Author Archives: niklingle

About niklingle

I have a beautiful wife Stacy and am one of the pastors at Christ Covenant Church in Raleigh, NC. I have a degree in Humanities and a Master of Divinity. While we don’t have any children, we’re currently waiting to bring home our adopted child from Ethiopia. In those rare moments that I’m not reading, I enjoy hiking or kayaking with Stacy.

Spiritual Pride vs. Gospel Humility

Satan’s subtlety is at its height when he seduces people into spiritual pride. The deceitfulness of the human heart is evident in no one thing so much as it is in spiritual pride and self-righteousness. The ‘holier than thou’ attitude. In The Religious Affections, Jonathan Edwards points out that spiritual pride is antithetical to the humility demanded by the gospel.

Spiritual pride may arise when I compare myself to others; but gospel humility is the result of comparing myself to all that God demands. Do you think you more frequently assess your spiritual health by comparison to others or by comparison to God?

“A rebellious people…who say, ‘Keep to yourself, do not come near me, for I am too holy for you.’ These are a smoke in my nostrils, a fire that burns all the day”

Isaiah 65:5

First, for some context. In The Religious Affections, Edwards labors to demonstrate his thesis that “True religion, in great part, consists of holy affections” (23). His biblical basis for this insight is 1 Peter 1:8, “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and fully of glory.”

Edwards gives 12 signs that are uncertain, they don’t confirm whether religious affections are genuine or that they are not. He then proceeds to give 12 signs that are distinguishing marks of genuine religious affections, or “truly gracious and holy affections.”

The sixth of these twelve certain signs is this: “Gracious affections are attended with evangelical humiliation” (237). By “evangelical holiness,” he means, “a sense that a Christian has of his own utter insufficiency, despicableness, and odiousness, with an answerable frame of heart.” Evangelical is a reference to the gospel, which says we are sinful. And humiliation is the frame of heart, the humility that comes with the confession of our sinfulness. So “evangelical humiliation” is the same thing as “gospel humility.”

Edwards points out however, that a distinction must be made between evangelical humiliation and “legal humiliation” which makes the confession of sin (legal agreement) but does not have “the answerable frame of heart.” They are not actually humbled by who they are. Thus, legal humiliation is actually spiritual pride. Edwards insightfully distinguishes between spiritual and legal humiliation (see the chart below). Which better describes the condition of your heart?

Spiritual pride (“legal humiliation”)gospel humility (“evangelical humiliation”)
Arises from the common influence of the Spirit, assisting natural principles, especially the unregenerate conscience Arises from the special influences of the Spirit, implementing and exercising supernatural and divine principles
Arises from the mind’s being assisted to a greater sense of the things of religion as to their natural properties and qualities, and particularly of the natural perfections of God, such as his greatness and terrible majestyArises from a sense of the transcendent beauty of divine things in their moral qualities
Convinces men they are exceedingly sinful/guilty… but they do not see their own odiousness on account of sinThey have a sense of the hateful nature of sin by a discovery of the beauty of God’s holiness and moral perfection
They are made sensible that they are little and nothing, etc…but they have not an answerable frame of heart consisting in a disposition to abase themselves, and exalt God aloneThey have a self-abasing disposition that arises when evangelical humiliation overcoming the heart and changing its inclination, by a discovery of God’s holy beauty
The conscience is convinced…but the will is not bowed nor the inclination alteredThere is spiritual understanding, the will is bowed and the inclination altered
They are brought to despair of helping themselvesThey are brought voluntarily to deny and renounce themselves
They are subdued and forced to the groundThey are brought sweetly to yield, and freely and with delight to prostrate themselves at the feet of God
Legal humiliation has in it no spiritual good, nothing of the nature of true virtueEvangelical humiliation is that wherein the excellent beauty of Christian grace does very much consist.
Men may be legally humbled and yet have no humilityConsists in such humility as becomes a creature in itself exceeding sinful. It is a man’s mean esteem of himself, as in himself nothing… attended with a mortification of a disposition to exalt himself, and a free renunciation of his own glory
They that are destitute of evangelical humiliation have no true religionThis is a great and most essential thing in true religion

John Owen’s Defense of Limited Atonement

John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ is a thorough explanation of what has been called limited atonement. Or you might say Death of Death is a book-length refutation of universal atonement, the position that Jesus died for all people. One implication of universal atonement would be that Jesus died for many people who will never be saved, meaning that Jesus was ineffective in his purpose and his work.

