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Sinclair Ferguson on John Calvin and the Holy Spirit

Category Articles
Date October 2, 2009

The penultimate paper in the John Owen Centre at the September 2009 Conference on John Calvin was from Sinclair Ferguson – on ‘Calvin and the Holy Spirit.’

Dr Ferguson spoke about the fact that there is teaching about the Spirit everywhere in Calvin’s writings leading to B B Warfield’s famous remark that Calvin was the theologian of the Holy Spirit. That is not to say that it is was a central dogma. Calvin, of course, is very much a Trinitarian theologian and so we would expect plenty on the Spirit. First, there were two background matters:

Polemical background

1. There was a need to deal with the way the church had robbed the Spirit of his place and replaced him with its sacraments. Solus Spiritus is a Reformation watchword we ought not to forget.

2. Also there were those who divided the Spirit and the Word, the fanatics that Calvin, like others down the ages, had to deal with.

Theological background

Calvin was very clear about the deity of the Spirit as he was about that of the Son, a non-derived deity. With that he is very keen to remember the three when talking about any one of the persons and to remember their Trinitarian roles. He traces this out in creation, under the old covenant and the new then on beyond that to the Spirit’s work in us today. The Spirit breathes out the Scriptures and illuminates us.

Four emphases in Calvin

1. The ministry of illumination

Calvin spoke of the inner work of the Spirit. We do not sit in judgement on Scripture. We must let Scripture speak for itself. Illumination is something more than a noetic experience. The Word is made to humble us. Luke 24 is the great paradigm for Calvin.

2. The ministry of regeneration

The Spirit not only enlightens the mind and reveals Christ, causing the heart to burn but transforms the person. Calvin actually talks about the Christian life before coming to regeneration as we understand it. He uses the phrase ‘regeneration by faith’ something we would not want to say today. He has a much more unified view of things than later regeneration. He tends to speak of regeneration not only as what happens at the beginning but an ongoing thing. What the Spirit does first is to unite us to Christ. He will sometimes prefer in Christ over through Christ. This union is effected by the Spirit. He brings it about and maintains it. He joins us not to a mystical Christ but to a real Christ. Taking Psalm 133 he sees the oil as falling first on to Christ’s head and then on to his body. This union involves mortification and vivification – external and internal. We are united to the whole Christ as whole people – body and spirit.

3. The ministry of adoption

Fascinatingly he has a section in Book 3 on the titles of the Spirit. First, he puts the Spirit of adoption or sonship. This is how important he saw the sonship of the Christian. This was one of his great discoveries. Although he spoke of assurance of this sonship as part of faith, by that he meant as a definition. Even in the context he makes clear that in experience it does not always fit with that definition. The now and the not yet and the spiritual war we are in are important factors to keep in mind. We are sons and yet we are waiting for final adoption as in Romans 8.

4. The ministry of communion

The reason why Calvin is so emphatic in his understanding of the Lord’s Supper is that he sees that God’s power can come to us only through Christ incarnate. What Calvin believes the Lord’s Supper does is to bring us to the real Lord Jesus. At the table we have communion with Christ not with the Spirit. Of course, he is in heaven and just as the role of the Spirit is to close the space time gap that all are faced with since the disciples so he also closes the space time gap at the table so that we trust in him – not just in the story about him. This explains too his keenness on the sursum corda at the table – lift your hearts to heaven.

Gary Brady is Pastor of Childs Hill Baptist Church, London. The above appeared during the Conference on his Heavenly Worldliness blog.

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