“Always Inseparably Joined”: John Calvin, T.F. Torrance, and the Relation between True Knowledge of God and Salvation (Reformission Monday)

In my last “Reformission Monday” post, I explored one of the practical implications of a theology of mission and evangelism that is, from start to finish, shaped by Christology, by Christ himself as revealed in his gospel. We saw, in reference to John Calvin and T.F. Torrance, that Christ is the sole apologetic of the gospel, the single point of contact between God and humanity (1 Tim. 2:5) that rules out any appeal to some kind of “natural” theology or knowledge of God as a precursor to the gospel message. In this post, I would like to extend that argument a bit more by examining the link between what, according to Scripture, constitutes true knowledge of God and right-relatedness to God.

Here, once again commenting on Calvin’s view on this matter, is Torrance:

Calvin holds, then, that if we are to reach a real knowledge of God we must not just know that God is, but we must know His will toward us. “It concerns us not only to know what He is in Himself, but also in what character He is pleased to manifest Himself to us. We now see therefore that faith is the knowledge of the divine will in regard to us, as ascertained from His Word.” [Instit. 3.2.6] Accordingly, it is not just the bare will with which we are concerned, for “the Law of the Lord kills its readers, when it is dissevered from the grace of Christ, and only sounds in the ear without touching the heart.” [Instit. 1.9.3] “Hence there is need of the gracious promise, in which He testifies that He is a propitious Father; since there is no other way in which we can approach to Him, the promise  being the only thing on which the heart of man can rely.” [Instit. 3.2.7] “…No one, except he be blinded by presumption and mc8hfascinated by self-love, can feel assured that God will be a rewarder of his merits. Hence this confidence of which we speak relies not on works, not on man’s worthiness, but on the grace of God alone; and as grace is nowhere found but in Christ, it is on Him alone that faith ought to be fixed.” [Comm. Heb. 11:6]

It is through the Cross that we see this grace, for there we have a “Mediator who delivers us from our fears, and who alone can tranquillize our conscience, so that we may dare to come to God in confidence”. [Comm. 1 Pet. 1:21] It is only through the death of Christ, by which the whole order of things has been restored, and only within this circumscription of our minds by His grace and reconciliation, that we may reach true knowledge of God in an order corresponding to that in which He graciously reveals Himself to us. “There is no other way in which God is known, but in the face of Jesus Christ — that is, by the intervention of a Mediator … that knowledge which forms us anew into the image of God from faith to faith, or rather, which is the same with faith, by which, having been ingrafted into the body of Christ, we are made partakers of the divine adoption, and heirs of heaven.” [Comm. John 17:3] “Therefore let us set this down for a surety: that there was never since the beginning any communication between God and man, save only by Christ; for we have nothing to do with God, unless the Mediator be present to purchase His favour for us.” [Comm. Acts 7:30]

The conclusion one must draw here is that if there is no real knowledge of God apart from God’s gracious action in restoring the disorder of nature, then there is no real knowledge that is not also saving knowledge. “One thing is certain, that these two things, salvation and the knowledge of the truth, are always inseparably joined together.” [The Doctrine of the Secret Providence of God, Art. 1] [1]

Here we see that for Calvin, as well as for Torrance, knowledge of God that can be considered “true” is exclusively knowledge that obtains in reconciled relations with God. To know God truly is to know his loving, fatherly will for us and our eternal good, and we can know his will in this way only when we have been reconciled to him in Christ. Because our sin has alienated us from God, and because we stand under his judgment and wrath, we will never be able to look to God and gain assurance of his loving and gracious will for us except that we look to him in the face of Christ and experience the reconciliation that is in Christ alone. When we know that we have been reconciled to God, being justified by faith, we know that we have peace with him (Rom. 5:1), and it is on this basis, and this basis alone, that we can truly know him for who he truly is.

Once again, we see why appealing to any so-called “natural” knowledge or theology of God as a sort of preamble to the proclamation of the gospel is wholly illegitimate and ill-advised. Proofs of God’s existence, for example, will not necessarily lead people closer to Christ. In fact, as Paul indicates in Romans 1:18ff, it will simply lead people to twist the knowledge of God so obtained into an idolatrous ruin. Only repentance and submission to the folly of the cross will enable the enemies of God to come to a true knowledge of God for, as Calvin emphasized, such knowledge is “always inseparably joined” with salvation. As Torrance argues (again citing Calvin):

…the essential motion of true knowledge entails “the submission of the whole of intellectual wisdom to the foolishness of the Cross”. [Introd. Comm. Genesis] The Cross depotentiates all natural theology, and entails a change in the natural man which is complete and entire. “The Kingdom of Christ cannot be set up or established otherwise than by throwing down everything in the world that is exalted. For nothing is more opposed to the spiritual wisdom of God than the wisdom of the flesh; nothing is more at variance with the grace of God than man’s natural ability, and so as to other things. Hence the only foundation of Christ’s Kingdom is the abasement of men.” [Comm. 2 Cor. 10:4].

In all of our missionary and evangelistic efforts, then, we should preach nothing other than what Jesus himself did when he “came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel'” (Mark 1:14-15).

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[1] T.F. Torrance, Calvin’s Doctrine of Man (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2001), pp.177-8.

[2] Ibid., pp.178-9.

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