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Institutes of the Christian Religion

(27 posts)

Evangelism & Irresistable Call in Acts

Wednesday··2013·01·16 · 1 Comments
I once heard a seminary student refer to himself and his fellow scholars as Gods sales department. He believed that the salvation of souls depended on the preachers persuasive skills. Considering the quality of average salesman (as the student himself lamented), we can be grateful that God doesnt leave it to the preacher to save sinners, but opens hearts to receive the gospel. God also must open the human heart before it can receive the saving message and believe. Left to itself, the fallen soul is closed to the gospel: One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. Acts 16:14 Because of the radical depravity of mans fallen nature, the human heart is bolted shut by the twin locks of sin and Satan. In its natural state, no heart is open to God. When God saves His elect, He must open that heart so it can receive the message of salvation. The same word for opened is used later in Acts to describe the earthquake that struck Philippi, with the result that immediately all the doors were opened (16:26). Those closed and locked prison doors were instantly overpowered by the earthquake and made to open. This is precisely what God did to Lydias heartHe instantly threw it open by a spiritual earthquake within her soul. Calvin writes, Indeed, [believing] does not so stand in mans own impulse, and consequently even the pious and those who fear God still have need of the especial prompting of the Spirit. Lydia, the seller of purple, feared God, yet her heart had to be opened to receive Pauls teaching [Acts 16:14] and to profit by it. Steve Lawson, Foundations of Grace (Reformation Trust, 2006), 476477.

Ungrateful False Humility

Doctrinal precision is quite out of fashion. Many times, it is argued that we can’t hold a doctrine too dogmatically because it is a “mystery.” The Trinity is such a doctrine. Because we can’t understand it fully, we should be open to different interpretations. Whether it be the modalism of T. D. Jakes, or the weird, blasphemous trinity of The Shack, we ought not reject them as heresy because, after all, none of us understands perfectly. We ought to ”humbly” embrace the mystery and leave it at that. John Calvin disagrees. Addressing objections to the precise teaching of predestination, he writes, Only I wish it to be received as a general rule, that the secret things of God are not to be scrutinized, and that those which he has revealed are not to be overlooked, lest we may, on the one hand, be chargeable with curiosity, and, on the other, with ingratitude. —Institutes of the Christian Religion (Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 3.21.4. Certainly, there are things that are hard to understand (2 Peter 3:15–16), and others that are not yet revealed to us (Deuteronomy 29:29), but to say we can’t understand them simply because we don’t yet understand them is lazy. Worse, it is ungrateful. God has revealed himself and his redemptive plan to us in quite some detail; to refuse to learn what he has revealed is to reject a tremendous, life-giving gift. Rather, we ought to work hard to glean every truth we can from God’s revelation, the Bible. Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth. —2 Timothy 2:15

The True Standard

It is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself. For we always seem to ourselves righteous and upright and wise and holy—this pride is innate in all of us—unless by clear proofs we stand convinced of our own unrighteousness, foulness, folly, and impurity. Moreover, we are not thus convinced if we look merely to ourselves and not also to the Lord, who is the sole standard by which this judgment must be measured. For, because all of us are inclined by nature to hypocrisy, a kind of empty image of righteousness in place of righteousness itself abundantly satisfies us. And because nothing appears within or around us that has not been contaminated by great immorality, what is a little less vile pleases us as a thing most pure—so long as we confine our minds within the limits of human corruption. Just so, an eye to which nothing is shown but black objects judges something dirty white or even rather darkly mottled to be whiteness itself. Indeed, we can discern still more clearly from the bodily senses how much we are deluded in estimating the powers of the soul. For if in broad daylight we either look down upon the ground or survey whatever meets our view round about, we seem to ourselves endowed with the strongest and keenest sight; yet when we look up to the sun and gaze straight at it, that power of sight which was particularly strong on earth is at once blunted and confused by a great brilliance, and thus we are compelled to admit that our keenness in looking upon things earthly is sheer dullness when it comes to the sun. So it happens in estimating our spiritual goods. As long as we do not look beyond the earth, being quite content with our own righteousness, wisdom, and virtue, we flatter ourselves most sweetly, and fancy ourselves all but demigods. Suppose we but once begin to raise our thoughts to God, and to ponder his nature, and how completely perfect are his righteousness, wisdom, and power—the straightedge to which we must be shaped. Then, what masquerading earlier as righteousness was pleasing in us will soon grow filthy in its consummate wickedness. What wonderfully impressed us under the name of wisdom will stink in its very foolishness. What wore the face of power will prove itself the most miserable weakness. That is, what in us seems perfection itself corresponds ill to the purity of God. —John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 1.1.2. In short, when we compare ourselves to our fellow man, sinners all, we can come out looking pretty good. When we compare ourselves to the one true standard of holiness, our many imperfections stand out in stark relief. Only then can we see the reality of our sin and our need of a savior. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
Although our mind cannot apprehend God without rendering some honor to him, it will not suffice simply to hold that there is One whom all ought to honor and adore, unless we are also persuaded that he is the fountain of every good, and that we must seek nothing elsewhere than in him. This I take to mean that not only does he sustain this universe (as he once founded it) by his boundless might, regulate it by his wisdom, preserve it by his goodness, and especially rule mankind by his righteousness and judgment, bear with it in his mercy, watch over it by his protection; but also that no drop will be found either of wisdom and light, or of righteousness or power or rectitude, or of genuine truth, which does not flow from him, and of which he is not the cause, Thus we may learn to await and seek all these things from him, and thankfully to ascribe them, once received, to him. For this sense of the powers of God is for us a fit teacher of piety, from which religion is born. I call “piety” that reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces. For until men recognize that they owe everything to God, that they are nourished by his fatherly care, that he is the Author of their every good, that they should seek nothing beyond him—they will never yield him willing service. Nay, unless they establish their complete happiness in him, they will never give themselves truly and sincerely to him. —John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 1.2.1. God is not just good. He is the source of all good. He is our one sufficient source, the provider for every need. Without him, we have nothing; in him, we have everything. “In Him we live and move and exist” (Acts 17:28).

Scripture Spectacles

The existence of God has been clearly revealed to all so that any who deny it or replace him with idols are proven liars (Romans 1:18–23). This general revelation, however, is not adequate to lead us to saving knowledge of the true God. That brightness which is borne in upon the eyes of all men both in heaven and on earth is more than enough to withdraw all support from men’s ingratitude—just as God, to involve the human race in the same guilt, sets forth to all without exception his presence portrayed in his creatures. Despite this, it is needful that another and better help be added to direct us aright to the very Creator of the universe, It was not in vain, then, that he added the light of his Word by which to become known unto salvation; and he regarded as worthy of this privilege those whom he pleased to gather more closely and intimately to himself. For because he saw the minds of all men tossed and agitated, after he chose the Jews as his very own flock, he fenced them about that they might not sink into oblivion as others had. With good reason he holds us by the same means in the pure knowledge of himself, since otherwise even those who seem to stand firm before all others would soon melt away. Just as old or bleary-eyed men and those with weak vision, if you thrust before them a most beautiful volume, even if they recognize it to be some sort of writing, yet can scarcely construe two words, but with the aid of spectacles will begin to read distinctly; so Scripture, gathering up the otherwise confused knowledge of God in our minds, having dispersed our dullness, clearly shows us the true God. This, therefore, is a special gift, where God, to instruct the church, not merely uses mute teachers but also opens his own most hallowed lips. Not only does he teach the elect to look upon a god, but also shows himself as the God upon whom they are to look. He has from the beginning maintained this plan for his church, so that besides these common proofs he also put forth his Word, which is a more direct and more certain mark whereby he is to be recognized. —John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 1.6.1.

