John Calvin: Our Gifts and the Church

Though wisdom and my recent less than prodigious blogging record suggests that I should not commit to any sort of writing project, with this post I am setting out on series of articles reflecting on John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. Reading through his tremendous work in 2017 proved to me the practical value of solid systematic theology, as I found myself drawing on it in pastoral situations as well as for preaching. In writing these posts I hope to impress that value upon my readers.

Under the headings below I have summarised part of Calvin’s teaching on the use of our gifts in the local church, which is strikingly embedded in a section on self-denial. The setting of gifts under the heading of self-denial will seem strange to many Christians today, since gifts are usually paraded about, elevating individuals in the believing community. This creates an ungodly discontentment with the gifts God has equipped us, along with an unhealthy elitism, both of which are unbiblical and far from the mind of Christ.

Our gifts are from God (3.7.4)

Calvin notes that God calls us to esteem others above ourselves (Philippians 2:3-4), applying ourselves to doing them good. God calls us to this because naturally we are only concerned for ourselves (Philippians 2:21). Furthermore, Calvin says, we long to tower over others, which we accomplish through unfair comparisons and self-flattery. We all serve the “kingdom in our breast.” Ironically we attempt this self-aggrandisement through the things we have received from God, the abilities that might set us apart from others. Therefore, alluding to 1 Corinthians 4:7, Calvin writes, “We are instructed to remember that those talents which God has bestowed upon us are not our own goods but the free gifts of God; and any person who become proud of them show their ungratefulness.” Calvin frequently picks this theme up throughout his Institutes, quoting Cyprian elsewhere, ‘We ought to glory in nothing, because noting is ours’ (2.2.9).

Our gifts are for others (3.7.5)

Because the gifts we have are not ours, Calvin writes, “Whatever benefits we obtain from the Lord have been entrusted to us on this condition: that they be applied to the common good of the church.” Our talents, abilities, wealth, skills, and time do not ultimately belong to us; they are given by God for his church. Calvin discusses our gifts under self-denial because without renouncing ourselves we will never give wholly to others, doing Christ’s works of love. “We are the stewards of everything God has conferred on us by which we are able to help our neighbour, and are required to render account of our stewardship.” God has been generous to every one of his children in the church, both saving them and equipping them with gifts (respectively Ephesians 2:8-10 and 4:11-16). So we must remember that we are accountable for what we do with what God has given us, all of it. It is to this point that Jesus told his parable of the tenants (Luke 19:11-27).

Our hearts determines the value of our gifts (3.7.7)

Under 3.7.6 Calvin touches on the image of God to convict us when we are slow to use God’s gifts in service of others. If we deem someone unworthy of our efforts, “the Lord shows him to be one to whom he has deigned to give the beauty of his image.” This, Calvin argues, means that the love we must show others requires that we look first to God, paradoxically, and not people. If we love him then we ought to love and serve those made in his image. This brings Calvin to a conclusion, in 3.7.7, dealing with our attitude as we serve others, not forgetting the two points above. There can be no pride when it comes to our gifts, nor arrogance in our use of them. Once we have properly understood that all gifts we possess are from God for others we should learn to give freely, not under compulsion. When we serve others we must refuse to consider those helped as indebted to us, since we are merely being generous with what God has given us (1 Peter 4:11). Finally, what limits should be set on service and the sharing of God’s gifts? Calvin says only the end of our resources and the rule of love.

John Calvin on Suffering

Institutes volume 1One of my goals for 2017 has been to work through John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion in its entirety, with the hope of engaging with it in 2018 by way of blogging. I have drawn on his work in the past: challenging comfortable Christianity and in thinking about God’s sovereignty. But the reason I am writing this post now – as one untimely born – is because over the past few weeks I have found myself drawing on the Institutes for both pastoral counseling and preaching. While this post will focus on some gleanings from Calvin and suffering, I hope that it will be an encouragement to the reader that studying theology has practical value. Theological study is far more than a rite of passage to pastoral ministry; it is a vital aspect of any pastoral ministry.

