III. Consolation and Pastoral Ministry
For Calvin, christian consolation is not only a theological reality but it is also the result of good pastoral practice. Christians often fail to appropriate the consolation they might because they don’t humble themselves to confess their sins to one another.
Let us take the apostle’s view, which is simple and open: namely, that we should lay our infirmities on one another’s breasts, to receive among ourselves mutual counsel, mutual compassion, and mutual consolation. Then, as we are aware of our brothers’ infirmities, let us pray to God for these (Institutes, 3.4.6).
He recognized that all Christians have a duty to admonish and rebuke one another, but ministers have a special responsibility here. They “have been ordained witnesses and sponsors of it to assure our consciences of forgiveness of sins, to the extent that they are said to forgive sins and to loose souls.” The Christian should “use private confession to his own pastor; and for his solace, he should beg the private help of him whose duty it is, both publicly and privately, to console the people of God by the gospel teaching” (Institutes, 3.4.12).
Another great source of consolation for believers is heaven. Despite the frequent portrayal of Calvin as a theologian of glory and triumph, it is simply untrue. He was a theologian of the cross. He understood that the lot of “the entire company of believers, so long as they dwell on earth, must be “as sheep destined for the slaughter” [Romans 8:36] to be conformed to Christ their Head.” When this happens, it causes us to lift our “heads above everything earthly....” To appropriate consolation in this vale of tears, we have to learn to seek the heavenly existence, where the Lord “will clothe them with “a robe of glory... and rejoicing” [Ecclus. 6:31, EV], will feed them with the unspeakable sweetness of his delights, will elevate them to his sublime fellowship—in fine, will deign to make them sharers in his happiness.”
We also experience Christian consolation when we pray the Lord’s Prayer because, in it, Christ has “prescribed a form for us in which he set forth as in a table all that he allows us to seek of him, all that is of benefit to us, all that we need ask. From this kindness of his we receive great fruit of consolation: that we know we are requesting nothing absurd, nothing strange or unseemly—in short, nothing unacceptable to him—since we are asking almost in his own words” (2.20.34).
As we pray and make use of Word and sacrament ministry, we learn to think about our election properly and that strengthens our consolation. We are all tempted to doubt, to wonder if the promises are really true. We learn not to try to make our election “more certain” by attempting to “investigate God’s eternal plan apart from his Word.” To do that is to “engulf” oneself “in a deadly abyss.” When we approach the question of election “as it is contained in his Word” we “reap the inestimable fruit of consolation. Let this, therefore, be the way of our inquiry: to begin with God’s call, and to end with it” (Institutes, 3.24.4).
First, if we seek God’s fatherly mercy and kindly heart, we should turn our eyes to Christ, on whom alone God’s Spirit rests...But if we have been chosen in him, we shall not find assurance of our election in ourselves; and not even in God the Father, if we conceive him as severed from his Son. Christ, then, is the mirror wherein we must, and without self-deception may, contemplate our own election (Institutes, 3.13.5).
For Calvin, we should not ask the question, “Am I elect?” but rather, “Do I believe?” Only the elect come to faith and thereby enjoy union with Christ. Contrary to what some would have us expect, for Calvin, the choices we make in this life are both real, free from compulsion, and encompassed in God’s secret providence. Our business is not to guess God’s providence ahead of time but to respond appropriately to God’s Word (Deut 29:29).
For Calvin, the first thing we must know is our need of a Savior, and this we learn from God’s holy, unyeilding law. This is because, for sinners, the requirements of the law are “far above human capacity” such that, relative to acceptance with God, apart from Christ, sinners can only see in them “the most immediate death.” (Institutes 2.7.3). Apart from God’s law we are tempted to think that we are well but, in its light, the sinner begins to feel that he is “panting under so heavy a weight as to stagger and totter, and finally even to fall down and faint away.” The law strips us of our blinding arrogance (Institutes, 2.7.6).
The good news for sinners is that, for those who trust that Christ died and rose again for them, in their place (Institutes, 3.11.14), who with “confidence...embrace the mercy of God as forgiving sin for Christ’s sake” (Antidote to Trent), who come to God “independent of, nay, in the absence of the merit of [ones own] works, because faith receives that righteousness which the Gospel bestows” (Institutes, 3.11.18), have what the gospel offers: a right standing with God, in Christ, grounded not on what is happening in them (Rome) but upon what Christ has done for them and promised to them in the good news.
Calvin did not set the objective (“for us”) against the subjective (“in us”). Both are essential. The same Triune God who created us, who redeemed us, is also sanctifying us. God the Spirit is at work in us, making us alive, giving us faith and union with Christ. Through those benefits the Spirit is working an abiding assurance and confidence that whatever hard providences we may endure, we do so under the Father’s gentle hand, with Christ our Savior, the Spirit helping, assuring, and renewing us in Christ’s image.