God without the Word

Those who seek God outside of Scripture seek him in vain. Accordingly, [David], after he states, “The heavens declare the glory of God, the firmament shows forth the works of his hands, the ordered succession of days and nights proclaims his majesty” [Ps. 19:1–2 p.], then proceeds to mention his Word: “The law of the Lord is spotless, converting souls; the testimony of the Lord is faithful, giving wisdom to little ones; the righteous acts of the Lord are right, rejoicing hearts; the precept of the Lord is clear, enlightening eyes” [Ps. 28:8–9, Vg.; 19:7–8, EV]. For although he also includes other uses of the law, he means in general that, since God in vain calls all peoples to himself by the contemplation of heaven and earth, this is the very school of God’s children. Psalm 29 looks to this same end, where the prophet—speaking forth concerning God’s awesome voice, which strikes the earth in thunder [v. 3], winds, rains, whirlwinds and tempests, causes mountains to tremble [v. 6], shatters the cedars [v. 5]—finally adds at the end that his praises are sung in the sanctuary because the unbelievers are deaf to all the voices of God that resound in the air [vs. 9–11]. Similarly, he thus ends another psalm where he has described the awesome waves of the sea: “Thy testimonies have been verified, the beauty and holiness of thy temple shall endure forevermore” [Psalm 93:5 p.]. Hence, also, arises that which Christ said to the Samaritan woman, that her people and all other peoples worshiped they knew not what; that the Jews alone offered worship to the true God [John 4:22]. For, since the human mind because of its feebleness can in no way attain to God unless it be aided and assisted by his Sacred Word, all mortals at that time—except for the Jews—because they were seeking God without the Word, had of necessity to stagger about in vanity and error. —John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 1.6.4.

Spirit and Word

The ministry of the Holy Spirit is not to be separated from his written Word. The Holy Spirit so inheres in His truth, which He expresses in Scripture, that only when its proper reverence and dignity are given to the Word does the Holy Spirit show forth His power. . . . For by a kind of mutual bond the Lord has joined together the certainty of his Word and of his Spirit so that the perfect religion of the Word may abide in our minds when the Spirit, who causes us to contemplate God’s face, shines; and that we in turn may embrace the Spirit with no fear of being deceived when we recognize him in his own image, namely, in the Word. So indeed it is. God did not bring forth his Word among men for the sake of a momentary display, intending at the coming of his Spirit to abolish it. Rather, he sent down the same Spirit by whose power he had dispensed the Word, to complete his work by the efficacious confirmation of the Word. In this manner Christ opened the minds of two of his disciples [Luke 24:27, 45], not that they should cast away the Scriptures and become wise of themselves, but that they should know the Scriptures. Similarly Paul, while he urges the Thessalonians not to “quench the Spirit” [1 Thess. 5:19–20], does not loftily catch them up to empty speculations without the Word, but immediately adds that prophecies are not to be despised. By this, no doubt, he intimates that the light of the Spirit is put out as soon as prophecies fall into contempt. What say these fanatics, swollen with pride, who consider this the one excellent illumination when, carelessly forsaking and bidding farewell to God’s Word, they, no less confidently than boldly, seize upon whatever they may have conceived while snoring? Certainly a far different sobriety befits the children of God, who just as they see themselves, without the Spirit of God, bereft of the whole light of truth, so are not unaware that the Word is the instrument by which the Lord dispenses the illumination of his Spirit to believers. For they know no other Spirit than him who dwelt and spoke in the apostles, and by whose oracles they are continually recalled to the hearing of the Word. —John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 1.9.3.

Images as “Books”

Writing against images of God, Calvin addresses the Roman Catholic assertion that “images are the books of the uneducated.” This is a lame excuse, says Calvin, when used by those who are to blame for said ignorance by withholding the Word from the masses. But whence, I pray you, this stupidity if not because they are defrauded of that doctrine which alone was fit to instruct them? indeed, those in authority in the church turned over to idols the office of teaching for no other reason than that they themselves were mute. Paul testifies that by the true preaching of the gospel “Christ is depicted before our eyes as crucified” [Gal. 3:1 p.]. What purpose did it serve for so many crosses—of wood, stone, silver, and gold—to be erected here and there in churches, if this fact had been duly and faithfully taught: that Christ died on the cross to bear our curse [Gal. 3:13], to expiate our sins by the sacrifice of his body [Heb. 10:10], to wash them by his blood [Rev. 1:5], in short, to reconcile us to God the Father [Rom. 5:10]? From this one fact they could have learned more than from a thousand crosses of wood or stone. —John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 1.11.7.

The Proper Use of Images

Calvin was not opposed to all visual art, but only that which attempted to portray God. And yet I am not gripped by the superstition of thinking absolutely no images permissible. But because sculpture and painting are gifts of God, I seek a pure and legitimate use of each, lest those things which the Lord has conferred upon us for his glory and our good be not only polluted by perverse misuse but also turned to our destruction. We believe it wrong that God should be represented by a visible appearance, because he himself has forbidden it [Ex. 20:4] and it cannot be done without some defacing of his glory. And lest they think us alone in this opinion, those who concern themselves with their writings will find that all well-balanced writers have always disapproved of it. If it is not right to represent God by a physical likeness, much less will we be allowed to worship it as God, or God in it. Therefore it remains that only those things are to be sculptured or painted which the eyes are capable of seeing: let not God’s majesty, which is far above the perception of the eyes, be debased through unseemly representations. Within this class some are histories and events, some are images and forms of bodies without any depicting of past events. The former have some use in teaching or admonition . . . —John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 1.11.12. He did, however, oppose all paintings and sculptures in one setting: the church. But setting aside this distinction, let us in passing examine if it is expedient to have in Christian churches any images at all, whether they represent past events or the bodies of men. First, if the authority of the ancient church moves us in any way, we will recall that for about five hundred years, during which religion was still flourishing, and a purer doctrine thriving, Christian churches were commonly empty of images. Thus, it was when the purity of the ministry had somewhat degenerated that they were first introduced for the adornment of churches. I shall not discuss what reason impelled those who were the first authors of this thing; but if you compare age with age, you will see that these innovations had much declined from the integrity of those who had done without images. Why? Are we to think that those holy fathers would have allowed the church to go for so long without something they adjudged useful and salutary? Of course it was because they saw in it either no usefulness or very little, but very much danger, that they repudiated it out of deliberation and reason, rather than overlooked it out of ignorance or negligence. Augustine even states . . . “Images have more power to bend the unhappy soul, because they have mouth, eyes, ears, feet, than to straighten it, because they do not speak, or see, or hear, or walk.” . . . And by the dreadful madness that has heretofore occupied the world almost to the total destruction of godliness, we have experienced too much how the ensign of idolatry is, as it were, set up, as soon as images are put together in churches. For men’s folly cannot restrain itself from falling headlong into superstitious rites. But even if so much danger were not threatening, when I ponder the intended use of churches, somehow or other it seems to me unworthy of their holiness for them to take on images other than those living and symbolical ones which the Lord has consecrated by his Word. I mean Baptism and the Lord’s Supper . . . —Ibid., 1.11.13. I don’t know if I would take as hard a position on this as Calvin did, but I do think there is a great deal of wisdom in his reasoning.

