The Saving Work of the Holy Spirit in Calvin
B.B. Warfield, the well-known Princeton theologian, in 1909 called Calvin the theologian of the Holy Spirit. In an address entitled "John Calvin the Theologian," published at the four hundredth anniversary of Calvin's birth, he argued that Calvin's interest was most intense in the application to the sinful soul of the salvation wrought by Christ. The doctrine of the work of the Holy Spirit is a gift of Calvin to the church.1
When we try to develop the theme of the saving work of the Holy Spirit in Calvin, we must restrict ourselves greatly. At least two full-scale theses have been written about the doctrine of the Holy Spirit in Calvin, one by Simon van der Linde (1943) and another by Werner Krusche (1957). Van der Linde's main division is between the general operations of the Holy Spirit and the special operations.
Krusche Deals with the Work of the Holy Spirit in Three Areas:
the Holy Spirit and the cosmos,
the Holy Spirit and man,
the Holy Spirit and the church.
In this paper, we deal mainly with what Van der Linde calls the special operations, or with the third area in Krusche's book: the Holy Spirit and the church.2
We will Briefly Direct our Attention to the Following Topics:
Spirit and Scripture,
Spirit and Christ,
Spirit and Word,
Spirit and Faith, and
Spirit and Christ's benefits.
Spirit and Scripture
In the first book of the Institutes,3 Calvin writes about Holy Spirit and Scripture, and especially about the testimony of the Holy Spirit, a characteristic doctrine of Calvin. Holy Scripture is for Calvin the school of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the Author of Scripture and takes men into His service. They are notaries of the Spirit (Book IV.8, 9). Scripture must also be confirmed by the witness of the Spirit: "Thus may its authority be established as certain: and it is a wicked falsehood that its credibility depends on the judgment of the church." This heading of Book 1.7 shows the anti-Romanist tendency of Calvin's teaching concerning the testimony of the Holy Spirit. The question is simple: how do we become certain with respect to Scripture? Through the church? But the church itself is grounded upon Scripture.
Calvin says: We ought to seek our conviction in a higher place than human reasons … The testimony of the Spirit is more excellent than all reason. For as God alone is a fit witness of himself in his Word, so also the Word will not find acceptance in men's hearts before it is sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit. The same Spirit, therefore, who has spoken through the mouths of the prophets must penetrate into our hearts to persuade us that they faithfully proclaimed what had been divinely commanded.1.7.4
Note well, Scripture is self-authenticated. The testimony of the Holy Spirit is not the ground of our faith in Scripture; the ground is Holy Scripture itself. But the witness of the Holy Spirit is the cause of our certainty with respect to Scripture. "For even if it wins reverence for itself by its own majesty, it seriously affects us only when it is sealed upon our hearts through the Spirit." Illumined by His power, we affirm with utter certainty that Scripture has flowed to us from the very mouth of God by the ministry of men (1.7.5).
Now the testimony of the Holy Spirit makes us not only certain with respect to the authority of Holy Scripture as the very Word of God, but also the respect to the contents of God's Word, the promise of salvation in Christ, or our adoption as children of God through Christ.
Spirit and Christ
This leads us to the second topic, the Holy Spirit and our Lord Jesus Christ, and then especially in His relation to the church. Chapter one of Book III is entitled: "The Things Spoken Concerning Christ Profit Us By The Secret Working Of The Spirit." Already in this title we see the indissoluble connection between Christ and the Holy Spirit. Christ works through the Spirit and the Holy Spirit works for Christ. The Holy Spirit is the bond by which Christ unites us to Himself: Christ works through the Spirit. At the same time the Holy Spirit makes us by His secret energy to enjoy Christ and all His benefits: the Holy Spirit works for Christ.
In the beginning of Book III, Calvin poses the question: how do we receive those benefits which the Father bestows on His only begotten Son? As long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from Him, all that He has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us. Christ had to become ours and to dwell within us. Here we meet with Calvin's important doctrine of our communion or fellowship with Christ. It is the Holy Spirit who, in the words of Lord's Day 20 of the Heidelberg Catechism, makes us partakers of Christ and all His benefits. We are to be grafted into Christ, and to grow into one body with Him through the Spirit.