Distinguish between punishment and discipline

I am sure you have heard, ‘I don’t think God sends suffering, because he loves us.’ But when you read the Bible we learn that it is precicely because God loves us that he sends suffering. Calvin captures this well, “Children are beaten with rods, not to pay the penalty for their sins to God, but in order thereby to lead to repentance” (3.4.33). So he says that suffering in the Christian life is future and not past orientated, “While we as children of God are afflicted by the hand of the Heavenly Father, this is not a penalty to confound us, but only a chastisement to instruct us” (3.4.33). The point Calvin drives home is that when we face trials and afflictions God is growing us through the experience, he is strengthening our faith. When we suffer we generally think it is the result of three things: (a) the work of Satan, (b) the result of our sin, or (c) the absence of God’s love. Calvin deals with the first of those under the next heading and he encourages us to consider the possibility of the second along with the absurdity of the third. “He who in the end profits by God’s scourges is the man who considers God angry at his vices, but merciful and kindly toward himself” (3.4.34). Grasping this biblical truth is a comfort and balm for Christians who suffer: our Father loves us and in his sovereignty sends both happiness and hardship, to turn us away from sin and back to himself.

Learning from the suffering of Job

William BlakeDiscussing the sovereign will of God, Calvin (2.4.2) looks at Job 1, where Job suffers at the hands of the Chaldeans. Though it is the Chaldeans who kill his shepherds and ravage his flocks (Job 1:17), if we look back a few verses we learn that this stems from Satan (Job 1:12). However, Calvin writes, “Job recognizes the Lord’s work in it” (Job 1:21). Considering these three verses, Calvin asks, “How may we attribute this same work to God, to Satan, and to man as author, without either excusing Satan as associated with God, or making God the author of evil?” That is an important question to which Calvin offers an excellent answer: Satan sought to drive Job to desperation; the Chaldeans are motivated by greed or envy, or both; and God’s purpose is to exercise the patience of his servant. It is that last point that we battle with, even if it is undeniable as we read the text (Job 1:11; 2:6). Even if we emphasise that God allows this suffering to come upon Job, we cannot evade the fact that God is sovereign in Job’s suffering. Calvin argues that we must observe the distinction between purpose (or end) and manner. For while the deed (or manner) is simultaneously attributed to God, Satan, and men, the outcome is that God’s righteousness and the faithfulness of Job is made apparent and contrast with the wickedness of Satan and the Chaldeans. The point for us to take away is that God is sovereign in suffering, but his purpose is that he is glorified through our genuine and persevering faith (1 Peter 1:6-7).

True biblical hope

In a lengthy section on the continuity between Old and New Testaments, Calvin shows how the promises made to Israel were for future blessedness, eternal life in the presence of God. Calvin is astounded that some think God promised the Jews “nothing but a full belly, delights of the flesh, flourishing wealth, outward power, fruitfulness of offspring, and whatever the natural man prizes” (2.10.23), the same things many false teachers promise God’s people today. So in 2.10.7-22 he outlines a few conclusions we can draw from Israel’s faith that are analogous to our own: happiness is elusive and ephemeral, many of us experience it only in snatches; death still stalks our world and therefore we must hope for immortality; and the abundant blessings promised to God’s people are surely not known in this groaning creation. The hope for them, as it is for us, is to know God and enjoy him forever. Thus Calvin writes, “Souls, unless they be joined to God through righteousness, remain estranged from him in death. On the other hand, such a union when present will bring everlasting salvation with it” (2.10.8); “They whom he, who is judge of death and life, had received into his tutelage, care, and protection are not snuffed out even by death” (2.10.9). That is biblical hope: the certainty of an imperishable and unfading future kept for us by God as we are kept by his strength (1 Peter 1:3-5).

In conclusion, Calvin does not deny the joy of knowing God in the present life. But we should not deny its troubles. Taking Calvin’s three points together we can have confidence in our afflictions, which come from God and are designed for our good and his glory. Suffering comes in order to train our faith and fix our eyes on the hope that will not fail. For we know a God who is sovereign and in control. He will use all things for his glory and the good of those who love him.

Doodle: Childlessness and the Sovereignty of God

I have now written a couple of posts arguing against the position of many Christians that says married couples must at least attempt to have children. Most recently I challenged what I believe are weak arguments against deliberate childlessness, developing another post I wrote on the topic last year. This shorter post is a personal note, appended to those linked above. And I am writing it because though I stand by my position, my wife and I recently had a child; in fact, we knew my wife was pregnant when my first post went up. So here, very briefly, I want to answer some of the pointed criticisms and more emotional reactions to my posts.