The Witness of the Apostles to the Divinity of Christ

Some ammunition for your next conversation with Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses: First of all, a point worth especial attention is the apostles’ teaching that what had been foretold concerning the eternal God had already been revealed in Christ or was someday to be manifested in him. For when Isaiah prophesies that the Lord of Hosts is to be “a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense for the Judeans and Israelites” [Isa. 8:14 p.], Paul declares this prophecy fulfilled in Christ [Rom. 9:32–33]. Therefore he proclaims Christ to be Lord of Hosts. Similarly, elsewhere he says, “We must all stand once before the judgment seat of Christ” [Rom. 14:10 p.]. “For it is written, . . . To me every knee shall bow [Rom. 14:11, Vg.], to Me . . . every tongue shall swear” [Isa. 45:23, order changed]. Since in Isaiah, God foretells this concerning himself, and Christ, indeed, shows it forth in himself, it follows that he is that very God whose glory cannot be transferred to another. It is evident that what Paul cites to the Ephesians from The Psalms applies to God alone: “Ascending on high, he led the captivity” [Eph. 4:8; Ps. 68:18; 67:19, Vg.]. Understanding that an ascension of this sort had been prefigured when in a notable victory God put forth his power against the foreign nations, Paul indicates that it was manifested more fully in Christ. Thus John testifies that it was the glory of the Son which had been revealed through Isaiah’s vision [John 12:41; Isa. 6:1], even though the prophet himself writes that he saw the majesty of God. Obviously the titles of God that the apostle in The Letter to the Hebrews confers upon the Son are the most glorious of all: “In the beginning, thou, O Lord, didst found heaven and earth” [Heb. 1:10 p.; Ps. 101:26 p., Vg.; 102:25, EV], etc. Likewise, “Adore him, all ye his angels” [Ps. 96:7, Vg.; 97:7, EV; cf.Heb. 1:6]. And still he does not misuse them when he applies them to Christ. Indeed, whatever they sing in The Psalms, He alone fulfills. For he it was who, rising up, was merciful to Zion [Ps. 101:14, Vg.; 102:13, EV]; he who asserted for himself the rule over all nations and islands [Ps. 96:1, Vg.; 97:1, EV]. And why should John have hesitated to refer the majesty of God to Christ, when he had declared that the Word was ever God [John 1:1, 14]? Why should Paul have feared to place Christ on God’s judgment seat [2 Cor. 5:10], when he had previously proclaimed his divinity so openly, saying that he was “God . . . blessed forever” [Rom. 9:5]? And to make clear how consistent lie is in this respect, in another passage he writes that “God has been manifested in the flesh” [I Tim. 3:16 p.]. If God is to be praised forever, he, then, it is to whom alone all glory and honor are due, as Paul affirms in another place [I Tim. 1:17]. And he does not conceal this, but openly proclaims: “Though he was in the form of God, he would not have counted it robbery if he had shown himself equal with God, yet he voluntarily emptied himself” [Phil. 2:6–7 p.]. And lest the impious carp about some feigned god, John went farther, saying: “He is the true God, and eternal life” [I John 5:20 p.]. However, it ought to be more than enough for us that he is called God, especially by that witness who aptly declares to us that there are not many gods, but one [Deut. 6:4]. Moreover, it is that Paul who said, “Though many are called gods, whether in heaven or on earth, . . . yet for us there is one God, from whom are all things.” [I Cor. 8:5–6 p.] When we hear from the same mouth that “God was manifested in the flesh” [I Tim. 3:16 p.], that “God has purchased the church by his blood” [Acts 20:28 p.], why do we imagine a second god, whom Paul acknowledges not at all? And no doubt the same was the opinion of all godly men. In like manner Thomas openly proclaims him his Lord and God [John 20:28], and thus professes him to be that sole God whom he had always worshiped. —John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 1.13.11.

The Witness of Christ to His Divinity

We have heard the witness of the apostles to the divinity of Christ. See now what Christ himself said: Now if we weigh his divinity by the works that are ascribed him in the Scriptures, it will thereby shine forth more clearly. Indeed, when he said that he had been working hitherto from the beginning with the Father [John 5:17], the Jews, utterly stupid to all his other sayings, still sensed that he made use of divine power. And therefore, as John states, “the Jews sought all the more to kill him, because he not only broke the Sabbath, but also called God his Father, making himself equal with God” [John 5:18]. How great will our stupidity then be if we do not feel that his divinity is here plainly affirmed? And verily, to govern the universe with providence and power, and to regulate all things by the command of his own power [Heb. 1:3], deeds that the apostle ascribes to Christ, is the function of the Creator alone. And he not only participates in the task of governing the world with the Father; but he carries out also other individual offices, which cannot be communicated to the creatures. The Lord proclaims through the prophet, “I, even I, am the one who blots out your transgressions for my own sake” [Isa. 43:25 p.]. According to this saying, when the Jews thought that wrong was done to God in that Christ was remitting sins, Christ not only asserted in words, but also proved by miracle, that this power belonged to him [Matt. 9:6]. We therefore perceive that he possesses not the administration merely but the actual power of remission of sins, which the Lord says will never pass from him to another. What? Does not the searching and penetrating of the silent thoughts of hearts belong to God alone? Yet Christ also had this power [Matt. 9:4; cf.John 2:25]. From this we infer his divinity. —John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 1.13.12.

Against Speculation

The human mind is made to be curious, and to learn. We are designed to investigate and discover. Where would we be without modern advances in technology and medicine? These have been accomplished by God’s design and providence, and we are rightly grateful. But not all investigations are profitable or reverent. There are things that God has chosen not to reveal, and we should be content with that. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29). [I]t was his will that the history of Creation be made manifest, in order that the faith of the church, resting upon this, might seek no other God but him who was put forth by Moses as the Maker and Founder of the universe. Therein time was first marked so that by a continuing succession of years believers might arrive at the primal source of the human race and of all things. This knowledge is especially useful not only to resist the monstrous fables that formerly were in vogue in Egypt and in other regions of the earth, but also that, once the beginning of the universe is known, God’s eternity may shine forth more clearly, and we may be more rapt in wonder at it. And indeed, that impious scoff ought not to move us: that it is a wonder how it did not enter God’s mind sooner to found heaven and earth, but that he idly permitted an immeasurable time to pass away, since he could have made it very many millenniums earlier, albeit the duration of the world, now declining to its ultimate end, has not yet attained six thousand years. For it is neither lawful nor expedient for us to inquire why God delayed so long, because if the human mind strives to penetrate thus far, it will fail a hundred times on the way. And it would not even be useful for us to know what God himself, to test our moderation of faith, on purpose willed to be hidden. When a certain shameless fellow mockingly asked a pious old man what God had done before the creation of the world, the latter aptly countered that he had been building hell for the curious. Let this admonition, no less grave than severe, restrain the wantonness that tickles many and even drives them to wicked and hurtful speculations. . . . Augustine rightly complains that wrong is done to God when a higher cause of things than his will is demanded. Elsewhere the same man wisely warns that it is no less wrong to raise questions concerning immeasurable stretches of time than of space. . . . As if within six thousand years God has not shown evidences enough on which to exercise our minds in earnest meditation! Therefore let us willingly remain enclosed within these bounds to which God has willed to confine us, and as it were, to pen up our minds that they may not, through their very freedom to wander, go astray. —John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 1.14.1.

Guardian Angels

It is a popular legend that each of us has a personal guardian angel. I don’t believe we do. Calvin, while not denying the possibility, demonstrates that there is no Scriptural reason to believe it. [W]hether individual angels have been assigned to individual believers for their protection, I dare not affirm with confidence. Certainly, when Daniel introduces the angel of the Persians and the angel of the Greeks [Dan. 10:13, 20; 12:1] he signifies that specific angels have been appointed as guardians over kingdoms and provinces. Christ also, when he says that the children’s angels always behold the Father’s face [Matt. 18:10], hints that there are certain angels to whom their safety has been committed. But from this I do not know whether one ought to infer that each individual has the protection of his own angel. We ought to hold as a fact that the care of each one of us is not the task of one angel only, but all with one consent watch over our salvation. For it is said of all the angels together that they rejoice more over the turning of one sinner to repentance than over ninety-nine righteous men who have stood fast in righteousness [Luke 15:7]. Also, it is said of a number of angels that “they bore Lazarus’ soul to Abraham’s bosom” [Luke 16:22 p.]. And Elisha does not in vain show to his servant so many fiery chariots which had been destined especially for him [II Kings 6:17]. There is one passage that seems to confirm this a little more clearly than the rest. For when Peter, led out of the prison, knocked at the gates of the house in which the brethren were gathered, since they could not imagine it was he, “they said, ‘It is his angel’” [Acts 12:15]. This seems to have entered their minds from the common notion that each believer has been assigned his own guardian angel. Although here, also, it can be answered that nothing prevents us from understanding this of any angel at all to whom the Lord had then given over the care of Peter; yet he would not on that account be Peter’s perpetual guardian. Similarly the common folk imagine two angels, good and bad—as it were different geniuses—attached to each person. Yet it is not worth-while anxiously to investigate what it does not much concern us to know. For if the fact that all the heavenly host are keeping watch for his safety will not satisfy a man, I do not see what benefit he could derive from knowing that one angel has been given to him as his especial guardian. —John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 1.14.7.

