BoT > Session 3 > Derek Thomas

Session 3 – (Wed. 9:00 AM)
“Union with Christ: The Architectonic Principle of Holiness in Calvin’s Institutes”
Derek Thomas

GRANTHAM, PA – Even if a word like “architectonic” was too big for 9 AM, one of the great anticipations of the conference for me was to learn more about John Calvin and his theology (part of my preparation for this conference was the Humble Calvinism series we started in January). Derek Thomas is a man well qualified to teach on Calvin. Thomas originates from Whales Wales but now ministers in Jackson, MS as professor of systematic and practical theology at Reformed Theological Seminary and Minister of Teaching at First Presbyterian Church. Recently we looked at Thomas’ excellent book, Calvin’s Teaching on Job (Christian Focus).

Thomas is very familiar with the Banner of Truth Conference, first attending in 1974. He began his address with kind compliments and thankfulness for the past 30+ years.

Thomas was encouraged to make one theologian his lifelong hobby. In seminary he discovered Calvin when studying Calvin’s Institutes. No one should graduate from seminary without studying them, he said.

Thomas’ messages for the conference would center in book three of the Institutes and especially upon a small section published by itself as the Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life (still in print). This small book has enjoyed, Thomas said, “a life of it’s own.” [The content of this small book can be found in the third book of the Institutes (3.6-3.10 or pp. 1:684-725 in the McNeill/Battles edition).]

Thomas began by reading the sixth chapter of Romans and a short reading from the Institutes. Coming out of Book 2, where Calvin explained the person and work of Christ, he goes on in Book 3 to explain how this is applied to the Christian. Calvin begins Book 3 by writing:

“How do we receive those benefits which the Father bestowed on his only-begotten Son – not for Christ’s own private use, but that he might enrich poor and needy men? First, we must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us. Therefore, to share with us what he has received from the Father, he had to become ours and to dwell within us” (3.1.1, p. 1:537).

This quote provides the critical bridge between Book 2 (the work of Christ, His Cross and the Resurrection) into Book 3 (the application of grace to the sinner). Without union to Christ, the application the work of Christ does not happen.

History of the Institutes

The Institutes first appeared in 1536 as a small book but would grow through many editions until the final French edition in 1560. The plan of the original Institutes was different than the final. The first edition followed the structure of a catechism. But in 1559 the Institutes would be remodeled to follow the outline of the Apostle’s Creed – following a Trinitarian design of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Some other significant changes include the moving of predestination from the opening chapters of the doctrine of God, into Book 3 being placed under the application of the Holy Spirit — because as Calvin says, “Election is the secret of God’s people.” Once you are born again, then predestination makes sense (similar to how predestination fits into the flow of Romans). Another change was that Calvin’s teaching on the Christian life formerly was a conclusion to his teaching on the church, but in the final edition is a subsection of Book 3 as can be seen from the third book’s title: “The way in which we receive the grace of Christ: What benefits come to us from is, and what effects follow.”

So if you look at the headings of Book 3, Calvin begins with a section on the Holy Spirit and then addresses faith, regeneration, repentance and justification. This is no proper ordo salutis! But Calvin is not attempting here to write an ordo salutis. Calvin is in a place where salvation by faith alone is charged as antinomian by his Roman Catholic critics. Therefore, Calvin first sets up sanctification to remove the ground of his opponents before jumping into justification. In other words, justification by faith alone does not undermine sanctification.

For Calvin, regeneration is not a one-time event that happens in the past. Rather, regeneration is an ongoing process of renewal in our sanctification. [The example of the Christian’s continued repentance for sin throughout life is an act of regeneration. Calvin writes, “in a word, I interpret repentance as regeneration, whose sole end is to restore in us the image of God that had been disfigured and all but obliterated through Adam’s transgression” (3.3.9, p. 1:601)]. It is important to know how Calvin uses the term “regeneration.”

Union with Christ

Union to Christ is the key truth of the application of His work. This union is a multifaceted and multidimensional truth. There is a mystical union with Christ brought about by the Holy Spirit where we are brought into spiritual union with Christ. But this union also incorporates Christ and believers whereby we share communion also in human nature, body and soul together. Christ identifies with believers in both a spiritual and physical union. Calvin’s eschatology includes an existence after glorification where we will have physical bodies and be in an incarnate union with Christ. Christ is the firstborn, elder brother in the family we are adopted: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Rom. 8:29). We are engrafted into Christ and we draw from the sap and vitality of Christ (Rom. 11:17). We put on Christ and grow into One Body with Him (Gal. 3:27-28).

Calvin expands on this union with Christ and its significance to sanctification.

