Amazing Grace: How God used error for my good

May 8, 2019 | by James M. Harrison

I have a confession to make. The Roman Catholic doctrine of Auricular Confession has recently been a great help to me. Well, ok. Not the Roman Catholic doctrine itself, but rather Calvin’s refutation of that doctrine in Book 3, Chapter 4 of his Institutes.

I have recently found myself, once again, in one of those prolonged “Dark nights of the soul”. The fact that this phrase originates with the 16th century Roman Catholic mystic, St. John of the Cross, is an irony not lost on me. Nevertheless, could any phrase better describe that experience of near despair, and indeed suffering, into which one is plunged when confronted once again with the breadth and depth and pervasiveness of one’s sin?

When looking into the background of this phrase, I came across this definition: “dark night of the soul: a period of spiritual desolation suffered by a mystic in which all sense of consolation is removed”.

There are few whose natural inclinations are so far removed from mysticism as I. Remove that element of this definition, however, and I think one is left with an accurate representation of my experience, and that of so many others. It is a period of spiritual desolation, or what Martin Lloyd-Jones referred to as “spiritual depression”, suffered by…who? Certainly not only those with a mystical bent. No. It is suffered by one who is overcome by the reality of his sinfulness and his inability to escape that which is, in fact, a part of him. It is the suffering experienced by such anti-mystics as Luther, Spurgeon, and Edwards.

In my experience, these nights can go on for some time, and can result in literal nights which are very long, indeed. And yet…

And yet, this, too, is in the providence of God. This, too, is for my good.

Many years ago, determined to prove that all Scripture is, indeed, profitable, I committed to preach through a much neglected book of the Bible. I chose the Song of Solomon. After all these years, there is one scene which has remained with me, upon which I often meditate. The groom has come to the chamber of his bride, “A voice! My beloved was knocking.” But the bride was already tucked warmly into her bed. “I have taken off my dress, how can I put it on again? I have washed my feet, how can I dirty them again?” Finally, however, in her desire to be with her beloved, she rises. “I arose to open to my beloved.” But to her great despair, he had departed. “I opened to my beloved, but my beloved has turned away and had gone! My heart went out to him as he spoke. I searched for him but I did not find him; I called him but he did not answer me.” (Song of Solomon 5:1-8).

I know not whether this sounds familiar to anyone else, but it rings familiar to me. There have been times when Christ has felt far from me. There have been times when He has withdrawn from me the confidence of his presence. And what is the result? Like the bride, I remember my love for Him. The desire for my Beloved is once again enflamed, and I go in search of Him once more. I pursue Him. I look for Him in His word. I call out to Him in prayer. I catch glimpses of Him in His people. And, eventually, the dark night is over, and He is near once more.

What does any of this have to do with Calvin and his Institutes? Good question. Perhaps in the future I will write about the devotional nature of good theology. For now, let me speak only of the goodness of God.

I have spent the last two months reading through volume 1 of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, by John Calvin. This first volume (John T. McNeill’s 1960 edition) is comprised of Books 1 and 2, and Book 3 through chapter 19, extending to 850 pages. The second volume begins with Book 3, chapter 20 and continues through Book 4. I have now arrived at Book 3, chapter 4, in which Calvin addresses and refutes the Roman Catholic doctrine of Auricular Confession, and sets forth the biblical doctrine of confession. It is in this context that my Lord has determined once again to draw close to me, (though, of course, He had never moved away).

Here Calvin describes the remedy for our afflictions, which comes not through the impossible and futile practice of confessing all of our sins to a priest, but rather, in the free grace of Jesus Christ, whereby our sin is washed away in His blood, and we are brought near to our merciful and forgiving God.

As the Genevan pastor addresses these things, he uses a phrase which causes me to think that somehow, he knows me. He speaks of those “privately troubled and afflicted with a sense of sins…” When I read that phrase, I wrote in the margin, “I have known this dreaded ‘trouble and affliction’. How great is the overcoming grace of God! Christ has paid it all!”

Then, just a few pages later, as Calvin is dismantling the absurd requirement that all sins must be enumerated in order to be forgiven, as if one could even approach such a complete knowledge of one’s own sinful heart, he directs me to this verse: “If our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart” (1 john 3:20).

Is that not a truth which will turn darkness to light? Again, in the margin at that point, I wrote: “When in the dark valley of the contemplation of my sins, let me look up to the mountain peaks, over which shines the brightness of grace, and thus, the darkness is dispelled! Yes! Amazing Grace!”

Brothers and sisters, when the horrors, as well as the extent of your sin stares you in the face, know that you are not experiencing anything which is not common to the people of God. This was Paul’s experience, as well (Rom. 7), and it has been the experience of the people of God in all ages. And when it is your experience, dwell not on the sin. But rather, look to the sin-bearer. Dwell not upon the ugliness of your flesh, but rather, upon the beauty of the new creation, which, by His grace, you are. Dwell not upon judgment which you deserve. There is only darkness. Dwell, rather, upon the mercy which is undeserved, and is yet yours. There, in Christ, is our consolation. There, in Christ, is our light.

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