Angel Worship

According to Roman Catholicism, angels as well as saints are appropriate recipients of prayer. Calvin, and Scripture, say otherwise. It remains for us to cope with that superstition which frequently creeps in, to the effect that angels are the ministers and dispensers of all good things to us. For at once, man’s reason so lapses that he thinks that no honor ought to be withheld from them. Thus it happens that what belongs to God and Christ alone is transferred to them. Thus we see that Christ’s glory was for some ages past obscured in many ways, when contrary to God’s Word unmeasured honors were lavished upon angels. And among those vices which we are today combating, there is hardly any more ancient. For it appears that Paul had a great struggle with certain persons who so elevated angels that they well-nigh degraded Christ to the same level. Hence he urges with very great solicitude in the letter to the Colossians that not only is Christ to be preferred before all angels but that he is the author of all good things that they have [Col. 1:16, 20]. This he does that we may not depart from Christ and go over to those who are not self-sufficient but draw from the same well as we. Surely, since the splendor of the divine majesty shines in them, nothing is easier for us than to fall down, stupefied, in adoration of them, and then to attribute to them everything that is owed to God alone. Even John in Revelation confesses that this happened to him, but at the same time he adds that this answer came to him [chs. 19:10; 22:8–9]: “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you . . . Worship God.” —John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 1.14.10.

All Things Foreordained

The Westminster Confession states that “God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass” (WCF 3.1; Cf. WLC 12, WSC 7). This is at odds with what is commonly believed, that is, that Satan is a free agent, working evil in the world, and that God is left to react to his attacks, protecting us from evil, and/or using it for our good. But God is more ahead of the game than that. God does not merely use evil after-the-fact; it is a part of his eternal plan (Genesis 50:20). As for the discord and strife that we say exists between Satan and God, we ought to accept as a fixed certainty the fact that he can do nothing unless God wills and assents to it. For we read in the history of Job that he presented himself before God to receive his commands [Job 1:6; 2:1], and did not dare undertake any evil act without first having obtained permission [chs. 1:12; 2:6]. Thus, also, when Ahab was to be deceived, Satan took upon himself to become a spirit of falsehood in the mouths of all the prophets; and commissioned by God, he carried out his task [I Kings 22:20–22]. For this reason, too, the spirit of the Lord that troubled Saul is called “evil” because the sins of the impious king were punished by it as by a lash [I Sam. 16:14; 18:10]. And elsewhere it is written that the plagues were inflicted upon the Egyptians by God “through evil angels” [Ps. 78:49]. According to these particular examples Paul generally testifies that the blinding of unbelievers is God’s work [II Thess. 2:11], although he had before called it the activity of Satan [II Thess. 2:9; cf. II Cor. 4:4; Eph. 2:2]. Therefore Satan is clearly under God’s power, and is so ruled by his bidding as to be compelled to render him service. Indeed, when we say that Satan resists God, and that Satan’s works disagree with Gods works, we at the same time assert that this resistance and this opposition are dependent upon God’s sufferance. I am not now speaking of Satan’s will, nor even of his effort, but only of his effect. For inasmuch as the devil is by nature wicked, he is not at all inclined to obedience to the divine will, but utterly intent upon contumacy and rebellion. From himself and his own wickedness, therefore, arises his passionate and deliberate opposition to God. By this wickedness he is urged on to attempt courses of action which he believes to be most hostile to God. But because with the bridle of his power God holds him bound and restrained, he carries out only those things which have been divinely permitted to him; and so he obeys his Creator, whether he will or not, because he is compelled to yield him service wherever God impels him. —John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 1.14.17.

From Him Alone

[W]henever we call God the Creator of heaven and earth, let us at the same time bear in mind that the dispensation of all those things which he has made is in his own hand and power and that we are indeed his children, whom he has received into his faithful protection to nourish and educate. We are therefore to await the fullness of all good things from him alone and to trust completely that he will never leave us destitute of what we need for salvation, and to hang our hopes on none but him! We are therefore, also, to petition him for whatever we desire; and we are to recognize as a blessing from him, and thankfully to acknowledge, every benefit that falls to our share. So, invited by the great sweetness of his beneficence and goodness, let us study to love and serve him with all our heart. —John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 1.14.22.

Creation and Providence Inseparable

[T]o make God a momentary Creator, who once for all finished his work, would be cold and barren, and we must differ from profane men especially in that we see the presence of divine power shining as much in the continuing state of the universe as in its inception. For even though the minds of the impious too are compelled by merely looking upon earth and heaven to rise up to the Creator, yet faith has its own peculiar way of assigning the whole credit for Creation to God. To this pertains that saying of the apostle’s to which we have referred before, that only “by faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God” [Heb. 11:3]. For unless we pass on to his providence—however we may seem both to comprehend with the mind and to confess with the tongue—we do not yet properly grasp what it means to say: “God is Creator.” Carnal sense, once confronted with the power of God in the very Creation, stops there, and at most weighs and contemplates only the wisdom, power, and goodness of the author in accomplishing such handiwork. (These matters are self-evident, and even force themselves upon the unwilling.) It contemplates, moreover, some general preserving and governing activity, from which the force of motion derives. In short, carnal sense thinks there is an energy divinely bestowed from the beginning, sufficient to sustain all things. But faith ought to penetrate more deeply, namely, having found him Creator of all, forthwith to conclude he is also everlasting Governor and Preserver—not only in that he drives the celestial frame as well as its several parts by a universal motion, but also in that he sustains, nourishes, and cares for, everything he has made, even to the least sparrow [cf. Matt. 10:29]. Thus David, having briefly stated that the universe was created by God, immediately descends to the uninterrupted course of His providence, “By the word of Jehovah the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth” [Ps. 33:6; cf. Ps. 32:6, Vg.]. Soon thereafter he adds, “Jehovah has looked down upon the sons of men” [Ps. 33:13; cf. Ps. 32:13–14, Vg.], and what follows is in the same vein. For although all men do not reason so clearly, yet, because it would not be believable that human affairs are cared for by God unless he were the Maker of the universe, and nobody seriously believes the universe was made by God without being persuaded that he takes care of his works, David not inappropriately leads us in the best order from the one to the other. In general, philosophers teach and human minds conceive that all parts of the universe are quickened by God’s secret inspiration. Yet they do not reach as far as David is carried, bearing with him all the godly, when he says: “These all look to thee, to give them their food in due season; when thou givest to them, they gather it up; when thou openest thy hand, they are filled with good things; when thou hidest thy face, they are dismayed; when thou takest away their breath, they die and return to the earth. If thou sendest forth thy spirit again, they are created, and thou renewest the face of the earth” [Ps. 104:27–30 p.]. Indeed, although they subscribe to Paul’s statement that we have our being and move and live in God [Acts 17:28], yet they are far from that earnest feeling of grace which he commends, because they do not at all taste God’s special care, by which alone his fatherly favor is known. —John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 1.16.1.
God’s providence, as it is taught in Scripture, is opposed to fortune and fortuitous happenings. Now it has been commonly accepted in all ages, and almost all mortals hold the same opinion today, that all things come about through chance. What we ought to believe concerning providence is by this depraved opinion most certainly not only beclouded, but almost buried. Suppose a man falls among thieves, or wild beasts; is shipwrecked at sea by a sudden gale; is killed by a falling house or tree. Suppose another man wandering through the desert finds help in his straits; having been tossed by the waves, reaches harbor; miraculously escapes death by a finger’s breadth. Carnal reason ascribes all such happenings, whether prosperous or adverse, to fortune. But anyone who has been taught by Christ’s lips that all the hairs of his head are numbered [Matt. 10:30] will look farther afield for a cause, and will consider that all events are governed by God’s secret plan. And concerning inanimate objects we ought to hold that, although each one has by nature been endowed with its own property, yet it does not exercise its own power except in so far as it is directed by God’s ever-present hand. These are, thus, nothing but instruments to which God continually imparts as much effectiveness as he wills, and according to his own purpose bends and turns them to either one action or another. No creature has a force more wondrous or glorious than that of the sun. For besides lighting the whole earth with its brightness, how great a thing is it that by its heat it nourishes and quickens all living things! That with its rays it breathes fruitfulness into the earth.! That it warms the seeds in the bosom of the earth, draws them forth with budding greenness, increases and strengthens them, nourishes them anew, until they rise up into stalks! That it feeds the plant with continual warmth, until it grows into flower, and from flower into fruit! That then, also, with baking heat it brings the fruit to maturity! That in like manner trees and vines warmed by the sun first put forth buds and leaves, then put forth a flower, and from the flower produce fruit! Yet the Lord, to claim the whole credit for all these things, willed that, before he created the sun, light should come to be and earth be filled with all manner of herbs and fruits [Gen. 1:3, 11, 14]. Therefore a godly man will not make the sun either the principal or the necessary cause of these things which existed before the creation of the sun, but merely the instrument that God uses because he so wills; for with no more difficulty he might abandon it, and act through himself. Then when we read that at Joshua’s prayers the sun stood still in one degree for two days [Josh. 10:13], and that its shadow went back ten degrees for the sake of King Hezekiah [II Kings 20:11 or Isa. 38:8], God has witnessed by those few miracles that the sun does not daily rise and set by a blind instinct of nature but that he himself, to renew our remembrance of his fatherly favor toward us, governs its course. Nothing is more natural than for spring to follow winter; summer, spring; and fall, summer—each in turn. Yet in this series one sees such great and uneven diversity that it readily appears each year, month, and day is governed by a new, a special, providence of God. —John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 1.16.2.

