Election and the Judgement of Charity (Calvin)

Calvin’s Commentaries (46 vols.)
Calvin’s Commentaries

When we speak about election, we always have to understand that we don’t have God’s view or perspective on it.  We don’t have access to all the names written in the book of life, nor can we pry into the secret counsel of God.  The question arises: Why does Peter write to Christians scattered in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) and call them “elect”?  Did Peter know which Christians were elect?  Was that some knowledge he as an apostle had?  No.  Although Peter was an apostle commissioned by Christ, he, like other humans, didn’t have access to the secret things of God.  Calvin discussed this topic well in his comments on 1 Peter 1:1.

It may be asked, how could this be found out, for the election of God is hid, and cannot be known without the special revelation of the Spirit; and as every one is made sure of his own election by the testimony of the Spirit, so he can know nothing certain of others. To this I answer, that we are not curiously to inquire about the election of our brethren, but ought on the contrary to regard their calling, so that all who are admitted by faith into the church, are to be counted as the elect; for God thus separates them from the world, which is a sign of election.

It is no objection to say that many fall away, having nothing but the semblance; for it is the judgment of charity and not of faith, when we deem all those elect in whom appears the mark of God’s adoption. And that he does not fetch their election from the hidden counsel of God, but gathers it from the effect, is evident from the context; for afterwards he connects it with the sanctification of the Spirit. As far then as they proved that they were regenerated by the Spirit of God, so far did he deem them to be the elect of God, for God does not sanctify any but those whom he has previously elected. [John Calvin, Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 24.]

Calvin’s comments are level-headed and align with other biblical teaching.  We don’t have to equivocate language and say someone was elect but fell away and lost his election.  Nor do we have to say that we cannot know anything about election, so we best not talk about it at all.  There’s a biblical balance and it has to do with what Calvin and others have called the judgment of charity.   Matthew Henry said it this way in his comments on Philippians 4:3b:

We cannot search into that book [the book of life], or know whose names are written there; but we may, in a judgment of charity, conclude that those who labour in the gospel, and are faithful to the interest of Christ and souls, have their names in the book of life.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015



Our (Ectypal/Analogical) Knowledge of God (Bavinck)

Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2: God and Creation
Bavinck, vol. 2

We can know the true and living God in a personal way. We can know the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as Lord, Father, Redeemer, and Rock. But we can’t know him in an exhaustive way. We can’t know him in his inner being or as he is in himself. We can know him because he’s revealed himself and because he gives us his Spirit in and through Christ, but we cannot know him apart from revelation, his Spirit, and Christ. I appreciate how Herman Bavinck discussed this topic (analogical & ectypal knowledge):

1. All our knowledge of God is from and through God, grounded in his revelation, that is, in objective reason.

2. In order to convey the knowledge of him to his creatures, God has to come down to the level of his creatures and accommodate himself to their powers of comprehension.

3. The possibility of this condescension cannot be denied since it is given with creation, that is, with the existence of finite being.

4. Our knowledge of God is always only analogical in character, that is, shaped by analogy to what can be discerned of God in his creatures, having as its object not God himself in his knowable essence, but God in his revelation, his relation to us, in the things that pertain to his nature, in his habitual disposition to his creatures.2 Accordingly, this knowledge is only a finite image, a faint likeness and creaturely impression of the perfect knowledge that God has of himself.

5. Finally, our knowledge of God is nevertheless true, pure, and trustworthy because it has for its foundation God’s self-consciousness, its archetype, and his self-revelation in the cosmos.

Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 110.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Legal Preaching (Boston)

The Whole Works of Thomas Boston (12 vols.)
Thomas Boston, Works

In a sermon on Isaiah 61:1, Thomas Boston mentioned in detail what it means to have a broken heart which the Lord binds up and heals. It’s quite a good sermon, but the older English isn’t always easy to decipher. At one point, citing Psalm 51:17, he mentioned that a broken heart is contrite or repentant. He used this illustration:

The heart, though before sometimes like an adamant [hard rock], which mercies could not melt, nor judgments terrify, is now kindly broken and bruised betwixt the upper and nether [lower] mill-stone —the upper mill-stone of the law, a sense of God’s wrath against sin; and the nether [lower] mill-stone of the gospel, of divine love, mercy, and favor, manifested in Word and providences.

