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



The Peril of Modernizing Paul

Justification Reconsidered Stephen Westerholm is a helpful voice for those of us opposed to the New Perspective(s) on Paul – perspectives which have been around for forty years or so.  In his recent book Justification Reconsidered, Westerholm explains and critiques the New Perspective(s) on Paul and also gives a biblical defense of the historic or classical perspective.  Since it is only 100 pages, this is a great book for those who want an introduction to this discussion; it is also good for readers who want to review the errors of the New Perspective(s) and be refreshed with a fine defense of the traditional view.

I especially enjoyed the first chapter, where Westerholm argued (contra the New Perspectives) from several of Paul’s epistles that the Apostle’s main emphasis wasn’t first and foremost ecclesiological (how Gentiles might get into the “messianic community”); rather it was soteriological (“how can sinners find a gracious God?”).  Here’s Westerholm – and I appreciate how he answers this question: “exactly who is modernizing Paul?”:

“The problem comes …with what Stendahl [an early advocate of what is now called the NPP] denies; and, ironically, it was precisely by modernizing Paul that Stendahl made welcome his suggestion that others, not he, had modernized Paul.  Our secularized age has undoubtedly thrust earlier concerns about human relationships with God into the background – if not rendered them completely unintelligible.  Conversely, in our multicultural societies, acceptance of people from ethnic and cultural backgrounds other than our own is more crucial than ever to community peace.  Both negatively and positively, then, Stendahl posits a Paul attuned to modern agendas.”

At the end of the chapter, after discussing the epistles to the Thessalonians, Corinthians, Galatians, Romans, and Philippians, Westerholm concludes:

“How can sinners find a gracious God?  The question is hardly peculiar to the modern West; it was provoked by Paul’s message wherever he went.  But Paul was commissioned, not to illuminate a crisis, but to present to a world under judgment a divine offer of salvation.  In substance though not in terminology in Thessalonians, in terminology though not prominently in Corinthians, thematically in Galatians and regularly thereafter, Paul’s answer was that sinners for whom Christ died are declared righteous by God when they place their faith in Jesus Christ.”

Stephen Westerholm, Justification Reconsidered (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), chapter 1.

shane lems

Great Reformation Book, Great Price!

 Image 1 Reformation Heritage Books has Carl Trueman’s Reformation: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow on sale for $5.00 (for a limited time).  I just ordered copies for my elders and deacons – it’ll be on our winter reading/discussion list.  If you don’t have it, I highly recommend getting it!  It’s not long (120 pages) but it is good, straightforward, and applicable.

shane lems

A Reformation Snapshot

  Calvin’s commentary on Habakkuk 2.4 is a great snapshot of what the Reformation was/is all about.  He mentions how the NT relates to the OT (Paul to Habakkuk), he makes exegetical conclusions based on the Hebrew text, he points out the terrible errors of Rome, he talks about the law/gospel distinction, he shows how doctrine relates to comfort, and he ends the discussion with an excellent gospel centered prayer of hope.  He also mentions what have been come to be known as the solas, specifically sola fide, sola gratia, and solus Christus.  Here are a few quotes on these topics.

“…the Prophet [Habakkuk] understands by the word amunat that faith which strips us of all arrogance, and leads us naked and needy to God, that we may seek salvation from him alone, which would otherwise be removed from us.”

“Paul [in Romans 1.17] very rightly connects these things together – that righteousness is made known in the Gospel – and that it comes to us by faith only.  …Paul assumes that these, even faith and law, are contrary, the one to the other; contrary as to the work of justifying…as to justification, the law accords not with the gospel any more than light with darkness.”

“But we obtain righteousness by faith alone for this reason, because God finds nothing in us which he can approve, or what may avail to obtain righteousness.  … If righteousness be of faith, then it is of grace alone, and if by grace alone, then it cannot be by works.  … As then, faith acquires for us favor before God, and by this favor we are counted just, so all works must necessarily fall to the ground, when righteousness is ascribed to faith.”

