Tag Archives: John Calvin

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.


We Distinguish: Broader/Narrower

It was March of 2001 and I was a newly ordained missionary serving in Fort Babine, British Columbia.  My sending church, the Smithers Canadian Reformed Church, was about 100 km to the south.  For the first couple of years that I served as their missionary, the church was itself vacant.  So, especially in the early days, before we had worship services on the mission field, I preached in Smithers about once a month.  So I found myself preparing my first sermon on the summary of God’s Word in Lord’s Day 3 of the Heidelberg Catechism. 

Lord’s Day 3 says that “God created man good and in his image, that is, in true righteousness and holiness….”  In my sermon, I asked the question whether unregenerate human beings today still bear the image of God.  In other words, are even unbelievers today made in the image of God?  My answer was “No.”  I said, “Of himself, man no longer reflects God’s image.  He rather reflects the image of his new lord and master.”  I wasn’t totally wrong, but I wasn’t totally right either.

In the following years, as I continued my study of Reformed theology, I came to recognize that the answer I gave in that sermon was far too simplistic.  It didn’t tell the whole story.  It didn’t do justice to all the biblical data.  It neglected an important Reformed theological distinction that comes from the biblical data.

Genesis 1 tells us that God created humanity in his image.  Our Catechism defines this in the words of Ephesians 4:24, “in true righteousness and holiness.”  That could give the impression that “true righteousness and holiness” exhaust what it means to be created in God’s image.  However, one must remember that the Heidelberg Catechism was written for children.  It wasn’t written as a textbook for systematic theology.  Like primers do, our Catechism sometimes leaves us short of the full picture. 

To get a fuller picture, we need to account for the other places in Scripture which mention humanity’s creation in the image of God.  There are several that could be mentioned, but the one that most caught my attention was James 3:9, “With it [the tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.” The term “likeness of God” is roughly synonymous with “image of God.”  James is appealing back to Genesis 1:26, 27 to argue that if you curse human beings you are cursing God.  This is not because human beings once bore God’s image, but because they still do right now.  All human beings are image-bearers. 

This parallels Genesis 9:6, another striking passage:  “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.”   There the exact language of Genesis 1 is used to argue that if you kill a human being, you are attacking God.  That’s what makes killing a human being so heinous.  That’s what gives every human life its enormous value and dignity.  It’s because all human beings are image-bearers.

So is the image of God in fallen humanity gone or still present?  To resolve this question, Reformed theologians concluded that Scripture must be speaking of the image of God in two distinct senses.  These two senses were eventually labelled “broader” and “narrower” (though other terms have been used).  Herman Bavinck explains:

…Reformed theologians continued to speak of the image of God in a broader and a narrower sense.  In Holy Scripture they read that man, on the one hand, is still called the image of God after the fall and should be respected as such (Gen. 5:1; 9:6; Acts 17:28; 1 Cor. 11:7; James 3:9); and that, on the other hand, he had nevertheless lost the primary content of the image of God (i.e. knowledge, righteousness, and holiness) and only regains these qualities in Christ (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10).  (Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, p.550)

So in the broad sense there are, to use the words of Zacharias Ursinus, “remains and sparks” left of the image of God.  According to Ursinus (Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, pp.31-32) these consist of:

  1. “The incorporeal, rational, and immortal substance of the soul, together with its powers…”
  2. “…many notions and conceptions of God, of nature, and of the distinction which exists between things proper and improper…”
  3. “…traces and remains of moral virtues, and some ability of regulating the external deportment of life.”
  4. “The enjoyment of many temporal blessings.”
  5. “A certain dominion over other creatures.”

Now, as stated by Calvin and others, even these “remains and sparks” have been drastically affected by the fall into sin.  Yet, while corrupted, it can still be said that “God’s image has not been totally annihilated and destroyed” (Institutes 1.15.4).  However, after the fall, the narrow sense of the image of God (or the moral/ethical sense) has been completely lost.  It only begins to be recovered in a vital relationship with Jesus Christ.

Now why does all this matter?  First, because this is foundational for a Christian understanding of human worth and dignity.  All human beings have worth and value because there is a sense in which they bear God’s image.  All human beings deserve to be treated with dignity because they’re image-bearers in the broad sense.  From the unborn to the elderly, one and all carry the likeness of their Creator – not in all respects, but those which they do are of enormous value. 

