Weekly Update 11

John Calvin on Faith & the Free Offer of the Gospel

I will get back to Durham next week, DV, but I’m going to stick with Calvin for this weekly update. This week I’ve been typing up some of my notes on Calvin’s Institutes. One of the things that struck me was how similar Calvin’s definition of faith is to the Westminster Standards. I’ll take you on a tour of Calvin and highlight the similarities with Westminster.

We need the promise of grace which can testify to us that the Father is merciful; since we can approach him in no other way, and upon his grace alone the heart of man can rest… it would not help us to know at all that God is true unless he mercifully attracted us to himself. Nor would it have been in our power to embrace his mercy if he had not offered it… It will be rash for us to decide that God is well disposed towards us unless he give witness of himself, and anticipate us by his call… Now we shall possess a right definition of faith if we call it a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence towards us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ.
John Calvin, Institutes Vol 1, p550-551 (I apologise again for the shoddy manner in which I am giving these references. Once again I lack the time to give the book/chapter/subsection numbers.)

There are a number of vital points to be drawn out here:
• Without the “promise of grace” salvation is impossible. We “need” that to know that “the Father is merciful”.
• If God had not “offered” his mercy to us in particular salvation would have been impossible. For unless God “anticipated” us his “offer” and “promise” and “call” it would have been “rash” for us to believe he were “well disposed towards us”.
• Faith must be “founded upon” the free offer of mercy in Christ.

So for Calvin the free offer of the gospel is so foundational to faith, that faith is (properly speaking) impossible without it. We saw a similar point from the Westminster Standards in Weekly Update 10.

Faith embraces Christ as offered to us by the Father (cf. John 6:29).
John Calvin, Vol 1, p552

This is virtually identical to the Westminster Shorter Catechism Q86 which is “Q. What is faith in Jesus Christ? A. Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel.”

So we need to be cautious when people draw a dichotomy between Calvin’s view of faith/assurance and that of the Westminster Standards. Especially given that the definition of faith is virtually identical and that the free offer of the gospel is the key to both! Perhaps it is because the free offer of the gospel has not received much attention in historical research that this view of a dichotomy has been allowed to develop?

Here, indeed, is the chief hinge on which faith turns: that we do not regard the promises of mercy that God offers as true only outside ourselves, but not at all in us; rather that we make them ours by inwardly embracing them.
John Calvin, Vol 1, p561

Appropriating the promises of mercy as true to us is the “chief hinge” of faith. Just as justification by faith alone, for Calvin, is the “chief hinge on which religion turns” so the free offer of the gospel is the “chief hinge” on which faith turns. It is that important.

We make the freely given promise of God the foundation of faith because upon it faith properly rests… Faith properly begins with the promise, rests in it and ends in it… Faith seeks life: a life that is not found in commandments or declarations of penalties, but in the promise of mercy, and only in a freely given promise… we must buttress [faith] with the promise of salvation, which is willingly and freely offered to us by the Lord… there is nothing that can establish faith except the generous embassy by which God reconciles the world to himself [cf. 2 Cor. 5:19-20]… the gospel is the ‘ministry of reconciliation’ [2 Cor 5:18], no other sufficiently firm testimony of God’s benevolence to us exists, the knowledge of which faith seeks.
John Calvin, Vol 1, p575

So once again Calvin emphasises that the free offer of the gospel (“freely given promise”) is foundational to faith. It is the “willingly” and “freely” offered gospel promises which “buttress” faith. Indeed “nothing” can establish faith but the free offer of the gospel expressed in the ‘ministry of reconciliation’ which is a “sufficiently firm” testimony of God’s “benevolence” to us.

There is no promise of [God’s] which is not a testimony of his love… Nothing prevents [the wicked], in habitually rejecting the promises intended for them, from thereby bringing upon themselves a greater vengeance. For although the effectiveness of the promises only appears when they have aroused faith in us, yet the force and peculiar nature of the promises are never extinguished by our unfaithfulness and ingratitude. Therefore since the Lord, by his promises, invites man not only to receive the fruits of his kindness but also to think about them, he at the same time declares his love to man. Hence we must return to the point: that any promise whatsoever is a testimony of God’s love towards us.
John Calvin, Vol 1, p579

This is very interesting. To be given the free offer of the gospel is “a testimony of God’s love”. Even to those who reject the promises, “the peculiar nature of the promises are never extinguished”. Even to the wicked “any promise whatsoever is a testimony of God’s love”. Thus, for Calvin, the free offer of the gospel is an expression of God’s love, even to those who never believe.

2 Responses to “Weekly Update 11”

  1. Greg MacDonald Says:

    “the force and peculiar nature of the promises are never extinguished by our unfaithfulness and ingratitude”
    I had never thought of it in these terms. Very helpful. Thus for many of us we were not reprobates at our first rejection of the gospel, but the free offer of mercy remained open to us.
    Would you expand on this further?

    Man does not chance God. Not even man in sin changes God. Just as well…
    Keep writing. we are still out here you know!

  2. Donald John MacLean Says:

    Glad to know you are still out there. Things have been too quiet in terms of comments around here recently 🙂

    I’m afraid of darkening counsel with words here! I think Calvin’s point centres around the consideration that ultimately for those who reject the gospel, having heard the gospel promises and rejected them, brings “greater vengeance” on them. This leads Calvin to consider whether that is the nature of the promise – to increase vengeance? He concludes by saying no. It is only the perversion of the promise by sin that leads to it bringing about greater judgement.

    So we have three sets of people:
    1) For those who have believed we see the “effectiveness of the promises” for they have “aroused faith”.
    2) For those who as yet do not believe but will in the future we will see their effectiveness in producing faith in the future.
    3) For those who reject the promises there will be no faith, no heaven, but a lost eternity, worse even that that for Sodom and Gomorrah. Yet the promise was still a testimony of love to them, because the nature of the promise as a good thing is not changed because of their unbelief.

    This is the same point he makes in his comments on John 3:17, “When elsewhere Christ says that He is come for judgement, when He is said to be set for the falling of many, it may be regarded as accidental, or so to say foreign. For those who reject the grace offered in Him deserve to find Him the judge and avenger of such shocking contempt.” It is not the purpose (to speak so) of the gospel to bring judgement, that it does so is only in a “foreign” or “accidental” way.

    Durham also makes this same point clearly but I can’t track the quotation down – very frustrating!

    The overarching point is one made by Stebbins contra Hoeksema “I always thought grace depended on the Giver, not the receiver, on the intrinsic usefulness of the gift, not the use (or abuse) to which the gift is put” (Christ Freely Offered, p74).

    Stebbins makes an interesting point that “Those that deny the reality of God’s kindness to the reprobate are in danger of turning life into a dream in which “life is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.” … they ignore the significance of means and only look to ends.” p64. Calvin avoided that error by not conflating the means (the gospel promises) with the unbelievers ultimate end (condemnation).

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