Archive for the ‘John Calvin’ Category

The best treatment of Calvin on the gospel offer is…

October 15, 2014

…undoubtedly the essay by J. Mark Beach in the Mid-America Journal of Theology entitled “Calvin’s Treatment of the Offer of the Gospel and Divine Grace“. It is a fair and balanced summary of Calvin’s teachings.

Here is Beach on the definition of “offer”:

The gospel is “the doctrine of salvation,” as such it “invites all to partake of salvation without difference….” Calvin then links the word invitare [invite] to offerre [offer]. “For Christ,” he writes, “is there offered, whose proper office is to save that which had been lost, and those who refuse [recusare] to be saved by Him shall find Him their Judge.” We should note that Calvin‟s language of “refusal” comports with the language of offer and invitation. It will not do to make these terms to mean Christ is “displayed” to sinners. Calvin‟s language is that a genuine invitation is given—a genuine offer and a genuine refusal.

Here is Beach on the “offer” as expressive of love:

Another place where Calvin speaks in clear gospel-offer language is Jeremiah 7:25-26. In his lectures on this text Calvin offers the following instruction: “We may hence learn a useful doctrine,—that God rises to invite us, and also to receive us, whenever his word is proclaimed among us, by which he testifies to us his paternal love.” Here Calvin defines the invitation as reception or at least demonstrates that the intention of invitation is reception; that is, the reason for God rising to invite sinners to himself is also to receive them. This invitation is nothing less than an expression of his “paternal love.”

Do read the whole article. It is very helpful.

John Murray, John Calvin and the Will of God

November 25, 2011

Here is an interesting and thought provoking section from John Murray on Calvin on the Sovereignty of God:

Collected Writings of John Murray: 4.…

There is a twofold aspect to the will of God.  And there is the disparity between the decretive and preceptive will, between the determinations of his secret counsel that certain events will come to pass and the prescriptions of his revealed will to us that we do not bring these events to pass.  It cannot be gainsaid that God decretively wills what he preceptively forbids and decrectively forbids what he preceptively commands.  It is precisely in this consideration that the doctrine of God’s sovereignty is focused most acutely with demands for our faith and reverence.  If I am not mistaken it is at this point that the sovereignty of God makes the human mind reel as it does nowhere else in connection with this topic.  It should be so.  It is the sanctified understanding that reels.  And it is not the mark of intelligence to allege or claim a ready resolution of the apparent contradiction with which it confronts us.  How can God say: This comes to pass by my infallible foreordination and providence, and also say to us: This thou shalt not bring to pass?


Calvin was well aware of this question and he did not tone down the mystery with which it confronts us.  He is constantly refuting, by appeal to Scripture, the objections which unbelief registers against this doctrine.  Much of the argumentation in the last three chapters of Book I of the Institutes is concerned with it.  It is of interest that the last work in which Calvin was engaged before his work was arrested by the hand of death was his exposition of the prophet Ezekiel … At Ezekiel 18:23, in dealing with the discrepancy between God’s will to the salvation of all and the election of God by which he predestinates only a fixed number to salvation, he says, “If anyone again objects, This is making God act with duplicity, the answer is ready, that God always wishes the same thing, though by different ways and in a manner inscrutable to us.  Although, therefore, God’s will is simple, yet great variety is involved in it, as far as our senses are concerned.  Besides it is not surprising that our eyes should be blinded by the intense light, so that we can not  certainly judge how God wishes all to be saved, any yet has devoted all the reprobate to eternal destruction, and wishes them to perish.  While we look now through a glass darkly, we should be content with the measure or our own intelligence.”[1]

[1] Comm. ad Ezekiel 18:23; E.T. by Thomas Myers.  It is more probable that the Latin verb velle, translated on three occasions above by the English term ‘wishes’, should rather be rendered ‘wills’.
The present writer [Murray] is not persuaded that we may speak of God’s will as ‘simple’, after the pattern of Calvin’s statement.  There is the undeniable fact that, in regard to sin, God decretively wills what he preceptively does not will.  There is the contradiction.  We must maintain that it is perfectly consistent with God’s perfection that this contradiction should obtain.  But it does not appear to be any resolution to say that God’s will is ‘simple’, even in the sense of the Latin term simplex.

Good Resources

November 19, 2011

Some worthwhile reads:

Calvin on the Lord’s Supper

Ralph Cunnington, Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper: A Blot upon His Labors as a Public Instructor?

A defense of Calvin’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper.  Worth a thoughtful read, whether or not you agree with his conclusions.  This is a preview article from the Fall 2011 Westminster Theological Journal, which seems to be prospering under the editorship of Randall J. Pederson.

