Calvin on Merit

Rich Lusk, in this article, page 6, footnoe 4, claims that Calvin disliked the idea of merit strongly. He gives no quotation for this whatsoever. I beg to profoundly differ. Here is Calvin’s Institutes II.17.1:

“By way of addition this qeustion also should be explained. There are certain perversely subtle men (the footnote explains this as probably referring to Socinus) who-even though they confess that we receive salvation through Christ-cannot bear to hear the word “merit,” for they think that it obscures God’s grace…Hence it is absurd to set Christ’s merit against God’s mercy…Christ’s merit also intercedes on our behalf. Both God’s free favor and Christ’s obedience, each in its degree, are fitly opposed to our works.”

And section 3 of the same chapter: “By his obedience, however, Christ truly acquired and merited grace for us with his Father…He acquired salvation for us by his righteousness, which is tantamount to deserving it.”

That ought to do the trick.

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God’s Providence

Not only did God create all things, but He also sustains all things, such that if He withdrew His support of life, all life would immediately perish. Not only does He sustain all things, but He also directsand governs all things, including man’s will. God directs things to come to pass, and yet the means by which they come to pass are not always the same. Some things come about because of the laws of nature. Chalk up science to the study of these phenomena. Also belonging in this category is the law of cause and effect. Some things happen when God suspends the laws of nature (these are called miracles).

Now this raises a problem for us. If God exercises such absolute authority in all areas of life, then why does He let us face sin and temptation and sometimes let us fall? There are several reasons why He might do this: 1. to show us the corruption of our own hearts, and thereby humble us; 2. to bring us to a position of greater dependence on God for strength in the time of trial and temptation; 3. to make us more watchful in the future.

God also sometimes abandons men to the wickedness of their depravity. This is a judicial hardening, although, as in Pharaoh’s case, it is also true that he hardened his own heart. Woe to those whom God has given over to the sin of their heart!

But ultimately, God’s providence is an encouraging doctrine. That great chapter, Romans 8 says that all things work together for good for those who love Christ Jesus. That is referring to God’s providence. Ultimately, everything that happens will redound to the honor and glory of God, and the edification of His people, to produce a perfect, spotless bride for Christ on the Final Day. Hallelujah!

God Blesses Jacob

Genesis 30:25-43
One summer morning in the 1920’s, Arthur Ferguson stood idly in London’s Trafalgar Square. As he watched, an obviously well-to-do American began admiring the statue of Admiral Lord Nelson and the column it rest on. Struck with a sudden inspiration, Ferguson put his remarkable salesmanship to work and “sold” the statue of Nelson to the American for $30,000. He then proceded to sell Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, Buckingham Palace, and was working on the Statue of Liberty when justice finally caught up with him! Well, justice finally catches up to Laban in our passage here this morning.

We start with Jacob wanting to go home after the birth of Joseph. That seems to be the signal for Jacob that he needs to go home. The first word out of Jacob’s mouth is “send.” This is a special word that means “let go of a slave worker.” Jacob lets Laban know that he has fulfilled all the labor requirements that Laban has placed on him, and now it is time for Jacob to earn his own fortune. But Jacob’s request to have his wife and children given to him is unusual here. Wives and children acquired by such work as Jacob did still belonged to the master. So Jacob saying this is actually a statement that he is not in the same class as a slave.

Then Jacob says emphatically that Laban knows the faithful service that Jacob has given him. The reason he is emphatic is that he wants to leave no loopholes for Laban to say to Jacob, “You haven’t fulfilled your end of the bargain.” Jacob rules that out here. And Laban recognizes that. However, Jacob’s request has taken Laban off guard. The sentence here is a bit jumbled. The NIV adds the phrase “please stay.” That phrase is not found in the Hebrew at all. The phrase goes like this, “If I have found favor in your sight- I have learned by divination that the Lord has blessed me because of you.” He stumbles around for words, while he tries desparately to think of a way to keep this worker in Haran, since he is such a great asset to his estate. Certainly his words have the idea in them that Laban cannot afford to let Jacob go. His statement about divination is close to blasphemy, since he brings utters the name of the Lord in connection with divination. Probably he had divined by means of the teraphim, the household gods that Rachel would later steal. The Lord had used this divination in such a way that Laban would be forced to acknowledge that it was the Lord blessing him through Jacob. Verse 28 echoes precisely the same offer Laban made in chapter 29:15.
Jacob, remembering the rather disastrous outcome of the previous “deal,” is understandably a bit skittish about making any new deals with Laban. He reproaches Laban, saying “It ought not have taken divination for you to figure out that it was because of my skill as a shepherd that you have acquired all this wealth.” He says, in effect, “You owe me.” At the end of verse 30, Jacob says that it is his turn now to earn wealth for himself.

