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John Calvin and the Appeal to the Spirit
John CalvinGeoffrey J. Paxton

In Book 1, chapter 9, of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin has some timely and helpful comments concerning the Spirit and the Word of God.

First, Calvin speaks of a wrong appeal to the Spirit. There is, he says, an extolling of the Spirit which amounts to nothing less than contempt for God's Word. Those who extol the Spirit in this manner effect a separation between the Spirit and the Word. Such a separation finds absolutely no precedence in the apostles of Christ. Calvin proceeds to quote Isaiah 59:21:

    My Spirit which is in you, and the words I have put in your mouth, will not depart from your mouth, nor from the mouth of your seed . . . forever.

All who separate Spirit and Word separate that which the prophet joined together with an inviolable bond. Calvin then gives us a memorable statement:

    ". . . the Spirit promised to us [by Christ] has not the task of inventing new and unheard-of revelations, or of forging a new kind of doctrine, to lead us away from the received doctrine of the Gospel, but of sealing our minds with that very doctrine which is commended by the Gospel." — Institutes, Bk. 1, ch. 9.1.

Calvin speaks to all who would separate the Spirit from the Word, whether they be ethicists of a situationist stamp, charismatics, or evangelicals. Here we have a sober Scriptural injunction: Do not make an appeal to the Spirit apart from the teaching of the Scripture. To do so is to put asunder that which God has joined together. If we wish to know the Spirit, let us know the Word.

Second, Calvin tells us how we may recognize the Spirit:

" . . . if any spirit passing over the wisdom of God's Word, foists another doctrine upon us, he justly deserves to be suspected of vanity and lying." (Gal. 1:6-9). — Ibid., ch. 9.2.

After this statement Calvin poses the important question, ". . . what authority will the Spirit have among us unless he be discerned by a most certain mark?" Satan, we are reminded, disguises himself as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14). What is this "most certain mark" by which we are able to recognize the Spirit and not be tricked by the evil one? The answer, pure and simple, is the Spirit's agreement with Scripture.

Is this putting a test on the Spirit? We may say this if we wish. However, Calvin hastens to add that "it is a test by which it pleased him to establish his majesty among us." The Spirit is the Author of Scripture, and

He cannot vary and differ from Himself. Hence, he must ever remain just as He once revealed Himself there. This is no affront to Him...

If teaching does not square with Scripture, then it matters not how enthusiastically, influentially, or emotionally it is presented, it does not issue from the Spirit of God. To honor the Spirit we must honor the Bible; and to honor the Bible means to seek above all things else to arrive at its precise meaning. Honoring the Spirit and careful Biblical exegesis are two ways of saying the same thing.

Third, for Calvin Word and Spirit not only agree, but belong inseparably together. Calvin says that Paul calls his ministry "the ministration of the Spirit" (2 Cor. 3:8), meaning,

...doubtless, that the Holy Spirit so inheres in his truth, which he expresses in Scripture, that only when its proper reverence and dignity are given to the Word does the Holy Spirit show forth his power. — Ibid., ch. 9.3.

God, Calvin goes on to say, has so ordered things that when the Spirit shines, "the perfect religion of the Word may abide in our minds."

We hear much today about "the outpouring of God's Spirit" and the new and epochal "shining of the Spirit." We must ask, Where is the perfect religion of the Word? A grand display of the Spirit will mean a grand display of the Word. There are those today who see the current charismatic awakening as the greatest revival since Pentecost. Ought we not to see the greatest revival of Biblical preaching and teaching since Pentecost? Alas, we see it not!

Calvin throws some good light upon a phrase which is thrown about a lot today: "Quench not the Spirit." 1 Thess. 5:19. This is often understood to mean that if we are skeptical about so much of today's spirit-centeredness, we are, ipso facto, quenching the Spirit. What is not realized is that it appears from the passage in 1 Thessalonians that the way the Spirit is quenched par excellence is by having a wrong approach to the preaching of the Word! Calvin says:

By this, no doubt, he [Paul] intimates that the light of the Spirit is put out as soon as prophecies fall into contempt.

Refusing to become preoccupied with the Spirit is not to quench the Spirit, but rather the Spirit is quenched when the Word falls into contempt.

Chapter 9 of the first book of Calvin's Institutes is only a short chapter. But how packed full of wisdom and insight it is! The current religious scene needs this Biblical and therefore spiritual balance. We fear that the appeal to the Spirit in neo-Pentecostalism, neo-Romanism, and neo-evangelicalism is an appeal which, in the final analysis, deprecates the Holy Word of God. If the claims of the enthusiastic adherents of these movements are correct, this age ought to be second only to the apostolic age in the preaching and teaching of the Word. We should be treated to gospel preaching and teaching which overshadows even that of the Reformers and Puritans! Alas, how conspicuous is the lack of such today!

John Calvin challenges us to beware of falling into the clutches of the one who masquerades as an angel of light. Beware of crying, "The Spirit, the Spirit!" without crying, "The gospel, the gospel!" or, "The Word, the Word!" Any appeal to the Spirit, if it is created by the Spirit Himself, will mean, automatically, an appeal to the Word of God. Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.

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