BoT > Session 5 > Derek Thomas on John Calvin

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Session 5 – (Wed. 7:00 PM)
“Mortification and Vivification: The Shape of Holiness in Calvin’s Institutes”
Derek Thomas

GRANTHAM, PA – Thomas returned to the Institutes to look at the shape of holiness according to John Calvin, but he began the session with a reference to his current study of John Bunyan (for a future biography). Referring to his own personal friendships with the men in the chapel, Thomas noted that in reading The Pilgrim’s Progress he was struck by how Bunyan weaves friendships into Christians’ sharing of the joy, temptations and losses of the Christian life.

Thomas would especially draw attention to mortification rather than vivification [mortification is dying to self and sin, vivification is coming alive to righteousness in Christ]. The focus in this session would be on the struggle against sin, bearing the Cross in affliction and self-denial.

Thomas opened by reading Colossians 3 with a special emphasis on verse 5: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.”

Calvin expands on the relationship of union and communion with Christ. Justification, sanctification and glorification all flow from an existential union and this union is now being worked out in our lives by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the “comforter,” which is Latin meaning “to strengthen” or “to enable.” Calvin expounds on this in a John/Paul fashion. Our union with Christ takes the shape of death and resurrection. We are involved in a union, a template of death/resurrection, so our lives take the shape of this death/resurrection pattern. Calvin develops this like Paul in Romans 8:13 (“For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live”) and Colossians 3:3 (“For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God”). This same twin element of crucifixion/death/burial/resurrection is seen in Colossians 2:12 — “having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.” There are Romans 6 parallels to Colossians as we commune and take part in the death of Christ that works itself out in mortification. Mortification identifies us with Christ. Christ calls His sheep to follow His life as a pattern.

In Matthew 16:13-20 Jesus says the Church will grow and prevail although She is being built in enemy-controlled territory. This is the program of the New Covenant age between the two comings of Christ. This is now where we live, too. In this program of church growth in enemy territory, Jesus establishes the pattern of the Christian life. And this life is one of self-denial and Cross-bearing (see vv. 24-28). We are called to deny ourselves and pick up our Cross and “own” the life of Christ. “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (v. 25). Only as we identify with the life of Christ will we save our lives. Any other course of life is to lose one’s life.

In Cross-bearing and self-denial we are putting to death the remaining sinful corruptions. On mortification Calvin builds especially off Romans 8:13 and Colossians 3:5. Calvin says, prepare for the knife.

Before continuing, Thomas makes two notes. First, he feared that by talking about mortification it makes him look as an expert who has made great advancements over sin in his own life. He humbly admitted that he is not superior in holiness to those in the room. Mortification actually becomes more difficult as you mature, he said. And second, talking about mortification makes guilt easier to communicate than grace. Calvinists who believe in the third use of the Law are very capable of generating guilt. This is easy. But the more Thomas reads Calvin and volume 6 of John Owen (‘the quintessential book’ to understanding the Puritan concept of mortification) the more he sees an emphasis on grace in Calvin that excels Owen. Calvin wants to emphasize grace in mortification. We need mortification because we are sinners, but we can never forget our justification!

The Struggle of Mortification

There is a reality of indwelling sin and remaining corruption. A war rages within. Calvin does not see Romans 8 as a progression from Romans 7. There is no way out of chapter 7 and into chapter 8 in the Christian life. In other words, chapter 7 is not a sub-Christian experience. For Calvin, chapter 7 and especially verses 14-ff are not the struggle of an unconverted Jew but the paradigm of the Christian life. The “I” later in chapter is the same “I” that is in union with Christ early in the chapter.

Passive sanctification seems to abound in the Church today. As soon as the demands of the Christian life are emphasized – ‘do this’ or ‘avoid that’ – people automatically label it ‘legalism.’ The third use of the Law for Calvin is a model for the Christian life as a man in union. But this obedience is never to gain the favor of God. Neither is obedience lessened because of grace already received.

The picture of the slow growth of the Christian striving against sin is seen in the following quotes by Calvin [and one of my personal favorites from the Institutes].

