Showing posts with label Covenant Theology. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Covenant Theology. Show all posts

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Offending our prejudices (Ezekiel 5:5-17)

Commenting on Ezekiel 5:5-17, Robert Jenson challenges a dominant Christian prejudice pertaining to the limitations of God’s sovereignty over the affairs of men. He writes:
Is an immanent connection between Jerusalem’s sin and her coming disaster compatible with the proclamation that the Lord himself takes the field to punish her?
Jerusalem is punished by inevitable consequences of sin and is punished by God in person. These are compatible on one condition: if the statutes and ordinances that make the moral order do not obtain independently of God (as often in other religions) or do not function merely as a mediation of divine order from afar (as in yet other systems) but simply are the Lord’s own willing and acting among his creatures.
The supposition that God can be wrathful when rebelled against, and even jealous of his people’s love, further offends our prejudices. We may try to escape by the popular supposition that God in the Old Testament could be wrathful and that the New Testament changes all that. But this notion cannot survive the slightest acquaintance with the texts. Paul is not outdone by Ezekiel: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness” (Rom. 1:18), which he latter catalogues in truly wrathful detail. And for depictions of divinely ordained destruction of the wicked, the New Testament book of Revelation tops all competition.
Modernity expected God to be disinterested; and if a judge, then a disinterested judge, on the model of one behind the bench of a British or American courtroom. But the biblical God is precisely not disinterested; his boundless personal investment in his creatures is his most determining characteristic. His law is not something he devises and administers, it is his active personal will, which thus defines also who and what he himself is. And therefore when it is flouted he must be personally offended. He is a lover and therefore jealous, for there cannot be an actual lover who is not jealous—the great climax of the Song of Songs, “love is strong as death, jealously fierce as the grave,” strictly and knowingly parallels love and jealousy. Christian theology dare not retreat a step from these claims, for as the gospel construes our situation, our only hope is God’s personal stake in the good he wills for us.
How we are to work out the metaphysics is another matter. In the dominant inherited tradition, deity is defined by a set of characteristics—many beginning with “omni”—that add up to an immunity to temporal created events. But if God can in history be moved to wrath by our deeds, and if his wrath can then be “satisfied” by his acts in time, he cannot be timeless or changeless in any naïve sense of these notions. …We must indeed think that God remains himself, come what may in his history with us, but this cannot be because he is unaffected by us or because time is meaningless for him.1

1.  Robert W. Jenson, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible:Ezekiel [Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2009], pp. 62-3

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Living as a Prize of War (Jeremiah 21:1-10)

In Jeremiah 21:1-10 the prophet is confronted by Zedekiah, king of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar had installed on the throne in place of Jehoiakin (Zedekiah's nephew). In verses 1-2 king Zedekiah sends ambassadors to Jeremiah, hoping to hear news that Yahweh would be faithful to His covenant with Israel and deliver Judah with the same kind of "wonderful deeds" He used to deliver Israel in times past. These "wondrous deeds" are the same "mighty powers" and "wonders" of Exodus 3:20, Deuteronomy 34:12, and Psa. 106:8 (LXX). Zedekiah thinks Yahweh's faithfulness is a one-way street of blessing, as though Yahweh would do whatever it took to protect the reputation of His own house (i.e. the Temple in Jerusalem). Zedekiah knows that Yahweh delivered His people out of Egypt, through the wilderness, and into the promised land to build His house, and now that His house has been established in Judah, surely He wouldn't allow His enemies to destroy it, would He? 

