The Institutes (32)

Book 1 Chapter 17 Sections 1-5

If God is sovereign, does that mean that Christians live a fatalistic life? “Since God is in control, who cares what I do.” Calvin heads these presumptions off at the pass and seeks to address the practical implications of God’s providence in the life of a believer. He notes three things that Scripture says about providence, more-or-less a summary of his previous work on the topic:

First, God’s providence must be considered with regard to the future as well as the past. Secondly, it is the determinate principle of all things in such a way that sometimes it works through an intermediary, sometimes without an intermediary, sometimes contrary to every intermediary. Finally, it strives to the end that God may reveal His concern for the while human race, but especially his vigilance in ruling the church, which he deigns to watch more closely.

God’s love is displayed towards the whole world, not just the church. But particularly, His love is displayed towards the Church. This is even evident in the Cross, where the pardon is offered to all but only applied to God’s sheep. Many in Calvin’s day argued against this level of providence (as he discussed earlier), and shows that the Church, if it will only stop and watch with eyes of faith, will see Him:

… the thought creeps in that human affairs turn and whirl at the blind urge of fortune; or the flesh incites us to contradiction, as if God were making sport of men by throwing them about like balls. It is, indeed, true that if we had quiet and composed minds ready to learn, the final outcome would show that God always has the best reason for his plan: either to instruct his own people in patience, or to correct their wicked affections and tame their lust, or to subjugate them to self-denial, or to arouse them from sluggishness; again, to bring low the proud, to shatter the cunning of the impious and to overthrow their devices.

Yet however hidden and fugitive from our point of view the causes may be, we must hold that they are surely laid up with him, and hence we must exclaim with David: “Great, O God, are the wondrous deeds that thou hast done, and thy thoughts toward us cannot be reckoned; if I try to speak, they would be more than can be told.”

All things do work together for good for those who love God and are called according to His purpose. Calvin apparently ascribes to the “best possible world” point-of-view concerning God’s sovereignty, predating Leibniz in his arguments by a century-and-a-half. God has his “best conceived order to a right end.” To think that He preconceives and pushes everything in the direction that it should go in order to meet the end that He preordains for it… that’s a big God. Too big for humanity to conceive, too big for humanity to bow to and still retain autonomy. But this is what a Christian desires above all else…

… no one will weigh God’s providence properly and profitably but him who considers that his business is with his Maker and the Framer of the universe, and with becoming humility submits himself to fear and reverence.

Calvin is quick to note that the absolute nature of His will does not discount our responsibility: this is clear as one reads Scripture. God both commands the Israelites to change their hearts (Ezekiel 18) and promises that he will be the one to change their hearts (Ezekiel 36). 2 Chronicles 30:9-12 also shows that the Lord commanded all Israel to repent, but He had his hand upon the hearts of those who did repent, while the rest were still held responsible for their sin… even though God did not grant them repentance.

How does it happen that a provident [prepared] man, while he takes care of himself, also disentangles himself from threatening evils, but a foolish man perishes from his own unconsidered rashness, unless folly and prudence are instruments of the divine dispensation in both cases? For this reason, God pleased to hide all future events from us, in order that we should resist them as doubtful, and not cease to oppose them with ready remedies, until they are either overcome or pass beyond all care…

God’s providence does not always meet us in it’s naked form, but God in a sense clothes it with the means employed.

In other words, our preparations and foolhardiness are in the hands of God to work His purposes. Disheartening? Or incredibly freeing for the believer? Can we rest in His sovereignty… His control? Can we move, and take risks, and fight the good fight without fear of being cast out, or fear of His failure? He will accomplish His purposes on the earth, down to the last willful choice of man.

What about that willful choice of man? What about the wicked? Do they serve God’s will? Calvin tackles the question…

… I deny that they are serving God’s will. For we shall not say that one who is motivated by an evil inclination, by only obeying his own wicked desire, renders service to God at His bidding… if we contrive anything against his commandment, it is not obedience but obstinacy and transgression. Yet unless he willed it, we would not do it. I agree. But do we not do evil things to the end that we may serve him? Yet he by no means commands us to do them; rather we rush headlong, without thinking what he requires, but so raging in our unbridled lust that we deliberately strive against him. And in this way we serve his just ordinance by doing evil, for so great and boundless is His wisdom that he knows right well how to use evil instruments to do good…

… [God] works through them. And whence, I ask you, comes the stench of a corpse, which is both putrified and laid open by the heat of the sun? All men see that it is stirred up by the sun’s rays; yet no one for this reason says that the rays stink. Thus, since the matter and guilt of evil repose in a wicked man, what reason is there to think that God contracts any defilement, if he uses his service for his own purpose?

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