Welcome to the online home of Tim Challies, blogger, author, and book reviewer.

Tim Challies

Challies on FacebookChallies on Twitter

Articles

October 06, 2005

I cut my teeth on this site by discussing controversial topics. Of course when I began I really had little idea that these topics were controversial. I just began to write about The Purpose Driven Life, The Passion of the Christ and authors like John Eldredge without realizing that anyone other than myself really cared about them. I have now fallen into the somewhat difficult predicament of being expected to discuss ongoing updates to these stories. Of course I rarely mind doing so because I do find this topics interesting. Thus I am going to make a few comments on the appearance of Ashley Smith and Rick Warren on the Larry King Show last night. Incidentally, the transcript is available here.

Larry King made it clear that he wanted to primarily discuss two things: methamphetamines and The Purpose Driven Life. On the whole the interview and discussion was quite unremarkable. Here are a few important points:

  • It seems that Ashley Smith is going to become the poster child for Celebrate Recovery, Saddleback’s addiction recovery program (even though she has not yet participated in the program). Warren said, “She’s going to be a poster child for Celebrate Recover. Celebrate Recover is the fastest growing recovery movement in the world. It started at Saddleback and now is in 16 state prison systems and tens of thousands of churches all around the world: Ukraine, Russia, South Africa.” Smith is also on an extensive book tour and can be heard speaking at churches around the country.
  • It was easy to note Smith’s absolute reverence for Rick Warren and her ability to “talk like an evangelical.” She has all the Christian lingo down pat now, though she did not seem to use it when the events actually occured. When discussing Nichols she said, “I pray for him every night and hope that he finds his purpose.” When discussing the drugs she said, “He [Nichols] said, ‘You’re not going to do it with me’? And, I said no. Immediately it was — and a calm came over me immediately and I heard God say ‘You can do it now and I’m going to bring you home because you can’t — you can’t beat this addiction without me or you can trust me to take control of the situation right now and I’ll let you live and you can no to it for good.’ And that’s how the whole ‘Purpose-Driven Life’ began.”
  • Smith does not claim to be a new believer, but one who was converted when she was eleven and has been off the path since that time. She made no real mention of sin or repentance but spoke more of mistakes and bad choices.
  • Warren said, “Larry, this is a story of two redemptions. It’s Ashley’s redemption and it’s Brian’s redemption.” Of course I don’t understand how Brian was redeemed, as he subsequently converted to Islam.

There was on exchange that I found particularly intriguing and I would like to discuss it in some length because of its importance. Warren discussed a topic that I hear time and again these days in the aftermath of terrorist strikes and national disasters. Larry King began to ask about whether God was in the room with Ashley Smith while she dealt with Brian Nichols. Here is the subsequent exchange between Warren and King.

WARREN: Well, there are three or four truths. God works through people. We’ve talked about this, Larry, lots of time, like where was God in Katrina?

KING: Yes.

WARREN: Well, God was in the people who were helping them out of Katrina. That’s where he was. He’s in the…

KING: Where was he when the wind came?

WARREN: Exactly, well we know that…

KING: Why did the wind come?

WARREN: Well, we know that the world is a broken place. This isn’t heaven. That’s why we’re to pray thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven because God’s will is not always done on earth.

KING: So, he gets mad and sends wind?

WARREN: Well, no, no, no. I don’t blame — if I get drunk and I go out and I hit a woman in a car with a pregnant daughter with a baby and she dies, that’s not God’s will. That’s evil. And there is evil in the world.

KING: But the wind whose will is that?

WARREN: Well, because there’s evil in the world there are consequences about it and the Bible, I don’t want to get into theology on this but the Bible does say the world is broken.

Now there were two things in this brief exchange that grabbed my attention. The first was Warren’s insistence that Katrina was not God’s will. Warren says that God’s will is not always done on earth, suggesting that these things somehow happen outside of His will. That position is biblically indefensible. Of course Warren attempts to prove it from Scripture, stating that we need to pray “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” so that God’s will can be done here and now. But this is not at all a satisfactory explanation of the meaning of those verses. What do the verses mean? Here is what others have to say about them:

This is from Lord’s Day 49, question and answer 124, of the Heidelberg Catechism:

“that is, grant that we and all men may renounce our own will, and without murmuring obey thy will, which is only good; that every one may attend to, and perform the duties of his station and calling, as willingly and faithfully as the angels do in heaven.”

Matthew Henry, in his commentary of the Bible, says:

We pray that God’s kingdom being come, we and others may be brought into obedience to all the laws and ordinances of it. We make Christ but a titular Prince, if we call him King, and do not do his will: having prayed that he may rule us, we pray that we may in every thing be ruled by him. Observe, (1.) The thing prayed for, thy will be done; “Lord, do what thou pleasest with me and mine; 1 Sam. iii. 18. I refer myself to thee, and am well satisfied that all thy counsel concerning me should be performed.” In this sense Christ prayed, not my will, but thine be done. “Enable me to do what is pleasing to thee; give me that grace that is necessary to the right knowledge of thy will, and an acceptable obedience to it. Let thy will be done conscientiously by me and others, not our own will, the will of the flesh, or the mind, not the will of men (1 Pet. iv. 2), much less Satan’s will (John viii. 44), that we may neither displease God in any thing we do (ut nihil nostrum displiceat Deo), nor be displeased at any thing God does” (ut nihil Dei displiceat nobis). (2.) The pattern of it, that it might be done on earth, in this place of our trial and probation (where our work must be done, or it never will be done), as it is done in heaven, that place of rest and joy. We pray that earth may be made more like heaven by the observance of God’s will (this earth, which, through the prevalency of Satan’s will, has become so near akin to hell), and that saints may be made more like the holy angels in their devotion and obedience. We are on earth, blessed be God, not yet under the earth; we pray for the living only, not for the dead that have gone down into silence.

William Hendrickson, in his commentary on Matthew, says, “It is the ardent desire of the person who sincerely breathes the Lord’s Prayer that the Father’s will shall be obeyed as completely, heartily and immediately on earth as this is constantly being done by all the inhabitants of heaven.”

When we pray, “thy will be done,” we are not praying that God would somehow not allow evil to happen and that He would overrule the laws on nature which are attempting to smite us with storm and devastation. Rather, we are praying that God would bring us into obedience to His will. We are admitting as individuals that we are evil, sinful, broken creatures who desire to do everything but God’s will. We are petitioning Him to help us renounce our own claims over our lives and give them fully to God, so that we can attend to our duties as Christians as perfectly as the angels do in heaven.