It seems to me that the illustration means the law comes and breaks the heart into pieces – and the broken pieces have a soft landing: the gospel, mercy, love, and favor of God. He continued the illustration by saying,

If you lay the hard heart upon the hard law, and strike it with the most dreadful threatenings of hell and damnation, it will either not break at all, or at least it will not break small. But lay the hard heart on the bed of the gospel of mercy and love, and then let the hammer of the law strike, the heart will go asunder.”

In other words, the heart cannot be made contrite, soft, or broken (in a biblical sense) with all law and no gospel. Right after the above quote, Boston said it like this:

Legal preaching, which casts a veil over gospel-grace, is not the way to make good Christians. Joel lays the hearts of his hearers on mercy, then fetches his stroke with the hammer of the law, and cries, chap. 2:13, “Rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil.” But it is the Spirit of the Lord that carries home the stroke, else it will not do.

 Thomas Boston, The Whole Works of Thomas Boston: Sixty-Six Sermons, ed. Samuel M‘Millan, vol. 9 (Aberdeen: George and Robert King, 1851), 555.

If anyone has any comments or clarifications on this section of Boston’s sermon, I’m all ears! Either way, this part of the above quote is worth repeating (and memorizing): “Legal preaching, which casts a veil over gospel-grace, is not the way to make good Christians.”

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

The Two Principal Parts of Scripture (Beza)

Theodore Beza

Here’s a helpful explanation of the law/gospel distinction by Theodore Beza (d. 1564):

We divide this Word into two principal parts or kinds: the one is called the “Law”, the other the “Gospel”. For all the rest can be gathered under the one or the other of these two headings.

What we call Law (when it is distinguished from Gospel and is taken for one of the two parts of the Word) is a doctrine whose seed is written by nature in our hearts. However, so that we may have a more exact knowledge, it was written by God on two Tables and is briefly comprehended in ten commandments. In these He sets out for us the obedience and perfect righteousness which we owe to His majesty and our neighbours. This on contrasting terms: either perpetual life, if we perfectly keep the Law without omitting a single point, or eternal death, if we do not completely fulfil the contents of each commandment (Deut. 30:15-20; James 2:10).

What we call the Gospel (“Good News”) is a doctrine which is not at all in us by nature, but which is revealed from Heaven (Matt 16:17; John 1:13), and totally surpasses natural knowledge. By it God testifies to us that it is His purpose to save us freely by His only Son (Rom. 3:20-22), provided that, by faith, we embrace Him as our only wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption (1 Cor 1:30). By it, I say, the Lord testifies to us all these things, and even does it in such a manner that at the same time he renews our persons in a powerful way so that we may embrace the benefits which are offered to us (1 Cor 2:4).

We must pay great attention to these things. For, with good reason, we can say that ignorance of this distinction between Law and Gospel is one of the principle sources of the abuses which corrupted and still corrupt Christianity.

Theodore Beza, The Christian Faith, trans. James Clark (Lewes, UK: Christian Focus, 1992).

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Overcoming Evil with Good

Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans
Calvin on Romans

While preaching through Romans 12 the last couple of months I was reminded how helpful Calvin’s commentaries are. Here are a few of my favorite sections of his comments on Romans 12:19-21:

…He [Paul] commands here that however grievously we may be injured, we are not to seek revenge, but to commit it to the Lord. …But he prohibits here, not only that we are not to execute revenge with our own hands, but that our hearts also are not to be influenced by a desire of this kind….

Though it be not indeed lawful for us to pray to God for vengeance on our enemies, but to pray for their conversion, that they may become friends; yet if they proceed in their impiety, what is to happen to the despisers of God will happen to them.

Whatsoever then may be thine ability, in whatever business thy enemy may want [lack] either thy wealth, or thy counsel, or thy efforts, thou oughtest to help him. But he calls him our enemy, not whom we regard with hatred, but him who entertains enmity towards us. And if they are to be helped according to the flesh, much less is their salvation to be opposed by imprecating vengeance on them.

