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: (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.


Kuyper > “This all-embracing predestination”

Abraham Kuyper
This all-embracing predestination

“The determination of the existence of all things to be created, or what is to be camellia or buttercup, nightingale or crow, hart or swine, and equally among men, the determination of our own persons, whether one is to be born as boy or girl, rich or poor, dull or clever, white or colored or even as Abel and Cain, is the most tremendous predestination conceivable in heaven or on earth; and still we see it taking place before our eyes every day, and we ourselves are subject to it in our entire personality; our entire existence, our very nature, our position in life being entirely dependent on it. This all-embracing predestination, the Calvinist places, not in the hands of man, and still less in the hand of blind natural force, but in the hand of Almighty God, sovereign Creator and Possessor of heaven and earth; and it is in the figure of the potter and the clay that Scripture has from the time of the prophets expounded to us this all-dominating election. Election in creation, election in providence, and so election also to eternal life; election in the realm of grace as well as in the realm of nature.”

Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism, as quoted by Loraine Boettner in the excellent book The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination (P&R; 1932) p. 17.


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


Humble Calvinism: (14) The Institutes > The idol factory (1.11)


Part 14: The idol factory (1.11)

How do we know God? We know God’s glory through His creation, and even more specifically through His special revelation in the Word of God. Trying to take the biblical God and reduceplasticidol.jpg Him into an image or statue is idolatry that distorts the true God.

In chapter 11, Calvin reminds us that all images of God teach us false things about God. We must watch carefully that a supposed image of God – or any image for that matter – does not replace the doctrines of the Cross of Christ. But Calvin will broaden his definition of idolatry to include statues of biblical characters and saints and even to the myriad of crosses and the crucifix so common in his time.

Here are some themes that emerge from this lengthy chapter:

1. All images teach. Calvin builds off Habakkuk 2:18 where we’re told images of God are “a teacher of lies.” Calvin writes, “whatever men learn of God from images is futile, indeed false” (105). Later, “all who seek the knowledge of God from these are miserably deluded” and “whatever knowledge of God is sought from images is fallacious and counterfeit” (105). Like any piece of artwork, an idol speaks a message to its audience. Trying to communicate God through fashioned images will only speak lies. God cannot be communicated through visible images.

It appears from this chapter that Rome believed images to be the books of the ignorant. Calvin agrees that images speak. But Calvin also knows that images of God only speak from our human conceptions about Him. Reliable truth about God does not come from our minds and into shaped wood, it comes only through Scripture.

2. All images falsely represent God. Calvin builds from the account of Moses reminding the people of Israel about their meeting God at Mt. Sinai. The passage is worth looking at here:

“Then the Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire. You heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice. And he declared to you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, that is, the Ten Commandments, and he wrote them on two tablets of stone. And the Lord commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and rules, that you might do them in the land that you are going over to possess. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully. Since you saw no form on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, beware lest you act corruptly by making a carved image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth.” (Deu. 4:12-17)

Moses knows the tendency of the human heart. Some Israelite would begin pondering how to encapsulate the Sinai experience in a statue of a man or bird or fish. But God did not present Himself in any visible form for the exact reason that no images be made of Himself! Moses reminds Israel (and by application he reminds us all) to “watch yourselves very carefully” because we are prone towards images as reminders of His glory.

God is invisible; therefore all representations of Him are false. Calvin reminds us that “God himself is the sole and proper witness of himself … God’s glory is corrupted by an impious falsehood whenever any form is attached to him,” and, “all who seek visible forms of God depart from him” because “God’s majesty is sullied by an unfitting and absurd fiction, when the incorporeal is made to resemble corporeal matter, the invisible a visible likeness, the spirit and inanimate object, the immeasurable a puny bit of wood, stone, or gold” (100-101). Calvin returns frequently to Isaiah for this concept (Isa. 40:18-20; 41:7, 29; 45:9; 46:5-7).

As we will shortly see, contemporary Roman Catholicism defends the veneration of images precisely because they supposedly turn adoration towards God. This is wrong for the same reason praying to a gold replica of a burning bush in your living room dishonors God. A true knowledge of him – the theme of book one in the Institutes – is to come to Him through Scripture.

3. Images originate in the human mind. Our human minds are “a perpetual factory of idols” (108). As soon as sin entered the world, idolatry entered, too. Just shortly after the flood we know that even Abraham’s father Terah was an idolater (Jos. 24:2). Idolatry is pervasive because our minds imagine false things about God. In fact, “all we conceive concerning God in our own minds is an insipid fiction” (103). Once the image is conceived in the mind it’s birthed in wood. Calvin writes, “man tries to express in his work the sort of God he has inwardly conceived. Therefore the mind begets an idol; the hand give it birth” (108).

For Calvin, the mind conjures an idolatrous understanding of God, then fashioned into wood, then adored and becomes an empty superstition. The danger of idolatry is not in carved images, but in the twisted minds that conceive of the images.

4. Idolatry springs from sincerity. Don’t think that people fashion idols because they think the idol alone is what is represented. Idolatry springs from a genuine desire to represent true divinity in the form of an image. This is true of the pagans: “we must not think the heathen so stupid that they did not understand God to be something other than stocks and stones” (109). Likewise, this is true of the Old Testament Jews: “In these images, nevertheless, the Jews were convinced that they were worshipping the eternal God, the one true Lord of heaven and earth” (110). This sincerity makes the adoration of images and pictures a significant danger in the church.