So is there purpose to the storms and seemingly senseless devastation in our world? Listen to what John Sanders says, and do realize that he is a chief proponent of Open Theism:

The overarching structures of creation are purposed by God, but not every single detail that occurs within them. Within general providence it makes sense to say that God intends an overall purpose for the creation and that God does not specifically intend each and every action within the creation. Thus God does not have a specific divine purpose for each and every occurence of evil. The “greater good” of establishing the conditions of fellowship between God and creatures does not mean that gratuitous evil has a point. Rather, the possibility of gratuitous evil has a point but its actuality does not. … When a two-month-old child contracts a painful, incurable bone cancer that means suffering and death, it is pointless evil. The Holocaust is pointless evil. .. God does not have a specific purpose in mind of these occurences.

This seems remarkably similar to what Warren says, does it not?

In the aftermath of September 11, Tom Ascol wrote an excellent sermon in which he points those who are suffering to the cross. He says that if God was fully present in the greatest act of suffering the world has ever know, the crucifixion of His Son, He is also present in other suffering.

Was the crucifixion of Jesus the will of God? He was the only righteous man who has ever lived. He was innocent not only before His murderers but also before God. His death was the most heinous crime in human history. Did God have anything to do with it? Where was God when His Son was hanging on the cross? Could He have stopped it? Why didn’t He?

God was there, and not merely as a casual bystander. He was the Master of Ceremonies at the crucifixion. Jesus Himself told His disciples as much as He prepared them for His coming death. After the fact, the Apostle Peter spelled it out clearly in his sermon at Pentecost. Of Jesus he said, “Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death;” (Acts 2:23). God was sovereign: they were responsible.

In that wicked, tragic death, God was doing His deepest work of love and mercy. He was reconciling the world to Himself (2 Corinthians 5:19). The crucifixion reveals to us the depth of both the wisdom and power of God. It shows us His love and goodness. It reassures those who have come to know Him through faith in Jesus that He is God and is “for us.” It guarantees us that He will work all things together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.

In times of sorrow and when confronted with horrific evil, God’s children should resist the temptation to rest in rationalizations, whether on the right (Islam) or the left (open theism). Rather, we should run to the crucified, risen Savior. Let faith be renewed at the foot of the cross. The certainties revealed there give strength to face the mysteries of life without despair.

And here is the crux of the matter. When tragedy strikes it is always a tempation to proclaim that God had nothing to do with it. Yet God is present in suffering. We know from Scripture that God is not the author of evil. We also know that He has full control over everything that happens in the world. How do we reconcile this? We turn again to Ascol. “Some truth is beyond our abilities to rationalize. That does not mean that it is irrational, but rather that it is supra-rational. It is above reason. We can know it because it has been revealed. We cannot explain it because our minds are affected by the fall.” We will find no better statement than that made in the Westminster Confession of Faith: “God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.”

The truth is, we don’t really know how or why God allows and even decrees that these things will happen. But we do not need to “let God off the hook” in order to make ourselves or unbelievers feel better. Let God be God and take comfort not in our supposed explanations of how and why He acts, but in the fact that He is always present with us, whether in times of joy or sorrow.

October 05, 2005

Yesterday, listening to the radio, I heard the song “Be My Escape” by RelientK. While I have heard the song many times in the past, there was one particular line that caught my attention this time around. The song is quite biblical as these things go and is something of a cry for redemption. I’ll provide a brief excerpt:

I’m giving up on doing this alone now
Cause I’ve failed and I’m ready to be shown how
He’s told me the way and I’m trying to get there
And this life sentence that I’m serving
I admit that I’m every bit deserving
But the beauty of grace is that it makes life not fair

The line that stood out to me was “the beauty of grace is that it makes life not fair.” I thought about that line for a while trying to discern its meaning. I am not always so good at unravelling the meaning of poetry and songs but I believe what the songwriter is suggesting is that there is something a little bit unfair about grace. And so I also wondered if this is true. I have often heard this type of definition so the guys from RelientK are not alone in feeling that there is something unfair about grace. But I’m not so sure there is.

Definitions

As is so often the case, definitions are half the battle. Let’s define “grace” and “unfair.”

Grace - We can define grace as the free and unmerited favor or beneficence of God. Or to provide Wikipedia’s definition, “Divine grace is a Christian term for gifts granted to humanity by God, that God is under no need or obligation to grant. Most broadly, grace describes all of God’s gifts to humankind, including our life, creation, and salvation, which God gives to us freely. More narrowly but more commonly, grace describes the means by which humans are saved from original sin and granted salvation.” The most important concept to grasp is that grace implies a favor that is unmerited and undeserved, yet given freely by a loving God.

Unfair - Unfair can be defined as follows: “Marked by injustice or partiality or deception; ‘used unfair methods’; ‘it was an unfair trial’; ‘took an unfair advantage’.” The American Heritage Dictionary adds, “Not just or evenhanded; biased: an unfair call by an umpire” and a secondary definition of “Contrary to laws or conventions, especially in commerce; unethical: unfair trading.”

Grace and Unfairness

Grace, as we have seen, is unmerited favor. In a theological sense grace is seen when God grants a gift to people who are in every way undeserving. Theologians speak of two broad categories of grace. The first is common grace which God extends in varying measure to every person in the world. Were God to withdraw His common grace, the world would quickly crumble and decay as God’s restraining hand allowed everyone to become exactly as evil as they could be. Theologian Charles Hodge defines common grace in this way: “The Bible therefore teaches that the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of truth, of holiness, and of life in all its forms, is present with every human mind, enforcing truth, restraining from evil, exciting to good, and imparting wisdom or strength, when, where, and in what measure seemeth to Him good. In this sphere also He divides ‘to every man severally as He will.’ (1 Cor. 12:11.) This is what in theology is called common grace.” John Murray provides an even better definition stating that common grace includes, “every favour of whatever kind or degree, falling short of salvation, which this undeserving and sin-cursed world enjoys at the hand of God.” This grace includes restraint upon sin, restraint upon the consequences of sin and temporary restraint upon the Divine wrath against sin. Conversely, it also includes the bestowal of good and the excitation to do good.

The second type of grace is special, saving or salvific grace and this is the grace that God extends to those who are His people. Exactly when and how God extends this grace is a point of dispute between Calvinist and Arminian, but both agree that a special measure of God’s grace is given, and indeed must be given, to those who are saved. And so we see that God’s grace is evident all around us, in the good gifts we enjoy, in the restraint of our evil natures, and in the salvation He grants to those who are His own. Because we are evil, God-hating creatures, every measure of grace is entirely undeserved.