Mid America Journal of Theology

Some more editions of the Mid-America Journal are now online (2007-2009).  This is a good journal.  Some highlights:

D. Patrick Ramsey: Meet Me in the Middle: Herman Witsius and the English Dissenters

Richard A. Muller: Toward the Pactum Salutis: Locating the Origins of a Concept

Aaron C. Denlinger, translated and introduction: Robert Rollock’s Catechism on God’s Covenants

Post Reformation Digital Library

An excellent catalog of writings of great reformed theologians (and others!) that are freely available on the internet.  Want to know where you can read the Select works of Robert Rollock online, or The Works of John Knox (6 vols.) then this is your place:

Post-Reformation Digital Library

Justification … the first and keenest subject of controversy between us

March 13, 2010

I have recently been re-reading some of the 7 volume edition of Calvin’s “Tracts and Letter” and so was reminded of a classic Calvin quote on justification.  The context is Calvin’s response to Cardinal Sadolet’s letter to Geneva:

… justification by faith, [is] the first and keenest subject of controversy between us.  Is this [a right understanding of justification] a knotty and useless question?  Wherever the knowledge of it is taken away, the glory of Christ is extinguished, religion abolished, the Church destroyed, and the hope of salvation utterly overthrown … I will briefly explain to you how we speak on this subject … We bid a man begin by examining himself … to sist his conscience before the tribunal of God, and when sufficiently convinced of his iniquity, to reflect on the strictness of the sentence pronounced upon all sinners.  Thus confounded and amazed at his misery, he is prostrated and humbled before God; and, casting away all self-confidence, groans as if given up to final perdition.  Then we show that the only haven of safety is in the mercy of God, as manifested in Christ, in whom every part of our salvation is complete.  As all mankind are, in the sight of God lost sinners, we hold that Christ is their only righteousness, since, by his obedience, he has wiped off our transgressions; by his sacrifice, appeased divine anger; by his blood, washed away our stains; by his cross, borne our curse; and by his death, made satisfaction for us.  We maintain that in this way man is reconciled in Christ to God the Father. by no merit of his own, by no value of works, but by gratuitous mercy…

Powerful words – and as relevant as the day they were penned!

Rainbow on Calvin, the Will of God and the Gospel Offer

November 17, 2009

Here is a short section from Jonathan Rainbow’s work The Will of God and The Cross: An Historical and Theological Study of John Calvin’s Doctrine of Limited Redemption.

The Universal Offer of the Gospel

Calvin clearly articulated a universal saving will of God that was conditional on faith, which consisted of the universal offer of the gospel through preaching … Calvin stressed that the gospel, and in it the benefits of Christ’s passion and death, are offered to all men.  In such contexts Calvin made it clear that “all” means all men individually.  Calvin the Latinist provided Calvin the theologian with a variety of terms to articulate this doctrine:  the gospel is offered (offertur) to all, propounded (proponitur) to all, set forth (expositum esse) to all, and proclaimed (publicando) to all.  These terms all denoted for Calvin the public preaching of the gospel through the agency of men.  By this agency God invites (invitare) and calls (vocare) all men to salvation.  That “all” means all individual men Calvin indicated by the adverbs indifferenter, promiscue, and sine exceptione which almost always occurred in such statements.

Calvin usually coupled his affirmations of this universal gospel offer with the reminder that only the elect actually receive the gospel.  For the public offer of the gospel comes always with the demand for faith, and only the elect have faith.  So Calvin saw God here operating in two circles of human beings, one the larger circle of all to whom the gospel is publically offered through preaching, and the other smaller circle of those who believe, the elect.  This preached word is a kind of net cast into humanity at large which catches the elect and lets the reprobate slip back through.  So there was in this sense in Calvin’s theology a “twofold will” of God.  [C.f. commentaries on Ezek 18:23, 2 Pet 3:9, Matt 23:37.] … The universal offer of the gospel for Calvin was only and simply the public preaching of the gospel to all men; it was the will of God “which is manifested by the nature of the word, and is merely to invite by the outward voice of  man.”  If asked how such an offer can be made to every individual when God’s saving work and will do not extend to every individual, Calvin would not pretend to know.  It is simply how God reveals himself.


Now whilst Rainbow does not say everything that can be said in this short section he draws out a number of vital points:

  • It is impossible to say the older reformed theologians ment only present/command by offer – look at the actual terms Calvin uses (including invite).
  • For Calvin the gospel is a particular offer to every hearer.
  • For Calvin it is possible to speak of the (revealed) will of God for the salvation of all.
  • Calvin accepts the testimony of scripture and does not reject it because he cannot rationalise it i.e. he understands the finite cannot comprehend the infinite, that is the distinction between archetypal and ectypal theology.

