For the Establishment of True Religion (Calvin)

 I realize many evangelicals do not like the term “religion” and even use it primarily in a negative way.  However, we have to remember that the word is found in Scripture (e.g. James 1:26).  Granted, we do have to define it properly, but we shouldn’t by default think of “religion” as a bad thing.  For example, John Calvin called his now famous work the Institutes of the Christian Religion.  In his work on the history of Reformed doctrine,  Richard Muller spends some time discussing “religion” and its use/definition among Reformers and Reformed scholastics.  Here’s his section on Calvin and the term “religion”:

This systematic approach to religion as the pattern of knowledge and worship directly related to faith and foundational to the elaboration of theology is profoundly evident in the successive editions of Calvin’s Institutes. In 1536 Calvin identified his work as an “institute” or instruction “of the Christian religion embracing almost the whole sum of piety and whatever it is necessary to know in the doctrine of salvation.” What is more, Calvin’s expansion of the Institutes, in which five chapters on the knowledge of God were added or developed as a kind of prologue, only serves to underscore in those introductory sections the primary emphasis on religion, piety and instruction in them.

Calvin’s 1539 expansion of this portion of the Institutes has a series of significant antecedents, not the least of which is Zwingli’s linking of the discussion of religion to the problem of the “knowledge of God” and the “knowledge of man.” Like Zwingli, moreover, Calvin rests much of his discussion on Cicero’s De Natura Deorum. Given the universal recognition, implanted in all human beings, that there is a God, Calvin argues, it would be sheer folly to claim that religion is a human invention: it is certainly true that wicked and “clever” persons have invented many superstitions designed to keep human beings in subjection, but it is equally clear that they would never have been able to do so had there not been a fundamental conviction of the existence of God and the need to worship him already present in all human beings. Given, moreover, the depth of human sinfulness and the extent of idolatry and superstition wrought by sin, Scripture is needed for the establishment of a right knowledge of God—and, by extension, for the establishment of true religion.

Although Calvin does not spell out the etymology and definition of “religion” in the detail one finds in Zwingli, the conception is quite similar: true religion must ultimately be grounded in the word of God and it is set apart from the false religions of idolatry and superstition. Nowhere is it assumed, moreover, that “religion” indicates a human phenomenon: even in its false forms, it presumes the fundamental sensus divinitatis and is grounded in the objective reality of the God who must be worshiped. This sensibility will carry over into Reformed orthodoxy.

(This quote is found on page 167 of PRRD, Volume 1)

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

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Not Trusting My Own Merits (Calvin)

Tracts and Treatises of John Calvin (8 vols.)  Those whom God justifies he also sanctifies.  These two truths are twin truths.  Where one is the other will also be.  We don’t want to separate justification and sanctification.  On the other hand, we don’t want to mix them together.  We need to make a proper biblical distinction between the two or we mess up the gospel of grace.  John Calvin understood this and explained it well more than a few times.  Here’s one instance from his tract called “On the True Method of Giving Peace to Christendom and Reforming the Church.”  (Note that “regeneration” in this context is broadly defined and means renewal and sanctification.)

Let the children of God consider that regeneration is necessary to them, but that, nevertheless, their full righteousness consists in Christ:

—let them understand that they have been ordained and created unto holiness of life and the study of good works, but that, nevertheless, they must recline on the merits of Christ with their whole soul;

—let them enjoy the righteousness of life which has been bestowed upon them, still, however, distrusting it so as not to bring before the tribunal of God any other trust than trust in the obedience of Christ.

 John Calvin and Henry Beveridge, Tracts Relating to the Reformation, vol. 3 (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1851), 246.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Pride, Celebrity, Self-Flattery, and Donkeys

 Andreas Kostenberger has a nice section about humility in his book Excellence.  He notes that humility is one of the “cardinal virtues in the Christian life and in academic work.”  In the chapter Kostenberger quotes Calvin:

I was always exceedingly delighted with that saying of Chrysostom, “The foundation of our philosophy is humility”; and yet more pleased with that of Augustine: “As the orator, when asked, What is the first precept in eloquence? answered, Delivery: What is the second? Delivery: What is the third? Delivery: so if you ask me concerning the precepts of the Christian religion, I will answer, first, second, and third, Humility.”

