Family Surrounded by Fire
From Tuesday through Thursday, subsequent to having my mind impressed by glimpses of the news concerning the division that is widening in our world, both home and abroad, I later behold the few who attend evening Bible study, the same group class after class, who, when they come together, are full of laughter, love, unity; all of which proceeds from a love of God and His word.
What prompted me to write a little about this was an excerpt from one of John Calvin’s letters in which he referred to the death of his infant son, his only child. “The Lord,” he says, “has dealt us [he and his wife Idelette] a severe blow in the taking from us our infant son: but it is our Father who knows what is best for his children. … God has given me a little son, and taken him away; but I have myriads of children in the whole Christian world.”
I cannot imagine the pain that a parent feels from losing a child, especially a helpless infant. As a parent you are supposed to protect your children, and how ineffective you must feel when you simply can't. But Calvin still finds solace in first, the Father knows better than us and wants nothing but our good, though we cannot always understand how He performs it, and second, we have an enormous family of mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, wives, husbands, sons, daughters, and infants in what the Bible calls the body of Christ. I know that I didn’t have to list all the parts of a family for you, but I wanted to in case you have lost someone, for you don’t think about losing a “family member,” that’s too removed, but you do think “I’ve lost my child.”
God has so composed the body of Christ that we are one and unified in love. I feel great pity for the people of the world who never experience it. I also feel heartache for the Christians who allow division to displace love, the bond of unity, and thereby ruin by petty pride the great gift of family that God has graciously given to all His children.
Calvin is often depicted as staunch and cold. He was nothing of the sort, or at least that’s what I gather from his letters. He was strict when it came to church discipline and doctrine, but that is required of all pastors. Christian leaders are often characterized as cold when they will not bend the truth they know, but they would be cold if they didn’t listen to the views of earnest Christians that differ from their own. If someone has another view, someone who believes all the same foundational truth that you do, and you conclude their view to be wrong before you even consider it, so you can protect your own view as right, thus winning the argument, are you a student of truth? A view is like an opinion. There is always room for improvement and learning, and they do change with increased knowledge. And if someone’s opinion is obviously weak:
Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions.
For instance, I have often heard or read of Christians arguing the opinion that all Christians will have good works. I always wonder, how many good works qualify? One, ten, a thousand? I haven’t a clue. Perhaps also, the so-called good work that you saw some alleged Christian do was done only because of social pressure or to satisfy some hidden guilt. That’s not good as God would define it. My point is that it’s just one of many things that are of opinion and cannot be called a solid, immoveable truth from revelation of the Scripture, like: Jesus is God and Man, the Son of God, the Messiah, the Savior of the world.
Calvin was immoveable on the doctrine of double-predestination, which adds to the idea that he was a man of an austere character. He understood the problems with the doctrine, that God elects some and reprobates’ others by sovereign choice and not based on the free-will faith of the individual. It’s not that he didn’t understand that salvation was by faith, he did, but he couldn’t let it sit on par with divine sovereignty. For Calvin, double predestination it was, and the conundrum of faith a mystery.
It is clear that Calvin loved the church and wanted nothing but truth and spirituality for her. It’s clear that he loved the scripture and believed it to be flawlessly inspired. He studied the word of God intensely and fully. He was the greatest biblical scholar of his time and all in the reformation knew and acknowledged it. I would venture, in my opinion, that Calvin was only interested in the truth of scripture, but I would also say that he, like all of us, had biases that moved him to conclude things a little distant from center about the mysteries of God and His dealings with man.
Stay with me, I’m getting to my point.
Calvin had a long-lasting friendship with Philip Melanchthon, the main disciple of Martin Luther who would bear the burden of carrying the torch of Luther through the Reformation after Luther’s death. What is significant about their friendship, in which they respected each other greatly, was that they didn’t agree on everything, and even more significantly, on predestination. Predestination has its inherent mysteries, but it is not a trivial doctrine. Calvin stood on double-predestination, as did Luther, and as did a younger Melanchtthon, but time and learning moved Melanchthon in a more liberal direction concluding in a much larger role for the free-will choice of faith in his doctrine of salvation. Calvin tried to convince Melanchthon and bring him over to his side, but in vain. Yet still, they remained conscious brothers. Calvin writes to him:
“You can scarce believe with what a load of business I am here burdened and incessantly hurried along; but in the midst of these distractions there are two things which most annoy me. My chief regret is, there does not appear to be the amount of fruit that one may reasonably expect from the labor bestowed; the other is, because I am so far removed from yourself and a few others, and therefore am deprived of that sort of comfort and consolation which would prove a special help to me.
