United to His Sacred Body: A Reformed Theology of the Lord’s Supper

lastsuppermural

Below is a term paper I wrote on the Lord’s Supper surveying traditional stances on the presence of Christ is the elements. After surveying each of the traditional views, I critique the “local presence” view and the “memorialist” view in preference to the Reformed “receptionist” view of the Lord’s Supper.

The title of this paper comes from the Heidelberg Catechism which says this about the Lord’s Supper:

Question 76: What does it mean to eat the crucified body and drink the shed blood of Christ?

It means …to be so united more and more to His sacred body by the Holy Spirit, who dwells both in Christ and in us, that, although He is in heaven and we on earth, we are nevertheless flesh of His flesh and bone of His bone, and live and are governed forever by one Spirit, as members of the same body are by one soul.

Feel free to read it here:

United to His Sacred Body, A Reformed Theology of the Lord’s Supper

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Calvin on the Sacraments

Portrait of John Calvin

Calvin has a fascinating explanation of the sacraments in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. He introduces the sacraments as signs and seals, as the Reformers usually do. But, he goes on to explain the sacraments as external words which affix our faith and deepen our union with Christ by the Spirit.

Calvin explains it this way:

First, we must attend to what a sacrament is. It seems to me, then, a simple and appropriate definition to say, that it is an external sign, by which the Lord seals on our consciences his promises of good-will toward us…We may also define more briefly by calling it a testimony of the divine favour toward us, confirmed by an external sign, with a corresponding attestation of our faith towards Him. (The Institutes of the Christian Religion, 14.1)

Calvin speaks of a sacrament of an “external sign” of God’s good will toward us in Christ which he inwardly “seals” on our consciences to sustain us the “weakness of our faith”. It is God showing us visibly the promise of good will to us in the gospel. Baptism, properly speaking then, is God sealing upon our consciences his promise of renewal by the Spirit; the Lord’s Supper, that are welcome to his table.

Calvin goes on to say this:

In this way God provides first for our ignorance and sluggishness and, secondly, for our infirmity; and yet, properly speaking, it does not so much confirm his word as establish us in the faith of it. For the truth of God is in itself sufficiently stable and certain, and cannot receive a better confirmation from any other quarter than from itself. But as our faith is slender and weak, so if it be not propped up on every side, and supported by all kinds of means, it is forthwith shaken and tossed to and fro, wavers, and even falls. And here, indeed, our merciful Lord, with boundless condescension, so accommodates himself to our capacity, that seeing how from our animal nature we are always creeping on the ground, and cleaving to the flesh, having no thought of what is spiritual, and not even forming an idea of it, he declines not by means of these earthly elements to lead us to himself, and even in the flesh to exhibit a mirror of spiritual blessings. (14.3).

Calvin says rightly that the “truth of God is in itself sufficient”, but because we are physical beings, God condescends to us by physical means to “prop our faith up on every side”. The sacraments are physical words to us, to accommodate our bodily situation. Sacraments are not properly sacraments without the words or promises contained under the external sign.

In fact, for Calvin, the word and sacrament accomplish the same thing:

Both word and sacraments…confirm our faith, bringing under view the kind intentions of our heavenly Father, in the knowledge of which the whole assurance of our faith depends, and by which its strength is increased; and the Spirit also confirms our faith when by engraving that assurance on our minds, he renders it effectual. (14.11)

So then, sacraments are physical words to us, signs and seals, to bolster our faith, to deepen our union with Christ by the action of the Spirit. They are Spirit wrought instruments to seal to our consciences God’s good promises to us by the gospel.

He Descended into Hell?

Our church recites the Apostles’ Creed every other week. It’s a beautiful, ancient creed. I love its Trinitarian formula: God the Father is maker of heaven and earth. Jesus Christ, the begotten-Son, is redeemer. The Holy Spirit brings the saints together into one holy catholic church.

As beautiful and ancient as it is, many people are thrown off by one line which comes under the office of the Son. It says that after Christ had died and was buried, that “He descended into hell”.

