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Calvin on Assuring Faith

May 30, 2008

In the following, Calvin sets out upon whom faith rests, what faith trusts in, and the assurance which this faith imparts. These aspects are inter-dependent in Calvin’s theology.1

Sermons:

1) For God must first have told us that he loveth us, or else we cannot rest upon his goodness, nor call upon him as our father. Now let us see what this promise is. God not only saith that he will have pity upon us, but also telleth us that although we be wretched sinners, yet he will not cease to accept us, because he burieth all our sins, namely by the means of our Lord Jesus Christ: for that sacrifice must needs come forth everywhere, where any mention is made of the forgiving of sins. Never can there be any pardon gotten at God’s hand, except there be bloodshedding with it for a satisfaction. So then the foundation of this promise where God saith that he will be merciful to us, is Christ’s shedding of his blood to wash away our spots, and his offering up of himself for a full amends, to pacify the wrath of God his father. Thus ye see how that if we be of faith, we have our eyes fastened upon Jesus Christ, and our rest and quietness is altogether in his death and passion, which is the only mean to reconcile us unto God. John Calvin, Sermons on Galatians. (New Jersey. Old Paths Publications, 1995), 3:7-9.

2) For it is very certain that the forefathers had the spirit of faith or belief, according as I have showed you already that Abraham was justified because he believed God, and that we also must be fashioned like to his example in that behalf, as whereby we be made his children to come to the kingdom of heaven. Then had faith his full strength at all times, and there was never any other means to set God and men at one: but yet was not the faith revealed in Abraham’s time, because our Lord Jesus Christ who is the very pledge and substance thereof, was not yet come into the world. Thus ye see how we be justified freely at this day, and without any desert of our own. And why is that? For he that believeth that Jesus Christ died for our sins, and is risen again for our justification: hath all the whole. And it is said in another place, (Romans 10:10) our believing in our heart maketh us righteous, and our confessing with our mouth maketh us safe. John Calvin, Sermons on Galatians. (New Jersey. Old Paths Publications, 1995), 3:21-25.

3) But I have showed you heretofore, that our believing in Jesus Christ is not as the crediting of some story when we hear it or read it, but a receiving and conceiving of him inwardly with full assuredness as he is offered us by God his father. Therefore when we embrace our Lord Jesus Christ, as the party that hath made amends [paid] for our sins to reconcile us to God, so as we repose the whole trust of our welfare in him, not doubting but that he hath brought us all that is for the inheriting of heaven: I say if we be once assured of that: it is no marvel though God acknowledge us as his children for our beliefs sake. John Calvin, Sermons on Galatians. (New Jersey. Old Paths Publications, 1995), 3:26-29.

4) Nevertheless to the end that this shortness be not darksome: I will declare it more at large. So long as we be in doubt whither God do love us or hate us, there will always be trouble and unquietness in our consciences, and we shall be as it were locked up in prison. So then there will be no freedom in our minds, till we know and be thoroughly persuaded that God is at one with us, and that he receiveth us into his favor and grace, though we be not worthy of it. But it is impossible for us to have any certainty of it, except we have our quittance always before our eyes, which was made us in the death and passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. Why so? For as I said afore, we be indebted unto God many ways, yea infinite ways. For we be bound to keep the law, and we break it a hundred times a day, yea even or ever we think of it. Again we offend even in gross faults. But howsoever we deal, we cannot assure ourselves of God’s love, unless we be discharged against him of the obligation of everlasting death wherein we stand bound. Now we attain that benefit when we be persuaded by the Gospel, that the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ was shed to wash away all our spots, and that his death is a sufficient sacrifice to appease God’s wrath, and to wipe out the remembrance of all our offenses and iniquities. Ye see then that the way to set us free, is to know that God receiveth us to mercy for our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, and that our faults and sins shall not hinder us to find favor always in his sight, or to have familiar access unto him, as children have unto their fathers. John Calvin, Sermons on Galatians. (New Jersey. Old Paths Publications, 1995), 5:1-3.

