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The Theology of John Calvin

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
The Truth Network Radio
February 16, 2022 12:01 am

The Theology of John Calvin

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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February 16, 2022 12:01 am

Many people think of John Calvin as a cold, calculating theologian. In reality, Calvin's scholarly work was driven by a pastoral desire to help Christians grow in their faith. Today, W. Robert Godfrey introduces us to the real Calvin.

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What does the name John Calvin evoke in your imagination?

A dour, ivory tower academic, or warm, deeply concerned pastor? Or perhaps you've never even heard of John Calvin. We'll take a look at the life and theology of this towering figure in church history next on Renewing Your Mind. Lee Webb There are few theologians in history more widely derided than John Calvin.

Why is that? Who was Calvin really, and what did he teach? We're glad you've joined us on this Wednesday. I'm Lee Webb, and we have the privilege of continuing a popular teaching series today on the program, Dr. Robert Godfrey Series, A Survey of Church History. As we continue our highlights today, we'll be jumping into the middle of the series, so you will hear Dr. Godfrey refer to previous messages that were not airing this week.

If you'd like to hear them though, stay tuned to the end of the program, and I'll let you know how you can request them with your gift of any amount. But right now, here's Dr. Godfrey. Well, we return in this lecture to our friend John Calvin.

I hope maybe having gotten this far, you see he's a little more human and friendly than some people have made him out to be. But I want to return to this subject of certainty or assurance at the heart of Calvin's theology. I think he felt the pressure on the Protestant movement that the Roman Catholic Church brought to bear by its insistence that it was the absolutely reliable source of truth. Sattelato, in his letter to the Geneva church, Cardinal Sattelato, had made that point. He said, the church alone is inerrant.

It never makes a mistake. And therefore, you can rest your soul on the church and its teaching. Sattelato even went so far as to say, if the church were wrong and you believed the church, God would not hold it against you because He's commanded you to believe the church and whatever it teaches.

And so they said the only safe path, the Roman Catholics said, the only safe path is to follow the church completely unwaveringly. And Calvin wrestled theologically with the question, how do we find assurance apart from this church that is absolutely authoritative? And of course, the Protestant answer was, we find that in the Bible. But Rome says, first of all, how do you know that the Bible is reliable? And secondly, how do you know what's the right interpretation of the Bible?

Now, those are fair questions. And the Reformation as a whole answered that rather simply. They said, first of all, we believe the Bible is true.

Now, the Roman Catholic Church agreed with that. The Bible is true. It is God's Word. It is God's revelation.

God was successful in revealing Himself truly in His Word. Secondly, the Reformation said the Bible is sufficient. This is where the Reformation and Roman Catholicism parted company because Rome says the Bible is true, but it needs to be supplemented by holy tradition. And the Reformers said, no, the Bible is sufficient. It contains all we need to know for faith and life, for the life of good works. It doesn't tell us who we're supposed to marry.

It doesn't tell us how to get an A in the chemistry test in high school. But it tells us everything we need to know about God and how to serve Him. So the Bible is true. The Bible is true.

The Bible is sufficient. And thirdly, the Reformation said the Bible is clear. This too is a point of contention with Rome. Rome said, well, the Bible is true, but you can't understand it. The church has to explain it to you. If you read the Bible on your own, you may get all confused. In fact, they found when people read the Bible on their own, they tended to become Protestants.

That's really confusing. And so the church says the church has to interpret the Bible for you. This became so serious that in the middle of the 16th century, the Roman Catholic Church actually forbade laypeople to read the Bible. But the Reformation said, no, the Bible is clear. Now, when the Reformation said that, it was not saying that every person can pick up a Bible and turn to any verse and understand it. That's not what the doctrine of perspicuity means.

The doctrine of perspicuity means that any person with an ability to read and understand can look at the Bible and find the great message of salvation there. And that's what the Reformation wanted to insist on. And that's where Calvin and Luther and all the great Reformers stood. And Calvin teaches that with great clarity to bring assurance to the people of God that they have access to the Word. And Calvin said, we need to submit to the Word. In fact, in responding to Sadaledo, he wrote, we hold that the Word of God alone lies beyond the sphere of our judgment.

Now, that's a very important statement worth pondering a minute. The Word of God alone lies beyond the sphere of our judgment. That is, Calvin says, the Word of God always comes and stands over us, teaching us and judging us. We never stand over the Word of God judging it.