Kostenberger also spends some time saying that we should be humble in our academics and ministry because 1) we could be wrong, 2) we are not nearly as brilliant as scholars before us, 3) our ministry is at most a mere footnote in history that will barely be mentioned by others in the future, and 4) in the overall scheme of things we are not that important.  Our life is a vapor (James 4:14).  Kostenberger then talked about celebrity pastors and near the end of this section on humility he noted a great quote by Luther:

[If] you feel and are inclined to think you have made it, flattering yourself with your own little books, teaching, or writing, because you have done it beautifully and preached excellently; if you are highly pleased when someone praises you in the presence of others; if you perhaps look for praise, and would sulk or quit what you are doing if you did not get it– if you are of that stripe, dear friend, then take yourself by the ears, and if you do this in the right way you will find a beautiful pair of big, long, shaggy donkey ears.

Then do not spare any expense! Decorate them with golden bells, so that people will be able to hear you wherever you go, point their fingers at you, and say, ‘See, see! There goes that clever beast, who can write such exquisite books and preach so remarkably well.’ That very moment you will be blessed and blessed beyond measure in the kingdom of heaven. Yes, in that heaven where hellfire is ready for the devil and his angels. To sum up: Let us be proud and seek honor in the places where we can. But in this Book the honor is God’s alone, as it is said, ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble’ (1 Pet. 5:5); to whom be glory, world without end, Amen.

The above quotes came from chapter 15 of Excellence: The Character of God and the Pursuit of Scholarly Virtue by Andreas Kostenberger.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Righteous in Christ, Not Ourselves (Calvin)

Tracts and Treatises of John Calvin (8 vols.) In volume 3 of Tracts and Treatises you can find Calvin’s 1547 critical commentary on the canons and decrees of the Council of Trent.  It’s an excellent resource that not only sheds theological light on the central aspects of the Reformation, it’s also a wonderful and edifying defense of the solas and the doctrines of grace.  Here are some of Calvin’s helpful comments on the distinction between justification and sanctification:

It is not to be denied, however, that the two things, Justification and Sanctification, are constantly conjoined and cohere; but from this it is erroneously inferred that they are one and the same. For example: The light of the sun, though never unaccompanied with heat, is not to be considered heat. Where is the man so undiscerning as not to distinguish the one from the other? We acknowledge, then, that as soon as any one is justified, renewal also necessarily follows: and there is no dispute as to whether or not Christ sanctifies all whom he justifies. It were to rend the gospel, and divide Christ himself, to attempt to separate the righteousness which we obtain by faith from repentance.

The whole dispute is as to The Cause of Justification. The Fathers of Trent pretend that it is twofold, as if we were justified partly by forgiveness of sins and partly by spiritual regeneration; or, to express their view in other words, as if our righteousness were composed partly of imputation, partly of quality.

I maintain that it is one, and simple, and is wholly included in the gratuitous acceptance of God. I besides hold that it is without us [outside of us], because we are righteous in Christ only. Let them produce evidence from Scripture, if they have any, to convince us of their doctrine. I, while I have the whole Scripture supporting me, will now be satisfied with this one reason, viz., that when mention is made of the righteousness of works, the law and the gospel place it [righteousness of works] in the perfect obedience of the law; and as that nowhere appears, they leave us no alternative but to flee to Christ alone, that we may be regarded as righteous in him, not being so in ourselves. Will they produce to us one passage which declares that begun newness of life is approved by God as righteousness either in whole or in part? But if they are devoid of authority, why may we not be permitted to repudiate the figment of partial justification which they here obtrude [impose]?