No Idle Observer

At the outset, then, let my readers grasp that providence means not that by which God idly observes from heaven what takes place on earth, but that by which, as keeper of the keys, he governs all events. Thus it pertains no less to his hands than to his eyes. And indeed, when Abraham said to his son, “God will provide” [Gen. 22:8], he meant not only to assert God’s foreknowledge of a future event, but to cast the care of a matter unknown to him upon the will of Him who is wont to give a way out of things perplexed and confused. Whence it follows that providence is lodged in the act; for many babble too ignorantly of bare foreknowledge. Not so crass is the error of those who attribute a governance to God, but of a confused and mixed sort, as I have said, namely, one that by a general motion revolves and drives the system of the universe, with its several parts, but which does not specifically direct the action of individual creatures. Yet this error, also, is not tolerable; for by this providence which they call universal, they teach that nothing hinders all creatures from being contingently moved, or man from turning himself hither and thither by the free choice of his will. And they so apportion things between God and man that God by His power inspires in man a movement by which he can act in accordance with the nature implanted in him, but He regulates His own actions by the plan of His will. Briefly, they mean that the universe, men’s affairs, and men themselves are governed by God’s might but not by His determination. . . . As if the dumb creatures themselves do not sufficiently cry out against such patent madness! For now I propose to refute the opinion (which almost universally obtains) that concedes to God some kind of blind and ambiguous motion, while taking from him the chief thing: that he directs everything by his incomprehensible wisdom and disposes it to his own end, and so in name only, not in fact, it makes God the Ruler of the universe because it deprives him of his control. What, I pray you, is it to have control but so to be in authority that you rule in a determined order those things over which you are placed? Yet I do not wholly repudiate what is said concerning universal providence, provided they in turn grant me that the universe is ruled by God, not only because he watches over the order of nature set by himself, but because he exercises especial care over each of his works. It is, indeed, true that the several kinds of things are moved by a secret impulse of nature, as if they obeyed God’s eternal command, and what God has once determined flows on by itself. At this point we may refer to Christ’s statement that from the very beginning he and the Father were always at work [John 5:17]; and to Paul’s teaching that “in him we live, move, and have our being” [Acts 17:28]; also, what the author of The Letter to the Hebrews says, meaning to prove the divinity of Christ, that all things are sustained by his mighty command [Heb. 1:3]. . . . God so attends to the regulation of individual events, and they all so proceed from his set plan, that nothing takes place by chance. —John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 1.16.4.

“Man’s Steps Are from the Lord”

The pride of man rebels against the sovereignty of God over all creatures and events. Nevertheless, Scripture affirms the conclusion of the Westminster Confession that “God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass.” But because we know that the universe was established especially for the sake of mankind, we ought to look for this purpose in his governance also. The prophet Jeremiah exclaims, “I know, O Lord, that the way of man is not his own, nor is it given to man to direct his own steps” [Jer. 10:23]. Moreover, Solomon says, “Man’s steps are from the Lord [Prov. 20:24 p.] and how may man dispose his way?” [Prov. 16:9 p., cf. Vg.]. Let them now say that man is moved by God according to the inclination of his nature, but that he himself turns that motion whither he pleases. Nay, if that were truly said, the free choice of his ways would be in man’s control. Perhaps they will deny this because he can do nothing without God’s power. Yet they cannot really get by with that, since it is clear that the prophet and Solomon ascribe to God not only might but also choice and determination. Elsewhere Solomon elegantly rebukes this rashness of men, who set up for themselves a goal without regard to God, as if they were not led by his hand. “The disposition of the heart is man’s, but the preparation of the tongue is the Lord’s.” [Prov. 16:1, 9, conflated.] It is an absurd folly that miserable men take it upon themselves to act without God, when they cannot even speak except as he wills! Indeed, Scripture, to express more plainly that nothing at all in the world is undertaken without his determination, shows that things seemingly most fortuitous are subject to him. For what can you attribute more to chance than when a branch breaking off from a tree kills a passing traveler? But the Lord speaks far differently, acknowledging that he has delivered him to the hand of the slayer [Ex. 21:13]. Likewise, who does not attribute lots to the blindness of fortune? But the Lord does not allow this, claiming for himself the determining of them. He teaches that it is not by their own power that pebbles are cast into the lap and drawn out, but the one thing that could have been attributed to chance he testifies to come from himself [Prov.16:33]. In the same vein is that saying of Solomon, “The poor man and the usurer meet together; God illumines the eyes of both” [Prov. 29:13; cf. ch. 22:2]. He points out that, even though the rich are mingled with the poor in the world, while to each his condition is divinely assigned, God, who lights all men, is not at all blind. And so he urges the poor to patience; because those who are not content with their own lot try to shake off the burden laid upon them by God. Thus, also, another prophet rebukes the impious who ascribe to men’s toil, or to fortune, the fact that some lie in squalor and others rise up to honors. “For not from the east, nor from the west, nor from the wilderness comes lifting up; because God is judge, he humbles one and lifts up another.” [Ps. 75:6–7.] —John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 1.16.6.

