The “Admirable Method” of God’s Providence (Calvin)

Tracts and Treatises of John Calvin (8 vols.) Around 1560 John Calvin wrote “A Brief Confession of Faith” which was probably meant to be a shorter version of his larger confession for French Reformed churches.  Like other Protestant confessions of faith, it gives a good summary of the main teachings of Scripture – summaries which date back to the Nicene and Apostles’ creeds.  Below I’ve posted a paragraph on providence from “A Brief Confession of Faith.”  God’s sovereign providence is a comforting reality for the Christian.  As we face trials and hardships in life, we pray for submission to the good providence of our good God:

I confess that God once created the world to be its perpetual Governor, but in such manner that nothing can be done or happen without his counsel and providence. And though Satan and the reprobate plot the confusion of all things, and even believers themselves pervert right order by their sins, yet I acknowledge that the Lord, as the Sovereign Prince and ruler of all, brings good out of evil; in short, [he] directs all things as by a kind of secret reins, and overrules them by a certain admirable method, which it becomes us to adore with all submissiveness of mind, since we cannot embrace it in thought.

Calvin, J., & Beveridge, H. (1849). Tracts Relating to the Reformation (Vol. 2, pp. 130–131). Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society.

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

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Justified Today, Damned Tomorrow? Never! (Sibbes)

 We are weak.  Our faith is often feeble and barely flickering.  We have doubts; despair sometimes is a dark cloud in the Christian life.  “Prone to wander” is an understatement at times!  I appreciate how Richard Sibbes discussed this hard reality in the Christian life.  He met it with the gospel, with the comforting truths of the doctrines of grace:

Objection: “Oh… says the poor soul, I am a poor weak creature, and ready to fall away every day.”

Answer: “Yes, but Christ’s love is constant.  ‘Whom he loves, he loves to the end.’  What does the apostle say (Rom. 8:38-39)? ‘Neither things present, nor things to come, shall be able to separate us from the love of Christ.’  Therefore be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might; do not trust yourselves, nor trouble yourselves for things to come.  If you be free from guilt of former sins, never question time to come.  God is unchangeable in his nature, unchangeable in his love.  He is ‘Yahweh I AM’, always – not ‘I was or will be’, but ‘I am always.’  If ever he loved you, he will love you forever.”

“You see the constancy of Christ’s love when he told Mary, ‘Go tell my brothers’ (John 20:17).  Now when they had most deeply offended him, they were renegades, having all left him even then when he had most need of their comfort, being in greatest extremity – yet he called them brothers when he said, ‘Go tell my brothers.'”

“Beloved, let us not lose the comfort of the constancy and immutability of Christ’s love. Let us conceive that all the sweet links of salvation are held on God’s part strong, not on ours; the firmness is on God’s part, not on ours. Election is firm on God’s part, not on ours. We choose indeed as he chooses us, but the firmness is of his choosing; so he calles us, we answer, but the firmness is of his action. He justifies; we are made righteous, but the firmness is of his imputation. Will he forgive sins today, and bring us into court and damn us tomorrow? No. The firmness is of his action. We are ready to run into new debts every day, but whom he justifies he will glorify. The whole chain so holds, that all the creatures in heaven and earth cannot break a link of it. Whom he calls he will justify and glorify. Therefore never doubt of continuance, for it holds firm on God’s part, not thine.”

Richard Sibbes, A Heavenly Conference, p. 53.

(Note: the above quotes have been slightly edited for readability.)

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

Providence and Confession of Faith (Bavinck)

 The truth of God’s providence is a source of great comfort in the Christian life.  We believe from Scripture that God is sovereign over all things, from the stars in the skies to the cattle on a thousand hills to the birds in the trees to the hairs on our heads.  Nothing happens by chance, but according to his divine providence (cf. Ps 93:1, 104:19-20, 148:8, 1 Cor. 15:24, Rev. 12:10, etc. etc.).  Herman Bavinck explained this comfort well in the closing statements of his discussion on God’s providence.  Note at the end how Bavinck alludes to the Heidelberg Catechism’s great summary of providence in Lord’s Day 10:

In this consoling fashion Scripture deals with the providence of God. Plenty of riddles remain, both in the life of individuals and in the history of the world and humankind…. But God lets the light of his Word shine over all these enigmas and mysteries, not to solve them, but that “by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4).

The doctrine of providence is not a philosophical system but a confession of faith, the confession that, notwithstanding appearances, neither Satan nor a human being nor any other creature, but God and he alone—by his almighty and everywhere present power—preserves and governs all things. Such a confession can save us both from a superficial optimism that denies the riddles of life, and from a presumptuous pessimism that despairs of this world and human destiny.