Well, that seems right, doesn't it? If it's God's Word, it is authoritative and we need to be submissive. Just as we would say, if God is God, He needs to be in charge and we need to be submissive. The theological question that remains is, how do we know it is the Word of God?

If we can't judge it, then how can we know it? Don't we at least have to stand outside the Word of God and look at it to know that it is the Word of God? And Calvin tackles that question in a very interesting way in chapter 7 and 8 of the first book of his Institutes.

So if you want to check out whether I get this right, you can go and read those chapters. In chapter 8, Calvin takes the rather traditional approach to knowing the Bible is the Word of God. He says, you know, by the age of the writings in the Bible, by the agreement of the different authors over so many centuries, by the miracles that accompany the Word of God, by the acceptance of the church, all of these support our recognition of the Bible as the Word of God. So Calvin in chapter 8 of book 1 of the Institutes is saying there are plenty of reasons to believe the Bible is the Word of God. Our faith is never a leap in the dark.

Our faith is never an active irrationality. There are abundant reasons and evidences to believe that the Bible is the Word of God. But you notice that's chapter 8. It's not chapter 7.

This is the kind of thing students pay a lot of tuition money to learn, that chapter 7 of the Institutes comes before chapter 8. Calvin makes use of evidences but secondarily. What does chapter 7 say about our knowing that the Bible is the Word of God? Well, this is where Calvin brings into play his idea that we never stand in judgment of the Word of God. So it's not in the first place evidences that convince us, but Calvin says we immediately recognize the voice of our Father in the Scriptures. There is an immediate recognition of the voice of the Father in the Scriptures. He says it's just like the way a baby can tell the difference between something that's sour and something that's sweet. A baby doesn't reason about that.

A baby recognizes it immediately. And Calvin says that's the way it is with our recognition of the Bible as the Word of God. Now this statement of Calvin has been rather controversial through the years. One rather Reformed scholar said this is just mushy mysticism.

Not everybody will agree with Calvin at this point, but I think it's a very interesting point that he makes here. It is in part his Doctor of the Holy Spirit at work. He knows that not everybody recognizes the voice of God in the Scripture.

Why do some people recognize it and some don't? Because of the Holy Spirit opening our eyes, opening our ears. He is not making a kind of psychological point, namely that everybody in their individual experience comes to recognize the Word of God immediately. He knows that some people wrestle with the question of whether the Bible is the Word of God or not over a long period of time.

There may be a variety of factors including the use of evidences that bring someone finally to accept the Bible as the Word of God. But what Calvin wants to say is essentially at its very heart we recognize the Bible to be the Word of God the way you recognize the voice of some beloved relative when you pick up the telephone. Now if someone says to you, how did you know that was your sister? You could say, well, the timbre of the voice, you know, and the accent, and you can come up with all sorts of evidences.

But you didn't need any of that evidence to recognize immediately that it was the voice of your sister. And that's what Calvin is saying. At the very core of our recognition of the Bible, we simply know God is speaking there. You know, one Scripture passage that might be relevant here is when Jesus says, my sheep hear my voice and follow me. They recognize the Good Shepherd. Now, is there danger of mushy mysticism?

I don't think so because of chapter 8. But what Calvin, you see, wants to stress is in the end of the day we don't establish the Bible as the Word of God. God establishes the Bible as the Word of God in our hearts. He's already established it as His Word by His inspiration.

It's objectively His Word. But we accept it because of the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. And this is all part of the certainty that Calvin wants us to have and, of course, the submission that he wants us to have.

I'm amazed as I read works of theology how many theologians feel perfectly content to stand outside the Bible and say, well, this part is true and this part is problematic. And, you know, if you just take out this verse, the whole thing makes better sense. Now, this is not conservative Protestant scholarship, obviously, but I'm amazed how often they miss the whole point of a passage after they've stood in judgment over it so learnedly. Whereas if you submit yourself to it and say, every part here has its purpose, every part is speaking to us, the Bible takes on a whole new richness and character. And that's what Calvin understood. And that's why Calvin was such a powerful teacher of the Bible because of this profound submission of his mind and his will to the Scriptures. He wrote a catechism for the church of Geneva. It's not one of the great Reformation catechisms because it's kind of long. He wrote it very quickly.

