Blog 100: 3.3.11 - 3.3.15

Iain D Campbell

Thomas Boston called regeneration 'begun recovery'; in it, God deals with sin but does not eradicate it completely. In believers, 'sin ceases only to reign; it does not also cease to dwell in them' (3.3.11). One of the reasons for this is to humble us before the grace of God, which has freed us from sin's guilt, and which we need daily in order to free us from sin's power.

This struggle is to be seen in Paul's experience in Romans 7, which Calvin attributes both in 3.3.11 and in 2.2.27 to the believer. The Christian is the one who at the same time cries out to God, and cries out against himself. The desires of our flesh are sin, and our fleshly heart is 'a wellspring of sin' (3.3.11), but we know that in the mercy of God there is a place where our sin can be dealt with.

Although sin is natural to us, sin is no constituent part of our nature. It is the result of a vitiated and compromised nature. So Calvin can say that 'all human desires are evil', not because they are human, but because they are polluted. He backs up his reasoning at this point with references to Augustine, who says that 'inordinate desire of the flesh ... is at once sin, the punishment of sin, and the cause of sin' (3.3.13). Sinful desire is present with us, and will be until we die (Augustine again: 'sin is dead in that guilt with which it held us; and until it be cured by the perfection of burial, though dead, it still rebels').

The believer, therefore, is justified, yet sinful, forgiven, yet still enticed by sin. It is present with us, though it need not reign: 'So long as you live, sin must needs be in your members. At least let it be deprived of mastery' (3.3.13). We may be no longer in sin, but sin will always be in us, so long as we are in this world.

To recognise this is a recipe against both perfectionism and antinomianism. We are 'far removed from perfection', but we must move closer and closer towards perfection. The Spirit of Christ is not the patron of sin: he is the author of our sanctification, and through him we battle with the sin that remains in us, and aim to conquer and to eradicate it.

That can only be done through repentance, with its earnestness, eagerness, indignation, fear, longing, zeal and punishment (2 Corinthians 7:11), the seven constituent elements of genuine repentance. Calvin explicates true repentance in the light of these elements: dissatisfaction with self arouses diligence in this matter, leads not to self-justification but to obtaining pardon, leaves us extraordinarily restless, rouses an ardour in us, and draws us to seek Christ. In repentance, 'the soul itself, stricken by dread of divine judgement ...acts the part of an avenger in carrying out its own punishment'.

Calvin closes by a quotation from Bernard of Clairvaux:

Sorrow for sins is necessary if it be not unremitting. I beg you to turn your steps back sometimes from troubled and anxious remembering of your ways, and to go forth to the tableland of serene remembrance of God's benefits. Let us mingle honey with wormwood that its wholesome bitterness may bring health when it is drunk tempered with sweetness. If you take though upon yourselves in your humility, take thought likewise upon the Lord in his goodness.

[Question to all preachers reading this blog: would you get that doctrine out of the Song of Solomon, like Bernard did?].