The Secret Things

God rules not only through his law, which is revealed to us, but also through providences which we can only see after the fact—or may never see at all. As his creatures, it is our place to accept his providential direction of our lives and circumstances with humility, reverence, awe, and adoration. Therefore no one will weigh God’s providence properly and profitably but him who considers that his business is with his Maker and the Framer of the universe, and with becoming humility submits himself to fear and reverence. Hence it happens that today so many dogs assail this doctrine with their venomous bitings, or at least with barking: for they wish nothing to be lawful for God beyond what their own reason prescribes for themselves. Also they rail at us with as much wantonness as they can; because we, not content with the precepts of the law, which comprise God’s will, say also that the universe is ruled by his secret plans. As if what we teach were a figment of our brain, and the Holy Spirit did not everywhere expressly declare the same thing and repeat it in innumerable forms of expression. . . . But if they do not admit that whatever happens in the universe is governed by God’s incomprehensible plans, let them answer to what end Scripture says that his judgments are a deep abyss [Ps. 36:6]. For since Moses proclaims that the will of God is to be sought not far off in the clouds or in abysses, because it has been set forth familiarly in the law [Deut. 30:11–14], it follows that he has another hidden will which may be compared to a deep abyss; concerning which Paul also says: “O depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?’” [Rom. 11:33–34; cf. Isa. 40:13–14]. And it is, indeed, true that in the law and the gospel are comprehended mysteries which tower far above the reach of our senses. But since God illumines the minds of his own with the spirit of discernment [Job 20:3 or Isa. 11:2] for the understanding of these mysteries which he has deigned to reveal by his Word, now no abyss is here; rather, a way in which we ought to walk in safety, and a lamp to guide our feet [Ps. 119:105, Vg.; 119:105, EV], the light of life [cf. John 1:4; 8:12], and the school of sure and clear truth. Yet his wonderful method of governing the universe is rightly called an abyss, because while it is hidden from us, we ought reverently to adore it. Moses has beautifully expressed both ideas in a few words: “The secret things,” he says, “belong to the Lord our God, but what is here written, to you and your children” [Deut. 29:29 p.]. For we see how he bids us not only direct our study to meditation upon the law, but to look up to God’s secret providence with awe. Also, in The Book of Job is set forth a declaration of such sublimity as to humble our minds. For after the author, in surveying above and below the frame of the universe, has magnificently discoursed concerning God’s works, he finally adds: “Behold! These are but the outskirts of his ways, and how small a thing is heard therein!” [Job 26:14]. In this way he distinguishes in another place between the wisdom that resides with God and the portion of wisdom God has prescribed for men. For when he has discoursed on the secrets of nature, he says that wisdom is known to God alone, but “eludes the eyes of all the living” [Job 28:21]. But he adds a little later that His wisdom has been published to be searched out, because it is said to man: “Behold, the fear of the Lord is wisdom” [Job 28:28]. To this point the saying of Augustine applies: “Because we do not know all the things which God in the best possible order does concerning us, we act solely in good will according to the law, but in other things we are acted upon according to the law, because his providence is an unchangeable law.” Therefore, since God assumes to himself the right (unknown to us) to rule the universe, let our law of soberness and moderation be to assent to his supreme authority, that his will may be for us the sole rule of righteousness, and the truly just cause of all things. Not, indeed, that absolute will of which the Sophists babble, by an impious and profane distinction separating his justice from his power—but providence, that determinative principle of all things, from which flows nothing but right, although the reasons have been hidden from us. —John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 1.17.2.

The Believer’s Solace in God’s Providence

[T]he Christian heart, since it has been thoroughly persuaded that all things happen by God’s plan, and that nothing takes place by chance, will ever look to him as the principal cause of things, yet will give attention to the secondary causes in their proper place. Then the heart will not doubt that God’s singular providence keeps watch to preserve it, and will not suffer anything to happen but what may turn out to its good and salvation. But since God’s dealings are first with man, then with the remaining creatures, the heart will have assurance that God’s providence rules over both. As far as men are concerned, whether they are good or evil, the heart of the Christian will know that their plans, wills, efforts, and abilities are under God’s hand; that it is within his choice to bend them whither he pleases and to constrain them whenever he pleases. There are very many and very clear promises that testify that God’s singular providence watches over the welfare of believers: “Cast your care upon the Lord, and he will nourish you, and will never permit the righteous man to flounder” [Ps. 55:22 p.; cf. Ps. 54:28, Vg.]. For he takes care of us. [1 Pet. 5:7 p.] “He who dwells in the help of the Most High will abide in the protection of the God of heaven.” [Ps. 91:1; 90:1, Vg.] “He who touches you touches the pupil of mine eye.” [Zech. 2:8 p.] “I will be your shield” [Gen. 15:1 p.], “a brazen wall” [Jer. 1:18; 15:20]; “I will contend with those who contend with you” [Isa. 49:25]. “Even though a mother may forget her children, yet will I not forget you.” [Isa. 49:15 p.] Indeed, the principal purpose of Biblical history is to teach that the Lord watches over the ways of the saints with such great diligence that they do not even stumble over a stone [cf. Ps. 91:12]. Therefore, as we rightly rejected . . . the opinion of those who imagine a universal providence of God, which does not stoop to the especial care of any particular creature, yet first of all it is important that we recognize this special care toward us. Whence Christ, when he declared that not even a tiny sparrow of little worth falls to earth without the Father’s will [Matt. 10:29], immediately applies it in this way: that since we are of greater value than sparrows, we ought to realize that God watches over us with all the closer care [Matt. 10:31]; and he extends it so far that we may trust that the hairs of our head are numbered [Matt. 10:30]. What else can we wish for ourselves, if not even one hair can fall from our head without his will? I speak not only concerning mankind; but, because God has chosen the church to be his dwelling place, there is no doubt that he shows by singular proofs his fatherly care in ruling it. —John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 1.17.6.

Providence, for Better or Worse

Whether we prosper or suffer, it is all from the hand of God, who does all things for our good. [I]t is [God’s] care to govern all creatures for their own good and safety . . . Gratitude of mind for the favorable outcome of things, patience in adversity, and also incredible freedom from worry about the future all necessarily follow upon this knowledge. Therefore whatever shall happen prosperously and according to the desire of his heart, God’s servant will attribute wholly to God, whether he feels God’s beneficence through the ministry of men, or has been helped by inanimate creatures. For thus he will reason in his mind: surely it is the Lord who has inclined their hearts to me, who has so bound them to me that they should become the instruments of his kindness toward me. In abundance of fruits he will think: “It is the Lord who ‘hears’ the heaven, that the heaven may ‘hear’ the earth, that the earth also may ‘hear’ its offspring” [cf. Hos. 2:22–23, EV]. In other things he will not doubt that it is the Lord’s blessing alone by which all things prosper. Admonished by so many evidences, he will not continue to be ungrateful. If anything adverse happens, straightway he will raise up his heart here also unto God, whose hand can best impress patience and peaceful moderation of mind upon us. If Joseph had stopped to dwell upon his brothers’ treachery, he would never have been able to show a brotherly attitude toward them. But since he turned his thoughts to the Lord, forgetting the injustice, he inclined to gentleness and kindness, even to the point of comforting his brothers and saying: “It is not you who sold me into Egypt, but I was sent before you by God’s will, that I might save your life” [Gen. 45:5, 7–8 p.]. “Indeed you intended evil against me, but the Lord turned it into good.” [Gen. 50:20, cf. Vg.] If Job had turned his attention to the Chaldeans, by whom he was troubled, he would immediately have been aroused to revenge; but because he at once recognized it as the Lord’s work, he comforts himself with this most beautiful thought: “The Lord gave, the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” [Job 1:21]. Thus David, assailed with threats and stones by Shimei, if he had fixed his eyes upon the man, would have encouraged his men to repay the injury; but because he knows that Shimei does not act without the Lord’s prompting, he rather appeases them: “Let him alone,” he says, “because the Lord has ordered him to curse” [II Sam. 16:11]. By this same bridle he elsewhere curbs his inordinate sorrow: “I have kept silence and remained mute,” says he, “because thou hast done it, O Jehovah” [Ps. 39:9 p.]. If there is no more effective remedy for anger and impatience, he has surely benefited greatly who has so learned to meditate upon God’s providence that he can always recall his mind to this point: the Lord has willed it; therefore it must be borne, not only because one may not contend against it, but also because he wills nothing but what is just and expedient. To sum this up: when are unjustly wounded by men, let us overlook their wickedness (which would but worsen our pain and sharpen our minds to revenge), remember to mount up to God, and learn to believe for certain that whatever our enemy has wickedly committed against us was permitted and sent by God’s just dispensation. —John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 1.17.7, 8.

