TRUE AND FALSE
Based on commentary by John Calvin
“No religion is pleasing to God unless
founded on truth; for God, according to the uniform teaching of the Scriptures,
does not desire to be worshipped according to man’s caprice, but rather tries
the obedience of men by prescribing what He demands and approves, lest men
should pass over these bounds.”
True Christianity is submission—submission
to Christ as Savior and Lord.
God cannot be separated from His own
truth; for nothing could be left to Him were He regarded as apart from His
word. Hence a mere fiction is every idea which men form of God in their minds,
when they neglect that mirror in which He has made himself known. Additionally,
we ought to know that whatever power, majesty, and glory there is in God so
shines forth in His Word that He does not appear as God except His Word remains
safe and uncorrupted (Jer. 20:7).
True religion exalts the true preaching and teaching of God’s Word and therefore
the offices of pastor and teacher. False religion minimizes the importance of
Biblical preaching and teaching and Bible study and therefore has little respect
or need for ordained pastors and teachers.
If the ministry of the Word is removed, the truth of God will fall to the
In reference to men, the Church
maintains the truth, because by preaching the Church proclaims it, because she
keeps it pure and entire, because she transmits it to posterity. And if the
instruction of the gospel be not proclaimed, if there are no godly ministers
who, by their preaching, rescue truth from darkness and forgetfulness, instantly
falsehoods, errors, impostures, superstitions, and every kind of corruption,
will reign. In short, silence in the Church is the banishment and crushing of
The reason why the Church is called the
“pillar of truth” is that she defends and spreads it by her agency. God does
not Himself come down from heaven to us, nor does He daily send angels to make
known His truth; but He employs pastors, whom He has appointed for that
purpose. To express it in a more homely manner, is not the Church the mother of
all believers? Does she not regenerate them by the word of God, educate and
nourish them through their whole life, strengthen, and bring them at length to
absolute perfection? For the same reason, also, she is called “the pillar of
truth;” because the office of administering doctrine, which God has placed in
her hands, is the only instrument of preserving the truth, that it may not
perish from the remembrance of men.
(1 Timothy 3:15)
True religion is based on God’s revealed
truth, Scripture alone. False religion is based on human wisdom, human
tradition, human inventions, and superstition.
True religion may always be distinguished from superstition by this mark—If the
truth of God guides us, then our religion is true; but if any one follows his
own reason or is led by the opinion and consent of men, he forms for himself
superstition and nothing that he does will please God.
Everything that men contrive in the
exercise of their own thoughts without the authority of the word of God is
rejected by us (1 Timothy 2:5).
Our heart is evil whenever we turn aside
from His pure Word (Jer. 7:21-24).
All who follow superstitions are
apostates: Virtually all the people in Jeremiah’s day were apostates, for God
had bound the human race to himself, and all they who followed superstitions
were justly charged with the sin of apostasy; there was yet a greater atrocity
of wickedness in the Jewish people, for God had set before them His law, they
had been brought up as it were in His school, they knew what true religion was,
and they were able to distinguish the true God from fictitious gods. (Jer.
When men invent religious acts and
impose them on us, they claim to themselves what is peculiar to God alone; the
authority of God is violated when men claim for themselves the power to bind
consciences by their own laws. We must then distinguish between civil laws,
which are introduced to preserve order in society, and spiritual laws, such as
are introduced into God’s worship, and by which religion is commanded and
necessity is laid on consciences (Jer. 35:1-7).
The fountain of all superstitions is
when men seek to worship God according to their own will. In fact, this is the
source of all the corruptions by which religion has been corrupted in all
ages—the willfulness (self-love) and pride of men. While therefore men arrogate
so much to themselves as to make a law respecting the worship of God, all things
must necessarily go wrong. How then is religion to remain pure? Even by
depending on God’s mouth, by subjecting ourselves to His word, and by putting a
bridle on ourselves, so as not to introduce anything except what He commands and
approves. The right rule then as to the worship of God is to adopt nothing but
what He prescribes. On the other hand, religion becomes corrupt and
degenerates into superstition as soon as men seek to be legislators for
themselves, when they say, we will certainly do whatever has gone out of our
own mouth. (Jer. 44:17)
Let us therefore learn to render to God
the exclusive right of prescribing by His word the law as to religion;
and therefore do not let human power or dignity be allowed to overshadow the
authority of God; but on the contrary, let kings and princes be constrained to
submit when God appears. (Jer. 45:17)
They created pretended holy places in
order to sanction their own superstitions; for the holiness of Jerusalem was to
the Jews a cover for all vices. The Jews dared to set up Jerusalem in
opposition to God. Great, indeed, was the dignity of the city. Jerusalem had
its dignity from God Himself; but the Jews in their folly degraded Jerusalem
when they corrupted the Law and instituted fictitious worship according to their
own will. And yet we see that they armed themselves with this name, as a
weapon, against the Prophet Jeremiah, as though they brought God to fight
against Himself. Jerusalem had no dignity but that with which God Himself had
favored it; but they boasted that it was a holy city, that whatever was done in
it was to be deemed holy and lawful, and not to be disputed, as though God’s Law
had been lying buried under the dignity of the city. Now Jerusalem had derived
its splendor and all the dignity it had from the Law only. But this, as I have
said, was the wickedness of men, that they corrupted and perverted the benefits
of God. (Jer. 45:17)
True religion is small; false
religions tend to be big.
