The text of an address given by Rev. Guy Davies at the the Bristol & Clifton Protestant League's annual meeting in September 2009 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Calvin's birth.
John Calvin: his relevance for today
The text of am address given at the the Bristol & Clifton Protestant League's annual meeting in September 2009 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Calvin's birth.
What on earth are we doing gathering here to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the birth of some long dead preacher? How sad is that? Haven’t you got something better to do this afternoon? Shops shut are they? Have the Bristol Rovers or Bristol City football matches been cancelled or something?
That might be the attitude of some to our meeting this afternoon. But I trust that the fact that you are here today suggests that you might know better. It is right for us as Christian people to reflect on what we can learn from John Calvin, who was born 500 years ago on 10th Tuesday July 1509. By a strange, yet most appropriate providence, this year also marks the 450th anniversary of the publication if the definitive edition of his greatest work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion.
I hope it will become more than evident this afternoon that John Calvin and what he stood for is relevant for us today. But there is always a danger in trying to make a figure in history ‘relevant’ to present day issues. After all Calvin was born half a millennium ago. His concerns as a man of the sixteenth century are not necessarily the pressing concerns of today’s church. We must be careful not to make Calvin an artificial debating partner in 21st century arguments. Would Calvin have had a telly? What would he have thought about the Credit Crunch? What might be Calvin’s take on the implications of Globalisation for the mission of the church? Who knows? I certainly don’t. But the great thing about Calvin is that he transcends his own time because his life and thought were radically shaped by the living and active Word of God. He was not often sidetracked from the big and central themes of biblical revelation. If Calvin has relevance for us today it is because his teaching brings us back to what the Holy Spirit is saying in Scripture.
As you’ve invited a preacher to speak to you this afternoon, you won’t be too surprised to learn that my talk has three main points. First of all I want to give you a potted biography of the Reformer to introduce the man and set his teaching in its historical context. Then, in the main body of this address I want to argue that Calvin’s theological vision is grippingly relevant to today’s church. Finally I hope to draw all the threads together and conclude with some thoughts on the God-centeredness of Calvin’s theology.
I. A brief sketch of Calvin’s life
Calvin was child of up-and–coming French parents. He was to become one of the greatest and most influential of the Protestant Reformers. Originally his father had him educated for a career in the church. But Gerard Calvin had second thoughts about that. The legal profession offered more lucrative rewards, so John had to change tack. He threw himself into the study of law. The young Calvin sat at the feet of some of the foremost jurists and Latin scholars of his day. His rigorous education would serve him well later in life when Calvin deployed his learning in the service of Biblical scholarship and Reformed theology.
We don’t know exactly when Calvin turned his back on the Roman Catholic Church with its corruptions and false teachings. But at some point he came under the influence of the Protestant faith. He wrote in the preface to his Commentary on the Psalms,since I was too obstinately devoted to the superstitions of Popery to be easily extricated from so profound an abyss of mire, God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame…Having thus received some taste and knowledge of true godliness I was immediately inflamed with so intense a desire to make progress therein, that although I did not altogether leave off other studies, I yet pursued them with less ardour.
Calvin’s conversion to the Reformed faith was beginning to make life difficult in his native France. He headed for Strasbourg, hoping to settle down to a life of quiet and undisturbed scholarship. It was not to be. To avoid having to pass through a war zone, he made a detour which took him to Swiss city of Geneva. This is now August 1536 and William Farel was struggling to reform the Genevan Church. He was desperately in need of allies in the work of Reformation. He recognised that Calvin had the necessary godliness, gifts and abilities to advance the Reformed cause. But the young Calvin was somewhat reluctant to get involved. He preferred the reclusive life of a scholar to that of a preacher in the tumultuous city of Geneva. But Farel was not to be put off. The need was desperate and he was not a man to take “no” for an answer. The fiery Farel turned up the heat on the timid Frenchman. He said that God would curse his studies should he refuse to lend his assistance to the Reformed cause. Farel’s words struck Calvin like a thunderbolt and he meekly complied with his demands. John Calvin is often depicted as a somewhat arrogant man and something of a control freak. But at key points in his life, he meekly submitted himself to the guidance of father figures like Farel.
