In Brief: Calvin on the Christian Life

2016 - Calvin on the Xn LifeTitle: Calvin on the Christian Life (Theologians on the Christian Life series)
Author: Michael Horton

Pages: 262

As I passed by the closeout section at a not-so-local Christian bookstore, I couldn’t pass this one up for $3.75. I now know this will be my first dip into the Theologians on the Christian Life series. I am happy to have stumbled upon a great bargain, and a great read to start the new year. Broadly speaking, the series aims to get beyond the common caricatures of popular pastors & theologians. Too often, folks grab hold of the wildest imaginative exaggeration of a person’s beliefs and build an unfortunately lasting case. Or, as is often the case with matters of religion, the summaries of critics – written in response to “followers” who themselves misinterpret original intentions – rule the day in terms of determining an individual’s legacy. I am thankful for a series whose outright aim is to dispel the fiction that has all-too-long cast harsh dividing lines among Christian brothers and sisters.

The book is well written and engaging, not a doctrinal defense but rather an engagement of Calvin’s life in light of his beliefs. His writings are widely quoted, not just from the Institutes, but also from letters and commentaries that provide greater insight into the heart behind the weighty texts. It is encouraging to read of Calvin’s engagement with his supporters as well as his critics, of his love for his wife Idelette, and his involvement in matters of the public arena.

I found the final chapter, regarding Calvin’s view of the future life while simultaneously looking at his own death, to be the most moving. In particular, the words of his last will and testament reveal not a cold Christian (again, the all-too-common caricature), but rather a man humbly dependent on the grace of God in the sacrifice of Christ.

 

“I have no other defense or refuge for salvation than his gratuitous adoption on which alone my salvation depends. With my whole soul I embrace the mercy which he has exercised towards me through Jesus Christ, atoning for my sins with the merits of his death and passion, that in this way he might satisfy for all my crimes and faults, and blot them from his remembrance. 

I testify also and declare that I suppliantly beg of Him that he may be pleased so to wash and purify me in the blood which my Sovereign Redeemer has shed for the sins of the human race, that under his shadow I may be able to stand at the judgment seat. I likewise declare that, according to the measure of grace and goodness which the Lord hath employed toward me, I have endeavored, both in my sermons and also in my writings and commentaries, to preach his Word purely and chastely, and faithfully to interpret His sacred Scriptures.

But, woe is me! My ardor and zeal (if indeed worthy of the name) have been so careless and languid, that I confess I have failed innumerable times to execute my office properly, and had not He, of His boundless goodness, assisted me, all that zeal had been fleeting and vain. Nay, I even acknowledge that if the same goodness had not assisted me, those mental endowments which the Lord bestowed upon me would, at His judgment seat, prove me most guilty of sin and sloth. For all these reasons, I testify and declare that I trust no other security for my salvation than this, and this only, viz., that as God is the Father of mercy, he will show himself such a Father to me, who acknowledge myself to be a miserable sinner.” 

 

In his death, he longed to be buried in obscurity, to give all he had to those in need, and to move one step closer to the future life. Never desiring a movement or theological position to be based upon his name, witnesses testify that he spent his final weeks in prayer, attending worship and meeting with friends and city officials. He served the Lord faithfully to the end.

Many of the Reformed church, as well as those under the Calvinist moniker, are known for intellectual and theological rigor. Yet the example of Calvin was one of heart and humility, all too aware of human frailty, yet confident in the goodness of God as Creator, Sustainer, Provider, Redeemer, and Joy. His views of common grace opened the door to an appreciation of creation and human creativity. His veracity in pursuit of God through the Scriptures is encouraging to any who seek to know God through his inerrant Word.

Indeed, many disagree with his theological positions. But in an age where we reduce individuals to a label, I am grateful for a book (and a series) which serves to restore humanity and compassion to the individuals who so faithfully gave themselves to the bride of Christ.

