Tag Archives: John Calvin

Can We be Sure of our Election?

April 2018 Credo

Arguably, John Calvin’s doctrine of double predestination could be regarded as one of the most controversial dogmas in the Protestant Reformation in 16th Century Europe. Critics say that Calvin’s teaching made God into a tyrant who chose some to be saved and others to be damned.

Moreover, the 1559 edition of the Institutes of Christian Religion–Calvin’s final version following twenty-four years of revisions to this work–seem to reflect his concluding position on double predestination. Apparently, it only lends fuel to the fire of criticism against him.

The doctrine of double predestination, however, is more complex and multifaceted than its critics care to acknowledge. Moreover, Calvin’s position on the subject must be seen from a variety of situations beyond just the didactic context of the Institutes. Indeed, elsewhere through his commentaries and sermons, Calvin presents an assuring note to all who feared that God might just have appointed them to be damned rather than redeemed.

Hence, in this brief article, I wish to highlight from the less cited commentary on 1 Peter and the 1559 Institutes itself the other side of the picture in which Calvin sought to assure those who were gripped by fear about their eternal destiny. In this, I wish to demonstrate that a distinguishing hallmark in Calvin’s doctrine of election was the assurance he brings concerning the prospect of being chosen by God.

First off, we affirm Calvin’s clarification that our election “depends on nothing else but on God alone, for he of his own free will has chosen us.” – Comm. 1 Peter. This ought to engender in us humility and gratitude since we realize that apart from God’s election by grace, we would otherwise all perish in our sin.

But Calvin would go further to assure those who may waver in their confidence. He adds that “…all who are admitted by faith into the church, are to be counted as the elect; for God thus separates them from the world, which is a sign of election.” – Comm.1 Peter.

When you participate, by faith, in the confessions of a church, you may be counted as the elect.

That is not to say that it is our faith that precedes our election. It is, in fact, the reverse. Election precedes faith. That is to say, faith is a fruit of our election.

After all, Calvin’s definition of faith presents a picture of the triune God engendering faith in us: “a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of God’s given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” (Inst 3.2.7)

In it, we notice that the Holy Spirit seeks to reveal the promise given in Christ to our minds and seal it upon our hearts. In the process, the Holy Spirit unites us to Christ (Inst. 3.1.1), engenders faith in us, and helps us to recognize in God a benevolent Father rather than a fearsome Judge (Inst 3.11.1).

Not only so, the Holy Spirit works to sanctify us and leads us on to “cultivate blamelessness and purity of life” (3.11.1).

When we discover that God is treating us as his adopted children and disciplining us for our sanctification, we know inwardly that God has indeed elected us. Listen to Calvin’s assuring word here: “As far then as they proved that they were regenerated by the Spirit of God, so far did he deem them to be the elect of God, for God does not sanctify any but those whom he has previously elected.” – Comm. 1 Pet.

Our experience of being sanctified by the Holy Spirit bears testimony to this effect. Hear again Calvin’s reasoning: “notice the effect, by which he sets forth and bears witness to our election. That effect is the sanctification of the Spirit, even effectual calling, when faith is added to the outward preaching of the gospel, which faith is begotten by the inward operation of the Spirit.” – Comm. 1 Pet.

Further, the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit spurs us to a life of obedience to Christ. This manner of living would then be indicative that we are in fact elected by God. Notice how Calvin reasons about this in the Institutes: “the object of regeneration … is to manifest in the life of believers a harmony and agreement between God’s righteousness and their obedience, and thus confirm the adoption that they have received as sons [Gal. 4:5; cf. II Peter 1:10]” (3.6.1).

Again, it is not a blameless life that earns our adoption, but one that is the fruit of the certainty of our election. In reality, the heart’s knowledge that the Holy Spirit is working tirelessly for our sanctification spurs us on to let this doctrine permeate every aspect of our living.  “For, [as Calvin adds], it is a doctrine not of the tongue but of life. It is not apprehended by the understanding and memory alone, as other disciplines are, but it is received only when it possesses the whole soul, and finds a seat and resting place in the inmost affection of the heart” (3.6.4).

“[It] must enter our heart and pass into our daily living, and so transform us into itself that it may not be unfruitful for us” (3.6.4).

When this is happening, we receive in our hearts the Holy Spirit’s assurance that we are indeed the elect of God.

This then is the other side of Calvin’s word on double predestination. It is a word that assures and affirms.

Rev Jimmy Tan is lecturer of Pastoral and Practical Theology at Trinity Theological College and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in Singapore.

Ritual Matters

January 2018 Credo

Humans are ritual animals. Their deepest ideas and feelings are not just communicated in words, but more deeply in actions, signs and symbols. In fact, in many Asian societies, it’s mostly actions. Traditional Chinese and Japanese don’t say “I love you” to their wives and children, but they show their love through a variety of ritual actions.

