"The Call to Witness": a Sermon by John Calvin

"The Call to Witness" represents Calvin's exposition of 2 Timothy 1:8-9, which reads as follows in the ESV: "Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began. . . ." In his exposition, Calvin encourages and challenges Christians to preach the Gospel despite threat of persecution or discomfort. He emphasizes God's care for us, that God strengthens us and is powerful and faithful to us. Several times Calvin underscores God's goodness, particularly in His choosing to save helpless sinners; and so we are. Echoing Paul's words in the passage above (and in Ephesians 1:4ff and 2:8-9), Calvin declares that God's calling of us to salvation was merely because of His grace and purpose, not any consideration of our works or dignity. Calvin states: "God never went farther than Himself, when He chose us to salvation. For He saw that there was nothing but condemnation in us: therefore He contented Himself, by mere grace and infinite mercy, to look upon our misery, and help us; although we were not worthy." So in this sermon, we have an ironic but biblical message: God in His goodness elected us to salvation, and we ought to share the Gospel; for He will help us and take care of us, and it would be unthankfulness on our part not to share the Gospel.

I say that this is an ironic message because many have claimed that the Calvinist doctrine of election precludes evangelism. But the title and content of Calvin's sermon highlight the importance of evangelism even while he preaches that God has chosen people to salvation. He says: "If the gospel be not preached, Jesus Christ is, as it were, buried. Therefore, let us stand as witnesses, and do Him this honor, when we see all the world so far out of the way. . . ." Indeed, as Paul writes in Romans 10:14-17 (ESV), "How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, 'How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!' But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, 'Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?' So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ." Calvin stands with Paul in promoting evangelism.

Revel in the grace of God, and do not be ashamed of it. Consider Calvin's words in "The Call to Witness": "It is true, God calleth us at this day, but His election goeth before; yea, and God chose us without any respect to our works, as we could have done nothing before: but we are debtors to Him for all; for He drew us out of the bottomless pit of destruction, wherein we were cast, and past all hope of recovery. Therefore, there is good reason for us to submit ourselves wholly to Him, and rely upon His goodness, and be thoroughly ravished with it."


Grenz on Postmodernism and Christianity

In A Primer on Postmodernism, Stanley J. Grenz does something that I've never seen before in Evangelical philosophical discussions: he recognizes postmodernism's value to Christianity. I'm not saying that this never happens; but usually in Evangelical critiques of postmodernism, it is simply dismissed as self-refuting (which it is). Grenz lays out where Christians can agree with postmodernism and where they must disagree. He says that Christians can agree with postmodernism that modernism espouses too optimistic a view about human reason and the progress of knowledge (especially in science) and that the modernist emphasis on the individual, neutral, objective observer of the world is problematic. Christians believe that human reason is tainted by the sinful human will, whereas postmodernists distrust reason and point to the influence of one's community (and language) on the individual. The results of recent scientific discoveries highlight the double-edged sword that is knowledge: the splitting of the atom led to nuclear waste and threats of nuclear war. Grenz observes, moreover, that the postmodern shift in focus back to one's role in the community should be welcome in Evangelical Christianity, which, through modernism, has tended to focus too much on the individual knower having right beliefs and not enough on having a loving community.

Grenz draws a sharp line in the sand between Christianity and postmodernism when it comes to views on truth and reality. He notes that the postmodernist claim that there is no overarching narrative of humankind flatly opposes Christianity's assertion that the stories of each people group fit within a larger narrative that is centered on Jesus Christ and God's plan of redemption. Grenz also says that Christians ultimately do not share postmodernism's skepticism concerning reason. He realizes how Christianity has benefited from modernism's intellectual progress, even though human use of reason has sometimes led people away from Christ. He cites Pascal in noting the limits of human use of reason in matters of faith.


God, Reason, and the Passions

"[I]n Scripture, God Himself is said to be angry without implying the least movement of passion. The word 'anger' is used because God's vengeance is effective, not because His nature is affective." -- Augustine, City of God, Book IX, Chapter 5

There has been some concern over whether God is affected by things outside Himself. If God's "emotions" are exactly like our emotions (the passions), then God changes and lacks sovereignty over all things. Our emotions toss us to and fro and affect our mental state. We can learn to control them with reason, but doing so is a struggle of the will. Considering God's eternal and infinite nature, it seems contradictory to say that God struggles to keep His passions under control, because this would imply that God is limited in His reason and His sovereignty by His passions. It would be saying that God is eternally conflicted.

Augustine points out a fundamental difference between God's "emotions" and our emotions. God's "emotions" are proactive, not reactive. God acts by reason in accordance with His own nature. So when we read that the Holy Spirit can be grieved over our sin (Isaiah 63:10; Ephesians 4:30), we must keep in mind that God is holy and always hates sin, as sin is opposed to His nature. God is being (eternally) consistent.


