Hugh Latimer (c. 1487-1555) on the assurance of election

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We have in previous posts considered the question “How can I know whether I am one of the elect?”, and have seen answers to this question in selections from John Calvin, Heinrich Bullinger, Joseph Alleine, Bénédict Pictet, and Wilhelmus van Irhoven. To add to these, consider the following two excerpts from the sermons of the English Reformer Hugh Latimer (c. 1487-1555), of which the first is from his Sermon on the third Sunday of Epiphany, preached on 24 January 1552:

When we hear that some be chosen and some be damned, let us have good hope that we shall be among the chosen, and live after this hope; that is, uprightly and godly, then thou shalt not be deceived. Think that God hath chosen those that believe in Christ, and that Christ is the Book of life. If thou believest in him, then thou art written in the book of life, and shalt be saved. So we need not go about to trouble ourselves with curious questions of the predestination of God; but let us rather endeavour ourselves that we may be in Christ, for when we be in him, then are we well, and then we may be sure that we are ordained to everlasting life.

Merely a few weeks later, in his Sermon on the Sunday called Septuagesima, preached on 14 February 1552, he warns against seeking the assurance of your election from God’s hidden counsels, which would prove futile, but rather:

…if thou begin with Christ, and consider his coming into the world, and doest believe that God hath sent him for thy sake, to suffer for thee, and deliver thee from sin, death, the devil, and hell, then when thou art so armed with the knowledge of Christ, then I say, this simple question [of whether I am elect] cannot hurt thee, for thou art in the book of life which is Christ himself. […]

[O]ur election is sure if we follow the Word of God. Here is now taught you how to try our your election, namely, in Christ, for Christ is the accounting book and register of God, even in the same book, that is, Christ, are written all the names of the elect. Therefore we cannot find our election in ourselves, neither yet in the high counsel of God: for Inscrutabilia sunt judicia altissimi [The judgments of the Most High are past finding out] (Job 34). Where shall I find then my election? In the counting book of God which is Christ: for thus it is written: Sic Deus dilexit mundum, that is, God hath so entirely loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, to that end, that all that believe in him should not perish, but have life everlasting. Whereby appeareth most plainly that Christ is the book of life, and that all that believe in him are in the same book, and so are chosen to everlasting life, for only those are ordained [to eternal life] which believe.

John Calvin (1509-1564) on the Parable of the Persistent Widow (Luke 18:1-8)

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Tonight in our Bible study/prayer group, as part of a series on prayer, we discussed Christ’s Parable of the Persistent Widow, also known as the Parable of the Unjust Judge. I was eager when I got home to read the comments of John Calvin (1509-1564) on this passage, and found them very edifying. Below is the biblical text (taken from the KJV), followed by Calvin’s comments:

Luke 18:1-8

1 And he spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint; 2 Saying, There was in a city a judge, which feared not God, neither regarded man: 3 And there was a widow in that city; and she came unto him, saying, Avenge me of mine adversary. 4 And he would not for a while: but afterward he said within himself, Though I fear not God, nor regard man; 5 Yet because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me. 6 And the Lord said, Hear what the unjust judge saith. 7 And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them? 8 I tell you that he will avenge them speedily. Nevertheless when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?

Calvin comments:

“We know that perseverance in prayer is a rare and difficult attainment; and it is a manifestation of our unbelief that, when our first prayers are not successful, we immediately throw away not only hope, but all the ardor of prayer. But it is an undoubted evidence of our Faith, if we are disappointed of our wish, and yet do not lose courage. Most properly, therefore, does Christ recommend to his disciples to persevere in praying.

The parable which he employs, though apparently harsh, was admirably fitted to instruct his disciples, that they ought to be importunate in their prayers to God the Father, till they at length draw from him what He would otherwise appear to be unwilling to give. Not that by our prayers we gain a victory over God, and bend him slowly and reluctantly to compassion, but because the actual facts do not all at once make it evident that he graciously listens to our prayers. In the parable Christ describes to us a widow, who obtained what she wanted from an unjust and cruel judge, because she did not cease to make earnest demands. The leading truth conveyed is, that God does not all at once grant assistance to his people, because he chooses to be, as it were, wearied out by prayers; and that, however wretched and despicable may be the condition of those who pray to him, yet if they do not desist from the uninterrupted exercise of prayer, he will at length regard them and relieve their necessities.