And, in fact, the printer would send a runner over from the press to take the latest pages that he had written and run them back to the press to set them in type. So, you know, Calvin literally had someone breathing down his neck. He had no opportunity to revise this catechism.

And in light of that, it's really quite good. But it's several hundred questions long, although occasionally Calvin is the friend to the catechist because there'll be a long question and the answer required is, just so. So, you know, that was a point of sort of resting in the middle of your catechism lesson. But question 303 was, how should the Scripture be used to obtain profit from it? How should we use the Scripture to be profited? And the answer was, if we lay hold on it with complete heartfelt conviction as nothing less than certain truth come down from heaven, if we show ourselves teachable under it, if we subdue our wills and minds to His obedience, if we love it heartily, if having it once engraved on our hearts and its roots fixed there so that it bring forth fruit in our lives, if finally we be formed to its rule, then it will turn to our salvation as intended.

Well, that's not a brief answer or a very memorizable answer, but it's a great answer in terms of talking about how complete our submission to the Scripture needs to be and then how complete the blessing to our spirits the Scripture will be. But do you feel something of the vitality of Calvin as a pastor there? He's concerned that people will accept the Word and the Word will make a difference.

Make a difference in their lives. Let me look at one other theological issue for Calvin, and that's the matter of faith. Faith, too, was an area where Calvin wanted to stress the importance of certainty. Calvin wanted to say to his people, faith is knowledge.

In order to believe, you have to know something. Faith is not just an emotion. Faith has content. And for Calvin, the stress of the content was always the promises of God. Some of you will know this is the 450th anniversary of the writing of the Heidelberg Catechism, and if you don't know that, shame on you. And the Heidelberg Catechism was one of the great Reformation catechisms. It's a catechism that breathes the spirit of Calvin in an amazing way. If you want a really good summary of Calvin's theology, I don't think you can find a short summary much better than the Heidelberg Catechism even though he didn't write it. But question 65 of the Heidelberg Catechism says, where does true faith come from?

It's a great answer. Question 65 says, true faith is worked in our hearts by the Holy Spirit through the preaching of the Holy Gospel and is confirmed unto us by the Holy Sacraments. Holy, holy, holy, the Holy Spirit, the Holy Gospel, the Holy Sacraments. But what I want you to particularly notice there is it's the preaching of the gospel that works faith. The preaching of the law is necessary. It's necessary to bring us to repentance.

It's necessary to guide us in the Christian life. But the preaching of the law does not bring faith. Faith comes from hearing the promises of the gospel. That's very much the spirit of John Calvin.

Faith is knowledge, knowledge particularly of the promises of the gospel, knowledge particularly of God's will to save us in Jesus Christ. Calvin had a passion that people have confidence in Christ as their Savior. And this is again so at odds with the sort of general reputation of John Calvin as this gloomy doubt-invoking preacher. Calvin's reputation was done great harm by Max Weber. Max Weber was a great German scholar, and he wrote about the origins of capitalism in the spirit of Calvinism. And he said in there that Calvinists were so uncertain of the possibility of salvation because of this awful doctrine of election that hovered over them that they worked hard to earn money because money would be evidence to them that God loved them.

Now every point there is wrong, but he was profoundly influential. It's the exact opposite of what Calvin teaches over and over again. God's will for us is that we have life in Jesus Christ, and God's will is that we come and have refuge and confidence in Jesus Christ. We need to know that love of God in Jesus Christ. Calvin's favorite verse I think by the way he repeats it and uses it in his writing over and over is John 17 verse 3, this is eternal life that they know thee the only true God and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent. I think a lot of people wouldn't think that would be John Calvin's favorite verse.

Nothing about election in there, although election is always implicit everywhere. But it's his passion that people will know eternal life by knowing the true God and knowing the true Jesus. So we have to have knowledge if we are to have faith. And secondly we have to have trust. Faith is trust. If God has said something to us, do we trust it?

Do we rely on it? Jesus said, come unto me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest. Do we trust Him to keep that promise? You know there are some people in the history of the Reformed tradition who have said, you know I'd really like to come, but I don't think Jesus will receive me. I'm such a sinner. Calvin would have said to that person, you're not trusting the promise of Jesus. Jesus said, come and I'll receive you.

Come and I'll give you rest. You see it's not Arminian to say come. That's biblical and apostolic and Reformed.