In verses 3 - 10, Jeremiah responds to Zedekiah. There we find out that Yahweh does not plan on destroying His own house, let alone allowing its destruction from the hand of His enemies. Instead, Yahweh is determined to destroy Israel's temple by the hand of Israel's enemies. In chapter 29, during this same period recorded in chapter 21, Yahweh commissions Jeremiah to write a letter to the Jewish exiles in Babylon, telling them to build Yahweh's house there, in Babylon, and to reject any prophet who claims otherwise. The same message is found briefly in this chapter, too:
He who stays in this city shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence, but he who goes out and surrenders to the Chaldeans who are besieging you shall live and shall have his life as a prize of war. (v. 9) 

In 21:3-10, Yahweh does promise the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, but by that time Yahweh had left Jerusalem and built His house elsewhere; by that time Babylon was also Yahweh's vassal state, and Israel was Yahweh's enemy. 
I Myself will fight against you with outstretched hand and strong arm, in anger and fury and in great wrath. And I will strike down the inhabitants of this city, both man and beast. They shall die of a great pestilence. (21:5-6)
Here Jeremiah mentions Yahweh's "strong arm" and "outstretched hand," which is a description of holy war that Yahweh wages against His enemies (Exod. 6, Deut. 4, 5, 7, 9, 11, 26). But this holy war is against Jerusalem and their idolatrous rulers. This holy war is Yahweh vs. Israel, and the great Exodus power is still in Yahweh's hand. In verses 8-10 Yahweh graciously offers Israel a choice of life or death much like that given by Moses before crossing the Jordan (Deut 30:11-12), and later in the book of Jeremiah we learn that Israel responded to that offer by accusing Jeremiah of two sins: first, of conspiring with the rulers of Babylon, and second, of undermining Yahweh's promise to dwell in the midst of Israel in his "house", the temple. For those in Israel who were actually paying attention to Jeremiah's preaching, Jeremiah is clearly not pro-Babylon; he is pro-Yahweh, and he knows that Yahweh is using Babylon to wage holy war against a greater threat to His Kingship: Judah. 

This was good news for the people of Israel, among whom Yahweh was building His house. Just because Yahweh had set His face against Israel (v. 10), that did not mean He had abandoned His people entirely. He simply chose to build His house elsewhere, in Babylon. During that time in Babylon, the land of Israel would have it's promised rest (ch. 29). During that time Yahweh would remain faithful to His covenant. He would bring rest to His people and their land, and he would deliver them from His enemies. After that deliverance and rest their Jubilee would come.

There are many lessons which can be gleaned from this history. Perhaps the most important one is found by recognizing that Yahweh's faithfulness includes His covenant curses, not just blessings. Christians often presume that God's faithfulness to us is equivalent to Him blessing us, and that is not true. God's faithfulness includes discipline and punishment. An important distinction  can be made between those two, also. Discipline is what God does as a Father to His children. Punishment is what God does as a holy Judge against His enemies, even those enemies in covenant with Him. 

Why do Christians presume that God will not punish them? Is it because they're in a covenant-relationship with Him? Why do professing Christians presume that they are always in a position of safety from God's judgment? Is it because Yahweh is thought of only as their Father? Do they really believe God ceased being the just Judge of all at the cross? 

Christians like Zedekiah are certainly able to conjure up a cheap view of God's grace in their minds. The same is true with their understanding of God's covenant loyalty. Like Zedekiah, it is often presumed that Yahweh will not destroy those who take refuge in His house. They think Yahweh still dwells among them, and that they haven't contributed to anything wicked, thus provoking His wrath; and if they have, the sacrifice of Christ becomes their excuse to still live wickedly sometimes. Like Zedekiah, some of us presume that our Christian community, our church, our households, are not in any danger because that's where Yahweh chose to build His house in the first place, just like He did with the temple in Jerusalem. But was the temple under Zedekiah's reign still Yahweh's house? And was Jerusalem still His holy city? Jeremiah's message seems to portray otherwise. 

Yahweh did leave Israel with hope though. But that hope was not in the temple in Jerusalem. That hope was in Him, and He went with His people to Babylon. Surely the voice of Rachel's weeping would be heard in Ramah, where her children would be slain by sword, famine, and pestilence (Jer. 31:15). But Yahweh's good news to those who hoped in Him was different. A virgin Israel   would trust in Him and return from Babylon (Jer. 31:21). Unlike Rachel, she would be told to keep her voice from weeping and her eyes from shedding tears, because there was a promised reward from her faithfulness in Babylon (31:16-17). There was hope for the future of virgin Israel, as long as she trusted in God's covenant faithfulness to bless those who bless Him and curse those who curse Him--as long as she lived as His peculiar treasure gathered from the holy warfare waged against His enemies.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

"But Amaziah would not listen" (II Kings 14)

In II Kings 14 Amaziah king of Judah is portrayed as a son of Yahweh who does what is "right in the eyes of Yahweh," his Heavenly Father (v. 3), even though, sadly, "yet not like David his father," for it says that under Amaziah "the high places were not removed; the people still sacrificed and made offerings on the high places" (v. 4).