 

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On Eternal Perspective: The Great Divorce #8

George MacDonald 1860s.jpgIf you’ve been reading along, chapter 9 is by far the longest, and perhaps the most intriguing yet. The Writer finally encounters his Bright Person, a favorite author named George MacDonald. Yes, this is a real author who lived mostly in the 19th century, though his life did venture into the 20th! It would be easy to spend weeks here, but we have a schedule to keep…

Rather than simply listening in on the conversations of others,the Writer is finally able to ask some questions and receive answers – challenging though they may be.

 

“But ye can get some likeness of [eternity] if ye say that both good and evil, when they are full grown, become retrospective.” (MacDonald)

 

If I could sum up MacDonald’s description of the relationship between life and death, heaven and hell, temporal and eternal, it might sound like this: We are eternal creatures. Though we experience things in the temporal world now, everything we do intersects eternity. Our current perspective is incomplete because it lacks experience and understanding. Our final perspective will flow from our experience of the eternal, when we will see more clearly all that has ever happened in our lives. For those whose final perspective is heaven, heaven will necessarily color every experience – even the temporal. For those whose final perspective is hell, hell will necessarily do the same.

(To get caught up in the details of MacDonald’s words here could be maddening. The difficulty of a fictional book like this is that it is colored by the author’s theology – or in this case, MacDonald’s theology! And while I know works of fiction do not typically have chapter and verse citations of why an author would choose certain words and phrases, they sure would be helpful. In the meantime, I’m choosing to focus on the sense of the chapter rather than the details, for the sake of my sanity.)

Lewis’ intersection, his offer at this point, is to lift your gaze from yourself, to fix your eyes on the mountains (so to speak),  and to take steps towards the heavenly – that is, towards Christ. The alternative is to fix your eyes on yourself, which is something of a descent towards hell.

 

“Ah, the Saved… what happens to them is best described as the opposite of a mirage.” (MacDonald)

 

Lewis strikes a chord here as he describes the perspective of the damned and the saved. Of course, he describes this perspective as flowing from a perfected eternal experience, but I believe there is a great application for us here and now. There are certain biblical truths which are glorious and yet extremely difficult to accept. One truth is found in Romans 8:18-30. The heading in my Bible reads Future Glory. The passage speaks of a future glory which will necessarily overshadow any of the trials of this life. The passage speaks of the groanings of creation, longing for all things to be made new. The passage speaks of God’s participation in our prayers as we cry out to him.

We then see Romans 8:28. “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” 

This is a verse that is often misquoted – or more specifically it is often truncated, cut short and therefore misquoted. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the phrase, “it’ll all work out for the best.” I’m not sure if there’s a name for quoting 1/3 of a Bible verse and totally ignoring context, but this is a prime example. There are two super-important qualifiers on that little phrase. For those who love God and for those who are called according to his purpose. The qualifiers alone are a reminder that all things do not work together for good… for everyone.

Context is the stuff around a verse. The immediate context of Romans 8:28 tells us who should be comforted by the knowledge that all things work together for good. The extended context tells us the light in which we should view the promise. In other words, as we long for future glory, as we cry out to God for his eternal presence, we are enabled by our calling in Christ to see current suffering as a wellspring of life. Even further context reminds us that there is nothing that can separate (including current suffering!) the redeemed from their Redeemer, and that we are indeed conquerors through the love of God in Christ.

This promise is of supreme comfort, but those qualifiers… those qualifiers produce a chill in me. The qualifiers say that there are some for whom the trials of life will not ultimately end well. Oh, that the gospel would bring countless hearts to faith in Christ!

 

“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.'” (MacDonald)

 

And that draws me back into the story. MacDonald seems to be painting such a picture. There will come a day when eternity will be set, the future course unchanging. (I don’t even want to get into the possibility of choosing life after death, for I do not believe the Scriptures guarantee any such opportunity) When the dust settles on this life and the eternal is all we know, our perspective will indeed be complete. The Christian can taste this perspective now by the grace of God, seeing trials as life-giving waters drawing us near to our Savior. The Christian can say, even now, with confidence, that things will work out for good. What a blessing!

Even greater is the news that our worst trials, and even our finest hours, will be but a faded memory when we have the opportunity to gaze upon our Lord face to face.

“For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.” (Isaiah 65:17)

“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)

Come Lord Jesus!

 

 

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