Is Calvinism a useful label?

May 2, 2009

Richard Muller argues that it is not:

As for the terms “Calvinist” and “Calvinism,” I tend to avoid them as less than useful to the historical task. If, by “Calvinist,” one means a follower of Calvin who had nothing to say that was different from what Calvin said, one would be hard put to find any Calvinists in the later sixteenth or seventeenth centuries. If by Calvinist one means a later exponent of a theology standing within the confessional boundaries described by documents such as the Gallican Confession, the Belgic Confession, the Second Helvetic Confession, and the Heidelberg Catechism, then one will have the problem of accounting for the many ways in which such thinkers – notably, Amandus Polanus von Polansdorf, Bartholomaus Keckermann, William Perkins, Franciscus Junius, and Bucanus, just to name a few – differ from Calvin both doctrinally and methodologically. One might even be forced to pose Calvin against the Calvinists. Given the diversity of the movement and the fact that Calvin was not the primary author of any of the confessional norms just noted, the better part of historical valour (namely discretion) requires rejection of the term “Calvinist” and “Calvinism” in favour of the more historically accurate term, “Reformed.”
PRRD, 1:30

(Inspired in part by the discussions over at ThomasGoodwin).

Iain Murray on John Calvin

December 8, 2008

In the week we are meant to be moving to Cambridge I have broken my arm (actually I broke it 10 days ago but only made it to A&E this week).  Having moved our goods down there on Friday we are due to go down tomorrow.  This is dependent on the results of a hospital appointment tomorrow.  Whatever the outcome, it is good to know these things are ordered by a gracious God who works all things for the good.

Anyway, back to the free offer.  Here are some comments from Iain Murray from the introduction he wrote for John Calvin: A Heart For Devotion Doctrine & Doxology (Reformation Trust, 2008):

We have found it easier to be “teachers” and “defenders” of the truth than to be evangelists who are willing to die that men might be converted. Sometimes the impression can be given … that we think all gospel preaching can be fitted into the five points [of Calvinism]. The five points are not to be depreciated, but God is incomprehensibly greater than our understanding, and there are other truths to be preached far beyond our capacity to harmonize.

Calvin cautions us here. In speaking of the indiscriminate invitations of Christ in John 5, he observes, “He is ready to give himself, provided that they are only willing to believe.”  He can say that “nothing of all that God wishes to be saved shall perish” and yet warn his hearers lest the opportunity of salvation “pass away from us.”  He speaks of Christ’s “great kindness” to Judas and affirms, “Christ does not lay Judas under the necessity of perishing.”  If on occasions, when in controversy with opponents of Scripture, Calvin unduly presses the implications of a doctrine, he guards against that temptation in his general preaching and teaching. He does not hesitate to teach that God loves those who will not be saved; indeed, he writes that God “wishes all men to be saved,” and to the objection that God cannot wish what He has not ordained, it is enough for Calvin to confess: “Although God’s will is simple, yet great variety is involved in it, as far as our senses are concerned. Besides, it is not surprising that our eyes should be blinded by intense light.” Our duty, he would say, is to adore the loftiness of God rather than investigate it.

Where Calvinistic truth is presented as though there is no love in God to sinners as sinners – that His only regard is for the elect – it is no wonder that evangelistic preaching falters. The preacher has to be possessed with a love for all or he will not represent the Savior in whose name he speaks. The men of Calvinistic belief who have stood out as evangelists and missionaries have always been examples of this…

“The Doctrine of Conversion in the Westminster Standards With Reference to the Theology of Herman Hoeksema”

March 29, 2008

This is the title of a helpful article by David Silversides in Reformed Theological Journal 9 (1993), 62-84.  Here are some thoughts and quotations I’ve gleaned from the article.

Now, justification is a real favour applied to us in time, just as sanctification in the new birth: ‘and such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified’ (1 Cor. 6:11). Then were they sometime not washed.
Samuel Rutherford, Trial & Triumph of Faith, 1845, 91.

The Scots theologians of the mid 17th C seem to me to be quite opposed to any notion of eternal justification.  Things were not quite so uniform on this in England e.g. Thomas Goodwin.

The condition of the Covenant is faith: holiness and sanctification are the condition of the covenanters … This do was the condition of the Covenant of Works. This believe is the condition of this Covenant …
Samuel Rutherford, ibid, 87

The whole notion of “conditions” relating to the covenant of grace/gospel offer is something that is very interesting.  The Reformed divines (c.f. WLC Q&A 32) of the mid 17th C used the language of conditionality frequently but what they meant by “conditions” must be carefully understood.  I need to spend a fair amount of time expanding on this in the thesis which means a blog post on it will appear sometime.  Durham uses the language of “condition” everywhere but in one significant comment he says he doesn’t like the word very much!

