Message 21, Calvinism and the Christian Life and The Reformed Pastor (Optional Session):
In this session, Dr. Ian Hamilton highlights his two teaching series Calvinism and the Christian Life and The Reformed Pastor, and helps us understand that Calvinism is much more than “five points.”
It was my privilege a year or so ago to work with Ligonier producing two CDs for them, one entitled “The Reformed Pastor,” and the other, as you have heard, entitled “Calvinism and the Christian Life.” I’m sure if you asked most Christian people, “What exactly is Calvinism?” they would think about the frozen chosen. They would think about hardheaded, cold-hearted, logical, not so biblical Christian men and women.
And if that were so, we would be denying what Calvinism is at its heart. Most people, I think, when they hear that word instinctively think of five points: TULIP as it’s called. But I’ve often thought that if that’s what you think Calvinism is, it’s a bit like taking five bones out of a body and forgetting there’s another two hundred and one located in the body.
The five points are wonderful truths, but dislocated from the anatomy of biblical Christianity, they can become austere, lacking in grace, and almost floating above the realities of life, not really connecting with the way we go about living lives that are pleasing to God and honoring to the gospel.
And so in this little series entitled “Calvinism and the Christian Life,” my main concern, my passionate concern, if I could put it like that, was to help people see that Calvinism was something richer, grander, profounder, deeper, more pulse-quickening than mere five truths. And I sought to — maybe poorly, but I hope with all my heart — to help people understand that John Calvin had a vision that was captivated by the revelation of the triune God in Holy Scripture.
If you were to ask someone like John Calvin, “What is the great, fundamental, foundational truth of the Christian religion?” without pausing he would surely have immediately replied, “The revelation of the grace and glory of the triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” And that vision of God’s self-revelation not only captured Calvin’s mind, it captivated his heart.
The problem with many Calvinists is that the system of Calvinism has captured their minds, but it hasn’t captivated their hearts. But God is the great captivating reality. The Lord Jesus Christ said in John 17, “This is eternal life that we might know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you’ve sent.”
Pondering, meditating upon, reflecting upon, reading about, discussing, praying through God’s self-revelation of Himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is intended not simply to fill our heads with interesting facts about the relationships of the Father, Son, and the Spirit one to the other. The intention is not to leave our minds captured by the intricacies of the intra-Trinitarian relationships. God’s revelation is intended to captivate our being because eternity is about being in the presence of this God and learning increasingly to know Him in the infinitude of who He is.
If you were to ask most people here in this room tonight, “When did the Lord bring you to saving faith?” I would guess that many of you would be like me. You would be able to point to a particular time in your life when God drew near to you, spoke into your heart, won your allegiance, and brought you into His kingdom. Perhaps some of you would be like my wife, who has never known a day that she didn’t trust Christ as her Savior and Lord.
If you’d asked John Calvin, “When did the Lord bring you to faith?” I’m not quite sure what he would have said because in the fifty or so plus volumes of his writings, in only one place — and that in the space of three lines — does he discuss his conversion. And all he says is that his heart was rebellious against God but that God subdued him and brought his heart to docility. That’s Calvinism, subdued by God, Deus subigit, subdued by God and brought to docility.
Isn’t that a beautiful way to express the saving grace of God in your life? He has brought you to docility. He has brought you to embrace the yoke of Christ sweetly with a docile heart. And for Calvin, that was the soil out of which the Christian life was to be lived. Calvin had a motto, “Cor meum tibi offero, Domine, prompte et sincere.” If you’re interested, “My heart I give to you, O God, promptly and sincerely,” and that became the driving pulse beat of Calvin’s Christian life.
My heart I give to you O Lord promptly and sincerely, and that reality shaped for Calvin the style, if you like, the shape of his Christian life. Calvin was a man who lived under the Word of God. He sought to go where the Word would take him and to stop short where the Word did not take him.
And in the video series, I tried as best as I was able, poor though that may be, to sketch the lineaments of what biblical Calvinism actually looks like, and there were a number of features that I highlighted. Let me just mention them to you very briefly. Here are the fundamental features that will shape and style any man or any woman who truly is a Calvinist.
Number one, they will live a life that honors God’s sovereignty. They will acknowledge the lordship of God in their lives and in all things everywhere. They will acknowledge that He is God, sovereign, majestic, to be worshipped, to be adored, to be loved. So Calvinists honor God’s sovereignty.
Secondly, Calvinists cherish God’s grace. One of the things I love about reading John Calvin, and he is easy to read. Let me encourage you, maybe you’re a little daunted by the name “John Calvin.” Calvin is easy to read. Profound, but his prose is beautiful. It’s rhythmic. There’s a cadence to his prose. And Calvin delights to cherish God’s grace, because when you cherish God’s grace, you are cherishing the God of grace. Grace puts God where He belongs, on the throne, and puts us where we belong, at his feet.
