John Calvin on Scripture: “The Letter Killeth”

KJVOft quoted, and always from the KJV for effect, is 2 Corinthians 3:6, “the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” It is then claimed that ‘Bible heavy sermons’ or ministries overcommitted to teaching from Scripture are unhealthy, even deadly. Instead, the inane logic continues, our ministries and preaching should be ‘Spirit led’ and lively, happily free from the dull old book.

Ignoring the laughable irony of quoting a Bible verse to prove that the Bible need not be prioritised, a careful reading of the verse in its context will show what Paul is and is not saying. For starters, the next verse refers to letters carved in stone and Moses (3:7), while a few verses earlier Paul mentions tablets of stone (3:3). Paul is contrasting what he calls the ministry of death with the apostolic ministry of a new covenant in the Spirit. Interestingly, this ministry involved the writing of epistles (like 2 Corinthians) not ‘Spirit soaking’ and ‘fire circles.’ To conclude that the “letter that killeth” is the Bible, rather than the Old Testament law, is to horribly misinterpret the passage.

It seems Christians in the 16th century were making a similar mistake by mangling 2 Corinthians 3:6. In his Institutes, Calvin wrote, “Those who, having forsaken Scripture, imagine some way or other of reaching God, ought to be thought of as not so much gripped by error as carried away with frenzy” (1.9.1). Calvin says we should ask those claiming that the “Spirit giveth life” which spirit they mean since the apostles and early church did not despise God’s written Word. “Rather, each was imbued with greater reverence as their writings most splendidly attest.” Listen to Paul, a few verses on from that verse ignorantly cited, “We have denounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practise cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Corinthians 4:2). Thus Calvin asks, “What devilish madness is it to pretend that the use of Scripture, which leads the children of God even to the final goal, is fleeting or temporal?”

Perhaps the gravest and most damaging mistake of those who misuse 2 Corinthians 3:6 is the wedge that they drive between God’s Word and the Holy Spirit. Calvin cites John 16:13 to show that the Spirit’s ministry was not the forging of  some new doctrine but the restatement and filling out of the gospel of grace. He goes on, “From this we readily understand that we ought zealously to apply ourselves to read…Scripture if indeed we want to receive any gain and benefit from the Spirit of God” (1.9.2). As I argued in my previous post, God has given us his Word in order for us to know him and to keep us from creating gods in our own image. Those who refer to the Bible as a letter that kills while claiming the Spirit gives life are taking with one hand what they give with the other. Worse, they must either claim that the Bible is not from the Spirit or that the Spirit contradicts himself. Hear Calvin, “[The Spirit] is the Author of Scripture: he cannot vary and differ from himself. Thence he must ever remain just as he once revealed himself there.” Preachers, ministries and churches that claim to be “Spirit-filled” without a serious commitment to reading and teaching the Bible are mistaken at best and fraudulent at worst.

Coming back to 2 Corinthians, Calvin points out that Paul refers to his preaching of the truth as the ministry of the Spirit (3:8). He argues that this undoubtedly means “the Holy Spirit so inheres in His truth, which He expresses in Scripture, that only when its proper reverence and dignity are given to the Word does the Holy Spirit show forth His power” (1.9.3). Baying like an animal, falling on the floor or prophesying in an unintelligible tongue is not the power of God’s Spirit; it is nothing more than frenzy and hype. The seemingly unexciting and dreary practise of opening the Bible is where we will see and experience the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit.

John Calvin on Scripture: Inventing God

IdolI am going to assume that you have noticed the power of social media to provide a voice and platform for opinions, however outlandish; perhaps you are reading this or have previously logged onto Rekindle and consider our biblically charged approach to issues outdated and irrelevant. Though if that is the case I am not sure why you have continued reading. Another thing I have observed on social media is that there are nearly as many opinions about God – ranging from her character to his non-existence – as there are adorable cat videos. God, it would seem, is up for definition. Tragically, it is often those who profess to be Christians whom I hear reimagining or revising God. But this does should not surprise us in a church landscape where the Bible is considered a relic, a quaint piece of our history rather than the living Word of God.

John Calvin put his finger on this human tendency when he wrote that the human heart is a “perpetual factory of idols” (1.11.8). Briefly surveying a few Old Testament passages he asserts that idolatry has plagued humanity since time immemorial. Our history and the whole earth is “polluted with idols.” If God did not exist then this would not be a problem, for we would then be free to create him in our own image. However, if God does exist then it is to our spiritual peril that we believe God to be contingent with our feelings and desires. Calvin writes, “Man’s mind, full as it is of pride and boldness, dares to imagine a god according to its own capacity.” One of the most prevalent errors heard in pulpits around the world today is contained in the phrase: ‘I think God…’, as if what we think determines who God is. Earlier Calvin says Christians who do not approach God’s Word in order to learn from God who he is “exult in their own vanity” (1.6.2). 

