Monday, May 4, 2009

5/4- Calvin on conversion

(Conversion of Paul by Michelangelo)
Devotional using scripture, quote from John Calvin and thoughts for the day each day- on the 500th anniversary of Calvin's birth.

5/4- Surrendering and conversion

“He who wishes to save his life will lose it. But he who surrenders his life for my sake, and the sake of the gospel will save it. “ (Lk. 9:24). “If anyone is in Christ they are a new creation. The old has gone, behold the new has come. “ (II Cor. 5:17); Jesus replied, “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born again.” John 3:3

Calvin describing his conversion: God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame, which was more hardened in such matters than might have been expected from one at my early period of life Having thus received some taste and knowledge of true godliness I was immediately inflamed with so intense a desire to make progress therein, that although I did not altogether leave off other studies, I yet pursued them with less ardor. I was quite surprised to find that before a year had elapsed, all who had any desire after purer doctrine were continually coming to me to learn, although I myself was as yet but a mere novice and tyro. (Preface to commentary on the Psalm 1557);
Calvin describing conversion in general: [Philippians 1:6], there is no doubt that through “the beginning of a good work” he denotes the very origin of conversion itself, which is in the will. God begins his good work in us, therefore, by arousing love and desire and zeal for righteousness in our hearts; or, to speak more correctly, by bending, forming, and directing, our hearts to righteousness. He completes his work, moreover, by confirming us to perseverance. In order that no one should make an excuse that good is initiated by the Lord to help the will which by itself is weak, the Spirit elsewhere declares what the will, left to itself, is capable of doing: “A new heart shall I give you, and will put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh, and give you a heart of flesh. And I shall put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes” [Ezekiel 36:26-27].

Some say this day (May 4) was the day Calvin was converted . It was on this day that Calvin surrendered his clerical benefices at La Gesine. “Many recent biographers see this as a formal break with the Catholic church. Perhaps he could no longer allow himself to profit from what he now recognized to be a corrupt and unevangelical church.” (McGrath p. 73).
Certainly giving up his income from the Roman Catholic church was a dramatic experience and shows a change has occurred. However, Calvin generally downplays his own conversion. I believe there are many reasons for this. In general, Calvin does not like to talk about himself, but about God. As he recognized above, even conversion is a gift from God. When Paul saw the light on the Damascus Road, it certainly wasn’t all up to him. In fact, he didn’t even know who Jesus really was and asked, “Who are you lord?”
Another reason Calvin downplayed his conversion was that many were “converting” to the Protestant faith but then going back to the catholic, and vice versa. It was a time of flux and transition, and confessions of conversion needed to stand the test of time. Calvin believed that true conversion would stand up in the long run.
Perhaps another reason was the ordo de salutis (order of salvation- cf. Heppe RD p. 146 ff)) that Calvin referred to in the Institutes. In a sense we were saved when God predestined us before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4). There is a sense in which we were saved by what Christ did for us on the cross (John 3:16). There is a sense in which we are saved when we are justified, adopted, and regenerated (all 3 happening in conversion). There is a sense in which we are working out our own salvation by growing in our faith in sanctification. There is another sense in which we won’t really be saved until we get to heaven (glorification). So to emphasize one aspect such as conversion misses the point. Luther emphasized justification. Calvin emphasized really two parts of salvation: predestination (the more famous emphasis), and adoption. We often downplay this idea of adoption that happens at the same time as our conversion. Adoption is being engrafted and welcomed into the family tree. Adoption is an act of the Holy Spirit and brings us assurance of our own salvation even more than conversion itself. Adoption involves knowing we are a part of God.
On the other hand, Calvin does not totally neglect conversion (see above) as some in my denomination are want to do. A popular book in our time “Presbyterians in the Bible Belt” almost ridicules conversion. But Calvin believed it was possible for a sudden change- a born again experience. He describes his own experience as “by a sudden experience subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame”. There are those who think because God uses Christian education that there is no need for conversion. There are those who have had that Damascus Road experience who believe everyone has to have a similar experience. Both overemphasize their point of view. But God works in different people in different ways. The true test is not the how of conversion but that faith resides in us- whether it comes slowly or quickly. If we are looking for a sign of conversion, baptism is probably the best visible sign of God’s invisible grace. But even baptism is not fully adequate. The true church as much as we want it to be visible is still left invisible to all but God. He alone knows our hearts. While we have glimpses of it, it is still through a mirror dimly. I think Calvin was right in emphasizing God’s part and not our own part in salvation. Yet “by your fruits you shall know them.” There is a sense in which Calvin’s giving up his benefice is a visible sign of God’s invisible grace too. When God works in us, we are changed so that we want to change the way we live.

Prayer: Lord, change me- whether fast or slow. Lord work in, with, through, and despite me to accomplish your will and glorify yourself.

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