Below is a collection of 31 passages that Owen gives in Book II, chapter 3 refuting such a position. Here’s his main thesis followed by proofs from three classes of Scripture: 1) the intention of God and Christ, 2) the actual accomplishment of Christ, and 3) the persons for whom Christ died. [Page numbers given below refer to The Works of John Owen, vol. 10.]

“Our thesis as before declared, whereof this is the sum: Jesus Christ, according to the counsel and will of his Father, did offer himself upon the cross, to the procurement of those things before recounted; and maketh continual intercession with this intent and purpose, that all the good things so procured by his death might be actually and infallibly bestowed on and applied to all and every one for whom he died, according to the will and counsel of God” (208). Let us now see what the Scripture saith…

I. The Intention of God and Christ

For the first, those which hold out the counsel, purpose, mind, intention, and will of God and our Saviour in this work.

  1. Matthew 18:11, “The Son of man is come to save that which was lost” (cf. Lk 19:10)
  2. Matthew 1:21, “You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins”
  3. 1 Timothy 1:15, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,” –not to open a door…not to make a way passable…but actually to save them
  4. Hebrews 2:14-15, “…that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; and deliver them who through fear of death…” Than which words nothing can more clearly set forth the entire end of that whole dispensation of the incarnation and offering of Jesus Christ
  5. Ephesians 5:25-27, “Christ loved the church and gave himself for it; that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word;” along with Titus 2:14, “He game himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify unto himself a peculiar people.” “I think nothing can be clearer than these two places” (98)
  6. John 17:19, “For their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth,” “not the whole world” (cf. vv. 6, 9)
  7. Galatians 1:4, “he gave himself for our sins that he might deliver us from this present evil world, according to the will of God and our Father”
  8. 2 Corinthians 5:21, “He hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” “Now if the Lord did not purpose what is not fulfilled…then he made Christ sin for no more than do in the effect become actually righteousness in him” (211)

Argument Summary: From all which we draw this argument: That which the Father and the Son intended to accomplish in and towards all those for whom Christ died, by his death that is most certainly effected…. Christ died for all and only those in and towards whom all these things recounted are effected. (211)

II. The Accomplishment of Christ’s Sacrifice

The second rank contains those places which lay down the actual accomplishment and effect of this oblation.

  1. Hebrews 9:12, 14, “By his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us…. The blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” “Two things are here ascribed to the blood of Christ;–one referring to God, ‘it obtains eternal redemption;’ the other respecting us, ‘purgeth our conscience from dead works.’”
  2. 1 Peter 2:4 (cf. Isaiah 53:5, 6, 10-12), “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and life to righteousness”
  3. Colossians 1:21, 22, “And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled in the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his sight
  4. John 6:33, where our life is ascribed to the death of Christ, “He came down from heaven to give life to the world” (as also 2 Tim 1:10 and Romans 5:6-10).

Argument Summary: I shall take from the whole this general argument: –If the death and oblation of Jesus Christ doth sanctify all them for whom it was a sacrifice…. –then died he only for those that are in the event sanctified, pursed, redeemed, justified, etc.; But that all are not thus sanctified, freed, etc is most apparent: and therefore, they cannot be said to be the proper object of the death of Christ. (214)

III. The Persons for Whom Christ Died

Many places there are that point out the persons for whom Christ died (214)

  1. In some places they are called many
    1. Matthew 26:28, “blood of the new testimony is shed for many
    2. Isaiah 53:11, “my righteous servant shall justify many
    3. Mark 10:45, “give his life a ransom for many
    4. Hebrews 2:10, “to bring many sons to glory”
  2. And though perhaps many itself be not sufficient to restrain the object of Christ’s death unto some, in opposition to all, because many is sometimes placed absolutely for all, as Rom 5:19, yet these many being described in other places to be such as it is most certain all are not, so it is a full and evident restriction of it.
    1. John 10:15, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own [sheep]”
    2. John 11:52, “the children of God who are scattered abroad”
    3. Hebrews 2:11, “the children that God gave him”
    4. John 17:2, 6, 9, 11, “those who were given unto Jesus by his Father”
    5. Hebrews 13:20, the sheep whereof he was the “Shepherd, through the blood of the everlasting covenant”
    6. Romans 8:33, “God’s elect”
    7. Matthew 1:21 “his people”
    8. Luke 1:68, “he has visited and redeemed his people”
    9. Romans 11:2, “his people whom he foreknew”
    10. Acts 18:10, “I have many in this city who are my people”
    11. Hebrews 13:12, “to sanctify the people through his own blood”
    12. Acts 20:28, “the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood”
    13. Ephesians 5:25, the church which Christ loved and gave himself up for
    14. Hebrews 9:28, “to bear the sins of many”
    15. Daniel 9:27, “he shall make a strong covenant with many”
  3. Those many being thus described, and set forth with such qualifications as by no means are common to all, but proper only to the elect, do most evidently appear to be all and only those that are chosen of God to obtain eternal life through the offering and blood-shedding of Jesus Christ. (214)

