Friday, May 24, 2013

Fallen from God's favor, part 4

I'm sure the photo above looks very confusing to you, so don't try to interpret what it all means just yet. I promise that it will make a lot more sense by the end of this post.

In three previous posts I covered the essentials of what Calvin taught concerning the biblical warning of "falling away." Now what I would like to do next is summarize all of the information contained in this series of posts (see parts onetwo, and three). But in order to piece all of Calvin's technical theological jargon together, it will help us to go back first and restate what was fundamental to Calvin's soteriology;that way, if we have any misunderstandings of our own, we can identify and reassess them along the way. But remember, we must ultimately commit to what God's Word says, not John Calvin. Yet this series of posts is primarily focused upon what John Calvin understood God's Word to teach. Let's now try to summarize what we've learned so far.

What was absolutely fundamental for Calvin was his belief that the Scriptures  speak clearly of God's unchangeable plan for the entire world and course of all history (not merely human history). That unchangeable plan includes his secret will to select whomever he wanted for himself, according to a decree which he (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) made from eternity past. Calvin described these as God's eternally elect. 

However, Calvin did not believe that salvation was described merely in terms of an unchangeable, predestined plan. He also firmly believed that the Scriptures everywhere describe mankind as having a free will according to their spiritual nature. That is to say, Calvin did not see a logical contradiction between God's eternal, predestinating plan and that plan including the free, natural ability for men to make choices. The only thing which man could not do, according to Calvin, was make choices contrary to their spiritual nature; which is to say that spiritually dead men could only make spiritually dead choices, and without the Holy Spirit's work of regeneration, there could be no ultimate salvation for anyone born in sin.

But the comprehensive scope of salvation went far beyond that for Calvin. Not only was salvation according to God's eternal decree and plan, and not only was man accountable for the free choices he makes according to his nature, but Calvin also understood salvation in terms of a gracious eternal covenant. And that eternal covenant has always been the same in substance, even though it differed in its administration before and after the cross of Christ. Without this gracious covenant, there could be no union between God and man in any sense or at any time, even before humanity fell into sin through Adam.2

Moreover, Calvin noticed that in numerous places of the Biblical narrative, this gracious covenant of God was always bilateral. And because it was bilateral, the biblical language of God's unconditional faithfulness and man's conditional faithfulness was reconciled. That is to say, this gracious bilateral covenant is unconditional from God's vantage point, but conditional from man's vantage point. (We learned this in the second part of this series.) And so, from God's own vantage point, God will always be faithful to the terms of his covenant. It would be impossible for God to be unfaithful. However, with those whom God has placed in a covenant relationship with him, the covenant can be broken, violated, and blasphemed by man. 

Furthermore, according to Calvin, all those graciously placed within God's covenant have really been adopted into God's family, being cared for by him in a manner which receives more favor and blessing than those whom he denies entrance. Calvin calls this gracious placement into God's covenant a "common covenant," a "common adoption," and God's "general election." And so, for those in this general election, all of God's promised blessings and curses are promised, and from man's vantage point, they can indeed fall away from God's favor by their own covenant infidelity, or they can persevere in faithful obedience to the Lord who bought them. But from God's vantage point, there is a "secret" eternal election known only to God himself -- an election which God has not revealed to anyone, nor has he even promised to ever disclose at any time to anyone. Far too often we, in our sin, presume that God ought not to keep his eternally elect a secret from us, so that we can understand why he works salvation a certain way. However, what is worse is that by doing so, we presume that we, in our finite minds, could understand why an infinite God works salvation that way, when in fact we have no other reason (other than sinful pride) to believe we could. This he does to humble our sinful minds and persuade us that salvation flows from the wellspring of his free mercy.

From this commitment to Scriptural language, Calvin was also comfortable declaring God's promises to Christians, even though he didn't personally know which of them were eternally elect. Calvin thought that man could definitely know who was generally elect, just not eternally elect. And so, he declared all the promised blessings of God to the generally elect, even though he understood that not all Christians would embrace God's promises in faith. Such embracing would necessitate more than outward grace and mercy; something more than the general blessings attendant to living within God's covenant household. For Calvin, what men need to embrace God's promises in faith (without hypocrisy) is a working of inner grace, given by God's Spirit of regeneration. And for those who are regenerate, there is an indissoluble bond between Christ which will enable them to persevere to the end of their covenant relationship with God, even if they sometimes lack personal assurance because of their sins.