Jesus descended into hell? What does that mean?

What usually comes to mind here is Christ dying and then going to the fires of hell to be further tormented by the devil. This imagery would reasonably detract many people. Is this what the creed really means by “he descended into hell”?

In this post I want to lay out the common historic understandings of this line. I will look at three views: The Reformed view, the Lutheran view, and the Roman Catholic view:

First, the Reformed churches have historically rejected any notion that Christ went to hell after his death and during his three days in the grave. Rather, the Reformed churches pose that Christ’s descent into hell refers to the anguish he experienced on the cross. Christ, being separated from the Father, bearing the sins of the world, experienced eternal torment for mankind on the cross.

The Heidelberg Catechism, Question 44, says it this way:

Why is it added: “He descended into hell”?

That in my greatest temptations I may be assured that Christ my Lord, by his inexpressible anguish, pains, and terrors, which he suffered in his soul on the cross and before, has redeemed me from the anguish and torment of hell

Christ has experienced hell that I might not. And of course this is true.

The Luther church, however, would disagree with this understanding of the creed. The Lutherans understand Christ’s descent into hell under the rubric of his victory over satan and demons.

Lutheran Henry Jacobs, in his Summary of Christian Doctrine, questions 39-43, says that “the Reformed Church regards ‘the descent into hell’ as a part of the humiliation; the Lutheran Church, as we shall see, regards it the first grade of the State of Exaltation”.

Jacobs classifies Christ’s descent into hell as part of his exaltation (i.e. victory over sin and death) as opposed to his humiliation (i.e. experience of wrath and the cross). How can this be so? Jacobs brings in 1 Peter 3:18-19 as proof that when Christ descended into hell, it was not to suffer, but rather to pronounce victory over the demonic spirits.

1 Peter 3:18-19 says,

Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison

Jacobs explains:

We simply believe that the entire person, God and man, after the burial descended into hell, conquered the devil, destroyed the power of hell, and took from the devil all his might. We should not, however, trouble ourselves with sublime and acute thoughts, as to how this occurred. (Formula of Concord, 643)

So, during the three days in the grave, Christ descended into hell to “destroy the power of hell”. This was on the basis that Christ had defeated sin and death.

The Roman Catholic church differs only slightly from the Lutheran position. The Catholic catechism says:

The frequent New Testament affirmations that Jesus was “raised from the dead” presuppose that the crucified one sojourned in the realm of the dead prior to his resurrection. This was the first meaning given in the apostolic preaching to Christ’s descent into hell: that Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined the others in the realm of the dead. But he descended there as Savior, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there

Scripture calls the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, “hell” – Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek – because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God. Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the Redeemer: which does not mean that their lot is identical, as Jesus shows through the parable of the poor man Lazarus who was received into “Abraham’s bosom”: “It is precisely these holy souls, who awaited their Savior in Abraham’s bosom, whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into hell.” Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him (632-33)

The Catholic church affirms with the Lutherans that Jesus went into hell, or Sheol, or the realm of the dead, however one sees it. But he went there “not…to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just”. Meaning, Jesus went to release the Old Testament saints into the beatific vision. According to this view, the Old Testament faithful could not enter into the divine vision until justice had been satisfied — the cross did just that. And so Jesus went to Sheol to preach victory and to release the faithful to heaven.

The Catholic church provides 1 Peter 4:6 as proof of this: “the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does”.

The catechism says:

The gospel was preached even to the dead.” The descent into hell brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfilment. This is the last phase of Jesus’ messianic mission, a phase which is condensed in time but vast in its real significance: the spread of Christ’s redemptive work to all men of all times and all places, for all who are saved have been made sharers in the redemption.

It is important to note that the Lutheran church doesn’t deny that Christ released the faithful into the divine presence. Henry Jacobs explains that “we may regard it probable that the proclamation of victory announced to one class to their terror was made to another class, to their joy and triumph.” However, he prefaces that “we dare not think of those who departed in faith as until then ‘in prison.'” In other words, the Old Testaments saints may have been freed into the beatific vision, however, they were not in “prison” (1 Pet 3:19) as the demonic spirits were.