Providence and Responsibility

Although we recognize that all things come from the hand od God, and ultimately, all thanks and praise belong to him, we must not then ignore the ordinary means which he uses to serve his purposes. We must seek help from our fellow man when needed, and give thanks to whom thanks is due. We must act wisely, responsibly, and charitably, not passively leaving all to providence, but actively fulfilling the duties God has assigned to us. “The horse is prepared for the day of battle, But victory belongs to the Lord (Proverbs 21:31). [A] godly man will not overlook the secondary causes. And indeed, he will not, just because he thinks those from whom he has received benefit are ministers of the divine goodness, pass them over, as if they had deserved no thanks for their human kindness; but from the bottom of his heart will feel himself beholden to them, willingly confess his obligation, and earnestly try as best he can to render thanks and as occasion presents itself. In short, for benefits received he will reverence and praise the Lord as their principal author, but will honor men as his ministers; and will know what is in fact true: it is by God’s will that he is beholden to those through whose hand God willed to be beneficent. If this godly man suffers any loss because of negligence or imprudence, he will conclude that it came about by the Lord’s will, but also impute it to himself. Suppose a disease should carry off anyone whom he treated negligently, although it was his duty to take care of him. Even though he knows that this person had come to an impassable boundary, he will not on this account deem his misdeed less serious; rather, because he did not faithfully discharge his duty toward him, he will take it that through the fault of his negligence the latter had perished. Where fraud or premeditated malice enters into the committing of either murder or theft, he will even less excuse such a crime on the pretext of divine providence; but in this same evil deed he will clearly contemplate God’s righteousness and man’s wickedness, as each clearly shows itself. But especially with reference to future events he will take into consideration inferior causes of this sort. For he will count it among the blessings of the Lord, if he is not destitute of human helps which he may use for his safety. Therefore he will neither cease to take counsel, nor be sluggish in beseeching the assistance of those whom he sees to have the means to help him; but, considering that whatever creatures are capable of furnishing anything to him are offered by the Lord into his hand, he will put them to use as lawful instruments of divine providence. And since it is uncertain what will be the outcome of the business he is undertaking (except that he knows that in all things the Lord will provide for his benefit), he will aspire with zeal to that which he deems expedient for himself, as far as it can be attained by intelligence and understanding. Yet in taking counsel he will not follow his own opinion, but will entrust and submit himself to God’s wisdom, to be directed by his leading to the right goal. But his confidence will not so rely upon outward supports as to repose with assurance in them if they are present, or, if they are lacking, to tremble as if left destitute. For he will always hold his mind fixed upon God’s providence alone, and not let preoccupation with present matters draw him away from steadfast contemplation of it. Thus Joab, though recognizing the outcome of the battle to be in God’s hand, has yielded not to idleness, but diligently carries out the duties of his calling. To the Lord, moreover, he commits the determination of the outcome: “We will stand fast,” says he, “for our people and the cities of our God; but let the Lord do what is good in his eyes” [2 Sam. 10:12 p.]. This same knowledge will drive us to put off rashness and over-confidence, and will impel us continually to call upon God. Then also he will buttress our minds with good hope, that, with confidence and courage, we may not hesitate to despise those dangers which surround us. —John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 1.17.9.

A Blessed Knowledge

It is often said that “ignorance is bliss,” and that may be true at times; at others, just the opposite is true. Innumerable are the evils that beset human life; innumerable, too, the deaths that threaten it. We need not go beyond ourselves: since our body is the receptacle of a thousand diseases—in fact holds within itself and fosters the causes of diseases—a man cannot go about unburdened by many forms of his own destruction, and without drawing out a life enveloped, as it were, with death. For what else would you call it, when he neither freezes nor sweats without danger? Now, wherever you turn, all things around you not only are hardly to be trusted but almost openly menace, and seem to threaten immediate death. Embark upon a ship, you are one step away from death. Mount a horse, if one foot slips, your life is imperiled. Go through the city streets, you are subject to as many dangers as there are tiles on the roofs. If there is a weapon in your hand or a friend’s, harm awaits. All the fierce animals you see are armed for your destruction. But if you try to shut yourself up in a walled garden, seemingly delightful, there a serpent sometimes lies hidden. Your house, continually in danger of fire, threatens in the daytime to impoverish you, at night even to collapse upon you. Your field, since it is exposed to hail, frost, drought, and other calamities, threatens you with barrenness, and hence, famine. I pass over poisonings, ambushes, robberies, open violence, which in part besiege us at home, in part dog us abroad. Amid these tribulations must not man be most miserable, since, but half alive in life, he weakly draws his anxious and languid breath, as if he had a sword perpetually hanging over his neck? Yet, when that light of divine providence has once shone upon a godly man, he is then relieved and set free not only from the extreme anxiety and fear that were pressing him before, but from every care. For as he justly dreads fortune, so he fearlessly dares commit himself to God. His solace, I say, is to know that his Heavenly Father so holds all things in his power, so rules by his authority and will, so governs by his wisdom, that nothing can befall except he determine it. Moreover, it comforts him to know that he has been received into God’s safekeeping and entrusted to the care of his angels, and that neither water, nor fire, nor iron can harm him, except in so far as it pleases God as governor to give them occasion. Thus indeed the psalm sings: “For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence. Under his wings will he protect you, and in his pinions you will have assurance; his truth will be your shield. You will not fear the terror of night, nor the flying arrow by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at midday” [Ps. 91:3–6]. From this, also, arises in the saints the assurance that they may glory. “The Lord is my helper” [Ps. 118:6]; “I will not fear what flesh can do against me” [Ps. 56:4]. “The Lord is my protector; what shall I fear?” [Ps. 27:1] “If armies should stand together against me” [Ps. 27:3], “if I should walk in the midst of the shadow of death” [Ps. 23:4], “I will not cease to have good hope” [Ps. 56:5]. Whence, I pray you, do they have this never-failing assurance but from knowing that, when the world appears to be aimlessly tumbled about, the Lord is everywhere at work, and from trusting that his work will be for their welfare? . . . . . . In short, not to tarry any longer over this, if you pay attention, you will easily perceive that ignorance of providence is the ultimate of all miseries; the highest blessedness lies in the knowledge of it. —John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 1.17.10, 11.

Does God Repent?

