Watch this 6-minute video from John Piper about John Calvin’s ministry in Geneva, Switzerland.
HT: Desiring God
Watch this 6-minute video from John Piper about John Calvin’s ministry in Geneva, Switzerland.
HT: Desiring God
John Calvin and C.S. Lewis seem to be worlds apart. If they had a theological debate, there’s no doubt they would have many points of disagreement. Calvin was, of course, a Reformer, and he espoused his system known as “Calvinism.” Lewis was an eclectic of sorts, a self-professed lay minister, and he was decidedly “Arminian.” Calvin was a sixteenth century pastor in Switzerland. Lewis was a twentieth century literature professor in Great Britain.
Yet at the same time, there is some overlap between these two men. One of the great things about Christianity is that the essentials of the faith make for strange (and willing) bedfellows.
The essential I have in mind is that unless we know God, we cannot know who we are. In the first chapter of Book I of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin writes:
Our feeling of ignorance, vanity, want, weakness, in short, depravity and corruption, reminds us, that in the Lord, and none but He, dwell the true light of wisdom, solid virtue, exuberant goodness. We are accordingly urged by our own evil things to consider the good things of God; and, indeed, we cannot aspire to Him in earnest until we have begun to be displeased with ourselves. For what man is not disposed to rest in himself? Who, in fact, does not thus rest, so long as he is unknown to himself; that is, so long as he is contented with his own endowments, and unconscious or unmindful of his misery? Every person, therefore, on coming to the knowledge of himself, is not only urged to seek God, but is also led as by the hand to find him. On the other hand, it is evident that man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he have previously contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into himself. For (such is our innate pride) we always seem to ourselves just, and upright, and wise, and holy, until we are convinced, by clear evidence, of our injustice, vileness, folly, and impurity. Convinced, however, we are not, if we look to ourselves only, and not to the Lord also—He being the only standard by the application of which this conviction can be produced.
Over 390 years later, near the end of Mere Christianity, Lewis echoes Calvin with his own unique touch:
The more we get what we now call “ourselves” out of the way and let Him take us over, the more truly ourselves we become. There is so much of Him that millions and millions of “little Christs,” all different, will still be too few to express Him fully. He made them all. He invented—as an author invents characters in a novel—all the different men that you and I were intended to be. In that sense our real selves are all waiting for us in Him. It is no good trying to “be myself” without Him. The more I resist Him and try to live on my own, the more I become dominated by my own heredity and upbringing and surroundings and natural desires. I am not, in my natural state, nearly so much of a person as I like to believe: most of what I call “me” can be very easily explained. It is when I turn to Christ, when I give myself up to His Personality, that I first begin to have a real personality of my own.
For Calvin, true knowledge of God produced a true knowledge of himself. For Lewis, turning to Christ unleashed his true personality. Different words. Different contexts. Same glorious principle: when we know God through Jesus Christ, we begin to see ourselves for who we really are and who we were intended to be.
Apart from God, we are stuck in a delusion, esteeming ourselves more highly than we ought and selling ourselves short of what we could become. In this delusion, we are left to be our own god—a role we were never meant to play and one which weighs far more than we can bear.
John Calvin is often black-eyed because of his aggressive, sometimes virulent personality. Even the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church claims that “Calvin was the ‘cruel’ and ‘the unopposed dictator of Geneva.’” Bruce Gordon, a Calvin biographer, states that Calvin knew how to manipulate relationships, intimidate, bully, and humiliate. In other words, he was a normal human being like you and me. Calvin seemed to be aware that his character hindered his ministry as in many of his writings he confession and lamented his sinfulness.
For many of Calvin’s critics the infamous “Servetus affair” defines his posthumous reputation. Michael Servetus was a theologian who taught doctrines contrary to the historic Christian faith in Geneva, the city where Calvin ministered. He was arrested in August 1553 for denying the Trinity and that Christ was the eternal Son of God. He was executed two months later when he was burned at the stake. To Calvin, Servetus was outside the circle of orthodoxy, for Servetus publicly denied the essentials of the faith and encouraged people to embrace his doctrines. Calvin was zealous for God’s reputation and did play a role in Servetus’s execution. Therefore, many think that John Calvin was racing around Switzerland and all of Europe hunting down heretics. Even more, many Christians categorically dismiss the doctrines Calvin taught because of this perception.