Nevertheless Amaziah is a valiant warrior of Yahweh, and Yahweh gives him strength to defeat His enemies. Amaziah strikes down 10,000 Edomites, and even the Edomite stronghold of Sela "by storm" (v. 7). In his zeal he then turns to taunt his brother, northern Israel, "face to face" (v. 8). This leads to an interesting and unexpected turn of events, considering that not every southern king does what is right in the eyes of Yahweh, and Yahweh had clearly provided a great victory for Amaziah.

The northern king, Jehoash, reminds Amaziah that he is a "thistle" in Lebanon in comparison to the northern "cedar" kingdom, and therefore is outmatched (vv. 9-10). Then we read: "But Amaziah would not listen" (v. 11). Up next, a battle between brothers ensues and Yahweh does not defend Amaziah for covering up his ears. Judah gets defeated in battle, Amaziah is captured, 400 cubits of Jerusalem's wall are broken down, and all the gold, silver, and holy "vessels" of Yahweh's house are plundered (vv. 11-14). Amaziah did that which was right in the sight of Yahweh, until his heart was lifted up against his brother. His zeal lacked wisdom from above, and wisdom from below divided the kingdom even further.

At the very beginning of Yahweh's division of the kingdom He promised a faithful remnant in Judah for His name's sake, and even a future deliverer --Josiah by name-- to begin restoring unity (I Kng. 13:2). All throughout the books of Kings we find brother fighting against brother, and foolish zeal followed by even more foolish zeal, as the people await deliverance from God. Only the wise in heart await deliverance from Yahweh, for He is the only living and true God. As the people await deliverance from Yahweh, one of the dominant lessons to be learned is that brothers warring against brothers only divides the kingdom further and further. When Israel attacks Judah, he plunders Yahweh's house, thereby provoking brother Judah. When Judah minds his own business, Yahweh protects him, which provokes brother Israel to jealousy. But brother Judah isn't perfect either. He too never completely removes the "high places" in his midst, which we know displeases Yahweh time and time again (I Kng. 15:14; 22:43; II Kng. 12:3; 14:4). If not for Yahweh's faithfulness to the covenant He established, even Judah would be toast. But Yahweh is faithful and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, forgiving iniquity and transgression (Num. 14:18; Psa. 103:8; 145:8; Joel 2:13); therefore a faithful remnant will be preserved by Him as promised.

What we learn from II Kings 14 is that instead of presuming that Yahweh would defend his zealous and courageous taunts against his brother, Amaziah should have focused his energy on the high places in his own land, the land which Yahweh had given him. Instead of attempting to defend the name of Yahweh by attacking the idols of his brother's house, he should have listened to the practical advise of his brother and remained content with his glory, stay at home, and not provoke northern Israel any further (v. 10). Amaziah should have taken this very clear hint as being providential from Yahweh, and then turn his attention to his own house; but as we know from history, he didn't. Yahweh gave Amaziah a taste of glory when he struck down the stronghold of Edom "by storm," but not even a peep of thunder is directed at the idolatrous high places of his own house; therefore when Amaziah attacked the stronghold of his brother's house, Yahweh by no means cleared the guilty (Num. 14:18), and consequently the taste of Yahweh's glorious house went with him to the northern kingdom, where he was taken captive (vv. 11-14). Perhaps if Amaziah had dealt with the idols of his own house first, pulling the log out of his own eye first, he could have seen how much his zeal lacked wisdom; then Yahweh would have honored his zeal for His house.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

John Calvin & Isaiah 64:6 -- "All our righteousness is as filthy rags"