“But since we cannot have even so much at our own choice, that each at his own discretion might pick out the corner of the vineyard where he might serve Christ, we must remain at the post which He Himself has allotted to each. This comfort we have at least, of which no far distant separation can deprive us, - I mean, that resting content with this fellowship which Christ has consecrated with His own blood, and has also confirmed and sealed by his blessed Spirit in our hearts, - while we live on earth, we may cheer each other with that blessed hope to which your letter calls us that in heaven above we shall dwell forever where we shall rejoice in love and in continuance of our friendship.”
His letter is a noble expression of Christian friendship, though they differed slightly in their interpretation of the doctrine of predestination. They didn’t try to burn each other’s churches down, but to the contrary, strove for unity.
Calvin understood the issues with predestination as well as the problems inherent in his own interpretation. He was an exceptional scholar, likely the best out of all in the Reformation. Melanchthon writes to Calvin:
“As regards the question treated in your book, the question of predestination, I had in Tubingen a learned friend, Franciscus Stadianus, who used to say, ‘I hold both to be true that all things happen according to divine foreordination, and yet according to their own laws,’ although he could not harmonize the two. I maintain the proposition that God is not the author of sin, and therefore cannot will it. David was by his own will carried into transgression. He might have retained the Holy Spirit. In this conflict there is some margin for free will … Let us accuse our own will if we fall, and not find the cause in God. He will help and aid those who fight in earnest. God promises and gives help to those who are willing to receive. So says the Word of God, and in this let us abide. I am far from prescribing to you, the most learned and experienced man in all things that belong to piety. I know that in general you agree with my view. I only suggest that this mode of expression is better adapted for practical use.”
What is also interesting is that Melanchthon did not always hold to this view of predestination. Almost 20 years earlier, Melanchthon asserted in his first commentary on Romans that God does all things forcefully (Latin: potenter) and that God foreordained and wrought the adultery of David, the treason of Judas, as well as the vocation of Paul. But through the years he had certainly grown and changed to the truth that the free-will of man must decide for Christ, while acknowledging that God foreordained election according to the scripture. He and his friend Stadianus hold to my own view; both are true yet I cannot harmonize them any more than by saying, “there is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be!” (ROM 9:14).
Luther however, expressed the same views as the younger Melanchton, and he never recalled it. Over the years, Luther would dig his opinion trenches deeper, and he would grow far more combative and divisive to the body of Christ.
It’s important to see that some doctrinal differences can exist in unity and love. It is also true that other differences demand separation and defense. These later ones should be obvious. If someone doesn’t believe in the deity of Christ, they are not Christian. If someone believes salvation by works or that eternal security for believers is not secure, then they are not Christian. If someone believes the Word of God to be in error, not divinely inspired, or open for “reasonable interpretation,” they may be Christian, but they will have a head filled with false doctrine, of which all believers must especially beware.
We all must grow and increase learning. If it doesn’t change our view then we were already aware of everything - all learning having been accomplished. We grow in grace and knowledge together in the body of Christ.
We all go through heartache and loss. We all experience tumultuous circumstances in life, but they don’t change the existence of our brothers and sisters in Christ. “Behold my family.”
"Behold, My mother and My brothers! 50 "For whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother."
The foundation of our bond of unity is not our similar levels of understanding or our perfect insight into every doctrine. It’s also true that some of us have lost more than others, children, spouses, homes, etc. and so our unity is not communistic: we all have equal material. Rather, our unity is our acknowledgment and faith in a few key truths, and this is why a new believer, not knowing much about them, but knowing they are true, can come right into the fold.
I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, entreat you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing forbearance to one another in love, 3 being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.
To know there is a walk worthy of my calling is the beginning of knowing what that walk actually is, which takes many years of commitment to learn. The same is true of the rest that Paul lists. God has so designed the body of Christ that we learn all of it together in the bond of peace.
Many Americans think another civil war is coming. I pray every day that the people of this nation head in the opposite direction by revelation of the truth. In the midst of such chaos, the love of the body of Christ is the one light from the great city on the hill.
"A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. 35 "By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another."
Rejoic ing in the family of God,
Pastor Joe Sugrue