Calvin’s Institutes — Family Devotional Edition
The Testimony of the Spirit
When that which professes to be the Word of God is acknowledged to be so, no person, unless devoid of common sense and the feelings of a man, will have the desperate impudence to refuse credit to the speaker. Since, however, no daily responses are given from heaven, and the Scriptures are the only records in which God has been pleased to consign his truth to perpetual remembrance, the full authority which they ought to possess with the faithful is not recognized unless they are believed to have come from heaven as directly as if God had been heard giving utterance to them.
A most pernicious error has very generally prevailed: that Scripture is of importance only in so far as the Church allows it, as if the eternal and inviolable truth of God could depend on the will of men. With great insult to the Holy Spirit, it is asked who can assure us that the Scriptures proceeded from God; who guarantees that they have come down safe and unimpaired to our times; who persuades us that this book is to be received with reverence, and that one expunged from the list? Who would ensure all this if the Church did not regulate them all with certainty? On the determination of the Church, therefore, it is said, depend both the reverence which is due to Scripture and the books which are to be admitted into the canon. So, profane men, under the pretext of the Church, seeking to introduce unbridled tyranny, do not care in what absurdities they entangle themselves and others provided they extort from the simple one acknowledgement: that there is nothing which the Church cannot do. What, however, is to become of miserable consciences in quest of some solid assurance of eternal life, if all the promises regarding it have no better support than man’s judgment? On being told so, will they cease to doubt and tremble? On the other hand, to what jeers of the wicked is our faith subjected—into how great suspicion is it brought with everyone—if it is believed to have only a precarious authority lent to it by the good will of men?
These ravings are admirably refuted by a single expression of an apostle. Paul testifies that the Church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (Eph. 2:20). If the doctrine of the apostles and prophets is the foundation of the Church, the former must have had its certainty before the latter began to exist.
As I said, our faith in doctrine is not established until we have a perfect conviction that God is its author. If, then, we would save our consciences from being driven about in a whirl of uncertainty, from wavering and even stumbling at the smallest obstacle, our conviction of the truth of Scripture must be derived from a higher source than human conjectures, judgments, or reasons: namely, the private testimony of the Holy Spirit.
It is preposterous to attempt by mere discussion to rear up a full faith in Scripture. True, were I called to contend with the craftiest despisers of God, I trust, though I am not possessed of the highest ability or eloquence, I should not find it difficult to stop their obstreperous mouths. I could, without much ado, put down the boastings which they mutter in corners, if anything were to be gained by refuting their complaints. But even though we may maintain the sacred Word of God against disputers, it does not follow that we shall forthwith implant the certainty which faith requires in their hearts. Profane men think that religion rests only on opinion, and therefore insist to have it proved by reason that Moses and the prophets were divinely inspired. But the testimony of the Spirit is superior to reason. For as God alone can properly bear witness to his own words, so these words will not obtain full credit in the hearts of men until they are sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit. The same Spirit, therefore, who spoke by the mouth of the prophets, must penetrate our hearts to convince us that they faithfully delivered the message with which they were divinely entrusted.
This connection is most aptly expressed by Isaiah in these words, “My Spirit that is upon thee, and my words which I have put in thy mouth, shall not depart out of thy mouth, nor out of the mouth of thy seed, nor out of the mouth of thy seed’s seed, saith the Lord, from henceforth and forever” (Isa. 59:21). Some worthy persons feel disconcerted, because, while the wicked murmur with impunity at the Word of God, they do not have a clear proof at hand to silence them. They forget that the Spirit is called an earnest and seal to confirm the faith of the godly for this very reason: until he enlightens their minds, they are tossed to and fro in a sea of doubts.
Those who are inwardly taught by the Holy Spirit acquiesce implicitly in Scripture, and Scripture, carrying its own evidence along with it, does not stoop to submit to proofs and arguments, but owes the full conviction with which we ought to receive it to the testimony of the Spirit. Enlightened by him, we no longer believe that the Scriptures are from God either on our own judgment or that of others; but in a way superior to human judgment, feel perfectly assured that it came to us by the instrumentality of men, from the very mouth of God.
This conviction, then, is a conviction which does not ask for reasons. This knowledge is a knowledge which accords with the highest reason, namely, knowledge in which the mind rests more firmly and securely than in any reasons. This is the conviction which revelation from heaven alone can produce. I say nothing more than every believer experiences in himself, though my words fall far short of the reality. The modest and teachable reader will find a sufficient reason in the promise contained in Isaiah, that all the children of the renovated Church “shall be taught of the Lord” (Isaiah 54:13). Isaiah, moreover, while reminding us that the prophetical doctrine would prove incredible not only to strangers, but also to the Jews, who were desirous to be thought of the household of God, adds the reason, when he asks, “To whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” (Isaiah 53:1). If at any time, then we are troubled at the small number of those who believe, let us, on the other hand, call to mind, that none comprehend the mysteries of God save those to whom it is given.
Questions for Devotion
- Why do some people say the authority of Scripture is dependent on the church? What are some reasons they would give?
- What are some of the consequences this man-centered error has for the Christian life?
- What is one Scripture which overturns this error? Why?
- What, ultimately, is required for anyone to accept Scripture fully as God’s Word?