Now we are left with “unfair.” Is there anything unfair about the manner in which God dispenses His grace? To this I have to answer with an emphatic “no!” There is nothing unjust or unfair about God’s dispensation of grace. There is certainly nothing unethical about it. You see, the word unfair suggests duplicity or unfairness. But because grace is, by its very definition, a free gift, it cannot be given in a way that is unfair.

Consider, for a moment, an example. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina we were all moved by the absolute devastation and perhaps moved to tears when we saw people’s homes and livelihoods destroyed. But out of the chaos came some wonderful stories of compassion and grace. For example, many people in inland areas whose houses safely weathered the storm, opened their homes to refugees (or “displaced persons” as I hear the news channels report as the new politically correct term). Of course no single person could open his home to more than a few refugees. So was it in any way unfair that a particular person chose to extend grace to only a few people? Of course it was not. His act of grace was unmerited, so no one would dare complain that this person was unfair to refuse to open his doors to every person escaping the storm.

This analogy, while being as weak as most analogies are, does show an example of undeserved merit. I could also speak of homeless people. If I were to come across an intersection in which there was a homeless person on each corner, I would be in no way unjust to single out one of them and invite him to share lunch with me. This would not show unfairness or injustice towards the other. My invitation and the subsequent gift of lunch stands as unmerited favor.

Now assuming that we are discussing saving grace in particular, I believe we have left one important concept out of our equation. The basis of God’s grace is the sacrifice of Jesus. The grace that is extended to those who would believe is composed of two factors. A simple equation is grace equals justice plus mercy. Our very natures tell us that a crime deserves punishment. We have committed an infinitely grave crime in forsaking the Creator and this is a crime that deserves an infinite punishment. God’s justice requires satisfaction. But thanks be to God, He, through His mercy, provided satisfaction in His Son. So He fulfills the requirements of justice and mercy so that we can receive grace. The lyric for the song we considered earlier, then, takes into consideration the undeservedness of grace, but then suggests an element of unfairness that has no part in grace.

Is Grace Unfair?

So is grace unfair? No, not at all. Grace cannot, by definition, be unfair. Were it in any way unfair, it would cease to be grace! The undeservedness of grace does not imply or necessitate unfairness or injustice. Grace is built upon the foundations of the merciful satisfaction of justice. It is undeserved, but not unfair.

Answering Critics

Having shown, I hope, that grace is not unfair, I would like to answer the critics of Calvinists and our understanding of God’s saving grace. But I will do so in the future.

October 04, 2005

No system of religion exalts women higher than biblical Christianity. That is quite a claim, I realize, but one I feel can be easily proven by examining Scripture. A few days ago a person sent a question to the Reformed Baptist mailing list. He recounted that he is teaching eighth graders and one young lady asked about Adam and Eve. This girl noted that after Adam named all of the animals and saw how they were paired, he realized that there was no counterpart to him. And so God created Eve as a helper to Adam. It seems, suggested the girl, that God created Eve only to serve as a partner to Adam in allowing him to procreate. It is almost as if women were an afterthought in God’s mind. So why didn’t God create man and woman together as He had done with the animals? Why did He introduce Eve in such a way that she seems primarily to serve her man?

Genesis 1:27 tells us that “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” The next verse reads, “And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living things that moves on the earth.” It must be noted that God created both male and female in His image, and that He did so before He actually called either into being. In reality, then, men and women were created concurrently for they are inseparable in their God-given role of multiplying and subduing the earth. God could hardly create only a man and command him to be fruitful and multiply!

One astute member of the mailing list replied that this girl has probably created in her mind a romanticized version of the events leading to the creation of Eve. In Genesis 2:20 we read that “The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him.” Previously, in verse 18, God has already said, “It is not good that the man should be alone. I will make a helper fit for him.” While it makes a nice story to believe that Adam named all of the animals and then, noting that there was no helper suitable for him, felt loneliness, the Bible does not state this. Scripture tells us that it was God, not Adam, who noted “that it was not good that the man should be alone.” We have no basis to assume that Adam was in any way lonely or that he felt any insufficiency. Adam lived in a perfect world and had perfect communion with God. Surely he did not feel any sense of loneliness. The person concluded, as do I, that Adam did not need Eve to fill some deep-rooted emptiness in his life, but that he needed a wife to fulfill his God-given mandate. Thus woman was not created to fill a social or sexual need in Adam, but to complete the Lord’s purpose for humans. Eve was not needed to complete Adam, but to complete God’s command to Adam.

So let’s return to my claim that the Bible regards women in a way that is higher than other religions. The reason for this is obvious: the God who created us male and female, also prescribes created our roles. Only the Bible outlines the Creator’s instruction to His creatures. We must understand that while God affirms equal worth, He speaks of differing roles. For example, women have the unique role and privilege of bearing children. Because they are physically weaker than men they have a need for support and protection, and this is a need God has commanded husbands to fill. God also establishes proper order in the family by assigning to men the job of headship in home and church.

One of the best (and most succinct) summaries of Scripture’s position on women comes from the introduction to John MacArthur’s upcoming book, Twelve Extraordinary Women (which, according to Amazon, is available for preorder and will ship on November 1). MacArthur makes several important points about women, some of which I am borrowing here.

Special Honor - While recognizing role disctinctions, the Bible sets women apart for special honor. A husband is commanded to live sacrificially and to value his wife’s life higher than his own. Women are highly valued by God and are to receive this same value from men.

Due Distinction - The biblical accounts of the great men of the Old Testament consistently give distinction to their wives. Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel are only a few examples of women who play prominent roles in Scripture. Other women who are integral to the Bible are Eve, Miriam, Deborah and Ruth. We even find Wisdom personified as woman and the church being called the bride of Christ. God does not shy away from giving credit to women of faith and to using metaphors that require female imagery.

Religious Equality - Women were never excluded from the social and religious life in either the Old or New Testaments. Women participated in feasts and times of public worship. They were not required to be silent or to be hidden from sight behind veils. Jesus’ group of disciples included several women, a practice almost unknown at the time. Over the past few days I have been reading Acts and I have seen time and again that women are given constant mention among the first converts and among those who played integral roles in the early church. One could almost argue that God goes out of His way to point to the importance of women in these situations.