1. Basis of holiness. Christ possessed a spiritual wealth to give to the needy and He prays to His Father that this spiritual wealth would be to the believer’s sanctification. This profound truth is reflected in the prayer of Jesus, “And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth” (John 17:19). On this passage, Calvin writes in his commentary on John,

“It is, because he consecrated himself to the Father, that his holiness might come to us; for as the blessing on the first-fruits is spread over the whole harvest, so the Spirit of God cleanses us by the holiness of Christ and makes us partakers of it. Nor is this done by imputation only, for in that respect he is said to have been made to us righteousness; but he is likewise said to have been made to us sanctification, (1 Cor. 1:30) because he has, so to speak, presented us to his Father in his own person, that we may be renewed to true holiness by his Spirit.”

Thus, our union with Christ achieved both justification and sanctification for believers. Our sanctification is the result of Christ’s sanctification and it is His perfect sanctification now being worked out in our own lives! This is the union. So how are we saved? Calvin says, not by Christ but rather in Christ. A most common phrase of Paul is to be “in Christ” and this “in Christ” is the key to our justification and the key to our sanctification. Our holiness is His holiness, our righteousness is His righteousness.

Our union with Christ as the basis of holiness is evident in the beginning lines of First Corinthians. “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints” (1 Cor. 1:2). The Corinthians have two zip codes – one zip code that places them in this world where they are attacked and tempted, but a second zip code that sets them in heaven because they are united with Christ. In this union with Christ we have a divine nature in this world, which means we can put off all vices of the flesh (2 Pet. 1:4).

2. Means of holiness. The Holy Spirit is the applier of the works of Christ. It’s the same Spirit that indwelt Christ in His Incarnate life. See the references to the “Spirit of Christ” (Rom. 8:9, 1 Pet. 1:11). The Holy Spirit is the bond uniting us to Christ. None know Christ more intimately nor has experienced more fellowship with Christ than the Holy Spirit. This Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ.

So where is Christ now? Christ is now in heaven at the right hand of the Father, but we are still united with Him. In the Lord’s Supper there is a deep mystery here. Calvin speaks of the Holy Spirit drawing us into fellowship with Christ as the Spirit draws our affections towards Him. Our hearts are lifted into communion with the Body and Blood of Christ. The Spirit comes to us because of the death, burial and resurrection of Christ.

To signify the Spirit being poured over the Body from its Head (Christ), Calvin builds from the image of Psalm 133: “It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes!” (v. 2). Christ is our Head. He pours His Spirit over Himself and the oil of the Holy Spirit runs down from the Head over the rest of His Body the Church. Sanctification from the Spirit of Christ flows from our union with Christ.

3. Shape of holiness. The Christian receives all the fullness of Christ in all of His accomplishments (justification, sanctification, glorification, etc.). Grace reigns through righteousness. “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom. 6:2). As Calvin writes, “Medicine does not foster the disease it destroys” . We have died to sin and the claims of sin have been fully met (Rom. 6:10, 23). “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin” (Rom. 6:6). The body of sin has been destroyed. Sin was manifested in the body and now righteousness must be manifest in the body, too. The believer has been freed from sin, freed from guilt and the power of sin. The bondage has been broken.

Being freed from sin’s bondage is no mere speculation for Calvin. For Calvin, communion with the death of Christ energizes the imperatives that follow. The imperatives – like “consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” — come after the indicatives (Rom. 6:11). The template of holiness is union/communion with the death/resurrection with Christ. Calvin sounds so Pauline. This is why when we have a hard time understanding the Pauline texts, Calvin is most helpful. He thinks so much like Paul.

So what does it mean to commune with Christ? Communion with Christ functions in our lives and is manifested in the perpetual death/resurrection cycle of life. The cross is the way to victory and death is the way to life. Don’t be surprised that to know life and joy we must first experience death and crucifixion. Christ is the one who blazes the trail for the Christian and we follow Him (Heb. 5:9).

So reckon yourselves dead and look to heaven where Christ is. The Christian life is not about the imitation of Christ. WWJD is not a sufficient ethic for the Christian life. We act in the Spirit of Christ, not to the details of Christ’s life.

The same Spirit that indwelt Christ is the same Spirit that molds us and takes us along the path of crucifixion and resurrection on our path to glory. Don’t be surprised if that is an increasingly difficult path as we die to self, die to the world, die to the devil, and live more for Christ and His glory.


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

Humble Calvinism > Part 19 > What is Faith? Pt. 1 (3.2)


Part 19: What is Faith? Pt. 1 (3.2)

What is faith? Maybe because it sounds elementary, this is not a question we ask much anymore. But church history reminds us of the dangers of an improperly defined (or undefined) answer to this question. Often this question has been wrongly answered by the fruit of faith – like peace, patience, joy, love, etc. — without first coming to understand the object of that faith. The nature of saving faith can never be assumed.01spurgeoncalvin3.jpg

Jonathan Gresham Machen in his classic book, What is Faith? (1925), addressed this problem in his own day.