And then thirdly, Calvinists live before God’s face. They live coram Deo. We don’t live looking over our shoulder, wondering either what the world thinks about us or even what the church thinks about us. I don’t mean we have to live our lives irrespective of the body of Christ, but that we have to live before God with a single eye to His glory and to His “Well done.”
And one of the things that first attracted me as a young undergraduate, studying history in the university in Glasgow was to encounter in Calvin a life that in everything, as it seemed to me, he sought first God’s kingdom and His righteousness. There was never any trace, as far as I could see, of him looking for the plaudits, certainly not of the world around him and not even of the church. He was a catholic-spirited man, as I will mention in a moment, but it was this single eye to the glory of God that to me just challenged me and at the same time frightened me, but also at the same time compelled me.
And then fourthly, Calvinism is a life shaped by God’s holiness. One of the tragedies in modern evangelical Christianity is the manifest worldliness that has not only crept into the church, but that has come like a tidal wave into the church. We are called to be holy as God is holy. That doesn’t mean to be prickly, to be awkward, to be cross-grained, but it means to live our lives shaped by the moral glory of God as His image bearers and those who are called to be conformed to the likeness of Jesus Christ.
And then fifthly, Calvinists are satisfied with scriptural worship. I find it very strange that there are evangelicals who will fight to the death over what the Bible teaches that we are justified by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone, but they’re very indifferent to what God would decree to us concerning how He’s to be worshipped. Perhaps, it would be a surprise for you to know that the Reformation and the Reformers certainly, considered the Reformation to be first not about the doctrine of salvation, but about the right worship of God.
In his 1543 treatise on The Necessity of Reforming the Church, Calvin writes in the preface to Emperor Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, “If you ask me why there has been a reformation,” to paraphrase, “number one, because God is to be worshipped as He has decreed and not as we have imagined.”
And one of the great concerns of Calvinists, if we can call ourselves such, is that we look to shape our worship not by the passing fads and fancies. Remember C. S. Lewis’ comment, “Fads and fashions come and go, but they mainly go.” And the church and its worship is to be shaped regulatively by what God has ordained, not by what we think might be interesting.
Sixthly, Calvinism pursues godly catholicity. I don’t know if any of you — how many of you either possess or have dipped into Calvin’s tracts and letters? Now, let’s be honest. I’m not going to pounce on you. One or two, wonderful! Some of Calvin’s letters are breathtaking. I’m not sure he would be invited to many Reformed conferences. His catholicity is really unsettling. He wrote this wonderful letter to archbishop Thomas Cranmer in 1553, and he begins, “Godly, revered brother Cranmer.” Calvin’s in Geneva, Cranmer is archbishop of Canterbury.
He’s soon to be burnt two years later through bloody Mary’s witch hunt. And Calvin there expresses, I think in a very moving way, his longing for Protestant unity. And he said, “I would willingly cross ten seas to help heal the bleeding body of the Lord Jesus Christ.” His letters are gloriously pastoral, profoundly, deeply catholic-spirited in the best sense of the word. He saw beyond himself. He was willing to lay aside certain cherished convictions that he had.
When, for example, the exiles in Frankfurt in 1555 wrote to Calvin, they were really miffed that they were being forced to kneel, to receive the Holy Supper, and they said to Calvin, “This isn’t biblical, this is not ordained by God. What should we do?” And Calvin replies, “Well, yes, you’re absolutely right. Scripture does not command this, but in the state of the times bear with tolerable foolishnesses.” Bear with tolerable foolishnesses.
John Knox wrote to Calvin at the Scottish Reformation, 1516. He said, “Brother Calvin, things are going from bad to worse. The Parliament are giving one-third of the church’s patrimony to these old Roman priests. What shall we do?” And Calvin replies, “Dear brother John, they will die.” You know when you’re building a house, don’t start with the roof. Get the foundation right. And this godly catholicity, this holy moderation was a great note that certainly deeply attracted me to Calvin.
And then finally, simply this. I try to highlight that Calvinism seeks to cultivate communion with God. I mentioned, in my earlier address, volume two of John Owen’s works. After Calvin’s Institutes, it has had more impact on me than any other book I’ve read, it’s just, for me, it is an out of this world experience reading John Owen in volume two, “Communion with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
If you haven’t read it, buy it. It’s just magnificent. Calvinism should be noted for communion with God. Our services should be marked by a deep sense of drawing near to God even as God in Christ, by His Spirit, draws near to us. Calvinism is not less than five points. But it’s gloriously more than five points, and I hope that perhaps if you haven’t looked at the little DVD, I don’t think I get any royalties from it so it’s okay, I can just promote it. You might find it helpful, if nothing else, as to give you a little taster of what Calvinism actually is and not what many people imagine it to be. Thank you.