The biblical teaching on the value of women stands in stark contrast to that of other religions, and especially religions of that day. Women in pagan societies were often treated with little more dignity than animals. Many systems of religion and philosophy taught that women were inherently inferior to men, a claim that is clearly revoked in Scripture. Pagan religion, while it may have paid homage to female deities, devalued women by creating elaborate rituals which required sacred prostitutes. These religions, while supposedly honoring women, in reality debased them.

MacArthur concludes that “Wherever the gospel has spread, the social, legal and spiritual status of women has, as a rule, been elevated. When the gospel has been eclipsed (whether by repression, false religion, secularism, humanistic philosophy, or spiritual decay within the church), the status of women has declined accordingly.” Secular efforts to increase the status of women have largely failed, as we have seen with the feminist movement of the twentieth century. This movement sought to elevate the status of women, but did so at the cost of their femininity, seeking to rob women of what makes them so distinctive. The whole message of the feminist agenda is that there is nothing all that extraordinary about women, for they are just like men. The Bible, though, tells a different story. MacArthur states that “[W]henever the Bible expressly talks about the marks of an excellent women, the stress is always on feminine virtue. The most significant women in Scripture were influential not because of their careers, but because of their character. The message these women collectively give is not about “gender equality”; it is about true feminine excellence. And this is always exemplified in moral and spiritual qualities rather than by social standing, wealth or physical appearance.”

The Bible continually affirms that women are extraordinary. Women have value and worth that is in every way equal to men. Women are no mere afterthought, but are an integral and equal part of God’s design for human beings. The Bible is unique in that it honors women as women, exalting them for their femininity, and encouraging them to seek honor in a uniquely feminine and God-glorifying way.

October 03, 2005

The concept of repentance seems to be in full-fledged retreat in today’s church. Evangelical Christians love to stress decisions, worship, faith and growth, but seem to leave out one rather critical aspect of the Christian faith. We need not look far to find people who confess Christ, yet continue to live in ways that would call their confession into question. More than simply committing sins, so many are living truly sinful lifestyles. One has legitimate grounds to wonder if they have show genuine repentance before God.

Repentance is a concept that causes our human natures to rebel, for we hate to think that we are really sinful enough that we need to repent before God. We also hate to give up our autonomy and admit that God’s ways our superior to ours. The idea of expressing faith seems wonderful and so does the idea of being followers of Jesus, but admitting our sinful natures and confessing our unworthiness before God flies in the face of what our society teaches us. We are taught that right and wrong are subjective and that what is good for me may be bad for you – and frankly that’s just fine as long as you don’t force your views on me. Repentance is an admission that our ways our wrong and God’s are right. Repentance is admitting that we are willing to suppress our desires in favor of God’s.

Because our society so hates the idea of repentance, many churches, out of a so-called “seeker-sensitivity,” have stopped speaking about it, choosing instead to teach about sorrow and brokenness. Instead of portraying Jesus as the one who died to remove the stench of our sin from before God, Jesus is portrayed as one who died to meet our needs and to help us live a better life. Jesus died to give us purpose and to give us the power to change our minds. There need not be true, biblical repentance in this watered-down gospel. The true gospel, the gospel which has the power to transform lives, cannot be preached without repentance. An example of an incomplete understanding of repentance was forwarded to me last week by a reader of this site. He provided an excerpt from an interview with Rick Warren. Here is Warren’s definition of repentance:

“The sixth principle is that the biblical word for changing your mind is repentance, metanoia. Now when most people think of the word of repentance, they think of sandwich signs, turn or burn, or they think repentance means stopping all my bad actions.

That is not what repentance is. There is not a lexicon in the world that will tell you that repentance means stop your bad action.

Repentance, metanoia, simply means changing your mind. And we are in the mind-changing business. Preaching is about mind changing. Society’s word for repentance, by the way, is “paradigm shift.”

Repentance is the ultimate paradigm shift, where I go from darkness to light, from guilt to forgiveness, from no hope to hope, from no purpose to purpose, from living for myself to living for Christ. It’s the ultimate paradigm shift.

And repentance is changing your mind at the deepest level of beliefs and values.”

The Bible is not a dictionary, so we will not find a clear-cut, dictionary-like definition of “repent” within its pages. Yet by examining Scripture and historical Christianity we can arrive at a satisfactory definition that captures the biblical essence of the term.

Defining Repentance

Repentance follows the Spirit’s regeneration of a person. Once the Spirit has regenerated us, we are able to do two things. First, we can express faith in God. Second, and inseparable from this expression of faith, we are able to repent before God. These are really two sides of a coin, for as we turn towards God in faith we must necessarily turn away from something at the same time. As we turn towards God we turn away from the way we used to live. This is repentance.

Repentance comes from the Latin word meaning “think” so in reality repentance is “re-thinking.” Repentance is changing one’s mind, but there is more to it than that. The change of mind is so deep and so important that it influences all areas of life – values, goals, affections, actions, plans, motives and lifestyle. More than a change of mind it is a complete reversal of the way a person lives.

The Westminster Confession says the following about repenting:

A sinner, out of the sight and sense, not only of the danger, but also the filthiness and odiousness of his sins, as contrary to the holy nature and righteous law of God, and upon the apprehension of His mercy in Christ to such as are penitent, so grieves for and hates his sins as to turn from them all unto God, purposing and endeavoring to walk with Him in all the ways of His commandments. (15.2)

The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, as we might expect, provides a similar definition, defining repentance as “The act of expressing contrition and penitence for sin. Its linguistic roots point to its theological meaning of a change of mind and life direction as a beginning step of expressing Christian faith (Acts 26:20).”

Repentance, then, is born of a comprehension of how odious our sins are in the sight of God. When we begin to understand just how terrible our sins are and how deeply and completely they have offended God, we are able also to begin to comprehend how deep God’s mercy is that He would choose to save us. Understanding our sin and His mercy, we are driven to repent, turning our backs on our sinful ways and choosing to follow God’s ways.

It is important to note that repentance is much more than simply feelings of sorrow or self-hatred. Though these may be part of our reactions to repenting, they are not enough. True repentance expresses itself in action and in a changed life. In Psalm 51 David pours out his heart to God in a beautiful prayer of repentance – one we would all do well to make our own. We see him acknowledging his sinfulness before God (“my sin is always before me. Again You, You only have I sinned”), asking God for forgiveness (“wash me and I shall be whiter than snow”) and expressing a changed life (“deliver me from the guilt…and my tongue shall sing aloud of Your righteousness…my mouth shall show forth Your praise.”). More than simply feeling guilt or sorrow, David showed that he was willing to change. Just as faith without works is dead, so repentance without change is dead.

