“Perfecting holiness in the fear of the
To deny that the Holy Spirit creates new dispositions in the will is equivalent to a return to Romish error; even tho Rome argues the matter in a different way.
Rome denies the total corruption of the will by sin; that its disposition is wholly evil. Hence, the will of the sinner not being wholly useless, it follows: (1) that the regenerate does not need the implanting of a new disposition; (2) that in this respect there is no difference between the regenerate and the unregenerate. They who introduce into the Reformed churches this and similar teachings ought to consider that they impair one of the foundations of the Reformation, and, however unintentionally, lead us back to Rome.
The principal question in this controversy is: whether man is something or nothing.
If man is absolutely nothing, as some fondly proclaim; then God can not work in him; for He can not work in nothing. In nothing one can make nothing. In nothing nothing can be implanted. To nothing nothing can cleave. Nothing can not be a channel for anything. If man is nothing, there can be neither sin nor justification, for the sin of nothing is nothing; and nothing is no sin. Nothing can not be born again, or be converted, or share the glory of the children of God. And if there is no sin, there is no need of a Savior to atone for sin; for to atone for nothing is no atonement. Then there is no need of discussing sanctification at all. This shows that the idea that man is nothing can not be taken in the absolute sense. Since man is a being, he must be something; and they who maintain that he is nothing show by their actions that they consider themselves far from nothing.
But if we put it, “Man is nothing before God,” it becomes at once intelligible. Then every good Christian subscribes to it unconditionally;
Before God man is not anything, not even the regenerate man; but in His hand, by His ordinance, and in His estimation, he is so great that “God crowns him with glory and honor,” loves him as His child, makes him an heir of the heavenly bliss, and invites him to spend eternity with Him.
These two may never be confounded; man’s absolute nothingness before God may never be applied to man as an instrument in God’s hand. And man’s mighty significance as God’s instrument may never tend to make him the merest something before God as a being.
So we oppose pantheistic Mysticism and deadly Pelagianism..
The essential mistake of the latter is, that it gives man as such a certain standing before God, and refuses to acknowledge that even the most learned and most excellent, whose breath is in his nostrils, “Yea, wherein is he to be esteemed?” is less than nothing before God. And false Mysticism is that injurious tendency of the human mind which, in all ages and among all nations, for the sake of being nothing before God, denies man’s significance even as God’s instrument. In its writings it is reiterated that before God man is nothing, that in God he disappears and loses himself, that God absorbs him. And this being absorbed is pushed so far that nothing remains to which sin or guilt can be ascribed. And thus the consciousness of responsibility and the conception of imputability were lost. Christian men, carried away by the fascination of being nothing, have sung hymns and preached sermons very acceptable to the Buddhists of India, but entirely outside of the pale of Christianity.
Man as God’s instrument is significant indeed. In creating him from nothing He created, not nothing, but something; and that something was so important that all creatures made before him
To say that this means that man is only a mirror reflecting the divine nature is the vain effort of this sickly mysticism to reconcile man’s significance with its own pantheistic theories. The Scripture teaches, not that God reflects something in us, but that He imparts it to us. The love of God by the Holy Spirit is shed abroad in our hearts. The Lord makes us His temple and enters therein. A divine seed is placed in the soul. Pure water is sprinkled upon us. The Scripture uses many other images to warn us against the false theory that denies the inherent disposition in the soul and reduces man to a mere looking-glass. The branch is not a reflection of the vine, but grows from the trunk bearing leaf and cluster. A child is not a mere mirror of the father, but a being possessed of life and quality. An enemy is not one who merely fails to reflect correctly, but a being endowed with real existence.
To make man, even as God’s instrument, a mere mirror in principle denies sin, destroys the sense of responsibility, and changes actual life into the fancies of a dream.
The Scripture teaches on this point that before God man is nothing; that only through God man is something; and that all inherent and acquired goodness comes only from the Fountain of all good. And, following in the steps of the Reformed fathers, we must maintain this doctrine. But to deny man’s real and peculiar being is inconsistent with Scripture and with the Confession.
Thus escaping from the chaos of a false mysticism, and returning to the purified and ordained truth, we find no more difficulty in sanctification. Of course, if God’s child is but a polished mirror, then they who deny the inherent, holy disposition are right, and such disposition is out of the question. As a mirror, man is dead, and all that can be seen in him is but a faint and passing reflection of the image of God. But if man, as God’s instrument, has being of his own kind, it is natural that besides being, God gave him also qualities. A being without qualities is unthinkable. There are qualities in every sphere: in the material world, for man eats, drinks, walks, and sleeps; in the intellectual world, for he thinks, judges, and decides; in matters of taste, for he judges things to be
And these qualities differ in different men. One loves food which another abhors. The judgment of one is blunt, and of another sharp. One calls handsome what another calls unsightly; good, what another deems evil. Hence there must be a difference in men’s essential conditions, which may spring from their respective tempers, education, occupations, etc. Some men have these differences in common. Men of one group do not consider cursing sinful, but rather seem to enjoy it; those of another abhor it and protest against it. This proves that between these two there must be a difference of something; for without a different cause there can be no different effect. And this difference which causes some men to enjoy cursing and others to abhor it is called the disposition of a man’s personality.
It may be holy or unholy, but never indifferent. Being corrupt and unholy in unregenerate human nature, it can not be holy in the regenerate unless God create it in them. That which is born of the flesh is flesh. All our running and racing, toiling and slaving, can not create in us a holy disposition. God alone can do that. As He has the power by regeneration to change the root of life, so can He also by sanctification change the disposition of the affections. And He could have done this at once, just as in regeneration, by making our nature at once perfect in all its dispositions; but He that giveth no account of any of His matters has not been pleased to do so.
Of course, He delivers His child at once from the bondage of sin; but as a rule the sanctification of his dispositions is gradual except in deceased infants elect, and men converted on their deathbed. In all others the implanting of holy dispositions goes step by step, sometimes even with temporal relapse. Without this increase in Christ there can be no sanctification; and the soul that falls short of sanctification, what ground has it to glory in its election?
Calvin College. Last modified on 08/11/06. Contact the CCEL.