A Brief Summary of Covenant Theology: The Whole Story is a Single Story

Some good resources to start with if you want more after reading: 1) The Christ of the Covenants by O. Palmer Robertson, 2) Continuity and Discontinuity edited by John S. Feinberg

Over the past few weeks, I’ve discussed covenant theology with a number of people, and have found that even those who say they definitely hold to it actually have a hard time articulating what covenant theology is. I thought I’d put together a concise overview to help.

So then covenant theology sees the whole story of redemption as a single story. And the covenantal structure of redemptive history could be summarized this way:

The various covenants of the Old Testament are fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and the promises of them are distributed to the people of God.

1. The Various Covenants of the Old Testament

There are four main covenants that carry along the story of the OT, and a fifth is foretold. These covenants are distinct and yet unified. Each grows organically out of the one before it. The first promise of hope is that a seed of the women would crush the head of the serpent (Gen 3:15). This promise offers hope, but gives very little content. The covenants then begin to gradually specify the content of that first word of hope.

The first covenant is the covenant with Noah (Gen 9:1-17). God promises to delay judgment on the whole earth. This covenant establishes the context in which subsequent covenants will unfold: delayed judgment. O. Palmer Robertson calls this the covenant of preservation.

The second covenant is the covenant with Abraham (Gen 15:1-21). The covenant of Genesis 15 enacts the composite promise of Gen 12:1-2: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you.” This is a three-part promise: 1) land, people, blessing. The land is Canaan, the people are the offspring of Abraham, what will become the nation of Israel. The Lord calls this an everlasting covenant (Gen 17:7-8). Robertson calls this the covenant of promise.

The third covenant is the covenant with Moses (Ex 23; Deut 29). The promises of this covenant are the same as the promises of the covenant with Abraham. But the covenant with Moses introduces something new: the law. And this covenant is conditional. If Israel obeys the law, they will be blessed (Deut 28:1ff). If they disobey the law they will be cursed (Deut 28:15ff). Robertson calls this the covenant of law.

The fourth covenant is the covenant with David (2 Sam 7). This covenant reaffirms the promises of prior covenants, “I will appoint a place for my people Israel.” But God adds a particular promise for David, “Your throne shall be established forever.” The line of David will possess an eternal throne. Robertson calls this the covenant of kingdom.

The fifth covenant, the new covenant, is only foretold in the Old Testament ( Jer 31:31-34; cf. Jer 32:27-44; 50:4f; Ezek 16:60-63; 37:15-28). Robertson calls this the covenant of consummation (as it is fulfilled in Jesus Christ).

2. Fulfilled in Jesus Christ

Jesus enacts and fulfills this new covenant. But since covenantalism sees the new covenant fulfilled in Jesus as the covenant of consummation, this means that by fulfilling the new covenant, he is also fulfilling the previous covenants. So the general principle is this: Christ is the fulfillment of the whole covenant of redemption, which was expressed in various stages through the covenants of the OT.

  • And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself (Lk 24:27)
  • These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled. Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. (Lk 24: 44-45)
  • For all the promises of God find their Yes in him (2 Cor 1:20)

So that’s the general principle, but it then remains to be asked, in what sense does Jesus fulfill the covenant(s) and what are the implications of his fulfillment of them.

Jesus is the true Israel. A primary sense in which Jesus fulfills the covenant is that he is true Israel. Matthew presents him as the new Israel (e.g. Matt 2:15). And Paul makes it explicit, Jesus is the offspring of Abraham. “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ” (Gal 2:16).