Warren goes on to tell how he feels that preaching for repentance is the deepest kind of preaching. While I agree on the importance of preaching repentance, I wonder how much the repentance he preaches is mere change of mind and how much is an apprehension of our terrible sinfulness. What we see in Warren’s understanding of repentance (which typifies a modern, evangelical definition) is that many definitions of repentance show a startling absence of any type of mention of sin. Gone are the terms or concepts so integral to Scripture and historic Christianity, terms like “filthiness” and “odiousness.” Gone is a sense of absolute undeservedness. In its place is a changed mind, a decision to turn from bad action to good.

With God’s help we begin to express our repentance with a turning away from our sinful natures. No definition of repentance can be complete without an understanding of my great offense towards God which leads us to turn away from sin. Our wills become subject to His. Our desires become His desires and our goals His goals. Though we continue to express sorrow when we sin, we also express joy when we see how God has helped us change our lives, allowing us to become more and more conformed to the image of His Son.

September 29, 2005

Last night was a rough night. My daughter woke up at 11:30, terrified about something. My wife eventually surrendered and brought her into bed with us. When my daughter climbs into our bed I always end up with her pointy end (her toes) jabbing into me, so I soon gave up and went to sleep in her bed. No sooner had I gotten back to sleep than my son woke me up complaining that he was having bad dreams about aliens. And so on. It was one of those nights parents just have to deal with. My efforts at creativity this morning fell flat, so I peered into the archives of this site to find an article that discusses a topic I have been thinking about a little bit recently. I have made several changes to the article, which I first published a couple of years ago, and am publishing it again.

I recently read an article (which alas I can no longer find) that described a search the BBC made for the Loch Ness Monster. The corporation hired a team of experts to sweep Loch Ness from end to end, back and forth for several days using some of the world’s most sophisticated sonar equipment. After a complete, thorough search they concluded that there is no evidence to indicate that a monster lives in the Loch. To prove a theory as to how the myth of the Loch Ness Monster continues to grow despite the mounting evidence that Nessie does not exist the team performed a devious little experiment. They rigged up a system which allowed them to raise an object from under the water far out into the Loch. They would then interview the inevitable crowd of tourists standing by the shore to ask them what they had seen. They elected to use a section of fencing as the decoy, deliberately choosing an object that looks absolutely nothing like an ancient aquatic creature. They waited until a busload of tourists had arrived on the shores of the Loch and once the bus was unloaded they raised the fence a few feet out of the water. There was great excitement on the shore and sure enough, when they interviewed people after the fact, the majority of them described seeing something that looked just like the traditional depiction of the Loch Ness Monster.

The people who led this study concluded that this was a type of “pareidolia.” Pareidolia is “a type of illusion or misperception involving a vague or obscure stimulus being perceived as something clear and distinct.” (Skeptics Dictionary) Other examples of this are seeing the face of Mother Teresa in a cinnamon bun or seeing the face of a man on the moon. In the case of the people gathered at Loch Ness, they saw something vague and yet were able to describe it in detail. The detail was fabricated by their minds based on what they already imagined the Loch Ness Monster to look like.

Certainly the people who saw a section of fence being raised from the water did not expect to see a fence – they expected to see a monster. Many of them had traveled from other countries for the expressed purpose of visiting Loch Ness to see if this monster is real or mere myth. So when the object came up from the water their minds allowed them to see what they wanted to see. Had they been expecting to see a Volkswagen Bug emerging from the water I have little doubt that their minds would have allowed them to believe that is what rose from the depths.

What we see in this rather extreme example is the value of objectivity. Had the people visiting Loch Ness been objective they would have seen nothing but a section of wet fencing material. They would have seen the reality in all its simplicity.

This article made me ask myself how often I approach the Bible with the wrong attitude. How often do I approach it with my own agenda in mind? Homosexuals approach the Bible determined to find proof that their lifestyle is not only acceptable but condoned by Scripture. So when they read that John was the apostle that Jesus loved, they see support for their lifestyle. When they read about the love between Jonathan and David they see them as homosexual and allow it give license to their own immorality. Often people on both sides of various debates misuse Scripture in this way. Take, for example, the issue of women in positions of leadership in the church. Proponents of both sides will eschew objectivity, approaching the Scriptures determined to prove their point. When we approach the Bible determined to prove what we already believe we will more often than not find enough proof to satisfy ourselves, even if we are taking passages far beyond their real meaning.

Several days ago reviewed Invitation to Silence and Solitude by Ruth Haley Barton and she provided a clear example of this type of misreading. She was clearly determined to find some Scriptural license for the silent prayer she advocates and so read into the story of Elijah a complex system of theology that goes far beyond what Scripture teaches. So was so determined to see silent prayer that she saw it in a story where it clearly does not exist.

The lesson to me is that I need to approach the Bible objectively, asking God to reveal His truth to me through His Word. I need to lay aside my presuppositions and biases so, if necessary, I can allow God to change and mold me. I need to allow the Bible to show me what a given passage really means, not merely cast onto it what I want it to say.

John Calvin once warned against treating the Bible like a ball that we bounce around at will. The Bible is the very Word of God and its teachings can be rightly learned only by the most impartial and objective study of the text. And that means being impartial and objective even about the parts we may not like, for often God’s ways are at odds with our far-too-human agendas.

September 28, 2005

I grew up in a Christian culture in which very little evangelism took place. How little? Well, the first adult I ever witnessed getting baptized was my wife (she was my girlfriend at the time) and that was when we were nineteen or so. I believe it was also the first time our church had ever baptized an adult. And what’s more, it was the first time most of the people who attended that church had ever seen an adult get baptized. While it is not necessarily so, it seems that there is bound to be something amiss with the evangelistic focus of churches that never, ever see any outside converts through their ministry.

A few years after my wife’s baptism we moved away from the town we had grown up in so we could be closer to my place of business. After several months of visiting different churches around the area, we found ourselves a home at the church we attend now. It is a church that, while it is not seeker-friendly, is very outward focused. We have seen many, many people come to faith, including several who are now our closest friends. We have seen lives be altered dramatically and have seen more baptisms than we can count - baptisms in rivers, pools, hot tubs and a really big, ugly aluminum tank. Of course I will have to grant that this is a Baptist church and they insist on baptizing people who were baptized as children or, as in my wife’s case, were not immersed but sprinkled when baptized as adults. So some of the baptisms we have witnessed would be considered “re-baptisms” in a standard Reformed or Presbyterian setting. But the fact is that we have seen a vast number of people get saved in one of the most unchurched parts of North American through this church’s ministry.

