Part 12: The “mutual bond” of God’s power and Word (1.9)
For John Calvin, the connection between the power of God’s Spirit and God’s Word are inseparable. It is the Spirit’s confirming power in our unbelieving hearts that authenticates the divine origin of the Word of God. No proofs or philosophical reasoning could ever seal this truth in a dead and blind soul.
But this chapter brings us to one of the first places Calvin points out those who are in error (something Calvin does not shy away from). These “Libertines” were introducing “a heinous sacrilege” and a “devilish madness” (93). Apparently these “rascals” had begun believing that the Spirit works independently of the Word of God and that those who continued to follow the old Scriptures were “simple” and too limiting of the Spirit.
Now before we get into the debate a little more (and why its important for us today) we should take a moment to notice how Calvin teaches theology. Calvin frequently uses antithesis. He first teaches what Scripture teaches and then he reveals the doctrinal antithesis and those who contradict. Calvin teaches us about truly divine knowledge, true revelation, the true worship of God, the Trinity and biblical anthropology in these first chapters of the Institutes. But along the way he will point out the false ways to know God, the nature idolatry, false views of the Trinity and anthropology. (For an excellent chart on the antithetical arguments see Analysis of the Institutes by Battles, pp. 19-23). Calvin keeps the antithesis in view at all times.
According to the arguments of Calvin, we learn that these Libertines believed the Word of God was “fleeting or temporal” and that over time the Holy Spirit would succeed Scripture in relevance. The Spirit would be newer and more original, Scripture would become less important and less relevant. Calvin will rebuke the Libertines with Scripture.
According to what we have seen recently in the Institutes, there can be no separation between God’s power and God’s Word. Calvin calls this a “mutual bond” (95). We’ve seen in the past two chapters that it’s the Holy Spirit Himself that confirms the authenticity of the written Word. At least for apologetics and evangelism, the two go hand-in-hand. But in this chapter Calvin will broaden his language beyond evangelism and apologetics.
The major argument of Calvin grows from John 16:13 where Jesus says “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” Therefore Calvin writes, the Spirit “has not the task of inventing new and unheard-of revelations, or of forging a new kind of doctrine, to lead us away from the received doctrine of the gospel, but of sealing our minds with that very doctrine which is commended by the gospel” (94). The Spirit’s work is intimately concerned with Scripture.
Specifically, we see the power of the Spirit is unleashed when He seals our minds with the doctrine of the gospel (94). The mighty power of the Spirit is unleashed when sinners are brought under conviction of their sin and see the freedom and beauty of Christ dying as their perfect substitute! God’s power and God’s Word work hand-in-hand. Thus drawing people away from the gospel towards new revelation undermines the very work of the Spirit Himself.
God’s Word and God’s Spirit cannot be separated in apologetics and evangelism (as we see in chapters 7 and 8). But in this chapter Calvin broadens the language to say, “we ought zealously to apply ourselves both to read and to hearken to Scripture if indeed we want to receive any gain and benefit from the Spirit of God” (94). So here in this chapter the language is broadened to say that “any gain and benefit” we receive from the Spirit comes through the Word of God.
It appears the Word creates a sort of boundary to the Spirit’s work. And it should be this way, Calvin argues, because how would we ever authenticate the work of the Spirit if not by the guide of Scripture? Wouldn’t we be assaulted by Satanic counterfeits of the Spirit’s work if Scripture does not provide ‘parameters’ for the work of the Spirit? How will we know the Spirit is at work, not Satan, if not through “a most certain mark” (94)?
Thus Scripture gives us a guide to the work of the Holy Spirit so we may “embrace the Spirit with no fear of being deceived when we recognize him in his own image, namely, in the Word” (95). If the Spirit works beyond Scripture, we have no way of discerning the authenticity of that work.
Back to the Libertines. Calvin argues that spiritual experiences do not negate the authority and sufficiency of the Word. Was not Paul taken to the third heavens and yet he could say “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Paul’s experience of the Spirit of God did not shake his confidence in the sufficiency of Scripture. Did not Peter hear God’s direct voice from heaven? Yet he confirms the sufficiency of God’s Word (2 Pet. 1:18-19). The power of the Spirit confirms the Word; it never makes Scripture obsolete.
Therefore only when “proper reverence and dignity are given to the Word does the Holy Spirit show forth his power” (95). When we revere God’s Word it becomes the “word of life” whereby the Holy Spirit revives life to dead souls (Phil. 2:16, Ps. 19:7, Luke 24:27,45).
In evangelism, apologetics, or any other time when the Spirit is at work, there is no separation between the power of the Spirit and the words of Scripture! They abide together in a “mutual bond.”
Calvinistic meditations …
1. Emphasize the Spirit and the Word together. Rarely will you find churches and preachers de-emphasize the power of God’s Spirit. But daily I hear of churches that de-emphasize the importance of Scripture. We need to be reminded that by de-emphasizing Scripture we are de-emphasizing the Spirit’s power at the same time. The two walk hand-in-hand in a “mutual bond.” Expect the full power of the Spirit to come alongside the full preaching of the Word. If we preach a tiny bit of Scripture we should expect a tiny bit of the Spirit. Ironically, it’s weakening churches that typically abandon most of Scripture, the one God-given balm to their downward slide. The Spirit and Word go together (see John 3:34, 6:63, Acts 4:31, 10:44, 1 Cor. 2:4,13, Eph. 6:17, 1 Thes. 1:5-6, Heb. 4:12).
2. Beware of discontent with Scripture. Church history teaches us that great errors are introduced into the church when its leaders grow discontent with Scripture. The intrusion of psychological language and methods that replaced the concepts of sin and sanctification is one great example. To this day, the church is still weeding out this intrusion of decades past. Our job is not to add power or relevance to Scripture. We are called to rest by faith that God’s power will come through God’s Word. It’s through the Word that the Spirit will “show forth His power” (95). God responds in power to those who tremble at His Word (Isa. 66:2).
3. Cling to the sufficiency of Scripture. By tying the power of God to the Word of God, Calvin has made a strong case for the sufficiency of Scripture. The discontent and impatience with Scripture will only happen if we have abandoned a commitment to the sufficiency of Scripture. If God’s Word is sufficient to transform dead souls, does it lack anything (see Ps. 19:7, Jam. 1:18, 1 Pet. 1:23)? The overall sufficiency of Scripture is a major theme (read Ps. 19, 119 and 2 Tim. 3:15-17). A practical denial of the sufficiency of Scripture leads to discontent with Scripture, which leads to a failure to understand Scripture, which opens the door for Satanic deception. Like a handful of rock on the side of a cliff, we must cling to Scripture’s sufficiency or there will be no end to the fall.
(Warning! Bandwagon approaching…)
4. Let Scripture define the work of the Spirit. Read 1 Corinthians 14 and see how the strength of the New Testament church rests upon the continuing prophetic gifts. Don’t limit the Spirit’s work in the church to something less than biblical. Re-think Cessationism. [Much love to my disagreeing brothers!] :-)
Bottom line: The power of God and the Word of God walk together in a “mutual bond.” Don’t expect the Spirit to be unleashed where the Word is not preached. And pray in expectation that as you preach His truth, His power will change lives forever! This reverence towards the Word and expectation of the Spirit’s power are at the heart of Humble Calvinism.
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