Category Archives: Historical Theology

How to Love the Unloveable

It isn’t easy to love a jerk.  Someone who’s quiet, meek, and kind – no problem.  But the person who annoys us, whether through habit or personality?  The person who pushes all our buttons, perhaps even intentionally?   The selfish and insensitive clod?   

Yet the Lord commands us to love our neighbour as we do ourselves (Mt.22:39).  That Christian love is “not irritable or resentful.”  Instead, it “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:5-7).  This is the love that leads us to “do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10).

But how do we do that with someone we might think to be unworthy of our love and good deeds?  How do you love a jerk?  You might say take a look in the mirror.  Humbly realizing that we’re all unworthy jerks could indeed be a good place to start.  However, in his epic Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin explored this practical issue in the Christian life from a different angle.  His advice, drawn on sound biblical teaching, is worth a listen.  If you want to look it up and read the whole section for yourself, it’s in Institutes 3.7.6.  I’ll be quoting from the Lewis-Battles edition. 

Calvin begins by acknowledging that most people would be unworthy of our love if they were judged according to merit.  But that isn’t how Christians are to think.  Says Calvin, “But here Scripture helps in the best way when it teaches that we are not to consider that men merit of themselves but to look upon the image of God in all men, to which we owe all honor and love.”  He goes on to affirm that with members of the household of faith this obligation is intensified by virtue of the fact that God’s image has been renewed and restored in them by the Holy Spirit.  Nevertheless, what remains of the image of God after the fall into sin and before regeneration is itself reason enough to show love to all by doing good.  Calvin concludes, “Therefore, whatever man you meet who needs your aid, you have no reason to refuse to help him.”       

Calvin then anticipates a series of objections.  Someone might say, “But he’s a stranger!”  To which Calvin would reply that this is irrelevant.  With the image of God, you have something in common which instantly binds you together.  Or someone might say, “But he’s loathsome and a good-for-nothing!”  Calvin replies, “…but the Lord shows him to be one whom he has deigned to give the beauty of his image.”  You might say that this person doesn’t deserve any of your effort.  But, says Calvin, “the image of God, which recommends him to you, is worthy of your giving yourself and all your possessions.” 

Then last of all, what if the other person is a jerk?  You’re thinking that he does deserve something from you, but it’s definitely not a demonstration of love.  Calvin says, “Yet what has the Lord deserved?  While he bids you forgive this man for all sins he has committed against you, he would truly have them charged against himself.”  The connection with Calvin’s answers to what precedes has to do with the fact that he is telling us that when it comes to loving our neighbour, we have to look to God.  If we focus all our attention on people and who they are and what they do or don’t deserve, we’ll never love our neighbour.  True Christian love is only possible as we think about our existence before the face of God and the grace we have received from him through Christ.

At the end of this section, Calvin circles back to the image of God.  This is brilliant:

Assuredly there is but one way in which to achieve what is not merely difficult but utterly against human nature:  to love those who hate us, to repay their evil deeds with benefits, to return blessings for reproaches.  It is that we remember not to consider men’s evil intention but to look upon the image of God in them, which cancels and effaces their transgressions, and with its beauty and dignity allures us to love and embrace them.          

I remind you that Calvin is speaking here not only about the image of God as it exists restored in Christians, but even the image as it exists spoiled by sin in unbelievers.

Essentially what Calvin is saying is that we ought to love all people on the same basis that God does.  Earlier in the Institutes (2.16.3) Calvin states that God’s hatred finds a deserving object in each one of us because of our sin.  But then he says something surprising:  “But because the Lord wills not to lose what is his in us, out of his own kindness he still finds something to love.”  No matter what sin we have committed, we remain his creatures.  As his creatures, we bear his image.  According to Calvin, image-bearing is what leads God to love and it’s also what should lead us to love.

That has implications and not only for dealing with garden-variety jerks.  In our current climate where the church is facing so much hostility from the world, we need this teaching more than ever.  If we would only look around us and see ALL other people as God’s image-bearers, we would find something to love.  Perhaps better said:  at least we would know that there is something to love even if we can’t readily see it.  As Calvin notes, this is utterly against our human nature.  Our hearts resist it.  Yet remember how God is sovereign over our hearts.  We can and should pray for him to keep changing our hearts so they become more like his, reflecting the image of him and his wondrous love.


Discern Regeneration

Read this quote carefully:

We believe that all men everywhere are lost and face the judgment of God, that Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation, and that for the salvation of lost and sinful man, repentance of sin and faith in Jesus Christ results in regeneration by the Holy Spirit.

Did you find anything wrong with that quote?  The first two clauses are fine — it’s the last clause that needs a careful look.  Does repentance and faith result in regeneration by the Holy Spirit?

We’re discussing regeneration.  It’s a doctrine where there’s often confusion and misunderstanding, even among confessionally Reformed believers.  Let me try and make it as clear as I can.