“Many men, as has already been observed, are telling us that we should not seek to know Him (God) at all; theology, we are told, is the death of religion. We do not know God, then – such deems to be the logical implication of this view – but simply feel Him. In its consistent form such a view is mysticism; religion is reduced to a state of the soul in which the mind and the will are in abeyance. Whatever may be thought of such a religion, I cannot see that it possesses any moral quality at all; pure feeling is non-moral, and so is religion that is not founded upon theology. What makes our love for a true friend, for example, such an ennobling thing is the recognition by our mind of the character of our friend. Human affection, so beautiful in its apparent simplicity, really depends upon a treasured host of observations of the actions of our friend. So it is also in the case of our relation to God. It is because we know certain things about Him, it is because we know that He is mighty and holy and loving, that our communion with Him obtains its peculiar quality. The devout man cannot be indifferent to doctrine, in the sense in which many modern preachers would have us be indifferent, any more than he can listen with equanimity [unmoved] to misrepresentations of an earthly friend. Our faith in God, despite all that is said, is indissolubly connected with what we think of Him” (74-75).

This emphasis on theology in understanding faith (and the impossibility of faith without theology) shows that Machen walked in the tracks left by John Calvin. For Machen and Calvin, What is Faith? is an important question worthy of consideration. Faith must center around an object, and only true faith will prove to be saving faith and bear the ripe fruit of godliness. [Faith and theology always pointed towards godly fruit (see Machen, pp. 183-218)].

This saving faith is an amazing work of a sovereign God in the heart of a spiritually dead sinner. However, as we understand the application of the Gospel to the sinner’s soul, Calvin is concerned that we not misunderstand faith as a subjective emotion bypassing the mind, but rather a faith flowing through the mind as the truth of Christ (theology) is pondered in serious thought and then clutched tightly by the affections. So what is faith?

What faith is NOT (3.2.1-5)

Like Machen, Calvin begins a chapter on faith with a restatement of the Gospel. So before we talk about faith, the object of faith (Christ in the Gospel) needs to be placed on the table. Saving faith is never separated from the Gospel; that God has stated His Law and expects perfect obedience, promises death to all who fail, that as sinners we are utterly unable to achieve perfect obedience to the Law, we have “no trace of good hope,” because we look forward only to eternal death and being cast away from the presence of a holy God. But God. By His grace there is one perfect Mediator, the savior Jesus Christ, sent by the Father in love. He will save sinners if “with a firm faith we embrace this mercy and rest in it with steadfast hope” (542-543). So as we pull a chair up to the table to learn about faith from Calvin, he first sets out the centerpiece of the Gospel. No conversation about faith can take place but in light of this theology.

Before Calvin defines what faith IS he wants to make clear what faith is NOT.

1. Saving faith is NOT a mere conviction that the Gospel is true. The centerpiece of the Gospel sits in the middle of the table. But looking at the Gospel message is not faith. This is a grave danger in Calvin’s mind. He writes “we must scrutinize and investigate the true character of faith with greater care and zeal because many are dangerously deluded today in this respect. Indeed, most people, when they hear this term, understand nothing deeper than a common assent to the gospel history” (543). It is dangerous, Calvin says, to be content with a faith that simply believes the “gospel history” is true.

Several chapters later Calvin returns to this concept in detail,

“Of course, most people believe that there is a God, and they consider that the gospel history and the remaining parts of the Scripture are true. Such a judgment is on a par with the judgment we ordinarily make concerning those things which are either narrated as having once taken place, or which we have seen as eyewitnesses. There are, also, those who go beyond this, holding the Word of God to be an indisputable oracle; they do not utterly neglect his precepts, and are somewhat moved by his threats and promises. To such persons an ascription of faith is made, but by misapplication, because they do not impugn the Word of God with open impiety, or refuse or despise it, but rather pretend a certain show of obedience” (554).

Sinners’ hearts are deceptive and this craftiness is revealed by sinners who are content with a “common assent to the gospel history.” It is one thing for the Cross to be true, still yet another altogether to say the Cross was intended to fulfill MY Law requirements, and give ME the perfect righteousness of Christ. He died for ME! A sinner may continue under the condemnation of the Law even though he believes in the historical accuracy of the Cross. It is possible to believe in truth and only shudder under greater condemnation (Jam. 2:19).

2. Saving faith is NOT a mere faith in God. God dwells in an unapproachable light (1 Tim. 6:16) and we need One (Christ) to come and reveal the Father to us. That Paul called sinners to believe in Christ is proof enough that saving faith in God is to be found by saving faith in Jesus Christ (Luke 10:22; John 8:12, 14:6; Acts 20:21, 26:17-18; 1 Cor. 2:2; 2 Cor. 4:6). We know God through the One He has sent (John 17:3) because Christ “is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb. 1:3). Peter writes, “He (Christ) was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God” (1 Pet. 1:20-21). Calvin concludes, “we must be warned that the invisible Father is to be sought solely in this image” (544). Knowing Jesus Christ, the Word of God (God’s very self-disclosure), matters to faith. Vague faith in a deity will not suffice.