God is sovereign

Institutes volume 1One comment on my original post read, “You aren’t the one who decides if you have kids or not. You may do your best to prevent it, but if the Lord wants you to procreate you are going to have kids.” AJ, who posted the comment, could not have been more correct. We had decided that we did not want children, but God willed something else. I am reading through Calvin’s Institutes this year and it was certainly no coincidence that I read this the day before my son was born, “Augustine rightly complains that wrong is done to God when a higher cause of things than his will is demanded” (1.14.1). Calvin also writes that we must accept God’s secret purposes. Though that section addresses speculation, it applies well to sovereignty. Later, Calvin writes, “If we had quiet and composed minds ready to learn, the final outcome would show that God always has the best reason for his plan (1.17.1).

Children are a gift

Since God is sovereign it follows that children are the result of him giving them to us. They are not something everyone is entitled to, nor are they something every married couple should expect (or demand) from God. This is surely part of the reason children are called a blessing throughout the Old Testament. My wife and I are very grateful for our son. Our experience of him has been serendipitous, an unlooked for delight. But because children are a gift, a blessing from the Lord, all of us must remember what the Puritan Samuel Rutherford wrote in one of his letters, “I write my blessing to that sweet child, whom you have borrowed from God; he is not heritage to you, but a loan, love him as folks do borrowed things.” We are not entitled to children, as Rutherford says they are not our heritage but borrowed from God. We are entrusted with children, to treasure and take care of them.

How to we respond to God’s sovereignty and gifts?

Theodore LewisThis is the question all of us must answer, and not only when God gives or withholds children. At another point in his Institutes (1.16.6), Calvin shows that the scope of God’s sovereignty is ubiquitous, “Nothing at all in the world is undertaken without his determination.” This, Calvin says, means that discontentment with our lot is nothing other than the attempt to rid ourselves of God’s purposes. AJ’s comment on my post touched on this, “Hopefully if your wife does get pregnant the child is not aborted. Surely a pastor would not do that.” I would want to add that no Christian would do that. But the point as I conclude is the question: how do we respond to God’s sovereignty, and the gifts he does or does not give us? One of the names we were considering for our son was Felix, which is Latin for lucky or fortuitous. The name we settled on was Theodore, ‘gift of God.’

Doodle: Was Calvin a Calvinist?

Institutes volume 1I can still remember it as if it were yesterday, though it was something like 7 years ago. I had been a Christian for around a year and my growth had been nourished by the ongoing conversations with my youth leaders, as well as sitting at their feet as they discussed the higher, hallowed ground of my newly discovered faith. As an inquisitive 18 year old, I loved to sit within earshot of my leaders thrashing out – what I would later know as – theology. And a name mentioned in those discussions more often than others was that of John Calvin, the 16th century Reformer. Though, to be fair, I probably only knew him as Calvin; his (first name,) historical context and immense influence in the development of Protestantism was unknown to me. Yet I knew this: Calvin was the root of another word, ‘Calvinism.’ And Calvinism, which could simply be summed up with the acronym TULIP, was his major contribution to theology.

And now we are approaching the point (I use this word loosely) of my doodle. The moment which I remember so plainly was the first time I got hold of John Calvin’s Institutes. But turning up the contents page, to my dismay and sheer horror, I found that the book wasn’t structured into five headings, beginning with (1) Total depravity, (2) Unconditional election, and so forth. There weren’t even five, but only four, chapters! And to further my astonishment, these chapters were called ‘Books.’ What was going on? “How could this be?” Had I not stumbled onto the writings of another John Calvin, who happened to also written an Institutes? Because I knew that John Calvin’s theological system turned on 5 major points, “It does. Doesn’t it?” No. It doesn’t. The Synod of Dort might have had 5 points, in answer to Jacobus Arminius’ theology. Calvinism might be put plainly, simply stated under those 5 points. But let’s stop pigeon-holing John Calvin into every Reformed Protestant’s favourite acronym.

Allow me to make two points in conclusion. The first is that Calvin’s theology is much richer, diverse and more glorious than those tired headings. The Institutes present a more cohesive and grand theological system than TULIP ever did, or could. I am not suggesting that he does not develop and draw on aspects of what we would call Calvinism, but to argue that they are the touchstones of his theology is going too far. The second point, which is more of a challenge to both reader and myself, is that we should be reading Calvin instead of trading in overly simplified phrases that are becomingly increasingly embattled, just think of (3) Limited atonement. You might disagree with everything I have said. But if you’re going to do that then you need to first suspend the idea that TULIP does the best job of explaining Calvin’s theology (my first point) and dust off the Institutes to find out for yourself if I’m wrong (my second point). But whatever you do, please stop reducing John Calvin to Calvinism, simply for namesake.