So these are the three main interpretations of Christ’s descent into hell. While I do affirm the Reformed position, that Christ experienced hell on the cross, I must admit that that position has weaknesses. What about Peter’s description of Christ’s descent? What about “preaching to the dead”? For this reason, I also affirm that Christ did descend into Sheol, or hell, to pronounce his victory over sin and death. This pronouncement, I presume, both condemned the demonic spirits, and redeemed the Old Testament saints. It was the last phase of Christ’s mission, after which he was resurrected and ascended to the right hand of the Father.

How is Christ “Present” in the Lord’s Supper?

I’ve spoken with many who would hold to the “real presence” of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. The question that I often ask is: what do you mean that Jesus is really present?

Many, in an attempt to shy away from transubstantiation (the belief that the substance of the elements is “transformed” into the physical body of Christ), articulate that Christ is present only “spiritually”. And what they usually mean by this is that Christ is only present in his spirit or soul, but not his body.

The problem with this is that this articulation comes awfully close to an assortment of christological heresies. If Christ be truly human, then he must have a unity of body and soul. But if, for instance, Christ was only God using a human body as a puppet (something akin to the Apollinarianism heresy), and he can “ditch” his body to be spiritually present, then he is not truly human. So, if by “real presence”, we only mean “spiritual presence”, we are veering the wrong way.

So then, how is Christ “truly”, “really”, “actually” present in the Lord’s Supper? Calvin, in his Institutes, tried to articulate this in such a way that (1) did not align with the doctrine of transubstantiation, but (2) did not fall to the other ditch of “spiritual” presence.

Calvin explains:

I am… not satisfied with those people who, having confessed that we have some kind of communion in the body of Christ, want to show that the sacrament makes us participants only of His Spirit, abandoning all memory of His flesh and blood. As if these things were said for nothing: that “His flesh is food, His blood is drinl”‘; that “no one will have life except the one who has eaten this flesh and drunk this blood;’ and other similar sentences [Jn. 6:53-56]…

Nevertheless we must not imagine this communication to be the way [transubstantiation]: as if the body of Christ descended onto the table and were set there in local presence to be touched with hands, chewed with teeth, and swallowed up in the stomach. For we do not doubt that it has its own (finite) limits as the nature of a human body requires, and that body is contained in heaven where it was received until He will come for judgment. So we also believe that it is not lawful to bring Him down among the corruptible elements or to imagine that He is present everywhere. (John Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion: The First English Version of the 1541 French Edition. Kindle Locations 9316-9319, 9276-9279. Kindle Edition)

This is such an important passage. Calvin does away with two dichotomies in this passage. On the one hand, Christ cannot simply be present by way of his soul. This cannot be so, if Christ is truly human! But also, Christ cannot be present by way of transubstantiation. If Christ has risen and is seated at the right hand of the Father, then his physical presence is limited to that location. He cannot be in the elements, because he is seated in the heavenly places! For Calvin, Christ’s humanity limits him to this location.

The question then becomes: how can Christ be truly and actually present, if he is at the right hand of God the Father?

Calvin explains:

Indeed that (transubstantiation) is not necessary, in order for us to participate in His body, since the Lord Jesus richly pours out by His Spirit the benefit that we are made one with Him in body, spirit, and soul. Therefore the bond of this joining is the Holy Spirit, by whom we are united together, and He is like a canal or channel by which all that Christ is and possesses comes down to us.3 For if with our eyes we perceive that when the sun shines on the earth it somehow sends its substance by its rays to engender, nourish, and bring to life the earth’s fruits, why would the light and brilliance of the Spirit of Jesus Christ be less able to bring us the communication of His flesh and blood? That is why when scripture speaks of the participation which we have with Christ it brings all the power of that participation back to His Spirit. However, one passage will suffice for all the others. In the eighth chapter of Romans St. Paul declares that Christ dwells in us in no other way than by His Spirit (Rom. 8 [9] ). Nevertheless in doing that he does not destroy this communication with Jesus Christ’s body and blood which is the question we are discussing now, but he shows that the Spirit is the sole means by which we possess Christ and have Him living in us. In the Supper the Lord testifies to us such a communication of His body and blood. Indeed, He offers it to all who receive this spiritual banquet, even though it is only the faithful who participate in it because they make themselves worthy of such a benefit by true faith. That is the reason the apostle says that the bread which we break is the communion of the body of Christ, the cup which we sanctify by the words of the gospel and by prayers is the communion of His blood (i Cor. io[16]). (Kindle Locations 9321-9330)

