This week I spent some very rich time with some very old friends. Friends I have known since I was a student at UC San Diego. Friends I have broken bread with for 37 years. Friends I continue to pray and study with, share my life with, and who have encouraged me in my years as a pastor. These are friends who have shared joy and grief together. One has a Down's Syndrome child while her other son took his life five years ago. Another had a father who died of substance abuse. Another has a new granddaughter with a profound disability. He recently stepped away from his pastoral ministry to focus on being part of what he calls “Team Nora”. He's giving his daughter and son-in-law everything he can as they persevere through this tremendous trial.
For our study group this year we read the 1541 edition of Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, one of the early editions of this major work in Reformed theology. He wrote the first 700 page edition when he was twenty-seven! I was happy to finish a three-point sermon at that age, and I still am! This is an amazing document, forged when Reformation ideas were subversive to say the least, a mark of supreme disloyalty to Church and State. It was subversive because it spoke of a faith that was dependent not upon the authority of the church or any number of religious exercises which might be thought to merit God’s favor, but upon the sheer grace and goodness of God. As unbelievable as it may sound, Calvin had to flee Paris at the age of twenty-four because of the ideas he articulated.
In the Institutes John Calvin famously defines Faith as, “a firm and certain knowledge of God's good will toward us which, being founded on the promise freely given in Jesus Christ, is revealed to our understanding and sealed in our heart by the Holy Spirit.”
Calvin, being fully aware of life’s dangers and difficulties, emphasized that no one can have faith except the one who is assured that God is a good Father and that God’s will toward us is ultimately kind and benevolent. This traditional “Father” language, rooted in Scripture, is meant to communicate that at the heart of God is relationship, and that we, through God’s Son, are chosen to be God’s adopted children. Faith in this benevolent Father does not mean that we are un-assailed by doubt or worry or trials. We live in two worlds...the world of the flesh and the world of the spirit. C.S. Lewis put it this way: “Humans are amphibians... half spirit and half animal... as spirits they belong to the eternal world but as animals they inhabit time. Their nearest approach to constancy, therefore, is undulation” (The Screwtape Letters). I may need to do penance for this pun, but “faith is sometimes foggy if only because we are froggy! We feel the tension between a knowledge of God's goodness on the one hand, and life's calamities and challenges on the other -- joy in life one minute, fear of death the next.
Nevertheless, our faith is armed with the solemn promise that in and through Christ, God will never fail us. For God is “kind and merciful, slow to wrath, inclined to goodness, generous to all, and extending his mercy to all his works” (Institutes 1541, p. 187). We are saved not by any merit of our own but by faith in God’s sheer grace revealed in Jesus Christ and sealed in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. This truth is the single most significant difference between the Gospel of Jesus Christ and its many challengers. It is a truth that inspires us to do good in the world not out of fear or self-justifying pride, but overflowing gratitude to God.
My friends and I are not immune to the hardships of this world. Even so, each of us have experienced the reassurance of God’s goodness and guidance in ways that cannot be explained away. In times of doubt or difficulty, we remind one another to rest in the trustworthiness of our Heavenly Father and the grace we have experienced in Christ. I invite you to do the same. Yes, God accepts, even welcomes, this simple frog-like faith!
Hope to see you soon…