Anyway, perhaps despite himself Calvin became the leading pastor and preacher in Geneva. At first the city resisted his attempts to reform the Church and after two years sent him packing to Strasbourg. Calvin was happy to settle in the city, which was really where he wanted to settle in the first place. He became pastor to the French exiles and was given the freedom to implement his ideas for reforming the church. It was during his stay in Strasbourg that Calvin met his wife, Idelette Van Buren, the widow of an Anabaptist with two children.
But meanwhile back in Geneva the pro-Reformation interests in the city had begun to get a grip on things. They invited Calvin back. After the grief and trouble he had suffered during his first Genevan period, the Reformer was none too keen to return saying, “Rather would I submit to death a hundred times than to that cross on which I had to perish daily a thousand times over.”
But return he did in 1541. Once Calvin was convinced of what God wanted him to do, he did it, even though it meant taking up the cross and following his Lord through the fires of tribulation. On the first Sunday Calvin reoccupied his pulpit in St. Peters Cathedral, he took up where he left off in his series of sermons on Colossians. It was business as usual.
The Reformer was above all a preacher. For one week in two he would preach every day and twice on Sundays. He produced learned and accessible commentaries on most books of the Bible. His reforming work in Geneva provided a pattern for Reformed churches across Europe. The Scottish preacher John Knox called Calvin’s Geneva “A most perfect school of Christ”. But we must no get the impression that everything was fine and dandy during Calvin’s second Genevan period. He was no ‘Caesar of Geneva’, effortlessly imposing his will on church and city. There were still battles to fight. And “that Frenchman” as they called him was not granted citizenship until Christmas Day 1559.
Exhausted by his labours and racked by ill health, Calvin died on 27 May 1564. Before he died, the Reformer gathered his fellow pastors and members of the Genevan ruling council around his death bed. He confessed his faults and begged their forgiveness. Calvin did not think that his labours had amounted to much, but he insisted that he had always tried to act for the glory of God. In accordance with his instructions, the self-effacing Reformer was buried in an unmarked grave.
II. Calvin’s theological vision is grippingly relevant to today’s church
In a recent book, The Doctrines of Grace, James Montgomery Boice and Philip Graham Ryken argue that Evangelicalism needs a good dose of Calvinism. I agree with their thesis. If Evangelicalism is to survive as a movement that is faithful to the biblical evangel, then we need to return to the Bible based, grace fuelled, and God exalting theology of the Reformation. Boice and Ryken define Calvinism in terms of the famous “Five Points”, commonly summarised under the acronym TULIP. You know what they are: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and the Perseverance of the Saints. The “Five points” originally materialised at the Synod of Dort in 1618. The Synod was called to respond to the Arminian’s five point Remonstrance. I believe I’m right in saying that Calvin would have subscribed to all Five Points, although Limited Atonement was not the burning issue of his day. But if you want to understand Calvinism, you need to get back beyond TULIP to Calvin himself. Calvin was a Renaissance man. The rallying cry of the Renaissance was ad fonts, back to the sources. And in Calvin we get back to the source of Reformed theology itself. Not that Calvin would have put it quite like that. He would have insisted that the source of his doctrine was the Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture. But speaking historically, Reformed theology has its roots in the work of John Calvin pre-eminently in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. Writing at the time of the
400th anniversary of Calvin’s birth and the 350th anniversary of the publication of the definitive 1559 edition of the Institues, B B Warfield said "The Institutes was the first serious attempt to cast into systematic form that body of truth to which the Reformed churches adhered as taught in the Holy Scriptures.
As the fundamental treatise in the development of a truly evangelical theology its mission has stretched far beyond its own day. All subsequent attempts to state and defend that theology necessarily go back to it as their starting point… what Plato is among the philosophers, or the Iliad among epics, of Shakespeare among dramatists, Calvin’s ‘Institutes’ is among theological treatises."
