Doctrine Considered and Applied: Calvin and Providence, pt. 3
Romans 8.28-29: In all things we should know that we will overcome.
How often do we look at the circumstances in our lives and feel as if God has forgotten us? Perhaps we look to the situation around us and see a corrupt nation, a corrupt government, and wonder how God could be glorified in the midst of this darkness. Perhaps we look back upon our own lives and see darkness and corruption and think our lives are beyond all hope of ever being salvaged. This is when we should think of a passage like Romans 8.28-29:
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.
On this verse of Scripture Calvin comments:
“Paul now concludes . . . that the troubles of this life are so far from hindering our salvation that they rather assist it. . . . The judgment of the flesh exclaims here that it does not at all appear that God hears our prayers, since our afflictions always continue in the same way. The apostle, therefore anticipates this, and says that although God does not immediately succor His people, He does not desert them, for by a wonderful contrivance He turns their apparent losses in such a way as to promote their salvation” (Comm. Rom., p. 179).
Now, Calvin is by no means saying that we should sin so that we can see the grace of God in our lives. He would answer with the apostle Paul, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it” (Rom 6.1-2)?
What he is saying, along with the apostle, is that no matter what happens in our lives, we can never frustrate the will of God. God is sovereign over our entire lives and our every action. So, even out of the darkest situation, there is a purpose and God’s hand of providence. For example, the terrible sin of David with Bathsheba: God gives David Solomon who ended up building the temple. The greatest example, however, is Christ: had Christ not been crucified, the most terrible crime in the history of the world, we would not have salvation. Hence, we should take solace that all things work together for the good of those who love God and have been called according to His purpose.
Based upon these three passages of Scripture we see that Calvin believed that
1. When circumstances seem insurmountable—like Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac--we must trust in the Providence of God knowing that He is teaching us to rely less upon ourselves and more on Him.
2. When it feels as if God does not hear our prayers or that He is crushing us with a trial—like the sufferings of Job—we should nevertheless trust in the Providence of God knowing that He is sanctifying us.
3. When it appears as if things are going miserably wrong—perhaps tragically—we must take solace in the Providence of God knowing that He is working out our lives according to His sovereign plan.
For this reason Calvin writes the following in his Institutes:
Hence appears the immeasurable felicity of the godly mind. Innumerable are the evils that beset human life; innumerable, too, the deaths that threaten it. We need not go beyond ourselves: since our body is the receptacle of a thousand diseases—in fact holds within itself and fosters the causes of diseases—a man cannot go about unburdened by many forms of his own destruction, and without drawing out a life enveloped, as it were, with death. For what else would you call it, when he neither freezes or sweats without danger? Now, wherever you turn, all things around you not only are hardly to be trusted but most openly menace, and seem to threaten immediate death. Embark upon ship, you are one step away from death. Mount a horse, if one foot slips, your life is imperiled. Go through the city streets, you are subject to as many dangers as there are tiles on the roofs. If there is a weapon in your hand or a friend’s, harm awaits. All the fierce animals you see are armed for your destruction. But if you try to shut yourself up in a walled garden, seemingly delightful, there a serpent sometimes lies hidden. Your house, continually in danger of fire, threatens in the daytime to impoverish you, at night even to collapse upon you. Your field, since it is exposed to hail, frost, drought, and other calamities, threatens you with barrenness, open violence, which in part besiege us at home, in part dog us abroad. Amid these tribulations must not man be most miserable, since, but half alive in life, he weakly draws his anxious and languid breathe, as if he had a sword perpetually hanging over his neck (1.17.9)?
Rather than worry about the dangers and circumstances in life, Calvin tells that the providence of God is a great comfort:
The Christian’s “solace, I say, is to know that his Heavenly Father so holds all things in his power, so rules by his authority and will, so governs by his wisdom, that nothing can befall except he determine it. Moreover, it comforts him to know that he has been received into God’s safekeeping and entrusted to the care of his angels, and that neither water, nor fire, nor iron can harm him, except in so far as it pleases God as governor to give them occasion” (Ibid., p. 224).
Ultimately Calvin believed that the Providence of God was a great source of comfort for the believer. No matter what happens in the life of a believer, he can rest assured that his life is firmly in the provident hand of God.
Part 4 appears next week!