Second, this distinction gives us some direction when it comes to considering the universal love of God.  Like many Reformed folks, I struggled for some years with understanding the love of God for humanity in general.  Can we say that God loves humanity as a whole?  Wolfgang Musculus, a Reformed theologian from the 1500s, said “Yes.”  He said that on account of humanity continuing to bear the image of God in the broader sense.  God loves humanity in general because there he still sees his image.  Similarly, John Calvin wrote this remarkable passage:

All of us, therefore, have in ourselves something deserving of God’s hatred.  With regard to our corrupt nature and the wicked life that follows it, all of us surely displease God, are guilty in his sight, and are born to the damnation of hell.  But because the Lord wills not to lose what is his in us, out of his own kindness he still finds something to love.  (Institutes 2.16.3) 

God finds something to love in us by virtue of what remains of his image in us.  God’s love is thus on account of God’s creation.  It all goes back to him.

Come 2006 I was serving my first congregation as a pastor.  I had the opportunity to revise my 2001 sermon on Lord’s Day 3.  I corrected my earlier theological blunders.  As I look at it now, it’s still a flawed sermon in some ways, but at least I was now on the right track concerning the Reformed doctrine of the image of God.  Through this experience God taught me that a preacher has to always keep studying theology.  We can never stop learning – none of us.  Even though we’re created in the image of God (broader), even though we’re being restored to the image of God (narrower) in Christ, we’re still finite creatures whose knowledge and understanding is incomplete.


We Distinguish: Essentially/Personally

Theological distinctions matter.  We need them for sound theology.  That theology then goes on to inform how we think and live as Christians.  Today I want to look at a key theological distinction that can have a significant impact on how we pray.

The name “Father” appears in relation to God numerous times in Scripture, both in the Old and New Testaments.   For many Reformed church members, basic Trinitarian theology has been drummed into us from childhood.  We’re taught that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Thus conditioned, whenever we see the word “Father” in reference to God, we all too quickly conclude that this is speaking about the first person of the Trinity.  This is true with the Old Testament, but also with some key passages in the New Testament.

One of those passages is the Lord’s Prayer.  In the Lord’s Prayer, Christ teaches us to begin our prayers by saying, “Our Father in heaven…”  Many conclude that our Lord Jesus is teaching us to address the first person of the Trinity, even to the exclusion of the Son and the Holy Spirit.  After all, it seems obvious:  he uses the word “Father,” and we’ve been conditioned to see God the Father. 

A child or someone immature in the faith can be forgiven for reaching such a conclusion.  But for older and more mature disciples of Christ, familiar with a broader range of teaching in Scripture, this ought not to be.  The reason is that, in the Old Testament context, “Father” is often used to describe God in his unity (Yahweh); it’s used to describe the one true God.  It’s not being used in reference to God the Father as distinct from the Son or the Holy Spirit.  The classic example of this is in Isaiah 9:6 where the child to be born is called, among other things, “Everlasting Father.”  This is a prophecy about Christ’s incarnation.  The second person of the Trinity is denominated “Everlasting Father” by virtue of his divinity.  He can be called that because he is God.

There’s every reason to think that Christ was using the term “Father” in the same way in the Lord’s Prayer.  He was teaching us to pray to God, the one true God, as our Father.  That makes the most sense in that context where our Lord Jesus was speaking to Jews familiar with the Old Testament.  You could think also of Malachi 2:10, “Have we not all one Father?  Has not one God created us?” 

To put it in theological terms, we have to distinguish between the uses of the word “Father” in Scripture.  Sometimes it is used personally.  In passages like John 17:2-3, the reference is clearly to the first person of the Trinity, God the Father as distinct from God the Son.  At other times, “Father” is used essentially.  In passages like Isaiah 9:6, the reference is to the Triune God together in his essence.  To determine which is which in any given place requires careful consideration of context.  Specifically, if the context includes references to the other persons of the Trinity, then it is likely the term “Father” is being used personally.  For example, Matthew 28:19 mentions baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  There “Father” clearly means the first person of the Trinity.