So, how is Christ present in this sacrament? What Calvin says, is that Christ’s entire person is readily united to us and us to him by the Holy Spirit. Now, just to clarify, when Calvin says “Spirit”, he does not mean Jesus’ soul — what he means is the Holy Spirit, third person of the Trinity. And so, in the Lord’s Supper — rather than Christ descending to the elements — we are, as it were, brought up to him by the Spirit, and united to his body and blood.

What Calvin also says is that this union is not limited to the Lord’s Supper — this happens at the point of salvation. Rather, in the Lord’s Supper, this mysterious union is strengthened. It is ratified. It is solidified by the Spirit. As we visually encounter the elements, and by faith partake, our union with Christ is further strengthened. The Lord’s Supper is an intimate, climactic, deep and real union with the risen Christ! It is when the bride comes into union with her Husband.

Calvin says this of the purpose of the sacrament:

We call it either the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist, because in this we are spiritually fed and nourished by the kindness of our Lord, and on our part we give Him thanks for His beneficence. The promise which is given to us in the Supper shows clearly for what purpose it has been instituted and what its goal is, that is, it assures and confirms for us that the body of our Lord Jesus Christ was given for us once in such a way that it is now ours and it will be so perpetually; and that His blood was poured out for us once so that it is and always will be ours. (Kindle Locations 9146-9149)

Calvin on the Papacy

Calvin’s section on ecclesiology is his longest of the four section in his Institutes. In his ecclesiology section, Calvin has a long discourse on the illegitimacy of the papacy as a church authority. He covers both the theology and the history of the papacy. I want to overview Calvin’s theological arguments against the papacy.

Calvin first introduces the claim that Peter was designated the first pope in Matthew 16. His response is two-fold.

In speaking of Peter’s office, Calvin firstly addresses how Matthew 16 should be interpreted: “you are Peter, and on the rock I will build my church”. Calvin’s response here is that the authority given to Peter at that moment is elsewhere later given to the rest of the apostles. In this way, Christ is giving authority to the entire church figuratively in the person of Peter.

Calvin says,

Christ, they say, appointed Peter as prince of the whole church when he promised that the keys would be given him. But what he then promised to the one, he elsewhere confers at the same time upon all the rest and, so to speak, delivers it into their hands [Matt 18:18; John 20:23]. If the same right was granted to all that was promised to the one, in what respect will Peter be superior to his colleagues?… For speaks Cyprian: “In the person of one man the Lord gave the keys to all, to signify the unity of all; the rest were the same as Peter was, endowed with an equal share both of honor and of power…” …Augustine says: “If the mystery of the church had not been in Peter, the Lord would not have said to him, ‘I shall give you the keys’; for if this was said to Peter alone, the church does not have them. But if the church has them, Peter, when he received the keys, was a symbol of the whole church” (Institutes, 1106)

So Peter embodies the church in this passage. It is interesting that Calvin cites both Augustine and Cyprian as proponents of this interpretation. Calvin also points out that Jesus gives Peter this authority only after he makes a faith claim: “you are the Christ, the Son of the living God”. Calvin says that “Peter, in his own and his brethren’s name, had confessed Christ was the Son of God [Matt 16:16]. Upon this rock Christ builds his church” (ibid, 1107). In this way, Jesus confers his authority to all who make that same confession. So then we are all given this authority.

