If it be inquired, then, by what things chiefly the Christian religion has a standing existence amongst us and maintains its truth, it will be found that the following two not only occupy the principal place, but comprehend under them all the other parts, and consequently the whole substance of Christianity, viz., a knowledge, first, of the mode in which God is duly worshipped; and, secondly, of the source from which salvation is obtained.
In 1543, Calvin published an essay called “The Necessity of Reforming the Church.” The essay is a brief defense and explanation of the break from Rome. The sentence above appears early in the essay. In that sentence, Calvin basically says that the Christian religion in its entirety can be brought under two headings: lawful worship and salvation. That is a remarkable statement, but it makes sense. Basically he says that the Christian religion is built upon (1) acknowledgement that God may be worshipped – glorified, honored, or pleased – only according to his own law; and (2) acknowledgement that apart from that gracious salvation which God himself has provided we are lost and in no way able to worship God, to glorify, honor, or please Him.
As to the first, the idea that God may be glorified only according to his own law is just a matter of the Creator-creature relationship. Between two creatures, there must be agreement, compromise, reciprocity. But between the Creator and the creature there is such a difference, such a distance, we might say, that only by voluntary condescension may the creature have an opportunity to enjoy the good pleasure of God. So Adam in the garden: the Lord came to Adam and offered him life (the tree of life) on condition of obedience (the tree of the knowledge of good and evil). This arrangement, by which Adam had the opportunity to earn the approval of his Creator-King, was voluntarily, freely, some even say graciously put in place by God. And therefore, it would be high presumption for Adam to try to please God any other way except by obedience to the law of God, by refusing to eat from the forbidden tree. No matter what Adam did – no matter how well he exercised dominion and subdued the earth, no matter how fruitful he and Eve were, only one thing mattered: Adam’s obedience to the prohibition. The arrangement was not Adam’s design; it was God’s. So Adam could not pay with any other currency; the only thing of value in this economy was obedience to the command of God.
How much more for the image-bearer in sin. It is, Calvin might say, high contempt and presumption when the sinner calls “good” anything but what God has commanded – in worship acutely so, where God is addressed explicitly, but in all of life, too. Of course the obvious example of this is false religion. But Calvin’s concern in this essay is not other religions, but corruptions of biblical religion. He says:
I know how difficult it is to persuade the world that God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by His Word.
And of course it is difficult. Because to claim this – that God approves only what he Himself has commanded – is really to ask the sinner to bow the knee and confess that He is Lord, while to be in sin means to be unable to do this. Now the Christian convert is a new creation unto the glory of God; but a war still wages within him. So this desire of wishing to call ‘good’ what God has not called ‘good’ or to pretend to please God without facing the sheer sovereignty of His throne and judgment, persists in all of us. Calvin continues:
The opposite persuasion which cleaves to them, being seated, as it were, in their very bones and marrow is, that whatever they do has in itself a sufficient sanction, provided it exhibits some kind of zeal for the honor of God. But since God not only regards as fruitless, but also plainly abominates, whatever we undertake from zeal to His worship, if at variance with His command, what do we gain by a contrary course? . . . Every addition to His word, especially in this matter, is a lie. Mere “will worship” . . . is vanity.
We all want justice to be satisfied; all people wish to be out from under condemnation; and Christians most of all have tasted that deliverance. The problem that Calvin is interested in here is this: as water toward the lowest point, we tend toward that placation of God which is most satisfying to our old nature, and most flattering to our pride. We wish, in other words, to please God with our own zeal and excitement more than we wish to be subdued; we fear repentance more than God; we wish, ourselves, to set the terms of our redemption. True worship, Calvin wishes to say, must return again and again to the simple recognition that He is God and we are His creatures – disloyal sons of disobedience no less. Deviation from the explicit command of God is homage to the wayward nature and the sinful realm.
He writes this, just prior to the quote above:
There is a twofold reason why the Lord, in condemning and prohibiting all fictitious worship, requires us to give obedience only to His own voice. First, it tends greatly to establish His authority that we do not follow our own pleasures but depend entirely on his sovereignty; and, secondly, such is our folly, that when we are left at liberty, all we are able to do is to go astray.
So in pondering how God might be pleased – how a sinner might come out from under condemnation and gain transfer from darkness and futility to light and life – the sinner is faced with the fact that, well, God is God.
The sinner’s experience as he faces this fact and moves toward the kingdom of God is, in Calvin’s words, something like this:
We come now to what we have set down as the second principle branch of Christian doctrine, viz., knowledge of the source from which salvation is to be obtained. Now, the knowledge of our salvation presents in three different stages.
First, we must begin with a sense of individual wretchedness, filling us with despondency as if we were spiritually dead. This affect is produced when the original and hereditary depravity of our nature is set before us as the source of all evil – a depravity which begets in us distrust, rebellion against God, pride, avarice, lust, and all kinds of evil concupiscence, and making us averse to all rectitude and justice, holds us captive under the yoke of sin; and when, moreover, each individual, on the disclosure of his own sins, feeling confounded at his turpitude, is forced to be dissatisfied with himself and to account himself and all that he has of his own less than nothing; then, on the other hand, conscience being cited to the bar of God, becomes sensible of the curse under which it lies, and, as if it had received a warning of eternal death, learns to tremble at the divine anger. This, I say, is the first stage in the way to salvation, when the sinner, overwhelmed and prostrated, despairs of all carnal aid, yet does not harden himself against the justice of God, or become stupidly callous, but, trembling and anxious, groans in agony, and sighs for relief.
My own testimony reflects this. A turning point, perhaps the turning point, was a season of irremediable exhaustion. I spent all I had in the search for goodness other than God’s. By grace through faith, in this emaciated state, I learned to tremble at divine anger, and in agony sighed for relief from a gracious savior.
From this he should rise to the second stage. This he does when, animated by the knowledge of Christ, he again begins to breathe. For to one humbled in the manner in which we have described, no other course remains but to turn to Christ, that through His interposition he may be delivered from misery. But only the man who thus seeks salvation in Christ is the man who is aware of the extent of his power; that is, acknowledges Him as the only Priest who reconciles us to the Father, and His death as the only sacrifice by which sin is expiated, the divine justice satisfied, and a true and perfect righteousness acquired; who, in fine, does not divide the work between himself and Christ, but acknowledges it to be by mere gratuitous favor that he is justified in the sight of God.
From this stage also he must rise to the third, when instructed in the grace of Christ, and in the fruits of his death and resurrection, he rests in Him with firm and solid confidence, feeling assured that Christ is so completely his own, that he possesses in him righteousness and life.