God’s decree of election or His intention to save me, is not the proper object of my faith, but … Christ holdeth forth his rope to drowned and lost sinners, and layeth out an open market of rich treasures of heaven; do thou take it for granted, without any further dispute, as a principle, after to be made good, that Christ hath thoughts of grace and peace concerning thee, and do but now husband well the grace offered, lay hold on Christ, ay while he put thee away from Him, and if there be any question concerning God’s intention of saving thee, let Christ first move the doubt, but do not thou be the first mover.
S. Rutherford, A Sermon Preached to the Honourable House of Commons, 1643.
See also Trial p300.

A good example of gospel preaching.

If the anti-common grace position were correct, then Christ as God in no sense loved the reprobate even while they were in this world. As a man ‘made under the law’ the command “thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” applied to Christ. Only two options are open. The first is an heretical division of the person of Christ, by maintaining that Christ loved only the elect in His divine nature but loved all men in His human nature. Clearly this must be rejected. The alternative is to say that Christ, in both natures, loved the elect only and that our obligation to love all men is founded on our ignorance of who the elect are. This means that we are required to love those whom God does not. Moreover, Scripture bases our obligation to love all men not on our ignorance of God’s mind, but the knowledge of it that we should have and our duty to be patterned after Him (Matt. 5:23-48).

Stark “either or” dilemmas are often double-edged swords but the above quote from Rev Silversides gets to the heart of a profound Christological problem for deniers of common love/grace.

… the Westminster Divines as a whole held to what became known as the doctrine of common grace in the sense that the Lord, in a variety of ways, displays his favour and lovingkindness even to the non-elect in this present life … The preaching of the Gospel and the overture of mercy which it includes is one part of that display of lovingkindness.

A sound piece of historical analysis.  This is what the Standards teach.

He offereth in the Gospel, life to all … [this is] God’s moral complacency of grace, revealing an obligation that all are to believe if they would be saved; and upon their own peril be it, if they refuse Christ … Christ cometh once with good tidings to all, elect and reprobate.
Rutherford, Trial, 129ff

Another good extract from Rutherford.

On another note my chapter “The Free Offer of the Gospel in the Westminster Confession” is now finished!  Hurray!  Required before the end of June – two chapters on James Durham.  This is the meat of my thesis and should be a pleasure to write.

Weekly Update 33 – Robert Murray M’Cheyne

December 15, 2007

I’m currently in the middle of preparing to write up my chapter on the credal history of the free offer of the gospel in Reformed churches, with particular reference to the Westminster Standards.  This involves a lot of fairly dry reading.  So instead of posting on that I’m going to share a few gems from a minister who faithfully preached Christ and him crucified – Robert Murray M’Cheyne (1813-1843).  M’Cheyne was one of the greatest of the Reformed preachers of the 19th century and is an example of the preaching which has been heard in the Scottish church in all her best times.  May it please the Lord of the harvest to send forth labourers into the harvest field who are animated with the same Spirit!

When [Christ] wept over Jerusalem… there was much that was human in it.  The feet were human that stood upon Mount Olivet.  The eyes were human eyes that looked down upon the dazzling city.  The tears were human tears that fell upon the ground.  But oh, there was the tenderness of God beating beneath that mantle!  Look and live, sinners.  Look and live.  Behold your God!  He that has seen a weeping Christ has seen the Father.  This is God manifest in the flesh.  Some of you fear that the Father does not wish you to come to Christ and be saved.  But see here, God is manifest in the flesh.  He that has seen Christ has seen the Father.  See here the heart of the Father and the heart of the Son laid bare.  Oh, why should you doubt?  Every one of these tears trickles from the heart of God.
Robert Murray M’Cheyne, Memoirs and Remains, Banner of Truth, p472

M’Cheyne’s point here is that we can’t simply write off Christ’s weeping over Jerusalem as pertaining only to his human nature.  It tells us something about God.  This is in line with Calvin who believes that in his lament over Jerusalem Christ is speaking as God.  His thoughts are also echoed by Dabney who writes, “Christ [is] the manifestation to us of the divine nature…. It is our happiness to believe that when we see Jesus weeping over lost Jerusalem, we “have seen the Father;” we have received an insight into the divine benevolence and pity. And therefore this wondrous incident has been so dear to the hearts of God’s people in all ages.”