Calvin’s second argument against the establishment of Peter as pope, is the fact that in the biblical accounts, Peter had no more authority than the rest of the apostles. Calvin points out that Peter was nowhere treated in a special light.

Calvin says,

[I]f we gather all the passages where it teaches what office and power Peter had among the apostles, how he conducted himself, and also how he was received by them… you will find nothing but that he was one of the Twelve, the equal of the rest… (ibid, 1108)

Calvin then references the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, over which Peter does not preside; rather James does. Also, in 1 Peter 5:1 ff, Peter refers to himself as a “fellow elder”, not as the universal bishop. Calvin refers to several instances in Acts where Peter is subordinate, not superior, to other leaders (ref ibid, 1108).

Calvin also references Paul’s epistle to the Galatians, where Paul both recognizes Peter as one of several leaders — not the leader — and rebukes him!

Calvin says,

But if none of these passages existed, still the letter to the Galatians alone can easily banish all doubt from us. There for almost two chapters Paul contends solely that he is Peter’s equal in the office of apostle. Hence, he recalls that he came to Peter, not to profess subjection, but only to attest their agreement in doctrine before all; that Peter also demanded no such thing, but gave him the right hand of fellowship so that they might labor together in the Lord’s vineyard; that no less grace was conferred upon him among the Gentiles than upon Peter among the Jews [Gal 1:18, 2:8]. Finally, he recalls that when Peter did not act faithfully, he corrected him, and Peter obeyed his reproof [Gal 2:11-14]. (ibid, 1108-09)

Calvin is right. The entire introduction of Galatians centers on proof of Paul’s equal authority as an apostle among the others.

Moving on from Peter, Calvin then addresses NT ecclesiology. Calvin rightly points out two things: first, that in all of the passages which speak of a “head of the church”, it is Christ which is given, not Peter. Secondly, in all the passages which speak of church authority, the papacy is left out!

Calvin first addresses Christ as the head of the church. He says,

[The church] has Christ as its sole Head, under whose sway all of us cleave to one another, according to that order and that form of polity which he has laid down. They do signal injury to Christ when they would have one man set over the church universal, on the pretext that the church cannot be without a head. For Christ is the Head, “from whom the whole body, joined and knit through every bond of mutual ministry (insofar as each member functions) achieves its growth” [Eph 4:15-16]… (ibid, 1110)

Calvin is right on this one: Ephesians and Colossians describe Jesus as that one unity of the church, the Head of the church. Calvin next describes the positions given in the church, and notices the the papacy is not included.

He says:

By his ascension Christ took away from us his visible presence; yet he ascended to fill all things [Eph 4:10]. Now, therefore, the church still has, and always will have, him present. When Paul wishes to show the way in which he manifests himself, he calls us back to the ministries in which he uses. The Lord (he says) is in us all, according to the measure of grace which he has bestowed upon each member [Eph 4:7]. For that reason, “he appointed some to be apostles… others pastors, others evangelists, still others teachers, “etc [Eph 4:11]. Why does Paul not say that Christ has set one over all to act as his vicegerent? For that the occasion especially demanded, and it ought in no way to have been omitted, if it had been true. Christ (he says) is present with us. How? By the ministry of men, whom he has set over the governing of the church. Why not, rather, through the ministerial head, to whom he has entrusted his functions? (ibid, 1111)

So then, Paul nowhere mentions the papal authority. And I think Calvin is right to interject that had the papacy been established, it would surely have been present in lists of ministerial authority like Ephesians 4.

With this, then, Calvin theologically denies the legitimacy of the papacy. And I think for good reason. While I appreciate and even love much about Catholicism, I believe arguments for the papacy on biblical grounds is difficult sustain.

Calvin and the New Perspective on Paul

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The New Perspective on Paul, as put forward by several Protestant theologians (Wright, Sanders, Dunn et al), is the thought that when Paul speaks of justification not being by “works of the law”, he is only speaking of the ceremonial and civil laws, not the moral laws.

