Mar 18, 2009

Calvin - Faith & John's Gospel

The following are some more citations from John Calvin on pertinent verses in the Gospel of John dealing with the controversy over the relation of faith to regeneration that show he believed it was scriptural to affirm that sinners are born again or begotten of God by faith in the gospel. There are some important remarks made by Calvin on the "ordo salutis," in his commentary on the Gospel of John, particularly on his comments on John 1: 12, 13.

It is from his comments on these verses that the Hyper Calvinists attempt to identify Calvin with those, like themselves, who believe that regeneration occurs, and is completed, prior to one believing in or receiving Christ, or being joined to him by faith. Thus, I will make most of my comments of Calvin's comments concerning those particular words.

On John 1: 12. 13 Calvin wrote this in his Commentary:

"But to as many as received him. That none may be retarded by this stumbling-block, that the Jews despised and rejected Christ, the Evangelist exalts above heaven the godly who believe in him; for he says that by faith they obtain this glory of being reckoned the sons of God."

This is clear and without ambiguity. Here he affirms that it is "by faith" that sinners "obtain this glory" of becoming or "being reckoned" as the "sons of God." He did not teach that one obtained the status of children of God before faith, but after it. How do we become the children or sons of God? Is it not by birth or regeneration? And, is this not, according to Calvin and scripture, "by faith"?

Calvin says:

"But if faith regenerates us, so that we are the sons of God, and if God breathes faith into us from heaven, it plainly appears that not by possibility only, but actually — as we say — is the grace of adoption offered to us by Christ."

Here Calvin clearly is not denying that it is scriptural and appropriate to affirm that sinners are regenerated by faith, become his children by faith. Of course, this is in keeping with the words of Paul to the Galatians - "for you are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus." (3: 27)

Calvin wrote:

"Who believe in his name. He expresses briefly the manner of receiving Christ, that is, believing in him. Having been engrafted into Christ by faith, we obtain the right of adoption, so as to be the sons of God. And, indeed, as he is the only-begotten Son of God, it is only so far as we are members of him that this honor at all belongs to us."

This is Calvin's consistent position on the "ordo salutis." He puts union with Christ by faith ahead of all the blessings of salvation, be it the divine begetting or regeneration, or pardon and justification, or sanctification or perseverence to final salvation.

Calvin writes:

"Christ, therefore, offers himself to us by the Gospel, and we receive him by faith."

That is very clear. What results from this union with Christ "by faith," according to Calvin?

Calvin says:

"Hence it follows, first, that faith does not proceed from ourselves, but is the fruit of spiritual regeneration; for the Evangelist affirms that no man can believe, unless he be begotten of God; and therefore faith is a heavenly gift. It follows, secondly, that faith is not bare or cold knowledge, since no man can believe who has not been renewed by the Spirit of God."

Here is a part of Calvin's comments, on John 1: 10-13, wherein some attempt to affirm that Calvin believed that regeneration preceded faith. Is Calvin affirming this? Is he taking the Hyperist view? I must confess that if I only had this citation, and no others, from the great spokesman for Calvinism, then I would agree that he believed that men were born again prior to faith and repentance.

The most we can say about Calvin is that he could endorse either way of stating the matter. He could as easily affirm that men were born again by faith as to say they were born to faith. Notice these further remarks.

"It may be thought that the Evangelist reverses the natural order by making regeneration to precede faith, whereas, on the contrary, it is an effect of faith, and therefore ought to be placed later. I reply, that both statements perfectly agree; because by faith we receive the incorruptible seed, (1 Peter 1:23,) by which we are born again to a new and divine life."

First, let us ask these questions - "what does Calvin think is the 'natural order' in regard to the 'ordo salutis'?" By "natural order," does he mean the ordinary, common, scriptural order? What does he think is the "natural" or usual "order"? Is it not that faith is most often said to precede regeneration in scripture and that the reverse is the exception? A thing, I might add, is what I have affirmed here in the Gadfly.

Calvin argues in this statement the same way I have reasoned with Ligon Duncan and others who insist the regeneration precedes faith and who say that to deny it contradicts basic Calvinism and is "dangerous" to the life of the Christian. He argued that regeneration is by faith BECAUSE by faith we receive the word that begets! This is Calvin's view as being the ordinary way it is presented in holy scripture.

Calvin realized that if one believed that gospel truth was a means in regeneration, or in the inception of spiritual life, then one must agree that it is proper to say that one is born again by faith. For to say that one is born again by the gospel is the same as saying that one is born again by believing it. This Calvin understood. Today's "Reformed" crowd, represented by Tom Ascol, James White, Ligon Duncan, R. C. Sproul, etc., however, do not understand this. Some of these men I have asked directly to tell me how the gospel is a means in regeneration unless it is believed. They are silent as the grave. They run from this question, except for the few who, like John Hendryx of, "shell down the corn" and affirm that regeneration, at least in its initial stage, the one wherein the sinner becomes spiritually "alive," is WITHOUT THE MEANS OF GOSPEL TRUTH! They are like, as I have said, the Old Hardshells and Regular Baptists who, like some among the Presbyterians, taught that the divine "begetting" was different from the "birth" or "deliverance," allowing that the first is "without means," but the second is with means. In this they follow in the tradition of men like Abraham Kuyper and William Perkins.

