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By Ryan Griffith — 8 months ago
On May 27, 1564, just after eight o’clock in the evening, a nurse urgently summoned Theodore Beza (1519–1605) to Calvin’s bedside. “We found he had already died,” Calvin’s friend and fellow pastor later wrote. “On that day, then, at the same time with the setting sun, this splendid luminary was withdrawn from us.”1 Calvin was 54 years old.
Calvin’s death sent a shock wave throughout Geneva and beyond. Beza writes, “That night and the following day there was a general lamentation throughout the city . . . all lamenting the loss of one who was, under God, a common parent and comfort.” He records that two days later “the entire city” gathered at the St. Pierre Cathedral to honor their beloved pastor. Despite Calvin’s prominence, the funeral was unusually simple, “with no extraordinary pomp.”2 But Calvin’s burial was particularly unusual.
Eighteen years earlier, on February 18, 1546, fellow Reformer Martin Luther died at the age of 63. As was common practice for ministers, Luther’s remains were interred inside the church where he had faithfully served. His casket lies in Wittenberg’s Castle Church, near the pulpit, seven feet below the floor of the nave. Luther’s successor and fellow Reformer, Philip Melanchthon (1490–1560), is buried beside him.
So also William Farel (1489–1565), who first called Calvin to Geneva in 1536, is buried in the cathedral of Neuchâtel, where he spent the final years of his ministry. When Calvin’s friend and successor Theodore Beza died in 1605, he was buried next to the pulpit of St. Pierre, the Genevan church in which he and Calvin ministered together.
But Calvin’s remains lie elsewhere.
Rather than being interred in St. Pierre, Calvin’s body was carried outside the city wall to a marshy burial ground for commoners called Plainpalais. With close friends in attendance, Calvin’s body was wrapped in a simple shroud, enclosed in a rough casket, and lowered into the earth. Beza writes that Calvin’s plot was unlisted and, “as he [had] commanded, without any gravestone.”3
Why did Calvin command that he be buried, contrary to common practice, in an unmarked grave? Some speculate that he wanted to discourage religious pilgrims from visiting his resting place or to prevent accusations from the Roman church that he desired veneration as a saint.4 But the answer lies somewhere deeper — in Calvin’s understanding of Christian modesty.
Forgotten Meaning of Modesty
When we speak of modesty today, we most often mean dressing or behaving in such a way as to avoid impropriety or indecency. But modesty more generally refers to the quality of being unassuming or moderate in the estimation of oneself. For centuries, the church understood the connection. Immodest dress was not simply ostentatious or sexually suggestive; it reflected an overemphasis on appearance. As Jesus warned, outward appearance can mask impiety (Matthew 6:16) or pride (Luke 18:12).
This is why both Gentile women converts in Ephesus and the Jewish Christians addressed in Hebrews are urged to consider how their outward appearance relates to the disposition of the heart. Excessive adornment could be evidence of self-importance (1 Timothy 2:9). Acceptable worship requires a posture of reverence, not pretension (Hebrews 12:28). Thus, a modest person represents himself neither too highly nor too meanly because he understands both the dignity and the humility of being transformed by the grace of God.
“Modesty is simply the outward reflection of true Christian humility.”
Modesty, then, is simply the outward reflection of true Christian humility. It obliterates pride by embracing the reality that a Christian is both creaturely and beloved. In this light, self-importance becomes absurd. Grandiosity becomes laughable. Celebrity becomes monstrous.
We Are Not Our Own
For Calvin, the gospel radically reshapes our view of self. As those created in God’s image, provisioned by his goodness, redeemed by his mercy, transformed by his grace, and called to his mission, those who belong to Christ no longer live for themselves. “Now the great thing is this,” Calvin writes, “we are consecrated and dedicated to God in order that we may thereafter think, speak, meditate, and do, nothing except to his glory.” Calvin continues,
If we, then, are not our own but the Lord’s, it is clear what error we must flee and whither we must direct all the acts of our life. We are not our own: let not our reason nor our will, therefore, sway our plans and deeds. We are not our own: let us not therefore see it as our goal to seek what is expedient for us according to the flesh. We are not our own: in so far as we can, let us therefore forget ourselves and all that is ours.
Conversely, we are God’s: let us therefore live for him and die for him. We are God’s: let his wisdom and will therefore rule all our actions. We are God’s: let all the parts of our life accordingly strive toward him as our only lawful goal. Oh how much has that man profited who, having been taught that he is not his own, has taken away dominion and rule from his own reason that he may yield it to God! For, as consulting our self-interest is the pestilence that most effectively leads to our destruction, so the sole haven of salvation is to be wise in nothing through ourselves but to follow the leading of the Lord alone.5
“Modesty blossoms when we experience the freedom from having to prove ourselves to God or one another.”