Commenting on Isaiah 64:6, John Calvin writes:
Some commentators torture this passage, by alleging that the Prophet, when he speak of the pollutions of sins, describes the Jews without exception, though there still remained some of them who were sincere worshippers of God. But there are no good grounds for this; for the Prophet does not speak of individuals but of the whole body, which, being trodden under foot by all men, and subjected to the utmost indignity, he compares to a filthy garment.
There are some who frequently quote this passage, in order to probe that so far are our works from having any merit in them, that they are rotten and loathsome in the sight of God. But this appears to me to be at variance with the Prophet's meaning, who does not speak of the whole human race, but describes the complaint of those who having been led into captivity, experienced the wrath of the Lord against them, and therefore acknowledged that they and their righteousness were like a filthy garment.1

To understand better what Calvin is describing, Isaiah 64:6 (ESV) reads as follows:
We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like wind, take us away.

Commenting further on God's acceptance of man's works, Calvin writes:
The Lord having rescued man from the pit of perdition, has through the grace of adoption set him apart for his own. Thereupon, because he has begotten him anew and conformed him to a new life, he now embraces him as a new creature endowed with the gifts of the Spirit. This is that "acceptance" which Peter mentions2 whereby believers are, after their call, approved of God also in respect of works. For the Lord cannot fail to love and embrace the good things that he works in them through his Spirit. But we must always remember that God "accepts" believers by reason of works only because he is their source, and graciously, by way of adding to his liberality, deigns also to show "acceptance" toward the good works he has himself bestowed.3

1.  Peter A. Lillback, The Binding of God: Calvin's role in the development of covenant theology [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic; 2001] p. 185
2.  Acts 10:34
3.  Peter A. Lillback, The Binding of God: Calvin's role in the development of covenant theology [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic; 2001] p. 186

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Fallen from God's favor, part 2

In my last post I discussed at length the biblical notion of falling away from God's favor. That post can be read here. At the end of that post I mentioned my own personal opinion that through John Calvin's exegesis of God's Word, his understanding of covenant theology offers a satisfactory solution to this apparent paradox of Christians who can fall away from God's favor. Over the next few posts I intend on listing numerous citations from the works of John Calvin in order to support this view which I'm claiming he believed and taught. This isn't to say that John Calvin is or should be the final word on this subject. God's Word is the final word on this subject. And so, obviously, I am asking the reader to keep in mind that John Calvin could be mistaken. He could be. That doesn't automatically mean that he was, in fact, mistaken. But because this is a serious and controversial topic to discuss, my hope is that the reader will remain prayerful concerning his or her understanding of God's Word, praying earnestly that God would keep you from stumbling into sinful thoughts about His abilities, His motives, His character, and the integrity of His Word. 

With all of that said, I want to mention that there is one tremendous resource in which many of the following citations in this blog post can be found. That resource is Peter Lillback's book, The Binding of God: Calvin's Role in the Development of Covenant TheologyI studied this book two years ago while I was on vacation and it revolutionized the way I understood Calvin's Covenant theology. But, in all honesty, if the reader were to study that book for the purpose of learning more about this subject of falling away from God's favor, they may become very disappointed because Dr. Lillback's book was not about that particular subject. It included a small portion about it, but the majority of the book was about the historical development of Covenant Theology, and the ways in which John Calvin influenced it during the time of the Great Protestant Reformation.

I think one more thing needs to be mentioned before diving into Calvin's thoughts. After studying Lillback's book, Calvin's perspective of covenant theology helped clarify a lot of my own presumptions and misunderstandings. Even though I don't agree with Calvin on a number of things, I still consider Calvin to be a very thorough and thoughtful exegete of God's Word, which, I think, should be respected among all professing Christians. And so, by quoting extensively from John Calvin's own works (as meticulously documented by Lillback), my hope is that from those quotations below, Calvin's own meditations on covenant theology will illuminate our understanding of the apparent paradox of falling away from God's covenant favor.