The parties between whom the comparison is drawn are, indeed, by no means equal; for there is a wide difference between a wicked and cruel man and God, who is naturally inclined to mercy. But Christ intended to assure believers that they have no reason to fear lest their persevering entreaties to the Father of mercy should be refused, since by importunate supplication they prevail on men who are given to cruelty. The wicked and iron-hearted judge could not avoid yielding at length, though reluctantly, to the earnest solicitations of the widow: how then shall the prayers of believers, when perseveringly maintained, be without effect? If exhaustion and weakness are felt by us when we give way after a slight exertion, or if the ardor of prayer languishes because God appears to lend a deaf ear, let us rest assured of our ultimate success, though it may not be immediately apparent. Entertaining this conviction, let us contend against our impatience, so that the long delay may not induce us to discontinue our prayers.

7. And shall not God avenge his elect?That judge, whom Christ has described to us as altogether desperate, as not only hardened against the contemplation of God, but so entirely devoid of shame, that he had no anxiety about his reputation, at length opened his eyes to the distresses of the widow. We have no reason to doubt that believers will derive, at least, equal advantage from their prayers, provided they do not cease to plead earnestly with God. Yet it must be observed that, while Christ applies the parable to his subject, he does not make God to resemble a wicked and cruel judge, but points out a very different reason why those who believe in him are kept long in suspense, and why he does not actually and at once stretch out his hand to them: it is because he forbears. If at any time God winks at the injuries done to us longer than we would wish, let us know that this is done with a fatherly intention—to train us to patience. A temporary overlooking of crimes is very different from allowing them to remain for ever unpunished. The promise which he makes, that God will speedily avenge them, must be referred to his providence; for our hasty tempers and carnal apprehension lead us to conclude that he does not come quickly enough to grant relief. But if we could penetrate into his design, we would learn that his assistance is always ready and seasonable, as the case demands, and is not delayed for a single moment, but comes at the exact time.

But it is asked, How does Christ instruct his disciples to seek vengeance, while he exhorts them on another occasion, pray for those who injure and persecute you, (Matthew 5:44). I reply: what Christ says here about vengeance does not at all interfere with his former doctrine. God declares that he will avenge believers, not for the purpose of giving a loose rein to their carnal affections, but in order to convince them that their salvation is dear and precious in his sight, and in this manner to induce them to rely on his protection. If, laying aside hatred, pure and free from every wicked desire of revenge, and influenced by proper and well-regulated dispositions, they implore divine assistance, it will be a lawful and holy wish, and God himself will listen to it. But as nothing is more difficult than to divest ourselves of sinful affections, if we would offer pure and sincere prayers, we must ask the Lord to guide and direct our hearts by his Spirit. Then shall we lawfully call on God to be our avenger, and he will answer our prayers.

8. When the Son of man shall come.By these words Christ informs us that there will be no reason to wonder if men shall afterwards sink under their calamities: it will be because they neglect the true remedy. He intended to obviate an offense which we are daily apt to take, when we see all things in shameful confusion. Treachery, cruelty, imposture, deceit, and violence, abound on every hand; there is no regard to justice, and no shame; the poor groan under their oppressors; the innocent are abused or insulted; while God appears to be asleep in heaven. This is the reason why the flesh imagines that the government of fortune is blind. But Christ here reminds us that men are justly deprived of heavenly aid, on which they have neither knowledge nor inclination to place reliance. They who do nothing but murmur against the Lord in their hearts, and who allow no place for his providence, cannot reasonably expect that the Lord will assist them.

Shall he find faith on the earth? Christ expressly foretells that, from his ascension to heaven till his return, unbelievers will abound; meaning by these words that, if the Redeemer does not so speedily appear, the blame of the delay will attach to men, because there will be almost none to look for him. Would that we did not behold so manifest a fulfilment of this prediction! But experience proves that though the world is oppressed and overwhelmed by a huge mass of calamities, there are few indeed in whom the least spark of faith can be discerned. Others understand the word faith to denote uprightness, but the former meaning is more agreeable to the context.”