Over the years I began to reflect (and I’ve been using that word quite a bit lately, I believe) on what made the churches I attended as a child and teenager so ineffective at evangelism. I have to be careful here because I know several people from the churches of my youth who read this site and I want to be careful that I accurately characterize these churches. While there are several reasons I could provide, and they are of varying importance, there is one that I believe stands at the foundation of the rest: These churches regarded the unbeliever as the enemy. Of course the church would never have articulated that belief, but it seemed to be deeply rooted.

This attitude manifested itself in many ways. One of the clearest ways was among the children of church members. They would rarely, if ever, be allowed or encouraged to play with the unsaved children in the neighbourhood. I knew a man who was an “urban missionary” whose children were confined to their backyard and were never, ever allowed to play with the other children in the area. My father used to joke that a man could become rich by selling fencing supplies to people in these churches. The churched children were not allowed to play with other children lest they become corrupted by their worldliness.

My observation was that this approach failed badly. First, the church was not faithful to its calling to take the gospel throughout the world (and the world begins just outside the front door). Second, the children developed a fascination with worldliness simply because any access to the world had been denied to them and they had never seen the pain and heartbreak that are the inevitable result of forsaking God. The world looks awfully attractive until a person sees the results of giving himself over to it. Third, the parents ignored worldliness in their own children. I know that I saw more drugs, more drinking, more disrespect and more awful behavior in the Christian schools I attended than I did in the public schools. This isolation simply did not work.

The attitude that was modeled to me was far different. My family took the opposite approach and we were always encouraged to make friends with the children in the neighbourhoods we lived in. My parents saw this as a stepping-stone to meeting the parents and having opportunity to share the gospel with them. And we saw many children and parents come to faith in this way. Many others may not have become believers, but they received a clear presentation of the gospel so that they are now without excuse. Mom and dad did not do this because they regarded the folks in the neighbourhood as a project, but out of a genuine love, concern and appreciation for these people. The person next door was not an enemy, but a person who was as unsaved as they were not too many years before, and was thus someone in desperate need of a Savior. And they intended to give everyone the opportunity to meet the Savior through them.

Sometimes worlds clashed. There were a couple of times when my sisters brought friends to church, friends who were unsaved but were showing interest in the gospel, only to have them mocked or scorned. One little girl was scolded and had her ear “flicked” by the woman in the pew behind her because she was not able to sit still throughout the service. A friend my sister brought to church was openly mocked by the children in the church (children who later had a surprise “encounter” with myself behind the church, but I digress) because he had dyed-blond hair and an earing. He never returned, and as far as I know, never expressed any openness to the gospel after that time.

I truly believe, after many years of reflection, that the real problem in these churches was in their attitude towards the unbeliever. The person next door was the enemy, a person to be feared for what he might do to the family, and the children in particular, and thus someone to be regarded with distrust and suspicion rather than with love.

Sometimes I think it is little wonder that the Emerging Church crowd rebels against evangelism metaphors that make the unbeliever sound like an enemy. Perhaps these metaphors do cause us to regard unbelievers as a rebel army that we need to fear. It occurs to me that when we sing “Onward Christian Soliders” we are not singing a battlecry that will lead us out to battle against the unbeliever next door. No, we are not waging war “against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).

The real enemy is not next door. He is not human flesh and blood. The real enemy has been given temporary rule over this world and seeks to destroy us by leading us to rebel against the Creator. And he extends his rule when he convinces us that rather than battling against him, we battle against the enemy next door.

September 27, 2005

You all remember, I’m sure, the story of Ashley Smith and Brian Nichols. Nichols, of course, is the man who overpowered a deputy escorting him to a rape trial, assaulted her and then killed a judge, court reporter, and a deputy in and outside the Fulton County courthouse. Later that night he fatally shot a federal agent at his home in Buckhead. Nichols took Smith hostage in her home before surrendering to authorities. Smith later told reporters how she had read Nicholas chapters from The Purpose Driven Life and she became an instant Christian celebrity. She quickly cashed in with a book and movie deal. She is also on the speaking circuit.

Smith’s book will be released next week and will disclose that during the ordeal she gave him more than purpose. She also gave him methamphetamines. He initially asked her for marijuana, but since she was out of that drug, she supplied him with another. You can read more here. “Smith, who has been in a mental hospital and has flunked out of drug rehabilitation programs, says the seven-hour hostage ordeal led her to stop using drugs. She says she has not touched drugs since the night before she was taken hostage.”

It seems to me that there was likely some spin on this story right from the beginning, ignoring the bad (that she provided him drugs and may even have known him previously) and focusing instead on her supposed heroism in reading him The Purpose Driven Life. What a mess!

In related news, Nichols, has converted to Islam while in prison.

September 24, 2005

I received the following news from Nancy Pearcey. I have had opportunity to browse through the Study Guide Edition of Total Truth and it looks great. I will have a thorough review of it next month.

World Journalism Institute is happy to announce that the study guide edition of Total Truth:Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity is now in bookstores. Total Truth is an award-winning book on Christian worldview by Nancy Pearcey, WJI’s Francis A. Schaeffer Scholar.

The new study guide edition is a great resource for Sunday School classes and study groups. It goes far beyond the typical guide by offering 30 pages of significant new content—fresh stories, examples, and illustrations to bring the book’s themes to life. Each chapter also suggests on-going activities to guide readers in detecting worldview themes in their work and daily experience.

Nancy Pearcey has “road-tested” the material with students in WJI’s journalism courses and their feedback has been highly enthusiastic. Many say it greatly enhanced their reading of the book.

“Virtually every day I get emails from readers who want to know if there is a study guide available for Total Truth,” Pearcey told WJI. “The book is being used by churches, schools, and study groups around the country—even by reading groups among Capitol Hill staffers.”

The study guide edition is an outstanding tool to help readers dig deeper into the text and learn how to be equipped with a Christian worldview. It is available from your local Christian bookstore or Borders, or online from Amazon, Christianbook.com, Barnes & Noble, and other bookstores. Total Truth won the Award of Merit in the Christianity & Culture category in the Christianity Today Book Awards for 2005, and the ECPA Gold Medallion Award for best book of the year in the Christianity & Society category.

