Two Types of Knowledge

Calvin begins his Institutes by arguing that there are two parts to sound wisdom. The first part is the knowledge of God, and the second part is the knowledge of ourselves. Both types of knowledge are important. Without the former, the latter is lost, and without the latter, the former is lost. But why is this so?

So long as we are content in ourselves–that is, so long as we don’t truly know ourselves, we’re quite content to remain in our current condition. It’s only when we realize that we are somehow lacking–it’s when we realize that we don’t have all of the answers–that we turn our gaze from inward to outward.

Calvin writes, “Thus, from the feeling of our own ignorance, vanity, poverty, infirmity, and–what is more–depravity and corruption, we recognize that the true light of wisdom, sound virtue, full abundance of every good, and purity of righteousness rest in the Lord alone” (1.1.1).

On the other hand, it’s when we truly know God in all of his perfections that we finally realize that we have blindspots in our lives. Our pride disguises our own failings and shortcomings. We compare ourselves to others, and we thus feel ourselves superior because–in our eyes, at least–we’re “better” than our neighbors.

We miss the fact that our neighbor isn’t the measuring stick, but God and his perfection is the measuring stick, and we all fall woefully short on that account.

Calvin writes, “As long as we do not look beyond the earth, being quite content with our own righteousness, wisdom, and virtue, we flatter ourselves most sweetly, and fancy ourselves demigods. Suppose we but once begin to raise our thoughts to God, and to ponder his nature, and how completely perfect are his righteousness, wisdom, and power–the straightedge to which we must be shaped. Then, what masquerading earlier as righteousness was pleasing in us will soon grow filthy in its consummate wickedness” (1.1.2).

We will never truly know ourselves until we come face to face with who God is, and we’ll never truly know God until we know something of ourselves, but let’s start the journey by knowing who God is.

Reading Calvin

I would hardly describe myself as a prolific reader, but I do like to read a good book. A number of years ago, I was struck by C. S. Lewis’ advice to not neglect old books. He wrote, “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.”

John Calvin

So, I’ve decided to follow Lewis’ advice, at least so far as is concerned with one major theological work. I’ve read Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology as well as other modern systematic theologies, so in 2021, I have decided to turn to something a bit older–approximately 500 years older. This year, along with nine other church members, I’m reading John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. I’ve read large chunks of this important work before, but I’ve never sat down to read it cover to cover.

Of course, if you’re familiar with Calvin’s Institutes, you know this isn’t the type of book you sit down and read in one setting, but nor is it a book that will overwhelm you. Reading a few pages for 15-20 minutes per day will easily check this book off the list in less than a year’s time.

The first edition of Calvin’s Institutes was published in 1536 when Calvin was only 26 years old. I’m more than twice that age now, and I promise you that writing a book like the Institutes wasn’t on my radar when I was that young (for that matter, nor is it on my radar now)! Calvin continued to add to the Institutes through of series of updated editions until it took its final form in 1559, five years before his death.

Calvin wrote in one of his commentaries, “Today all sorts of subjects are eagerly pursued; but the knowledge of God is neglected. . . . Yet to know God is man’s chief end, and justifies his existence. Even if a hundred lives were ours, this one aim would be sufficient for them all.”

So, in 2021, I want to know God more, and inasmuch as Calvin was faithfully meditating on the scriptures as he wrote, I hope the Institutes will help me in that endeavor. I intend to write a brief blog each week to progress my reading. This blog is for me as much as it is for you, dear reader. Let’s grow in our knowledge of God together!

Do We Really Believe That “Jesus Saves”?

Yesterday, January 6, 2021, was a dark day in the history of our nation, and it was a day that will long live in the memories of many Americans. Yesterday, a “protest rally” turned into a criminal riot in our nation’s capital as rioters stormed the United States Capitol building, breaching security and making their way onto the floor of the House and Senate and even into individual lawmakers’ offices.

The rally was designed ostensibly to protest the “fact” that the election was “stolen” from President Donald Trump. [NOTE: This blog post is not arguing for or against the claim of a “stolen election.”] Unfortunately, the rally soon turned from a peaceful protest to a criminal riot with at least four people losing their lives (one through a police shooting and three through medical emergencies).

As I watched parts of the news coverage of this horrific event, I was particularly appalled when I saw one protester who was carrying a bright neon sign that read “JESUS SAVES.” As a Christian who has devoted himself to over 20 years of full-time vocational Christian ministry, I whole-heartedly agree that “Jesus Saves.” But I wonder if the individual who was carrying the sign really believes that.

For the record, I have no idea who that individual is. I don’t know that individual. The camera angle from which I was viewing was too far away to tell if it was even a man or a woman. I know nothing about that individual other than he (or she) was carrying a sign that read “JESUS SAVES” and he (or she) was trespassing on the steps of the US Capitol building during what can only be called an illegitimate and illegal criminal riot.

Also for the record, I believe there are many faithful Christians who voted for Donald Trump and I believe many of them were genuinely disappointed when he lost the election. Furthermore, I believe many authentic Christians may have some doubts about the veracity of the election results.

And with all of that said, however, if someone (Christian or otherwise) feels that an injustice has happened, that individual has every right to peacefully protest and to seek recourse through the law (i.e., the courts or other legal channels), but unless we’re being required to deny our Savior or a key principle of the faith, Christians are not justified in resorting to criminally violent behavior when their politician of choice loses an election.

So, here’s a question for serious Christians to consider. If we really believed that “Jesus Saves,” would we participate in a criminal endeavor because our politician of choice lost the election? I don’t think we would and I don’t think we should.

Participating in this type of activity reveals a heart of idolatry. Let me explain.

The Bible teaches that Jesus is sovereign over the events of this world (see e.g., Psalm 2). This means Jesus was sovereign when Donald Trump was elected four years ago as the president, and this also means Jesus is still sovereign now as Joe Biden will be taking the oath of office in less than two weeks. Nothing has changed in the heavenly realms.

And even “if” the election was stolen from Donald Trump, Jesus is still on his throne. He’s still sovereign. We don’t need to “storm the Capitol” if we believe Jesus is who he says he is. If we really believe that Jesus is sovereign, then we will understand that Jesus is just as sovereign under a Biden presidency as he was under a Trump presidency. And if we really believe that it’s Jesus who saves, then we know that Jesus can save people under a Biden presidency just as easily as he can save people under a Trump presidency.

Psalm 146:3–5 instructs us: 3 Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation. 4 When his breath departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish. 5 Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord his God.

Idolatry rears its ugly head when—among other things—we put our hope in politicians rather than in Jesus.

Christians ought to lament that the name of Christ was connected to the storming of the Capitol and other lawless deeds. We must remember what our Savior said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world” (John 18:36). Let us purpose to not misuse the name of our great King (Exo 20:7), but to be ambassadors for his cause—imploring lost men and women to be reconciled to God (2 Cor 5:20).