John Calvin (1509-1564): Doctrine is not merely apprehended by the intellect

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Theologia est doctrina Deo vivendi per Christum – Theology is the doctrine of living unto God through Christ. It is doctrine, that is, propositional teaching apprehended by the mind (i.e. it is what theologians call theoreticaspeculativa or contemplativa). But it is the doctrine of living unto God through Christ, that is, it has practica as its end. The study of theology is meant not only to inform the intellect, but to reach the heart and affections, and thereby lead to practice. Thus the acquisition of the knowledge of God is a means to an end, namely the worship of the Triune God. John Calvin (1509-1564) talks in this line in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, III.vii.4:

“This is the place to address those who, having nothing of Christ but the name and sign, would yet be called Christians. How dare they boast of this sacred name? None have intercourse with Christ but those who have acquired the true knowledge of him from the Gospel. The Apostle denies that any man truly has learned Christ who has not learned to put off ‘the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and put on Christ,’ (Eph. 4:22). They are convicted, therefore, of falsely and unjustly pretending a knowledge of Christ, whatever be the volubility and eloquence with which they can talk of the Gospel. Doctrine is not an affair of the tongue, but of the life; is not apprehended by the intellect and memory merely, like other branches of learning; but is received only when it possesses the whole soul, and finds its seat and habitation in the inmost recesses of the heart. Let them, therefore, either cease to insult God, by boasting that they are what they are not, or let them show themselves not unworthy disciples of their divine Master. To doctrine in which our religion is contained we have given the first place, since by it our salvation commences; but it must be transfused into the breast, and pass into the conduct, and so transform us into itself, as not to prove unfruitful. If philosophers are justly offended, and banish from their company with disgrace those who, while professing an art which ought to be the mistress of their conduct, convert it into mere loquacious sophistry, with how much better reason shall we detest those flimsy sophists who are contented to let the Gospel play upon their lips, when, from its efficacy, it ought to penetrate the inmost affections of the heart, fix its seat in the soul, and pervade the whole man a hundred times more than the frigid discourses of philosophers?”

John Calvin (1509-1564) on progress in the Christian life

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“I insist not that the life of the Christian shall breathe nothing but the perfect Gospel, though this is to be desired, and ought to be attempted. I insist not so strictly on evangelical perfection, as to refuse to acknowledge as a Christian any man who has not attained it. In this way all would be excluded from the Church, since there is no man who is not far removed from this perfection, while many, who have made but little progress, would be undeservedly rejected. What then? Let us set this before our eye as the end at which we ought constantly to aim. Let it be regarded as the goal towards which we are to run. For you cannot divide the matter with God, undertaking part of what his word enjoins, and omitting part at pleasure. For, in the first place, God uniformly recommends integrity as the principal part of his worship, meaning by integrity real singleness of mind, devoid of gloss and fiction, and to this is opposed a double mind; as if it had been said, that the spiritual commencement of a good life is when the internal affections are sincerely devoted to God, in the cultivation of holiness and justice. But seeing that, in this earthly prison of the body, no man is supplied with strength sufficient to hasten in his course with due alacrity, while the greater number are so oppressed with weakness, that hesitating, and halting, and even crawling on the ground, they make little progress, let every one of us go as far as his humble ability enables him, and prosecute the journey once begun. No one will travel so badly as not daily to make some degree of progress. This, therefore, let us never cease to do, that we may daily advance in the way of the Lord; and let us not despair because of the slender measure of success. How little soever the success may correspond with our wish, our labour is not lost when to-day is better than yesterday, provided with true singleness of mind we keep our aim, and aspire to the goal, not speaking flattering things to ourselves, nor indulging our vices, but making it our constant endeavour to become better, until we attain to goodness itself. If during the whole course of our life we seek and follow, we shall at length attain it, when relieved from the infirmity of flesh we are admitted to full fellowship with God.”

– John Calvin (1509-1564), Institutes of the Christian Religion, III.vi.5.

John Calvin (1509-1564) on submission to ecclesiastical authority

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The early church father Cyprian of Carthage (c. 200-258) once said: “He can no longer have God for his Father who has not the Church for his mother.” John Calvin (1509-1564) picks up on this phrase in his treatment of the Church, and in particular with regard to submission to ecclesiastical authority. In our day and age where consumerism and individualism, among other factors, lead to a general reluctance to submit to divinely ordained authority (if not outright anarchy), these words are quite prophetic:

“…by the faith of the gospel Christ becomes ours, and we are made partakers of the salvation and eternal blessedness procured by him. But as our ignorance and sloth (I may add, the vanity of our mind) stand in need of external helps, by which faith may be begotten in us, and may increase and make progress until its consummation, God, in accommodation to our infirmity, has added such helps, and secured the effectual preaching of the gospel, by depositing this treasure with the Church. He has appointed pastors and teachers, by whose lips he might edify his people (Eph. 4:11); he has invested them with authority, and, in short, omitted nothing that might conduce to holy consent in the faith, and to right order. In particular, he has instituted sacraments, which we feel by experience to be most useful helps in fostering and confirming our faith…

