The protestant reformer John Calvin starts the first chapter of his theological magnus opus with the words, “Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” It is tempting to think Calvin means that the pursuit of wisdom involves searching our souls and experiences. However, Calvin adds: “Thus, our feeling of ignorance, vanity, want, weakness, in short, depravity and corruption, remind us […], that in the Lord, and none but He, dwells the true light of wisdom, solid virtue, exuberant goodness. We are accordingly urged by our evil things to consider the good things of God: and, indeed, we cannot aspire to Him in earnest until we have begun to be displeased with ourselves.”
What did Calvin mean by this? He meant that the genuine coin of wisdom has two sides: the knowledge of God’s goodness and the knowledge of humanity’s badness. The goodness of God reveals the depth of our corruptness, and the knowledge of that corruptness pushes us toward the goodness of God.
This true wisdom was grasped by many on the day of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit manifested himself with mighty and bewildering phenomena on that day (Acts 2:1-13). Some asked how Galileans were able to speak as they did, others mocked. Peter delivers a sermon that explains these bewildering things. He concludes with the words, “Let all the house of Israel be assured of this, that God has made him, this Jesus, both Lord and Messiah (Acts 2:36).”
The realization was a crushing blow to those gathered, for – as Peter had said – they had executed this Lord and Messiah on a cross only days before (Acts 2:23, 37). This Jesus had come to offer them life, but they took his. He came to preach freedom and forgiveness of sins, but they mistook him for a heretic. He was dying for them, and, with deceit in their hearts, they colluded in his murder and demanded it happen. Because of that realization, three thousand people repented and were baptized on that day.
Songwriter Michael Card begins a song with these words: “I made the Man of Sorrows sorry by all my foolish lies. I drove the nails, I raised the cross, I was the reason that He died.” True wisdom begins with the knowledge of God’s holiness and our unholiness. It pushes us to our Maker, Redeemer, and Friend. That wisdom makes all the difference in our lives.
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Why and how to read the Institutes.