Regeneration has several aliases.  The Bible calls it being born again (John 3:7), being born of the Spirit (John 3:6), and being born of God (1 John 5:1).  Whatever expression may be used, it’s clear that this is something that happens at the beginning of a Christian’s spiritual life, whenever that may be, and however that may be experienced.  It is something that happens once — it’s not an ongoing process in the Christian’s life.  This much is clear from passages like 1 Peter 1:23 which says of believers, “you have been born again.”  There the perfect tense is used in Greek, which indicates a completed action with effects into the present.  We find the same thing in 1 John 3:9, 4:7, 5:1 and 5:18, except in these passages the Holy Spirit speaks of being born of God.

Why is there a need for human beings to be born again or regenerated?  Jesus tells us in John 3:3, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”  What does it mean to “see the kingdom of God”?  It’s the same thing as entering the kingdom of God (John 3:5).  It’s the same thing as not perishing but having eternal life (John 3:15-16).  In other words, unless you are born again, you cannot be saved.

Let’s dig into this a little deeper.  What does the new birth do?  It brings someone to spiritual life.  Without spiritual life, there’s no possibility of faith and repentance.  Ephesians 2:1 says, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked…”  Before regeneration, before being born again, a person is a spiritual corpse.  It’s categorically impossible for a spiritual corpse to repent of sins and believe in Jesus Christ.  Regeneration precedes repentance and faith.  It must.

Now it must be said that there is a development in the historic Protestant formulation of this doctrine from the Scriptures.  Amongst the Reformers, there was sometimes a tendency to collapse what we call sanctification and regeneration together.  You can find this in John Calvin’s Institutes — for example, “I interpret repentance as regeneration…” (3.3.8).  Under the influence of Calvin, this phenomenon is also in the Belgic Confession, in article 24, “We believe that this true faith, worked in man by the hearing of God’s Word and by the operation of the Holy Spirit, regenerates him and makes him a new man.”  Here regeneration is being used to denote the work of the Holy Spirit in our sanctification, the life-long process of growing in holiness.  However, that wasn’t the way Christ was speaking of regeneration/being born again in John 3 — as if the Pharisee just needed to grow in holiness some more.

In time, doctrinal controversies forced theologians to become more precise in their formulations and terminology.  The most important controversy was with the Arminians or Remonstrants in the early 1600s.  Here we have to tread carefully, because it’s easy to lump all Arminians, past and present, together into the same camp.  The views of Arminius himself are quite complex — it would be too simplistic to just say point blank, “Arminius believed that regeneration follows faith.”  He did, but he also taught that there was a sense in which it precedes (see here for a lengthy essay with far more detail from a sympathetic perspective).  Whatever the case may be, the views of Arminius and his Remonstrant followers led the Synod of Dort to express the Reformed doctrine of regeneration with more precision.  In chapter 3/4 of the Canons of Dort, in articles 11 and 12, regeneration is described as a work of God’s sovereign grace “which God works in us without us.”  Moreover, those who are effectually regenerated “do actually believe.”  Regeneration unambiguously precedes faith in the Canons of Dort.

In the years since Dort, Arminians have become clearer as well.  These days we find unambiguous declarations in statements of faith that repentance and faith result in regeneration.  The statement I quoted at the beginning was taken from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association website.  Numerous other organizations and churches use the same or similar wording.  When you see anyone suggesting these days that repentance and faith result in regeneration, you can be almost 100% sure that such a person is an Arminian.  It’s a big tip-off to the presence of Arminianism.

Regardless of how imprecisely Calvin and his immediate heirs used the terminology, today we have no excuse.  Historical theology teaches us how important it is to use terms with as much precision as possible.  For the sake of truth and God’s honour, let’s do that.  The sovereign work of the Holy Spirit prior to faith which makes a dead sinner come to spiritual life is regeneration.  The work of the Holy Spirit after repentance and faith which transforms a believer’s life, and in which the now-spiritually alive believer has a role to play, is sanctification.  If we maintain that distinction and use those terms, it becomes a lot easier to discern when we’re being faced with Arminian denials of God’s sovereign grace.

 


An Index of Calvin’s Distinctions in the Institutes

I recently finished reading straight through John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.  I plan to write an essay on that experience in the near future.  For now, one of the things that struck me was how Calvin worked with various theological and philosophical distinctions.  I catalogued as many as I could discern and you can find them in this document.  There are many of them!  Many Calvin works with in a positive way, but there are also a few he rejects as “wily,” “loathsome,” or “worthless.”  It’s said that distinguishing well is a hallmark of a good theologian — Calvin certainly ranks up there with the best.


The Reformation of Purgatory

Our celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation continues.   One of the most important Reformers in the Low Countries was Guido (or Guy) de Brès.  Martyred in 1567, we remember him primarily as the author of the 1561 Belgic Confession.  Today let me share with you a little known fact about de Brès:  he reformed the doctrine of purgatory.