This is a well-accepted distinction in Reformed theology.  According to Richard Muller (Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics), you’ll find it used by John Calvin, Zacharias Ursinus, Amandus Polanus, Herman Witsius, and a host of Puritans.  It’s important for us to be aware of it today too, especially since it can inform how we pray.  The Lord’s Prayer doesn’t teach us to pray to God the Father, but to God as Father.  The Lord’s Prayer doesn’t teach us to pray only to the person of God the Father to the exclusion of the Son and Holy Spirit.  Our Saviour’s intent was never to tell us we can’t pray to him or to the Holy Spirit.  Indeed, elsewhere in Scripture we do hear believers praying to Christ (e.g. Acts 7:59).  When you understand this distinction, it frees you to do likewise.


Another Nail in the Coffin of Some Wrong History

Luther, Calvin and the Mission of the Church: The Mission Theology and Practice of the Protestant Reformers, Thorsten Prill. GRIN Verlag, Open Publishing GmbH, 2017. 96 pp.

It used to be, and to a certain extent still is, an oft-repeated assertion in mission studies that the Protestant Reformation had little or nothing to do with mission.  The problem is that the historical evidence simply does not bear this out.  I argued the point at length in my 2011 book For the Cause of the Son of God: The Missionary Significance of the Belgic Confession, a revision of my doctoral dissertation.  Since then much more research has been done into the Reformation and what it represented and accomplished in terms of Christian mission.  This small volume summarizes a great deal of that research and offers yet more.

Thorsten Prill is currently vice-principal and academic dean at Edinburgh Bible College in Scotland.  Previously he lectured in missiology and other subjects at the Namibia Evangelical Theological Seminary.  He has experienced ministry in six churches, three countries, and two continents.  Prill is an ordained minister of the Rhenish Church in Namibia, a denomination with both Lutheran and Reformed origins.  He has written extensively on missions and mission history. 

As the title indicates, a substantial portion of this book is historical.  The first four chapters are focussed on describing the problem much of contemporary missiology has with properly understanding the Reformation as a missional movement.  Most of this would be well-known to Reformed mission scholars, although it is surprising how much the error has persisted.  Entirely new to me was the fourth chapter on “Wittenberg and the Reformation in Scandinavia.”  Prill describes how missionaries brought the Reformation and the true gospel to Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, and even Iceland.        

The last chapter examines the theology of Luther and Calvin and how it relates to mission.  Prill distils eight principles which continue to bear relevance for contemporary missional thought and practice.  Among them, he rightly notes how the Reformers stressed “that mission is a church-based endeavour.  It is local communities of believers which the Holy Spirit uses to expand the universal Church until the return of Christ” (p.79).

My only criticism of this volume is its relative lack of attention to the confessions produced by the Reformation.  Prill does mention Luther’s Large Catechism a number of times, but other Reformation-era confessional documents would buttress the argument he wants to make.  I think especially of those that were strongly influenced by the theology of someone like Calvin.  Also, since many of these confessions were ecclesiastically produced and sanctioned, they could be regarded as of weightier value than the writings of individual Reformers.

Prill’s book is a valuable addition to the cause of historical accuracy.  I can only rejoice that more missiologists are doing justice to the Reformation.  I am hopeful that in time, with these corrections, the narrative will shift and most Protestant mission scholars will understand that what happened in sixteenth-century Europe was as much about getting the gospel out to unbelievers as it was about reforming the organization and beliefs of the Church.  Moreover, as we see the Reformation correctly, we find that not only are there inspiring missional stories from this period, but also abiding biblical truths of which we need to be reminded.


What About Advent and Lent? Excerpt from Aiming to Please

The following is an excerpt from chapter 17 of Aiming to Please: A Guide to Reformed Worship (available from Amazon and other retailers). The chapter begins with a consideration of the so-called Days of Commemoration (Christmas, Easter, etc.). I argue that there is liberty for Reformed churches to worship on these days.

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What About Advent and Lent?