…I, on the contrary, while I admit that we are never received into the favour of God without being at the same time regenerated to holiness of life, contend that it is false to say that any part of righteousness (justification) consists in quality, or in the habit which resides in us, and that we are righteous (justified) only by gratuitous acceptance. For when the Apostle teaches that “by the obedience of one many were made righteous,” (Rom. 6:19,) he sufficiently shews, if I mistake not, that the righteousness wanting in ourselves is borrowed elsewhere. …For however small the portion attributed to our work, to that extent faith will waver, and our whole salvation be endangered.

 John Calvin and Hendry Beveridge, Tracts Relating to the Reformation, vol. 3 (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1851), 115–116.

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

Saved by Grace!

I’m very thankful to have grown up in a solid Christian home and church that stressed the truths of Reformed theology.  From the time I was a young boy, I learned the Bible verses and confessional phrases that talk about faith alone, Christ alone, grace alone, and so forth.  I would have told you when I was young that we are not saved by works.  Some of my Sunday School and catechism books had titles like “Saved by Grace.”  This teaching of salvation by grace alone has been dear to me for a long time.  I know my good works are neither the cause nor the foundation of my salvation.  My salvation is wholly found in Christ.

I was recently reminded of this when reading the Belgic Confession of Faith articles 22-25.  In these great paragraphs, the Confession says that all things “requisite to our salvation” are found in Christ and that those who “possess Jesus Christ through faith have complete salvation in him.”  It also says that the Christian’s good works “are of no account towards our justification.”  In fact, it says, “though we do good works, we do not found our salvation upon them.”  Here’s how John Calvin similarly discussed this in his commentary on Hebrews 6:10 (God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him [NIV]).

But here a difficulty arises, because he seems to say that God is bound by the services of men: “I am persuaded,” he says, “as to your salvation, because God cannot forget your works.” He seems thus to build salvation on works, and to make God a debtor to them. And the sophists, who oppose the merits of works to the grace of God, make much of this sentence, “God is not unrighteous.” For they hence conclude that it would be unjust for him not to render for works the reward of eternal salvation. To this I briefly reply, that the Apostle does not here speak avowedly of the cause of our salvation, and that therefore no opinion can be formed from this passage as to the merits of works, nor can it be hence determined what is due to works. The Scripture shews everywhere that there is no other fountain of salvation but the gratuitous mercy of God: and that God everywhere promises reward to works, this depends on that gratuitous promise, by which he adopts us as his children, and reconciles us to himself by not imputing our sins. Reward then is reserved for works, not through merit, but through the free bounty of God alone; and yet even this free reward of works does not take place, except we be first received into favour through the kind mediation of Christ.

We hence conclude, that God does not pay us a debt, but performs what he has of himself freely promised, and thus performs it, inasmuch as he pardons us and our works; nay, he looks not so much on our works as on his own grace in our works. It is on this account that he forgets not our works, because he recognises himself and the work of his Spirit in them. And this is to be righteous, as the Apostle says, for he cannot deny himself. This passage, then, corresponds with that saying of Paul, “He who has begun in you a good work will perfect it.” (Phil. 1:6.) For what can God find in us to induce him to love us, except what he has first conferred on us? In short, the sophists are mistaken in imagining a mutual relation between God’s righteousness and the merits of our works, since God on the contrary so regards himself and his own gifts, that he carries on to the end what of his own good-will he has begun in us, without any inducement from anything we do; nay, God is righteous in recompensing works, because he is true and faithful: and he has made himself a debtor to us, not by receiving anything from us; but as Augustine says, by freely promising all things.

John Calvin and John Owen, Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 142–143.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Is Predestination Central in Calvinism?