This is why the term “replacement theology” is inaccurate. The term usually refers to the idea that the church (made up of NT Christians) replaces Israel. But covenant theology does not believe this. Rather, Jesus fulfills Israel, and then Christians are those who find their identity in Jesus.

This means the true heir of the three-part promise to Abraham is Jesus himself. His people are all who follow him by faith. His land is the new heavens and new earth over which he will rule. And his blessing is being perfectly accepted by the Father (Matt 3:17). Ethnic Israel will not receive the land between the rivers (Gen 15:18), because this promise has been fulfilled by something even greater: Jesus receives all things as his inheritance. (However, in another sense it would be accurate to say, “Israel will receive the land between the rivers,” see below).

Jesus is also the descendant of David who sits on the throne forever. This is why the writers to the Hebrews interprets Psalm 110 and Psalm 8 as describing the reign of Jesus: “Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death” (Heb 2:8-9). He is the king who reigns. Though we don’t see it fully just yet, the day is coming when we most certainly will.

So Jesus is the true Israel and the true David, and we could show many other ways in which Jesus is fulfillment of OT covenants and promises. But then what are the implications of Jesus fulfilling these things?

3. Distributed to the People of God

The promises of the covenant are distributed to the people of God. Christians are not the heirs of the promise, but co-heirs. Christians get in on covenant promises only because they are “in Christ” who himself fulfilled the covenants.

So Paul identifies the people of God, those who receive the promises, as those who are in Christ. At the same time, he points out that many who are ethnic Jews should not even be called “Israel.” So not all Israel is Israel. And some who are not Israel actually are Israel. Confusing? It shouldn’t be. Paul is simply introducing a better principle for understanding the “Israel” category: it is a spiritual category, not an ethnic one. Consider the following:

  • Rom 2:28-29, “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. [29] But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter”
  • Romans 9:6-7, “For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, [7] and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring… [8] This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise that are counted as offspring.”
  • Galatians 2:25-29, But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, [26] for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God through faith… [29] And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”

The promises are for the people of God, as they have always been. For instance, think about the promise of land, made to Abraham, then further specified under the Mosaic covenant. Paul envisions that promise as the future hope of all those who are in Christ (consider Rom 8:18-25).

So Miguel Echevarria says,

Paul envisions the inheritance to be the renewed earth. The apostle does not see a spiritualized existence as his future hope, for he looks forward to what his forefathers, such as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had anticipated for centuries: a physical, eternal inheritance under the reign of the promised Messiah. This vision is not exclusive to Paul; it is the vision of the saints who came before him.

The Future Inheritance of the Land in Pauline Epistles

So, a covenantal understanding of the promise would agree with the statement, “In the future, Israel will receive the land between the rivers.” But would want to make these clarifications. First, not all Israel are Israel (Rom 9:6-8). Second, Some who are not Israel actually are Israel (Rom 2:25-29; Gal 2:26). Third, in addition to the land between the rivers, this newly defined “Israel” will also receive the whole world, the renewed earth.

Conclusion

Obviously much more could be said about each of these points, but my goal is just to provide a concise summary statement of covenantalism. The various-yet-unified covenants of the Old Testament are fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and the promises of those covenants are distributed to the people of God, that is, all those who are in Christ. The structure is built around Jesus, who in his life, death and resurrection is the culmination of God’s redemptive plan. The story of redemption is all about the work of God in Christ redeeming his people. The whole story is a single story.

Double Meaning of “Jew” and “Israel” in Romans

It is reasonably certain that Romans was written to the church in Rome in the context of Jews “re-entering” the congregations after having been exiled from them for a time under Claudius. Whether that is historically certain or not, it is clear from within the letter that Paul is consciously writing to a congregation composed of both ethnic Jews and ethnic Greeks. This concern about ethnicity is prominent throughout the book. For instance, when Paul says “all people” he follows up just to be clear, “both Jews and Greeks” (e.g. 3:9), so they don’t point fingers at the other group.

But while the ethnicities within the congregation is a prominent issue in Paul’s mind, at the same time he’s trying to transcend ethnic categories by constantly lumping them together, “both Jews and Greeks.” How many times does some form of this phrase occurs in Romans? Lots (I’m still working on a precise count…).

