By these words he explains that, in order that the shedding of his sacred blood may not be nullified, our souls are cleansed by the secret watering of the Spirit. For the same reason, also, Paul, in speaking of cleansing and justification, says that we come to possess both, ‘in the name of…Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God’ [I Cor. 6:11]. To sum up, the Holy Spirit is the bond by which Christ effectually unites us to himself.” (Institutes, 3.1.1)
One is left to wonder whether this solid biblical truth is believed at all anymore. What we seem to be missing, which Calvin comprehended, is a firm commitment to the necessity of the Holy Spirit in the conversion of sinners as well as a deep dependence upon the ongoing work of the Spirit in the Christian life and the church. Concerning these things, Calvin reminds us of our desperate need to rely on the third person of the Trinity.
The Lord once granted me the privilege of leading a Bible study on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. I began by asking, “How many of you have ever heard any substantial teaching about the Holy Spirit or have been involved in a church where this doctrine was explained?” In the room were adult Christians of many nationalities, denominational backgrounds, and ages. Some had walked with the Lord for forty or fifty years. Of the group of about forty people, maybe four or five raised their hands in the affirmative.
It is really no wonder, then, that evangelism and gospel preaching appear to be largely non-existent and ineffective in some quarters today. Instead, outreach and preaching seem to be designed around the persuasiveness of the preacher and emotional appeal rather than the sovereign and secret working of the Holy Spirit. We desperately need to recover a biblical view of conversion and the Holy Spirit’s sovereign working in saving sinners so that we might free ourselves from the tyranny of methodological pragmatism and faddish trends.
Calvin lived and ministered during a time of significant social, political, and religious upheaval and strife. Almost overnight, entire provinces switched their allegiances to either the Roman Catholic or Protestant causes. Struggles were intense and sometimes severe. Calvin himself evaded capture and certain death on occasion.
Chief among the Christian’s enemies are the world, the flesh, and the Devil — the principal forces against which Christ’s army is arrayed. Calvin clearly perceived that the Christian faces an ongoing battle with indwelling sin. He knew this conflict would remain with us, but he was no defeatist. He knew also that the Holy Spirit accompanies us, and that the Christian must live by the Spirit in order to conquer sin. Christian sanctification was central to Calvin’s thinking, and he believed that our holiness is bound together with Christ’s completed work by the Holy Spirit.
Finally, we may learn a tremendous amount from Calvin when it comes to the necessity of the Holy Spirit in living out the Christian faith corporately as the church.
He understood what some habitually forget: Effective gospel preaching depends wholly on the power of the Spirit as Christ offers Himself in the gospel. If we neglect to proclaim the work of Christ or to beseech the work of the Spirit, all preaching is lifeless and impotent. But Calvin reminds us also that the Spirit is necessary for producing the unity fitting for renewed life.
The twenty-first century church needs a number of things, including a deeper understanding of saving faith and conversion, a greater desire for sanctification and deliverance from worldliness, a resurgence of powerful gospel preaching, and an unwavering commitment to unity in the church. Five hundred years after his life and ministry, Calvin teaches us that essential to meeting all of these needs is daily reliance on God the Holy Spirit, “the chief key by which the gate of paradise is opened to us”
(Calvin, Sermons on Ephesians, p. 207).