Ligonier National Conference - Ligon Duncan

from Mar 19, 2009 Category: Articles

J. Ligon Duncan III is the senior minister of First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Miss., and adjunct professor of theology at Reformed Theological Seminary. He is the president of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals and chairman of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Dr. Duncan has written, edited, and contributed to several books including Preaching the Cross, Women’s Ministry in the Local Church, and Should We Leave Our Churches?, and Fear Not!

To unpack the theme Calvin and The Christian Life, Dr. Duncan took us to I Timothy 1:3-5.  There we see that whereas false teaching does not cultivate the fruits of the Spirit, true teaching leads to “love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.”  Paul wants the practical fruits of godliness working out in the inmost being. Paul is not interested in just filling up our heads with knowledge.  Love to God, love to neighbor, and love for the gospel — that’s what ministry is about.  A changed life. The goal is that the truth will radically transform us.

I. The idea of piety for John Calvin

Piety for Calvin was short-hand for the whole practice and faith of the Christian life. Calvin did not call his Institutes a sum of Christian theology but rather a sum of piety. Yes, Calvin’s institutes was an engagement on the truth of God’s word, but it was for the sake of producing piety.

What is meant by piety? Two things:  (1) An experiential love for God as Father. And (2) a fear and reverence for Him as our Lord. The term “religion” has negative connotations for some — it conveys a formalized, external, even hypocritical life.  Not so for John Calvin. For Calvin, “religio” is faith joined with fear and reverence for God.  For Calvin, piety is reverence joined with the love of God which the knowledge of God’s benefits induces.

The knowledge of God Himself is the beginning of this true piety. It shows us who we are (sinners deserving of God’s wrath). It shows us who God is (holy, righteous, altogether pure). It shows us that God condescended to bear the wrath that was owed to us. And this induces piety in us.

Many do not know that John Calvin studied classical authors prior to writing his theological works. He had read abundant classical literature on the topic of piety. So Calvin knew that piety stood for the appropriate attitude of children toward their parents. In fact, good Romans thought that citizens should have piety toward the state: deeds of goodness should adorn one’s citizenship as a Roman. This is why Christians were charged with impiety and atheism—because Christians’ loyalty and fidelity was directed not as the leader of Rome but at the one true God. Romans thought they were being disrespectful. And yet, the early Christians took this idea from the Romans and applied it to their relationship with the one true God. The idea of piety typically shows up in the New Testament under the term “godliness.”

II. The root of the idea of piety in the life of John Calvin

As noted above, Calvin got an idea of “piety” from his study of classical writings. In addition, Calvin’s conversion was infused with this idea of piety.  Some of the saints of old have a specific text of Scripture associated with their conversion.  Consider Augustine —vile sinner, took a concubine, etc.  One day he hears children singing “tolle lege,” which means “take up and read.” He opened his Bible (which he had with him at the time) and his eyes found Romans 13:13-14.  For Martin Luther, Romans 1:16-17 was instrumental in breaking the chain of self-righteous, anxious toil.  We don’t know from Calvin’s own writings if there was a particular text which God used in converting him.  Calvin does tell us that it was a “sudden” conversion.  However, Ford Lewis Battles, that great Calvin scholar, believes that Romans 1:18-25 was the instrumental text.  In fact, Battles believes that verse 21 was particularly crucial:  “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.”  And what do we see?  The need to honor God and to give thanks to Him.  And these became pervasive themes in Calvin’s writings — even his polemical responses to his detractors. Farel challenged Calvin, when he wanted to pursue a more contemplative life, with his duty to honor God by joining in the more active work of the reformation. Calvin realized that it was his duty to do whatever God called him to do.

III. John Calvin’s teaching on piety

Calvin’s Institutes, Book 3, chapters 6-10 is the place to find the heart of Calvin’s teaching concerning piety.  There we learn that God’s goal in sanctification is to restore the image of God in us — that image in which we were originally created, and which was mired by sin.  Just as Christ obeyed the law on our behalf, so He is busy conforming us into the likeness of God. Piety is about the believer coming into greater harmony with God’s righteousness. Very often, Christian ministers say, “We’ve been saved by grace, and we are now free from the law of God, and from any restraint.” To this Calvin would reply: “No, Christian freedom is by no means a license to sin. True Christian freedom is found when we want to do what we ought to do.”

Furthermore, we have a rule of life set forth that prevents us from wandering. Many today think we don’t need commandments, directives, instructions. We can just “walk by the Spirit.”  But for Calvin, piety implied not only a love of righteousness but a rule of life.  It is true that grace is a huge motivation for living the Christian life. But in book 3, chapter 6, section 2, of Calvin’s Institutes, Calvin does not use this motivation. He seeks to motivate us by the knowledge of God’s holiness. “From what foundation can righteousness better arise, then from the Scriptural truth that we must be holy since God is holy.” How? “When we hear mention of our union with God, let us remember that holiness must be the basis of that union. Not our holiness, of course. But we must first cleave to Him so that, infused with His holiness, we may follow wherever He leads.”

We have fellowship with God on the basis of His holiness. God in his grace revealing himself as our Father motivates us to show ourselves to be His true children. Since Christ has cleansed us, we would not want to make ourselves filthy. Ever since the Holy Spirit dedicated us as a temple of the living God, why would we want to do something that would make the temple unclean? Calvin piles up these things that God has done and is doing for us as Christians, and asks: How are we to respond to this?

True piety is not a matter of outward/external perfection; it is a matter of growth. It is that doctrine of progressive sanctification. Our hope is that God is not done with us.

A. Self-denial

The living of the Christian life begins with denial of self. In large measure, it is going the way of the Savior. Jesus is an example and the model for us: a prefiguring of the way that we are going to go in the course of self-denial. The denial of self is not among the top concerns among Christians today. We are the most self-preoccupied generation of Christians who ever lived.

B. Cross-bearing

The bearing of the cross is the way God conforms us into His son’s image. We are called to live our entire lives under the cross. The whole life - the bearing of a cross. This is of vital importance because we experience God’s provision for us when we bear the cross (when we are in our extremity). In bearing the cross, God teaches us patience and obedience.  He corrects us and trains us and restrains our sin.  

We are thus animated by a hope to live now for God’s glory. Calvin urges us toward moderation in the enjoyment of God’s blessings, toward industry rather than laziness, and to always draw a quick line from a gift to the Giver - so that we would always choose the Giver over the gift.