The evangelical emphasis on “word” may actually deprive us of our capacity to express our faith more fully in word and ritual. We have tended to reduce the Christian faith to a set of principles like the “Four Spiritual Laws”.

It is not coincidental that the magisterial Reformers understand Word and Sacrament as constituting the church. John Calvin’s definition is perhaps representative: “Whenever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there…a church of God exists.”

The theology underlying this affirmation is the Incarnation. The Logos takes on human flesh. The glory of God is revealed in a way that we could see and touch. Christ in the flesh is the Sacrament of God; through him we can see and touch the God who is otherwise invisible. The Incarnation shows that material and spiritual are not inherently opposed as in Greek dualism, but that the physical can ‘contain’ the spiritual. It is in the context of sacramental theology that we can appreciate the importance of rites.

Sacred rites are not “add-ons”, something extraneous, used for illustrative purposes. This is the way a lot of exclusively word-centered Christians tend to understand rituals. For them, rites are merely visible words or object lessons.

The necessity of rites can be seen in the fact that there is always a gap between concepts and actual practice, not because our practice falls short of our grand theories and concepts, but quite the opposite: our concepts always fall short of actual practice. This is being increasingly recognized even in the practical fields of economics, management and social planning. No matter how well we plan and provide guidelines and procedures to cover as many scenarios as possible, they always fall short of what is actually practiced by people on the ground. Practices are more complex than what planners could anticipate.

Most of us living in housing estates in Singapore are familiar with the meticulous ways the estates are planned. But one thing that these planners seem to have failed time and again is in the layout of footpaths. Residents often don’t use them; instead, they find more efficient ways of getting around by creating their own well-trampled footpaths across lawns and fields. We could say that these residents, in their daily walking ‘rituals’, have instinctively found a better way of getting around that the planners could not foresee. Ordinary people have a kind of practical knowledge that no amount of planning could cover.

In the second half of the 20th century, a number of postmodern philosophers have highlighted the importance of practice. They have shown that there is an irreducible knowledge that comes from embodied practices which cannot come through verbal-rational expressions. Among them, I will highlight the theory of practice by Pierre Bourdieu.

Most of us tend to think that we start with thinking and follow it up with practice. Thus in traditional pedagogy, we often are told that we must first learn the theory and then apply it in practice. But Bourdieu says that practice itself is an irreducible, precognitive form of knowing, not just a consequence of prior thought. We see this, for instance, in the way children are socialized into a community. They begin by practicing speaking before they learn the grammar of speech.

Practice or bodily action and interaction is a way of knowing. Practice forms habits by which we make sense of our world. These acquired habits are formed unconsciously in cooperation with others in community. This is very much like the way the liturgy works. Orthodox Christians understand this truth well by not segregating worshippers according to age groups. Segregation (which is what many Protestant churches are doing as a matter of course) will inevitably result in the failure to socialize their children and youth into the church as a liturgical community.

In short, Bourdieu’s theory of practice implies that we are all liturgical animals. Rites form habits which shape our thought patterns and worldview.

Bourdieu’s theory of practice is especially important in our present world shaped by the IT revolution and the Internet. In the internet world, there are many practices shaping our thought-patterns and worldviews without our even being aware of it.

But the internet world is a jungle. There are the good, useful, even beautiful, but also the ugly, the flippant and the downright evil. All of these are accessible to anyone at their fingertips—literally.

Christian philosopher James K. A. Smith warns us that the seemingly innocent smartphone may be training us ritualistically to “a heretofore-unimagined level of intimacy with machines”. It unconsciously inducts users into the secular story that says “I am in charge,” and in the end they become “more like Milton’s Satan”. In Milton’s Paradise Lost, the poet had Satan holding a conference in hell and proclaiming: “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven!”

This is the kind of world that millions are inducted into via the Internet: “We are in control; we have the freedom to choose whatever we want to do, see and hear. What I feel is who I am.”

But the ‘freedom’ of the Internet comes at great cost: First, the new grammar of the Internet has so cut off its devotees from the literary traditions that they are no longer able to read the “great books” that represent the best of our human heritage, including the Bible. Second, with a largely under-developed capacity for face-to-face conversation, they have also lost the ability to engage deeply with others.

Rites do matter. But what kind of rites is the modern church inducting its members into in its segregated “contemporary” worship with its frivolous songs and flaky sermons? If the current generation of church leaders is sowing to the wind, the next generation will reap the whirlwind.

Rev Dr Simon Chan (PhD, Cambridge) had taught theology and other related subjects such as liturgical, spiritual, Pentecostal, and Third World theologies at Trinity Theological College for 27 years. His most recent publication is Grassroots Asian Theology: Thinking the Faith from the Ground Up (IVP Academic, 2014).