Monday, February 25, 2008

In Calvin, Forgiveness leads to ... Forgiveness

I've been picking my way through the psalter and the prophets and I'm struck again how often the OT believers framed their soteriology in earthly terms. Salvation was not primarily deliverance from one's personal sins, as much as it was deliverance from one's enemies. Not that forgiveness didn't have a place, but it often seemed like a means to an end. Sin breaks one's relationship with God, which in turn invokes the curse (oppression by one's enemies). Forgiveness restores one's relationship with God, which in turn sheds the curse (i.e., deliverance from one's enemies). In this paradigm, forgiveness paves the way for salvation, but is not itself the whole thing. This is not, of course, to say David and the prophets were unconcerned about sin and the ramifications it had on their personal relationships with God. But it is to say that given the OT believer's sketchy picture of the afterlife, coupled with the promises of God as earthly deliverance from enemies and possession of the land, earthly deliverance was viewed in many ways not unlike our NT eschatological notion of final salvation. The important point here, is that for much of OT soteriology, forgiveness is a means to salvation, rather than salvation in toto.

Calvin has the same basic framework, but a different emphasis. For Calvin, Christ's atoning sacrifice makes possible the ontological renewal of regeneration. It is because we have been counted righteous through the forgiveness of sins that they way is now opened for God to impart the renewing righteousness of regeneration (see his Romans verse 4:25). But it's clear from Calvin's Institutes and his commentaries that the fulcrum of Calvin's soteriology turns on his doctrine of forgiveness (i.e., justification, positional righteousness, imputed righteousness, etc.). While spiritual renewal and ontological change has a place in Calvin's wider soteriology, it is not his main emphasis. Further, Calvin's notion of culpability--while not entirely systematized, in my mind--is discussed in primarily legal categories. Culpability is primarily due to what we've done, not what we are. Because he overlooks ontological culpability, Calvin falls short in incorporating a fully coherent notion of ontological renewal into his doctrine of justification. Or to restate it, Calvin's doctrine of justification doesn't account for ontological culpability, and the subsequent need for ontological renewal. As far as the justice of God is concerned, Calvin's content to end with forgiveness.

Calvin's emphasis swapped the means for the end. Ontological renewal (as seen in regeneration, and even more in glorification) is the absolute core of NT soteriology. The atonement and the cross of Christ paves the way for salvation, but is not itself the whole package. It's not enough to die with Christ; we must rise with him as well. There's no getting into the Kingdom unless we are born again and redeemed from the corruption of decay. Forgiveness may open the doors to the Kingdom, but ontological renewal makes us meet for entrance. Evangelical, following Calvin, have largely forgotten this.


Scott said...

Just a quick question. Trying to grasp to what conclusions you are leading us. Would you affirm or deny that regeneration proceeds and gives birth to faith?

Congratulations also on your forthcoming book.


Gerald said...

It's never a good sign regarding the lucidity of your writing when someone preempts their question with, "trying to grasp to what conclusion you are leading us to."

Anyway, the point of this post wasn't really about the order of salvation. My larger point (obviously not clearly articulated) was that Calvin's notion of salvation largely stops with forgiveness. To be fair, he recognizes a need for ontological renewal, but his doctrine of justification explicitly focuses on imputed/non essential righteousness. He fails to account for ontological culpability. I don't think Calvin reflects the emphasis of the NT, Paul in particular. From what I can discern, Paul's soteriology is more robust, moving beyond forgiveness to the real "meat" of his soteriology--being risen with Christ. The point of my post was that I don't think Calvin's emphasis reflects the NT emphasis, and that it breaks with the OT pattern.

As to your question regarding regeneration, I'm of the opinion that faith proceeds regeneration. I think one can make this case via Augustine and Edwards, and am very much committed to an Augustinian/Reformed paradigm. Rather than regeneration enabling faith, I see illumination enabling faith. The traditional Reformed order of salvation regarding faith and regeneration--though a theologically satisfying solution--is not biblically defensible, from what I can tell.

Anonymous said...

I'm new to your blog and have some serious vocabulary to catch up on. What is ontological renewal and ontological culpability? (In a nutshell of course heehee)

Also, in regards to your response to Scott, where you write "I see illumination enabling faith." Where does the illumination come from--ourselves or God?

Thank you and congrats on your book. I look forward to getting a copy!

Gerald said...


Ontology refers to one's nature, or essence. Thus ontological renewal refers to the renewal of one's nature. This is commonly associated with spiritual regeneration/progressive sanctification.

Ontological culpability refers to basis by which one is justly condemned before God; i.e., we are condemned because our nature is corrupt, not simply because we commit actual sins. (much like a rabid dog is put down even before hurts anyone).

And illumination comes from God, wherein the Holy Spirit opens our eyes to see the truth of the Gospel.

Bradley said...


As usual, I think your on to something profoundly important, and you have said it well, and with grace and balance (and I thought clarity). I am really looking forward to the fruit of your labors come the Symposium.


Bradley said...

"your" = "you're"

sp? It's two in the morning