Monday, January 01, 2007

God = Father, according to Calvin [part 2 of 4]

The Relationship Restored

God initiates this restoration of his relationship with sinful men, and still loves them as a Father. The instrument of this reconciling work is faith, the object of this faith is Christ (the true Son) and the goal is reconciliation, the restitution of God being to us a Father. Calvin explains, “Although the preaching of the cross does not agree with our human inclination, if we desire to return to God our Author and Maker, from whom we have been estranged, in order that he may again begin to be our Father, we ought nevertheless to embrace it humbly.”[1] Calvin here clearly denotes that God’s goal in salvation is to make himself again “to be our Father,” with all of the benefits that this entails.

The instrumental means of reconciliation is faith, which leads to this mending of disrupted Father-son relationship. As was stated above, the object of faith is Christ. Absolutely. But Calvin explains the object of faith more fully. Faith for Calvin has one object, with a general and a specific component. Specifically, one places faith in Christ and his atoning work. And more generally one places faith in the nature and character of God himself. This is perfectly consistent, for Christ is the most poignant manifestation of God’s fatherly character. Therefore the way one demonstrates faith in God’s loving and fatherly character is by having faith in Christ.

This faith itself is defined by Calvin as “a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”[2] Calvin further elaborates on what this benevolence is, as well as the object of faith. He says:

Briefly, he alone is truly a believer who, convinced by a firm conviction that God is a kindly and well-disposed Father toward him, promises himself all things on the basis of his generosity; who, relying upon the promises of divine benevolence toward him, lays hold on an undoubted expectation of salvation.[3]

Faith, then, for Calvin, is trust in God’s (fatherly) benevolence, benevolence which is seen in Christ, the ultimate expression of God’s “kindly and well-disposed” Fatherhood. Clearly, the fatherhood of God is not a peripheral for Calvin. He here centers his entire doctrine of faith upon his understanding of God’s fatherhood. God as Father, in this way, is both the object and the goal of a believer’s faith.

Faith’s specific object, again, is Christ himself, into whom believers are engrafted and adopted as sons of God. In discussing the assurance of election, Calvin explains that believers seek such assurance only in Christ. This, similarly, has manifold implications for the understanding of God’s fatherhood as it relates to faith in Christ:

If we seek God’s fatherly mercy and kindly heart, we should turn our eyes to Christ, on whom alone God’s Spirit rests [….] Accordingly, those whom God has adopted as his sons are said to have been chosen not in themselves but in his Christ; for unless he could love them in him, he could not honor them with the inheritance of his Kingdom if they had not previously become partakers of him. 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. For since it is into his body the Father destined those to be engrafted whom he has willed from eternity to be his own, that he may hold as sons all whom he acknowledges to be among his members, we have a sufficiently clear and firm testimony that we have been inscribed in the book of life if we are in communion with Christ [….] the Heavenly Father will count as his sons all those who have received him in faith.” [4]

Calvin begins this section by setting the entire context of faith in Christ as seeking “God’s fatherly mercy and kindly heart.” But believers seek to relate to God as Father, not in the Father himself, but “in his Christ.” Though God as Father is the goal, all is sought in Christ. This is not contradictory, because what Calvin postulates here, he does for the purpose of explanation. All is sought in Christ, he says, and is not sought even in the Father, “if we conceive him as severed from his Son.” This is key to what Calvin desires to do when discussing this issue: the Father and the Son are not severed from each other in actuality. This is related to the mystery of the Trinity: the Father and Son are un-severed, yet distinct, each having a discrete role in salvation.

Faith, then, again, is most specifically and properly placed in Christ. Calvin describes those who have faith in Christ as we who “turn our eyes to Christ,” who “receive him in faith,” who “are in communion with Christ,” having been “chosen” in Christ and “engrafted” into his body. The purpose of God’s action to save here is so “that he may hold as sons all whom he acknowledges to be among his members.” As Wilterdink explains, “Consistently, Calvin interprets revelation and redemption in Christ in terms of the fatherhood of God. God is our Father only in Jesus Christ. Christ is the object of faith as the Father is the object of its trust.”[5] Calvin himself again well explains the object and goal of faith. He says:

Let us sum these up. Christ was given to us by God’s generosity, to be grasped and possessed by us in faith. By partaking of him, we principally receive a double grace: namely, that being reconciled to God through Christ’s blamelessness, we may have in heaven instead of Judge a gracious Father; and secondly, that sanctified by Christ’s spirit we may cultivate blamelessness and purity of life.[6]

So, we see here that the generous and loving Father-God gave Christ in order to reconcile us to himself (firstly), and (secondly) to sanctify us. On the first point, Wilterdink boldly asserts, “The very heart of the gospel is the annunciation of God’s fatherhood in Christ.” [7] In this way, then, relating to God as Father is in a sense both the object and the goal of faith. And, briefly, on the second point of blameless living, God’s fatherhood re-instated by Christ inspires holiness. Calvin explains that “he who ponders within himself what God the Father is like toward us has cause enough, even if there be no hell, to dread offending him more gravely than any death.”[8]

[1] Ibid.

[2] Ibid., 3.2.7.

[3] Ibid., 3.2.16.

[4] Ibid., 3.24.5.

[5] Wilterdink, “The Fatherhood of God,” 13.

[6] Inst., 3.11.1 (italics added).

[7] Wilterdink, 13.

[8] Inst., 3.2.26. Also, “He who would duly worship him will try to show himself both an obedient son to him and a dutiful servant. The Lord, through the prophet, calls ‘honor’ that obedience which is rendered to him as Father. He calls ‘fear’ the service that is done to him as Lord.”

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