Of course, there is a lot more to his discussion – these are just a few great quotes.  In fact, I recommend finding it online (if you don’t own the commentary), printing it out, and spending ten or twenty minutes reading through it.  You’ll be encouraged in the Christian faith and reminded not only of the necessity of the Reformation, but also of the beauty of the doctrines of grace.

shane lems

The European Reformation(s)

The European Reformations I just noticed a clearance sale on a seminary textbook I’ve grown to love: The European Reformations by Carter Lindberg (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996).  Note: this is the first edition of the textbook.  The second edition is out as well (check it out here).  The first edition would be good for those of you who enjoy Reformation history reading as a sort of hobby.  Probably if you’re doing academic work you’ll want to check out the second edition, but if you’re reading for “fun” I’d guess this first edition (which is half-price!) would be fine.  Here are the topics which Lindberg discusses (in this order):

1) The Late Middle Ages – culture, society, military, and values.
2) The Early years of the Reformations in Europe – Luther, politics, theology, and piety.
3) Luther’s contemporaries – Melanchthon, Karlstadt, and other reforms.
4) The ethical and social aspects of the Reformation (good works, vocation, and service).
5) The Reformations and the common European person.
6) The Swiss Reformation (Zwingli).
7) The Radical Reformations (the Anabaptist fanatics).
8) Later Lutheran situations and confessions (i.e. Augsburg).
9) The Genevan Reformation (Calvin).
10) The Reformation in France.
11) The Reformation in the Netherlands.
12) The Reformations in England and Scotland.
13) The Papal Counter-Reformation.
14) The many legacies of the Reformations.

This book is outstanding.  There are also several maps and genealogies to aid the reader in understanding the many aspects of the Reformation(s).  It is around 450 pages, but to me it read almost like a novel because I am interested in this history and because it was well written.  All in all, if you have around $27 that you want to invest in a Reformation history book, I’d recommend this one.

shane lems

sunnyside, wa

Double Predestination in the Carolingian Era

In the 9th century, a Saxon monk named Gottschalk taught what is known today as double predestination.  Swedish historian Bengt Hagglund explains it this way: “[Gottschalk] claimed (with some justification) that he found support for his teaching in the writings of Augustine” (p. 153).  Hagglund goes on.

“Gottschalk did not say…that certain persons are predestined to evil.  What is rather decided beforehand is that the ungodly will receive the punishment which they deserve, just as the righteous will receive eternal life.  In both cases, therefore, the right thing is done. …The atonement wrought by Christ applies only to those elected to eternal life” (p. 153).

Hagglund also quotes Gottschalk – here’s Gottschalk:

“For just as the unchangeable God, prior to the creation of the world, by his free grace unchangeably predestined all of his elect to eternal life, so has this unchangeable God in the same way unchangeably predestined all of the rejected, who shall be condemned to eternal death for their evil deeds on judgment day according to his justice as they deserve.”

Though some defended Gottschalk, his view was condemned at a synod in 849 and he was banished to a monastic prison for 20 years.  Why was he banished and his view condemned? Because, as Hagglund notes, the church of the day emphasized the freedom of the will and man’s cooperation with grace.  In other words, his views weren’t appreciated because of the semi-pelagian theological context.  As a side note, it is good to remember that the calvinistic Reformers didn’t make up double predestination; it wasn’t a theological novelty.

Quotes taken from Bengt Hagglund’s History of Theology (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1968).

shane lems

sunnyside wa

Living in God’s Two Kingdoms

I’ve been looking forward to this book for a few months now: Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010). David VanDrunen has been studying this subject for years, and this book is the fruit of his study aimed at the layperson.  In some ways, it is his scholarly work on the topic made easier for the general audience.  To introduce the book, I’ll quote a section of the intro which I appreciated.

“This two-kingdoms doctrine strongly affirms that God has made all things, that sin corrupts all aspects of life, that Christians should be active in human culture, that all lawful cultural vocations are honorable, that all people are accountable to God in every activity, and that Christians should seek to live out the implications of their faith in their daily vocations.”

“A Christian, however, does not have to adopt a redemptive vision of culture in order to affirm these important truths.  A biblical two-kingdoms doctrine provides another compelling way to do so.  According to this doctrine, God is not redeeming the cultural activities and institutions of this world, but is preserving them through the covenant he made with all living creatures through Noah in Genesis 8:20-9:17.”

“God himself rules this ‘common kingdom,’ and thus it is not, as some writers describe it, the ‘kingdom of man.’  This kingdom is in no sense a realm of moral neutrality or autonomy.  God makes its institutions and activities honorable, though only for temporary and provisional purposes.”

“Simultaneously, God is redeeming a people for himself, by virtue of the covenant made with Abraham and brought to glorious fulfillment in the work of the Lord Jesus Christ, who has completed Adam’s original task once and for all.  These people are citizens of the ‘redemptive kingdom,’ whom God is gathering now in the church and will welcome into the new heaven and new earth at Christ’s glorious return.  Until that day, Christians live as members of both kingdoms, discharging their proper duties in each.”

There is more to it, of course – this was just a part of the intro.  I do think this is a solid Reformed way to look at the tough issue of Christians in culture.  I’ll blog more on it later; until then, let me say this book will certainly stimulate healthy thinking and discussions on this topic.  I highly recommend it.

shane lems