As Warfield suggests, Calvin was the preeminent theologian of the Reformation era. Indeed, he can be ranked alongside Tertullian, Athanasius and Augustine as one of the greatest theologians of the church in all ages. In our exploration of some of the main themes in Calvin's theology, we will follow the contours of his Institutes of the Christian Religion. The Institutes began life in 1536 as a brief outline of Protestant doctrine. But over the years, Calvin updated expanded his work until it reached its final form in the massive, 1,200 page1559 edition.
In the fully expanded Institutes, Calvin intended to provide a summary of the Christian truth in all its parts. With that summary in mind, people could then read their Bibles with greater understanding. Also, because he had discussed doctrinal issues at some length in the Institutes, he did not feel obliged to go over such points again in his commentaries.
The Institutes is Calvin’s theological masterpiece. While Calvin did not set out to write a complete systematic theology, in the Institutes he gives us a thorough, warm and clear exposition and defence of Reformation doctrine. On the whole, Calvin avoided the speculative excesses of medieval scholastic theology. He was above all else a biblical theologian. But Calvin wasn't above using the insights of the scholastics when it suited his purpose.
Here then is a whistle-stop tour of some of the key themes in Calvin’s theology. I hope that as we progress it will be made clear just why Calvin is so relevant to our current situation.
1) The knowledge of God
Calvin wrestled with the big issues like can we know God and how? He opens the Institutes with this statement, 'Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.' For Calvin the whole point in doing theology (although he did not like that term) was to gain wisdom that we might live for the glory of God. God has revealed himself to us in creation. Each human being has a sense that God exists – Romans 1:18ff. In our sin we distort and suppress this sense of God, but its witness cannot be totally eradicated from the human heart. We know enough to be held accountable for our unbelief and idolatry Romans1:18ff
But if we are to be saved from sin, we need God to reveal himself to us as our Redeemer. He has done this in Holy Scripture, where God accommodates himself to our capacities that we might know him as our Saviour in the Lord Jesus Christ. God is infinite and we are finite. God is holy and we are sinners. He is way beyond is. Yet in Scripture, God has stooped to reveal himself to us in a way that we can understand. In the Bible, we are not given knowledge what God is in himself, in his divine essence. God’s self-revelation in Scripture shows us what he is to us as our Redeemer. That is why the Bible uses anthropomorphisms such as God’s “right hand” or “the eyes of the Lord”, or his “back parts”. Such langue makes God’s ways understandable to us. We cannot conceive how God as an omniscient Spirit sees all things. But we take great comfort in the fact that “the eye of the Lord is upon the righteous” and that he “holds us in his hands”. Similarly, when God is said to “repent”. He does not really change his mind, but it may seem as if he does. We see a good example of this in the Book of Jonah. God threatens us with terrible judgements. We turn from our sin and seek his mercy in Christ. Then God relents from the threatened judgement. Now, the eternal purposes of the Lord are not subject to change on the basis of human actions. Indeed, our response to him in repentance and faith is a divinely enabled response. But those passages of Scripture that say that “God repented and did not destroy Nineveh” help us to understand very vividly how an eternal and unchangeable God relates to his time-bound creatures.
The Bible gives us divine self-revelation that is suited to our ability to receive it,"For who even of slight intelligence does not understand that, as nurses commonly do with infants, God is wont in a measure to 'lisp' in speaking to us? Thus such forms of speaking do not so much express what God is like [in himself] as accommodate the knowledge of him to our slight capacity. To do this he must descend far beneath his loftiness." (Inst I:13:1).
But we are only able to receive Scripture as God’s Word through the witness of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit authenticates the Scriptures to the believer so that the Bible is received as the very Word of God. The Spirit also enables us to understand the essential message of Scripture concerning salvation in Christ. For Calvin Scripture is the final court of appeal. While he valued the work of those who went before him, especially Augustine and Luther, he insisted that the church must submit to the authority of God in Scripture. We must not dare to go beyond what God has revealed in his Holy Word.