While Paul recognizes that ongoing ethnic distinctions are real, he is at the same time trying to deconstruct their understanding of what it means to be Jewish or to be Greek. For instance, the Greeks know more about the God of Israel than they are willing to admit (1:18-23), and they are more accountable to Israel’s God than they’d like to think (2:12-16). At the same time, Jews have less distinct privilege than they think (2:28-29), and they are living more like the Greeks than they’d like to admit (2:23-24).

These dynamics don’t eliminate ethnic distinctions, but they do highlight the fact that the theologically controlling categories are no longer ethnic, but rather spiritual. So Paul says, “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical, [29] but a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter” (2:28-29).

Still, because Paul is writing to an ethnically mixed congregation, we see him using ethnic language to address these groups and their concerns, but then transcending ethnic language to instruct these groups with new doctrinal categories.

For this reason we see the words “Jew” and “Israel” functioning in two different ways in the letter to the Romans, sometimes identifying Israel as an ethnic entity, and other times as a spiritual reality. This is what’s going on in 2:28, where he says, “No one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly.” Which is like saying, “No one is a Jew who is merely a Jew.” But in two different senses of the word. The spiritual sense followed by the ethnic sense. “No one is a Jew (truly and spiritually) who is merely a Jew (ethnically).”

Thus when reading through Romans, it is incumbent upon the interpreter to assess which meaning of “Jew” or “Israel” Paul is referring to—spiritual or ethnic? This will significantly impact one’s conclusions about Paul’s theology, especially in Romans 9-11.

Are Humans Greater Than Angels?

The writers of the OT and NT never seem concerned to press that humans are greater than angels. There are various distinctions between humans and angels to be sure, but the concern never seems to be comparative.

Jonathan Edwards gave three reasons he understood humans to be greater than angels

  1. Angels were made to serve God by serving man, but man was made to serve God directly.
  2. Human grace, holiness, and love are greater virtues than angelic wisdom and strength.
  3. Believers are united to Christ in a way angels never will be.

His basic reason was this, “Men are a more ultimate end of the creation than the angels.” Edwards’ point is logical, but I’m not aware of a single place in Scripture where an author is concerned to make this point. (Miscellanies #103)

Actually, reflecting on the way the Bible speaks of angels, it seems obvious that in many ways angels are greater than humans.

  1. Angels are spirit, existing in a realm above us (Heb 1:14)
  2. Angels worship around the throne, they participate in heavenly realities beyond our currently experience
  3. Angels rescue humans (e.g. Lot, Peter), they have powers and abilities humans do not have

Moses portrays man as the pinnacle of God’s creative work, the bearers of his image (Gen 1). Yet angels are in a realm above us experiencing realities beyond us having powers that exceed ours.

Therefore, we should probably simply maintain that humans and angles hold distinct roles in the redemptive plan of God. Humans are the object of God’s redemptive plan, angels are the messengers and servants of the plan.

But to say in an absolute sense that angels are greater than humans, or that humans are greater than angels seems unwarranted in light of the Biblical evidence.

“Fake News” and False History from 1678

51504436We are constantly hearing these days about “fake news.” It’s nauseating how much human effort is being wasted on spinning lies to support positions. We wish that watching or reading the news didn’t demand so much incredulity just to avoid being made a fool. Who would want to repost or retweet the attention-grabbing links that hours later are proven to be deceitful propaganda? Evidently all too many are willing. Fake new goes viral. No matter that it was fake. No matter it keeps coming.

And yet “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecc 1:9). Fake news, lies in support of a position, propaganda. This is nothing new. In his collection of essays about the Reformation era, All Things Made New: The Reformation and Its Legacy, Diarmaid MacCulloch tells a cautionary tale about an Irish pseudo-historian named Robert Ware (1639-1697). He was an intellectual from a long line of intellectuals. But he was a liar. A smart liar. And he was an ardent supporter of the emerging Anglican consensus in Dublin. And so he wrote non-historical history that bolstered the Anglican cause.

Robert Ware made up entire historical accounts, dialogues that never transpired, and conspiracy theories that lumped Protestant dissenters (i.e. Presbyterians) in with Roman Catholic conspirators. MacCulloch provides a couple examples.