September 22, 2005

One of my long-time favorite shows on television is The Antiques Roadshow. It is a show that has been a staple on PBS for many years and on British television for longer than that. Recently they have even begun a Canadian version which I have not yet had opportunity to watch. The show affords people the opportunity to bring their antique possessions, whether furniture, paintings, toys or anything else, and have them appraised by some of the world’s foremost experts in antiquities. Every show the producers single out ten or fifteen items and show an expert providing a detailed description and valuation of the item. Each section closes with the expert telling the owner just what the item is worth. It is always fun to see eyes pop out or to see people jump up and down with excitement as they realize that they have in their possession an item worth tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. Every episode the viewer has opportunity to see junk transformed to treasure.

I suppose my attraction to the show probably stems from my love for history (which I did, after all, spend my college-years studying). I often marvel at the knowledge the antique experts display as they describe the history of a piece of furniture, the man who made it, how much it cost 200 years ago and what it is worth today. I love to watch the expert’s excitement as they see items they know are rare and valuable. I stand in amazement not so much at what some of the items are worth but that people are actually willing to pay that price for some of them. After all, an item is only worth what someone will pay for it.

There is one episode that stands out in my mind, because it featured the most valuable item they have ever shown on The Antiques Roadshow (there was one item they appraised that was more valuable but the owner wished to remain anonymous). The story was wonderful.

An elderly gentleman from Tuscon, Arizona brought in an old blanket he had inherited several years before. He knew it was old and believed it had a little bit of value – perhaps a few hundred or even a couple of thousand dollars. After inheriting this blanket he threw it over the back of a rocking chair in his bedroom and had not often thought about it until presented with opportunity to take it to the Raodshow.

With the blanket hanging on a rack behind them, the expert appraiser told the old man that his heart had stopped when he first saw it. Watching the show I could see the excitement written all over the expert’s face and extending throughout his body, for he just could not stand still. He began to explain just what the blanket was. It was a Navajo chief’s blanket that had been woven in the 1840’s. Surviving in wonderful condition, it was one of the oldest intact Navajo weaves to survive to the twenty-first century, and certainly one of only a tiny handful to exist outside of museum collections. He showed the fine detail of the weaving and even showed where it had been torn and repaired shortly after it was first made. I could see the excitement in his eyes as he looked at something he knew was extremely valuable. He knew that sitting before him was more than a blanket – it was a rare national treasure of incredible value.

The appraiser seemed to have trouble even beginning to tell the audience just how important this blanket was. He left no doubt, though, when he told of its value. Because of its rarity and historical significance, he had no trouble assigning a value of somewhere between $350,000 and $500,000. Yes, this elderly gentleman had come to the show carrying a blanket worth almost a half million dollars. He simply could not believe what he was hearing. Choked up and with tears pouring from his eyes he asked to hear the amount again. I honestly thought he might just pass out then and there.

It is safe to say that the blanket the man had cavalierly carried in with him was cradled carefully in his arms as he walked out. In fact, he walked out of the building with security guards on either side of him, drove straight to a bank, and placed the blanket in a safety deposit box. What had been junk, a mere accent to an old rocking chair, had been immediately transformed to a precious treasure.

The blanket had not changed any – it was exactly the same blanket after the show as it had been an hour before while the man waited in line, yet something had changed. It was not the blanket, but the man who had changed. What he had seen as a blanket of no extraordinary value he now realized was an extremely rare and valuable national treasure. What he had in his arms was the envy of every Indian collector in the world and of the thousands of people watching the show. What he had overlooked before, he now loved and treasured.

I remember a day, not too long ago, when I sat in my little office reading my Bible. Now I have had many Bibles in my lifetime and have been reading the Word with some degree of faithfulness since I was just a child. I am sure I have read the entire book several times through (except, probably, for some of those Minor Prophets!). On this particular morning I came across Hebrews 4 where I read the words “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” I had read those words many times, had heard people preach about them and had read books which sought to exposit them. But that morning, as I read those words, something stirred in my soul. It was as if an appraiser had stood beside me and told me just exactly what it was I was holding in my hands. I began to look up other similar passages – Psalm 119, 2 Timothy 4 and more. As I looked back down at my Bible, it was as if the book had been transformed from a blanket draped casually over my chair to one that was a priceless treasure. The book was the same, but suddenly I had a deep appreciation for its value. Chills ran down my spine as I appreciated for the first time what a treasure I held before me.

The Bible has never been the same to me since that day. I have not been the same since that day. Rather than being just another book on a rather busy bookshelf, my Bible now stands out as a treasure. More than just words, the Bible is the very Word of God! More than ink on a page, the Bible is alive and active. It contains exactly what God wants me to know about Him and about myself. It is the awesome, amazing, living revelation of an awesome, amazing, powerful God to His created beings.

That day, as I stood in awe of the blessing I have in this book, I asked God to continue to impress its value on me and He has been faithful in doing so. I do not presume to have a full understanding of the Bible’s importance and value, but I do believe I know far more than I did before. My love and respect for the Word continue to grow. The more I learn of the Word, the more I praise God for bestowing this treasure upon me and the more I stand in awe of His wisdom for revealing Himself to us in this way.

Just as millions of people have dusted off their antiques and hauled them to stadiums or arenas around North America to have them appraised by the experts, I would encourage you to dust off your Bible and ask the Appraiser to impress on you its worth. If you approach Him humbly and with a thirst for wisdom, He will show you the incredible value of the treasure He has given you.

Note: I first posted an article similar to this a couple of years ago. Recent reflection on Scripture led me to rewrite it and post it again.

September 19, 2005

John Calvin is a man loved and respected by some, despised and reviled by others. Those who dislike Calvin and his theology are likely to protest on many grounds, but the most common are his view of predestination and an understanding of Calvin as something of a dictator over the town of Geneva. It is not unusual to find people who villify Calvin as nothing short of tyrannical - a despot who let no one and nothing stand in his way. Calvin is most notorious for the situation regarding Servetus, a man who was found guilty of heresy and executed for this belief. Here are a few quotes I found regarding Servetus:

  • “On October 27, 1553 John Calvin, the founder of Calvinism, had Michael Servetus, the Spanish physician, burned at the stake just outside of Geneva for his doctrinal heresies!”
  • “He was seized the day after his arrival, condemned as a heretic when he refused to recant, and burned in 1553 with the apparent tacit approval of Calvin.” [Do note that this is taken from the same article as the first quote. I’m not sure how the author reconciles his assertion that Calvin had Servetus burned at the stake with his second assertion that Calvin merely gave tacit approval!]
  • “Calvin had him [Servetus] arrested as a heretic. Convicted and burned to death.”
  • “Calvin killed Servetus because he disagreed with him.”