However, Laban is persistent, and refuses to grant what he should have given to Jacob. OT law, you see, forbids an employer letting go a servant empty-handed. If a servant serves a master for seven years, then the master is required to give him sheep and goats and other animals. He is to be generous. We certainly do not see that here. Laban is only thinking about himself. And so, he refuses to give to Jacob what he should have given him free of charge. Instead, he says, “No, stay here and work.” Notice that he uses the words “give you.” Those are the very words that Jacob does not want to hear.

Jacob replies that he doesn’t want to be in Laban’s debt. If Laban wants him to work for him, then it will be as an equal partner, not as a slave or servant. That is the essence of his request to be given these sheep. As Iain Duguid says, “Jacob wanted to look this gift horse in the mouth very carefully, to make sure that it wasn’t of the Trojan variety.”

Now, Jacob requests something very much to Laban’s advantage. All he asks for is the spotted and speckled sheep and goats. That would have constituted a very small portion of the animals in Laban’s flock. In fact, that would have been fewer than a normal shepherd would have asked for in a similar situation. A normal wage for a shepherd would have been around 10-15% of the flock, whereas what Jacob asks for is far less than that. But they are to be from Laban’s current flock. The reason he asks for color markings is two-fold: first, that will make it easy to distinguish between Laban’s flock and Jacob’s flock. Secondly, Jacob knows enough about breeding to know that he is going to be able to breed himself quite a nice flock. But to Laban, this seemed like a great deal. After all, almost all the sheep were already white. It seemed even better when Laban cheated on Jacob by sending all the spotted and speckled sheep away in his sons’ keeping. Actually, Laban probably went with them, since he put a three days’ journey between himself and Jacob. But this was going to backfire seriously on Laban, since it left Jacob with a free hand to breed as he chose without a lot of other shepherds overlooking what he was doing.

Jacob’s breeding tactics seem outlandish to us. And certainly, the rods that Jacob sets before the sheep have nothing to do with what actually happened. I talked to my brother-in-law Nels about sheep breeding, since he has many sheep on his farm, and said some very interesting things. There are signs that you look for in a sheep that indicate a certain color gene, even in sheep that are all white. For instance, the nose, the legs, and the hooves will have certain indications that there is a recessive color gene in that animal. Jacob would also be looking for bigger hooves to indicate strong animals. How the animal carried itself would also be a factor: how it stands, and how it moves. So Jacob would choose those animals and breed them with other similarly strong animals to achieve a much higher rate of the color scheme that he wanted. It becomes obvious later on that it was the Lord who was acting in all of this. He saw that Laban was oppressing Jacob, and so He made the sheep bear more spotted and speckled sheep. The Lord tolerates Jacob’s methods, and blesses him in spite of them.

How do we see Christ here? Well, first of all, we see Christ as the shepherd who takes care of His sheep, and does not ask for payment, just as Jacob did not. Second, we see Christ in a progressive way with Jacob and Israel later in the Exodus. Jacob being in service to Laban is the same story as Israel down in Egypt under Pharaoh’s cruel tyranny. Just as Jacob had to make sheep without sheep, as it were, so also did the Israelites have to make bricks without straw. That story in turn is the same story as us being under sin and death. We have to make righteousness without the ability to be righteous. The solution in all these cases is resurrection. Jacob acquiring sheep out of very unpromising circumstances is a sort of resurrection for him. God brought out the Israelites from Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. So also does He save us from sin and death by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

So what can we take from this story? First, we must understand that all we have is a gift from God. The story is told of some cattle buyers who saw a beautiful cow standing in a field. Going to a man sitting on his porch, a black man, they asked him if that was his cow. The man replied, “No, suh. That ain’t mah cow: that’d be the Lawd’s cow!” The man understood very well what stewardship means. All we have belongs to the Lord, and is given to us for safe keeping.

Secondly, we can learn from Jacob’s example that we mut trust the Lord to fulfill His promises. We have seen this over and over again with the patriarchs. They try to acquire the promises by their own effort, when the promise is plainly to be a gift. Nevertheless, God can sometimes use even our puny efforts and misdirected thoughts to accomplish the fulfillment of that very promise. That can be an ecouragement to us as well.
Thirdly, we learn from the example of Laban that the man who digs a trap for his neighbor will wind up falling into it. He thought that he had put another one over on to his nephew, only to wake up one day and find out that Jacob owns all the strong sheep! This is often the way that God works. The unrighteous man will work his entire life to build up a fortune only for a righteous man to inherit it. That is said explicitly in Ecclesiastes.

Ultimately, God is the Righteous Judge who will make all things right. We will inherit the earth. But it is a spiritual inheritance that we await. We should wait for it. We should not be so eager to be satisfied with this world’s offers of happiness, but rather await the new heavens and the new earth, when all of God’s sheep will be kings, and co-heirs with Jesus Christ, the True Shepherd.