How often does one hear words like madness, babble, stupidity, or ignorance to describe unbiblical or unregenerate knowledge of God? Not very often, right? John Calvin, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, uses each of these words in the span of a few paragraphs to describe the foolishness of trying to attain spiritual knowledge of God and salvation apart from the work of the Holy Spirit.
Calvin is right on in this part of the Institutes, which was Monday’s reading (sections 2.2.18-21). While Calvin never explicitly laid out the five points of Calvinism in his life (his students did after his death in response to the five points of the Remonstrants/Arminians), he beautifully expounds these truths from the Bible throughout the Institutes. In this section it is especially evident that the relationship between man’s radical depravity and God’s irresistible grace is so intertwined that separating them to fit neatly into an acrostic doesn’t do them full justice.
If we were merely lost, a road map would suffice. If we were merely sick, taking a little medicine would restore us. If we were merely ignorant, a little instruction would do. If we were merely a little misguided, trying harder to be good would be fine. A bloody savior isn’t necessary for any of that. But humans by nature are utterly and completely dead in trespasses and sins and by nature are children of wrath (Ephesians 2:3). We need salvation to come from outside ourselves. We need God to do what we cannot do – raise us from the dead to faith in Christ.
Likewise, as sinful humans, we cannot conjure up right knowledge of God outside the work of the Holy Spirit. Calvin says “Flesh is not capable of such lofty wisdom as to conceive God and what is God’s, unless it be illumined by the Spirit of God. As Christ testified, the fact that Peter recognized him was a special revelation of the Father [Matt. 16:17].”
Calvin and Calvinists are often chided for being cold, heartless, and even ignorant of the work of the Holy Spirit. But I’m not sure those assertions are anything more than ignorant stereotypes, especially if one were to read these sections of Calvin.
In tackling a difficult subject, Calvin clearly explains these truths directly from Scripture, employing myriad passages to show man’s inability to save himself. He quotes from Deuteronomy, Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Matthew, John, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, Colossians, Titus, Hebrews, and James. He also uses strong words to make his point when necessary. For example, section 19 opens with the line “But we are drunk with the false opinion of our own insight and are thus extremely reluctant to admit that it is utterly blind and stupid in divine matters.” Later, he equates Pelagianism with useless babble, stupidity, and ignorance. Since humans naturally gravitate to the Pelagian heresy, these words are still potent, timely, and prophetic today.
He closes this reading with some strongly worded scriptural exhortations. He writes that “Wherever the Spirit does not cast his light, all is darkness.” I especially loved his concluding statement:
“If we confess that we lack what we seek of God, and he by promising it proves our lack of it, no one should now hesitate to confess that he is able to understand God’s mysteries only in so far as he is illumined by God’s grace. He who attributes any more understanding to himself is all the more blind because he does not recognize his own blindness.”