Saturday, 17 January 2009

Two Priorities for 2009

2009 contains several important anniversaries and I will comment briefly on two of them.

Firstly, 500 years ago saw the birth of John Calvin, one of the most significant characters in the history of the world. His influence has been great in the development of economic practice and political theories, especially in the content of what is meant by democratic freedom. Whether societies in the western world will acknowledge in 2009 his contribution in these areas remains to be seen. Of course, his influence was far greater within the Christian church of which he was a leading Reformer at the time of the Reformation. 

There is no doubt that God raised up Calvin for this important role and equipped him with the particular gifts that enabled him to fulfil his calling. There is not space here to detail his contribution to the church – it includes his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion (a book explaining Protestant doctrine), commentaries on most of the books of the Bible, various other writings on aspects of worship, and the roots of modern-day Presbyterianism. Calvin was a spiritual giant for whom millions have been grateful to God.

Secondly, 150 years ago saw the last worldwide revival. What took place in 1859 in North America and Britain is described in many books which detail the rise, growth and decline of an amazing spiritual movement that saw thousands, if not millions, of sinners brought into the kingdom of God. Yet while we should be thankful for that wonderful movement of the Spirit, it should sober us to realise that there has not been a similar one since then. Of course, there have been many spiritual awakenings in different places, but there has not been a comparable revival, at least in the Western world, for 150 years. (There may have been a similar movement in China during the communist period.)

Is there a combined application of the anniversaries of the birth of Calvin and the 1859 revival? Yes, there is. Each of them highlights what is urgently needed in the Christian church in the West. We need God-given and God-gifted leaders such as Calvin to direct the church through the morass that marks our sinful society and we need God-given revival that will so recover the church and elevate it once again to heights of spiritual experience that will transform our society. It should be our aim in 2009 to pray that God will raise up such leaders and give such a revival.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Knowing God and knowing myself

This morning I was looking at my library shelves in my study with my usual sense of guilt and despair at realising once again that I have read only a fraction of the volumes on them. In particular my eye rested on the large number of books by and about Calvin that rest on the top shelf. Their location does not indicate I regard him as the best (which I do); merely it is the shelf which can take most books. So I have decided to spend 2009 aiming to read as many of these Calvin titles as I can. I have worked out that if I read one book a week, I'll read them all in 2009 (if you think about these two clauses, they do not say how many Calvin titles I have). I'm also going to re-read his Institutes (in the Beveridge edition).

In his various forewords to his Institutes, Calvin states that he provided in his work an easy introduction for pastors to master in order to be better equipped to study the Bible. I'm sure most authors think their works are easy to understand! However, Calvin's point that we understand a Biblical passage through accurate theology is a far better approach than coming to a passage without it and having to rediscover doctrines every time.

I began to read the first chapter of the Institutes and was soon puzzled; in fact, by the first word in Beveridge, 'our'. Whom does Calvin mean by this pronoun? Is it all people or is it professing Christians? I read on and noted that those whom he describes as 'our' are those who have come to a true knowledge of themselves (they are sinners) and possess a true fear of God. So Calvin must be referring to professing Christians. I suppose that if I had recalled that Calvin followed the arrangement of the Apostles Creed while composing his Institutes, then I would not have had to spend time wondering about his use of the little word 'our'.

While it is possible to work up from our poverty and lack of spiritual blessings to God's rich resources, Calvin says that the best preparation for discovering who we are is first of all to consider who God is. Realising his perfection removes from us any thoughts of our own goodness and capabilities that we may have imagined we had.

This realisation leads to Calvin's emphasis which is that such an awareness (of his perfection and our imperfection) by a Christian always results in experiencing a healthy fear (almost terror) of such a God. Calvin is saying that true thoughts of God must lead to a sense of the great differences there are between him and his creatures. Isaiah 6 every day.

I'm sure that I realised these details before when I read the work previously. But it was good to be reminded of them. Despite learning lots of theology, I am still ignorant in contrast to God; despite experiencing many features of his grace, I am still prone to think far too much of myself and not highly enough of God, of who he is and about what he has promised to do. Isaiah's response, exemplified as well by Job and many others in the Bible, is the appropriate one. Knowledge of God and knowledge of myself enables meaningful adoration of God and humble confession of sin and its effects.