Christians must therefore be committed to the study of Scripture, for the Bible is not merely human words about God but his very words to us. This is how Christians have treated the Bible throughout the past two millennia. Churches that prefer the god conjured up in their own image worship nothing more than an idol. While churches that prioritise Scripture can know God as they encounter him in his inspired word. Listen to Calvin, “No one can get even the slightest taste of right and sound doctrine unless he be a pupil of Scripture. Hence, there also emerges the beginning of true understanding when we reverently embrace what it pleases God there to witness of himself” (1.6.2). When our opinions about God outweigh what God has clearly laid out for us through his written revelation we demonstrate only our pride in vain musings and obtain nothing more than the idols of our hearts. “Errors can never be uprooted from human hearts until true knowledge of God is planted therein” (1.6.3).

Do not accept opinions or settle for feelings. The next time your pastor or a preacher prefaces a point with ‘I like to think God is’ or ‘I cannot believe that God would’ tell them you prefer God’s truth to their thoughts. “God has provided the assistance of the Word for the sake of all those to whom be has been pleased to give useful instruction…Hence, we must strive onward by this straight path if we seriously aspire to the pure contemplation of God” (1.6.3). Calvin goes on to say that those who turn from God’s eternal Word wander from the only path, never reach the goal, and stagger blindly in vanity and error even though they seek God (1.6.4). To seek God is to search the Scriptures. Anything less is to search for God where he cannot be found or known.

Romans: The Righteousness of God

The men’s group that I am a part of has started reading through Paul’s epistle to the Romans and a few weeks back we considered Romans 1:17, ‘In the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”’ The question we discussed was one that has been asked throughout church history: how is the revelation of God’s righteousness good news?

RomansBefore his Turmerlebnis, or conversion, German Reformer Martin Luther understood what this verse meant, in part, and he hated it, deeming it decidedly bad news. Luther felt that God’s righteousness can only show up our own unrighteousness and wrestled with the claim that its revelation was desirable. In the Institutes, discussing the law, John Calvin writes, “It shows God’s righteousness, that is, the righteousness alone acceptable to God, it warns, informs, convicts, and lastly condemns, every man of his own unrighteousness” (2.7.6). If we advance no further than this view of God’s righteousness we can hardly call it gospel.

In his magisterial commentary on Romans, Douglas Moo provides a few options for understanding the “righteousness of God,” which explain Luther’s original disdain for the verse. Moo says that it has been understood to refer to the God’s attribute of righteousness and his just activity. Neither of these filled Luther with much hope, because he was a man well acquainted with his own sinfulness. But Moo offers another historical interpretation, one which both Luther would eventually champion: a righteousness attributed to us by God. In fact, upon consideration of these three options we hardly need to treat them as mutually exclusive, since Paul combines them in Romans 1-3.

Turning back to Romans 1:17, and the question over God’s righteousness being revealed in the gospel, a basic exercise in exegesis sets our course. For in the immediate context, Romans 1:16, we read, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” Notice that the same gospel that reveals the righteousness of God (1:17) is the powerful salvation of God for all who believe (1:16), not those who possess their own righteousness. So the revelation of God’s righteousness in the gospel must mean more than simply his righteousness or his just activity being displayed; it is somehow related to those who have faith in Christ.

It is when we reach Romans 3:21 that Paul brings these ends together. Having repeatedly shown in 1:18-3:20 that we do not possess a righteousness of our own, Paul writes, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested” (3:21). This righteousness does not come through the law but faith and belief in Jesus Christ (3:21-22). But how does faith reveal God’s righteous character and behaviour? The answer: God shows his righteousness in giving us the righteousness of Christ, in justifying us “by his grace as a gift” (3:24). Paul concludes, “It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (3:26). Drawing our minds back to 1:17, the gospel reveals the righteousness of God in at least two ways: firstly we see that he is just, not merely forgetting unrighteousness but punishing it in Christ (3:25); secondly we learn that he is the God who justifies those with faith.

InstitutesWe have covered much ground in a short space. Our original question was how is the revelation of God’s righteousness a good thing, since alongside it our blemishes and sin are made clearer? Added to that was another questions, how does our faith in Christ reveal God’s righteousness while also achieving salvation (1:16)? The answer to these questions comes in Romans 3:21-26, for in the gospel God’s righteousness is manifest. This happens as he simultaneously works in a way that is perfectly just and justifies those who are not perfect. Thus Calvin writes, looking at Romans 5, “God, to whom we are hateful because of sin, was appeased by the death of his Son to become favourable toward us…As by the sin of Adam we were estranged from God and destined to perish, so by Christ’s obedience we are received into favour as righteous” (2.17.3). “To God be the glory forever” (Romans 11:36).