3. Saving faith is NOT ignorance cloaked in religious humility. Calvin goes straight after the Roman Catholic Scholastic community here. The Scholastics promoted an “implicit faith,” that sinners could remain ignorant of the details of theology but saved because they were submitted under the authority of Rome’s teachings. Thus faith becomes more about ignorance cloaked in empty humility rather than true faith in the Gospel. Faith in the specific truth of the gospel was not necessary. Calvin responded that, “this fiction not only buries but utterly destroys true faith” (545). At length Calvin wrote,

“Faith rests not on ignorance, but on knowledge. And this is, indeed, knowledge not only of God but of the divine will. We do not obtain salvation either because we are prepared to embrace as true whatever the church has prescribed, or because we turn over to it the task of enquiring and knowing. But we do so when we know that God is our merciful Father, because of reconciliation effected through Christ (2 Cor. 5:18-19), and that Christ has been given to us as righteousness, sanctification, and life. By this knowledge, I say, not by submission of our feeling, do we obtain entry into the Kingdom of Heaven. For when the apostle says, ‘With the heart a man believes unto righteousness, with the mouth makes confession unto salvation’ (Rom. 10:10), he indicates that it is not enough for a man implicitly to believe what he does not understand or even investigate. But he requires explicit recognition of the divine goodness upon which our righteousness rests. … But on this pretext it would be the height of absurdity to label ignorance tempered by humility ‘faith’!” (545).

Genuine and saving faith is an explicit (though imperfect) trust in Jesus Christ. That is, the Gospel must be clear so that sinners can see their sinfulness, see the beauty of the Savior and rest in His sufficient work by faith alone. Telling ignorant sinners to simply submit implicitly to the beliefs of the church without concern for individual clarity agitated Calvin (as is should agitate us). One of the most beautiful biblical pictures of this truth is the meeting between Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8:26-40. The Gospel expects personal and explicit faith.

But is it not true in our day that belief in the Gospel applied to the soul is substituted for a ‘faith’ that rests content in ignorance and religious ‘humility’? Is not the “gospel” of our day peace and unity over clarity and doctrine? Likewise, we are never saved because we belong to the right church. We are not saved because we rest our ignorance under those who are educated and knowledgeable of the Gospel. We are not saved because we listen to excellent Gospel sermons. We are saved when God uses Scripture to reveal that we are wicked and sinful and our salvation can be found only in clinging to Christ as our righteousness. We must understand this. If Paul condemns those who are “always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth,” how condemned are sinners ignorant of the Gospel (2 Tim. 3:7)?

Never does church membership, affiliations or religious humility overcome ignorance of the Gospel message. Saving faith is explicit.

4. Saving faith is NOT perfect faith. Calvin understands that all faith is “implicit” to some degree. Francis Turretin writes, “as sanctification is imperfect, so faith has its degrees by which it increases and grows, both as to knowledge and as to trust” (IET, 9.15.1). Saving faith is not a perfect and fully explicit faith. Many things are yet hidden from our eyes and we are surrounded by “clouds of errors” (546). The disciples are a perfect example that even the redeemed child of God needs to walk humbly in a pursuit of further wisdom. God’s children believe and will always – in this life — struggle with unbelief. God assigns to each of His children a level of faith but none have perfect faith (Rom. 12:3).

Next time Calvin explains what saving faith IS.


This post is one in a series titled Humble Calvinism, a study through John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. For more information see the Humble Calvinism series index.

Humble Calvinism > Part 18 > The Spirit’s Application of the Gospel (3.1)


Part 18: The Spirit’s Application of the Gospel (3.1)

Here at The Shepherd’s Scrapbook we are taking time in 2007 to work through John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (McNeill/Battles edition). The Humble Calvinism series was intended to prepare for the Banner of Truth Minister’s Conference and to promote the humble orthodoxy of the New Attitude conference (both are later this month). Time is running out and the01spurgeoncalvin1.jpg series has been sidetracked by other important concerns over the past several weeks. To speed the series up a bit, we’ll be jumping into book three of the Institutes. To catch up, we recommend reading the earlier archives in the Humble Calvinism series index.

Well, we have flown over a very large and important section detailing the work of Christ as our Mediator. I do not intend to downplay book 2, but jump into the content of the Holy Spirit’s application of redemption and Calvin’s teaching on godliness (our series goal). Where possible I’ll be threading the themes of the second book into our study of book three. Let’s jump in!

The Cross applied

We can learn about the offices and work of Christ, of His fitness as our Redeemer, of the death He endured for sinners, the Law-inflamed guilt He bore in His body, the wrath He absorbed, the righteousness He emanates, and yet not experience this Atonement work. “As long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us” (537). So how is Christ applied in us?