For the providence of God encompasses all things, not only the good but also sin and suffering, sorrow and death. For if these realities were removed from God’s guidance, then what in the world would there be left for him to rule? God’s providence is manifest not only, nor primarily, in the extraordinary events of life and in miracles but equally as much in the stable order of nature and the ordinary occurrences of daily life. What an impoverished faith it would be if it saw God’s hand and counsel from afar in a few momentous events but did not discern it in a person’s own life and lot? It leads all these things toward their final goal, not against but agreeably to their nature, not apart from but through the regular means; for what power would there be in a faith that recommended stoical indifference or fatalistic acquiescence as true godliness?

But so, as the almighty and everywhere present power of God, it makes us grateful when things go well and patient when things go against us, prompts us to rest with childlike submission in the guidance of the Lord and at the same time arouses us from our inertia to the highest levels of activity. In all circumstances of life, it gives us good confidence in our faithful God and Father that he will provide whatever we need for body and soul and that he will turn to our good whatever adversity he sends us in this sad world, since he is able to do this as almighty God and desires to do this as a faithful Father.

 Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 618–619.

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

The Hiding Place of His Righteousness (Toplady)

The Works of Augustus M. Toplady, vol. 6 Here’s a wonderful section of a letter Augustus Toplady wrote in 1767 to a friend who was very ill:

I hope, sir, you are enabled to trust your soul to Christ, and to cast your care on God. Satan, no doubt, will be ever ready to bring in the indictment, and conscience cannot help pleading guilty to a great part of the charge: but remember, that your judge is, at the very same time, your advocate and Saviour. He is a lover of your soul, and was the propitiation for your sins; they cannot be too numerous, nor too heinous, for mercy like his to pardon, nor for merit like his to cover. Only flee to him for refuge, fly to the hiding place of his righteousness, death and intercession; and then, the enemy can have no final advantage over you, nor the son of wickedness approach to hurt you, in your everlasting interest. Assault you he may, in your way to the kingdom of God; overcome you he cannot, if you look, or desire to look, to Jesus for safety; lie at his blessed feet for protection; lay hold on his victorious cross for salvation; and then you shall find him gracious to relieve, mighty to deliver, and faithful to uphold.

Cast anchor on his love, and be happy, rely on his omnipotence, and be safe. …In life, in death, in eternity, may he be your light, your strength, and your exceeding great reward! I know that your health is so bad, you cannot read much, but you can pray; you can send up your desires as incense, to the throne of God, almost every moment. As you sit, as you walk, as you take an airing, you may cultivate an intimacy with heaven; you may carry on a correspondence with God, you may hold silent intercourse with the Spirit of grace. Every sigh, if directed to him, is a prayer; every tear shed for sin, is a sort of oblation, acceptable to him in Christ, and shall be noted in his book.

Yet, not the sighs we breathe, nor the tears we pour, are our justifying merit; but the sigh, the tears, the obedience, the death, of his co-eternal Son: his are the propitiations; ours are the memorial, and the proof of the work of grace, which his Spirit begins in the soul. Resign yourself to his will in every dispensation; lie passive in his hand, stir not from his footstool, take all your spiritual distresses, as commissioned from him. The cup, the medicinal cup, is of his mixing; the chastisement is the chastisement of a father, who loves while he strikes, and whose seeming wrath is real mercy. May his everlasting arms be spread beneath you; may his grace (as I doubt not it will) be sufficient for you…

Augustus M. Toplady, The Works of Augustus M. Toplady, vol. 6 (London; Edinburgh: William Baynes and Son; H. S. Baynes, 1825), 136–138.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

The Whole Chain Holdeth (Sibbes)

The unbreakable, unchanging love of God for his children is one of the most comforting truths in Christianity.  God’s love for us in Christ is a free love.  This means it is not dependent upon something in us or something we have done or left undone.  He knew we were ungodly sinners, yet he loved us and gave his Son to die for us (cf. Rom. 5:8).  He loves his people with an everlasting love (Jer. 31:3).  When we stumble and fall, his grip of love does not waver. His love for us is firm and constant. Richard Sibbes explained the comforting aspect of God’s love very well in A Heavenly Conference.  Here’s an excerpt; notice how the love of the Lord is very much related to the perseverance of the saints:

Beloved, let us not lose the comfort of the constancy and immutability of Christ’s love. Let us conceive that all the sweet links of salvation are held on God’s part strong, not on ours; the firmness is on God’s part, not on ours. Election is firm on God’s part, not on ours. We choose indeed as he chooseth us, but the firmness is of his choosing; so he calleth us, we answer, but the firmness is of his action. He justifieth; we are made righteous, but the firmness is of his imputation. Will he forgive sins today, and bring us into court and damn us tomorrow? No. The firmness is of his action. We are ready to run into new debts every day, but whom he justifieth he will glorify. The whole chain so holdeth, that all the creatures in heaven and earth cannot break a link of it. Whom he calleth he will justify and glorify. Therefore never doubt of continuance, for it holds firm on God’s part, not thine.