The 1992 Roman Catholic Catechism states, “Religious worship is not directed to images in themselves, considered as mere things, but under their distinctive aspect as images leading us on to God incarnate. The movement toward the image does not terminate in it as image, but tends toward that whose image it is” (2132). But this supposed sincerity is exactly the danger Calvin confronts. Idolatry appears to sincerely point others towards God, but in reality the images point others only towards twisted human conceptions of Him.

5. Embrace art. Calvin is not saying art and adornment are useless. He loves art. But he warns us that “only those things are to be sculpted or painted which the eyes are capable of seeing” (112). He seems to even agree that painting historical events are useful in teaching. Does he here mean biblical events I cannot tell. He is certainly against racy statues supposedly drawn from biblical accounts and against the veneration and adoration given to any representation. There is a place for artistic expression in teaching.

6. Strong doctrine guards against idolatry. For the first four centuries of the church as “religion was still flourishing, and a purer doctrine thriving, Christian churches were commonly empty of images” (112; cf. Turretin, Elenctic, 2:57-60). As soon as images were installed in churches they led to idolatry, “For men’s folly cannot restrain itself from falling headlong into superstitious rites” (113). The doctrine of the Cross is our instruction. Sinners are driven towards images and idols only when the doctrines of the Gospel are not made clear. “But whence, I pray you, this stupidity if not because they are defrauded of that doctrine which alone was fit to instruct them?” (107). Indeed it is a good reminder that when crowds gather around icons and symbols that they arrive only because the true gospel has been withheld. Calvin says it so well,

“What purpose did it serve for so many crosses – of wood, stone, silver, and gold – to be erected here and there in churches, if this fact had been duly and faithfully taught: that Christ died on the cross to bear our curse, to expiate our sins by the sacrifice of his body, to wash them by his blood, in short, to reconcile us to God the Father? From this one fact they could have learned more than from a thousand crosses of wood or stone” (107).

Remember Calvin in this part of the Institutes is telling us how we can know God. Time and time again Calvin points us back to Scripture as the only sure guide to know Him. When the message of the Cross is gone, the vacuum it creates fills in with images and superstitions. Resorting to visual images in worship is a sure sign that the message of the Cross is no longer central. This is the big danger.

In all of this, it’s clear that Calvin sees venerated religious images as the fruit of idolatrous minds and the adoration and veneration of the icons, statues, and special crosses as nothing other than “fornications with wood and stone” (111). Beware of the “image fighters” who think Christian devotion rests upon paintings, crucifixes, statues and special crosses (116). Seek the display of God’s glory in his Word alone. Life comes by the faith in the Cross not the sight of crosses.

Calvinistic meditations …

1. The most ignorant are the most susceptible. If images are the books of the ignorant, we are especially susceptible to errors when it comes to our ministries towards the ignorant. I see arcicons.jpg special danger in children’s ministries when we try and communicate everything through images. We can teach through images – it seems Calvin defends this practice – however we must beware of venerating images and using them to replace the teachings of Scripture. “Therefore watch yourselves very carefully.”

2. Icons are most necessary when the preaching of the gospel has been made unnecessary. Calvin is so clear here. Are our churches adorned in images and pictures representing our conceptions of God or adorned with the preaching of the Cross of Jesus Christ? A sure sign of idolatry is the use of superstitious rituals. As Calvin reminds us from church history, we will not bow and adore images if the preaching of the gospel is strong. When preachers move away from the content of Scripture in sermons they move towards their own mentally carved image of God. Idolatry precedes the injection mold. “Therefore watch yourselves very carefully.”

3. Idol worship seems sincere. We frequently scoff at pagan nations that worship a big statue of a bald and fat guy sitting cross-legged. But we forget that all idols are intended to point others beyond wood, stone and gold. Sincerity does not eliminate the danger of idolatry. Theologian Charles Hodge once wrote, “idolatry consists not only in the worship of false gods, but also in the worship of the true God by images.” Even if we seek to worship the true Living God through images, we will quickly begin worshiping the image itself. “Therefore watch yourselves very carefully.”

4. Our sinful mind is the idol factory! We frequently think of idolatry in terms of wood, stone, metal or plastic. But true idolatry is first conceived in our mind and then birthed in our hands. Sinners must first imagine a “jesus” who doesn’t really care about sin and who does not judge sinners before we forge a hippie-looking plastic “jesus.” The problem is not in the plastic injection mold; the problem is in the wrong theology that informs such an image. A plastic “jesus” removes all fear of Jesus’ majesty and holiness. Such an error is birthed in the mind from false theology. In reality we don’t need wood, stone, and statues to express our idolatrous minds. Idolatry is fully expressed by false images of God conceived in our thoughts and sermons. “Therefore watch yourselves very carefully.” [See chapter four in Knowing God by J.I. Packer.]

5. God saves sinners out of idolatry. Amazingly, God saves religious men. He saved me after 22 years of ‘faithful’ religion. He saved Saul the religious zealot. He saved Abraham out of a family of idol worshippers. Paul wrote, “For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thes. 1:9). Idolatry — that is, to have misunderstandings about God — is very religious. Even today, God’s sovereign power must break into the lives of idol worshippers. He comes, not as a relic to be kissed, but as the Living God who comes in power to confirm the authenticity of Scripture as the only true testimony of Himself.

That’s what is so amazing: It really takes the power of sovereign grace to break into the dead heart of religious, idol-worshipping sinners.


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Humble Calvinism: (12) The Institutes > The “mutual bond” of God’s power and Word (1.9)


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 this01spurgeoncalvin5.jpg 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)?calvininstitutes.jpg

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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