Monday, May 5, 2014

Book Review: Calvin on the Christian Life

Calvin on the Christian Life: Glorifying and Enjoying God Forever. Michael S. Horton. 2014. Crossway. 271 pages.

I love Michael Horton. And I love the idea of reading more John Calvin. I admit that I have read more about Calvin than actual works by Calvin, but, in theory, I love him too. I was so excited to get the chance to review Horton's newest book, Calvin on the Christian Life, published by Crossway. This is a wonderful book in an interesting series.
If caricatures are the price of historical fame, then Calvin may be one of the most famous leaders in history. For few figures have unfounded rumors by enemies been allowed to stand more persistently as historical fact. The “tyrant of Geneva,” a “Protestant Pope,” Calvin is reviled as a killjoy whose pastime was ruminating with relish on the fate of the damned and ensuring that the present life of his subjects was as close to that fate as possible. If later legends of a repressed Geneva evolved after Calvin’s death, his contemporary enemies created quite different caricatures.
The survival of such contradictory legends— Calvin the moralistic dictator and Calvin the debauched godfather of vice— is perhaps an indicator of the historical significance of Geneva, and Calvin in particular, for friend and foe alike. Even the popular legends of Calvin burning witches and ruling Geneva with an iron fist have become laughable as historians investigate the primary records.
As we explore Calvin’s view of the Christian life, we discover a teacher who arrived at his convictions not out of ivory-tower speculation or monastic contemplation, but out of constant crises, tests, disappointing setbacks, and personal suffering.
I loved this one. I absolutely loved, loved, loved it! Readers get the chance to learn more about John Calvin: his life and death, his contemporaries, his significance then and now. I loved how Horton puts EVERYTHING or perhaps almost everything into context. I love how he takes the time to explain Roman Catholicism (then, at least, as Calvin and Luther and others would have known it, seen it, experienced it). I love how he takes the time to introduce Calvin's contemporaries, other Reformers. I love seeing how they agree, or, when they agree. Or disagree as the case may be.

For example, in the introduction, Horton first discusses how he is similar to other Reformers; he then begins discussing his distinctive contributions to the Reformation.

  • First, Calvin insisted more than other Reformers that Scripture alone must determine faith and practice.
  • Second, the formula "distinction without separation" pervades Calvin's thinking. [Yes, in almost every chapter, Horton points this out and explains what Calvin means.]
  • Third, Calvin was a pioneering covenant theologian, emphasizing God's promise in Christ as the basis and a communion of saints as the result.

I love how passionate Calvin was, how passionate all the Reformers were when you think about it! This is a fascinating book, an informative book. But it isn't just a history lesson. Yes, everything is grounded in the past to a certain extent, but, it is also very much a theological book. The doctrines explored in this book still matter very much today! Truth is always relevant after all!

Calvin on the Christian Life is rich in quotations! Readers read about Calvin's beliefs in his own words. Yes, Horton does quote other scholars about Calvin. But, for the most part, if you're curious about Calvin and want a good introduction to his actual works, this one does a good job. I also love how rich it is in Scripture references.

Table of Contents:

  • Calvin on the The Christian Life (An Introduction)
  • Calvin on the Christian Life (In Context)
  • Knowing God and Ourselves
  • Actors and Plot
  • Christ the Mediator
  • Gifts of Union with Christ
  • How God Delivers His Grace
  • The Public Service as a "Celestial Theater" of Grace
  • Bold Access: Prayer as "the Chief Exercise of Faith"
  • Law and Liberty in the Christian Life
  • God's New Society
  • Christ and Caesar
  • Vocation: Where Good Works Go
  • Living Today from the Future: The Hope of Glory

Favorite quotes:
It takes the whole biblical gospel to make a whole Christian life.
Doctrine, worship and life are all of one piece. The doctrine is always practically oriented, and practice is always to be grounded in true doctrine.
At least in the popular imagination, especially in our self-obsessed culture, Calvin’s theology is so God-centered that there is no room for human beings. Consequently, it is seen as cold and rationalistic. We can only bow before an utterly sovereign God of blinding majesty. We do not need to go any further than the opening line of his Institutes to conclude otherwise: “Nearly all wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists in two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” And these two are “inseparable.”
The place where we come to know God and ourselves most definitely is a person: Jesus Christ, both God and human. 
In Roman Catholic theology, general revelation is a stepping stone to redemption. In Calvin’s view, it is the rope by which we hang ourselves. We start not with mere ignorance— an absence of knowledge of or relationship with God— but with a positive knowledge and experience that we intentionally warp, twist, and mangle into idolatry.
Yet if we are to know this God as our Father, we must seek him where he has already found us: the eternal Son clothed in our flesh. 
If this world is a “marvelous theater,” then the Bible is its script through which we come to know the central plot and characters.
Scripture tells us how it came to be that we are no longer as we once were— and how it will be that we are no longer as we are now, or even were before the fall. Christ is the image of God who has taken our humanity with him beyond Adam’s probationary condition to everlasting glory. “Now we see how Christ is the most perfect image of God; if we are conformed to it, we are so restored that with true piety, righteousness, purity, and intelligence we bear God’s image.” Again, we must look to Christ to really know both God and ourselves.
The Reformers disagreed with Rome not merely about the sufficiency of grace (sola gratia), but also over the nature of grace itself. In Roman Catholic theology, grace is viewed as a substance infused into the soul to heal it. By cooperating with this transforming grace, one can attain final salvation. The sacraments function much like an intravenous tube injecting this grace into a somewhat weakened soul. The more that one cooperates with this grace, the more grace one receives. The Reformers saw a completely different definition of grace in Scripture. On a covenantal map, grace is not an impersonal substance but a gift that is given by one party to another. First and foremost, the gift is Christ himself, in whom all of the Father’s treasures are hidden. Grace is the favor and gift of the Father, in the Son, communicated by the Spirit through the gospel. First of all God’s favor toward those who deserve his wrath, it is also God’s gift of justification and the indwelling Spirit who brings renewal and guarantees our resurrection unto immortal life. In Calvin’s understanding, grace is given not as an aid to our spiritual ascent, so that we may attain to union with God; it is God’s free gift of union with Christ by his Spirit.
We must never forget that the place where the triumph of evil seemed so obvious and God's saving care seemed most hidden was at the cross.
We are indeed saved by works--that is, by perfect obedience to God's law--but it is Christ's not ours. He not only bore our guilt in our place on the cross, but fulfilled all righteousness in our place by his life. 
We are not just following Christ, but living in Christ and, by his Spirit, he is living in us. 
Christ dies for us, but he does not repent and believe for us. Repentance and faith are gifts that he gives us by his Word and Spirit, but we exercise them as a deliberate act of the will.
We only find God's goodness and grace where he has revealed it, in Christ and his gospel.
We cannot seek to eliminate emotions without insulting God himself. 
Biblical piety, according to Calvin, directs our faith toward God and our love toward our neighbor. 
© Becky Laney of Operation Actually Read Bible

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