Calvin now comes back to the testimony of the Holy Spirit and he reminds us, in the words of 1 John 5, that Christ so came by water and blood that the Spirit may witness concerning Him. We feel, Calvin says, the testimony of the Holy Spirit engraved like a seal upon our hearts, with the result that it seals the cleansing and sacrifice of Christ. We come to possess cleansing and justification in the name of Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God (1 Corinthians 6:11). For Calvin this means that the Holy Spirit is the bond by which Christ effectually unites us to Himself.
In John 16:14, our Lord Jesus Christ says of the Spirit of truth: He will glorify me, for He will take what is mine and declare it to you.
Calvin writes in his commentary: "Christ now tells them that the Spirit will not come to set up a new kingdom, but rather to confirm the glory given to Him by the Father. For many dream that Christ taught only the elements and then sent the disciples on to a higher school. What then is the purpose of the Spirit's teaching? Not to lead us away from the school of Christ, but rather to ratify that voice in which we are commanded to listen to Him; otherwise, He would detract from Christ's glory."4
The Spirit bestows on us nothing apart from Christ, and Christ bestows on us nothing but through the Spirit. The Holy Spirit and the Lord Jesus Christ are distinct but at the same time they are inseparable.
Spirit and Word
Calvin's remark about the purpose of the Spirit's teaching brings us to our third topic: Spirit and Word. It is related to what we said about the relation of Holy Spirit and Holy Scripture, but Word is now especially meant as the preached Word, the gospel. (so in this respect Calvin maintains an equilibrium: the Spirit is not without the Word, and the Word is not without the Spirit.
The Spirit is Not Without the Word
Already in Institutes 1.9 Calvin strongly attacks the fanatics who, abandoning Scripture and flying over to revelation, cast down the principles of Godliness. One may also think of his treatise against the Anabaptists and against the Libertines. In 1982 the latter was for the first time translated into English by Benjamin Wirt Parley.5
With an appeal to Isaiah 59:21 – My spirit is upon you and I have put my words in your mouth – Calvin says that the church is ruled no less by the voice of God than by the Spirit. And with reference to John 16:13 – the Spirit will not speak on his own authority – he says:
Therefore the Spirit, promised to us, 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 in the gospel.1.9.1
Paul calls his preaching the ministration of the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:8). Only when its proper reverence and dignity are given to the Word does the Holy Spirit show forth His power. By a kind of mutual bond the Lord has joined together the certainty of His Word and of His Spirit (I.9.3, cp. IV. 1.5). The Word is the instrument by which the Lord dispenses the illumination of His Spirit to believers (1.9.3).
The Word is Not Without the Spirit
But precisely because there is a mutual bond, we have immediately to add that the Word is of no avail without the Holy Spirit.
Again, when Christ declares that it is the peculiar office of the Holy Spirit to teach the apostles what they had already learned from His own mouth, it follows that outward preaching will be useless and vain unless the teaching of the Spirit is added to it. So God has two ways of teaching. He sounds in our ears by the mouth of men: and He addresses us inwardly by His Spirit. These He does simultaneously or at different times, as He thinks fit.6
The Spirit confirms the teaching of the gospel, as if He were signing it.
Right at the beginning of Book III, Calvin says:
Yet since we see that not all indiscriminately embrace that communion with Christ which is offered through the gospel, reason itself teaches us to climb higher and to examine into the secret energy of the Spirit, by which we come to enjoy Christ and all his benefits. III.1.1
The Word becomes efficacious through the Holy Spirit. Calvin writes even this strong statement: "Without the illumination of the Holy Spirit, the Word can do nothing." One commentator has tried to argue that this statement does not apply to the germination of faith, rather to the assurance of faith.7 But I take it of both the germination of faith and the assurance of faith. Calvin speaks indiscriminately, and in the context he even uses the expression "to engender faith." He says that the "bare and external proof of the Word of God should have been amply sufficient to engender faith, did not our blindness and perversity prevent it." (
The preaching of the gospel can therefore only be done in humility and constant prayer for the efficacious operation of the Holy Spirit: Veni Creator Spiritus!