Commentaries:

This, he says, is the proper look of faith, to be fixed on Christ, in whom it beholds the breast of God filled with love: this is a firm and enduring support, to rely on the death of Christ as the only pledge of that love. The word only-begotten is emphatic (emphatokon), to magnify the fervor of the love of God towards us. For as men are not easily convinced that God loves them, in order to remove all doubt, he has expressly stated that we are so very dear to God that, on our account, he did not even spare his only-begotten Son. Since, therefore, God has most abundantly testified his love towards us, whoever is not satisfied with this testimony, and still remains in doubt, offers a high insult to Christ, as if he had been an ordinary man given up at random to death. Calvin, John 3:16.

Tracts:

1) What true faith is

We must not think that Christian faith is a pure and simple knowledge of God, or an understanding of the Scripture, which flutters about in the brain without touching the heart. That is the opinion we normally hold of things which are validated for us by some reason which sounds probable. Christian faith is, rather, a firm and solid assurance of the heart, by which we cling securely to the mercy of God which is promised to us through the gospel. Thus the definition of faith must be taken from what underlies the promise. And faith is so very much built on this foundation that it would immediately collapse, or, rather, completely vanish, if this foundation were taken away.

Hence when the Lord presents to us his mercy through the promise of the gospel, if we entrust our selves to him who made the promise; and if we do this with certainty and without any hesitation, it is then that we lay hold of his Word by faith.

And this definition is no different from that of the apostle, who teaches us that faith is the reality of the things we hope for, the expression of what we do not see (Heb. 11:1). By that, the apostle means a sure and certain possession of the things God promises, and a manifestation of things which are not physically visible that is to say, the eternal life which we hope to have by reason of our trust in this divine generosity which is given to us through the gospel. Now since all God’s promises are confirmed in Christ and, so to speak, kept and accomplished in him, it is clear that Christ is indisputably the perpetual object of faith. And it is in that object that faith contemplates all the riches of divine mercy. John Calvin, Truth for All Time, (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth, 1998), pp., 28-29.

Institutes:

1) But since man’s heart is not aroused to faith at every word of God, we must find out at this point what, strictly speaking, faith looks to in the Word. God’s word to Adam was, “You shall surely die” [Genesis 2:17]. God’s word to Cain was, “The blood of your brother cries out to me from the earth” [Genesis 4:10]. But these words are so far from being capable of establishing faith that they can of themselves do nothing but shake it. In the meantime, we do not deny that it is the function of faith to subscribe to God’s truth whenever and whatever and however it speaks. But we ask only what faith finds in the Word of the Lord upon which to lean and rest. Where our conscience sees only indignation and vengeance, how can it fail to tremble and be afraid? or to shun the God whom it dreads? Yet faith ought to seek God, not to shun him. It is plain, then, that we do not yet have a full definition of faith, inasmuch as merely to know something of God’s will is not to be accounted faith. But what if we were to substitute his benevolence or his mercy in place of his will, the tidings of which are often sad and the proclamation frightening? Thus, surely, we shall more closely approach the nature of faith; for it is after we have learned that our salvation rests with God that we are attracted to seek him. This fact is confirmed for us when he declares that our salvation is his care and concern. Accordingly, 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 grace alone the heart of man can rest.

On this basis the psalms commonly yoke these two, mercy and truth, as if they were mutually connected [Psalm 89:14, 24; 92:2; 98:3; 100:5; 108:4;115:l; etc.]; for it would not help us at all to know 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 with his word: “I have declared thy truth and thy salvation; I have not concealed thy goodness and thy truth…Let thy goodness and thy truth… preserve me” [Psalm 40:10-11, Comm.]. Another passage: “Thy mercy…extends to the heavens, thy truth to the clouds.” [Psalm 36:5, Comm.] Likewise: “All the ways of Jehovah are kindness and truth to those who keep his covenant.” [Psalm 25:10, Comm.] “For his mercy is multiplied upon us, and the truth of the Lord endures forever.” [Psalm 117:2; 116:2, Vg.; cf. Comm.] Again, “I will sing thy name for thy mercy and thy truth.” [Psalm 138:2.] I pass over what we read in the Prophets along the same line, that God is kind and steadfast in his promises. For it will be rash for us to decide that God is well disposed toward us unless he give witness of himself, and anticipate us by his call, that his will may not be doubtful or obscure. But we have already seen that the sole pledge of his love is Christ, without whom the signs of hatred and wrath are everywhere evident.