In 1547 Archbishop Thomas Cranmer preached a pithy and dramatic sermon at the Coronation of King Edward VI, during the royal youth to renew the scriptural role of young King Josiah of Judah in his own kingdom. In the early 1560s, Queen Elizabeth I berated Dean Alexander Nowell in his own cathedral church of St Paul’s, for subversion of her Protestant religious settlement through his hill-judged gift to her of a presentation copy of the Book of Common Prayer, enriched with devotional pictures. Both events are still repeatedly to be met with in accounts of the English Reformation…but there is one problem: neither of them happened. They are fictions created by Robert Ware.

Robert Ware’s forgeries “pollute the historical pool of sources about English and Irish history.” And so a review of his story becomes a caution about “the preoccupations and temptations to which historians are prone, even in modern historiographical practice.”

The caution isn’t just for historians. It’s for all. Lies masquerading as facts are everywhere, meaning we should all have a healthy sense of incredulity. We should not rush to judgment for or against. In evaluating politically oriented news, we should always recognize that the author is “coming from somewhere,” some angle.

As someone who preaches and teaches regularly, I want to be careful in what information I pass along. If I’m presenting a story or anecdote from history or passing along some information as true, then I want to be reasonably sure that it is indeed true. Check original sources, be sure they are reliable sources, investigate any contrary opinions. If I pass along dubious information, does that not call into question my overall methodology and reliability?

 

A Lesson from Calvin on Concluding Sermons

Calvin’s Central Contribution: The Majesty of God

Calvin’s central theological contributions was his view of God’s infinite majesty, that is, God’s impressive beauty, dignity and transcendence.[1] Calvin said his aim in his ministry was to “set before [man], as the prime motive of his existence, zeal to illustrate the glory of God.”[2] It was Calvin’s “zeal to illustrate the glory of God” which constitutes the heart of his theological reform as well as the legacy he has left the church. In speaking of Calvin’s conception of God’s infinite majesty, we must enter a thought world that almost seems foreign to contemporary religion. As David Wells said, “It is this God, majestic and holy in his being…who has disappeared from the modern evangelical world.”[3]

Instead the church today has espoused what has been called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,[4] which portrays God as a grandfatherly figure who wants people to be happy and morally good in life. We speak of God in very intimate terms as being among us, on mission, ready to answer our prayers. He treasures us. He speaks to us with advice for living the good life. And we think of Jesus primarily as man. But “Christ” (Anointed One), his majestic title, has fallen into disuse. And we prefer instead to think of the carpenter who lived an exemplary and loving life. And while most of this is true so far as it goes, it simply doesn’t go far enough. It’s damning with faint praise. Calvin saw these realities, the nearness of God, as essentially linked to other realities, the transcendence and majesty of God. And it was this perspective that motivated his efforts toward reform.

So to understand Calvin, we must first gather his understanding of God’s majesty. Then we will be prepared to understand what influence that conception had on his preaching. As John Murray said:

“We must first have a firm grasp on Calvin’s view of God’s infinite majesty. This we may derive in part from Institutes. As we bring even elementary understanding to bear upon our reading of the Institutes we shall immediately discover the profound sense of the majesty of God, veneration for the Word of God, and the jealous care for faithful exposition and systematization which were marked features of the author. And because of this we shall find the Institutes to be suffused with the warmth of godly fear.”[5]

The Creator has the right to rule and to demand obedience, and man’s self-understanding must take God’s loftiness into account, as Calvin notes, “Man is never sufficiently touched and affected by the awareness of his lowly state until he has compared himself with God’s majesty.”[6]

This then is Calvin’s understanding of God’s infinite majesty, which is the “formative principle of Calvinism” according to B.B. Warfield. Warfield explains what he believes it means to “be a Calvinist”:

The Calvinist is the man who has seen God, and who, having seen God in His glory, is filled on the one hand, with a sense of his own unworthiness to stand in God’s sight as a creature, and much more as a sinner, and on the other hand, with adoring wonder that nevertheless this God is a God who receives sinners. He who believes in God without reserve and is determined that God shall be God to him, in all his thinking, feeling, willing—in the entire compass of his life activities, intellectual, moral, spiritual—throughout all his individual, social, religious relations—is, by the force of that strictest of all logic which presides over the outworking of principles into thought and life, by the very necessity of the case, a Calvinist.[7]

Many others have also noted the foundational or central role of this aspect of Calvin’s thinking, referring to the marrow of Calvinism as the sovereignty of God. “Thus, if we had to reduce Calvinism to one concept,” says Joel Beeke, we must agree, “to be Reformed means to be theocentric.”[8]

