Book 3 - Chapter 3 (Parts 1-3)
In this chapter Calvin offers us a thorough examination of repentance; what it means, how it works, and where it comes from being among the topics. You will find a definition of repentance about midway through this article.
Summary: Calvin begins by stating that repentance is a byproduct of faith. “Now both repentance and forgiveness of sins - that is, newness of life…are conferred on us by Christ, and both are attained by us through faith…now it ought to be a fact beyond controversy that repentance not only constantly follows faith, but is born of faith” (pg. 592-3). This belief is one which sets Calvin apart from most Baptist traditions. In those traditions, a person repents (turns to God) and only then does God create faith. Calvin rejects this view because he believes that a person “cannot apply himself seriously to repentance without knowing himself to belong to God” (pg. 594). In other words, it is God who loves us, calls us, gives us faith and only then causes us to turn to God (repentance). Otherwise, Calvin believes that our repentance would only be temporary because it does not have God as its foundation.
Repentance, for Calvin, consists of two parts, mortification and vivification. Mortification is what happens when we realize that many of our choices are sinful; that they violate God’s desires for our lives. This realization causes us to become “displeased” with ourselves and then to desire to become new people (pg. 595). Vivification on the other hand occurs when a person “…looks to the goodness of God - to his mercy, grace, salvation which is through Christ (and then) …raises himself up, takes heart, recovers courage, and as it were, returns from death to life” (pg. 595). Vivification then, is both the process of becoming a new person and the experiencing of the joy one feels in that transformational process.
Next, Calvin offers a definition of repentance. He explains that the Hebrew word for repentance can mean “conversion” or “return” (pg. 597). The Greek word for repentance means “a change of mind or intention” (pg. 597). Calvin puts these concepts together such that repentance occurs when “…departing from ourselves, we turn to God…” and lead “…a life that demonstrates and testifies in all actions a repentance of this sort” (pg. 597-8). Repentance then is both a change of life orientation (away from self-centeredness and toward God) and a change of actions (doing those things that please God rather than those things that please only ourselves).
This definition can be expanded in three areas. First when Calvin speaks of turning to God he states that “We require a transformation, not only in outward work, but in the soul itself” (pg. 598). The inner transformation is required because it is only when our hearts have been made new/reoriented that we can truly connect with God and become new people. Second, repentance proceeds “…from an earnest fear of God” (pg. 599). Calvin was a firm believer that all persons will one day be judged by God. Therefore, human beings will want to orient their lives (repent) in such a way that the judgment of God will be in their favor. Third, Calvin reminds us that mortification is of the flesh and vivification is of the Spirit. The flesh Calvin refers to is not the body, but an attitude of self-centeredness; so mortification reminds us that our self-centeredness displeases God. The work of the Spirit “…so imbues our souls, steeped in his holiness, with both new thoughts and feelings, that we can rightly be considered new” (pg. 600). Vivification causes us to become renewed people through fully experiencing the love of God.
Reflections: Any of us who have played sports know when we have a good coach. We know we have a good coach when that coach is willing to point out our weaknesses and then help us work to correct them; all without kicking us off the team. This is what God does for us. God points out to us where we have left the road to life and then helps us get back on it.
In this chapter Calvin offers us a thorough examination of repentance; what it means, how it works, and where it comes from being among the topics.
Summary: in the last article we learned that for Calvin, faith is the foundation of repentance, that repentance is turning from self-centeredness to God, that repentance requires an inner transformation and that repentance has two parts, mortification (we see that we need repentance) and vivification (we are transformed).
We pick up the discussion as Calvin explains that both mortification and vivification take place because of our “participation in Christ” (pg. 600). Calvin explains that because of our faith in Christ our old self has been crucified by Christ’s power and our self-centeredness begins to perish. In addition, because we share in Christ’s resurrection, we have been “…raised up into the newness of life…” (pg. 601). Thus repentance can also be referred to as regeneration “…whose sole end is to restore in us the image God that has been disfigured and all but obliterated through Adam’s transgression” (pg. 601). He reminds us however that this regeneration is not complete in an instant but continues through a slow and steady progression in which God renews “…minds to true purity that they may practice repentance…throughout their lives” (pg. 601). Calvin concludes this section with this wonderful statement. “In order that believers might reach this goal (having the image of Christ shine in them), God assigns to them a race of repentance, which they are to run throughout their lives” (pg. 601-2).
The reason for having a lifelong race of repentance is that even when believers repent and are changed more and more into the likeness of God in Christ, they still remain sinners (meaning we can never be perfect). Calvin puts it this way. “Thus, then, are the children of God freed through regeneration from bondage to sin. Yet they do not obtain full possession of freedom so as to feel no more annoyance from their flesh, but there still remains in them a continuing occasion for struggle…” (pg. 602). While this may seem a bit depressing, that we have to continually struggle to do what is right, Calvin reminds us that sin has lost its dominion within us so that progress is possible.