We could now continue to speak of Calvin's teaching about the Spirit and the sacraments, or about the Spirit and the church, to which the administration of the means of grace has been entrusted, but I prefer immediately to deal with the relation of Spirit and faith.
Spirit and Faith
Word and faith, or promise and faith, are correlative. Faith is our link to Christ, as He is offered by the Father, namely, clothed with His gospel. There is a permanent relationship between faith and the Word. If faith turns away from the Word, it falls. Take away the Word and no faith will then remain (III.2.6). Therefore, it is good after we have spoken of Spirit and Word, to deal with Spirit and faith.
Faith is according to Calvin the principal work of the Holy Spirit. When the Ephesians are said to have been sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise (1:13), Paul shows the Spirit to be the inner teacher by whose effort the promise of salvation penetrates into our minds, a promise that would otherwise only strike the air or beat upon our ears, The Thessalonians had been chosen by God in sanctification of the Spirit and belief in the truth; therefore, faith itself has no other source than the Spirit (III.1.4; cf.lll.2.34).
The Heidelberg Catechism shows the influence of Calvin also in this point that the Holy Spirit works faith in my heart by the gospel (Lord's Day 7), that by true faith He makes me share in Christ and all His benefits (Lord's Day 20), and that faith comes from the Holy Spirit who works it in our hearts by the preaching of the gospel, and strengthens it by the use of the sacraments (Lord's Day 25). Calvin's famous definition of faith reads as follows:
Faith is a firm and certain knowledge of God's benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.III.2.7
The operation of the Holy Spirit with respect to faith is therefore twofold: it is an illumination and a sealing; an illumination of our minds and a sealing upon our hearts. It reminds us of the knowledge and the confidence in the definition of faith in the Heidelberg Catechism, but Calvin's description is more clear, for he brings the two elements into the one term cognitio. Faith is recognition of God's benevolence toward us. Calvin does not make scholastic distinctions between the essence of faith and the wellbeing of faith, and he certainly does not relegate the assurance only to the wellbeing of faith and not to its essence. He also does not know of the later distinction between refuge-seeking confidence and assured confidence. His definition, therefore, is important not only over against Roman Catholicism, with its concept of faith as mere intellectual assent, or faith as unformed faith, but also over against a pietist mentality found in Reformed circles later. For Calvin faith implies certainty (111.2.15). There is no right faith except when we dare with tranquil hearts to stand in God's sight. Important for the entire significance and place of faith in the application of salvation is the fact that Calvin generally speaking follows the order of faith and regeneration, instead of regeneration and faith. The Belgic Confession is typically Calvinian when it states in Article 22 that the Holy Spirit kindles in our hearts a true faith, and then resumes this thought in Article 24: This true faith, worked in man by the hearing of God's Word and by the operation of the Holy Spirit, regenerates him and makes him a new man. Abraham Kuyper and Louis Berkhof charged Calvin's representation with being rather subjective since it first stresses the human activity rather than the divine.9 But Calvin, averse from speculation, rightly emphasized the relation of God's promise in Christ and our faith, and by speaking about faith as wrought by the Holy Spirit, he did not fall into the trap of subjectivism.
The Spirit and Christ's Benefits
By the secret energy of the Spirit we come to enjoy Christ and all His benefits. Christ was given to us by God's generosity, to be grasped and possessed by us in faith. By partaking of Him we principally receive a double grace: being reconciled to God through Christ's blamelessness, we may have in heaven instead of a Judge a gracious Father; and secondly, sanctified by Christ's Spirit, we may cultivate blamelessness and purity of life. The double grace, therefore, is justification and sanctification or regeneration. (Calvin uses the term "regeneration" in the broad sense of sanctification or renewal through the Holy Spirit.) In the expression "double grace," Calvin again wards off one-sidedness. Justification and sanctification are distinct but cannot be separated. Speaking of the double grace of justification and sanctification in this order, Calvin stays clear from nomism or legalism on the one hand, and anti-nomianism or libertinism on the other. Legalism or nomism means that the gospel is transformed into new law; it forgets that justification is through Christ alone, by grace alone, and by faith alone. Anti-nomianism or libertinism transforms the gospel into a message of lawlessness; it forgets that faith alone justifies but that the faith that justifies is never alone or by itself. Where righteousness of faith is, there is Christ, and where Christ is, there too is the Spirit of holiness who regenerates the soul to newness of life. Faith cannot lay hold of Christ for righteousness without the Spirit of sanctification.10
The Holy Spirit is the Author of faith and repentance. Our regeneration is by faith, and Calvin defines repentance as follows:
It is the true turning of our life to God, a turning that arises from a pure and earnest fear of him; and it consists in the mortification of our flesh and of the old man, and in the vivification of the spirit.III.3.5
The term "mortification" indicates that we must be violently slain by the sword of the Spirit and brought to nought.