Modesty and humility flow from a heart transformed by the Spirit of Christ. “As soon as we are convinced that God cares for us,” Calvin writes, “our minds are easily led to patience and humility.”6 The Spirit shapes us with a kind of moderation that “gives the preference to others” and that guards us from being “easily thrown into agitation.”7 Modesty blossoms when we experience the freedom from having to prove ourselves to God or one another.
‘Modesty, His Constant Friend’
Calvin’s life reflected this reality. Despite the doors that were opened to him through his writing and network of connections, he was committed to “studiously avoiding celebrity.”8 When the Institutes was published in 1536, he was so successful in his object to “not acquire fame” that no one in Basel knew that he was its author. For the rest of his life, wherever he went, he took care to “conceal that I was the author of that performance.”9 Calvin even sought to avoid a wider ministry in Geneva, having “resolved to continue in the same privacy and obscurity.” He was drawn into the limelight only when William Farel warned him “with a dreadful imprecation” that turning down the post would be refusing God’s call to service.10 In brief autobiographical comments he wrote the year that he died, we see a glimmer of his own surprise over God’s sovereign hand through his life.
God so led me about through different turnings and changes that he never permitted me to rest in any place, until, in spite of my natural disposition, he brought me forth to public notice. . . . I was carried, I know not how, as it were by force to the Imperial assemblies, where, willing or unwilling, I was under the necessity of appearing before the eyes of many.11
It is no surprise, then, that a few days before his death, Calvin exhorted his friends to not be those who “ostentatiously display themselves and, from overweening confidence, insist that all their opinions should be approved by others.” Instead, he pleaded with them to “conduct themselves with modesty, keeping far aloof from all haughtiness of mind.”12 For Beza, Calvin’s modesty — forged by his vision of God’s glory, Christ’s redeeming love, and the Spirit’s animating power — was his defining characteristic. After Calvin’s burial, Beza captured it in verse:
Why in this humble and unnoticed tombIs Calvin laid — the dread of falling Rome;Mourn’d by the good, and by the wicked fear’dBy all who knew his excellence revered?From whom ev’n virtue’s self might virtue learn,And young and old its value may discern?’Twas modesty, his constant friend on earth,That laid this stone, unsculptured with a name;Oh! happy ground, enrich’d with Calvin’s worth,More lasting far than marble is thy fame!13
Free to Be Forgotten
In old Geneva, on the grounds of the college Calvin founded, stands an immense stone memorial to four leaders of the Protestant Reformation. At its center are towering reliefs of Calvin, Beza, Farel, and John Knox (1513–1572). Calvin would surely detest it. But the monument is a metaphor. We live in a culture that fears obscurity and irrelevance. We measure ourselves against others and build our own platforms in the hope that we will not be forgotten. We attempt to distinguish ourselves at the expense of the humility and modesty that honors Christ. Calvin would have us be free from such striving.
For however anyone may be distinguished by illustrious endowments, he ought to consider with himself that they have not been conferred upon him that he might be self-complacent, that he might exalt himself, or even that he might hold himself in esteem. Let him, instead of this, employ himself in correcting and detecting his faults, and he will have abundant occasion for humility. In others, on the other hand, he will regard with honor whatever there is of excellences and will, by means of love, bury their faults. The man who will observe this rule, will feel no difficulty in preferring others before himself. And this, too, Paul meant when he added, that they ought not to have everyone a regard to themselves, but to their neighbors, or that they ought not to be devoted to themselves. Hence it is quite possible that a pious man, even though he should be aware that he is superior, may nevertheless hold others in greater esteem.14
We may rightly regard Calvin as a hero of the faith, but he didn’t ultimately see himself that way. Humility had taught him to walk modestly before God and others — and, in the end, the freedom to lie down in a forgotten grave.
By John Piper — 7 months ago
Welcome back to the podcast. We started the week looking at the key to following God’s will. And last time, in Monday’s episode, Pastor John closed with a very great point on Colossians 1:9. There we saw that Paul was asking God to pour out his Holy Spirit, so the Spirit would remove “the dimness of our ability to see God for who he really is,” so that “we would have spiritual wisdom that experiences preferences and makes choices that are in harmony” with God’s beauty. Seeing more of God is essential to following his will in our daily decision-making. That was Monday (in APJ 1807). Go back and listen to that episode if you skipped it or if you missed it, because today we put that principle into practice. We do so by looking at an example of one man who proceeded with a major life decision with confidence, knowing he was following God’s will. He knew it. He was confident in his decision because he was following the trajectory of God’s revealed will. This is a clip taken from an old John Piper sermon, preached way back in 1982. Here’s Pastor John.