Bonhoeffer on Confession

In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer provides a treatise on the virtues of confessing our sins to one another. The practice, he argues, is vital to the Christian life and adds tremendously to the fellowship of believers; for in confession, Christians admit to one another that they are sinners in need of grace, and they shine light on their sin, which desperately desires to stay hidden (or at least we seek to keep it so).

Confession benefits the Christian in many ways, according to Bonhoeffer. First, it reveals sin in order to sanctify the sinner. Second, it enhances the fellowship of believers because it highlights the fact that no Christian is the only one struggling with sin; we are all in a fierce spiritual battle, and we can encourage each other in the fight. Third, it uplifts the sinner, for the one hearing the confession is a sinner himself, and can deeply sympathize with the one confessing. (Of course, Christ, too, can sympathize with us, as He took on humanity in the Incarnation and thus experienced for Himself human weaknesses and lusts. See Hebrews 4:14-15. I am surprised that Bonhoeffer did not mention this.)

Bonhoeffer goes on to address some misconceptions and malpractices concerning confession. He starts with the point that confession to fellow sinners should be easier than confession to God, who is holy and pure and the just judge of all evil. Fellow sinners saved by grace are a blessing of God to Christians for help in the midst of sin, as co-strugglers. We can boldly approach God, who loves us as we are and forgives us by His grace; but we can approach fellow Christians even more boldly, as they have experienced temptation and sin themselves. Next, he warns against mere self-absolution in the private confession of our sins to God. (Are we just clearing the record for our own satisfaction?) Also, Bonhoeffer stresses that the one who hears confession ought to practice it himself -- because he may otherwise become overburdened or even power-struck with his knowledge. The one who hears confession must humble herself and commiserate with the fellow sinner. Last, those who confess must keep in mind the gravity of what they are doing; confession is a striving toward sanctification, not an empty act of piety or a mindless duty.

"Therefore, confess your sins to one another. . . ." -- James 5:16a


Childlike or Childish?

Sometimes I need to be reminded that my stoic rationalism is unholy. Lest I be decieved that my melancholy should be equated with righteousness or realism, I sometimes need an electric shock to my system reminding me that am to become like a child. I was never much of a fiction or fantasy person. I would much rather sit down with a theoretical work. But in my old age (my thirties), I have been gravitating to more stories, and I think it is because I am finding in them much deeper and more lasting truths than in any exposition I could read. Recently, on a long drive from RI to AZ, I was able to "listen" to several good ded peepl. Here they are as my recommendations to you, who struggle, as I do, with stoicism, with taking yourself to seriously, with being too mature. A little something thing to remind you that becoming childlike might also mean becoming a little more childish.

Manalive G.K. Chesterton. I know! It's like a broken record for me, but I think I can safely say that this book in some way has saved my life. I think this one needs to be a yearly read for me.

The Golden Key George MacDonald. A lesson in yearning from the fairy land, where two children find themselves on a quest to find the land "from whence the shadows fall"

The Shadows George MacDonald. You may never look at a shadow the same.

Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass Lewis Carroll. Refresh the wonder of a world seen through a child's eyes.


A Reminder of the Blessings of Christian Fellowship

In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer elaborates upon the joy and grace that God gives us through common life with other Christians. I agree with him, but with reservations. I know that I enjoy fellowship with my brothers and sisters in Christ. I have fond memories of church potlucks, college Bible study groups, and lengthy discussions with pastors of mine (including Brett; we miss you here). I do find joy in meeting people at work who share my faith in Christ. But I have also experienced, witnessed, and heard of many instances of Christian cannibalism -- of Christians "eating" their own when they don't get their way in church affairs, when they disagree with other Christians, and when they view other Christians' lifestyles as out of the scope of Christian liberty.

Such disunity and animosity among Christians is, as Francis Schaeffer puts it in The Mark of the Christian, "ugly." It's a festering wound on the bride of Christ; and we must dress it before he returns.

And the cure is love.

Remember to love the unworthy of love. Remember to forgive the unworthy of forgiveness; for such are we before God. Sin makes it hard to get along with church people; but in Christ we can have victory over sin.


Resurrection and the Source of the Tyrant's Power

Here is another great reason why I wish people red mor ded peepl. This is a passage from 2 Maccabees. Now, regardless of questions of historicity, canonicity, and so on; it illustrates a theology of resurrection (not disembodied afterlife) alive in Judaism before Jesus and Christianity. In fact, it is illustrative of a belief in bodily resurrection, which would become foundational to the Christian proclamation and hope. The fear of death is the secret to the tyrant's power. This is a moving passage illustrating how the hope of resurrection fueled the courage of faithful martyrs in the face of torture and death. (This story is set within the Jewish revolt against Antiochus IV Epiphanes.)