On several occasions in Scripture, God is said to “repent” of things he has done or decreed. Since repenting, or changing one’s mind, necessarily implies learning and correction, this might lead, and indeed, has lead some, to conclude that God is neither omniscient nor immutable, and adjusts his actions to new information as he receives it. This conclusion, of course, contradicts the testimony of Scripture to the nature of God, and therefore must be erroneous. Yet the passages that describe God as repenting cannot be ignored. How, then, should they be understood? [C]ertain passages . . . seem to suggest . . . that the plan of God does not stand firm and sure, but is subject to change in response to the disposition of things below. First, God’s repenting is several times mentioned, as when he repented of having created man [Gen. 6:6]; of having put Saul over the kingdom [I Sam. 15:11]; and of his going to repent of the evil that he had determined to inflict upon his people, as soon as he sensed any change of heart in them [Jer. 18:8]. Next, some abrogations of his decrees are referred to. He made known through Jonah to the Ninevites that after forty days had passed Nineveh would be destroyed, yet he was immediately persuaded by their repentance to give a more kindly sentence. [Jonah 3:4, 10.] He proclaimed the death of Hezekiah through the mouth of Isaiah; but he was moved by the king’s tears and prayers to defer this [Isa. 38:1, 5; II Kings 20:1, 5; cf. II Chron. 32:24]. Hence many contend that God has not determined the affairs of men by an eternal decree, but that, according to each man’s deserts or according as he deems him fair and just, he decrees this or that each year, each day, and each hour. Concerning repentance, we ought so to hold that it is no more chargeable against God than is ignorance, or error, or powerlessness. For if no one wittingly and willingly puts himself under the necessity of repentance, we shall not attribute repentance to God without saying either that he is ignorant of what is going to happen, or cannot escape it, or hastily and rashly rushes into a decision of which he immediately has to repent. But that is far removed from the intention of the Holy Spirit, who in the very reference to repentance says that God is not moved by compunction because he is not a man so that he can repent [I Sam. 15:29]. And we must note that in the same chapter both are so joined together that the comparison well harmonizes the apparent disagreement. When God repents of having made Saul king, the change of mind is to be taken figuratively. A little later there is added: “The strength of Israel will not lie, nor be turned aside by repentance; for he is not a man, that he may repent” [I Sam. 15:29 p.]. By these words openly and unfiguratively God’s unchangeableness is declared. Therefore it is certain that God’s ordinance in the managing of human affairs is both everlasting and above all repentance. And lest there be doubt as to his constancy, even his adversaries are compelled to render testimony to this. For Balaam, even against his will, had to break forth into these words: “God is not like man that he should lie, nor as the son of man that he should change. It cannot be that he will not do what he has said or not fulfill what he has spoken” [Num. 23: 19 p.]. What, therefore, does the word “repentance” mean? Surely its meaning is like that of all other modes of speaking that describe God for us in human terms. For because our weakness does not attain to his exalted state, the description of him that is given to us must be accommodated to our capacity so that we may understand it. Now the mode of accommodation is for him to represent himself to us not as he is in himself, but as he seems to us. Although he is beyond all disturbance of mind, yet he testifies that he is angry toward sinners. Therefore whenever we hear that God is angered, we ought not to imagine any emotion in him, but rather to consider that this expression has been taken from our own human experience; because God, whenever he is exercising judgment, exhibits the appearance of one kindled and angered. So we ought not to understand anything else under the word “repentance” than change of action, because men are wont by changing their action to testify that they are displeased with themselves. Therefore, since every change among men is a correction of what displeases them, but that correction arises out of repentance, then by the word “repentance” is meant the fact that God changes with respect to his actions. Meanwhile neither God’s plan nor his will is reversed, nor his volition altered; but what he had from eternity foreseen, approved, and decreed, he pursues in uninterrupted tenor, however sudden the variation may appear in men’s eyes. The sacred history does not show that God’s decrees were abrogated when it relates that the destruction which had once been pronounced upon the Ninevites was remitted [Jonah 3:10]; and that Hezekiah’s life, after his death had been intimated, had been prolonged [Isa. 38:5]. Those who think so are deceived in these intimations. Even though the latter make a simple affirmation, it is to be understood from the outcome that these nonetheless contain a tacit condition. For why did the Lord send Jonah to the Ninevites to foretell the ruin of the city? Why did he through Isaiah indicate death to Hezekiah? For he could have destroyed both the Ninevites and Hezekiah without any messenger of destruction. Therefore he had in view something other than that, forewarned of their death, they might discern it coming from a distance. Indeed, he did not wish them to perish, but to be changed lest they perish. Therefore Jonah’s prophecy that after forty days Nineveh would be destroyed was made so it might not fall. Hezekiah’s hope for longer life was cut off in order that it might come to pass that he would obtain longer life. Who now does not see that it pleased the Lord by such threats to arouse to repentance those whom he was terrifying, that they might escape the judgment they deserved for their sins? If that is true, the nature of the circumstances leads us to recognize a tacit condition in the simple intimation. This is also confirmed by like examples. The Lord, rebuking King Abimelech because he had deprived Abraham of his wife, uses these words: “Behold, you will die on account of the woman whom you have taken, for she has a husband” [Gen. 20:3, Vg.]. But after Abimelech excused himself, God spoke in this manner: “Restore the woman to her husband, for he is a prophet, and will pray for you that you may live. If not, know that you shall surely die, and all that you have” [Gen. 20:7, Vg.]. Do you see how in the first utterance, he strikes Abimelech’s mind more violently in order to render him intent upon satisfaction, but in the second sentence he clearly explains his will? Inasmuch as there is a similar meaning in other passages, do not infer from them that there was any derogation from the Lord’s first purpose because he had made void what he had proclaimed. For the Lord, when by warning of punishment he admonishes to repentance those whom he wills to spare, paves the way for his eternal ordinance, rather than varies anything of his will, or even of his Word, although he does not express syllable by syllable what is nevertheless easy to understand. That saying of Isaiah must indeed remain true: “The Lord of Hosts has purposed, and who will annul it? His hand is stretched out, and who will turn it back?” [Isa. 14:27]. —John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 1.17.12, 13, 14.

By God’s Decree

The language of “permission” is often used in regard to the existence of evil in the world. Sinful acts are committed and, since it is unthinkable that God could have decreed them, he is said to have merely permitted them. However, that men can accomplish nothing except by God’s secret command, that they cannot by deliberating accomplish anything except what he has already decreed with himself and determines by his secret direction, is proved by innumerable and clear testimonies. What we have cited before from the psalm, that God does whatever he wills [Ps. 115:3], certainly pertains to all the actions of men. If, as is here said, God is the true Arbiter of wars and of peace, and this without any exception, who, then, will dare say that men are borne headlong by blind motion unbeknown to God or with his acquiescence? But particular examples will shed more light. From the first chapter of Job we know that Satan, no less than the angels who willingly obey, presents himself before God [Job 1:6; 2:1] to receive his commands. He does so, indeed, in a different way and with a different end; but he still cannot undertake anything unless God so wills. However, even though a bare permission to afflict the holy man seems then to be added, yet we gather that God was the author of that trial of which Satan and his wicked thieves were the ministers, because this statement is true: “The Lord gave, the Lord has taken away; as it has pleased God, so is it done” [Job 1:21, Vg. (p.)]. Satan desperately tries to drive the holy man insane; the Sabaeans cruelly and impiously pillage and make off with another’s possessions. Job recognizes that he was divinely stripped of all his property, and made a poor man, because it so pleased God. Therefore, whatever men or Satan himself may instigate, God nevertheless holds the key, so that he turns their efforts to carry out his judgments. God wills that the false King Ahab be deceived; the devil offers his services to this end; he is sent, with a definite command, to be a lying spirit in the mouth of all the prophets [I Kings 22:20, 22]. If the blinding and insanity of Ahab be God’s judgment, the figment of bare permission vanishes: because it would be ridiculous for the Judge only to permit what he wills to be done, and not also to decree it and to command its execution by his ministers. The Jews intended to destroy Christ; Pilate and his soldiers complied with their mad desire; yet in solemn prayer the disciples confess that all the impious ones had done nothing except what “the hand and plan” of God had decreed [Acts 4:28]. So Peter had already preached that “by the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, Christ had been given over” to be killed [Acts 2:23]. It is as if he were to say that God, to whom from the beginning nothing was hidden, wittingly and willingly determined what the Jews carried out. As he elsewhere states: “God, who has foretold through all his prophets that Christ is going to suffer, has thus fulfilled it” [Acts 3:18]. Absalom, polluting his father’s bed by an incestuous union, commits a detestable crime [II Sam. 16:22]; yet God declares this work to be his own; for the words are: “You did it secretly; but I will do this thing openly, and in broad daylight” [II Sam. 12:12 p.]. Jeremiah declared that every cruelty the Chaldeans exercised against Judah was God’s work [Jer. 1:15; 7:14; 50:25, and passim]. For this reason Nebuchadnezzar is called God’s servant [Jer. 25:9; cf. ch. 27:6]. God proclaims in many places that by his hissing [Isa. 7:18 or 5:26], by the sound of his trumpet [Hos. 8:1], by his authority and command, the impious are aroused to war [cf. Zeph. 2:1]. The Assyrian he calls the rod of his anger [Isa. 10:5 p.], and the ax that he wields with his hand [cf. Matt. 3:10]. The destruction of the Holy City and the ruin of the Temple he calls his own work [Isa. 28:21]. David, not murmuring against God, but recognizing him as the just judge, yet confesses that the curses of Shimei proceeded from His command [II Sam. 16:10]. “The Lord,” he says, “commanded him to curse.” [II Sam. 16:11.] We very often find in the Sacred History that whatever happens proceeds from the Lord, as for instance the defection of the ten tribes [I Kings 11:31], the death of Eli’s sons [I Sam. 2:34], and very many examples of this sort. Those who are moderately versed in the Scriptures see that for the sake of brevity I have put forward only a few of many testimonies. Yet from these it is more than evident that they babble and talk absurdly who, in place of God’s providence, substitute bare permission—as if God sat in a watchtower awaiting chance events, and his judgments thus depended upon human will. —John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 1.18.1.


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