First things first. According to Calvin's exegesis of the Scriptures, salvation is always--without exception--made freely offered to man in terms of a covenant. That is to say, God assures mankind that He dwells among them as their God through means of a covenant. Calvin comments:
All men adopted by God into the company of his people since the beginning of the world were covenanted to him by the same law by the bond of the same doctrine [of grace] as obtains among us. It is very important to make this point.1

Calvin further describes this act of covenanting as the source and spring of salvation itself. Commenting on Psalm 67:1-2, (which says, "May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face shine on us so that your ways may be known on earth, your salvation among all nations") Calvin continues this same thought:
By the way of God is meant his covenant, which is the source and spring of salvation, and by which he discovered himself in the character of a Father to his ancient people, and afterwards more clearly under the Gospel, when the Spirit of adoption was shed abroad in greater abundance.2

Accordingly, when God sovereignly places himself in a covenant relationship with people, He binds himself to them in order to highlight his grace:
For if God only demanded his due, we should still be required to cling to him and to confine ourselves to his commandments. Moreover, when it pleases him by his infinite goodness to enter into a common treaty, and when he mutually binds himself to us without having to do so, when he enumerates that treaty article by article, when he chooses to be our father and Savior, when he receives us as his flock and his inheritance, let us abide under his protection, filled with its eternal life for us. When all of those things are done, is it proper that our hearts become mollified even if they were at one time stone? When creatures see that the living God humbles himself to that extent, that he wills to enter into covenant that he might say: "Let us consider our situation. It is true that there is an infinite distance between you and me and that I should be able to command of you whatever seems good to me without having anything in common with you, for you are not worthy to approach me and have any dealings with whoever can command of you what he wills, with no further declarations to you except: 'That is what I will and conceive.' But behold, I set aside my right. I come here to present myself to you as your guide and savior. I want to govern you. You are like my little family. And if you are satisfied with my Word, I will be your King. Furthermore, do not think that the covenant which I made with your fathers was intended to take anything from you. For I have no need, nor am I indigent in anything. And what could you do for me anyway? But I procure your well-being and your salvation. Therefore, on my part, I am prepared to enter into covenant, article by article, and to pledge myself to you."3 

But Calvin's understanding of God's covenant relationships with man are not limited merely to some revelation of His gracious character in binding himself to us. For Calvin, God does not merely bind himself to us. He binds us to himself:
From what foundation may righteousness better arise than from the Scriptural warning that we must be made holy because our God is holy? Indeed, though we had been dispersed like stray sheep and scattered through labyrinths of the world, he has gathered us together again to join us with himself. When we hear mention of our union with God, let us remember that holiness must be its bond; not because we came into communion with him by virtue of our holiness! Rather, we ought first to cleave unto him so that, infused with his holiness, we may follow whither he calls.4

As Lillback notes, "because of this mutual binding between God and man, the covenant places the believer under 'obligation' and 'duty' toward his God." He cites Calvin numerous times, and in one of them Calvin says:
Indeed, in all covenants of his mercy, the Lord requires of his servants in return uprightness and sanctity of life, lest his goodness be mocked or someone, puffed up with empty exultation on that account, bless his own soul, walking meanwhile in the wickedness of his own heart. Consequently, in this way he wills to keep in their duty those admitted to the fellowship of the covenant; nonetheless the covenant is at the outset drawn up as a free agreement, and perpetually remains such.5

This gracious covenantal binding, Calvin contends, is absolutely unconditional from God's sovereign vantage point:
This is also what he [God] means by the mercies of David [Isa. 55:3], but by this phrase he declares that it was a covenant of free grace; for it was founded on nothing else than the absolute goodness of God. Whenever, therefore, the word "covenant" occurs in Scripture, we ought at the same time to call to remembrance the word "grace." By calling them "the faithful mercies of David," he declares that he will be faithful in it, and at the same time states indirectly that he is faithful and steadfast, and cannot be accused of falsehood, as if he had broken his covenant.6

