Calvin on God’s Self Disclosure

In Chapter V of Book One of The Institutes, Calvin shows how God makes Himself plain to us in creation and in His care for us.   And he also shows how we fail to see what’s clearly set before us.

It’s our tendency to receive gifts and audacious blessings from God without recognizing that the source was His hand.

“There are innumerable evidences both in heaven and on earth that declare His wonderful wisdom…..which thrust themselves upon the sight of even the most untutored and ignorant persons, so that they cannot open their eyes without being compelled to witness them”  p.53

The stars, science and art reveal God at work around and within us.  We just need to observe them in order to get  a view of the excellence of the nature of God.   God is revealing himself to us in creation and also in his care for us.    We  see evidence of Him all around us, above us, and in the blessings we receive.

God reveals himself to us, and our vision is dim and we fail to see who is pouring these gifts on us, or we  misinterpret the revelation.

We’re proud and like to take credit and receive glory wherever we can.  And so, just where we would best give praise to God where he blesses us, we choose instead to  take the honor for ourselves.

“Here the foul ungratefulness of men is disclosed.  They have within themselves a workshop graced with God’s un-numbered works, and at the same time, a storehouse overflowing with inestimable riches.  They ought then to break forth into praises of him, but are actually puffed up and swelled with all the more pride.”  p.55

Blessings are poured out on us in all sorts of forms.  In the world around us, the stars above us, our ability to think and reason, and in material provision……and these are only a taste of the goodness we receive, and when the proper response would be humble thankfulness and Praise to God, we turn around and pat ourselves on the back and strut around as if the blessing was our own concoction.

As if your pretty face, your ability to work and earn money, your talent at anything, your brilliant children, your nice house, even the joy of being able to complete a thought… if these were not just marvellous gifts poured upon you by a loving Father.  As if you got it all on your own.   As if you deserve it.

“Shall we think ourselves the inventors of so many arts and useful things that God may be defrauded of his praise even thought experience sufficiently teaches that what we have has been unequally distributed among us from another source?”   p57

I think this may be the only place where Barry Switzer and John Calvin will ever be mentioned in the same breath, but while I was reading this section of The Institutes, I was reminded of my favorite Switzer quote:

“Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple.”

John Calvin and Persecution

“The LORD their God will save them on that day
as the flock of his people.
They will sparkle in his land
like jewels in a crown.”

Zechariah 9:16

“They will be mine,” says the LORD Almighty, “in the day when I make up my treasured possession. [a] I will spare them, just as in compassion a man spares his son who serves him.”

Malachi 3:17

“Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers.[a] Be shepherds of the church of God,[b] which he bought with his own blood.”

Acts 20:28

These passages describe God’s attitude towards His body, the church.

The Church is precious to God.  John Calvin wrote The Institutes of the Christian Religion for a body of people who were precious to God, but who were being  arrested, tortured, murdered in his homeland.  Calvin had left his home in France, and was living in exile in Switzerland.   After the  initial publication of The Institutes, it attracted the negative attention of church and governing authorities.
Calvin responded to this attention by writing a letter to King Francis I of France.  (And the reverence with which he addresses the king stands in such stark contrast to the casual lack of esteem we show towards governing authorities with whom we disagree, even on the most minor  points.)  Calvin, here with delicate and proper honor towards the king God has established over him, clearly and elegantly calls this king and his realm precisely what he sees them to be.

“I embrace the common cause of all believers, that of Christ Himself – a cause completely torn and trampled in your realm today, lying as it were, utterly forlorn, more through the tyranny of certain pharisees than with your approval.  Ungodly men have so far prevailed that Christ’s truth, even if it is not driven away scattered and destroyed, still lies hidden, buried and inglorious.”

It is hardly recognized or understood in the greater body of the Christian church today that this kind of evil went on in the name of Christ. That one group , claiming to speak and act for God, would behave in such a blatantly un-Biblical manner towards another group.  How can this happen?  And when and how will it happen again?

A bit more Calvin

Here’s an article from Time Magazine’s series  “10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now” about John Calvin’s continuing cultural impact  and how it’s being felt 500 years later.  It’s interesting to note that Time has a clearer understanding of Calvin’s teachings on God’s sovereignty than some Presbyterians have, at least as it’s lightly flitted over in this short article.

And, here also, at the Christian Reader, is a good review of Steven J. Lawson’s book, The Expository Genius of John Calvin. Calvin really has my attention  because I can see the urgent need for the generation that’s growing up now (that would be the generation my kids are in…)  to model Calvin in his rigorous study of scripture, his  understanding  of the times in which he lived,  his vision for   scriptural solutions to the problems before him, and his ability to communicate  brilliantly.

Here is an exerpt from Eric Rauch’s article:

“In an age of PowerPoint presentations and preaching to the felt needs of the congregation, the expository style of John Calvin needs to be recovered. Calvin believed that God knew best what His people should know, and he faithfully taught what God had to say: word-by-word, verse-by-verse. Topical sermons approach the Bible as a sort of encyclopedia of divine wisdom, often taking a pre-conceived conclusion TO the Bible looking for scriptural support. Lawson commends Calvin’s preaching method as a needed antidote to halt the modern church’s slide into secularism and irrelevance.”

This one is now on my list to find and read.

Introduction to The Institutes (and a little skunking)

I spent the week, during odd and short moments when I could sneak off alone, reading the various introductions to a couple of different editions of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, and have also skimmed over a couple of brief biographies of Calvin.  It’s been extra busy  this week, and once I had to lock myself into the powder bath room off my office so I could read undisturbed beginning at 5:30am.    I hid my running shoes so people might assume I had gone off on the trail, and I got an hour out of that little ruse.
Anyhow,  it’s all so very intriguing to me to see how the direction of Calvin’s  life changed and how he developed as a force for Christ as he responded rightly to the circumstances around him.  I am so encouraged and inspired by his struggles and his tireless labors in the face of sorrow and trials and adversity.