I will begin with the Church, into whose bosom God is pleased to collect his children, not only that by her aid and ministry they may be nourished so long as they are babes and children, but may also be guided by her maternal care until they grow up to manhood, and, finally, attain to the perfection of faith. What God has thus joined, let not man put asunder (Mark 10:9): to those to whom he is a Father, the Church must also be a mother…

…let us learn, from her [the visible church’s] single title of Mother, how useful, nay, how necessary the knowledge of her is, since there is no other means of entering into life unless she conceive us in the womb and give us birth, unless she nourish us at her breasts, and, in short, keep us under her charge and government, until, divested of mortal flesh, we become like the angels (Mt. 22:30). For our weakness does not permit us to leave the school until we have spent our whole lives as scholars…

But let us proceed to a full exposition of this view. Paul says that our Saviour ‘ascended far above all heavens, that he might fill all things. And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ’ (Eph. 4:10-13). We see that God, who might perfect his people in a moment, chooses not to bring them to manhood in any other way than by the education of the Church. We see the mode of doing it expressed; the preaching of celestial doctrine is committed to pastors. We see that all without exception are brought into the same order, that they may with meek and docile spirit allow themselves to be governed by teachers appointed for this purpose. Isaiah had long before given this as the characteristic of the kingdom of Christ, ‘My Spirit that is upon thee, and my words which I have put in thy mouth, shall not depart out of thy mouth, nor out of the mouth of thy seed, nor out of the mouth of thy seed’s seed, saith the Lord, from henceforth and for ever’ (Isa. 59:21). Hence it follows, that all who reject the spiritual food of the soul divinely offered to them by the hands of the Church, deserve to perish of hunger and famine. God inspires us with faith, but it is by the instrumentality of his gospel, as Paul reminds us, ‘Faith cometh by hearing’ (Rom. 10:17). God reserves to himself the power of maintaining it, but it is by the preaching of the gospel, as Paul also declares, that he brings it forth and unfolds it. With this view, it pleased him in ancient times that sacred meetings should be held in the sanctuary, that consent in faith might be nourished by doctrine proceeding from the lips of the priest. Those magnificent titles, as when the temple is called God’s rest, his sanctuary, his habitation, and when he is said to dwell between the cherubims (Ps 32:13, 14; 80:1), are used for no other purpose than to procure respect, love, reverence, and dignity to the ministry of heavenly doctrine, to which otherwise the appearance of an insignificant human being might be in no slight degree derogatory. Therefore, to teach us that the treasure offered to us in earthen vessels is of inestimable value (2 Cor. 4:7), God himself appears and, as the author of this ordinance, requires his presence to be recognised in his own institution. Accordingly, after forbidding his people to give heed to familiar spirits, wizards, and other superstitions (Lev. 19:30, 31), he adds, that he will give what ought to be sufficient for all—namely, that he will never leave them without prophets. For, as he did not commit his ancient people to angels, but raised up teachers on the earth to perform a truly angelical office, so he is pleased to instruct us in the present day by human means. But as anciently he did not confine himself to the law merely, but added priests as interpreters, from whose lips the people might inquire after his true meaning, so in the present day he would not only have us to be attentive to reading, but has appointed masters to give us their assistance. In this there is a twofold advantage. For, on the one hand, he by an admirable test proves our obedience when we listen to his ministers just as we would to himself; while, on the other hand, he consults our weakness in being pleased to address us after the manner of men by means of interpreters, that he may thus allure us to himself, instead of driving us away by his thunder. How well this familiar mode of teaching is suited to us all the godly are aware, from the dread with which the divine majesty justly inspires them.