However, Calvin's view of that same sovereign covenantal binding is most definitely not unconditional from man's vantage point. From man's vantage point, God binds us to himself through means of a covenant which is conditional. Commenting on Psalm 132:12, Calvin writes:
For though that kingdom was for a time destroyed, it was restored again, and had its everlasting establishment in Christ. Here the question occurs -- Did the continuance of the kingdom rest upon good conduct, or human merit? For the terms of this agreement would seem to suggest that God's covenant would not be made good, unless men faithfully performed their part, and that thus the effect of the grace promised was suspended upon obedience. We must remember, in the first place, that the covenant was perfectly gratuitous, so far as  it related to God's promise of sending a Savior and Redeemer, because this stood connected with the original adoption of those to whom the promise was made, which was itself free. Indeed the treachery and rebellion of the nation did not prevent God from sending forth his Son, and this was a public proof that he was not influenced by the consideration of their good conduct.... This may serve to show in what sense the covenant was not conditional; but as there were other things which were accessories to the covenant, a condition was appended, to the effect that God would bless them if they obeyed his commandments. The Jews, for declining from this obedience, were removed into exile. God seemed at that time "to make void or profane his covenant," as we have seen elsewhere. The dispersion was a kind of breaking of the covenant, but only in part and to appearance.... In this case would we not have said that the covenant of God was abolished? And yet, as the Redeemer came forth from the very source predicted, it is plain that it stood firm and stable.... The Prophet, we say, might seem to strike directly against the covenant made by God, when he speaks of the crown begin taken away, and yet what he adds in the subsequent part of the sentence, proves that covenant, in so far as it was gratuitous, to have been everlasting and inviolable, since he holds out the promise of the Redeemer, notwithstanding the conduct of the Jews, which was such as to exclude them temporarily from the divine favor. God, on the one hand, took vengeance upon the people for their ingratitude, so as to show that the terms of the covenant did not run conditionally to no purpose; while on the other, at the coming of Christ there was a free performance of what had been freely promised, the crown being set upon Christ's head. The obedience which God demands is particularly stated to be the obedience of his covenant, to teach us that we must not serve him by human inventions, but confine ourselves within the prescription of his word.7

Commenting on Hosea 5, Calvin writes again concerning the covenant of grace from man's vantage point:
[Hosea] says that they had acted perfidiously with God, for they had violated his covenant. We must bear in mind what I have said before of the mutual faith which God stipulates with us, when he binds himself to us. God then covenants with us on this condition, that he will be our Father and Husband; but he requires from us such obedience as a son ought to render to his father; he requires from us that chastity which a wife owes to her husband. The Prophet now charges the people with unfaithfulness, because they had despised the true God, and prostituted themselves to idols.8 

It's interesting to note that Calvin saw an analogy between the requirement of Christ's faithful obedience to his Father and all those adopted as children into fellowship with him. In Calvin's mind, that included the people of Israel and "us" Christians today. But Christ, according to Calvin, actually accomplished that which no other man had done or would ever do, and he accomplished it according to God's covenant promise of unconditional faithfulness; and so the crown was "set on his head" as a result. In other words, it was because of God's covenant faithfulness that Jesus, the man, accomplished what God had promised; yet God's promise to His own Son did not take away or violate Jesus' requirement to remain faithfully obedient to the end of his life. 

If this seems paradoxical, it is. However, Calvin did not consider God's eternal knowledge and decree of a thing promised to be contradictory with man's responsibility and accountability to God as promised. This could not be contradictory, in Calvin's mind, because God had revealed both to be true. They were paradoxical, but not contradictory. They are indeed limited to man's finite mind and abilities, but not limited to God's infinite knowledge and ability. And so, according to Calvin, if God had revealed a binding of himself to people through a covenant, and likewise He bound His incarnate Son to the same requirements of faithful obedience, how much more would he require faithful obedience from all others bound to Him in that same covenant? One subtle implication of this view is that the covenant faithfulness/obedience of all those adopted into fellowship with God must appeal to the One who was crowned in their place as promised, especially if God had also revealed that their sinful nature limits their ability to live up to all it's terms. Hence, by implication, Calvin's view of salvation magnifies the grace of God in Jesus Christ above all other things, by maintaining that true spiritual union with him is more essential to covenant faithfulness than mere outward, objective signs and seals of the covenant (a distinction which I'll discuss more about in a following post).

