John Calvin

Knowing God Truly

Calvin's Institutes

A few days ago we looked at how we might gain true knowledge of ourselves and of God. Today we look at what true knowledge of God looks like. We can see the need for this kind of thinking if we will but look at the lives of those who claim to know God yet regularly live as if he doesn’t exist, doesn’t care, or is just so in love with us that he will overlook any fault because that is just who he is.

But Calvin wants us to see that we cannot say that “God is known where there is no religion or piety.” “Religion and piety? That sounds pretty formal and probably something that none of us want. Religion is something most of us are tired of. And piety – that stopped being something people wanted in the 90’s (the 90’s of a long forgotten century). But by “religion” Calvin means holy devotion and faithfulness to God. And of piety he describes as “reverence joined with love.” So where God is truly known holy devotion and a reverence joined with love will increase. This is what Calvin is driving at when he says

“What help is it, in short, to know a God with whom we have nothing to do? Rather, our knowledge should serve first to teach us to fear and reverence; secondly, with it as our guide and teacher, we should learn to seek every good from him, and, having received it, to credit it to his account. For how can the thought of God penetrate your mind without your realizing immediately that, since you are his handwork, you have been made over and bound to his command by right of creation, that you owe your life to him? – that whatever you undertake, whatever you do, ought to be ascribed to him?. . . Again, you cannot behold him clearly unless you acknowledge him to be the fountainhead and source of every good.”

So what in the end does true knowledge of God produce in our lives? 

“Here indeed is pure and real religion: faith so joined with an earnest fear of God that this fear also embraces willing reverence, and carries with it such legitimate worship as is prescribed in the law.”

And unless we make the mistake of thinking that reverence and love for God is found best in religious rites or traditions, Calvin warns us to reconsider.

“And we ought to note this fact even more diligently: all men have a vague general veneration for God, but very few really reverence him; and wherever there is great ostentation in ceremonies, sincerity of heart is rare indeed.”

That last line is powerful for us to think on for it applies to every one of us. Ostentation – the desire to be front and center – is a temptation for many. And it is often mistaken for love for God when it is combined with religious rites and words. But over the top God-talk that draws attention to the “spirituality” of the speaker doesn’t exactly resemble the Christ who humbled himself to the point of death – even death on the cross. And the kind of empty ostentation that Calvin speaks of here is a danger to every church as well. Churches that emphasize rituals, ceremony, rites, and traditions can often fall into this pit. But this is no less a danger to modern churches where lights, drums, the carefully sculpted hipster look and feel, combined with fun and exciting programs for the whole family reign supreme. Different type of ostentation but still of a kind.

This is not meant to blast your church or accuse anyone. This is simply a reminder that the true remedy for dead religion and empty ostentation is the true knowledge of God. Humble and holy devotion combined with reverent fear and love for God must be the heart-beat of our lives. May this be true whether you wear a suit and tie or a graphic tee.

Oh… and by the way. You can order Calvin’s Institutes here if you want.


Knowing Ourselves and Knowing God

Open Bible on PewKnow Thyself.

With this phrase, Plato informs us that we would better understand others when we know ourselves. This is of course true not only in human relationships but also as we seek to know God. How is this valid reasoning?

In the opening chapter of his Institutes of the Christian ReligionJohn Calvin explains the relationship like this. First, if we are truly honest with ourselves about ourselves we will be in a better position to see the glory of God. This of course is no easy feat since we are in an age where almost everyone is above average and everybody must always be a winner. But no matter how difficult it is for us to cut through the lies that we tell ourselves we must have as close to authentic knowledge of ourselves before we can know God.

Calvin said it like this:

“For, as a veritable world of miseries is to be found in mankind, and we are thereby despoiled of divine raiment, our shameful nakedness exposes a teeming horde of infamies. Each of us must, then, be so stung by the consciousness of his own unhappiness as to attain at least some knowledge of God. Thus, from the feeling of our own ignorance, vanity, poverty, infirmity, and – what is more – depravity and corruption, we recognize that the true light of wisdom, sound virtue, full abundance of every good work, and purity of righteousness rest in the Lord alone. To this extent we are prompted by our own ills to contemplate the good things of God; and we cannot seriously aspire to him before we begin to become displeased with ourselves.”

