This past week I had the privilege of sitting under the ministry of Dr. Derek Thomas, Senior Minister of First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, SC. Years ago, Dr. Thomas was my systematics professor at Reformed Theological Seminary and a colleague in ministry at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, MS. Dr. Thomas has long been a mentor and friend in ministry, but it’s been a decade since I’ve had him in class.
This week we walked through John Calvin’s magnum opus, The Institutes of the Christian Religion in detail. As many of you will know, this work served as the theological backbone of the Reformation during the 16th century. There are so many beautiful things to say about the work, but one aspect that stood out again to me this week is the way Calvin understands and speaks of the Christian life.
Calvin summarizes the Christian life with the term piety. That’s not a term we use often today. In fact, as we think of piety today, we tend think pious—a term that carries the sense of being religious, self-righteous, and hypocritical. Of course Calvin doesn’t mean that. He uses piety to speak of the proper knowledge and attitude that we should have toward God. He says, “I call ‘piety’ that reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces.”
What’s interesting is that Calvin joins together two things we often keep apart—love and reverence. Today, we often say that if we love God and know God loves us then there should be no fear, but that’s not true knowledge according to how Calvin sees it. Because God is God and is all-powerful, able to do whatever He desires, even if he loves us (and he does in Christ), there is a holy reverence that is still an appropriate and even necessary Christian response.
It’s the point C.S. Lewis was making in the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe when, after learning that Aslan is a lion, Susan says to Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, “Ooh! I thought he was a man. Is he quite-safe?” And Mr. Beaver responds “Safe? … Who said anything about safe? Course he isn’t safe! But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
Even the goodness of Aslan and his obvious love for Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy did not take away the sense of fear and reverence. For Calvin, this bringing together of love and fear is evidence of true knowledge and the spirit through which true godliness is formed.
So much to be said here, but let me sum it up. On the one hand, if your understanding of the love of God is not joined with fear of God, your relationship with God will come to be casual and flippant. On the other hand, if your understanding of the holiness and power of God is not joined with the love of God, your relationship with God is likely to be distant and cold. It’s only by holding these two equally important aspects of the nature of God together, that a loving reverence for God arises.
It has often been the case in church history that revival comes when a strong sense of the holiness and love of God are recovered. To that end, pray for us in this regard. Would it not be most glorious for God to grant to His church in our time a true sense of who He is? O that our love for God would be reverent and our reverence to be full of love, and that in pondering him we grow from one degree of glory to the next (2 Cor. 3:18).