2) The Triune God
I sometimes wonder if the doctrine of the Trinity is neglected in contemporary Evangelical Christianity. We will arise to defend the doctrine in the face of attacks from so-called Jehovah's Witnesses and Islam. But is the biblical revelation that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit a defining feature of the teaching, life and worship of our churches? How many of our hymns are explicitly Trinitarian? In our prayers are we conscious that we are calling upon the Father in the name of the Son in the presence of the Spirit? Does the Trinity feature much in our preaching and teaching? To all intents and purposes are many Evangelicals practical Unitarians? I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve heard believers begin their prayers by addressing the Father and then go on to thank him for dying on the cross!
Calvin can help us here. In the Institutes, you could almost say that the doctrine of the Trinity is his doctrine of God. The Reformer does not reflect on the Trinity after a prolonged discussion of the being and attributes of God. Without warning he simply introduces the subject in Book I , Chapter 13, "The Unity of the Divine Essence in Three Persons Taught, in Scripture, from the Foundation of the World". Calvin insists that God has revealed himself to us in Scripture as One God in three persons; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He would have preferred a minimalist doctrine of the Trinity, saying, 'I wish, indeed that such names [theological terms like person, substance, etc] were buried, provided all would concur in the belief that the Father, Son, and Spirit, are one God, and yet that the Son is not the Father, nor the Spirit the Son, but each has his peculiar subsistence.' But in order to clarify and safeguard the truth in the face of heresy, Calvin was willing to employ the traditional formula that in the one divine essence there are three persons.
Contrary to more speculative teaching on the begotteness of the Son, the Reformer stressed that the Son did not receive his deity from the Father. He is God in his own right [autotheos] alongside the Father and the Spirit. The Father is not to be conceived as the "fountainhead of the deity", communicating the divine essence to the Son and the Spirit. "the Godhead is absolutely of itself. And hence also we hold that the Son, regarded as God, without reference to his person, is also of himself; though we also say that, regarded as Son, he is of the Father. Thus his essence is without beginning, while his person has its beginning in God". (I:XIII:25). The Son, in his divine essence is I AM, the self-existing God. He does not derive his deity from the Father. He is Son in relation to the Father, but he is God because he is God. In the Godhead there is an order of persons; Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but no gradation of deity. Thus Calvin helped to correct subordinationist tendencies in the church's doctrine of the Trinity.
For Calvin, the doctrine of the Trinity is not a matter of abstract theological reasoning. We confess this truth on the basis of divine self-revelation in Scripture. The Reformer shows us that the Trinity of the godhead must be central to the teaching, life and worship of the Church. We should take great delight in the fact that by grace we have been brought into communion with the one God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
3) The Person and work of Christ
In our times we sadly see the church proffering a rather confused vision of Jesus. Some say that he is a great example for us to follow, but are embarrassed by the New Testament claim that we was the Son of God. Others have problems with Jesus’ exclusive claim to be the only Saviour of sinners. Even amongst Evangelicals there is not always clarity concerning Jesus as the Son of God in the flesh. Calvin can help us here.
His conception of the person of Christ was in full accord with historic Christian orthodoxy. We can benefit from the welcome clarity that he brings to this most important of subjects. Calvin stressed that when the Son became man, he did not stop being God. In his humanity, the Son was finite, subject to the restrictions of time and place. While in his deity the Son was infinite, eternal and omnipresent, upholding all things by the word of his power.
Calvin enables us make sense of certain Scriptures that speak of Christ in his suffering and exaltation in ways that at first glance seem to be a little baffling. Scripture sometimes speaks as if the Son’s divine nature suffered on the cross, 'Lord of glory' was crucified (1 Corinthians 2:8), or the church was purchased by God's blood (Acts 20:28). Also that the exalted Jesus “fills all in all” – Ephesians 1:23. What are we to make of such texts? Did the divine Son really die? Does the human body of the human Jesus really fill all things? Calvin discusses such Scriptures in terms of the communion of attributes in the Person of Christ. This does not mean that divine attributes are communicated to Jesus’ humanity or the other way around. His divine nature did not become human and his human nature did not become divine. The Person of the Son of God died in his human nature – that is why the Bible can say that the Lord of glory was crucified. The ascended Christ fills all things not because his humanity is now omnipresent, but because he is the exalted Son of God.