Before assuming Calvin was a heretic-burning maniac and dismissing his teachings, consider these points:
In Calvin’s zeal to protect his flock, he often lacked mercy and grace, as was most certainly the case with Servetus. We must not, however, envision that if Calvin were alive today he would be seeking out heretics to roast. At the same time, we know that Calvin was not an innocent bystander in this situation; yet his legacy is not in jeopardy because of Servetus’s death. Let us remember that Calvin failed us, and not just in the Servetus affair. Like the great men and women of the faith who went before him and came after, Calvin’s virtue lies in pointing us beyond himself to the only One who never failed us and never lacked mercy and grace. Like you and me, Calvin was a great sinner in need of a great Savior.
Let all those acute censors, whose highest pleasure it is to banish a reverential regard of Scripture from their own and other men’s hearts, come forward; let them read the Gospel of John, and, willing or unwilling, they will find a thousand sentences which will at least arouse them from their sloth; nay, which will burn into their consciences as with a hot iron, and check their derision. The same thing may be said of Peter and Paul, whose writings, though the greater part read them blindfold, exhibit a heavenly majesty, which in a manner binds and rivets every reader. But one circumstance, sufficient of itself to exalt their doctrine above the world, is, that Matthew, who was formerly fixed down to his money-table, Peter and John, who were employed with their little boats, being all rude and illiterate, had never learned in any human school that which they delivered to others. Paul, moreover, who had not only been an avowed but a cruel and bloody foe, being changed into a new man, shows, by the sudden and unhoped-for change, that a heavenly power had compelled him to preach the doctrine which once he destroyed. Let those dogs deny that the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles, or, if not, let them refuse credit to the history, still the very circumstances proclaim that the Holy Spirit must have been the teacher of those who, formerly contemptible among the people, all of a sudden began to discourse so magnificently of heavenly mysteries.
- Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.8.11
I am aware of what is muttered in corners by certain miscreants, when they would display their acuteness in assailing divine truth. They ask, how do we know that Moses and the prophets wrote the books which now bear their names? Nay, they even dare to question whether there ever was a Moses. Were any one to question whether there ever was a Plato, or an Aristotle, or a Cicero, would not the rod or the whip be deemed the fit chastisement of such folly? The law of Moses has been wonderfully preserved, more by divine providence than by human care; and though, owing to the negligence of the priests, it lay for a short time buried,–from the time when it was found by good King Josiah (2 Kings 22:8; 2 Chron. 34:15),–it has continued in the hands of men, and been transmitted in unbroken succession from generation to generation. Nor, indeed, when Josiah brought it forth, was it as a book unknown or new, but one which had always been matter of notoriety, and was then in full remembrance. The original writing had been deposited in the temple, and a copy taken from it had been deposited in the royal archives (Deut. 17:18, 19); the only thing which had occurred was, that the priests had ceased to publish the law itself in due form, and the people also had neglected the wonted reading of it. I may add, that scarcely an age passed during which its authority was not confirmed and renewed. Were the books of Moses unknown to those who had the Psalms of David in their hands? To sum up the whole in one word, it is certain beyond dispute, that these writings passed down, if I may so express it, from hand to hand, being transmitted in an unbroken series from the fathers, who either with their own ears heard them spoken, or learned them from those who had, while the remembrance of them was fresh.
- Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.8.9
Christians have asked this question centuries. Even in today’s globalized, social-media-driven world, Christians are still asking it. In question 60 of the Westminster Larger Catechism, the question is posed: “Can they who have never heard the gospel, and so know not Jesus Christ, nor believe in him, be saved by their living according to the light of nature?” Here is its answer:
They who, having never heard the gospel, know not Jesus Christ, and believe not in him, cannot be saved, be they never so diligent to frame their lives according to the light of nature, or the laws of that religion which they profess; neither is there salvation in any other, but in Christ alone, who is the Savior only of his body the church.
It is true that there is salvation in no other name than Jesus (Acts 4:12). To be saved means to confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe that he is risen from the dead (Rom. 10:9). God is sovereign and he saves those whom he wills (see Rom. 9:19-24; John 6:44; 10:25-28; Eph. 2:8-9). The unsaved are non-elect, and therefore, those who have not heard are not elect. Furthermore, people are condemned because they are guilty sinners (6:23). We must remember that there are no innocent people in the world (Rom. 2:12-16; 3:10-23).
