Shepherding the flock into assurance, part 1
Here is Calvin in fine form. He’s berating a group he calls ‘half-papists’. These people say that when we look at Christ we have an assured hope, but that we ought to ‘waver and hesitate’ when we look at our own unworthiness. His response demolished them at a stroke:
‘I turn this argument of theirs back against them: if you contemplate yourself, that is sure damnation. But since Christ has been so imparted to you with all his benefits that all his things are made yours, that you are made a member of him, indeed one with him, his righteousness overwhelms your sins; his salvation wipes out your condemnation; with his worthiness he intercedes that your unworthiness may not come before God’s sight. Surely this is so: We ought not to separate Christ from ourselves or ourselves from him. Rather we ought to hold fast bravely with both hands to that fellowship by which he has bound himself to us.’ (Institutes, 3.2.24).
This demonstrates how crucially pastoral the sometimes mystical-sounding doctrine of the union believer with Christ is. (I’ve been thinking about this lately, since I’m one of the speakers later this month at an Affinity conference on the subject, and the topic came up in the Cornhill teaching-programme this week.) Calvin is concerned that a certain kind of teaching destroys assurance. To combat it, he appeals to union.
His line of thought is thoroughly biblical. For example, 1 John has assurance as one its key aims. Thus 5.13 says, ‘I write these things to you… so that you may know that you have eternal life’. The verses that follow are full of reminders of what ‘we know’ about Christ and therefore about ourselves. And the climax, in this glorious section on assurance? John speaks of union with Christ: ‘And we are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life’ (5.20b).
I’ll continue this pastoral thought in the next post.