Calvin considers the work of Christ in terms of his biblically assigned offices of prophet, priest and king.
As our prophet, Christ gives us the saving knowledge of God as he speaks to us by his Word through the Holy Spirit. The prophetic Christ continues to instruct and guide the Church, Acts 3:22-22-23.
Jesus is our great High Priest, Hebrews 2:17. As both God and Man he is the only mediator between God and men. As our high priest Christ offered himself to God on the cross to atone for the sins of his people. We know forgiveness and peace with God by his blood. The risen Christ ever lives to make intercession for us. Through Jesus we draw near to God and enjoy fellowship with him.
Christ is our King, Revelation 19:6. As the risen Lord he is Head over all things for the Church, Ephesians 1:22 & 23. We are subject to his gracious rule.
As Prophet, Priest and King, Jesus is a complete Saviour. He deals with our ignorance of God as our Prophet. He atones for our guilt as our Priest. He subdues and conquers our sin as our King. That is why he is the only Saviour of sinners.
4) Union with Christ
Some seem to suggest that living the Christian life is basically a matter of asking “What Would Jesus Do?” It is even possible to get hold of little wristbands with the lettering WWJD to remind us to ask this question of ourselves. That’s all well and good, but in itself the WWJD approach is an inadequate vision of the Christian life. Before we can ask WWJD, we first need to be united to him by faith. Only then will we have the power to follow him.
One of Calvin's key theological achievements was recognising the importance of the New Testament's teaching on union with Christ. He dismissed the medieval teaching on the value of human merit in salvation, insisting that God owes sinners nothing. Salvation comes through God graciously uniting us to Christ by his Spirit. In Christ believers receive the 'double benefit' of justification and sanctification. Justification and sanctification are conceptually distinct. Justification is God's declaration that a sinner is righteous in his sight on the basis of Christ's finished work, received by faith alone. Works don't come into it. In sanctification God sets us apart for himself and calls us to live to a holy life. By virtue of the believer's union with Christ, we are both justified and sanctified (Romans 5&6). It is impossible to have the one aspect of salvation apart from another. This pulls the rug from under the Roman Catholic charge that the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone is detrimental to good works. The faith which alone saves does not remain alone. As Paul said, faith works by love (Gal 5:6), or in the words of James, faith without works is dead (2:17). Let us then look to Christ and him alone for both justification and the transformation of our lives,
"In summary, [says Calvin] since in Christ all kinds of blessings are treasured up, let us draw a full supply from him, and none from any other quarter." (Institutes II:16:19).
When it comes to justification by faith, it is difficult nowadays to mention the doctrine without saying something about the new perspective on Paul. Advocates of this view argue that justification is not primarily about being right with God. Rather justification is God’s declaration concerning who is a member of the church. On this point, I refer you to the words of Sinclair Ferguson. When people ask him to comment on the New Perspective he tells them that first of all we need to get to grips with the old perspective on Paul. Wise words. Advocates of the NPP like N. T. Wright don’t seem to have grasped what Calvin and the other Reformers were actually saying. Calvin devoted a large section of the Institutes to a detailed exposition of the doctrine of justification. Before you start bothering your heads about the views N. T. Wight and others, you would do well to check out what Calvin has to say on justification by faith alone.