In short, it’s through the “secret energy of the Spirit, by which we come to enjoy Christ and all his benefits” (537). We must be “grafted into” and “put on” Christ (Rom. 11:17; Gal. 3:27). This application of the Gospel by genuine faith is the work of the Holy Spirit.

Holy and hopeful

But the Holy Spirit not only applies the precious Blood of the Son to our hearts, He also works to “separate us from the world and to gather us unto the hope of the eternal inheritance” (538). First, He separates us from the world system as our “Spirit of sanctification” (2 Thess. 2:13; 1 Pet. 1:2; Rom. 1:4). The Spirit becomes “the root and seed” of holiness in our lives (538).

This is an amazing truth given the spiritual dullness and deadness we display as sinners, being ignorant enemies of God, chained in our sin, “having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12). But the Spirit of God breaks into our darkness and deadness to sovereignly plant the seed of life and holiness in our hearts!

Secondly, the indwelling Spirit gives us the hope of eternal life! “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom. 8:11). If you have the Spirit, you have the same resurrection hope of Christ!

This gift of the Holy Spirit — indwelling sinners with the application of the Gospel, holiness and hope — flows from a very gracious Redeemer. Everything for Calvin returns to the Cross. The work of the Holy Spirit is no different. Every gracious, divine gift (which includes the work of the Holy Spirit) is given to each soul “according to the measure of Christ’s gift” (Eph. 4:7). For Paul, the “grace of the Lord Jesus Christ” is never far removed from “the fellowship of the Holy Spirit” (2 Cor. 13:14). “The first man Adam became a living being; the last Adam [Christ] became a life-giving spirit” (1 Cor. 15:45). Christ is the “life-giving spirit.”

Calvin then breaks into a fuller (but concise) list of the Spirit’s work in the lives of the redeemed.

1. He is the “Spirit of adoption” (Rom. 8:15). The Spirit, through the work of Christ, is the means whereby the Father “embraced us” as His adopted children (540)! It’s this “Spirit of adoption” that supplies us the words so we can pray to our Father. “And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Rom. 8:15).

2. The Holy Spirit is the “guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it” (Eph. 1:14). Our eternal hope is safely ensured in the hands of God the Holy Spirit. He has given us righteousness and this is to give life and the hope of life eternal. “But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness” (Rom. 8:10).

3. The Spirit is the One who waters our lives for spiritual refreshment and fruitfulness. “For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants” (Isa. 44:3). This water of life and refreshment is given to sinners from Christ, the “life-giving spirit” (1 Cor. 15:45 with John 7:37).

4. The Holy Spirit “restores and nourishes unto vigor of life those on whom he has poured the stream of his grace” (540). Thus, the Holy Spirit is called “oil” and “anointing” (1 John 2:20, 27).

5. In short, the Holy Spirit is the “spring” where all heavenly riches flow. “For by the inspiration of his power he so breathes divine life into us that we are no longer actuated by ourselves, but are ruled by his actions and promptings” (541). Whatever is good in our hearts is from Him, everything that flows from our own hearts is perversity and sinfulness (Gal. 5:19-21).

Hearing about the Gospel is insufficient! We must experience the Cross through the application of the Holy Spirit! “As has already been clearly explained, until our minds become intent upon the Spirit, Christ, so to speak, lies idle because we coldly contemplate him as outside ourselves – indeed, far from us” (541).

To know Christ personally in a saving way is not to simply know about Christ and His Cross. To know Christ is to experience the saving, sanctifying, purifying and hope-sustaining work of the Holy Spirit.


So where does personal faith fit? It fits here because “faith is the principal work of the Holy Spirit” (541). Calvin brings out the beauty of God’s sovereignty in personal faith. We are sinners and that means we don’t get spiritual truth. As our earlier studies in the Humble Calvinism series revealed, sinners like us are deaf and blind to God in the world (Rom. 1:18-32). God must give us wisdom and the eyes of our mind must be enlightened by the Spirit (Eph. 1:17-18). Without the Spirit, all is dark and dim.

Earlier in book 2, Calvin illustrated the fallen mind of the philosopher like the traveler in the black darkness of a stormy night.

“The (philosophers) are like a traveler passing through a field at night who in a momentary lightning flash sees far and wide, but the sight vanishes so swiftly that he is plunged again into the darkness of the night before he can take even a step – let alone be directed on his way by its help. Besides, although they may chance to sprinkle their books with droplets of truth, how many monstrous lies defile them! In short, they never even sensed that assurance of God’s benevolence toward us (without which man’s understanding can only be filled with boundless confusion). Human reason, therefore, neither approaches, nor strives toward, nor even takes a straight aim at, this truth: to understand who the true God is or what sort of God he wishes to be towards us” (277-278).

