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.

 

 

 

For other brief reviews, keep an eye on my Reading page.

Judge One Another (part 3)

“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12 ESV)

Follow me on a little thinking journey. Two little letters changed the way I viewed Jesus’ words (Matthew 7:1-5) about judging one another. Two letters. “So…” It’s amazing how often the little transition words in the Bible change the way you view things. They shift emphasis and bring up questions.

“So…”

With this one little word, Jesus is introducing the golden rule as a summary of what was said before. It’s like saying… important-stuff, convicting-stuff, life-changing-stuff, therefore the golden rule. Gotta be honest, I had to think about this for a while. From an interpretive standpoint, there are a couple of ways to look at this.

1) The golden rule could be an entirely new point in the Sermon, entirely disconnected from the previous thoughts. After all, Jesus preached according to the passage breaks in the Bible, no? (My Bible has a bold heading The Golden Rule right before that verse… Jesus was just following the outline, right?!?)

2) The golden rule could be a summary of the entire Sermon on the Mount. In other words, as Jesus dealt with the heart issues behind anger, lust, revenge, etc. He might have been saying, “Hey, you could sum it up like this…”

3) The golden rule could also be a summary of the instructions immediately preceding. Now the verses right before (Matthew 7:7-11) are also familiar. They deal with asking, seeking, and knocking – not exactly “human interaction” kinds of verses, so this wouldn’t make sense with the golden rule… UNLESS the asking, seeking, and knocking is also somehow tied to the verses right before (Matthew 7:1-6), which is our passage on judging one another. Did you follow that?

For the record, I’ve come to choose #3. Quickly stated, here’s why. That little “so” makes me think it’s not a new point. Furthermore, The Sermon teaching deals with the sinful heart behind sinful actions. Why, then, would Jesus sum up the Sermon by telling us just to act nicely? Jesus is in the business of heart change, inside-out kind of stuff, so this makes no sense as a summary for the WHOLE sermon. It’s pretty easy to put on a happy face and treat someone nicely, all the while loathing them in your deceitful heart. The golden rule, golden as it may be, doesn’t fit as a sweeping heart-change statement. The golden action has to be tied to something else. I think it’s tied to our passage on judging.

I mentioned a few posts back that, at times, I dislike the section breaks common to most Bibles. Particularly in the Sermon on the Mount, they make it look like Jesus gave 22 different nuggets, each with catchy bold-faced headings, instead of ONE sermon. These breaks have the tendency to lead readers to see passages as disconnected. In this case, I think the passages are connected. I think the teaching on judging, along with the asking, seeking, knocking, and golden rule-ing are related.

mirrorOn a big picture level, I think Jesus was saying something like this… “Hey (funny how it always starts with hey in my head), I’ve just dropped a whole B-52 of truth bombs on your noggin. I’ve forever altered the way you look at your interactions with God and man. I’ve redefined the way you look at sin (no joke… read Matthew 5-6). I’ve revealed a standard so shockingly impossible that I know what you’re doing… Instead of thinking about your own problems, you’re thinking about the guy or gal sitting next to you. You’re deflecting instead of reflecting. Stop it. I mean, you wouldn’t want them doing that to you, eh?!?”

We all do this. We hear sermons or read passages that should be convicting our hearts. We should be enjoying a moment with our indwelling Savior. Instead, we are overrun with thoughts that sound something like this…

“I wish (haughtily insert name here) were around to hear this… then they’d see.”

Jesus knows how we operate… and Jesus happens to be a great preacher. So He goes ahead and addresses the issue mid-sermon. That’s why I love His preaching. He reminds me where my heart is supposed to be when I’m sinfully focused elsewhere. The more I look at the golden rule, I don’t see it as a call to treat others with outward pleasantry. That would be quite mundane, lacking the supernatural. Any wicked servant can do that. I see it as a call to treat others well in our hearts. In order to do that, we need to stop deflecting and start reflecting. We need the transformational power of the gospel.

So (little transition word) thinking more about our judgment passage (Matthew 7:1-5), while I do believe there is a call for Christians to judge one another, I also believe that there is a time, a place, and an attitude for such interaction – and this wasn’t it. Jesus was laying out heavenly, Kingdom-come-crashing-to-earth standards. He was preaching truth… and the people were drifting. He was inviting them to sit as His feet, to be convicted and changed by the truth of His flawless Word… and they were more interested in casting stones.

Sure, that might’ve been true in AD27, but obviously that never happens today.

Maybe you’re planning to gather with the church this weekend. Maybe you’ll feel that draw to spend time at the Lord’s feet. Maybe you’ll hear a good sermon. If you’re into picturesque meetings, maybe it’ll be on a mount. Prayerfully seek Jesus and ask that your mind would be sober and focused on Him. Humble yourself before His teaching and know that He has a Word for you just as much as He does the guy or gal sitting two rows in front of you. Don’t miss such a precious moment by staining it with pride. Let the Redeemer pick you up, the mess that you are, and call you beloved.

I realize I didn’t jump into those asking, seeking, and knocking verses… I guess that means I’m not finished with this subject just yet.