Humble Calvinism – Part 3

Posted: November 9, 2010 in calvinism, humility, theology

See Part 1 and Part 2 .

After his treatment of the unregenerate man, Calvin turns his attention to God’s gracious saving activity towards humans.  After describing the person and work of Christ, in Book 3 of the Institutes Calvin turns his attention to “The Way in Which We Receive the Grace of Christ: What Benefits Come to Us from It, and What Effects Follow.”  Contrary to what many people might assume, Calvin does not begin his treatise on soteriology (salvation) with a discussion of predestination.  Unlike some of his theological descendants, Calvin was not dominated by a system based on pure logic and cold reasoning.  Nor did he constantly emphasize election and/or predestination, as if those two doctrines form the foundation of the Christian faith.  Calvin was much more concerned with following the general pattern of Scripture and writing in a way that was profitable and understandable to the common man.

Calvin’s Theology: Faith

Therefore, Calvin begins with a discussion of faith, the first thing that a new Christian understands as important about his own salvation.  Calvin strongly emphasizes the fact that faith is a gift from God and not the result of human decision or effort.  Referring to 2 Thessalonians 1:11[1] he writes,

“Here Paul calls faith ‘the work of God,’ and instead of distinguishing it by an adjective, appropriately calls it ‘good pleasure.’  Thus he denies that man himself initiates faith, and not satisfied with this, he adds that it is a manifestation of God’s power.”[2]

Commenting on John 6:65[3] he says it even more clearly,

“[Jesus] again states that faith is an uncommon and remarkable gift of the Spirit of God…Christ therefore assigns a reason why there are so few believers, namely, because no man, whatever may be his acuteness, can arrive at faith by his own sagacity; for all are blind, until they are illuminated by the Spirit of God, and therefore they only partake of so great a blessing whom the Father deigns to make partakers of it.”[4]

Obviously, Calvin considers this an important doctrine to teach and understand.  For him, it flows logically from his doctrine of total depravity.  However, even more important than his logic is the biblical support for the doctrine, which his logic only reinforces.

Calvin’s Theology: Repetance

Next, Calvin moves on to his understanding of the believer’s repentance.  The first thing that Calvin emphasizes is the fact that repentance is a necessary consequence of true faith.  Getting to the heart of the question regarding the relationship between justification by faith alone and the believer’s works, Calvin writes,

“For when this topic is rightly understood it will better appear how man is justified by faith alone, and simple pardon; nevertheless actual holiness of life, so to speak, is not separated from free imputation of righteousness.”[5]

He goes on to write, “No one can embrace the grace of the gospel without betaking himself from the errors of his past life into the right way, and applying his whole effort to the practice of repentance.”[6] Although Calvin does place the responsibility for repentance on the believer, he still maintains that it is a work ultimately granted to the Christian by God.  This is simply because repentance is the fruit of faith, which is itself a gift from God.  Calvin calls this understanding of repentance “so clear…that there is no need of a long discourse to explain it.”[7] Commenting on the power of man to muster up repentance on his own he writes,

“It would be easier for us to create men than for us of our own power to put on a more excellent nature.”  Repentance, along with faith, is a gracious gift of God, bestowed on “whomsoever God wills to snatch from death.”[8]

Thus, there is no room for boasting with those who have turned from their sins to serve the living God.

Calvin’s Theology: Justification

The next topic to which Calvin turns his attention is God’s justification of those who have believed in His Son, a topic to which he devotes an immense amount of words in the Institutes.  For Calvin, justification is the foundational forensic (legal) declaration that a person is righteous in the sight of God.  Following in the theological footsteps of Luther, Calvin affirms the central Reformation teaching that the Christian’s faith is the means by which he is justified; good works play no role in God’s declaration regarding a person’s righteousness.[9] Calvin deals with the accusation of some of his opponents, who say that because faith on the part of the Christian is necessary justification is therefore still “by works,” when he reiterates that faith is “something merely passive, bringing nothing of ours to the recovering of God’s favor but receiving from Christ that which we lack.”[10]

As with all of his other doctrines, a correct understanding of justification is crucial because it either magnifies the glory and majesty of God, or else it detracts from it.  Regarding justification, Calvin rhetorically asks, “Why do we attempt, to our great harm, to filch from the Lord even a particle of the thanks we owe his free kindness?”[11] When man claims that he has anything to offer to his own righteousness, he “rises up against God and casts a shadow upon his glory.”[12] The result of a correct understanding of God’s gracious justification of sinners humbles man, and highlights his utter unworthiness and dependence on God’s grace.  When a man sees that he has nothing of his own to stand upon, he is forced to rely solely on the sovereign mercy of God, and this brings glory and honor to Him.  Calvin belabors this point; however, his reasoning for doing so is because of the great importance Calvin put on the glory of God.  Humans were created for the purpose of glorifying God, so all of our existence should be directed towards that end.  Whenever anything good is attributed to man, and he is thus puffed up with pride and arrogance, God is inevitably robbed of the honor due His name.[13]

Calvin’s Theology: Good Works

Calvin next turns his attention to the Christian’s good works.  Just as repentance is the fruit of faith, so too good works flow forth from the hearts of those who have trusted in the grace of God.  Calvin firmly denies, however, that there is any merit in the believer’s good works.  Nothing that he does, neither before salvation nor after, contributes anything to his justification.  This is simply because a Christian’s good works are the result of God’s gracious activity in his life.  As Stanford Reid writes, “Justification is a stimulus to good works, but they never provide merit for forgiveness, which comes from God’s mercy only.”[14] Thus Calvin writes,

“There is no doubt that whatever is praiseworthy in works is God’s grace; there is not a drop that we ought by rights to ascribe to ourselves.  If we truly and earnestly recognize this, not only will all confidence in merit vanish, but the very notion.”[15]

Therefore, it is completely ridiculous for a Christian to be proud of, let alone boast in, his good deeds.  Not only are they all invariably marred and stained by indwelling sin, they are also the result of God’s grace, and His grace alone.  As with all of his other doctrines, Calvin’s understanding of the Christian’s good works serves to humble man and glorify God.

Part 4

Endnotes:
[1] “To this end also we pray for you always, that our God will count you worthy of your calling, and fulfill every desire for goodness and the work of faith with power.” (NASB)
[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3:2:35
[3] “And He was saying, ‘For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.’” (NASB)
[4] John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel According to John, 6:65.  See also Stanford Reid, “Justification by faith according to John Calvin”, Westminster Theological Journal 42 no 2 Spr 1980, p 295-296.  He writes, “Calvin’s stress upon ‘faith alone’ [for justification] had its roots in the fact that the believer’s faith is not something which he has concocted or manufactured himself.  It is the gift of God to his elect,” (296).
[5] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3:3:1
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid., 3:3:21
[8] Ibid.
[9] See Stanford Reid’s excellent article entitled “Justification by faith according to John Calvin”, Westminster Theological Journal 42 no 2 Spr 1980, p 290-307.  For two good resources regarding Luther’s understanding of justification by grace through faith, see Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand, 60-67; and Carter Lindberg’s The European Reformations, 56-73.
[10] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3:13:5
[11] Ibid., 3:13:1
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid., 3:13:2
[14] Stainford Reid, “Justification by faith according to John Calvin”, Westminster Theological Journal 42 no 2 Spr 1980, p 303-304.
[15] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3:15:3

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