Now, Jesus taught us to pray every day, “Your will be done, on earth as it is done in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). Therefore, everyone who confesses Jesus as Lord makes it his aim day by day, consistently and heartily, to do the will of God the way that the angels do it in heaven. And if we are not making it our aim to do the will of God day by day, then it is very likely that we do not belong to Jesus, because Jesus himself said, “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matthew 12:50). In other words, the family resemblance in the family of God is not so much perfect performance of the will of God, but rather persistent purposing to do it day by day. The mark of the child of God is not that we always hit the bull’s-eye of God’s will, but that we always aim at the targets appointed by the Father day by day.
“The great aim of the church is to do the will of God, to honor the way it’s done in heaven.”
The great aim of the church is to do the will of God, to honor the way it’s done in heaven. And for many of us, that means a constant struggle for two things: on the one hand, to know what the will of God is for our personal lives, and on the other hand, to maintain a strong confidence that God will give us the strength that we need to do it and run interference for us so that all obstacles will be removed.
Knowing Biblical Trajectories
Now, in Genesis 24:1–9, I think we’ve got an incident from Abraham’s life that shows us, on the one hand, how he discovered God’s will, and on the other hand, how he kept his confidence strong that God would always be running interference when he held close to God’s will. And I think the reason stories like this are put in the Bible for us is that we might learn (1) how to know his will and (2) how to keep that confidence in God’s help strong.
So, in advance, let me tell you what I think the main point to be learned about these two things is from this text. I think the main point is this: we can know God’s will, and we can maintain confidence in his help to do it, if we’re familiar with the trajectories of his word. Now, in this day and age, I hope everybody knows what trajectories are. For the last 25 years, we’ve heard about them on the television. A trajectory of a rocket is the path that it will follow on the basis of its shape and speed and weight and direction. So you can know in advance what the trajectory or the path of that rocket’s going to be if you know enough about the rocket and how it’s moving. Now, I think that’s the way it is with knowing God’s word and finding out God’s will.
“You are to be able to find out God’s will tomorrow by becoming very familiar with the trajectories of God’s word.”
The Bible simply does not give you a radar screen or a blueprint of your life tomorrow. It leaves so many questions unanswered about what you should do. And the intention, I think, of God is that you are to be able to find out God’s will tomorrow by becoming very familiar with the trajectories of God’s word that you know from the past — and you could add to that the trajectories of his work that he has been doing in your life up to this time. If you become familiar enough with the weight and direction and the shape and speed of the word of God, then you’ll be able to trace out the trajectory of God’s will for you and maintain strength in his help.
Three Trajectories in Abraham’s Life
Now, let’s see how that worked for Abraham. I think maybe if we look at how Abraham did it, we might become better at it. Sometimes God spoke to Abraham directly, told him exactly what to do face to face. But if you read the story, you realize that those times were few and far between — decades between the times we read of God speaking to Abraham.
Most of the time, Abraham, like us, was left to trace out trajectories from what God had said in the past into the future so that he’d know what to do with his life, what steps to take. That’s what’s happening, I think, here in Genesis 24:1–9. There are three trajectories from God’s word that combine into one line of God’s will for Abraham here. The first trajectory is this: Isaac must have a wife. The second trajectory is this: the wife may not be a Canaanite woman. And the third trajectory is this: Isaac may not return to the land from which Abraham left to get a wife.
Those three trajectories merge for Abraham into a line of decision. And the decision, he is convinced, is God’s will. And the decision is this: “I will send my trusted servant to get a wife for my son from among my own kindred in my own land.” Abraham determines the will of God for the future by tracing out trajectories that he has learned from the past word of God. And then he’s confident, absolutely confident — so confident that he says in verse 7, “[God] will send his angel before you, and you shall take a wife for my son.” From which I infer that once we know the will of God, we can have tremendous confidence that God is going to work for us to clear away all obstacles to its success. Many of you have had that kind of experience.
Following the Rocket of God’s Will
Now, we want that to happen in our lives, don’t we? I don’t think there’s probably a person in this room who wouldn’t say right now in your own heart, “I want every day to know clearly God’s will for me. I want to know. I want to have questions answered about marriage, children, job changes, major purchases, schooling decisions, the use of my leisure time and what to do with it, special ministries and whether to get involved and how deeply involved, church affiliation (Bethlehem or another one), percentage of our income to give to the church and to give to World Vision and to give to World Relief and to give here, there, and everywhere. I want to know God’s will.”