Some churches follow not only the practice of commemorating occasions like Christmas and Easter, but also the special seasons of Advent and Lent.  Advent is the four weeks leading up to December 25.  Lent consists of the forty days leading up to Easter – it includes Palm Sunday, Ash Wednesday, and Maundy Thursday.  This liturgical calendar (which includes far more dates and seasons) is observed in Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism, but has also made some inroads into Reformed churches as well. 

We noted above that John Calvin did not practice Advent or Lent.  There were services every day in Geneva and, in the week leading up to Easter, Calvin did preach on the suffering of Christ.[1]  However, that is not at all the same as forty days of Lent observance or four weeks of Advent. 

By the time of Abraham Kuyper, there was a diversity of practice in the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands.  Kuyper noted that quite a few ministers in his time did follow the liturgical calendar, including Advent and Lent.[2]  He was opposed to prescribing anything on this score, and himself expressed some reservations about it.       

There are a few objections one could bring to following the liturgical calendar more broadly.  To start, I appreciate what Hughes Oliphant Old wrote about this:

The recent effort to bring back the celebration of the old liturgical calendar has suspicious similarities to a revival of the nature religions, natural theology, a cyclical interpretation of life, and the resurgence of the religions of fortune and fertility.  One does penance in Advent, when winter sets in, and then one rejoices at Easter, when the flowers reappear in the spring.  It is all quite natural, but this fascination with liturgical seasons sometimes seems not much more than a revival of Canaanitism.  The primary emphasis of any Reformed liturgical calendar should be the weekly observance of the Lord’s Day.[3]

 Moreover, the observance of these seasons gives the impression that we are somehow reliving all these events in redemptive history.  It is as if we are spending four weeks waiting for Jesus to be born – when he was already born 2000 years ago.  Or, with Lent, it seems that we are spending forty days preparing ourselves for the crucifixion on Good Friday.  These events have happened and it is one thing to commemorate them, it is quite another to spend several weeks almost pretending we are waiting for them.

Related to this are the practices which usually accompany these seasons and especially Lent.  I am thinking especially of the practice of fasting for Lent.  This is done not only by Roman Catholics, but also by Lutherans and growing numbers of evangelical Christians.  Now there is definitely much to commend fasting from a biblical perspective.[4]  The problem is not with fasting as such.  The problem is connecting fasting to a man-made liturgical season.  Biblical fasting is voluntary and secret.  Lenten fasting is sometimes mandated (as with the Roman Catholic Church) and sometimes merely encouraged.  But it is always with the idea that this fasting is a preparation for observing Christ’s suffering – something he has already endured in our place.  By adopting the practice of observing Lent in our churches, we could be giving the impression that the practices associated with Lent are commended for our use as well.   

There is also another objection – one to which I have alluded several times already.  We have agreed to go each year through the 52 Lord’s Days of the Heidelberg Catechism.  As we do that, we are already covering the important events of redemptive history.  If we follow the season of Advent, we spend one Sunday on Lord’s Day 14, one Christmas sermon, plus four more Advent sermons.  Each year, believers in such a church would hear six sermons on Christ’s incarnation.  The situation is similar with Christ’s suffering:  two Lord’s Days (15 and 16) on his suffering, plus a Good Friday sermon, and then six Sundays of Lenten preaching.  Is it necessary or helpful to dedicate this much of the preaching schedule to these topics?  Moreover, if a preacher wishes to follow the model of serial expository preaching, these seasons of Lent and Advent are not going to allow him to make much progress through a book.  After all, 10 of 52 Sundays are dealing with Christ’s incarnation and suffering.

All things considered, a good case can be made for observing the days of commemoration.  But seasons of Lent and Advent are better left to the side.  I will certainly respect the liberty of the church or the colleague who follows this, but it should also work the other way around.  If a minister is not comfortable with the practice, no church ought to force him.  When it comes to Lent and Advent, Kuyper was right:  there should be no prescription.  As the Belgic Confession puts it in article 32, let us be careful about having “laws introduced into the worship of God which bind and compel the consciences in any way.”            


[1] Elsie Anne McKee, “Reformed Worship in the Sixteenth Century,” 17-18.

[2] Kuyper, Our Worship, 180.

[3] Old, Worship Reformed According to Scripture, 164.

[4] See my article “The Value of Fasting,” in Clarion 45.13 (June 28, 1996), 300.