Dr. Lillback carefully summarizes these views of Calvin, by saying that "God's plans and promises in His covenant are not dependent upon man and are consequently unconditional. Nevertheless, at any given point in human history, God's blessings are to be responded to in human responsibility by obedience to the covenant. Without such obedience, the blessings of God shall be removed in divine judgment. From man's temporal standpoint, the covenant is conditional. From God's eternal perspective it is unconditional. God will never fail to keep His word, but if the covenant people fail to keep their word, they shall lose the covenant blessings."9

Ultimately this means that covenant breaking is a reality for sinners in covenant with God. God is not a sinner, so He will remain faithful to the terms of the Covenant with which He binds himself to us. He will not break the covenant obligations with which he bound himself graciously to undeserving sinners. But because Christians remain sinners in this life, there must be some sense in which the biblical language of "falling away" and losing God's covenant blessings is true (not merely rhetorical or hypothetical). As I noted carefully in the previous post, God's own Word seems to describe a covenantally-bound sinner's ability to break the covenant in which God has placed him.

To be sure, this doesn't answer every question related to the apparent paradox of falling away from God's favor. However, it does expose the modern "Calvinist" misconceptions about living in a covenant relationship with God, as though once someone believes they have been saved by grace, God no longer truly holds them accountable to faithfully obey His Word.

Is it true that God has chosen a peculiar people for himself, adopting them in time and history, and that from God's vantage point, every one of them to whom He has bound himself for eternal life will receive it? I believe the answer is, most assuredly, yes. John Calvin believed that too. 

But is it also true that God has chosen a peculiar people for himself, adopting them in time and history, and that from man's vantage point, those "bound to God" within that same covenant can "fall away from God's favor" by despising and breaking the covenant in which God had placed them? John Calvin certainly believed so. But that is because John Calvin did not hold to a completely unilateral view of God's covenant of grace. For Calvin, God's covenant of grace was unilateral in origin, but bilateral in it's fulfillment.10 "As a result of this approach, the warnings of Scripture take on deep seriousness, and signal the importance of self-examination for all who belong to the covenant of grace."11 

Keep in mind that along with this view of sovereignly initiated covenant relationships, Calvin also held to a monergistic view of regeneration,12 a comprehensive view of predestination and genuine human free will,13 as well as a firm conviction concerning God's unchangeable, eternal decree. 

In the next post I will provide some more citations from Calvin concerning God's sovereign election and adoption, and my hope in the end is that we will all see that these views of his did not conflict with his firm belief in monergistic regeneration, God's sovereignty, or even man's free will.

1.  Peter Lillback, The Binding of God: Calvin's Role in the Development of Covenant Theology [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001] p. 134, fn 30.
2.  Ibid.
3.  Ibid. pp. 137-8
4.  Ibid. p. 166
5.  Ibid. pp. 167-8
6.  Ibid. p. 169. Parentheses mine.
7.  Ibid. pp. 169-170
8.  Ibid. p. 172
9.  Ibid. p. 170
10.  Ibid. p. 25. Lillback points out that other scholars have noted this bilateral aspect in Calvin's theology. He specifically points the reader to study certain works of W. Vanden Bergh, W.H. Van der Vegt, Anthony A. Hoekema, and Elton M. Eenigenburg [Ibid. p. 23].
11. Ibid.
13. Monergism is the view that the regeneration of an individual's spiritual ability (i.e. man's "heart") is the work of God through the Holy Spirit alone, as opposed to synergism, which, essentially argues that God has provided some small, but nevertheless significant, ability within spiritually dead men to cooperate with God's grace in order to become regenerated. 
14. "Free will" is to be understood in the sense of "volition" according to one's spiritual condition. That is to say, Calvin understood the notion of human "free" will in the sense that man is free to make genuine choices according to his spiritual nature. Spiritually dead men make genuine choices and spiritually alive men make genuine choices. However, prior to regeneration, man is spiritually dead and therefore unable to please God. After regeneration, man is able to do things which please God, but because he remains a sinner, he is also able to do things which displease God.