I think all of you probably would say that. And you want confidence that he will work for you once you have hit upon the will, that if he tells you it’s his will for you to give 15 percent of your income to Bethlehem, he’s going to work for you and make that 85 percent stretch vastly further than the 100 percent would’ve ever reached. That’s the kind of faith we want once we hit upon God’s will. We want to be led — and led in triumph, as Paul said (2 Corinthians 2:14). Now, Scriptures like Genesis 24 are given to help us maintain that insight and that confidence, I think. And so, I want us to look at it even more closely.
The reason that I call these three things in Genesis 24 trajectories and not commands is because God never commanded Abraham explicitly that his son must have a wife, that his wife could not be a Canaanitess, and that he may not return to Mesopotamia. He never said that. The only way Abraham could determine that, so far as we see from Scripture, is by tracing out trajectories from things God did say to him in the past. And he had said things that pointed in that direction.
God had, as it were, launched the rocket of his will. And now and then, he allowed the clouds at Cape Canaveral to clear for Abraham, and Abraham could see the kind of rocket it was, the direction it was going, and how fast it was going, and then the clouds came back over. And Abraham was left to trace out the trajectory for his own behavior from what God had revealed of the rocket’s path and nature.
By Tony Payne — 1 year ago
Here I sit, gentle reader, on one side of a screen in Sydney, Australia, with you (very likely) looking at another screen in some other part of the world — and I am hoping that something remarkable will happen. I am praying that, though separated by geography and time, we will nevertheless meet together for the next few minutes through words on the screen.
It’s a miracle when you think about it.
If I write this piece well, you will “hear” my thoughts and my voice, even though, in fact, you may be hearing nothing but the soft whir of the fan in your laptop. Whether it happens asynchronously (in a book or in an article like this one) or synchronously (in a Zoom meeting or on a phone call), we find ourselves able to connect, communicate, and relate to one another without physically being in each other’s presence.
Remote, Partial Joy
Humans have been connecting like this since the invention of smoke signals. God has given us this remarkable capacity to project our minds and hearts and personalities to other places, and even other times, through dispatching representations of ourselves in words or images.
The New Testament authors, of course, made good use of this blessing. They saw their letters as an important vehicle for bringing their teaching, encouragement, and admonition to the people they loved and longed for from afar.
The little epistles of 2 and 3 John are a fascinating case study. In both letters, John rejoices to discover that his people are “walking in the truth” (2 John 4; 3 John 3), and encourages and exhorts them to keep doing so. In both cases, however, he concludes by saying that although he has more to say, he’d much prefer to do it in person:
Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete. (2 John 12; see also 3 John 13–14)
There’s real joy in hearing that someone is persevering in the faith, and a joy also in writing to encourage them. But it’s a partial joy — a joy that anticipates its fulfillment when we are face to face.
Technology: Relational Blessing or Curse?
The superiority of physical presence is so obvious that it seems strange even to argue for it. Who would be so perverse as to prefer a text message from our beloved to having dinner with her at our favorite restaurant? Or who would choose a phone call with our mother over the joy of a warm embrace and a leisurely conversation?
But we are strange and perverse creatures, with a long track record of choosing lesser joys over greater ones. As a result, we not only deny ourselves those greater possibilities, but in favoring lesser realities, we end up distorting and spoiling them.
As many others have pointed out, this dynamic seems to be happening in our cultural moment with respect to the virtual world of the Internet and social media. There is a disturbing trend to underplay the joy of physical presence, and to overplay the benefits of virtuality. We find ourselves so immersed in the captivating, constantly morphing, fast-paced stream of the virtual, that we have started to lose our taste for the solid ground of physical relationship. But like so many of God’s gifts, the blessings of virtuality, when misused or overused, become a burden and a curse.
It is not my task in this short piece to explore why or how this has happened, but I will briefly mention one important theological trajectory that relates to the importance of our physical church gatherings.
Isolation of Self
As Carl Trueman (among others) has recently documented, one of the strange aspects of our modern Western culture is the psychologizing of our selves and identities.
The steady, inexorable rejection of God as Creator and Lord in Western society has eventually thrown us back on ourselves and our inner lives as the source of morality, identity, and the self. It is hardly surprising, in a culture where we define ourselves by expressing our feelings and thoughts, that we should find virtual connections so attractive.
Our alienation from God and his created order has become a kind of rebellion against the bodily, physical nature of our created selves. And this rebellion leads to dysfunction, because our bodily nature is integral to who we are as God’s creatures. We are made to relate not only to God, creature-to-Creator, but also to one another, creature-to-creature. Our bodily existence is ordered for this purpose. As D.B. Knox puts it:
The body is marvellously contrived to accomplish its ends in relationship, with all the pleasure, physical, mental, emotional, spiritual that relationship brings. The eye, the face, the language structure of our brains, are designed to express our inner being to one another. (The Everlasting God, 52)
“We are made to relate not only to God, creature-to-Creator, but also to one another, creature-to-creature.”
