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Calvin as Gadfly: Our God-ward Anxiety

08 April 2011 by Frank Turk

This is why Scripture uniformly tells us with alarm and amazement that holy men were mortified and overwhelmed whenever the presence of God was revealed to them. When we see those who previously stood firm and secure literally quivering and scared even to the point that they were afraid they might die, or even that they might be swallowed up in judgment or complete destruction, we should understand something seriously: men will never know or understand their own insignificance until they have compared themselves with the royal, divine supremacy of God and discovered how much they themselves lack.

There are many examples of this God-ward anxiety both in the Book of Judges and throughout the Prophets. Indeed, it was a common expression among the people of God to cry out, "We shall die, for we have seen the Lord!" The primary argument from the book of Job for getting men to be rightly humble and convince them or convict them of their weakness, foolish ways, and their complete moral mess is always a description of God’s own Godly wisdom, and virtue, and purity. Abraham himself acknowledges that he is nothing but dust and ashes as he gets closer to the glory of God, and Elijah had to cover his face as God passed by – because the sight of God to man is a terrifying thing.

What else can man do, who is far beneath God, and rotten from sin, if even the angels must cover themselves with their wings at the sight of God who is “Holy, Holy, Holy!” This is exactly what Isaiah is talking about (Isaiah 24:23) when he says, “The moon shall be confounded, and the sun ashamed, when the Lord of Hosts shall reign!” When God exhibits himself completely, and gives us a closer view of himself, every other allegedly-bright object will be, by comparison, covered with darkness.

In this way, the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves are bound together by a singular lash: we must first know the greater and treat it with its right place among all things, and then descend to the question of ourselves.

-- John Calvin, Institutes I, 1.3

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