Results tagged “humility” from Reformation21 Blog

Praying Through the Scriptures: Galatians 6

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Over the years it has been my practice, learned from others, to offer up praises and petitions framed by a passage of Scripture. Some of these passages were read in preparation for preaching, others offered material for meditation in daily devotion; still others were plundered specifically for the purpose of finding fresh material for prayer. As I continue to learn how to pray I have shared a few prayers with my family and friends for their use or adaptation. The Alliance has asked me to share some with you too. Here are the prayers we have considered so far followed by the next prayer in this meditative series:

Genesis 1

Genesis 2

Deuteronomy 3

Joshua 23

Joshua 24; Acts 4

Judges 2; Acts 6

Galatians 5:16-26

Acts 7

Acts 8

 

Galatians 6

Gracious Father in heaven, hallowed by your name, and humbled be our own. We come to set your name above all others, for you alone are God; yours is the power and the glory and the honour. You are worthy of all praise and adoration for the glory of your character, for the goodness of your actions, for the grace of your salvation.

And so we ask, O Lord, that you would keep us from bragging. Keep us from thinking that we are really something, when we are nothing. Let us each test our own work, bear our own load, and correct fellow transgressors with a spirit of gentleness, keeping a watch on our own selves. Support us in doing good to everyone, especially to those who are of the household of faith. Prevent us from growing weary; prompt us to remember that in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.

And even as we ask that you would make us better servants, we beg that you would keep us from boasting. Stop us from boasting in anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to us, and us to the world. Make his suffering the talk of our day, his sorrows the source of our joys, his work, and not our own, the comfort of our hearts. Help us to walk by this rule. And may your peace and mercy, and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, be our salvation in this life of trouble, our consolation in times of discouragement, and our aspiration as we seek to be like him through the help of your Holy and powerful Spirit.

This we ask for our own sakes, so that we would be encouraged; and we ask if for Christ's sake, so that he would be glorified, and you in him. AMEN.


*This is the tenth post in a series on "Praying Through the Scriptures."

Dr. Chad Van Dixhoorn (PhD, Cambridge University) is a Professor of Church History and the Director of the Craig Center for the Study of the Westminster Standards at Westminster Theological Seminary. He also serves as an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK.

Of all the sixteenth-century Reformers John Calvin (1506-1564) was the most reluctant to discuss details of his life in works destined for public consumption. As he told Cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto, "I am not eager to speak about myself." He had, as historian Heiko Oberman once aptly put it, a "dislike of self-disclosure." From his hand, for example, there are really only two major sources for details about his early life, namely, sections from his Reply to Sadoleto (1539), which need to be used with caution since they are not explicitly autobiographical, and those from the "Preface" to his Commentary on the Psalms (1557). Occasional remarks here and there in other passages in the works of Calvin help fill in some of the gaps of his early life, as do the two memoirs of the French Reformer by his close friend and ministerial colleague, Theodore Beza.

True to form, Calvin specified at the close of his life that he wanted to be buried in an unmarked grave, a wish that was followed. Calvin had had his fill of the reprehensible way that the medieval world had decked out the gravesites of their heroes and heroines, their "saints," and the way that those locales had become centers of pilgrimage that actually obscured true Christianity. Calvin's mother, Jeanne Cauvin, had been steeped, it appears, in the relic-visitation all too common in the late Middle Ages and taken her son to visit some of them.

But, if you go to Geneva today, as I did recently, you can walk over to the city's Cimetière de Plainpalais and find the gravesite marker (#707) and plaque for the famous Reformer. There, after recording his place of birth at Noyon, in France, in 1509 and his 1564 death in Geneva, the plaque simply states:

A declared partisan of Lutheran ideas (1533), he had to leave Paris and stayed in Strasbourg, Basel, and Geneva, where he definitively settled in 1541. He wished to make this town a model city and established a rigorous discipline here.

John Calvin grave plaque.jpg

None of the statements on this plaque about Calvin's theological orientation, the main urban centers of his life, his passion for Geneva, and his concern for discipline, are untrue, but they fail to capture the quintessence of the man. Having undergone an evangelical conversion--referred to here as the embrace of "Lutheran ideas"--in the early 1530s, he did end up finally in Geneva in 1541. An earlier stay in the city from 1536-1538 had been interrupted by an expulsion--he went to live in Strasbourg for three years and pastored what became L'église du Bouclier now on Rue du Bouclier. And under Calvin's pastoral leadership the city did become a focal point for Reformed worship and thinking throughout Europe. As Calvin once commented to the Zurich Reformer Heinrich Bullinger in 1549: "When I consider how very important this corner [i.e. Geneva] is for the propagation of the kingdom of Christ, I have good reason to be anxious that it should be carefully watched over."

