After a short intermission (consisting of four years, two house moves, two theology degrees, and one ordination), we resume our journey through Calvin’s Institutes. Broadly following the shape of the creeds, Book I was about God the Creator, focusing on God, creation and providence; Book II was about God the Redeemer, focusing on Christ’s person and work; and now we reach Book III: ‘The Way in Which We Receive the Grace of Christ: What Benefits Come to Us from It, and What Effects Follow’.
Before looking at the first chapters of Book III, it’s worth noting that Book III comes before Book IV. (You can tell I’ve been learning a lot.) Book IV, the final book of the Institutes, is about the church, and this tells us something significant about Calvin and the Reformation. Given all that Christ has done for us, in his life, death and resurrection, how does that affect me? As Calvin writes, ‘as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us’ (III.i.1). So how do I benefit from Christ’s work? The answer given by Calvin and the Reformers is this: primarily through the Holy Spirit and faith, and only secondarily through the church. Hence the emphasis in the Reformation, and in the Institutes, on justification by faith. I receive salvation through my personal trust in Christ, not through some action performed on me by the church.
The first chapter of Book III is about the Holy Spirit (five pages), and the second is about faith (50 pages). (Book III has 25 chapters covering 472 pages, by the way.)
A mere five pages about the Holy Spirit might not sound like a lot. But, in a sense, the whole of Books III and IV are about the work of the Holy Spirit (and we’ve already had a chapter on the Holy Trinity in Book I). Indeed, for Calvin, ‘faith is the principal work of the Holy Spirit’ (III.i.4), and the Holy Spirit is ‘the bond by which Christ effectually unites us to himself’ (III.i.1).
So the ‘faith’ under consideration here is the kind of faith ‘through which those adopted by God as his children come to possess the Heavenly Kingdom’ (III.ii.1). In other words, Calvin is not simply defining the word ‘faith’, nor is he examining the way in which the word is used in Scripture. But he is looking at the nature of what might be called ‘saving faith’:
Now, what is our purpose in discussing faith? Is it not that we may grasp the way of salvation? But how can there be saving faith except in so far as it engrafts us in the body of Christ? (III.ii.30)
According to Calvin, this faith is
a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit (III.ii.7).
As always, I’m indebted to David Calhoun for guiding me through the material (which can be somewhat opaque, 450 years later, with little knowledge of the controversies of the time): see the links on the index page for this series for the lecture recordings and PDFs. Calhoun unpacks Calvin’s definition as follows:
- Faith is ‘knowledge’. It involves understanding. It is not enough to have ‘implicit faith’, and to allow the church to do the understanding on your behalf (III.ii.2). Faith involves ‘true but limited knowledge’ (Calhoun).
- Faith is ‘knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us’. The ‘single goal of faith is the mercy of God’ (III.ii.43).
- Faith is ‘a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us’. This describes faith as it ought to be, but not as it often is. True faith is often under attack (III.ii.17-18), but in its struggle with doubt it is not mortally wounded (III.ii.21).
- Faith is ‘… revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts’. Faith is ‘more of the heart than of the brain, and more of the disposition than of the understanding’ (III.ii.8). It involves personal trust, not just intellectual assent.
- Faith is ‘… through the Holy Spirit’. Faith is ‘the principal work of the Holy Spirit’ (III.i.4), and ‘a singular gift of God’ (III.ii.33).
We see here two persistent emphases in Calvin: that God is God, and God is good. It is God who saves us, out of his goodness, and he wants us to have a firm assurance of his benevolence towards us. And this salvation comes to us through faith, which is a gift of God through the Holy Spirit.