How could this be, you ask, when a person in the jungles of Africa does not even know God exists? John Calvin helps us understand: “Since, then, there never has been, from the very first, any quarter of the globe, any city, any household even, without religion, this amounts to a tacit confession, that a sense of deity is inscribed on every heart. No, even idolatry is ample evidence of this fact.” (Institutes 1.3.1).
God promises there will be a multitude from every tribe, language, people, and nation who were ransomed by the blood of the Lamb and who will reign with him forever (Rev. 5:9-10). So rather than raising a finger at God for what is clearly taught in Scripture, we must resolve to spread the gospel across this earth, making disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:19-20). That might mean leaving all you have to be a frontier missionary. It might mean giving more (yes, more) money to missions. It will definitely mean praying often for unreached peoples. In all you do, remember to rest in the truth that God will bring all his sheep into one fold under the care and provision of their one, good Shepherd, Jesus Christ (John 10:16). cit confession, that a sense of deity is inscribed on every heart. No, even idolatry is ample evidence to this fact” (Institutes 1.3.1). There is a sense in every person that God exists. and the very fact that we worship something proves it.
To hear a little more on this, listen to a two minute audio clip to from John Piper.
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. (Romans 1:24-25)
The reason God gave people up in the lusts of their hearts is due to the fact that they “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images” (v. 23). God has simply given people what they really wanted. And as we have seen above, this is the wrath they will experience. It will not be true joy and happiness. It will not be satisfying and fulfilling. It will not be all they dreamed of. In fact, these dark exchanges will ruin their lives and cause them to be miserable. God “gave them up” (Gk. paradidōmi) is active and aorist in its tense, meaning it happened at one time. It also shows that God has done something, not simply “allowed” it to happen. This does not mean that God compels or causes people to sin—that would be contradictory to God’s nature and being (cf. James 1:13).
The human element in all of this is that these people have already chosen to rebel against God. They have given themselves up. On the other side of the coin, God, in his sovereignty, is still over all and controls the ebbs and flows of the world. Remember that our verb “gave them up” is active, not passive. God has not caused anyone to sin, but he reigns over them in his righteousness with his good, wise, and holy reasons.
What has God given people up to? Paul says to “the lusts of their hearts to impurity” and “the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves.” The first thing—“in the lusts of their hearts to impurity”—obviously carries with it heavy sexual connotations. But the greater thing to note is that Paul says that lust starts in the heart. Lust is not merely a physical problem, and “lust” is not only a sexual sin. Lusting means craving something that is forbidden. Even if we have not sinned sexually in our lives, we have still “lusted” after something (praise of man, companionship, success, money, etc.). The first thing Paul has in mind, however, is probably sexual immorality of any kind, because that is what he mentions first in vv. 26-27. The external actions of infidelity, homosexuality, pornography, sensuality, etc. are all symptoms of a greater disease: lust in the heart.
To stop fornicating or committing homosexual acts would not do anyone any good. The problem goes deeper than just our actions. Paul tells his reader that God has given people over, not to their physical desires, but to the lust that exists in their heart. Their hearts have longed for what they cannot and should not have; therefore God gives them over to impurity.
The word “impurity” is the Greek word akatharsia which means “uncleanness in a moral sense.” God has given people up to the lusts of their hearts to be morally unclean. This word is used 10 times in the New Testament, nine times in Paul. Every time Paul uses the word it is coupled with (and placed directly next to) sexual immorality (see Rom. 1:24; 6:19; 2 Cor. 12:21; Gal. 5:19; Eph. 4:19; 5:3; Col. 3:5; 1 Thess. 2:3; 4:7). There is no doubt that Paul has sexual immorality in mind when he speaks of moral impurity in Romans 1. Later in verse 24 confirms this because our “bodies” are what are dishonored when we sin sexually (1 Cor. 6:18).
The second thing—“the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves”—is probably a fuller description of the first phrase (Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, p. 112). In other words, this phrase describes what impurity really is. It is the “dishonoring” of your body among yourself. “The expression, among themselves, is not without its force; for it significantly expresses how deep and indelible are the marks of infamy imprinted on our bodies” (Calvin).
God’s desire is for our sanctification, especially in the area of sexuality (see 1 Thess. 4:3-4). Instead of being delivered over to impurity, God wants us to surrender to him and be pure sexually, and in all areas of life. It is no wonder that some 2,000 years after Paul wrote this letter our world is plagued by devastating sexual sin. People have what they desired, and it is ruining lives, families, cultures, and whole countries. God have mercy.