Without the Spirit, all is hopeless. Our personal faith is a special work of God! “Paul shows the Spirit to be the inner teacher by whose effort the promise of salvation penetrates into our minds, a promise that would otherwise only strike the air or beat upon our ears” (541). Indeed, without the Spirit, the Gospel message and the hope of the Cross would have fallen upon deaf ears! Genuine belief in the Gospel is a profound spiritual work of God. Just begin by reading a few examples for yourself: John 1:12-13, 6:44, 12:32, 14:17, 17:6; Matt. 16:17; 2 Thess. 2:13.

Faith, for Calvin, is no mere intellectual conviction of truth, but a Spirit-given relationship of the sinner’s soul to Christ. We must experience the Christ of the Gospel! This experienced relationship of Christ is what Calvin means when he talks of “faith.” And it’s this faith that will provide the content for Calvin’s next (very lengthy) chapter in the Institutes.

Humble Calvinism > Part 17 > Viewing God’s Theater (1.14)


Part 17: Viewing God’s Theater (1.14)

After 24-inches of snow last week and 50-degree weather this week, I grabbed a book and headed to a favorite reading spot along a creek near my house. As I 01spurgeoncalvin1.jpgexpected, the water was higher and swifter than I’ve seen. The loud creek provided the perfect silence for a good book.

The edge of the swift creek was a front-row seat to view the stage of God’s majesty, a special transcendent gaze into God’s glory and power. Calvin writes, “let us not be ashamed to take pious delight in the works of God open and manifest in this most beautiful theater” (179). Yesterday was “pious delight” in God’s “theater.”

But in chapter 14 of the Institutes, Calvin reminds us that God’s “theater” is much larger than what our eyes and ears can absorb from a metal bench along a swiftly running creek. Scripture opens us to a theater of God’s works that reveal an even larger and deeper glimpse into the power and might of God. God’s creative powers fashioned the visible, and He formed the elements of this universe that are largely invisible to the natural eye.


As Calvin transitions us from God’s general revelation (what can be seen with our eyes, usually encapsulated in the study of natural sciences) into God’s special revelation (what can only be seen through Scripture by faith, usually focused on salvation) the angels often fall forgotten in the middle. They are part of creation but only ‘visible’ through special revelation. So “if we desire to recognize God from his works, we ought by no means to overlook such an illustrious and noble example” (162).

First a warning. Human speculation corrupts our understanding of angelic beings. Every generation has attempted to explain angels apart from Scripture. Paul, having been taken to the third heavens, would not even trust his own observations but pointed people to the Word of God to understand the spiritual beauties (2 Cor. 12:1-4). “Therefore, bidding farewell to that foolish wisdom, let us examine in the simple teaching of Scripture what the Lord would have us know of his angels” (165).

We know angels are real beings only because Scripture reveals them to us. They are part of God’s creation we need Scripture to help us “see.” Calvin relates this to an old man with dim eyes trying to read without his glasses (160-161). We need Scripture to make God’s creation clear. We need to pray that God would open our eyes to see these angelic beings. Calvin uses this story in 2 Kings as an example:

When the servant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. And the servant said, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?” He said, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Then Elisha prayed and said, “O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. (2 Kings 6:15-17)

We need Scripture to see God’s protection around us. Revelation of the angels is not to satisfy our vain curiosity but to provide peace and comfort that God is protecting His children. May God grant us eyes to see.

Work of angels

The majesty of God’s creation in the angels is revealed in the work and power of the angels because they “in some respect exhibit his divinity to us” (165). The angels reveal this divinity in their works as God’s messengers and as “dispensers and administrators of God’s beneficence towards us” (166). Amazingly, the angels played a central role in the transmission of the Law (Acts 7:53; Gal. 3:19; Heb. 2:2). Beyond this angels protect, defend and direct the believers just as the angels ministered to Christ (Matt. 4:11; Luke 22:43). And “to fulfill the task of protecting us, the angels fight against the devil and all our enemies, and carry out God’s vengeance against those who harm us” (166-167).

So do we have guardian angels? Maybe. Some passages, like Acts 12:15, make it sound as though each believer has one primary angel. But this conclusion is uncertain and to Calvin unnecessary. “For if the fact that all the heavenly host are keeping watch for his safety will not satisfy a man, I do not see what benefit he could derive from knowing that one angel has been given to him as his especial guardian” (167). Good point.

Don’t worship angels

The warning is this: Don’t look so highly upon angels that you begin to worship them. We’ve already seen in our study of Humble Calvinism that John Calvin forcefully turns us away from everything that dilutes our worship of God. The angels are no different.

Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians displays this caution well. Christ created all things, even the angels (Col. 1:16). Paul does this so “that we may not depart from Christ and go over to those who are not self-sufficient but draw from the same well as we” (170). The angels are just as dependent upon God for their lives as we are for ours. “How preposterous, then, it is for us to be led away from God by the angels, who have been established to testify that his help is all the closer to us! But they do lead us away unless they lead us by the hand straight to him, that we may look upon him, call upon him, and proclaim him as our soul helper” (172).