What this translates to, is that when Paul says: “one is not justified by works of the law”, he is exclusively speaking of the Jewish aspects of the Mosaic Law. So one cannot be justified through the Mosaic laws. The moral law, however, is still in play. Hence, one is justified by faith in Christ plus cooperation with God’s grace in obedience to the moral law. Works done in grace play into justification, however that may look.

James Dunn explains:

[D]enial that justification is from works of law is, more precisely, a denial that justification depends on circumcision or on observation of the Jewish purity and food taboos. We may justifiably deduce, therefore, that by ‘works of law’ Paul intended his readers to think of particular observances of the law like circumcision and the food laws. (New Perspective on Paul, 191)

In this way, Paul is not doing away with all works, but rather works of the ceremonial and civil type. One is not justified by being a “good Jew”; rather one is justified in the last day by being “in Christ” and cooperating in good works through grace. This means that justification is a process, worked in the now, but finished at the final day in harmony with our works in Christ. Essentially, this conflates justification, and sanctification, making them one action of God and man.

What some may not know, is that this interpretation is not new. In fact, Calvin dealt with this argument in his dialogue with Roman Catholics of his day.

There are two basic arguments that Calvin dealt with in his time: the first was what is commonly known as the New Perspective — that works of the ceremonial and civil law were what Paul was arguing against; not works done in the context of the New Covenant. Another argument he dealt with, was that the works Paul was so set against were works done outside of grace: i.e. before one is regenerated. So, works done in a natural state could not justify; after regeneration, however, one can cooperate with grace and grow in justification after being in Christ. In his Institutes, Calvin denied both stances.

He said:

[Catholics] explain “works” as meaning those which men not yet reborn do only according to the letter by the effort of their own free will, apart from Christ’s grace. But they deny that these [works of the law] refer to spiritual works. For, according to them, man is justified by both faith and works provided they are not his own works but the gifts of Christ and the fruit of regeneration. For they say that Paul so spoke for no other reason than to convince the Jews, who were relying upon their own strength, that they were foolish to arrogate righteousness to themselves, since the Spirit of Christ alone bestows it upon us not through any effort arising from our own nature…[They also argue] that the ceremonial works of the law are excluded, not the moral works. (Institutes, 744)

So we can see that this issue of “works” came up long before the New Perspective. How does Calvin respond to this charge? And how to works and salvation relate?

Calvin says:

[These theologians] do not observe that in the contrast between the righteousness of the law and of the gospel, which Paul elsewhere introduces, all works are excluded, whatever title may grace them [Gal 3:11-12]. For he teaches that this is the righteousness of the law, that he who has fulfilled what the law commands should obtain salvation; but this is the righteousness of faith, to believe that Christ died and rose again [Rom 10:5, 9]… (ibid, 744)

In other words, in the NT, there is a hard line between faith and works in general. Works in general are said to be one way of justification, while faith is said to be another.

Calvin continues:

[They argue] that the ceremonial works of the law are excluded, not the moral works… Do they think that the Apostle was raving when he brought forward these passages to prove his opinion? “The man who does these things will live by them” [Gal 3:12], and, “Cursed be every one who does not fulfill all things written in the book of the law” [Gal 3:10]. Unless they have gone mad they will not say that life was promised to keepers of ceremonies. If these passages to be understood of the moral law, there is no doubt that moral works are also excluded from the power of justifying. (ibid, 749)

Calvin puts forward the verse: “cursed by everyone who does not fulfill all things written…”. What he proposes is that “all things” necessarily include the moral tenets of the law. What this means for him, is that works and faith are not and cannot be united together in justification. Justification and sanctification must be separated.

