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Once again, I asked Dr. Calvin

June 11, 2010

It seems my spirit can be set wandering in an atavistic wasteland overgrown with some of the same weeds that grew in the City of Destruction. I won’t go into the motives and circumstances of the particular occasion that impelled my visit to my faithful therapist, John Calvin; suffice to say that I needed his help. In this passage, our great interpreter is deservedly dunking the Scholastics’ doctrine of penance.

Not the sinner’s contrition, but the Lord’s mercy awaits

But if they say that I accuse them falsely, let them actually bring forward and exhibit anyone who, by a doctrine of contrition of this sort, either is not driven to desperation or has not met God’s judgment with pretended rather than true sorrow. And we have said in some place that forgiveness of sins can never come to anyone without repentance, because only those afflicted and wounded by the awareness of sins can sincerely invoke God’s mercy. But we added at the same time that repentance is not the cause of forgiveness of sins. Moreover, we have done away with those torments of souls which they would have us perform as a duty. We have taught that the sinner does not dwell upon his own compunction or tears, but fixes both eyes upon the Lord’s mercy alone. We have merely reminded him that Christ called those who “labor and are heavy-laden” (Matthew 11:28), when he was sent to publish good news to the poor, to heal the broken-hearted, to proclaim release to the captives, to free the prisoners, to comfort the mourners (Isaiah 61:1; Luke 4:18, conflated). Hence are to be excluded both the Pharisees, who, sated with their own righteousness, do not recognize their poverty; and despisers, who, oblivious to God’s wrath, do not seek a remedy for their own evil. For such do not labor, are not heavy-laden, are not broken-hearted, nor prisoners or captives. But it makes a great difference whether you teach forgiveness of sins as deserved by trust and full contrition, which the sinner can never perform; or whether you enjoin him to hunger and thirst after God’s mercy to show him — through the recognition of his misery, his vacillation, his weariness, and his captivity — where he ought to seek refreshment, rest, and freedom; in fine, to teach him in his humility to give glory to God. [emphasis added] (Institutes of the Christian Religion III. IV. 3; Ford Lewis Battles, trans.; John T. McNeill, ed.; Westminster John Knox Press)

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