That last italicized part is a doozy and is worth contemplating for awhile. His words echo Isaiah 57:15 “But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.” It also is reminiscent of Christ’s opening lines to his Sermon on the Mount when he says that the kind of people that are in the kingdom, those whom God blesses (has shown his favor to) are ones who are marked by a poverty of spirit and mournful over sin.

But Calvin wisely doesn’t stop there but goes on to say that to possess an honest evaluation of oneself one must know God. He writes:

“Again 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.”

It may be asked why it is we must look to God to get a true estimate of ourselves. Calvin tells us it is because only God offers the perfect standard by which we are judged. “What in us seems perfection itself corresponds ill to the purity of God.” Anyone can brag about their athletic prowess, musical accomplishment, or academic achievement to their peers and subordinates. But once they are confronted with someone who is vastly superior to them, a light is shined upon them that exposes all the flaws and illuminates all their shortcomings.

Thus it is that when we look in Scripture we find that exposure to the glory of God (like that which the prophet experienced in Isaiah 6) leaves even the godliest of people

“stricken and overcome. . . . Thus it comes about that we see men who in his absence normally remained firm and constant, but who, when he manifests his glory, are so shaken and struck dumb as to be laid low by the dread of death – are in fact overwhelmed by it and almost annihilated. As a consequence, we must infer that man is never sufficiently touched and affected by the awareness of his lowly state until he has compared himself with God’s majesty.”

So, in recap, to truly know God we must know ourselves (in all our corruption and depravity). And to truly know ourselves we must have a knowledge of the glorious and holy God. We need humility to come to God and true humility is the result of knowing God. And the greater the increase of true knowledge of God in our minds and hearts the greater our lives will be permeated with fresh humility and grateful contentment.

The test of true humility is that we savor more and more of God’s glory and majesty. Likewise the test of true knowledge of God is an increasing humility before God.

Are you increasing in knowledge and humility before God?


Reading Calvin Together

This past year I was having lunch with some pastors and leaders from other churches. During the course of our meal one of the leaders down the table began to rail on the evils of John Calvin. Now I had read much of Calvin’s Institutes and had referred often to his commentaries and had read biographical material of Calvin and so I was surprised to hear him say “if people really knew what Calvin did and if Calvinists really read what John Calvin wrote they wouldn’t want anything to do with him.” This of course only informed me that this man actually knew and read little (if anything at all) of the man John Calvin and his writings. But unfortunately this is not an uncommon attitude in the circles in which I grew up. Indeed, strong anti-Calvin sentiments seem to be as much a fundamental of the faith for so many “fundamentalists” and conservatives as the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture.

But this prompted me to begin thinking about reading John Calvin’s Institutes from cover to cover this year.

Another prompting to read the Institutes through came later in 2011. I was reading a blog post (I do not remember which – so if you have read it and remember please let me know) where the author worried that young men and women today were getting all their theology second-hand. That we weren’t doing the hard work of reading ourselves. While I have made it a point to read authors both ancient and modern I was reminded that I had not yet fully read Calvin’s Institutes through yet. And so to avoid a “second-hand theology” that misses out on the fruitful thinking of some of the godly writings of our spiritual fathers, I began to form a plan for reading Calvin’s Institutes this year.

But there is another reason that I want to read Calvin’s Institutes. John Calvin was a man of deep faith, conviction, and biblical understanding. Bible seems to erupt from his thinking like water from a fountain. I have often found my worship of God more joyful after reading and pondering Calvin. This results from Calvin’s dedication to God’s word above all things. This doesn’t mean Calvin gets everything right (as if any of us do) but it does mean that he seeks to ground all of his thinking in the abiding word of God – and that is something worth seeing and imitating. It is this dedication to God’s word that is also so dangerous (it was for Calvin and will be for any of us). The word of God is offensive to our depraved minds and so there will always be a backlash (by Christians as well as by unbelievers) when you try to understand what God’s word says and apply it to the festering issues of our lives. But we need this healing balm and John Calvin works to give it.

If you are interested in reading John Calvin’s Institutes with me this year I suggest you get the copy by John T. McNeill (a two volume set). You can get a good set from here or here. This will require just two chapters a week to finish this year (with plenty of time left over). I will try to write my thoughts each Saturday about that week’s reading. My desire for you all, and myself, is that through this you will know, love and serve our God and Savior Jesus more fully and completely. He alone matters.