1. God’s Majesty in Calvin’s Preaching Method

The majesty of God gave shape to the structure of Calvin’s pulpit ministry. As light is emitted from the sun, so also the Word reveals the brilliance of its source. And precisely because Calvin believed that God had revealed his glory through the rays of the Word, he was committed to treating the Word with the same reverence and humility that is appropriate to God himself. So his method of teaching the Word needed to accord with this high reverence. Calvin is known for consecutive expositional preaching: beginning in chapter one verse one of a book, and moving verse by verse through that book to uncover its meaning. In this sense, Calvin tethered himself to the text, recognizing his own lowliness before the Word and not wanting to speak his own opinions over and above God’s revelation. He has such a high view of God’s Word simply because he has such a high view of God himself. “The glory of God so shines in his word, that we ought to be so affected by it, whenever he speaks by his servants, as though he were near to us, face to face.”[9]

2. God’s Majesty in Calvin’s Concluding “Formula”

Not only was Calvin’s expositional method a demonstration of his sense of divine majesty, but so was the manner in which he closed each of his sermons. His closing line in nearly every sermon exhorted the congregation toward humility in light of all that had been taught from the Word. All his sermons in Job ended with the nearly uniform pronouncement, “Now let us bow in humble reverence before the face of our God.”[10] In his 22 sermons from Psalm 119, there is an equal uniformity in his closing words. The final paragraph of each sermon begins this way, “And according to this holy doctrine, let us prostrate ourselves before the face of our good God, in acknowledging our faults.”[11]

A similar pattern is evident in almost all the sermons Calvin preached. In fact, it appears in many of the sermons that having called on the congregation to bow before the majesty of God, Calvin would then ask them to join together in a prayer of praise and confession. In his sermons on the Beatitudes, his final words are recorded at the end of each sermon: “Now let us cast ourselves down before the majesty of our good God, acknowledging our sins….Therefore together let us say, Almighty God and heavenly Father…”[12] Although the rest of the corporate prayer is not recorded, one can imagine the congregation together acknowledging their sins and pleading for mercy because of Christ. Every sermon’s conclusion was marked by this reverence.

The humility that is evident in this constant exhortation points back to Calvin’s understanding of God and what it means to be in fellowship with God. Calvin said that Augustine’s statement pleased him very much: “If you ask me concerning the precepts of the Christian religion, first, second, third, and always, I would answer, ‘Humility.’”[13] Understanding God to be so far exalted above man, he regularly concluded his preaching with a call to submission before divine transcendence.

3. God’s Majesty in the Themes of Calvin’s Preaching

In addition to these two structural results of Calvin’s understanding of God’s majesty (expositional preaching and closing exhortation to humility), there are numerous thematic elements in his preaching that flow directly from his sense of God’s loftiness. I will describe two of those themes and mention several others.

One of those thematic elements is the depravity of man. Calvin labors in all of his preaching to unpack the first line from the Institutes: “Nearly all the wisdom we possess…consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”[14] In light of this, his exposition attempts to impress the reader with what the passage teaches about God and his majesty, but also about man and his sinfulness. This twofold attempt led Calvin to discuss depravity at length even from passages in which the doctrine of sin is not explicit.

For instance, Psalm 119:1-8 seems to contain very scant evidence of the depravity of man. It is a simple pronouncement of happiness toward those who keep the law of God. For many preachers, depravity may find very little room in the exposition of this passage. But Calvin almost seems to understand this to be a psalm about depravity. He labors throughout his whole sermon to insist on the waywardness of the human heart, that it is so unwilling to respond to God’s law. Calvin says,

First of all, [the psalmist] wants us to note, that we understand not wherein our chief blessedness consists, and the reason is, because we are blind, and do live in the world as savage and wild beasts, utterly void of sense and reason: and suffer ourselves to be led and carried away of our brutish and swinish affections and lusts.[15]

His sermon on 1 Timothy 3:16 also illustrates this point. This verse is a creedal statement about Jesus Christ with hardly a reference to sin, “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory” (ESV). And yet Calvin finds opportunity to impress on the congregation their own condition as sinful people before the majesty of the living God:

There is nothing but rottenness in us; nothing but sin and death. Then let the living God, the well-spring of life, the everlasting glory, and the infinite power, come; and not only approach to us and our miseries, our wretchedness, our frailty, and to this bottomless pit of all iniquity that is in men; let not only the majesty of God come near this, but be joined to it, and made one with it, in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ.[16]

Whatever passage Calvin found himself in, he was careful to correlate that passage to a biblical understanding of the human condition, which is inevitably connected to his view of God’s majesty.

