Part 13: Experiencing God (1.10)
We continue progressing through Calvin’s Institutes by investigating the question “How can we know anything about God the Creator?” Many of us forget about the wonder of this question. It’s by God’s grace that He reveals Himself to us.
Later we will tackle the details about how we know God as our Redeemer (that comes in book 2). Up to this point we see that the knowledge of God is etched into our hearts and is made clear in the creation. However, we suppress this truth to preserve our own sinfulness, creating a wicker-basket god twisted by our own sinful opinions. We become totally blind to the true God. We need Scripture to clarify God, but not just because we need clarity. We need a radical transformation. God must first subdue us in our suppression of Him and He accomplishes this sovereign task by confirming His Word by the power of His Spirit.
In chapter 10, Calvin pauses for one brief thought. Just because we are blind to God’s working in creation, does Scripture totally override God’s revelation in the natural world? The answer is “no.” Scripture calls us to see the same working of God and draw the same conclusion as Creation.
God’s created order was sufficient to draw all men to fear and trust in God. He chose to reveal Himself “more intimately and also more vividly” in His Word (96). So while our sinfulness blinds us to God in creation, Scripture does not give up on this goal. Scripture actually pushes us in the same direction the Creation did to see just how close God is to each of us!
To prove this, Calvin opens the following texts:
“The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Ex. 34:6-7) … “let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord” (Jer. 9:24).
God’s kindness, goodness, mercy, truthfulness and judgment are revealed in Scripture and confirmed in our experience of the world He created. Based upon these texts, Calvin can write, “Thereupon his powers are mentioned, by which he is shown to us not as he is in himself, but as he is toward us: so that this recognition of him consists more in living experience than in vain and high-flown speculation” (97). And later, “with experience as our teacher we find God just as he declares himself in his Word” (98).
Our experience confirms Scriptural witness of God. Every sinner experiences God’s character every day! We experience His goodness through the joys we feel; we experience His kindness in our unmerited prosperity and comforts; we experience His mercy in this life, knowing that we fully deserve death for our sinfulness; we experience His truthfulness in a world governed by absolute truth; and we experience His righteousness and judgment when wicked sinners hang from Iraqi gallows.
Scripture resumes where creation left off: In reminding us that we experience God every day. Scripture is no “high-flown speculation” about God, but confirms our own experiences.
The goals: Fear and trust
The goals of creation and Scripture are the same. “Indeed, the knowledge of God set forth for us in Scripture is destined for the very same goal as the knowledge whose imprint shines in his creatures, in that it invites us first to fear God, then to trust in him” (98).
The goal of Scripture and creation are not intellectual persuasion, but fear and trust. Calvin is not content with revelation that does not bring us to our knees as fearful sinners submitting to a holy and sovereign God. All of God’s revelation is pointing us towards true piety.
So every sinner experiences God, but we are blind to His work because of our sinfulness. Scripture comes along to illuminate these experiences as the work and character of God. We should have caught on to this merely through the created order. But in our sin, we needed special revelation from God to break into our lives and give sight to our blindness.
Calvinistic meditations …
1. God’s character is contextual in every age. Calvinism is deeply contextual, concerned with how sinners come to know God. Here Calvin directs those of us who seek to reach a world population that grows ever secular and non-Christian. We don’t need gimmicks, we need Scripture. We need to show that when sinners live in a warm house, wear comfortable clothes and have all the food they need to live each day that they experience the goodness, kindness and mercy of God. As I said earlier when talking about general revelation, God does much of the contextualizing for us. He created trees so we can walk up to the atheist sitting against its trunk smoking a pipe and reading philosophy and ask his where the tree came from. We both know what a tree is and we both know the tree is alive. But only I know where the life of the tree originated zillions of years ago, in the God who is the Eternal Life source. And so here Calvin reminds us that we all experience God’s kindness, goodness, mercy, truthfulness and judgment. Sinners need to hear about the God who originates this kindness, goodness, truthfulness and justice. So to preach the Word of God is to contextualize. By God’s grace, sinners can see the authenticity of the biblical God through their own life experiences. This means preachers and evangelists need to be aware of the character of God in daily life, and grow ever confident in God’s message to do its work. More about that later.
2. Our vision of God’s activities is restored in sanctification. Recently I had the privilege to preach on the nature of man (see lesson 701. The Nature of Man). I discovered a theme throughout the biblical storyline: Being made in the perfect image of God enables men and women to live in face-to-face communion with God. Adam and Eve, before the fall, enjoyed communion with God as He walked in a garden in the cool of the day (Gen. 3:8). That’s not how Isaiah and Moses experienced the presences of God! Sinners – even redeemed sinners – cannot see God face-to-face. Maybe if God is gracious we see a glimpse of the backside of God – but only from the distant safety of a nuclear bomb shelter (Ex. 33:17-23). So in regeneration and then in sanctification God begins restoring the perfect image of Himself in us. Our hope is that one day the image of God will be perfectly restored when we see Jesus face-to-face (1 John 3:2). Only as that image is restored are we are fitted to see God’s glory. This explains why the most mature Christians are the most sensitive to the character of God in the world. They have eyes being prepared to see God’s glory. So when you read in Scripture that God is revealed all over Creation but you don’t see it, trust in God. If you are his child, He is restoring that image in you so you can see more of His glory in the world. “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12). God helps us see His glory less dimly as we work out our salvation with fear and trembling.
3. Experience God. Being a Humble Calvinist is to daily experience the character of God. We hear His voice and we taste His goodness and kindness (Heb. 3:15, 4:7, 1 Pet. 2:3, Ps. 34:8). We should grow ever sensitive of the connection between the God of Scripture and our daily experience of Him. If we do not cultivate this, our preaching and evangelism will fail to incorporate this divine sensitivity into our contextualization of the gospel in the world. Our secular cultures demand that we experience God and grow ever sensitive to His character revealed in the world.
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