Oh for the… [tenderness/mercy] of Jesus Christ in every minister, that we might long after all! … And here I would observe what appears to me a fault in the preaching of [today].  Most ministers are accustomed to set Christ before the people.  They lay down the gospel clearly and beautifully, but they do not urge men to enter in.  Now God says, ‘Exhort’ – beseech men – persuade men; not only point to the open door, but compel them to come in.  Oh, to be more merciful to souls, that we would lay hands on men and draw them in to the Lord Jesus…  How anxious was Jesus Christ in this!  When he came near and beheld the city he wept over it.  How earnest was Paul! ‘Remember that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears!’
Ibid, p402-404.

I think M’Cheyne hits on something absolutely crucial to the true nature of biblical preaching here.  What he is saying is that to declare facts is simply not enough.  True preaching is patterned after the tears of Christ and Paul.  There must be earnest beseeching and persuading to truly enter into the biblical concept of preaching.

Next week I’d like to post something on Rev 22:17 from James Durham and a member of the Westminster Assembly, William Greenhill.

PS These quotes originally came from David Gay’s book on the free offer: The Gospel Offer is Free, Biggleswade: Brachus, 2004.

Weekly Update 26 – Calvin, The Free Offer and The Free Church of Scotland

October 26, 2007

This is a bit of a short post as I’m spending most of my time working towards writing up some of my thesis.  I should hopefully be able to offer a few “weightier” posts in the coming weeks.  I’d ideally like to post something soon covering Durham on Justification (which is partially related to the free offer), and also another post on the Covenants.

This post focuses on Calvin and one of the few truly good theologians of the 20th century R.A. Finlayson.  For those who may not have heard of him, Finlayson was Professor of Systematic Theology at the Free Church of Scotland College from 1946-66.  According to the Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology he was “a founding member of the Scottish Tyndale Fellowship, which later became the Scottish Evangelical Theological Society… He was also active in the beginnings of the Inter-Varsity Fellowship… He was much in demand as a preacher and conference speaker, with a wit as sharp as his pen.” p321.  It is one of his conference addresses I want to quote from now.  It is ‘Calvin’s Doctrine of God,’ Able Ministers of the New Testament, Papers read at the Puritan and Reformed Studies Conference, 1964, p3-18 Rept. Tentmaker.

His paper helpfully covers many aspects of Calvin’s theology but I want to focus in on the part where he discusses Calvin and the free offer of the gospel.  In reading this, remember that Finlayson’s audience were not academics but Pastors.  Here it is:

There is the further difficulty of reconciling the expressions of God’s desire for men with God’s absolute decree concerning man. It would seem clear that God wills with genuine desire what he does not will by executive purpose. This has led theologians to make use of the two terms, the decretive will and the perceptive will of God, or His secret and revealed will. For example it is revealed that God would have all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth, while he has not decreed universal salvation. Commenting on 2 Peter iii. 9, Calvin says: ‘But it may be asked, If God wishes none to perish, why is it that so many perish? To this my answer is, that no mention is here made of the hidden purpose of God according to which the reprobate are doomed to their own ruin, but only of his will as made known to us in the gospel. For God there stretches out His hand, without a difference, to all, but lays hold only of those, to lead them to Himself, whom he has thus chosen before the foundation of the world’.

Thus it cannot be said that God merely desires the ultimate salvation of all men without also desiring their repentance and faith and sanctification: for as Calvin says that would be ‘to renounce the difference between good and evil’. The position could thus be more clearly put as meaning that God desires all men to be righteous in character and life and to use the means he has appointed to that end. It is in harmony with the revealed will of God that without the use of means appointed by Him the end shall not be attained. As a holy God, the Creator commands all his moral creatures to be holy, and He cannot be conceived as in any way obstructing their pursuit of holiness by His decree.

Now I just want to make two points here.

First Finlayson is accurately representing Calvin.  Calvin has no hesitation in using “desire” (or similar terms) in reference to the salvation of all men – or that “all men be righteous” and “use the means he has appointed to that end”.  He does this frequently.  I’ve already covered Calvin on 2 Peter 3:9 so there is no need to repeat the arguments here.  I mention Finlayson’s take on Calvin because it comforts me that much more theologically able people than me have read the same source material I have and come to the same conclusion!

Second Finlayson is accurately representing his own tradition in allowing that God desires the salvation of all men, or that “all men be righteous”.  In his views here Finlayson is merely stating the standard doctrine of the Free Church of Scotland from its inception.  This type of language could have come straight from many of the “founding fathers” e.g. Thomas Chalmers.  Incidentally, Finlayson comes from the same Scottish Presbyterian tradition as John Murray of Free Offer of the Gospel fame.

Like I said, next week should be more “weighty”.