But there are angels seeking to turn us away from God.


This would be the best place to insert a discussion of our angelic enemies. Satan is a powerful deceiver of souls. He deceives in order to lead sinners away from God, away from the Gospel, and blindly into eternal judgment (Matt. 13:25). “For he opposes the truth of God with falsehoods, he obscures the light with darkness, he entangles men’s minds in errors, he stirs up hatred, he kindles contentions and combats, everything to the end that he may overturn God’s Kingdom and plunge men with himself into eternal death” (174).

“We have been forewarned that an enemy relentlessly threatens us, an enemy who is the very embodiment of rash boldness, of military prowess, of crafty wiles, of untiring zeal and haste, of every conceivable weapon and of skill in the science of warfare. We must, then, bend our every effort to this goal: that we should not let ourselves be overwhelmed by carelessness or faintheartedness, but on the contrary, with courage rekindled stand our ground in combat” (173). While Satan roams and deceives, he is allowed only to do what God sovereignly allows (Job 1:6,12; 2:1,6; 2 Thes. 2:9-11).


Now back to the good angels. In all of this Calvin does not want us to forget about the full theater of God’s creative power. Look to His angels and be amazed at God’s power and glory. Be amazed at His thoughtfulness, love and protective power of us through them. The angels that we see with our eyes of faith are just as real and God-glorifying as the rushing stream that exalts God through the physical eye. Don’t wait until you are on top of the Rocky Mountains to worship God in His creation. Open Scripture!

Not only do we seek to know that God is the Creator of all things but in watching the theater of His creating power we feel His goodness which affects our hearts to service and comforts us in trials. But even more important to Calvin, it’s in Scripture’s revelation of this incredible God that we find assurance that the One we worship is in fact the One True and Living God, Maker of the universe. We worship no dead idol.

The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination

Book review
The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination
by Loraine Boettner

Written 1932 by Loraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination continues as one of the best biblical defenses of the Five Points of Calvinism in print. I use Boettner primarily as a biblical resource when researching the Five Points because I know Boettner will encourage me with the bare meaning of Scripture. This large book also excels at answering the tough questions left in the wake of Calvinism. Chapter 27 on the practical significance of Calvinism is alone worth the price of the book.

As a new Christian, the first book I read to understand Calvinism was The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination. In that first reading I recall it being a simple, biblical and dogmatic introduction. Over the years I’ve come back to see it also as a reliable guide for the more advanced issues related to Calvinism. For under $10 I would consider this one of those must-have books. If you don’t have it, I would encourage you to put it on your wishlist.

Title: The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination
Author: Loraine Boettner
Reading level: 2.5/5.0 > moderate
Boards: paperback
Pages: 440
Volumes: 1
Dust jacket: no
Binding: glue
Paper: normal
Topical index: yes
Scriptural index: no
Text: facsimile
Publisher: P&R
Year: 1932, new cover
Price USD: $12.99 / $9.99 at Monergism
ISBNs: 0875521126, 9780875521121


Click here to access previous posts in the Humble Calvinism index.


Humble Calvinism: (16) The Institutes > God is Three (1.13)


Part 16: God is Three (1.13)

German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) once concluded: “The doctrine of the Trinity provides nothing, absolutely nothing, of practical value even if one01spurgeoncalvin2.jpg claims to understand it; still less when one is convinced that it far surpasses our understanding. It costs the student nothing to accept that we adore three or ten persons in the divinity … Furthermore, this distinction offers absolutely no guidance for his conduct.”

Kant needed a healthy dose of Humble Calvinism.

In our series on The Shepherd’s Scrapbook, we’ve been tracing out Calvin’s thought through the Institutes to see just how applicable theology is. Here, in a lengthy chapter on the Triunity of God, Calvin does not disappoint. For the sake of brevity, we’ll be narrowing our attention away from Servetus and the evidence for the doctrines of the Trinity to focus on the consequences of this Triunity of God.

So how would Calvin respond to the idea that the Triunity of God is without practical value? Here are some thoughts from this chapter.

1. Triunity abolishes vain thoughts of God. Calvin writes, “Indeed, his spiritual nature forbids our imagining anything earthly or carnal of him … because he sees that our slow minds sink down upon the earth, and rightly, in order to shake off our sluggishness and inertia he raises us above the world” (121). This fits in the context of idolatry we’ve seen in the past two chapters. Sinners naturally weave gods for themselves, made in their own images according to their own whims. God says, ‘Look at my majesty and see that I am higher and deeper than your little mind could imagine.’ The Triunity of God as a doctrine is useful to confront our theological laziness and pushes us into divine mystery.