Now, the knowledge of God’s goodness will not be held very important unless it makes us rely on that goodness. Consequently, understanding mixed with doubt is to be excluded, as it is not in firm agreement, but in conflict, with itself. Yet far indeed is the mind of man, blind and darkened as it is, from penetrating and attaining even to perception of the will of God! And the heart, too, wavering as it is in perpetual hesitation, is far from resting secure in that conviction! Therefore our mind must be otherwise illumined and our heart strengthened, that the Word of God may obtain full faith among us. Now we shall possess a right definition of faith if we call it a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit. John Calvin, Institutes, 3.2.7.

2) We add the words “sure and firm” in order to express a more solid constancy of persuasion. For, as faith is not content with a doubtful and changeable opinion, so is it not content with an obscure and confused conception; but requires full and fixed certainty, such as men are wont to have from things experienced and proved. For unbelief is so deeply rooted in our hearts, and we are so inclined to it, that not without hard struggle is each one able to persuade himself of what all confess with the mouth: namely, that God is faithful. Especially when it comes to reality itself, every man’s wavering uncovers hidden weakness. And not without cause the Holy Spirit with such notable titles ascribes authority to the Word of God. He wishes to cure the disease I have mentioned so that among us God may obtain full faith in his promises. “The words of Jehovah are pure words,” says David, “silver melted in an excellent crucible of earth, purified seven times.” [Psalm 12:6, cf. Comm. and Psalm 11:7, Vg.] Likewise, “The Word of Jehovah is purified; it is a shield to all those who trust in him.” [Psalm 18:30, cf. Comm.] Solomon, moreover, confirms this very idea in almost identical words, “Every word of God is purified” [Proverbs 30:5]. But because almost the entire 119th Psalm is taken up with this proof, it would be superfluous to list more. Surely, as often as God commends his Word to us, he indirectly rebukes us for our unbelief, for he has no other intention than to uproot perverse doubts from our hearts.

Also, there are very many who so conceive God’s mercy that they receive almost no consolation from it. They are constrained with miserable anxiety at the same time as they are in doubt whether he will be merciful to them because they confine that very kindness of which they seem utterly persuaded within too narrow limits. For among themselves they ponder that it is indeed great and abundant, shed upon many, available and ready for all; but that it is uncertain whether it will even come to them, or rather, whether they will come to it. This reasoning, when it stops in mid-course, is only half. Therefore, it does not so much strengthen the spirit in secure tranquillity as trouble it with uneasy doubting. But there is a far different feeling of full assurance that in the Scriptures is always attributed to faith. It is this which puts beyond doubt God’s goodness clearly manifested for us [Colossians 2:2; 1 Thessalonians 1:5; cf. Hebrews 6:11 and 10:22]. But that cannot happen without our truly feeling its sweetness and experiencing it in ourselves. For this reason, the apostle derives confidence from faith, and from confidence, in turn, boldness. For he states: “Through Christ we have boldness and access with confidence which is through faith in him” [Ephesians 3:12 p., cf. Vg.]. c By these words he obviously shows that there is no right faith except when we dare with tranquil hearts to stand in God’s sight. This boldness arises only out of a sure confidence in divine benevolence and salvation. This is so true that the word “faith” is very often used for confidence. John Calvin, Institutes 3.2.15.

[to be continued]


1In all this, Calvin images his contemporaries exactly.

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