Saturday, April 4, 2015

John Calvin finale: The Pharisee and the Publican parable

John Calvin

Another one of Calvin’s favorite topics is the need for people to be humble, and the parable of the Pharisee and Publican is a prime example of the contrast between the humility we should have and the arrogance we should avoid. Believers must come to God in prayer with humility and abasement, because “[n]o disease is more dangerous than arrogance,” and arrogance is deeply fixed in humanity down to the marrow of their bones. So this parable and the warning it contains about arrogance are much needed.
The problem with the Pharisee is twofold, and Jesus condemns these sins: “Wicked confidence in our selves, and the pride of despising brethren.” The first leads unfailingly to the second. In fact, the one with self-confidence carries on open war with God, to whom we cannot be reconciled in any other way than by denial of ourselves; that is, by laying aside all confidence in our own virtue and righteousness, and relying on his mercy alone. Calvin notes that the parable begins with a comparison between the two men:
both of whom, by going up to pray, seem to manifest the same ardor of piety, while yet they are exceedingly unlike. The Pharisee, possessing outward sanctity, approaches to God with a commendation which he pronounces on his whole life, and as if he had an undoubted right to offer the sacrifice of praise. The publican, on the other hand, as if he had been some outcast, and knew that he was unworthy to approach, presents himself with trembling and with humble confession. Christ affirms that the Pharisee was rejected, and that the prayers of the publican were acceptable to God. The reasons why the Pharisee was rejected are stated to be these two: he trusted in himself that he was righteous, and despised others.
Although the Pharisee ascribes it to the grace of God that he is righteous, he wrongly assumes, Calvin says, that “God was reconciled to him by the merits of his works.” He relies on the merits of those works and prefers himself to others; hence the Pharisee and his prayer were rejected:
This is a remarkable passage; for some think it enough if they take from man the glory of good works, so far as they are the gifts of the Holy Spirit; and accordingly they admit that we are justified freely, because God finds in us no righteousness but what he bestowed. But Christ goes farther, not only ascribing to the grace of the Spirit the power of acting aright, but stripping us of all confidence in works; for the Pharisee is not blamed on the ground of claiming for himself what belongs to God, but because he trusts to his works, that God will be reconciled to him, because he deserves it. Let us therefore know that, though a man may ascribe to God the praise of works, yet if he imagines the righteousness of those works to be the cause of his salvation, or rests upon it, he is condemned for wicked arrogance. And observe, that he is not charged with the vainglorious ambition of those who indulge in boasting before men, while they are inwardly conscious of their own wickedness, but is charged with concealed hypocrisy; for he is not said to have been the herald of his own praises, but to have prayed silently within himself. Though he did not proclaim aloud the honor of his own righteousness, his internal pride was abominable in the sight of God. His boasting consists of two parts: first, he acquits himself of that guilt in which all men are involved; and, secondly, he brings forward his virtues. He asserts that he is not as other men, because he is not chargeable with crimes which everywhere prevail in the world.
Thus, as suggested above, Calvin's interpretation reflects aspects of the controversies about faith and works during the Reformation. The next section makes that even more clear:

The Pharisee boasted, Calvin notes, that he performed in his life more than the law of God required, and Calvin compares that to the “Popish monks” bragging about their “works of supererogation, as if they found no great difficulty in fulfilling the law of God.” Calvin says that Christians should learn two things from this: “we must not swell with confidence, as if we had satisfied God; and, next, we must not look down with disdainful contempt upon our brethren.” The Pharisee failed in both these respects by claiming that he was righteous and by despising others with whom he compared himself:
but as the proud hypocrite, by winking at his sins, met the justice of God with a pretense of complete and perfect righteousness, his wicked and detestable hardihood could not but make him fall. For the only hope of the godly, so long as they labor under the weakness of the flesh, is, after acknowledging what is good in them, to betake themselves to the mercy of God alone, and to rest their salvation on prayer for forgiveness.
The Pharisee trusted in outward appearance, but Jesus cares about the inward uncleanness of the man’s heart. The only way to overcome human vices is to be “governed by the Spirit of God.” The tax collector, on the other hand was humble, made an honest confession of guilt, “acknowledged himself to be miserable and lost, and fled to the mercy of God.” From this, Jesus teaches that:
He who acknowledges that he is guilty and convicted, and then proceeds to implore pardon, disavows all confidence in works; and Christ’s object was to show that God will not be gracious to any but those who betake themselves with trembling to his mercy alone.
Calvin concludes by saying that the tax collector was accepted by God, but the Pharisee was totally rejected. The tax collector was able to stand before God because “he obtained grace, because his guilt was blotted out, and his sins were washed away.” He could not rely on the merits of good works and he had no other basis for hope than the pure mercy of God. Such it is with all human beings, Calvin argues: “all are universally guilty—some more than others—but “God will not be pacified towards us, unless we distrust works, and pray that we may be freely reconciled”:

And, indeed, the Papists are compelled to acknowledge this in part, but immediately afterwards they debase this doctrine by a wicked invention. They admit that all need the remedy of forgiveness, because no man is perfect; but they first intoxicate wretched men with reliance on what they call imperfect righteousness, and next add satisfactions, in order to blot out their guilt. But our faith needs no other support than this, that God has accepted us, not because we deserved it, but because he does not impute our sins.

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