John Calvin did not believe in such nonsense. He did not believe that the begetting was separate and distinct from the birthing. He did not allow anyone to be regenerated or born again apart from the gospel and faith in it.

Calvin says both statements or propositions may be shown to be in agreement. I also agree with this statement. But, the question is, how do we make them to agree? How did Calvin make them to agree?

Calvin then says, as a caveat, as it were, this:

"And yet faith itself is a work of the Holy Spirit, who dwells in none but the children of God. So then, in various respects, faith is a part of our regeneration, and an entrance into the kingdom of God, that he may reckon us among his children. The illumination of our minds by the Holy Spirit belongs to our renewal, and thus faith flows from regeneration as from its source; but since it is by the same faith that we receive Christ, who sanctifies us by his Spirit, on that account it is said to be the beginning of our adoption."

"Faith is a part of our regeneration"! This is in keeping with what Luther also taught, as I have shown in this blog. It is what I also have affirmed constantly. It is what Abraham Booth and Charles Spurgeon taught. Thus, if faith is a part of our regeneration, then it is not proper to say that men are regenerated BEFORE faith, for as I have said, this would be like a tautology, like saying "regenerated before regeneration."

But, notice that after having affirmed regeneration by faith, he then reverses the order, showing he could accept it being stated either way, although he preferred the ordinary way. He says that "faith flows from regeneration as from its source." Again, I have allowed, in my own writings here, that this is sometimes the way it is stated in scripture, such as when Peter says we are "begotten unto a living hope" (or "begotten unto faith and repentance"). I have said that we should equate "begotten to faith" with "begotten to life."

Calvin apparently would disagree with Duncan and others who say that putting regeneration prior to faith is the heart of the gospel and that a denial of it is dangerous to Christians! Calvin would be totally opposed to him in this thinking.

Calvin writes:

"Another solution, still more plain and easy, may be offered; for when the Lord breathes faith into us, he regenerates us by some method that is hidden and unknown to us; but after we have received faith, we perceive, by a lively feeling of conscience, not only the grace of adoption, but also newness of life and the other gifts of the Holy Spirit. For since faith, as we have said, receives Christ, it puts us in possession, so to speak, of all his blessings. Thus so far as respects our sense, it is only after having believed — that we begin to be the sons of God."

Again, when does the Lord regenerate the sinner, according to Calvin? Is it not "WHEN the Lord breathes faith into us, he regenerates us"? Why did he not put it in the Hyperist manner and say -"when the Lord regenerates us, we are able to believe"? Further, he ends this section with the words that affirm that it is faith that puts us into every spiritual blessing, including regeneration, because it is what unites us first to Christ.

On John 5:24 Calvin wrote:

"So great is our depravity that we choose rather to perish of our own accord than to surrender ourselves to obey the Son of God, that we may be saved by his grace. Both, therefore, are here included by Christ — the robe of devout and sincere worship which he requires from us, and the method by which he restores us to life. For it would not be sufficient to understand what he formerly taught, that he came to raise the dead, unless we also knew the manner in which he restores us to life. Now he affirms that life is obtained by hearing his word, and by the word hearing he means faith, as he immediately afterwards declares. But faith has its seat not in the ears, but in the heart. Whence faith derives so great power, we have formerly explained. We ought always to consider what it is that the Gospel offers to us; for we need not wonder that he who receives Christ with all his merits is reconciled to God, and acquitted of the condemnation of death; and that he who has received the gift of the Holy Spirit is clothed with a heavenly righteousness, that he may walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:6.)"

John 20: 31

"That believing, you may have life. This effect of faith was also added, to restrain the foolish longings of men, that they may not desire to know more than what is sufficient for obtaining life. For what obstinacy was it, not to be satisfied with eternal salvation, and to wish to go beyond the limits of the heavenly kingdom? Here John repeats the most important point of his doctrine, that we obtain eternal life by faith, because, while we are out of Christ, we are dead, and we are restored to life by his grace alone. On this subject we have spoken largely enough in our exposition of the Third and Fifth Chapters of this Gospel."

These words do not need much comment. They show that Calvin did not object to saying that it is ordinarily the best way to state the matter to say that men are begotten or regenerated by faith. I am in line with Calvin and his modern day "refiners" should not seek to improve upon what needed no refinement.


Bruce Oyen said...

Stephen, you have done a good job establishing from Calvin's writings what he thought on this subject. I have a question related to it: did Calvin ever state when he got saved? We from Gospel preaching churches are accustomed to hearing someone say something like, "I was saved at a revival meeting, when I was 21 years old." Or, "I got saved at home, when I was 9 years old. My mother led me to the Lord."

Stephen Garrett said...

Dear Bruce:

I think Calvin was saved while in law school, or shortly after attending law school, when he was about 24 years old. I don't remember the exact circumstances of his conversion. But, he went to work fast and had major writings put out within a few years of being converted.

Thanks for the encouraging words. I wonder what Pastor Duncan thinks of them?

God bless