For those who are not regenerate and do not receive this inner grace, there is indeed a dissoluble bond; but there is a real covenantal bond nonetheless. Those whom God has graciously placed in covenant with him can really fall away from that covenant, thereby falling away from God's favor and all the blessings attendant to it as promised. And again, for those who are regenerate (and God only knows), God's favor preserves them until the end. They persevere because God preserves them. But concerning those within the Church who are truly unregenerate (and God only knows), there was no question in Calvin's mind that people in the New Covenant era can, by their ingratitude, fail to persevere in God's favor. Commenting on Romans 11:22, Calvin writes:
They indeed who have been illuminated by the Lord ought always to think of perseverance; for they continue not in the goodness of God, who having for a time responded to the call of God, do at length begin to loathe the kingdom of heaven, and thus by their ingratitude justly deserve to be blinded again.3

Again, keep in mind that Calvin believed there were general blessings attendant to being placed within this covenant of grace and adopted into God's family in this general sense. And so, when Calvin saw the Scriptures teaching that man can fall away from God's favor in some sense, as in Romans 11:22, he deduced that it must not be referring to the eternally elect. Rather, it is a real warning given to all who are generally elect, in a common adoption and covenant. Calvin comments further in this regard:
...But as he [Paul] speaks not of the elect individually, but of the whole body, a condition is added, if they continued in his kindness. I indeed allow, that as soon as any one abuses God's goodness, he deserves to be deprived of the offered favor; but it would be improper to say of any one of the godly particularly, that God had mercy on him when he chose him, provided he would continue in his mercy; for the perseverance of faith, which completes in us the effect of God's grace, flows from election itself. Paul then teaches us, that the Gentiles were admitted into the hope of eternal life on the condition, that they by their gratitude retained possession of it.4 

Notice that Calvin considers it "improper" to tell any particular "godly" person that God chose to show mercy in choosing him (or her) on the condition that he (or she) would continue in his mercy, i.e. continually please him by not abusing his goodness in any way. Calvin says it's improper to think this way because the "godly" persevere in faith according to God's election. Whenever a covenant member abuses God's goodness, he deserves to be deprived of the offered favor. However, according to Calvin, God's mercy endures upon that "godly" person according to God's election. For the eternally elect, God's mercy endures forever. For others among the generally elect, they receive God's mercy for a time, but are justly deprived of it according to their ingratitude.

Now, I realize that all of this might a little overwhelming, and may even take a while to process. You might even have a few serious questions lingering in the back of your mind, waiting for some kind of clear resolution. For example, you might be wondering, "Why would God place someone in a covenant with Him, with all of its attendant blessings and curses, yet not work a special inner grace with them all?" I know that's a question which lingered in my mind when I first studied these views of Calvin. My own thoughts on this matter are that because we are sinful, it's healthier for us to wonder why God would show mercy upon sinners at all. The fact that man is sinful and that God does indeed show mercy toward sinners is sufficient for us to give him all the glory and praise and adoration humanly possible. 

Another question which might be raised is how one enters into this covenant of grace with God. Calvin speaks as though he has a clear-cut idea about how to identify covenant members. And to answer that, Calvin offers his own thoughts on the matter. He appeals to Romans 11:22 and Paul's language of being "cut off" from Christ and "grafted in" to covenant with him:  
But if it be asked respecting individuals, "How any one could be cut off from the grafting, and how after excision, he could be grafted again," bear in mind, that there are three modes of insition,5 and and two modes of excision. For instance, the children of the faithful are ingrafted, to whom the promise belongs according to the covenant made with the fathers; ingrafted are also they who  indeed receive the seed of the gospel, but it strikes no root, or it is choked before it brings any fruit; and thirdly the [eternally] elect are ingrafted, who are illuminated unto eternal life according to the immutable purpose of God.6
The first [i.e. born into the covenant through believing parents, having their membership ratified through baptism] are cut off, when they refuse the promise given to their fathers, or do not receive it on account of their ingratitude; the second [i.e. those former strangers of the covenant who later attach themselves to the Christian church with hypocritical faith] are cut off, when the seed is withered and destroyed; and as the danger of this impends over all, with regard to their own nature, it must be allowed that this warning which Paul gives belongs in a certain way to the faithful [among the generally elect], lest they indulge themselves in the sloth of the flesh. But with regard to the present passage, it is enough for us to know that the vengeance which God has executed on the jews is pronounced on the Gentiles, in case they become like them.7