It happened also that seven brothers and their mother were arrested and were being compelled by the king, under torture with whips and thongs, to partake of unlawful swine’s flesh. One of them, acting as their spokesman, said, “What do you intend to ask and learn from us? For we are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors.”

The king fell into a rage, and gave orders to have pans and cauldrons heated. These were heated immediately, and he commanded that the tongue of their spokesman be cut out and that they scalp him and cut off his hands and feet, while the rest of the brothers and the mother looked on. When he was utterly helpless, the king ordered them to take him to the fire, still breathing, and to fry him in a pan. The smoke from the pan spread widely, but the brothers and their mother encouraged one another to die nobly, saying, “The Lord God is watching over us and in truth has compassion on us, as Moses declared in his song that bore witness against the people to their faces, when he said, ‘And he will have compassion on his servants.’”

After the first brother had died in this way, they brought forward the second for their sport. They tore off the skin of his head with the hair, and asked him, “Will you eat rather than have your body punished limb by limb?” He replied in the language of his ancestors and said to them, “No.” Therefore he in turn underwent tortures as the first brother had done. And when he was at his last breath, he said, “You accursed wretch, you dismiss us from this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws.”

After him, the third was the victim of their sport. When it was demanded, he quickly put out his tongue and courageously stretched forth his hands, and said nobly, “I got these from Heaven, and because of his laws I disdain them, and from him I hope to get them back again.” As a result the king himself and those with him were astonished at the young man’s spirit, for he regarded his sufferings as nothing.

After he too had died, they maltreated and tortured the fourth in the same way. When he was near death, he said, “One cannot but choose to die at the hands of mortals and to cherish the hope God gives of being raised again by him. But for you there will be no resurrection to life!”

Next they brought forward the fifth and maltreated him. But he looked at the king, and said, “Because you have authority among mortals, though you also are mortal, you do what you please. But do not think that God has forsaken our people. Keep on, and see how his mighty power will torture you and your descendants!”

After him they brought forward the sixth. And when he was about to die, he said, “Do not deceive yourself in vain. For we are suffering these things on our own account, because of our sins against our own God. Therefore astounding things have happened. But do not think that you will go unpunished for having tried to fight against God!”

The mother was especially admirable and worthy of honorable memory. Although she saw her seven sons perish within a single day, she bore it with good courage because of her hope in the Lord. She encouraged each of them in the language of their ancestors. Filled with a noble spirit, she reinforced her woman’s reasoning with a man’s courage, and said to them, “I do not know how you came into being in my womb. It was not I who gave you life and breath, nor I who set in order the elements within each of you. Therefore the Creator of the world, who shaped the beginning of humankind and devised the origin of all things, will in his mercy give life and breath back to you again, since you now forget yourselves for the sake of his laws.”

Antiochus felt that he was being treated with contempt, and he was suspicious of her reproachful tone. The youngest brother being still alive, Antiochus not only appealed to him in words, but promised with oaths that he would make him rich and enviable if he would turn from the ways of his ancestors, and that he would take him for his Friend and entrust him with public affairs. Since the young man would not listen to him at all, the king called the mother to him and urged her to advise the youth to save himself. After much urging on his part, she undertook to persuade her son. But, leaning close to him, she spoke in their native language as follows, deriding the cruel tyrant: “My son, have pity on me. I carried you nine months in my womb, and nursed you for three years, and have reared you and brought you up to this point in your life, and have taken care of you. I beg you, my child, to look at the heaven and the earth and see everything that is in them, and recognize that God did not make them out of things that existed. And in the same way the human race came into being. Do not fear this butcher, but prove worthy of your brothers. Accept death, so that in God’s mercy I may get you back again along with your brothers.”

While she was still speaking, the young man said, “What are you waiting for? I will not obey the king’s command, but I obey the command of the law that was given to our ancestors through Moses. But you, who have contrived all sorts of evil against the Hebrews, will certainly not escape the hands of God. For we are suffering because of our own sins. And if our living Lord is angry for a little while, to rebuke and discipline us, he will again be reconciled with his own servants. But you, unholy wretch, you most defiled of all mortals, do not be elated in vain and puffed up by uncertain hopes, when you raise your hand against the children of heaven. You have not yet escaped the judgment of the almighty, all-seeing God. For our brothers after enduring a brief suffering have drunk of ever-flowing life, under God’s covenant; but you, by the judgment of God, will receive just punishment for your arrogance. I, like my brothers, give up body and life for the laws of our ancestors, appealing to God to show mercy soon to our nation and by trials and plagues to make you confess that he alone is God, and through me and my brothers to bring to an end the wrath of the Almighty that has justly fallen on our whole nation.”

The king fell into a rage, and handled him worse than the others, being exasperated at his scorn. So he died in his integrity, putting his whole trust in the Lord. Last of all, the mother died, after her sons. Let this be enough, then, about the eating of sacrifices and the extreme tortures.
(2 Macc 7:1–42, NRSV)