“But no one in this earthly prison of the body has sufficient strength to press on with due eagerness, and weakness so weighs down the greater number that, with wavering and limping and even creeping along the ground, they move at a feeble rate. Let each one of us, then, proceed according to the measure of his puny capacity and set out upon the journey we have begun. No one shall set out so inauspiciously as not daily to make some headway, though it be slight. Therefore, let us not cease so to act that we may make some unceasing progress in the way of the Lord. And let us not despair at the slightness of our success; for even though attainment may not correspond to desire, when today outstrips yesterday the effort is not lost. Only let us look toward our mark with sincere simplicity and aspire to our goal; not fondly flattering ourselves, nor excusing our own evil deeds, but with continuous effort striving toward this end: that we may surpass ourselves in goodness until we attain to goodness itself. It is this, indeed, which through the whole course of life we seek and follow. But we shall attain it only when we have cast off the weakness of the body, and are received into full fellowship with him” (Institutes, 3.6.5 or pp. 1:689)

This is the lifelong battle until we are glorified. Athanasius and Augustine both viewed Romans 7 as an ongoing battle between the renewed self in union with Christ and remaining corruption. In Romans 8:23 Paul says “And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” Creation groans and we, too, groan. Calvin calls this groaning a “warfare of patience” (Commentary on Rom. 8:24).

Being united to Christ we are a mass of contradiction. At our height, the good we want to do we don’t do. What we don’t want to do, we do (Rom. 7:15).

The Ground of Mortification

The ground of mortification is the simple fact that we can mortify the flesh! Reformation logic says, “If I ought to, I can.” Not by native ability, but because of our union to Christ, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and because the old Adam has died to sin. “Reckon yourselves” dead to sin (Rom. 6:11)! “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). Live as those who have died. We are dead men walking. Christ died to destroy sin. We take this view that sin and its demands have all been paid. Christ has purchased for us both justification and sanctification. God carries this out in His own people as they gain the upper hand over sin. Sin continues to dwell but no longer reigns over His people.

Evil desires take on a life force of their own. But Calvin wants us to see the basis of engaging in mortification is because we are dead to sin and alive to righteousness. Sin no longer reigns.

The Motive of Mortification

The motive of mortification is the fear of God. “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming” (Col. 3:5-6). Calvin, in his commentary, is especially clear that the wrath of God is coming upon those who do not engage in mortification. This becomes a motive to our mortification. The same theme is found in Romans 8:13: “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” If we don’t engage sin, we will die.

To say that you are united to Christ but don’t engage sin is to have, as Calvin puts it, a “mutilated faith.” Our engagement and victories over sin give us assurance that we are truly children of God.

Engaging in Mortification

So how do we mortify? First, we need a big picture. Mortification is not only concerned with specific and individual sins but all the entrails of the old man. Mortification is an engagement at the whole of sin, not just its parts.

The key to mortification is the mind. Book three and chapters 9-10 were added to the Institutes later as the whole comes to completion. It’s what we would call “faculty psychology.” For Calvin and the Puritans, the mind is the priority over the will and affections. Holiness begins in the faculty of the mind and in our thinking. For Calvin, we act according to our thoughts. So mortification begins in the mind. Remember in book one, Calvin calls the heart the “perpetual factory of idols.” And for Paul, he does not go into the details of sexual immorality but rather focuses on the idolatry of sexual sin and the idolatry of all sin. In James, the dynamic morphology of sin begins in the mind with the thoughts. So the way to deal with sin is to deal where it’s rooted – in our minds! Don’t think about sin. Guard your thought world. Guard your mind.

If we allow our minds to think about sin, the sin will develop a life of its own. Unguarded sinful thoughts motivate the will and the affections. Once the affections are set upon a sin, the sin takes on a life force of its own that will run its course. It will not be stopped. So deal with sin when it first rises in the mind. [This is a great illustration of the “life force” of sin.]

It is here that Calvin gives us one of the most eloquent passages of the Institutes.