And so, in Calvin's assessment of the Scriptural language, there are those who are grafted into Christ through birth under believing parents because God's promise is to those believing parents and to their children after them. Such grafting into Christ is covenantal in the general or "common" sense (not necessarily granting regeneration to the child). And so, because all such children are truly grafted in, as ratified through their baptism, the warning is given to all that they could truly be cut off. Likewise, Calvin describes those who are grafted in through a profession of faith. (Based upon other comments from Calvin, he believed that such outsiders of the covenant should receive baptism once they professed faith in Christ.) And if their faith is hypocritical, they too can be cut off because they were truly in covenant with Christ. And finally, Calvin mentions those who are grafted in---using the Scriptural language of election according to God's unchangeable purpose---who still need to heed God's warnings and persevere in faithful obedience to him, "lest they indulge themselves in the sloth of the flesh," as Calvin says, thereby displeasing God and incurring his covenantal curses for a time. 

What I find most refreshing about these views of Calvin is that he never tries to pry into the secret will of God. Nor did he jump on the bandwagon of Christian tradition. Instead, Calvin labored diligently in the Word of God, wrestling with it's difficult doctrines and ultimately reaching the conclusion that Christians, because they are in covenant with God, can fall away from God's favor. Strangers to God's covenant receive no promise of such favor, and consequently can have no hope of salvation. Far too often, modern day Calvinists are quick to presume that being grafted into God's covenant of grace necessitates God's regenerating grace as well. Many of them even speak as though "election" and "adoption" can only refer to those included in God's eternal, predestinating, regenerating favor. But from the looks of John Calvin's own words, he would have definitely disagreed. Calvin took the warning of falling away from the covenant of grace seriously.  Lord willing, may we also learn to do the same. 

Finally, a few closing thoughts for my "Reformed" or Calvinist friends: 

  • In what ways do Calvin's views differ from yours?
  • In what senses do you see the Scriptures using terms like covenant, elect, regenerate, saved, adopted, and Christian? 
  • How does salvation in terms of a covenant make you feel? 
    • Does a conditional covenant challenge your willingness to obey God?
    • Does God's promise of unconditional faithfulness to his covenant, including both blessings and curses, worry you?
  • Do Calvin's views of Scripture affect the way you think of the "elect"?
    • How does this affect the way you view those who have been baptized into the Body of Christ?
    • Are they Christians?
    • Are they among God's elect in your eyes?
    • Does God view baptized children of believers the same way as he does the children of your anti-Christian, atheist neighbors?
  • Do Calvin's views affect the way you view ungrateful members of the Christian Church?
    • Do you treat them as "elect"? 
    • Do you think of them as family members of God's household?
    • Should they be taught to trust and obey God in order to please Him?
    • Should they be taught to "continue in God's kindness," to "continue in the faith"?
    • Should they be warned about "losing their own stability" (II Peter. 3:17) and "falling away from grace" (Gal. 5:4) if they don't "continue in God's kindness" (Rom. 11:21)?  

1.  Soteriology is doctrine concerning entire scope of salvation
2.  Even in heaven, God's elect will be united to him in this covenant. However, in heaven, man will be fully redeemed, justified, sanctified, and glorified; and so he will not be able to sin, even though he will be completely free according to that spiritual nature of his. The same is true concerning Adam and Eve before the Fall. Before the fall, man was created righteous, but with the ability to resist sinful temptations or make sinful choices. After the fall, all men are born in sin and left with the ability to only make sinful choices. Their choices, nevertheless, are genuine choices according to their nature. Likewise, the redeemed in this life (prior to heaven) are given a regenerate heart, and thereby are given a renewed ability to resist sinful temptations and make choices which actually please God. 
3.  Peter Lillback, The Binding of God: Calvin's Role in the Development of Covenant Theology [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001] p. 220   
4.  Ibid. Italics mine.
5.  Insition means the taking in or adding through grafting.
6.  Peter Lillback, The Binding of God: Calvin's Role in the Development of Covenant Theology [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001] p. 221  Brackets mine.
7.  Ibid. p. 222

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