Those who think that the authority of the doctrine is impaired by the insignificance of the men who are called to teach, betray their ingratitude; for among the many noble endowments with which God has adorned the human race, one of the most remarkable is, that he deigns to consecrate the mouths and tongues of men to his service, making his own voice to be heard in them. Wherefore, let us not on our part decline obediently to embrace the doctrine of salvation, delivered by his command and mouth; because, although the power of God is not confined to external means, he has, however, confined us to his ordinary method of teaching, which method, when fanatics refuse to observe, they entangle themselves in many fatal snares. Pride, or fastidiousness, or emulation, induces many to persuade themselves that they can profit sufficiently by reading and meditating in private, and thus to despise public meetings, and deem preaching superfluous. But since as much as in them lies they loose or burst the sacred bond of unity, none of them escapes the just punishment of this impious divorce, but become fascinated with pestiferous errors, and the foulest delusions. Wherefore, in order that the pure simplicity of the faith may flourish among us, let us not decline to use this exercise of piety, which God by his institution of it has shown to be necessary, and which he so highly recommends. None, even among the most petulant of men, would venture to say, that we are to shut our ears against God, but in all ages prophets and pious teachers have had a difficult contest to maintain with the ungodly, whose perverseness cannot submit to the yoke of being taught by the lips and ministry of men.  This is just the same as if they were to destroy the impress of God as exhibited to us in doctrine. For no other reason were believers anciently enjoined to seek the face of God in the sanctuary (Ps. 105:4) (an injunction so often repeated in the Law), than because the doctrine of the Law, and the exhortations of the prophets, were to them a living image of God. Thus Paul declares, that in his preaching the glory of God shone in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:6). The more detestable are the apostates who delight in producing schisms in churches, just as if they wished to drive the sheep from the fold, and throw them into the jaws of wolves. Let us hold, agreeably to the passage we quoted from Paul, that the Church can only be edified by external preaching, and that there is no other bond by which the saints can be kept together than by uniting with one consent to observe the order which God has appointed in his Church for learning and making progress.”

– John Calvin (1509-1564), Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV.i.1, 4, 5

Theodore Beza (1519-1605): Poetic gem on his 76th birthday

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On the occasion of his 76th birthday, 24 June 1595, Theodore Beza (1519-1605) wrote a poem to his friend and fellow Swiss Reformed theologian Jean-Jacques (Johann Jakob) Grynaeus (1540-1617). In the poem, Beza, in humble spirit, recalls how a hen he bought had offered him more in the short space of a month than what he has rendered to the Lord in his 76 years on earth so far. Perhaps Beza had Matthew 23:37 or Luke 13:34 in mind when he wrote this poem, but whatever the case may be, this is a true gem. Below is the Latin, followed by my own loose English translation:

Ter quinos Gallina mihi dedit unica pullos

Mense uno, denis assibus empta prius.

Ast ego septenis decies, sexque insuper annis

Quos retuli fructus, Christe benign tibi?

Ah! Quam non quales tibi reddere debuit emptus

Tam care, et tanto tempore cultus ager!

At non degeneres prorsus, seseque negantes

Divini afflatu numinis esse satos.

Sed quorsum haec? unum hoc tribuas, peto, Christe, roganti:

Sis gallina mihi, sim tibi pullus ego!

Own translation:

One hen gave me fifteen chicks

In one month, having earlier been bought for ten coins.

But I, at seven decades and six additional years,

What fruits have I returned to You, benign Christ?

Ah! I have not even returned to you as much as I needed to buy it,

As much value, and as much time as was needed for the cultivation of the field!

But yet I am not altogether degenerate, denying to myself

That the divine inspiration of the Lord is sown in me.

But why do I say all this? Grant this one thing, I pray, O Christ, asking:

That You be a hen to me, and I be a chick to You!

Girolamo Zanchi (1516-1590): Should the doctrine of predestination be taught and preached?

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Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) thought that it was dangerous to propagate the doctrine of predestination either by preaching or writing, since it may discourage Christians from assurance of their salvation and encourage the wicked to sin. In his work The Doctrine of Absolute Predestination, Girolamo Zanchi (1516-1590) replied to such objections by employing the insights of Martin Luther (1483-1546) and Martin Bucer (1491-1551). Zanchi’s argument in favour of the preaching and teaching of predestination, which can be found in p. 97-107 of his work, has been neatly summarized by Joel Beeke and Mark Jones in their work A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life, on p. 131:

  • God teaches us predestination in His Word, and we must not be ashamed of His doctrine but proclaim it with reverence and trust in His wisdom.

  • This doctrine humbles our pride and magnifies God’s grace, for it shows us that we can do nothing to save ourselves – God alone saves sinners.

  • Faith by nature receives doctrines of God that it cannot see and fully comprehend by human reasoning.

  • Election comforts and sustains the saints with God’s unchangeable love for them when Satan attacks with doubts and accusations.

  • Predestination reveals the infinite glory and sovereignty of the eternal and unchangeable God so that we know Him and worship Him.

  • Predestination guards the gospel of salvation by grace alone.

  • This doctrine brings us a vibrant vision of God’s special love for His people in Christ Jesus, which is the joy of His people and fuel of their love to Him.

  • Predestination moves God’s people to diligent holiness of life.