“We are not our own: let not our reason nor our will, therefore, sway our plans and deeds. We are not our own: let us therefore not set it as our goal to seek what is expedient for us according to the flesh. We are not our own: in so far as we can, let us therefore forget ourselves and all that is ours. Conversely, we are God’s: let us therefore live for him and die for him. We are God’s: let his wisdom and will therefore rule all our actions. We are God’s: let all the parts of our life accordingly strive toward him as our only lawful goal (Rom. 14:8; cf. 1 Cor. 6:19). O, how much has that man profited who, having been taught that he is not his own, has taken away dominion and rule from his own reason that he may yield it to God! For, as consulting our self-interest is the pestilence that most effectively leads to our destruction, so the sole haven of salvation is to be wise in nothing and to will nothing through ourselves but to follow the leading of the Lord alone” [3.7.1, p. 1:690].

This is not only mortification in particular besetting sins but part of a wider picture because we live in a sinful world. We have two zip codes: one planted in this world and one planted in the world to come. Being rooted in a world that is groaning is a call to self-denial and Cross-bearing. The highest calling of the Christian is self-denial. So bear the Cross!

Cross Bearing

Of particular usefulness, Cross-bearing teaches us to trust in the grace of God. We will suffer poverty, bereavement, and disease in this world in order for God to present us faultless (Jude 1:24). In Calvin’s teaching on the book of Job, Calvin preached through the book himself in great pain and in the midst of personal warfare. Calvin was a walking encyclopedia of pain.

For Calvin, the essential message of Job is understood through the eyes of Elihu. Elihu understands pain is educative. It’s not punishment for some particular sin, but rather the pain brings out the potential sin that was resting dormant.

The climax of Job is God shutting Job’s mouth. Paul takes this same theme in saying the purpose of the Law is to shut the mouths of sinners (Rom. 3:19). Every time we speak, we spew idolatry, self-worship and self-exaltation. The beauty of the Cross is that self-denial causes us to trust patiently in God. Unbelievers are chastened and they only grow weary. Believers are chastised and they are matured. A Cross without Christ does no good, but a Cross with Christ is God pulling out His chisel on the edges of our lives and our angular characters. He will present us as trophies of grace in Christ. Afflictions teach us about Christ. Nowhere is the chasm of the 16th century church and the church today more revealed than in our understanding of trials. Calvin says, it’s not all about me! The fact is that the closer we are to the King, the more likely we are to draw enemy fire and taste affliction. As Christ suffers so shall we.

[For more on Calvin’s understanding of Job see Dr. Thomas’ excellent book, Calvin’s Teaching on Job (Christian Focus: 2004). “Elihu sees adversity as educative rather than necessarily retributive” (p. 227).]

When Paul is converted on the Damascus road, why does Christ say, “Why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4)? Because Stephen was one of His (7:54-8:1). You touch one of Christ’s little ones, and you touch Christ.

The Experience of Mortification

Calvin is not calling us to Stoicism. In our grief and sorrow, Calvin points us to our great consolation in the hands of our indulgent Father! For Calvin, what gives him joy and vigor and strength in the Romans 7 struggle with sin and Cross-bearing is the fact that this world rests in the hands of our Father. And there remain no doubts of the extent of God’s love for us — He sent His only Son for us!

In the words of Thomas a Kempis: if you bear the Cross, it will bear you. No matter where you are, carrying the Cross or burdened by sin – the Cross will bear you!

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Related: For more posts and pictures from the 2007 Banner of Truth Ministers’ Conference check out the complete TSS conference index.

3 thoughts on “BoT > Session 5 > Derek Thomas on John Calvin

  1. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of hearing Derek talk about mortification, Pilgrim’s Progress, or Calvin. Thanks for the summary, Tony.

  2. This has taught me a lot because my pastor talked about mortification and vivification. This explians it well for me thank you so so much and God bless u i want to hear more summary about vivification please and i have a calling to teach the gospel too.Thanks and be richly rewarded by the most high God

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