A second theme that runs through Calvin’s preaching is that mankind owes obedience to God. “In reading Calvin, nothing challenges me more than the way in which the obedience due to God controlled his thinking and living….For Calvin, to accept compromise when Scripture has spoken is to affront the divine majesty of the Author.”[17] This theme is plainly evident in all of Calvin’s preaching, although perhaps the most striking example comes from his preaching on the book of Job. He understand the entire story of Job’s life to be teaching us that we ought to submit ourselves in all humility and obedience to the sovereign will of God:

“The story [of Job] shows us how we are in the hand of God, and that it belongs to Him to order our lives and to dispose of them according to His good pleasure, and that our duty is to submit ourselves to Him in all humility and obedience, that it is quite reasonable that we be altogether His both to live and to die; and even if it shall please Him to raise His hand against us, though we may not perceive for what cause He does it, nevertheless we should glorify Him always, confessing that He is just and equitable, that we should not murmur against Him, that we should not enter into dispute, knowing that if we struggle against Him we shall be conquered. This, then, in brief, is what we have to remember from the story, that is, that God has such dominion over His creatures that He can dispose of them at His pleasure, and when He shows strictness that we at first find strange, yet we should keep our mouths closed in order not to murmur; but rather, that we should confess that He is just, expecting that He may declare to us why He chastises us.”[18]

There are many other lesser themes related to God’s majesty that are evident throughout Calvin’s preaching. He reminded his listeners that God’s condescension to mankind’s lowly estate ought to evoke not only utter obedience, but also extreme gratitude. He also impressed upon them the same conviction he displayed through expositional preaching, that the word of God itself reveals the divine majesty. But the controlling vision was the majesty and glory of God. This awareness of the majesty of God is perhaps Calvin’s most important legacy. And the impact this awareness had on his preaching provides a timeless example for preachers who want nothing more than to be faithful to God and his Word.

 

 

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Translated by Ford Lewis Battles. 2 vols. (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 3.6.2, 3.20.41.

[2] John Dillenberger, ed. John Calvin: Selections from His Writings (Missoula, Montana: Scholars Press, 1975), 89.

[3] David Wells, No Place for Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 300.

[4] Christian Smith, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 67. Albert Mohler has called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism “the new American religion” in an article entitled “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism—the New American Religion,” available at http://www.christianpost.com/news/moralistic-therapeutic-deism-the-new-american-religion-6266/.

[5] John Murray, “Introduction,” in Institutes of the Christian Religion (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 1997).

[6] Calvin, Institutes, 1.1.3. This section is entitled “Man before God’s majesty.”

[7] B. B. Warfield, “The Theology of Calvin,” http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/sdg/warfield/warfield_calvintheology.html (accessed May 10, 2014). This essay originally appeared in a booklet published by the Presbyterian Board of Education in 1909.

[8] Joel Beeke, Living for God’s Glory: An Introduction to Calvinism (Orlando: Reformation Trust, 2008), 40.

[9] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948-1950), 4:343.

[10] John Calvin, Sermons from Job, selected and translated by Leroy Nixon (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979), 119. Slight variations of this sentence are used as the final words of every sermon in Job.

[11] John Calvin, Sermons on Psalm 119, translated by Thomas Stocker (Old Paths Publications, 1996), no page numbers. As in the sermons on Job, there is slight variation in the form or word of this sentence, but its distinctness from the closing line in the Job sermons is evident, as is its similarity.

[12] John Calvin, Sermons on the Beatitudes (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2006), 48.

[13] Calvin, Institutes, 2.2.11.

[14] Ibid., 1.1.1.

[15] Calvin, Sermons on Psalm 119.

[16] John Calvin, “The Mystery of Godliness,” in The Mystery of Godliness and Other Sermons (Orlando: Soli Deo Gloria, 1999), 12-13.

[17] Iaian Murray, “Foreward,” John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine & Doxology (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2008), xii.

[18] Calvin, Sermons from Job, 3.