Calvin explains:

[I]n its proper place,.. the benefits of Christ — sanctification and righteousness — are different. From this it follows that not even spiritual works [works done out of regeneration] come into account when the power of justifying is ascribed to faith… From this it is also evident that we are justified before God solely on the intercession of Christ’s righteousness. This is equivalent to saying that man is not righteous in himself but because the righteousness of Christ is communicated to him by imputation (ibid, 744, 753)

In other words, imputation of righteousness and regeneration or sanctification are distinguished, separated. Sanctification is something that flows from imputation, but is not the same thing. New Perspective (and Romans Catholics) place together the work of justification and sanctification, such that one can participate in his final justification through works done in grace.

God’s Sovereignty and Man’s Free Will

NEW God-is-Sovereign-Man-is-Responsible

The more I consider the mysteries of the Christian faith, the more I must admit that there are things that the Bible affirms, that the human mind cannot possibly comprehend in its fulness. The Trinity, for instance, God’s unity and diversity, must be affirmed, but will never be understood. Christ’s divinity and humanity cannot possibly be explained philosophically. To be Christian, we must affirm these complex and amazing doctrines. Another doctrine that is mysterious is God’s kingly sovereignty over mankind, even over all of history.

Ephesians 1:11 tells us that God works all things to the purpose of his will. Logically, if God works all things to the purpose of his will, his will therefore comprehends all of history, and is subservient to his sovereign purposes. And because all history is subservient to God’s purposes, we must also affirm that God’s will includes the free actions of men, both good and evil. And if mankind’s free actions are included in God’s sovereign rule, we must conclude that God can and does use our choices for his greater and more supreme good.

And yet, even though God is sovereign over history, we must also affirm that mankind is free. All men are free in regards to their choices, and are not coerced by God in any way. The choices we all make are genuinely ours, both good and evil. And this means that God holds all men accountable, and judges them accordingly (Heb 9:27). Even Paul affirms this, by saying, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Cor 15:10). Do you see here how Paul worked hardmade free choices, and yet he can say at the end of his life that it was God made him who he was. There is in this verse, both God’s sovereign will, and Paul’s free choices. They do not contradict, nor do they cancel out one another. And so biblically, God’s sovereign will and man’s free choices go hand in hand.

And while many Christians would heartily agree with Paul that God sovereignly brings about good in his people, what about evil? Is God sovereign over evil as well? Can he work through our evil to bring about his good? And if he does work through evil to bring about his good, does this make God complicit in that evil? Some Christians reject God’s sovereignty because they believe it is impossible for God not to be culpable for evil acts over which he is sovereign. And of course, when I speak of God’s sovereignty over evil, I am in no way saying that God is the cause of evil. However, I will affirm that God does, in his wisdom, decree to permit, use, and bring a greater good out of evil (Job 2:10).

However, again, just because our minds cannot comprehend this does not make it unbiblical. God is by definition God, and his sovereign workings in this world are both good and wise, even if we cannot understand exactly how he can be sovereign and not the cause of evil.

But this is where we must submit to God in the mystery. God is sovereign. Man is free. Even within the Reformed doctrine of election, God chooses us, but we also choose God! And the choices we make are no less our choices, even though they flow from God’s sovereign choice of us. Free will and sovereignty. The Bible affirms both.

John Calvin has some good insights on submitting God in his sovereignty. He says,

Therefore no one will weigh God’s [sovereignty] properly and profitably but him who considers that his business is with his Maker and the Framer of the universe, and with becoming humility submits himself to fear and reverence.  Hence it happens that today so many [men] assail this doctrine with their [philosophical arguments]: for they wish nothing to be lawful for God beyond what their own reason prescribes for themselves.  Also they rail at us with as much wantonness as they can; because we, not content with the precepts of the law, which comprise God’s will, say also that the universe is ruled by his secret plans.  As if what we teach were a figment of our brain, and the Holy Spirit did not everywhere expressly declare the same thing and repeat it in innumerable forms of expression.

But I believe that Calvin has good insight here when he tells us to humbly submit to God in this doctrine, even though we may not completely understand it. I will finish with CH Spurgeon’s answer to the question of free will and God’s sovereignty. He wisely said, “I never try to reconcile friends—they are both in the Bible.”