There’s much more to Reformed theology than the doctrines of grace (TULIP).  Similarly, there’s more to the doctrines of grace than predestination.  This needs to be said and repeated since some say that the central dogma of Calvinism is predestination, that predestination is at the core of the doctrines of grace.  Michael Horton gave some helpful points to refute this error:

  1. Calvin was not the first Calvinist.  The standard medieval view affirmed unconditional election and reprobation and held that Christ’s redemptive work at the cross is ‘sufficient for the world, efficient for the elect alone.’  …On even the most controversial aspects of predestination, Calvin’s view can scarcely be distinguished from that of Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, Archbishop Thomas Bradwardine, and Gregory of Rimini.  …In fact, some of Luther’s strong comments in ‘The Bondage of the Will’ make Calvin moderate by comparison.
  2. Calvin was not the only shaper of the Reformed tradition.  Although his formative influence is justly recognized, he regarded himself as a student of Luther.  The Strasbourg Reformer Martin Bucer also left a decisive imprint on Calvin, as on a whole generation, including Archbishop Thomas Cramner.  …Heinrich Bullinger, John Knox, Jan Laski, Girolamo Zanchi, and Peter Martyr Vermigli were also among the many contemporaries of Calvin who shaped Reformed teaching, not to mention the following generations of leaders who refined and consolidated the gains of the sixteenth century.
  3. It is interesting that John Calvin never identified predestination or election as a central dogma.  He spoke of the doctrine of justification as ‘the primary article of the Christian religion,’ ‘the main hinge on which religion turns,’ the principal article of the whole doctrine of salvation and the foundation of all religion.’  Obviously he considered predestination an important doctrine.  But he was not only unoriginal in his formulation; he did not raise it to the level of a central dogma.  As B.B. Warfield has pointed out, Calvin’s emphasis on God’s fatherly love and benevolence in Christ is more pervasive than his emphasis on God’s sovereign power and authority.

“None of this is to diminish the obvious importance of election in Reformed theology, but it does serve to dissuade us from regarding it as a central dogma or as a uniquely Calvinistic tenent. …The truth is, there isn’t a central dogma in Calvinism, although it is certainly God-centered – and, more specifically, Christ-centered, since it is only in the Son that God’s saving purposes and action in history are most clearly revealed. …With Melanchthon and Bullinger leading the way, covenant theology emerged as the very warp and woof of Reformed theology.  Even this is not a central dogma, however, but more like the architectural framework.”

Michael Horton, For Calvinism, pp 28-30.

Shane Lems

The Promise of Reward (Calvin)

Commentary on the Book of PsalmsThe 63rd Q/A of the Heidelberg Catechism deals with Scripture’s promise tthat God will reward the good that his people do.  The catechism says “This reward is not earned; it is a gift of grace.”  Here’s Calvin’s similar take on this theme found in his commentary on Psalm 62:12b, You reward everyone according to what they have done (NIV).

From this, and passages of a similar kind, the Papists have argued, in defense of their doctrine, that justification and salvation depend upon good works; but I have already exposed the fallacy of their reasoning. No sooner is mention made of works, than they catch at the expression, as amounting to a statement that God rewards men upon the ground of merit.

It is with a very different design than to encourage any such opinion, that the Spirit promises a reward to our works—it is to animate us in the ways of obedience, and not to inflame that impious self-confidence which cuts up salvation by the very roots.

According to the judgment which God forms of the works of the believer, their worth and valuation depend, first, upon the free pardon extended to him as a sinner, and by which he becomes reconciled to God; and, next, upon the divine condescension and indulgence which accepts his services, notwithstanding all their imperfections.

We know that there is none of our works which, in the sight of God, can be accounted perfect or pure, and without taint of sin. Any recompense they meet with must therefore be traced entirely to his goodness. Since the Scriptures promise a reward to the saints, with the sole intention of stimulating their minds, and encouraging them in the divine warfare, and not with the remotest design of derogating from the mercy of God, it is absurd in the Papists to allege that they, in any sense, merit what is bestowed upon them.

John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, vol. 2 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 432.

Shane Lems