…He who attempts to overcome evil with evil, may perhaps surpass his enemy in doing injury, but it is to his own ruin; for by acting thus he carries on war for the devil.

These excellent quotes are found in Calvin’s commentary on Romans (chapter 12).

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Was Ruth Barren?

The New American Commentary: Judges, Ruth

Ruth was probably barren before she had little Obed. This is something I haven’t heard before, or at least I don’t remember hearing. However, after studying the text and consulting some commentaries, I do believe that before Ruth conceived and gave birth to Obed she was most likely unable to have children. Why do I say this?

First, notice the text of Ruth 4:13: the LORD enabled her to conceive and she gave birth to a son (NET; NIV, NASB similar). The HCS says the LORD granted conception to her and the NLT puts it this way: the LORD enabled her to become pregnant. The Hebrew is pretty straightforward: “Yahweh gave (נתן) to her conception (הריונ) [or pregnancy].” This is not the common way in the Hebrew Bible to say a woman became pregnant. This is more like the language of Yahweh’s direct intervention.

Second, Ruth had been married to Mahlon for around 10 years before he died. She came back with Naomi to Israel childless. To be married for around 10 years in the ANE and not have children was uncommon unless the couple was unable to have children.

Third, this would also help explain the depth and bitterness of Naomi’s grief (cf. Ruth 1:20-21). Not only did her husband and sons die but all she had left was Ruth, who was unable to conceive, thus cutting off all hope for Naomi’s future security (e.g. inheritance, provision, land, and progeny). Also, Ruth’s barrenness helps explain the sheer joy of the women in Bethlehem when they heard she had finally had a child (Ruth 4:14-15).

Here’s how Daniel Block states it:

…“[T]he Lord gave her [Ruth] conception” (literal rendering). This is only the second time in the book where the narrator has God as a subject of a verb (cf. 1:6), but how significant is this statement! The expression hērāyôn, “conception, pregnancy,” occurs in only two other Old Testament texts: Gen 3:16 and Hos 9:11. But the present idiom, “to grant/give conception,” is unique. This statement must be interpreted against the backdrop of Ruth’s apparently ten-year marriage with Mahlon, for whom she seems to have been unable to conceive. Now, in fulfillment of the prayer of the witnesses in the gate (vv. 11–12), Yahweh graciously grants Ruth pregnancy as a gift. This is the narrator’s modest way of identifying a miracle; she who had been unable to bear a child for Mahlon has conceived for Boaz.

Daniel Isaac Block, Judges, Ruth, vol. 6, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999), 725–726.

Matthew Henry said it like this:

Ruth a mother: The Lord gave her conception; for the fruit of the womb is his reward, Ps. 127:3. It is one of the keys he hath in his hand; and he sometimes makes the barren woman that had been long so to be a joyful mother of children, Ps. 113:9; Isa. 54:1.

 Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 380.

More could be said, for sure, but this is further proof of God’s sovereign and amazing providence at work in the story of Naomi, Ruth, Boaz, and Obed – which is ultimately the lineage and line of Jesus, Messiah, David’s son. Nothing can stop God’s plan of salvation in and through his Son!

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

The Relationship between Systematic Theology and Practical Theology (Murray)

John Murray explained the relationship between systematic theology and practical theology so well in his charge to Edmund Clowney when Clowney was installed as professor of practical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary (1963). Here’s what Murray said:

Practical theology is principally systematic theology brought to practical expression and application. And this means the whole counsel of God brought to bear upon every sphere of life, particularly upon every phase of the life and witness of the church. He would be a poor theologian indeed who would be unaware of, or indifferent to, the practical application of God’s revealed counsel. But likewise, and perhaps more tragically, he would be a poor exponent of practical theology who did not know the theology of which practice is the application. I charge you to make it your concern to be the instrument of inflaming men with zeal for the proclamation of the whole counsel of God and of doing so with that passion and power without which preaching fails to do honor to the magnitude of its task and the glory of its message.

John Murray, Collected Writings, vol. 1, p. 108.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015