In speaking to people about the doctrines of grace I have often had to address their assertions, usually made without any real understanding of the situation, that John Calvin was a heartless dictator. So today I would like to address the Servetus problem.

Michael Servetus

Michael Servetus was a Spanish theologian and physician who lived from 1511-1553. In his early years he came into contact with many leading Reformers and while he broke with the Roman Catholic Church and became at least nominally Protestant, he adopted a particularly heretical belief, denying that Jesus Christ was the Son of God. He also denied paedo-baptism, a belief which further alienated him from Protestant and Catholic alike. His books on Christian doctrine were read and examined by the Catholic Church and he was condemned as a heretic. He was arrested, tried and sentenced to death, but managed to escape from his captors. He fled towards Italy, but for an unknown reason decided to pass through Geneva.

Geneva, of course, was the home of John Calvin and the very center of Reformed doctrine. Servetus’ decision to stop in Geneva was in no way innocent. Some have suggested that he arrived in Geneva almost by accident, but this is not true. He was clearly hoping to exert influence over Calvin and to convert him to his errant understanding of the Trinity. It seems that Servetus was a strange combination of genius and lunatic.

Servetus’ reputation preceded him and Calvin and the other Reformers knew of his heresies. Calvin had earlier written a now infamous letter to Farel, dated February 13th, 1546, where he said, “Servetus wrote to me a short time ago, and sent a huge volume of his dreamings and pompous triflings with his letter. I was to find among them wonderful things, and such as I had never before seen; and if I wished, he would himself come. But I am by no means inclined to be responsible for him; and if he come, I will never allow him, supposing my influence worth anything, to depart alive.” When Servetus, at last, arrived in the city, Calvin was left with the unenviable position of having to decide whether to allow the heretic to continue his teaching in Geneva, which would inevitably lead people to believe that the Reformed church was lenient towards heresy (softer even that the Roman Catholic Church that had already condemned this man to death), or to attempt to take action.

Calvin found that he had little choice but to ask the civil authorities to intervene. Historian Francis Higman correctly says “there was a sort of horrid inevitability about the whole thing.” Calvin had no political authority whatsoever, and was not even a citizen of Geneva until six years later. Calvin did what he could, which was to ask the civil authorities to investigate the matter and to take action. They consulted churches in Geneva and elsewhere in Switzerland and found that this was a matter worthy of trial. The trial was lengthy and deliberate. Servetus was eventually found guilty and was condemned to be burned at the stake, despite Calvin’s request that he be executed painlessly by being beheaded. Michael Servetus was put to death on October 27, 1553. Several months later the Catholic Inquisition in France executed him once more, this time in effigy.

Answering the Critics

Here are several pointers you may wish to consider when answering critics.

  • Motives - Some non-Reformed Christians hail Servetus almost as a hero, for no other reason than he casts a shadow over John Calvin. They would do well to remember, though, that Servetus was a heretic who denied a doctrine of absolute foundational importance. There can be no salvation for one who denies that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. We must ensure that people are researching Servetus out of pure motives and not merely in an attempt to villify Calvin.
  • Historical Context - Do remember that we are not dealing here with modern day Western nations where there was a clear separation between church and state. Religion was inseperable from politics. Church and state were mingled and both rulers and the common man felt that a common religion was absolutely critical to the maintenance of order. In the sixteenth century heresy was a common charge and heresy of the magnitude expressed by Michael Servetus was almost always punishable by death. It may be helpful to draw people’s attention to the Old Testament where God not only approved of, but commanded, the destruction of entire nations. Surely this would seem atrocious to modern readers, and surely God would no longer command it today, yet at the time it happened it was common practice. The times change. We see evidence of this as well in the New and Old Testaments where believers owned slaves, another practice we would consider abominable and unfitting for Christians.

    Paul Henry, a notable historian, writes: “Calvin here appears in his real character; and a nearer consideration of the proceeding, examined from the point of view furnished by the age in which he lived, will completely exonerate him from all blame. His conduct was not determined by personal feeling; it was the consequence of a struggle which this great man had carried on for years against tendencies to a corruption of doctrine which threatened the church with ruin. Every age must be judged according to its prevailing laws; and Calvin cannot be fairly accused of any greater offence than that with which we may be charged for punishing certain crimes with death.” Calvin was right to take action. The horrid inevitability was that in this time and place heresy was a civil offense and one punishable by death.

  • Calvin’s Authority - Critics of John Calvin like to suggest that John Calvin ordered the execution and that he murdered Servetus. Remember the quotes from the beginning of this article. It is important to note that John Calvin had no authority in the town of Geneva. He was not even a citizen until six years after this happened! Those who would have us believe that Calvin had the authority to have this man murdered would do well to note that he did not have the power to lessen the sentence. Calvin requested action and testified at Servertus’ trial, but it was the civil courts that sentenced the man to death.
  • Calvin’s Compassion - Calvin’s critics have often suggested that Calvin delighted in the death of Servetus. This is difficult, and likely impossible, to prove. It should be noted that Calvin was the only person who suggested a lighter sentence, asking the court to allow Servetus to die painlessly by beheading. Calvin prayed with and for Servetus and earlier in his life had sent Servetus a copy of his Institutes. Interestingly, Servetus returned the book with many abusive and insulting comments written in the margins. Despite this offense, Calvin showed clear pastoral concern for this man’s soul. But Servetus died clinging to his heretical beliefs.
  • Expiation - Three hundred and fifty years after the death of Servetus, a monument of expiation was erected at the place where Servetus was executed. On one side of this monument are recorded the dates of the birth and death of Servetus. On the opposite side is this inscription:

    “Dutiful and grateful followers of Calvin our great Reformer, yet condemning an error which was that of his age, and strongly attached to liberty of conscience, according to the true principles of the Reformation and of the Gospel, we have erected this expiatory monument. October 27th, 1903.”

    While such a monument can hardly atone for the death of a man, it does express a post-Reformation understanding that such an act was unacceptable and an unfortunate product of the times.

Conclusion

Perhaps it is also helpful to note that while Calvinists are called after John Calvin, they identify more with his theology than with the man himself. Many, and no doubt most Calvinists have never read a word of John Calvin. Instead they reluctantly call themselves Calvinists because they feel John Calvin was gifted by God to understand and interpret the Scriptures and that he restored to the church doctrine that had been lost for hundreds of years. His gift to the church was not himself, but the doctrines of grace illumined to him by the Holy Spirit. The death of Servetus, and the role played by John Calvin, stand as proof that he was in no way perfect and was as much in need of grace as any of us.

Pages