Has it really been another year (and another ordination) since my last blog post about Calvin’s Institutes? (And over three months since my last blog post about anything?) And I’m not even halfway through Calvin’s ‘short textbook’ (III.iv.1)!
Book I was about God the Creator; Book II was about God the Redeemer (in Christ); and now Book III is about how God’s redemptive work is applied to us. Last time, we saw that this happens through the Holy Spirit (chapter 1), as God’s grace is received through faith (chapter 2). But what difference does this make?
Two things follow: our lives are changed (‘repentance’, chapters 3-10), and our sins are forgiven (chapters 11-19, on justification).
We shouldn’t read too much into the order in which these topics are discussed, as they belong together (III.iii.1). But one of the reasons Calvin discusses good works immediately after his discussion about faith is to demonstrate clearly that faith does indeed lead to good works (III.xi.1). Even though good works are not required before we receive God’s grace through faith, repentance ‘flows from [faith], or is produced by it as fruit from a tree’ (III.iii.1).
Chapters 3-5 (our topic for today) deal with regeneration and repentance in general terms, while chapters 6-10 (our topic for next
year time) contain Calvin’s description of the Christian life.
Here is Calvin’s definition of repentance:
[Repentance] is the true turning of our life to God, a turning that arises from a pure and earnest fear of him; and it consists in the mortification of our flesh and of the old man, and in the vivification of the Spirit (III.iii.5).
To expand on that, this transformation of life (1) is a ‘true turning’ that flows from the heart (III.iii.6), (2) is rightly motivated by trust in God’s mercy and goodness (III.iii.4), and (3) is worked out in practice as we ‘cease to do evil’ and ‘learn to do good’ (III.iii.8).
Therefore, in a word, I interpret repentance as regeneration, whose sole end is to restore in us the image of God … (III.iii.9).
David Calhoun points out that Calvin’s understanding of repentance may be contrasted with:
- Perfectionism (Anabaptist). Our growth will be gradual (III.iii.9), and there will always be ‘a smoldering cinder of evil’ (III.iii.10).
- Sacramentalism (Roman Catholic). The elaborate system of penance and indulgences is not necessary for our growth in godliness, or for the forgiveness of sins (chapters 4 and 5).