2. Triunity is central to our knowledge of God
. Calvin writes that unless we grasp the nature of God in three persons, “only the bare and empty name of God flits about in our brains, to the exclusion of the true God” (122). As long as we think God is primarily found in religious rituals, icons, statues, and visual reminders, we’ll never understand Him to any degree. We are prone to make a god in our own image instead of resting in the Scripture-revealed God. Faith in the mysterious Trinity is both an axe at the root of idolatry and the path to a true knowledge of God. Without knowing of God’s Triunity, we cannot know Him.

3. Triunity highlights our need for revelation. A significant shift in the Institutes is taking place. Calvin was showing the limits of general revelation (visual and created world), but now is shifting to show the importance of special revelation (in Scripture). We cannot understand the nature of the Trinity without God’s revelation in the Word. Philosophers beware. Calvin writes,

“Here, indeed, if anywhere in the secret mysteries of Scripture, we ought to play the philosopher soberly and with great moderation … For how can the human mind measure off the measureless essence of God according to its own little measure … let us not take it into our heads wither to seek out God anywhere else than in his Sacred Word, or to think anything about him that is not prompted by his Word, or to speak anything that is not taken from that Word” (146).

That the Triunity of God surpasses knowledge has great practical use. It reminds us that natural revelation and philosophy are insufficient to know the deep mysteries of God. We must worship God in spirit and that assumes worshipping Him with truth otherwise invisible to our eyes (John 4:23). Our knowledge and worship of God wholly depend upon biblical revelation.

4. Triunity of God shows the importance of preaching. We should leave God’s explanation of Himself to Himself. But this revelation of God in His Word should be preached with boldness. Calvin here pushes past all the apparent ‘dangers’ of the doctrine of God’s Triunity. Don’t neglect it, he says.

In this chapter Calvin showed us the distinctions between the Father (as the wellspring), the Son (as the ordered disposition of all things) and the Spirit (as the powerful working in all things). Here Calvin was cautious of his distinctions that they may give “calumny to the malicious” or a “delusion to the ignorant.” But even in light of these dangers Calvin concludes it is “not fitting to suppress the distinction that we observe to be expressed in Scripture” (142). In other words, take God at His word.

The Triunity of God may at first appear to have no practical value, or appear open to misrepresentation, but Calvin was fully aware of Scripture’s power. If you trust in the power of Scripture, you’ll preach the doctrines contained. All Christians are called to “yield” and “be ruled by the heavenly oracles” even if we “fail to capture the height of the mystery” (146-147). Paul reminds us that God transforms us as we behold His glory with unveiled hearts (2 Cor. 3:17-18). So what God has revealed, preach boldly!

5. Triunity as central to our experience of God. We cannot know God if we don’t grasp the Trinity. John Owen’s masterpiece, Communion with God, is formed around the Triunity of God. Calvin would agree wholeheartedly – to know the true God we must know and experience Him in His three ‘persons.’

6. Triunity as central to the health of Christianity
. Because the glory of God stands at the center of Christianity, a denial of the Triunity of God is a major danger (147). It embraces the very nature of God, the deity of the Son and the Holy Spirit. Without this foundation, all other knowledge of God will be false. Calvin writes that Satan has always sown heresies “in order to tear our faith from its roots” (145). And Calvin concludes this lengthy chapter by revealing his motive to dwell on the nature of the Triunity of God: “I am zealous for the edification of the church” (159). Calvin does not write and debate over the Triunity of God because he enjoys theological speculation. The health of the church is at stake.

7. Triunity as central to salvation. To deny that the Holy Spirit is God is to deny all of God. Salvation cannot be had if we deny the Triunity of God. Scripture severely warns us that to deny the Son (for example) is to deny the Father also (1 John 2:23, 4:15, 5:1).

8. Triunity brings the believer assurance. It was Francis Turretin, a close follower of Calvin’s theology, that concluded the Triunity of God has everything to do with our own assurances. Our hearts find consolation in the triple security of the the Son, the Father and the Spirit (see Elenctic, 3.24.18).

And our points could go on…

So why does a philosopher say the Triunity of God has no practical importance and Calvinists like John Owen center all experiences of God within the framework of the Trinity? The philosopher starts with man in order to interpret God. The Calvinist starts with God and then interprets herself. The Humble Calvinist begins with the core of all reality – that God’s own glory is the most important fact of human history. Only when we start with God does this Triunity become the most profound, ineffable, sweet and practical doctrine in the world!

Richard Muller writes a fitting conclusion: “The Reformed orthodox theologians’ profound sense of the ultimate and foundational nature of the doctrine of the Trinity for faith and worship and for the architecture and content of theological system frequently leads them to discuss at length the ‘practical use’ of the doctrine in the church” (Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 4:154).

The Triunity of God was (and remains) at the heart of all Christian life and practice.


Click here to access previous posts in the Humble Calvinism index.