God knows you never had the chance

As I committed to reading through Calvin’s Institutes with a friend, in honour of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017, I thought it would be worth jotting down some bits that I found particularly interesting. Here’s the quote for today:

Therefore [Augustine] correctly points out, elsewhere, that in this examination God does not inquire into what men have been able to do, or what they have done, but what they have willed to do, so that purpose and will may be taken into account.

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 1, 18.4 [Augustine, Psalms, Ps. 61. 22; Augustine, John’s Gospel vii]

I know that the title suggests I was going to talk about what good things you may miss out on in this life, but I’m not. What this quote is actually discussing is what you were able to do vs what you willed to do. For example, have you ever daydreamed of winning the lottery and spending it all on good things for yourself and your friends? Maybe you dream of hooking up with someone who isn’t your spouse? Perhaps you have once been so angry at someone that you could have killed them if they were there in the room with you?

But you never had the chance. You were never in the situation, or when the situation arose you tried to do it but something out of your control stopped you.

Or maybe you feel hard done by. You were doing your best to help someone out and it backfired. They thought you were doing the wrong thing by them and took offence. Maybe you clumsily and accidentally hurt someone, but they assumed it was malicious and it is a black mark on your name until this day. You worked hard at your local Church for many years, but when you stood up to the new minister about how they were running things, you were cut down, embarrassed, or forced to leave.

You failed your chance. You were in the situation, but when it arose, something out of your control stopped you.

It’s nothing groundbreaking to know that God understands this. In fact, he understands everything. He has orchestrated the entire universe. Nothing gets by him. In an amazing and also horrible way, God is going to look at what we willed to do, not what we have been able to do, or what we have done.

Calvin quotes his buddy Augustine and they hit the nail on the head. Because if God was looking only at what each human actually did, whether right or wrong, we would cry out that this was unfair! God has everything pre-ordained in the universe, so we have no choice in the matter, so how can we lie condemned for our wrongs!

God, terrifyingly and magnificently, looks beyond our circumstance, our trappings, our accidents—every “unfairness” is stripped away. All that remains is our will, our desire, our motivation, our purpose. How we would have it if we could control these circumstances.

And unfortunately for you, me, and every other human, that leaves us in a very dark place.

Thank God for Jesus.


Malcolm Purdey is a Christian, husband, father, student minister and science nerd. He completed a PhD in Chemistry and worked as a research scientist before making the jump into ministry in early 2017. He has been married for 5 years and has two daughters aged 3 and 1.

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