This relates particularly to the redeemed relationships that God brings into being when he re-creates us in Christ. We are restored not just to right relationship with God, but also to right relationship with one another. Jews and Gentiles can now break bread together, greet each other with a holy kiss, even marry one another — all unthinkable impossibilities before Christ broke the wall of hostility that divided us (Ephesians 2:14).
Church Is a Gathered People
This gospel reconciliation is why the church — the gathered assembly of God’s people — is such a dominant feature of the new life we have together in Christ. In Christ, the Holy Spirit draws us together: to learn together from the word (Acts 2:42), to eat and drink together in Christ’s memory (1 Corinthians 11:23–26), to raise our voices together in prayer and song (Ephesians 5:18–19), and to encourage one another with loving prophetic words of exhortation, comfort, and admonition (1 Corinthians 14:1–3). All of these are creaturely activities, requiring creaturely presence with one another to fulfill their purposes.
I’ve often wondered if this thought lies behind the command of Hebrews 10:24, to not forsake meeting together. In much of his letter, the author of Hebrews emphasizes that the fulfillment of God’s plans in Christ involves a movement from the old covenant (with its physical, earthly temple and priesthood) to the new covenant of Christ’s eternal, spiritual redemption, through which we now have access to the very presence of God (Hebrews 9:14; 10:19–22; 12:18–24).
Was the author of Hebrews concerned that the obsolescence of the physical temple and priesthood might lead his readers to no longer see the need for a physical gathering with one another?
We should not speculate too far, but it’s certainly worth noting the form of his exhortation. After urging them to draw near to the heavenly holy of holies with full assurance of faith, he then says,
Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging [or exhorting] one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:24–25)
“Encouraging one another” is the counterpoint to “neglecting to meet together.” It’s an essential activity that not meeting together prevents us from doing. And encouraging each other is so because it is the means by which we stir one another up to love and good works as we wait for Christ’s return.
Given the weakness and sinfulness still present in our bodies, including the desires of the flesh that assail us, we need to gather regularly with other bodies — so that we can teach and encourage and spur each other on with our whole selves. The various activities we do with our bodies when we gather in fellowship are oriented to this purpose. They are done in the worship of Christ, and to the glory of God, but they are also very much done with and for each other — especially in building each other up in love and good deeds.
Physical or Virtual?
This vital aspect of gathering together is much diminished, or in some cases ruled out altogether, by neglecting a physical gathering in favor of virtual ones.
For example, the value and experience of sitting side by side, listening to a preacher, is qualitatively different from reading a printed sermon or watching one on YouTube — not only because we pick up different aspects (in the voice and gesture and physical presence of the speaker), but because we are in a different place and posture as listeners. We are sitting with each other under God’s word, listening together to the teaching and encouragement that his word brings us. Your presence next to me is part of my listening.
“Your presence next to me in worship is part of my listening.”
Likewise, when we sing, we sing not only to God for his glory and praise, but to one another for mutual encouragement and teaching (Ephesians 5:21–22; Colossians 3:15–16). We can sing joyfully to Christ anywhere, but only in the gathering can we sing to one another, making melody in our hearts to the Lord as we do so.
The same is true when we talk together and encourage one another around the word. When we are physically together, we not only enjoy a richer engagement with each other, but we have more opportunities to see and hear what’s going on with the people around us. We can sense when someone is troubled or joyful or heartbroken or disengaged or lonely or just new to our gathering and hoping to meet someone. We can proactively love each other, and speak the words that spur one another on to love and good deeds.
Joy of Gathering Again
Can these various goals be accomplished via email or a Facebook post or an article like this one? To some limited extent, yes — and what a blessing that is! But to allow the blessings and possibilities of the virtual to divert us from the joys and benefits of real, bodily fellowship would be a strange bargain indeed.
This has been the reality for us here in Sydney over the past eighteen months. We’ve had many months of lockdowns and other restrictions that have prevented us from gathering physically as churches. For about half of all the Sundays since March 2020, we’ve been stuck at home, trying to encourage one another as God’s people through virtual connections of various kinds. We have certainly been very thankful for these mercies (even if they have sometimes felt like small mercies).
But the joy we are now experiencing is the joy of real, face-to-face fellowship. I pray that we, and you, will continue to treasure that physical presence with each other, and never be distracted or diverted from it by the good but lesser benefits of the virtual.