Mortification and vivification happen to us by participation in Christ; we may partake in His death and resurrection. We will not now elaborate on what this means for our Christian life in self-denial, bearing of our cross, and meditation on the future life. Suffice it to say that the sole end of regeneration is to restore in us the image of God that had been disfigured and all but obliterated through Adam's transgression.
Calvin quotes 2 Corinthians 3:18: "Now we, with unveiled face, beholding (or reflecting) the glory of the Lord, are being changed into His likeness from glory to glory even as from the Spirit of the Lord."
Although Calvin himself speaks of the benefits of Christ as a double grace (justification and sanctification), it is not in conflict with his exposition of the work of the Spirit in the Church of God if we add a third benefit, the glorification. When, at the end of Book III, in chapter 25, Calvin deals with the resurrection, he again speaks in a Christological and pneumatological manner. Whenever we consider the resurrection, let Christ's image come before us. And whenever Calvin speaks of Christ's resurrection, he mentions the Holy Spirit as God's agent. In his commentary on Psalm 16:10, he writes: "We know that the grave of Christ was filled, and as it were embalmed, with the life-giving perfume of His Spirit that it might be to him the gate to immortal glory."
In the Institutes, he quotes time and again Romans 8:11: "If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to our mortal bodies also through his Spirit which dwells in us."
God raised His Son from the dead not to make known a single example of His power, but to show toward us believers the same working of the Spirit. Christ was raised by the power of the Holy Spirit, the Quickener of us in common with Him (III.25.3). The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of hope, the guarantee of our inheritance. The Holy Spirit is the Lord and Giver of life also in the glorification of God's children.
We could have dealt with several other aspects but these may suffice. Calvin deserves Warfield's grand name of "the theologian of the Holy Spirit." Over against Roman Catholicism and spiritualism, he developed from the filioque the relations of Christ and Spirit and Word and Spirit. I, for one, regard his teaching timely over against formalism, institutionalism, or automatism on the one hand and neo-pentecostalism on the other hand. Let me end with one more quotation of Calvin. He rebukes the schoolmen who do not want to know of assurance of faith and assert that men should always be in doubt and never claim an undoubted knowledge of God's will. But Calvin asks: When we simply say with Paul: We have received … the Spirit that is from God by whose teaching we know the gifts bestowed on us by God (2 Corinthians 2:12), how can they yelp against us without abusively assaulting the Holy Spirit? But they cry aloud that it is also great temerity on our part that we thus dare to glory in the Spirit of Christ, Calvin then quotes text upon text of Scripture to show that by faith we may glory in Christ's Spirit. Paul declares that those very ones who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God (Romans 8:14). And these men – the scholastics – would have it that those who are the children of God are moved by their own spirit, but empty of God's Spirit. Paul teaches that God is called Father by us by the bidding of the Spirit, who alone can witness to our Spirit that we are children of God (Romans 8:16). Even though these men do not keep us from calling upon God, they withdraw the Spirit, by whose leading He ought to be duly called upon. Paul denies that those who are not moved by the Spirit of Christ are servants of Christ (cf. Romans 8:9). These men devise a Christianity that does not require the Spirit of Christ. Paul holds out no hope of blessed resurrection unless we feel the Spirit dwelling in us (Romans 8:11). These men invent a hope devoid of such a feeling (III.2.39). Without glorying in the presence of the Holy Spirit, Christianity does not stand.