This came out when he was in prison in Tournai.  He and another Reformed pastor (Peregrin de la Grange) were initially imprisoned there and then shortly afterwards transferred to Valenciennes.  While awaiting transfer, de Brès and de la Grange were visited by many people.  He had become a celebrity.  He wrote, “…I was visited by a large number of gentlemen, women, and young girls, who said that they wanted to see me because they had heard so much of Guy de Brès, and had never seen him before.”

Among those visitors was Monsieur de Moulbay, the commander of the Tournai castle where de Brès was imprisoned.  He came looking to debate points of theology with the pastor.  They first tried to argue with de Brès about the invocation of Mary and other saints.  De Brès stumped them with quotations from Scripture and Augustine.  Their next attack came with the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary, Jesus’ mother.  De Brès affirmed that he believed that she was always and still is a virgin — not an uncommon position among sixteenth century Reformers.  The answer surprised his accusers.

Then de Moulbay alleged that de Brès did not believe in purgatory.  By that, he meant the Romanist idea that most believers, after they die, would have to go to a place of fiery cleansing.  Purgatory was an unpleasant experience necessitated by the fact that most believers were going to die with unconfessed and unforgiven sin.  De Moulbay thought that de Brès rejected this teaching.  This was the response of de Brès and the follow-up:

Pardon me, sir, I do not belong to those who deny a purgatory.  For I hold the blood of the Son of God to be the purgatory of the sins of those who repent and embrace this benefit by faith.  But I do not recognize the burning and roasting of souls as held by the fables of the priests.  Then he answered me in anger, saying that I might as well deny that there is a hell.  But I said that I held that there is a hell for the sinful and wicked, just as the Word of God teaches us, but that I did not hold to such a purgatory as the priests had invented because the Scriptures teach us nothing about it.  Then they said that I should find out if there is a hell, when I would be damned.  To which I responded to him that I have my Judge in heaven and he would judge altogether different — and concerning that I was confident because of his Word.

We read nothing of anything further between de Brès and de Moulbay.  Immediately after this, de Brès and de la Grange were shipped out of Tournai on their way to Valenciennes.

It is possible that de Brès’ thinking about purgatory was influenced by John Calvin.  In Institutes 3.5.6, Calvin wrote:

For what means this purgatory of theirs but that satisfaction of sins is paid by the souls of the dead after their death?  Hence, when the notion of satisfaction is destroyed, purgatory itself is straightway torn up by the very roots.  But if it is perfectly clear from our preceding discourse that the blood of Christ is the sole satisfaction for the sins of believers, the sole expiation, the sole purgation, what remains but to say that purgatory is simply a dreadful blasphemy against Christ?

Notice how Calvin speaks about Christ’s blood as “the sole purgation” (or the only cleansing).  That’s similar to how de Brès answered de Moulbay.

However, there is a late medieval letter which may be an earlier influence.  Wessel Gansfort was a Dutch theologian who lived about a century before de Brès.  He was writing to Jacob Hoeck, another theologian.  They had been arguing about the role of tradition and Scripture, specifically with regard to the issue of indulgences.  Indulgences were the church’s means for reducing the believer’s time in purgatory.  Hoeck had asserted that the Bible said nothing for or against indulgences.  Gansfort completely disagreed.  He wrote,

In my opinion it was not the first Pope, Peter, but the Holy Spirit through Peter who issued the one and only permanent bull of indulgence.  Peter testifies that this bull is permanent because it provides ample entrance into the kingdom of God and of our Saviour Jesus Christ.  And Peter further testifies that the bull is the only one and adds, ‘Whoever lacks these things [the ten things enumerated in 2 Peter 1] is blind and feeling his way by hand and has forgotten that he was cleansed from his old sins.’  Therefore no other bull is to received or authorized which does not include this.  Every other bull is superfluous and, therefore, Scripture does speak about indulgences, because it refers to ample entrance into the kingdom. (Forerunners of the Reformation, ed. Heiko Oberman, 103).

Gansfort was speaking about a different (but related) issue, yet we find him using the same polemical method as de Brès about a hundred years later:  co-opting your opponent’s terminology.  Had de Brès read Gansfort?  It’s impossible to say.  More likely, both Gansfort and de Brès were using a method of argument that had been developed by someone else in an earlier period.  Regardless of where it came from, de Brès rejected the Romanist doctrine of purgatory and insisted that, if we are going to speak about the purging of sin, it must be done only in connection with the blood of Christ shed on the cross.  That’s the only way to reform purgatory.


The Reformation and the Apocrypha

Did you know that the first editions of the Belgic Confession included two proof-texts from the apocrypha?  Did you know that our contemporary editions continue to include one small quote from the apocrypha?  Elsewhere in his writings, Guido de Brès referred more often to these non-canonical writings.  Moreover, de Brès was not exceptional in doing this.  Other Reformers did likewise, and so did other Reformed confessions.  In this paper, I outline de Brès’ use of the apocrypha, put it in the historical context of the Reformation, and attempt to explain it.