April 6th, 2017
Koda, as many of you may know, is the most recent addition to our family: a jet black Labrador commissioned to service as a diabetes alert dog for our oldest son. She’s been specially trained to detect just by scent abrupt rises or falls in Seamus’s blood glucose levels. Those amazing powers of smell have now been finely tuned to do more than just search out food at a distance.
To say she is a marvel is the height of understatement. We’ve never had an animal in our home so obedient and responsive to commands. Alas though, we can’t engage her like a typical pet since she’s always “on duty.” (The rest of us play with the cat.)
Koda’s training has well-equipped her for not only attending to our son’s condition, but also to remain unobtrusive wherever she goes with us. She only makes herself known when needed.
Still, there’s a point when even training has its limitations; then other…instincts prevail.
As you might also know we have backyard chickens. Ten of them by last count. Multiple breeds, in myriad color schemes–all of them having supplied our family at one time with fresh eggs.
Not many days ago, Koda was with her boy in the backyard. (You see where this is going). Boy looks away. A cackle breaks out. Boy turns back to find said Labrador with mouth around the tail-feathers (and appetite for more) of one of our oviparous flock. Boy bellows out the go-t0 command, “LEAVE IT!” The well-trained dog releases her prey, which summarily and noisily retreats to safer ground.
No chickens were harmed in the unfolding of this event, though none were available for comment following the incident. But as they say, bird-dogs will be bird-dogs.
What larger phenomenon did we witness in this near-tragedy?
We saw momentarily manifested in the dog an instinct, that unlearned and therefore innate inclination to act in particular fashion. Conditions arose that occasioned an impulse requiring little if any deliberation on her part. The moment arrived and Koda seized the opportunity–and the chicken.
But while no one had to teach her to do what she did, nor encourage her to act in that way, you can’t say she her will was overridden by some force that permitted no other option. She chose to do what she did even if there was no nano-second-long inner reflection to impel that choice.
It turns out that our family’s newest faithful friend demonstrated in that instant, fraught with inter-species rivalry, a distinction that none other than John Calvin speaks of in his Institutes with respect to sin. How providential, right?
In book two, Calvin turns to an exposition of who Christ is and what He did on our behalf as our “mediator.” To explain Christ and His work though, Calvin must spend a little time fleshing out a biblical anthropology (as you’ve been hearing about in parts IV and V of our tour through his magisterial work during 2nd hour), exploring the depths of our condition as Scripture describes and illustrates it.
Chapter three of book two focuses on what has become of us that required the work of the mediator, Jesus. If Jesus came to both satisfy what sin demanded and to rescue us from the fate of sin unatoned for, then how might we think of our relationship to sin? That relationship, in Calvin’s terms, has to be understood by way of a distinction: between “necessity” and “compulsion.”
The former pertains to an inclination that, while not without some deliberation in its acting, rises up naturally within. Koda wasn’t coached to crave chicken any more than you or I were coached to lie in order to avoid where truth-telling might be painful. It just came to us naturally. The instinct may be strengthened through greater indulgence, but it is not to be thought of as some external force coercing us to commission. So sin is for us a “necessity” in that it arose inevitably because it resides innately.
Compulsion on the other hand is the situation in which no other option is possible. Koda can’t not (pardon the double-negative) salivate when she sees a chicken, even though she can choose to restrain herself from indulging in a little paw-lickin’ goodness. Or to use a different angle on compulsion, a slave is compelled to submit on pain of torture or death and so does his master’s will–not as an inclination so much as an obligation. There is no room for an alternative response.
Calvin finds it necessary to make that distinction to explain how we are, first of all, unable to remedy our situation. Our inclination–our necessity–to sin cannot be displaced or expunged by our own devices or insight; sin inheres. But while any sin we commit arises from something resident within us, we are not thereby exempt from responsibility. Any sin is a voluntary, not compelled, sin which makes us irreducibly accountable for such. Or as Calvin puts it more succinctly:
Man, since he was corrupted by the fall, sins not forced or unwilling, but voluntarily, by a most forward bias of the mind; not by violent compulsion, or external force, but by the movement of his own passion; and yet such is the depravity of his nature, that he cannot move and act except in the direction of evil.
There is therefore in me both an affliction and a guilt–a condition I cannot myself resolve, but one for which I cannot merely shift the blame either. I need both a physician to heal and a peacemaker to reconcile.
Mostly I need to know a love that becomes its own leash against the allures of sin.
[Ed note: If you’re wondering why Calvin still matters–for all his more exasperating tendencies–Kevin DeYoung just this week cobbled together several salutary lessons from the Reformer, some of them more cautionary tales than winsome wisdom.]
Both our focus last Sunday and the approach of Good Friday next week give rise to this other comment–another one from the homefront.
My wife entered one of her photographs in Faith Bible Church’s recent arts festival. It was the same shot she shared with CtK at its inaugural open arts night last summer: a glance through the window of an ancient castle on a farm in southwest Ireland overlooking an adjacent cemetery. The theme of the festival was “Grace Unexpected.” Obtuse as her husband is capable of being, I asked how she thought this work–darkly serene as it is–cohered with that theme. Her write-up accompanying the work on display put me in my proper place:
When I spent the day walking around Muckross Abbey in County Kerry, Ireland with my family, I decided to photograph the beautiful cemetery dating back to the 6th century. When I was on the inside of the dilapidated abbey, I was in the darkness and looking out into the light of the bright day shining down on the old tombstones. I felt at the moment that it was as if God was making a great point to me (because “he’s such a showoff sometimes”–[Anne Lamott, Small Victories]). It was as if he was saying that the true light is not in this world, on this side of death but on the other side of it. We so often live life as if this is all there is, but we will all come to end, “for it is appointed to every man to die once”. I do not believe we will truly live until we have looked beyond what this life has to offer, to live with eternity in our sights. This life can be filled with such darkness and suffering and we fear the death that awaits each of us. But if we are in Christ we should rest in the fact that we can ask death, “where is your sting?”. We should not love death, for it is the result of our rebellion against God, and for heaven’s sake it’s why our Lord gave up his life and he so much hated death and wept when his friend died, even knowing the end of the story and that he would be raised again. But I do think we should think of death differently than non-christians, for they see it as the end and we see it as the beginning of real life. After all, though we are dead, “yet shall we live” as his word says. Perhaps we could all stand to step out of the darkness of this world and see a cemetery as a place where light can exist… at least in his light, a light that will never end. No more tears. No more suffering. No more disease. No more hunger. All will be made right. All be brought to the light.
She puts in prose what George Herbert put to verse, and in a similar setting a few centuries ago:
My body to this school, that it may learn
To spell his elements, and find his birth
Written in dusty heraldry and lines;
Which dissolution sure doth best discern,
Comparing dust with dust, and earth with earth.
These laugh at jet, and marble put for signs,
From his “Church Monuments“
Finally, this Sunday–Palm Sunday!–we turn to a short passage in Ecclesiastes, arguably the one most often quoted, next to his ode to the timeliness of all things in chapter 3.
We’ll set it up by appealing to a short but revealing passage from our 26th President, Theodore Roosevelt. Penned while he was a young man, it typifies that indomitableness which would eventually lead him to style himself as one like a “bull moose.”
The future President’s words exhort just like the Preacher’s in 11:1-6. And yet for all the similarities between the two utterances, there is something in Roosevelt’s words that is utterly unique, and utterly foreign to our guide through Lent. We’ll note the similarities, but close with the contrast. (HT: Ken Burns’ The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, 2014)