Loving sinners

Calvin ( Institutes 2.16.2-4) works to reconcile the Bible’s double testimony about God’s attitude toward sinners. On the one hand, God redeems His enemies; on the other hand, this redemption comes out of God. He resolves by saying that while we all “have in ourselves something deserving of God’s hatred,” yet “out of his own kindness he finds something to love.” Like Thomas and many medieval theologians, he concludes that He loves us because “we nevertheless remain his creatures.”

He quotes Augustine to express the marvel: “He loved us even when he hated us. For he hated us for what we were that he had not made; yet because our wickedness had not entirely consumed his handiwork, he knew how, at the same time, to hate in each one of us what we had made, and to love what he had made.” Total depravity, clearly, does not mean that we cease to be good, and therefore lovable, as creatures.

But Calvin embeds some other premises in his discussion that open up some difficulties.

Righteousness and unrighteousness are utterly irreconcilable. Because of that, the righteous God cannot “receive us completely” so long as we remain sinners. ( Atqui si perpetuum et irreconcilabile dissidium est inter iustitiam et iniquietatem: quamdiu peccatores manemus, suscipere nos totos non potest .) God graciously wipes us completely clean by the death of Christ, so that we “may show ourselves righteous and holy in His sight.” We can be confident that God is “kindly disposed to us” when we fix our eyes on Christ, who alone enables us to escape the “imputation” ( imputatio ) of sin that brings God’s wrath.

Calvin is, of course, talking about justification. Justification is complete; we are as righteous in God’s sight as Jesus Himself is. Our sins are not imputed to us because we have Christ’s alien righteousness imputed. Because God looks at us in Christ, He finds nothing in us to hate. In fact we continue to sin. The righteousness that we have is not yet complete in our actual lived behavior. What do we do about that? Calvin would say that we look to Christ, since in Him our works too are judged righteous.

But there is here an existential and pastoral difficulty, if not a theological one. The righteousness that God loves is, after all, an alien righteousness. God loves His righteous Son, but that might leave me wondering, Does God love me ? Since I’m not completely righteous, does God receive me completely? Calvin wants to say yes, but because the thing that God loves seems somewhat detachable from me, he leaves the question. This is not a hypothetical problem; assurance has been a long-standing problem in Reformed piety.

One way to address this would be to make more room than Calvin does here for God’s pity. Out of pity, God responds to the groans of His sinful people (Judges 2:18). He has compassion on rebels, and intervenes to deliver them from their own self-destruction. He loves them because they are His creatures; He loves them as His chosen people. Out of His compassion, He completely receives those who are incompletely righteous. The Father’s compassion is founded on Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the sinner’s union with Him. By emphasizing pity, though, it is clear that God loves me even in the midst of my misery.

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