He was born into a pious Catholic family, and according to the Catholic websites and one kind of old and dogeared article from an old Catholic Encyclopedia, he was dutifully trained up by his mother to be a good Catholic.  And so these publications ask, basically, “What in the world happened to our boy?”  There is a suggestion that he developed a mental imbalance which manifested itself for the first time when he experienced what  he called his “conversion” as a very young man… which time he broke all ties with the Catholic church.

After this,  as French Protestants, among whom were  his own friends,  were being arrested and burned daily, Calvin was writing this treatise on Biblical Christian faith.    The idea in view was that anyone craving  a deeper understanding of true biblical  teachings might find them in his book.   There was nothing of the sort  available to them in the church.

What a bold and beautiful living out of the faith that is!  I love reading this book, and knowing why he put it on paper.  He gladly risked the dangers which were so pervasive  in Europe during the 1530s and ’40s, as he knew that he must stand and make the teachings of Christ plain for every man.

I am so thankful it’s still available to read, and as I have read some of this background material, it’s clear that it’s important for all believers to develop some degree of a similar ability to articulate our faith to whomever we may encounter, and we need to be particularly noisy in doing this when there appears to be persecution of the faithful going on all around us.

I was so much looking forward to putting this post together, and I wrote something up ahead of time and had to save it as a document because our internet was out for a time.  Then when I went to find it, it was all scrambled and full of what looked like cartoon character profanity….tell me you know what that looks like.  I thought, Oh….God is sovereign and would prefer that I write a different post on this, perhaps.

So I did.  And then I went to work a bit on this website, but as I am from the wrong generation and am at all times stumbling in the dark on this business of doing tricky stuff on a computer, somehow I lost post #2….it had to do with trying to cut and paste and change the font.

So that was all on Friday, then our weekend was a bit special with many many extra people, perhaps I had a total of 20 extras around my table from Friday to Sunday.

So this post was left until today.
And stuff was going on as it always does on Monday, so an hour ago I sat down to write here.  I put my little doggies outside for the last “visit” of the evening and turned my attention to this little project.  And as I settled into the chair……just at that moment,  both of my dogs were skunked right outside the dining room door.  Since all our windows are open, the aroma made a beeline for the interior of the house.  And of course,  the entire family was immediately pounding down the stairs to inform me that there seemed to be a skunk in the house upstairs.

The reason this happened is clear.  It’s because I said to someone here this morning “Can you believe the dogs haven’t been skunked even ONCE this spring!”    As the words left my mouth, I knew I should have just kept quiet.

Reading through the Institutes

Last year marked John Calvin’s 500th birthday, and I observed on the inter-net that there were many scholarly men who celebrated that anniversary by reading The Institutes of the Christian Religion and discussing this massive piece of work using study questions over the course of 2009.  What a perfect way to celebrate Calvin’s defense of Biblical Christian theology….by making it live again in the hearts of a new generation!

But last year,  I was treading water far out at sea, trying to read 100 books, and to train for and run a marathon.
As I was nearly always going down for the last time in that endeavor, the idea of joining those scholarly men was out of the question.    Tempting… enticing… but beyond my reach.
I did want to read Calvin, and I do want to understand what he had to say.  But, having bitten off more than I could chew last year, I’ve learned enough not to repeat precisely that mistake again.  So I will not even pretend that I could read both volumes in one year.  I have a pile of other books I to read, and I don’t want to rush through this one.   I will also not pretend that I am scholarly.   I’m taking advantage of  every resource I can find to help me understand Calvin better.

I  began reading Volume One on January 1, 2010.  I’m literally crawling through the book and have only covered a quarter of the first volume.

My interest in this book is not to argue about the finer points of Calvinism.  Other people can do that.  My interest is in understanding how Calvin clearly set forth the gospel in an effort to correct the errors of the  Church, and to see how and why his teachings remain relevant so many years later.
I have kids in my home who are preparing themselves for university and for life. It seems to me that, by reading the works of men of faith like Calvin and Luther and others who have written a necessary defense Biblical Christianity  in the face of persecution,  we can all blow away some of the muddled confusions that keeps Christians from knowing how to respond to messy doctrine.  With all the confused teachings in the North American church today, it’s a good idea for us to send our kids out ready to think clearly and recognize nonsense when it presents itself.   If their thinking is clear and un-muddled, then they are freed up to lead in obedience.

And it’s scripture we read  FIRST. Then we read men who have explained scripture well.  Having scripture explained well is a tremendous blessing, and for me, so far, Calvin has been enormously helpful  when I am thinking of how to choose wording in the most simple way for evangelism.  Calvin takes principles and teachings I have read again and again, and he turns them over so that I am able to see a new facet and gain an understanding I had missed before.
Calvin said himself, of the Institutes “My mind was to teach certain rudiments whereby they that are touched by some zeal of religion might be instructed to true godliness.”  So, instruction in true godliness is just what we need.

I am learning so much as I read through his teachings.  I would love to hear from anyone else who’s reading this first volume too.

I am going to work from the notes I have taken and write one blog post weekly, each Monday, working first from the Introduction and prefatory letter to King Francis, and moving straight through to the end.  It may take the rest of my natural life, but that’s OK with me.

So here is an invitation.
Next Monday I will begin with that prefatory material, and the following week will be Book One, the first three chapters.

So if anyone’s interested in joining in, I would love to have  friends along with me.