Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Who Was John Calvin? (Part 2 of 3)

 By Matthew Everhard

As I suggested in my previous post (see part 1 of 3) Calvin’s theology is nothing short of brilliant—not for its innovation, but rather for its fidelity to God’s Word. We might be able to summarize his theology accurately under four primary headings. First, as a basic presupposition, Calvin held that the Bible is the very Word of God. While we may take this for granted today, it was not at all certain among those living in the 1500’s! Church tradition, the authority of the Pope, and even “the dreams of fanatics” (a phrase he often used to deride his heretical opponents) all battled for authority against the sacred text of Scripture. He often relied heavily upon this doctrine, “Sola Scriptura,” with his many conflicts against the Roman Catholics as well as against outright heretics like Michael Servetus. If the Bible was not seen to be the Word of God, common ground would be impossible. Calvin worked tirelessly to overthrow all rivals to Scripture itself.

Secondly, Calvin was absolutely consumed by the glory of God. For Calvin, God was the supreme ruler over the entire universe. God is the creator of all things, the writer of all history, and the planner of all events. For this reason, Calvin was consumed by the providence of God as an explanation for all events, including the salvation of the soul. Calvin rightly recognized that, due to the fall of man, human beings are simply incapable of being saved by their own work or efforts. God Himself would have to intervene. God’s chosen way of intervention to redeem humanity was to become a human being Himself in the person of Jesus Christ. Christ’s perfect life and death on the cross as a substitutionary sacrifice afforded mankind the only hope of salvation by grace, through faith. Calvin insisted, as all evangelicals rightly do today, that “salvation is found in no one else; for there is no other name given under heaven among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

Because of Calvin’s passion for the sovereignty of God, he firmly taught the biblical doctrine of election (or predestination) found in such Biblical texts as Ephesians one and Romans nine. This, for Calvin, was an essential that must be understood, for apart from divine grace through election, mankind was simply unable to “choose” God on his own without God intervening first, to give new birth to the heart. Salvation then, for Calvin, was entirely a matter of God’s work. True, mankind must repent and believe the gospel, this much is certain, but without God’s work through the power of the Holy Spirit to change our hearts (conversion) and give us new life (regeneration) we are simply too blind to recognize the danger of our sinful condition or the necessity of saving faith in Jesus Christ on our own. God would have to do the work of conversion!

Thirdly, Calvin placed a tremendous stress on Christian piety, or holy living. Having been redeemed by grace through faith alone, man can do no other thing that respond in joy and obedience. Having been saved, Christians ought to determine to live lives of joyful obedience and mission. The Law in the Old Testament, Calvin taught, still had three primary purposes for the believer that must be put into effect. First, the Law shows us our weaknesses. Like looking at our dirty faces in the mirror, the commands of the Scripture show us where we constantly need to repent and improve. Second, Calvin taught that the commands of the Bible (especially the Ten Commandments) show us how to live in harmony and unity as the covenant people of God. Even unbelievers ought to be restrained by the promises of a harmonized society and the dangers of punishment for disobedience! But thirdly and most importantly, Calvin stressed that the precepts of the Lord show us how we can truly live lives that please and glorify God! This, Calvin would insist, ought to be the purest motivation for Christian obedience.

A fourth primary heading of Calvin’s theology might be summarized by his ardent stress on the nature of the Church and the mandate of Christian witness in the world. For Calvin, the true Church was defined as a covenant community of believers where the Scripture are proclaimed faithfully as the authoritative Word of God, and the Sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are rightly administered. Surprising to some who are new to Calvin’s works, his longest chapter in the Institutes is not about predestination, but rather on prayer! Yes, the Church and her people, empowered by the Holy Spirit, are to be the primary vehicle by which the Kingdom of God is triumphantly proclaimed in the world. For this reason, Calvin’s successors would be ardent missionaries, planting hundreds of churches in France and beyond! Calvin urged his parishioners to live boldly together as the people of God must: bound in submission to the Word of God, yet free to live as Spirit-empowered witnesses in a broken and hurting world.

Because of Calvin’s powerful passion for the unrivaled glory of God, it is no wonder that many of his hearers would rather die for their faith in Jesus Christ than recant their new found passion for the saving grace of God!

Calvin’s later followers would summarize his teaching in the compact acronym called “TULIP.” While Calvin himself did not invent or use this device, those who read and value his writings have held this to be a faithful representation of his work for several centuries.

See part 3/3. 

Matthew Everhard is the Senior Pastor of Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Brooksville, Florida. Follow him on Twitter @matt_everhard

1 comment:

  1. Yes, it is truly when I realized and repented that I knew that on my own I can never choose God--the Holy Spirit must work in me first-so that I may know God. It was such a beautiful revelation to me when I learned that at the age of 25.