What's Arminian is to say, you can come on your own. That's not biblical. Jesus says, come and I will give you rest. If you say then to Jesus, I'd like to come, but I really can't. Your theology, Jesus, is somewhat defective. If you were more Reformed to Jesus, you would know I couldn't come. I don't think Jesus is hearing that from you. I don't think Jesus wants His theology improved by you. And this is not real Calvinism.

This is a kind of hyper-Calvinism. Calvin is passionate to say there are promises, promises that you can trust and everyone who trusts those promises will be saved. There's no doubt about that.

There's no uncertainty about that. And that's why, in addition to trust, Calvin goes on to say, and therefore inherent in faith is assurance that I can know I am the child of God. Now later Reformed theology will debate that point, and some Reformed theologians will say assurance is not part of faith, but it should be added to faith. And other theologians will say, no, Calvin was right in the first place. Assurance is of the essence of faith, although there can be an infallible assurance added to that, fundamental assurance. This is getting ahead of the game, but if you are familiar with Westminster standards, I can say to you the Westminster standards are a carefully crafted compromise to contain both those points of view.

If you're not familiar with that, shame on you. Go home and read the Westminster Confession, but don't worry about it overly. But here we're talking about Calvin, and what Calvin is stressing, what Calvin is stressing is right in the essence of faith there ought to be assurance in your heart that Christ is for you, that Christ is for you. In Psalm 56 David says, this I know, God is for me.

And every Christian ought to be able to say that with David. If they know the promise, if they trust the promise, there ought to be that assurance because for Calvin it was so crucial that there be that essential assurance and confidence. Now I want to just say a word about Calvin as a teacher of the Reform of worship. Calvin was very concerned about worship, and what he was concerned about in worship was that it be simple and biblical. He wanted worship to focus on the Bible. He didn't want distractions.

For that reason he wanted a plain building, no distractions in artwork. He wanted no music except human singing, no musical instruments for Calvin. He wanted almost all singing to be the Psalms so that people would learn the Word of God, and he wanted faithful preaching and exposition of the Word. It was that simplicity of worship that brought people in connection with the Word that was so crucial for Calvin and that was carried out then far beyond Geneva. His vision of worship was carried into France.

It was carried into the Netherlands. It was carried into Great Britain, and it was carried to where almost all Reformed churches were built. And not all Reformed churches followed him in every detail of his vision, but the basic Reformed principle was adopted everywhere that worship should be simple and it should be biblical and the Word needed to have center place. And so as we conclude this all too fast run through Calvin and his life in theology, I hope you see what a wonderful pastor he was. That's a Calvin I think people need to start with who wanted people to be certain that they could rely on the Word of God, that they could be certain they were loved in Jesus Christ, and that they would continue to grow in a knowledge of the Bible as they met God in worship. That's Dr. Robert Godfrey with a not often told side of John Calvin.

You know, so often we form our opinions of people from history based on tidbits of information that we pick up here and there. That's why we believe it's so important to study church history, and that's why we commend this series to you. It's entitled A Survey of Church History, and we'll send you part three of the series today when you contact us today at 800-435-4343. You can also make your request and give your gift online at Let me repeat that contact information. Our web address,, and our phone number, 800-435-4343. Imagine the treasure this series would be for your church library or your own personal library.

And in advance, let me thank you for your generous gift. You know, I've often wondered what Calvin and Martin Luther would think of the 21st century church. I presented that question to Dr. Godfrey as we sat down recently at a Ligonier conference.

Here's what he had to say. I think both Calvin and Luther would be shocked at a situation in which common laypeople thought they could tell educated ministers what was true theologically. And I don't think they'd be happy about that and maybe with some justification. On the other hand, I think they would be excited to see in America today the extent to which laymen are voluntarily supporting the church instead of seeing the church supported by state taxation. So it's that curious reality that things have changed a lot since Luther and Calvin's day. I think Luther and Calvin would probably both be a little or a lot disappointed with American evangelicalism, that the centrality of preaching and sacraments are not taken as seriously as they were in the Reformation. And I think they would want to see preaching and sacraments brought back more to the center of Christian piety and experience. That's Dr. Robert Godfrey, and we do hope you'll join us tomorrow as we continue his series, A Survey of Church History. Renewing Your Mind is the listener-supported outreach of Ligonier Ministries. We hope to see you Thursday here on Renewing Your Mind.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-06-04 12:39:57 / 2023-06-04 12:49:20 / 9

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