5) Election and the sovereignty of God
Not all are brought to saving faith in Christ. Why is it that some believe and others do not? This brings us to a discussion of Calvin's doctrine of predestination. Some are under the impression that predestination was the main theme in his theology, but this is not the case. He doesn't even begin to discuss the doctrine until he nears the end of Book III of the Institutes. For Calvin predestination was not a matter of cold logic. He was convinced of it because he found the doctrine in Scripture, especially in Romans 8 and Ephesians 1. But he did not allow the doctrine to dominate his theology. The Reformer dealt with the election in a biblically proportionate way. Calvin taught that God has chosen to save some fallen human beings, simply on the basis of his free grace and love. He has chosen not to save others. They will suffer God’s just wrath for their sin. But how can we know if we are among the elect? We cannot peer into God's hidden decree of salvation. Calvin advises us to look to Christ, whom he describes as 'the mirror of our election'. If we are united to him by faith, then we can be assured that we were chosen in him before the foundation of the world.
"First, if we seek for the paternal mercy and favour of God, we must turn our eyes to Christ, in whom alone the Father is well pleased (Mt. 3:17). When we seek for salvation, life, and a blessed immortality [we must go to him], since he alone is the fountain of life and the anchor of salvation, and the heir of the kingdom of heaven. Then what is the goal of election, but just that, being adopted as sons by the heavenly Father, we may by his favour obtain salvation and immortality? How ever much you may speculate and discuss you will perceive that in its ultimate object it goes no farther. Hence, those whom God has adopted as sons, he is said to have elected, not in themselves, but in Christ Jesus (Eph. 1:4); because he could love them only in him, and only as being previously made partakers with him, honour them with the inheritance of his kingdom."
It is foolish, harmful and dangerous to contemplate election apart from Christ. We know that we are elect by believing in him and contemplating him,
"But if we are elected in him, we cannot find the certainty of our election in ourselves; and not even in God the Father, if we look at him apart from the Son. Christ, then, is the mirror in which we ought, and in which, without deception, we may contemplate our election. For since it is into his body that the Father has decreed to engraft those whom from eternity he wished to be his, that he may regard as sons all whom he acknowledges to be his members, if we are in communion with Christ, we have proof sufficiently clear and strong that we are written in the Book of Life." (Institutes III:24:5).
Calvin's Christ-centred doctrine of election helps to save the Christian from despairing of ever knowing if his name is written in the Book of Life.
Election is only one aspect of sovereignty of God. The Lord is sovereign in creation and providence as well as salvation. Everything that comes to pass happens in accordance with the will of God. Some have a big problem with this aspect of Calvin’s teaching, rooted though it is in Holy Scripture, Ephesians 1:11. So called “open theists” propose that God is unaware of what is going to happen in the future. When bad things happen, God suffers with us, but he is not in control of events. This view is put forward as an attempt to get round problem of suffering by saying, “Don’t worry, God is suffering too”. But unless God is sovereign and in charge of this fallen world there is no hope for us in all our trials and sorrows. When suffering comes, believers should recognise the hand of a loving heavenly Father in the trial. This does not amount to a fatalistic shrug of the shoulders saying, que serra serra, whatever will be will be. Calvin knew what it was to suffer and grieve deeply. He and Idelette had a son, but little Jacques was born prematurely and died after only twenty two days. In a letter to Viret, his fellow-Reformer Calvin gives free expression to his sorrow tempered as it was by a touching faith in God, "Certainly the Lord has afflicted us with a deep and painful wound in the death of our beloved son. But he is our Father he knows what is best for his children." On being insensitively reproached for his childless state Calvin responded, "The Lord gave me a little son and then he took him away." After eight years of marriage, Idelette also died. Calvin wrote to his old friend Farel, "this great sadness...would have broken me had He not extended his hand from on high; He whose service includes the relief of the broken, the strengthening of the weak, the renewal of those who are tired."
There is great comfort to be had in knowing that our sovereign Father works all things together for the good of his suffering people. He is able to give us grace to help in times of need.
6) Christian life and liberty
Calvin was deeply concerned that his teaching should promote holy Christian living. For him, a sound grasp of Reformed doctrine was not enough. Sound theology should produce piety or vital godliness. And godliness is impossible without prayer. You might be surprised to learn that one of the longest chapters in the Institutes was devoted to prayer. You will find it a down to earth, practical and heart warming exposition of the biblical teaching on communion with God in prayer.
