This year marks the 450th anniversary of the death of John Calvin (1509–1564). In this continued article, we look at the relevance of Calvin’s teaching for our situation today.
In our times we, sadly, see the church proffering a rather confused vision of Jesus. Some say that he is a great example for us to follow, but are embarrassed by the New Testament claim that he was the Son of God.
Others have problems with Jesus’ exclusive claim to be the only Saviour of sinners. Even amongst evangelicals there is not always clarity concerning Jesus as the Son of God in the flesh. Calvin can help us here.
His conception of the person of Christ was in full accord with historic Christian orthodoxy. We may benefit from the clarity that he brings to this most important of subjects. Calvin stressed that when the Son became man, he did not stop being God.
In his humanity, the Son was finite, subject to restrictions of time and place; while, in his deity, the Son was infinite, eternal and omnipresent, upholding all things by the word of his power.
Calvin helps us make sense of certain Scriptures that speak of Christ in his suffering and exaltation in ways that at first glance seem a little baffling. Scripture sometimes speaks as if the Son’s divine nature suffered on the cross. The ‘Lord of glory’ was crucified (1 Corinthians 2:8), or the church was purchased by God’s blood (Acts 20:28). Also, that the exalted Jesus ‘fills all in all’ (Ephesians 1:23).
What are we to make of such texts? Did the divine Son really die? Does the human body of the exalted Jesus fill all things? Calvin discusses such Scriptures in terms of the communion of attributes in the person of Christ.
This does not mean that divine attributes are communicated to Jesus’ humanity or the other way around. His divine nature did not become human at his incarnation and his human nature did not become divine at his exaltation. The person of the Son of God died in his human nature: that is why the Bible can say the Lord of glory was crucified. The ascended Christ fills all things, not because his humanity is now omnipresent, but because he is the exalted Son of God.
Prophet, priest and king
Calvin considers the work of Christ in terms of his biblically assigned offices of prophet, priest and king.
As our prophet, Christ gives us the saving knowledge of God as he speaks to us by his Word through the Holy Spirit. The prophetic Christ continues to instruct and guide the church (Acts 3:22-23).
Jesus is our great high priest (Hebrews 2:17). As both God and man he is the only mediator between God and men. As our high priest, Christ offered himself to God on the cross to atone for the sins of his people. We know forgiveness and peace with God by his blood. The risen Christ ever lives to make intercession for us.
Through Jesus, we draw near to God and enjoy fellowship with him. Christ is our king (Revelation 19:6). As the risen Lord he is head over all things for the church (Ephesians 1:22-23). We are subject to his gracious rule.
So, as prophet, priest and king, Jesus is a complete Saviour. He deals with our ignorance of God as our prophet. He atones for our guilt as our priest. He subdues and conquers our sin as our king. That is why he is the only Saviour of sinners.
Union with Christ
Some seem to suggest that living the Christian life is basically a matter of asking, ‘What would Jesus do?’ But before we can ask WWJD, we first need to be united to him by faith. Only then will we have the power to follow him.
One of Calvin’s key theological achievements was in recognising the importance of the New Testament’s teaching on union with Christ. He dismissed the medieval notion of human merit, insisting that God owes sinners nothing but judgement.
We are saved by God graciously uniting us to Christ by his Spirit. In Christ, believers receive the ‘double benefit’ of justification and sanctification.
Justification and sanctification are conceptually distinct. Justification is God’s declaration that a sinner is righteous in his sight, on the basis of Christ’s finished work, received by faith alone. Works don’t come into it.
In sanctification, God sets us apart for himself and calls us to live a holy life. By virtue of the believer’s union with Christ, the believer is both justified and sanctified. It is impossible to have the one aspect of salvation apart from another.
This pulls the rug from under the Roman Catholic charge that the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone is detrimental to good works. The faith which alone saves does not remain alone. As Paul said, ‘faith works by love’ (Galatians 5:6).
‘In summary, says Calvin, ‘since in Christ all kinds of blessings are treasured up, let us draw a full supply from him, and none from any other quarter’.
Not all are brought to saving faith in Christ, however. Why is it that some believe and others do not? This brings us to a discussion of Calvin’s doctrine of predestination.
Some are under the impression that this was the main theme in his theology, but this is not the case. He doesn’t even begin to discuss the doctrine until he nears the end of Book III of his Institutes.
For Calvin predestination was not a matter of cold logic. He was convinced of it because he found the doctrine in Scripture, especially in Romans 8 and Ephesians 1. But he did not allow the doctrine to dominate his theology. The Reformer dealt with the election in a biblically proportionate way.
Calvin taught that God has chosen to save some fallen human beings, simply on the basis of his free grace and love. He has chosen not to save others.
But how can we know if we are among the elect? We cannot peer into God’s hidden decree of salvation. Calvin advises us to look to Christ, whom he describes as ‘the mirror of our election’.
If we are united to him by faith, then we can be assured that we were chosen in him before the foundation of the world. This focus on Christ helps to save the believer from despairing of ever knowing for sure whether they have been chosen by God.
Election is only one aspect of the sovereignty of God. The Lord is sovereign in creation and providence as well as salvation. So called ‘open theists’ propose that God is unaware of what is going to happen in the future. When bad things happen, God suffers with us, but he is not in control of events.
This view is put forward as an attempt to get round the problem of suffering, by saying, ‘Don’t worry, God is suffering too’. But, unless God is sovereign and in charge of this fallen world, there is no hope for us in our trials and sorrows.
Calvin knew what it was to suffer and grieve deeply. He and his wife, Idelette, had a son, but little Jacques was born prematurely and died after only 22 days. In a letter to Viret, his fellow-Reformer, Calvin gave free expression to his sorrow, tempered as it was by a touching faith in God:
‘Certainly the Lord has afflicted us with a deep and painful wound in the death of our beloved son. But he is our Father; he knows what is best for his children’. After eight years of marriage, Idelette also died.
Calvin wrote to his old friend William Farel, ‘This great sadness … would have broken me had He not extended his hand from on high, he whose service includes the relief of the broken, the strengthening of the weak, the renewal of those who are tired’.
There is great comfort to be had in knowing that our sovereign Father works all things together for the good of his suffering people.
To be concluded
The author is pastor of Providence Baptist Church, Westbury, and Ebenezer Baptist Church, West Lavington, Wiltshire