Calvin’s Institutes — Family Devotional Edition
Scripture and the One True God
Earlier we saw that the knowledge of God which is not obscurely exhibited in creation is more clearly and familiarly explained by the Word. It may now be proper to show that in Scripture, the Lord represents himself in the same character we have already seen in his works. God, the Creator of heaven and earth, governs the world he made. In every part of Scripture, we meet with descriptions of his fatherly kindness and readiness to do good, and we also meet with examples of severity which show that he is the just punisher of the wicked, especially when they continue obstinately notwithstanding of all his forbearance.
There are certain passages which contain more vivid descriptions of the divine character, setting it before us as if his genuine countenance were visibly portrayed. Moses, indeed, seems to have intended briefly to comprehend whatever may be known of God by man, when he said, “The Lord, The Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation” (Ex. 34:6–7). Here we may observe, first, that his eternity and self-existence are declared by his magnificent name twice repeated; and, secondly, that in the enumeration of his perfections, he is described not as he is in himself, but in relation to us, in order that our acknowledgement of him may be more a vivid actual impression than empty visionary speculation.
Similar attributes are employed by the prophets when they would fully declare his sacred name. In Jeremiah, where God proclaims the character in which he would have us to acknowledge him, the description is substantially the same: “Let him that glorieth,” he says, “glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth me, that I am the Lord which exercise lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness, in the earth,” (Jer. 9:24). Assuredly, the attributes which it is most necessary for us to know are these three: lovingkindness, on which alone our entire safety depends; judgment, which is daily exercised on the wicked, and awaits them in a severer form, even for eternal destruction; and righteousness, by which the faithful are preserved and most benignly cherished. The prophet declares, that when you understand these, you are amply furnished with the means of glorying in God.
This does not mean, however, that we have omitted his truth, or power, or holiness, or goodness. For how could this knowledge of his lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness, exist, if it were not founded on his inviolable truth? How, again, could it be believed that he governs the earth with Judgment and righteousness, without presupposing his mighty power? Whence, too, his lovingkindness, but from his goodness? In short, if all his ways are lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness, his holiness also is thereby manifest.
Moreover, the knowledge of God set before us in the Scriptures is designed for the same purpose as that which shines in creation: that by it we may learn to worship him with perfect integrity of heart and unfeigned obedience, and also to depend entirely on his goodness.
Here it may be proper to give a summary of the general doctrine. First, then, let the reader observe that the Scripture, in order to direct us to the true God, distinctly excludes and rejects all the gods of the heathen, because religion was universally adulterated in almost every age. It is true, indeed, that the name of one God was everywhere known and celebrated. For those who worshipped a multitude of gods, whenever they spoke the genuine language of nature, simply used the name god, as if they had thought one god sufficient. This is shrewdly noticed by Justin Martyr, who wrote a treatise entitled, On the Monarchy of God, in which he shows by a great variety of evidence that the unity of God is engraved on the hearts of all. Tertullian also proves the same thing from the common forms of speech. But as all without exception have in the vanity of their minds rushed or been dragged into lying fictions, these impressions as to the unity of God, whatever they may have naturally been, have had no further effect than to render men inexcusable. The wisest plainly discover the vague wanderings of their minds when they express a wish for any kind of deity, and thus offer up their prayers to unknown gods. And then, in imagining a manifold nature in God, though their ideas concerning Jupiter, Mercury, Venus, Minerva, and others were not so absurd as those of the rude vulgar, they were by no means free from the delusions of the devil. We have elsewhere observed that however subtle the evasions devised by philosophers, they cannot do away with the charge of rebellion. All of them have corrupted the truth of God. For this reason, Habakkuk (2:20), after condemning all idols, orders men to seek God in his temple, that the faithful may acknowledge none but Him who has manifested himself in his Word.
Questions for Devotion
- What two aspects of God do we find in nearly every part of Scripture?
- What two things do we learn from the declaration of Moses in Exodus 34:6–7?
- What three attributes of God does Jeremiah stress in Jeremiah 9:24?
- How are God’s other attributes related to some of these?
- How does the knowledge of God in Scripture compare to that gleaned by the pagan philosophers? Is the One True God more fully known from Scripture or from nature and human reason?
Note: While we work our way through the Institutes for devotions, please also check out the riveting chronicles in Calvin’s College Days and Young Calvin in Paris, also great for devotions, educational supplements, homeschools, and Sunday Schools.