For Calvin, living a godly life does not mean shunning the good things that God has given us in this present world. The Reformer has a reputation (perhaps not altogether undeserved) of being a little tetchy and austere.
Let us redress the balance a little here. Calvin believed that God, in his creation and providence has showered mankind with many gifts. We are to receive these gifts with joy as tokens of God's goodness. We should not despise this life. Calvin emphasised that all Christians are called to joyfully and wholeheartedly serve the Lord in all they do. But while this life is not to be despised, we are driven by the sufferings of this world to long for the joys of everlasting glory in our heavenly home.
The Christian is a free man. The basis of Christian liberty is our justification by faith alone. The believer is free from the accusations of the law of God, having been justified by grace through faith in Christ. The Epistle to the Galatians is the great charter of Christian liberty, Galatians 5:1. Paul teaches that believers have been freed from the ceremonies of the law such as circumcision. We have also been liberated from the curse of the law in Christ who was made a curse for us. The law reveals the way in which Christians should live, but it cannot condemn us:
"For when the conscience feels anxious as to how it may have the favour of God...if brought to his judgement seat... the requirements of the law are not to be brought forward, but Christ, who surpasses all the perfection of the law, is alone to be held forth for righteousness." (Institutes III:19:3.)
We are not free to sin because we have been called by the grace of God to righteousness and holiness. But we do have freedom when it comes to adiaphora or things indifferent. This is a very important point,
"The knowledge of this liberty is very necessary to us; where it is wanting our consciences will have no rest, there will be no end of superstition." (Institutes III:19:3).
Within the bounds of modesty and self-control, believers are fee to eat, drink and wear what they please. Calvin taught this against a background where Roman Catholic traditions like eating fish not meat on Fridays were observed by many people. Such matters are adiaphora - the Christian is free to do as he pleases with regard to such issues. We are not bound by the traditions of men. Calvin ridiculed those who had scruples over eating good food and wearing comfortable and attractive clothing.
"If he hesitates as to a more genial wine, he will scarce drink the worst with a good conscience; at last he will dare not to touch water if more than usually sweet and pure. In fine, he will come to this, that he will deem it criminal to trample on a straw lying in his way." (Institutes III:19:7.)
Now, Christian liberty is to be used responsibly. We are not to abuse our freedom by offending the conscience of the weaker brother. On the other hand, we must not to yield to Pharisaical types who would seek to rob us of our true freedom in Christ. Christian liberty is one of the precious fruits of the gospel.
7) The resurrection of the dead
One area of Calvin’s teaching that does not often receive adequate attention is his emphasis on the Christian hope, especially the resurrection of the body. The location of the Reformer's treatment of the resurrection within the structure of the Institutes is important. The chapter on the resurrection is found at the end of Book III, which constitutes a massive exposition of, "The mode of obtaining the grace of Christ. The benefits it confers and the effects resulting from it." According to Calvin, the resurrection hope is the grand fulfilment of salvation in Christ. The goal of God's redemptive work is that the elect are conformed to the image of the risen, glorified Jesus. In placing his treatment of the resurrection at this point in the Institutes, Calvin emphasises that the resurrection of the body is the crowning benefit that believers will receive from the grace of Christ. This is "the prize of our high calling" (III:25:1.)
For Calvin, the resurrection of the body is a deeply practical doctrine. The Lord Jesus has conquered death. Even now, believers sit with him in the heavenly places. In the midst of life's trials and difficulties, we are to attend to the great Christian hope that, "When Christ who is our life shall appear, then shall you also appear with him in glory."(Colossians 3:4). This hope will steel us to stand firm in the faith, steadfast to the end. We are raise our eyes from the passing things of this life and to fix them on the risen Christ. Reflection on the resurrection hope is absolutely vital for growth in godliness,
"Wherefore, he alone has made solid progress in the gospel who has acquired the habit of meditating continually on a blessed resurrection." (III:25:1).
