Gk. autopiston). Its authenticity rests in the truth that Scripture is where God’s “divine majesty lives and breathes” (80). And every sinner God chooses to invade, abduct, and transform will experience the burning authenticity of the Spirit.

This does not mean there are no proofs and reasons for the authenticity of Scripture. There are, and Calvin will give us many to ponder in the next chapter. But proofs are not enough to convince spiritually dead enemies of God. Humble Calvinism teaches it that if I am going to understand God and obey His Word, He must invade my heart and burn a conviction of its truth into my heart.

Calvinistic meditations …

1. Watch your evangelism. How do we prove the authority and authenticity of God’s Word to sinners? We don’t. This truth will radically impact our evangelism. As you probably know, there is a tremendous pressure in our church culture to use rational proofs and arguments to “convince” sinners of the truth of Scripture. If this is your evangelistic strategy, you and your audience will always be haunted by the next ‘proofs’ and ‘arguments’ of the opposing views. Christianity is a call for sinners to believe in eternal things. There is no proof. How do you prove the perfect righteousness and resurrection to one who wants scientific data? As A.W. Tozer once said, “To seek proof is to admit doubt, and to obtain proof is to render faith superfluous” (Knowledge of the Holy, p. 19). Press sinners to embrace mystery, preach the gospel and let God take the responsibility of burning this truth upon sinner’s hearts. Your main concern is with presenting biblical truth accurately. The gospel – not proofs or rationalism – is the power of God to save depraved sinners (Rom 1:16).

2. Remember the depravity of our hearts. Churches that attempt to convince sinners of the truth with rationalism have fundamentally misunderstood our depravity so clearly stated in Romans and Ephesians. We need to ever remind ourselves of the state of the sinful human heart. Evidence can demand a verdict from sinners suppressing the truth in unrighteousness, but such verdict will never come (Rom. 1:18).

3. Expect rejection. Some preachers hide behind rationalism and human wisdom to avoid being rejected by sinners. Rejection and acceptance is not your responsibility – preaching the whole counsel of God is! If your audience is split over the gospel – some see it as the power of God and some see the gospel as foolishness – you are probably doing something right (1 Cor. 1:18-2:16). Keep boasting in the Cross! Some sinners will rest their hopes in signs and wonders alone, and they will never have signs or wonders enough. Some will want wisdom and proof and they will always waiver and struggle. But we are called to “preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:23-25). If we are running from rejection we will mold church methods with fatal flaws and replace the gospel with something less foolish.

“For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:11-14).

So when you speak to other sinners, speak the truth in love. Pray that God would give them spiritual eyes to see that the “undoubted power of His divine majesty lives and breathes” in the Word. Oh, how it burns!


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7 thoughts on “Humble Calvinism: (10) The Institutes > The self-authenticated Word (1.7)

  1. Hi. Thanks for the thoughts on “Institutes.” I’ve been slowly making my way through the book myself for the first time and I’m humbled by what I’ve read. It’s enlightening to read other’s thoughts and comments about it as well, which is how I found this site.

    Perhaps you can explain a bit further the blanket statement, “There is no proof.” On the one hand, I totally agree that the knowledge of God is entirely impossible except for God’s self-revelation. Yes, if it were left completely up to us, we’d never find a hint of God. If that’s what is meant, then fine. However, because of this revelation, He’s left unmistakable footsteps in history. The Bible itself is a historical record of this revelation, proof to His existence, purposes, and activities in the world. I understand and agree wholeheartedly that it’s only by the prompting of the Spirit that a sinner can accept the gospel, but can’t it also be a part of Providence that the sinner accepts through given proofs, similar to the way God uses the exhortation? (Sorry for getting a bit ahead of your explanations by referring to Providence and exhortations.) If salvation is totally by grace and God’s election, what good is the exhortation? But Calvin goes on to say that God uses the exhortation to bring grace. Similarly, why can’t the proofs be used as exhortations until the Spirit brings that inner witness of authenticity? There are indeed proofs, it’s just a matter of whether we accept them or not.



  2. Dave thanks for stopping in. I’m not sure if this is the answer to the question but it came to mind as i was reading your question. The problem is not that we need more evidence or that there is insufficient evidence in creation and the Word for all sinners to repent and believe. The problem is that sinners — all sinners — suppress and turn away from the evidences. We actively run way from God not towards Him. So “proof”s are not insufficient in themselves but because what we do to them is suppress them means we need more than proofs, we need a divine invasion.

    Dr. D. Clair Davis … if you come through here today maybe you can better answer this question.



  3. Can’t disagree with that. Well said.

    I guess my biggest concern is reconciling the statement “There is no proof” in the first “meditation” with the statments of the preceding few paragraphs that say that there are proofs for the authority and authenticity of Scripture, we just shouldn’t rest on those but on the inner witness of the Spirit.

  4. Thanks Dave. Calvin is arguing against the Roman Catholic claim that they can pronounce God’s Word legit thereby truly authenticating it. Calvin can say “we ought to seek our conviction in a higher place than human reasons, judgments, or conjectures, that is, in the secret testimony of the Spirit” (78). We must rest upon the authenticity of the Word itself not upon the human arguments for its authenticity. Thereby the Spirit must confirm Scripture to us directly. There are no sufficient proofs of the authenticity of the Word outside the Word. The bible itself does, but we must be convinced through the Spirit (see next chapter of Calvin). But here we see the church, scientist or philosopher cannot produce effectual evidences which is why I said, “There is no proof. How do you prove the perfect righteousness and resurrection to one who wants scientific data?” The chapter is dealing with those outward confirmations outside of Scripture. The basis of our faith is Scripture. To prove Scripture is authentic must be proven by itself which is a circular argument until the Spirit breaks in!

    Does this make sense? Tony

  5. Hi Tony. Thanks for the quick response and for taking the time to have a little discussion.

    Perhaps it’s this subtle difference that’s tripped me up: do you make a difference between external evidence that proves the reliability, historicity and thus authority and authenticity of Scripture versus external evidence that compels a sinner to repent? In the first case, there IS evidence of Scripture’s reliability and historicity, but in the second case, this evidence cannot and will not compel repentance. This is only done by the Spirit and is why Calvin says that those “who strive to build up firm faith in Scripture through disputation are doing things backwards” (79). Thus, “there is no [external] proof” that can actually imprint piety on the heart. So, it’s kind of both a yes and no answer — yes, there is proof, but no, there is no proof that will compel belief. Only the Spirit can do that, and He does it through the Word itself, not through the proofs.

    If this is the case, then I agree. But I would still add that God can still use such evidence to compel trust in the Word.

    Am I getting closer?

    Thanks again.

  6. Dave, yes I think Calvin’s emphasis (certainly mine) is on the effectual evidence. My concern is with people who shy away from the content of the message of the gospel because they first think there needs to be a philosophical proof of the bible that leads up to the gospel. However, the gospel is not only the transforming message it’s also the transforming power (Rom. 1:16). My concern is in a church culture that emphasizes methodology over the message. The message is the method of life transformation. Ultimately the Scriptures must be conclusively/effectually confirmed by the Spirit through the message. Nothing else will affect this transformation. We can talk about a bunch of things that may spike interest in the bible by unbelievers but we must be firmly convinced that God is the author and there are no sufficient proofs of this apart from God’s power through the message of Scripture. This is why Calvin stresses the fact that Scripture must be self-authenticating. Scripture effectually proves itself through the confirmation of the Spirit.

    Thank you for the discussion, I love it!


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