Why We Don’t Serve in the Church

Last week I wrote a post unpacking part of John Calvin’s Institutes on gifts, the local church, and self-denial. Calvin shows that God is the giver of all that we have, including our gifts. If you are wealthy that is because God has been generous. If you possess a unique skill, your Creator installed it. Whatever you have it is not yours but God’s. Because he is the one who gives us our gifts he determines their end: the good of his church and ultimately his glory. The latter of those ends is impacted by how we use our gifts, our attitude and motivation. God is not glorified when we boast in our gifts—however public or impressive the demonstration. We also fail to give him due glory when we refuse to recognise that he is behind the gifts we see applied in the local church. In short, when we realise that our gifts are from God for service of his church and act accordingly God is worshipped.

Off the back of a few conversations about the previous post I felt the need to write a follow-up, exploring a few of the reasons people do not serve the local church with their gifts. I am sure you will be able to add your own observations to the list below, and I invite you to do so, for mine is certainly is not comprehensive.

We believe that our life is our own

The phrase ‘self-denial’ conjures up images of monastic misery and joyless perseverance. Yet for Calvin it was an unavoidable conclusion of believing the gospel, “We are not our own masters, but belong to God” (3.7.1). Citing both Romans 12:1-2 and 1 Corinthians 6:19 Calvin argues that God made us his own and therefore we should pursue his glory, indeed this is why he brought us to himself and his people. This truth is the root of self-denial, for if we belong to God we can forget ourselves as we find what God made us for. “Let this therefore be the first step, that a man depart from himself in order that he may apply the whole force of his ability in the service of the Lord” (3.7.1). Perhaps the most serious reason we are slow to serve in the local church is this, and it demands honest self-examination: I still believe that my life is my own. Once we understand that Christ has made us his own (Philippians 3:12), Calvin says seeking the Lord’s will – increasingly, though not always effortlessly – follows and we will serve others for the glory of God (3.7.2). Self-denial is not begrudgingly serving others; it is the glad service for which God made and saved us.

Our view of being gifted is shaped by the world

People are celebrated for being exceptional and we are constantly pointed to the achievements of remarkable people. This has lead to us misunderstanding the word ‘gifted’, limiting it to a small group of hallowed individuals in the local church. But that could not be further from the truth. Passages such as Ephesians 4:7-16 have long been used to perpetuate this error by creating elitism within the local church. Some look at Ephesians 4:11 and believe God is elevating the word or teaching offices above all others. However if you read the very next verse we learn why God gives gifted teachers to his churches: “to equip the saints for the work of ministry” (4:12). If you spend all your time marvelling at a mouth, discussing the shape of its lips and how straight the teeth are, but never recognise that the mouth is designed for nourishing the body, you will starve. Likewise, the word ministries are not to be marvelled at but put to use, teaching the church how to use their own gifts in service of others and equipping them for ministry.

We think too narrowly about gifts

This is linked with the previous point, for it is also an aspect of churches drawn to exceptional gifts but indifferent to the more mundane expressions of love and service. This was at least part of the problem Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians 12-14. Without entering the debate about the continuation of gifts such as tongues and healing – you can read some exploration of prophecy here, and here – let us note something undeniable: Paul does not limit gifts to the ‘spiritual’ set. He reminds the church that the Spirit apportions many gifts to create a body where each member has a valuable role (12:11-26). There is no place for division, instead we should honour the less impressive members and gifts in Christ’s church (12:21-25). Another point often overlooked in churches that boast the more spectacular gifts and manifestations is 12:31-13:13. Though Paul does call on Christians to “earnestly desire the higher gifts” he speaks of a “more excellent way” (12:31; also see 14:1). What is that? Love. Sacrificial service of God’s people using the gifts God gave you, regardless of being noticed for it. Unfortunately 1 Corinthians 13 has been misappropriated by so many lazy wedding preachers meaning that when we read 13:4-7 we forget that Paul is referring to relationships in the local church. Love shown practically in God’s church is a gift, one that surpasses the powerful and ostentatious ‘spiritual’ gifts.

We are not encouraged to discover our gifts

servingIn 1 Corinthians 12:11 Paul says that the Spirit has diversely apportioned gifts to everyone in the local church (also see Romans 12:6). We may not believe that, because few of us feel exceptionally gifted, like the powerful preacher in the pulpit, and we cannot speak in tongues or heal the sick. But listen to the apostle Peter, “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Peter 4:10). Now while Peter’s list does include the more public gifts such as speaking the oracles of God he includes serving in the same sentence (4:11). Peter also mentions loving one another (4:8) and hospitality (4:9). I will admit that I have given too little thought to the gift lists in the New Testament, but I also wonder if most of us have failed to give enough thought to God’s varied grace so that we might serve his body. In many churches today it feels like you are either a minister of the word (in home groups, church meetings, or evangelism) or you serve tea. But surely Christ did not give the former group to equip us to serve tea (Ephesians 4:11-12). God has gifted each member of his body for purpose. Discover your gifts and use them in service of your brothers and sisters, to the glory of our heavenly Father.

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.