Within the church, both in Calvin’s time and our own, there have been and continue to be those who claim that perfection is possible; that if we simply allow the Spirit to guide us we will always do what is right. As noted above, Calvin doesn’t agree with this. He doesn’t agree with it because all around him he watches as Christians continue to do what is evil, even though he believes the Spirit to be in them. The Spirit, for Calvin, while it helps us to leave behind those sins that hold us back from following God, cannot keep us on the right path by itself (pg. 607). Instead, it is our task, working with the Spirit, to “…watch with intent minds…” for those things that will move us away from and not toward God (pg. 607). And along the way we are to continually examine ourselves to see how well we are following.
At this point Calvin walks a fine line. On the one hand he asserts that when we examine ourselves we will experience “…shame, confusion, groaning, displeasure with self and other emotions that arise out of a lively recognition of sin” (pg. 608). On the other hand, he warns his readers that they are to examine themselves with “…restraint, lest sorrow engulf…” them (pg. 609). In other words, we are to regularly examine our lives in order to see where we are falling short of God’s desires for us, and yet we are to always do so remembering that we are beloved of and chosen by God.
Reflections: In some ways God faces the same difficulties as parents. We want our children to makes good choices, and to correct them when they don’t. When we correct them, we want them to know the serious nature of their poor choices, but at the same time, we do not want crush their spirits so that they lose all hope of being better. This is what God does with us. God, because God loves us, wants us to see where we are failing, only so that we can correct our ways and return to the right way, to the way of life.
In the last two articles, we learned that for Calvin, faith is the foundation of repentance, that repentance is turning from self-centeredness to God, that repentance requires an inner transformation, that repentance has two parts, mortification (we see that we need repentance) and vivification (we are transformed), that repentance is a life-long process and that repentance is always to be seen as a movement toward a loving God. In this chapter Calvin offers us a thorough examination of repentance; what it means, how it works, and where it comes from being among the topics.
Summary: Calvin continues his discussion of repentance by examining inward and outward repentance. Inward repentance is described as the change of our hearts from self-centeredness to God-centeredness. This process is essential for the author, “…nothing is achieved unless we begin from the inner disposition of the heart” (pg. 610). He quotes the prophet Joel, “Rend your hearts and not your garments” (Joel 2:13) as the Biblical basis for his belief. As he discusses this inward transformation, Calvin cautions his readers not to put too much stock in the spiritual exercises used by the Roman Church as means to bring about this inward transformation. Many of these spiritual exercises were physically painful (walking miles and miles on one’s knees to a shrine or self-flagellation, as examples). While these may be helpful Calvin says that the church should show more gentleness in helping people achieve inner transformation (pg. 610).
In particular Calvin focuses on weeping and fasting, two common practices of his day. Again, while these may be appropriate in some instances, he does not want people to substitute these for true rending of the heart (pg. 611). He does so because the temptation is to substitute an outward act for inward repentance; or to confuse the two. Instead he encourages people to private confession. “Now while it is not always necessary to make men open and conscious witnesses of our repentance (public confession in church), yet to confess to God privately is part of true repentance that cannot be omitted” (pg. 612). The gift of God in repentance is that it is God’s way of helping us become more and more like Christ, not only through inner transformation but through forgiveness.
Calvin states that the entire Gospel can be summed up under two headings, “repentance and forgiveness of sins” (pg. 613). Through repentance we make ourselves open to the love and grace of Christ, which then comes to use through forgiveness. That forgiveness, which is a free gift of God, allows us to be “engrafted into the life and death of Christ” (pg. 615) and thus further transformed. Calvin puts it this way, “For obviously God, renewing those he wills not to perish, shows the sign of his fatherly favor and, so to speak, draws them to himself with the rays of his calm and joyous countenance” (pg. 616).
Finally, Calvin deals with the issue of the unforgiveable sin. This concept is referred to in both the Gospels and the Letter to the Hebrews. This unforgiveable sin is not simply committing a heinous act. Instead it is the act of knowing the love of God in Christ, and the life to which that love calls us, then rejecting that and standing defiantly against it. In other words, it is a conscious rejection of the forgiveness of God when it is freely offered. Calvin writes, “Those who cannot be forgiven are those who cannot (bring themselves to) repent” (pg. 620).
Reflections: Fake it till you make it. This was one of the great phrases of all time. It is a call to living our way into a new reality, even when we do not believe that we can. It is a call to practice what we know we are supposed to be and do until those things come naturally. In some ways, this is the faith works. When faith becomes a reality in our lives and we become new people, we seldom leave behind all our old ways and habits. By practicing our faith, it can and does become real within us. It goes from being “faking it” to “making it” an inner disposition of the heart.