8) The Church
The fourth and final Book of the Institutes is devoted to The Holy Catholic Church. John Calvin was profoundly interested in church life. He worked tirelessly to reform the church in Geneva, seeking to establish the work on a more biblical pattern. He reformed her structure and worship in accordance with Biblical teaching. According to Calvin, a true church is defined by gospel preaching, the right administration of the sacraments, and loving discipline of the membership. Church members are to be born again people, visible saints, who exercise their gifts for the good of the body of Christ. The Reformation gave emphasis to the preaching of the Word as the means by which sinners are saved and the people of God built up as a kingdom of priests. But Calvin was realistic enough not to expect perfection in the visible church, which he distinguished from the invisible church, comprising of all God's elect.
Under the heading of the Church, I also want to say something concerning Calvin's thinking on Baptism and the Lord's Supper. The Reformer believed that the children of believers as well as adult converts should be baptised. This is one area where I as a Calvinistic Baptist have the temerity disagree with the great man. Even our heroes have feet of clay.
One issue that caused division between Reformed church leaders was the Lord’s Supper. Martin Luther argued that in being glorified, the humanity of Christ took on the property of omnipresence. Because of that his flesh can be with and under the bread and wine at the Supper. For Calvin, this view displayed a terrible misunderstanding of the communion of attributes in the Person of Christ, and compromised the reality of our Lord's continued incarnate life. But he also disagreed with Zwingli's doctrine, which made the Lord's Supper little more than a trip down memory lane. Calvin proposed that Christ is present at the Table by his Spirit. The Spirit compresses the distance between the believer and the flesh of the ascended Christ as we feed upon him by faith at the Lord's Supper.
What of the relation between Church and Society? Calvin believed that the church should be free of state control. For years he fought for the church’s right to exercise discipline over her members without state interference. This issue was one of the causes behind his being banished from Geneva in 1538. But it took until 1555 for the Genevan authorities to give church leaders the power ban impenitent sinners from taking Lord’s Supper.
However, Calvin believed that it was the duty of the civil magistrate to uphold both tables of the law. It was this idea got Calvin into trouble in the Servetus case. Servetus was an anti-trinitarian heretic, who was arrested on visiting Geneva. He was sentenced to be burnt at the stake by the Genevan authorities. Calvin asked that he should be executed more humanely. But he nevertheless consented to the judicial killing of Servetus for the 'crime' of heresy. We should not try to exonerate Calvin for his role in this affair. He was a man of his time, yes. But his knowledge of the gospel of Jesus should have taught him better. This sorry episode reminds us that even great men have their blind spots. The powers of the state should not be used to suppress heresy. The church's weapon against false teaching is the sword of the Spirit. We must be willing to suffer and die for the truth, but never kill for it.
Calvin wasn’t always right, but I hope you agree that his grand theological vision is grippingly relevant to today’s church.
III. The God-centeredness of Calvin’s theology
So ends our consideration of the relevance of John Calvin’s life and teaching. Contrary to popular misconception, there is certainly more to him than predestination. The Reformer gives us invaluable insight into the nature of biblical revelation, the Trinity, and Christ in his offices of Prophet, Priest and King. His teaching on salvation through union with Christ, and the gift of 'double grace' in him, is especially helpful. What he has to say on living the Christian life is full of practical wisdom.
What I like above all else about Calvin and his theological vision is his utter God-centeredness. His focus is not on man and his abilities, but on God and his sin-conquering, life transforming grace. His theology is careful to give God all the glory for our salvation. He calls us to be God-centred rather than “me and my needs centred”.
As true Calvinists we will say, “Glory to the Father for choosing to save a sinners like us! Glory to the Son for dying to redeem a save sinners like us! Glory to the Spirit for savingly uniting sinners like us to Christ!”
Calvin calls us to live for the glory of God. He taught,
Let this, then, be the first step, to abandon ourselves and devote the whole energy of our minds to the service of God. (Institutes III: 7: 1)
We are no to seek our own, but the Lord’s will, and act with a view to promote his glory. (Institutes III: 7: 2)
May we say together with John Calvin in the words of his family motto:
“I offer my heart to you, Lord, promptly and sincerely”