But the heart of Calvin's life is missing from this brief memorial in the Genevan cemetery. That heart was nothing less than the glory of God as it has been revealed in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. As Calvin once wrote to a Christian landowner on the island of Jersey around the year 1553: "it is a sacrifice well pleasing to God ... to dedicate our life to the glory of him who has ransomed us at so costly a price." And eleven years later, Calvin, then on his deathbed, told his longtime friend Guillaume Farel, "I draw my breath with difficulty and expect each moment to breathe my last. It is enough that I live and die for Christ, who is to all his followers a gain both in life and in death."

Calvin had been right to be wary of tombstone memorials.

Of Mary's Virginity and Humility

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A seasonal quotation from Sermons of St. Bernard on Advent and Christmas:

"Who is this Virgin so reverently saluted by the angel? and so lowly as to be espoused to a carpenter? Beautiful commingling of virginity with humility! That soul is in no small degree pleasing to God, in whom humility commends virginity, and virginity adorns humility. But how much more worthy of veneration is she, in whom fecundity exalts humility, and child-bearing consecrates virginity."

"Virginity is a commendable virtue, but humility an indispensable one. The first is of counsel, the latter of precept. Of the one it is said, "He that can take, let him take it." Of the other, "Unless you become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven." To the one reward is offered: the other is exacted under a threat. Again, we can be saved without virginity, not without humility. A soul that has to deplore the loss of virginity may still be acceptable to God by humility: without humility, I will venture to say that even the virginity of Mary would not have been pleasing to Him, the Divine Majesty. Upon whom shall my spirit rest, if not on him that is humble and peaceable He says not on the virgin, but on the humble. If, therefore, Mary had not been humble the Spirit would not have rested on her. If the Holy Spirit had not rested on her, she would never have become fruitful; for how without Him could she have conceived of Him? Therefore, as she herself testifies, in order that she might conceive of the Holy Ghost, God the Father "regarded the humility of his handmaid," rather than her virginity. And if by her virginity she was acceptable to Him, nevertheless, it was by her humility that she conceived Him. Hence it is evident that it was her humility that rendered even her virginity pleasing to God."1

1. Bernard of Clairvaux (London: R. & T. Washbourne, LTE, 1909) p. 28.


*This post originally appeared at Reformation21 on December 21, 2007. 

Scripture's account of God's command to Abraham to "circumcise the flesh of [his] foreskin" (Gen. 17.11; KJV) affords Calvin ample opportunity to reflect on the reality and nature of sacramental signs. Thus he is keen, in his comments on this and surrounding verses, to emphasize the close relationship of sacramental signs to God's covenant word of promise (and so the need to articulate that word of promise when administering said signs). He is equally keen to highlight the critical role that such signs, being "sculpture[s] and image[s] of that grace of God which the word more fully illustrates," play in sustaining human faith. He is likewise keen to insist that God's promises are themselves, apart from those signs, "effectual to... salvation," and so to discourage his readers from "restrict[ing] God's own effectual working [of the spiritual realities that sacraments signify] to those signs." And closely following from the last point, he is keen to censure any person who holds God's sacramental signs in contempt, and so -- "feigning himself to be contented with the bare promise" -- violates God's covenant "by an impious severance of the sign and the word" (i.e., by a failure to observe the sacrament).

Yet Calvin does not fail, in the midst of such sacramentologizing, to note the remarkable character of what God actually commands Abraham to do in Gen. 17.11. God's bidding of Abraham to "circumcise the flesh of [his] foreskin" is particularly noteworthy, in Calvin's estimation, given the unprecedented nature (to Calvin's knowledge) of such a surgical procedure in the ancient world, not to mention the primitive nature (again to Calvin's knowledge) of ancient medicine if measured in terms of proper surgical tools, adherence to principles of hygiene, possibilities for anesthesia, and so on.

"Very strange and unaccountable would this command at first sight appear," the Reformer reckons. Calvin further speculates about what Abraham's thought process might have been regarding this "strange and unaccountable... command": "this might [have] come into his mind, '...if, by this symbol, [God] would consecrate me to himself as a servant, why has he put me off to extreme old age? What does this mean, that I cannot be saved unless I, with one foot almost in the grave, thus mutilate myself?'" Reservations about circumcising himself (and his household) might, Calvin reflects, have likewise stemmed from the prospect of "acute pain" associated with the act, some "danger of [the loss of] life," and the almost certain consequence of being made the "laughing-stock" of his immediate world. 

Such consideration of Abraham's sentiments toward the act he was bid to perform ultimately serves to highlight the remarkable character of Abraham's faith and obedience. "He must, of necessity, have been entirely devoted to God," Calvin reasons, "since he did not hesitate to inflict upon himself [that] wound." Abraham likewise "circumcised the whole of his family as he had been commanded," testimony both to Abraham's obedience and to the respect and trust he had previously earned from his servants, who "meekly receive[d] the [same] wound, which was both troublesome and the occasion of shame to carnal sense." Abraham's promptness in obeying God also deserves note: "he does not defer the work to another day, but immediately obeys the Divine mandate."

All in all, one gets the impression that Calvin considers Abraham's willingness to trust and obey God in this command almost as extraordinary as his subsequent willingness to trust and obey God when ordered to sacrifice Isaac upon the altar some years later.