God embraceth us in the arms of his everlasting love, not that we embraced him first. When the child falleth not, it is from the mother’s holding the child, and not from the child’s holding the mother. So it is God’s holding of us, knowing of us, embracing of us, and justifying of us that maketh the state firm, and not ours; for ours is but a reflection and result of his, which is unvariable. The sight of the sun varieth, but the sun in the firmament keepeth always his constant course. So God’s love is as the sun, invariable, and forever the same.

Richard Sibbes, A Heavenly Conference, p. 53-54.

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

Comfort on the Deathbed (Or: A Pastor’s Most Important Resource)

Simon Goulart was a Reformed theologian and pastor from France who served in Geneva in the middle of the 16th century.  His preaching and teaching were solidly biblical, clearly doctrinal, and very applicable.  One example of this is his biblical comfort he gave to Christians on their deathbed.  Scott Manetsch gives a good summary of Goulart’s pastoral care:

As Christians approach death, Goulart recognizes, they are frequently tempted to doubt God’s promised salvation and despair of their future hope.  In this spiritual drama, Satan is especially active.  Goulart’s discourse ‘Remedies Against Satan’s Temptations in our Final Hour’ enumerates the stinging accusations and doubts that Satan launches against God’s children as they struggle on their deathbeds.  The voice of Satan accuses: ‘You are a miserable sinner, worthy of damnation.’  ‘Your sins are too great to be forgiven.’  ‘How do you know that the promise of the gospel pertains to you?’  ‘Are you certain that your repentance and faith are genuine?’  ‘How do you know that you are among God’s elect?’  In response to each of these attacks, Goulart provides the faithful Christian a ready answer, drawn from the pages of Scripture.

For example, when Satan questions the believer’s election, the Christian responds: ‘All true believers are sheep of Jesus Christ, elected in him to eternal life.  Psalm 23 says that ‘The Lord is my Shepherd.’  And Psalm 100 says ‘Know that the Lord is God.  It is he who has made us, and we are his; we are his people and the sheep of his pasture.’  So too, Jesus Christ says in John 10, ‘My sheep hear my voice.’  I have heard this voice and heeded it.  Thus, I am one of the sheep of this Great Shepherd, who has given his life to bring me into his sheepfold, having rescued me from your jaws, O roaring lion.’

Clearly, Goulart believed that God’s Word was to serve as the pastor’s most important resource in caring for Christians on their deathbeds.  Scripture is like a ‘pharmacy’ for wounded souls, he asserted.  It offers a ‘secure harbor for agitated consciences.’

The above quotes were taken from Scott Matnetsch, Calvin’s Company of Pastors, p 297-298.

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

Definite Atonement and Christian Comfort (Owen)

In Chapter seven of The Death of Death John Owen showed how Jesus’ atoning sacrifice (his “oblation”) is tightly connected with his intercession.  Owen argued that rather than say Jesus died for all and failed in his aim and design, we should agree with Paul, “grounding the assurance of our eternal glory and freedom from all accusations upon the death of Christ, and that because his intercession for us does inseparably and necessarily follow it.”  Owen then quoted Rom. 8:33-34 and wrote,

“Here is an equal extent of the one and the other; those persons who are concerned in the one are all of them concerned in the other.”

In other words, those for whom Jesus died are the same people for whom he intercedes.

A few pages later Owen noted that if a person separates and divides Jesus’ atoning sacrifice (oblation) from his intercession, that person cuts off all comfort the Christian has of assurance that Christ died for him.  Positively speaking,

“The main foundation of all the confidence and assurance whereof in this life we may be made partakers (which amounts to ‘joy unspeakable, and full of glory’) ariseth from this strict connection of the oblation and intercession of Jesus Christ – that by the one he has procured all good things for us, and by the other he will procure them to be actually bestowed, whereby he does never leave our sins, but follows them into every court, until they be fully pardoned and clearly expiated (Heb. 9:26).  He will never leave us until he has saved to the uttermost them that come unto God by him.”

This isn’t theological nitpicking or dry, dusty doctrine that is irrelevant.  To say that Jesus’ death is tightly connected with his intercession echoes biblical truth, glorifies Christ and his saving power, and it gives the Christian firm comfort and assurance that Jesus who died for us will also intercede for us, that our faith will not fail (Lk. 22:32).

The above quotes are found in John Owen’s The Death of Death (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1999), chapter 7.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WZI