But Calvin is equally keen to discern some motive on God's part for issuing such a strange command, beyond (of course) the appropriateness of the ritual commanded to represent the peculiar promise of God's covenant. And, naturally, Calvin succeeds in this, ultimately arguing that God's command served its own peculiar role in humbling Abraham.

On this score again the sign corresponds to God's word of promise, which itself elicits humility by reminding Abraham (and every true believer) that ultimate blessing lies outside any person's grasp and is freely offered to those (and only those) who understand and feel their inability to seize such blessing by some effort or merit of their own. God's command to Abraham to circumcise himself and his household humbles the patriarch in two distinct ways. Abraham is humbled, first of all, by the sheer and simple "shame" associated with the act he is ordered to perform. "It was necessary," Calvin comments, "for Abraham to become a fool , in order to prove himself obedient to God."

But Abraham is humbled even more profoundly by God's further instructions, having just identified circumcision as "a sign of the covenant between you and me," to circumcise both his sons and his slaves without any apparent distinction between the two. By these further instructions "the pride... of the flesh is cast down; because God, without respect of persons, gathers together both freemen and slaves."

Calvin's logic runs something like this: by administering the sign of the covenant to his slaves, Abraham was -- at God's express bidding -- extending God's twofold promise of redemption through the Seed and inheritance of a (heavenly) land to persons who, at least according to their earthly station, never expected (nor were expected) to inherit much. Abraham was, in other words, reminded that God shows no partiality (Rom. 2.11) in the distribution of his grace and gifts, no matter man's natural proclivity to privilege sons over slaves in the bequeathing of material blessings. The truth so clearly expressed in Gal. 3.28-29, then, that in Christ "there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female," but all are equally "heirs according to promise" was foreshadowed at the earliest expression of God's promise, when Abraham extended the sign of said promise to all (both slave and free) within his household.

Calvin's teaching on this point yields several practical considerations. For one, it reminds us that God seldom -- or rather, never -- shares our biases, whether such be founded on social, economic, racial, or other differences. For another, it reminds us that humility is indispensable to securing a share in God's promise of eternal fellowship with himself. Indeed, God's promise itself induces humility (inasmuch as faith entails humble recognition of one's need). But even in our day, the signs that God has attached to his promise can do their part to hasten the debasing of our pride. Few things, after all, are as un-cool (by the standards of the world) as having water applied to oneself in the Triune name, or regularly breaking bread and sharing a cup in remembrance of Christ with fellow members of Christ's church.

The humility and jealousy of the Holy Spirit

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I remember hearing the story: a gathering of ministers in a place that had known God's blessing in an unusual degree in time past, grieving over the present low state of things and seeking the Lord for his return. They pondered and discussed the ways and means that the Lord had given by means of which they might seek his face and obtain his blessing.

The suggestion was made that a series of meetings might be appointed, the grand topic of which would be the person and work of the Holy Spirit. This, it was felt, might be the surest way to pursue such blessings as were desired. This, it was believed, was a grand design to know and enjoy those spiritual operations which belong to him. There was at first general agreement on this point.

Then the oldest brother stood, a man who remembered what it was to have the Lord God of heaven and earth draw near, in this particular way, to his creatures in mercy and grace. He gently corrected his fellows. "What we need," he said, "is not sermons on the person and work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is not pleased to bless such. What we need is sermons on the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. Then the Spirit of Christ will come, for he delights to glorify Christ, to take of what is his and declare it to men."

In the last few weeks I somewhere read something brief about jealousy for the Holy Spirit. Now, do not misunderstand me: I do not, by any means, wish to dismiss or neglect God the Spirit. He is truly God in himself and ought to be worshipped and honoured as such. But what is his particular work? While we often speak, and rightly, of the humiliation of the Son, how much do we consider the humility of the Holy Spirit, who - himself being God and worthy of divine praise and glory - makes it his particular work not to draw attention to himself, but to throw the divine spotlight upon the being and doing of the incarnate Son, through whom alone we know the Father and enjoy the blessings of the Spirit? The Spirit keeps himself largely out of sight, his work intended to bring what God has accomplished in Christ Jesus into brightest and sharpest relief, for the blessing of sinners. So all our blessings are Spiritual blessings. There is no salvation apart from his operations. By him Christ accomplished his work. The application of that saving work is carried out by the Holy Ghost. Christ cannot be truly apprehended without him. Without the Spirit, who is God, we cannot know God in Christ, and we should and must honour and enjoy communion with God the Spirit accordingly.

However, when we begin to use the language of jealousy for the Holy Spirit, it may be better to remember the jealousy of the Holy Spirit. We honour the Spirit by declaring the Son. Christ was not operating apart from or against the Spirit when he cried out, "And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all to myself" (Jn 12.32). When we in our turn exalt the Son as the one who was crucified, we most honour and cooperate with the Spirit whom he sent.