Contempt of God is universally prevalent, and the
licentious and disgraceful lives of almost all ranks show that there is either
none at all or the smallest possible portion of integrity in the world; so that
there is very great reason to fear lest the light which had been kindled may be
speedily extinguished, and God may leave the pure understanding of the gospel to
be possessed by very few.
The false churches were furnished with
wealth and great power.
True religion promotes the knowledge
and love of God. False religion promotes worldly wisdom, the love of self, the
pursuit of pleasure, the love of the world, pride, and materialism.
He shows here the source of all evils;
they had cast aside every knowledge and every thought of God. The knowledge of
God begets reverence and a regard for religion. God complains that he was not
known by the people, for the fear of Him was not in them (Jer. 9:3).
beginning of true religion is the knowledge of God.
For while all people attend to various
pursuits, the knowledge of God is neglected. We see with what zeal every one
pursues his own interests, while hardly one in a hundred will devote even half
an hour in the day to seek the knowledge of God.
only does God condemn men who boast of their own power and glory in their wisdom
and in wealth but also God completely strips men of all the confidence they
place in themselves or seek from the world. Why? So that the knowledge of God
alone may be deemed enough for obtaining perfect happiness. All men without God
are indeed miserable (Jer. 9:23-24).
can we gain true happiness? We need to know God’s mercy toward us, deliver up
ourselves to His defense and protection, allow ourselves to be ruled by Him, and
obey His law, because we fear His judgment.
self-denial true Christians learn to render themselves up to God to be ruled by
Him; for God will not work in us, unless we first renounce our own reason and
the thoughts and feelings of our flesh (Jer. 17:25).
True religion promotes true humility. False religion promotes false humility
Nothing is more contrary to faith
than pride, as also humility is the true principle of faith and the real
entrance into God’s kingdom (Jer. 27:15).
cannot be rightly worshipped except men are made humble. And humility is the
best preparation for faith, that there may be a submission to the word of God.
Idolaters do indeed pretend some kind of humility, but they afterwards involve
themselves in such stupidity, that they are unwilling to make any inquiry, so as
to make any distinction between light and darkness. But true humility leads us
to seek God in His Word.
truth makes people humble: Heavenly truth ought to bring under subjection, as
Paul says, everything high in the world, so that all the pride of man may be
subdued (2 Cor. 10:5).
bids us to come with empty and sincere hearts; for it is a real
preparation for a teachable spirit when we acknowledge that we ought to believe
in God’s word, and also when we are not possessed by a perverse feeling which
forms a prejudice and in a manner holds us bound, so that we are not free to
form a right judgment (Jer. 23:35).
Seraiah the prince was an example of
humble obedience: He [Seraiah] was a meek man who did not withhold his
service. He was ready to obey God and His servant Jeremiah. God commends the
meekness of Seraiah, as he received the Prophet Jeremiah with so much readiness;
he suffered [allowed] himself to be commanded by him, and he also did not
hesitate to execute what Jeremiah had commanded, when yet it might have been a
capital offense, and it might especially have been adverse to Seraiah’s mission,
which was to reconcile the king of Babylon. Surely it is an example worthy of
being noticed that Seraiah was not deterred by danger from rendering immediate
obedience to the Prophet’s command, nor did he regard himself nor the office
committed to him so as to reject the Prophet, according to the usual conduct of
princes, under the pretext of their own dignity; but laying aside his own honor
and forgetting all his greatness, he became a disciple to Jeremiah, who yet, as
it is well known, had been long despised by the people, and had sometimes been
nearly brought to death. It was, then, a remarkable instance of virtue in
Seraiah, that he received with so much modesty and readiness what had been said
to him by the Prophet, and that he obeyed Jeremiah’s command, to the evident
danger of his own life. We have to observe not only the meekness of Seraiah,
but also his piety, together with his modesty; for except he had in him a strong
principle of religion, he might have adduced plausible reasons for refusing.
As, then, he was so submissive and dreaded no danger, it is evident that the
real fear of God was vigorous in his soul (Jer. 51:59-64).
Proverbs 16:18 reminds us that “pride
goes before destruction, And a haughty spirit before a fall.”
Older people tend to resist being
reformed by God’s Spirit due to their sinful and stubborn pride: The same thing
we see at this day under the Papacy. The older any one is, the more obstinate
he is. “What! Have I not learned during forty or fifty years what religion is
and how to worship God? I have been thus taught from a child and have by a long
habit followed this way; it would be now a disgraceful thing for me to change my
course and to relinquish the faith which I have professed for so many years
We must humbly submit to God’s Word:
Let us learn not to mock God nor bring a double heart when we inquire as to His
will, but to allow ourselves to be ruled by His word (Jer. 43:1-3).
Submission to the word of God is the
key to church unity. False religion promotes false peace and unity
based on doctrinal compromise.
Calvin’s solution to church disunity and denominationalism is simple—to
submit simply and unreservedly to the word of God.
With regard to concord or union, the principle of a right and lawful agreement
is to have regard to God, to depend on His word, and, with one consent, to obey
what He commands (Jer. 32:39).
Judah sought false peace through a
“Judah and Israel Together” declaration of unity: What a monstrous thing it was
that they conspired together to subvert the worship of God, to overturn
everything true in religion, and to set up their own idols! The Prophet
Jeremiah expresses that they had in all other things been enemies and that they
only united in this one thing, that is, in carrying on war against God, in
subverting His true worship, and rendering void His law (Jer. 11:9-10).
This is the unity of hell.
As then this was the case with the holy
Prophet, why do the Papists [the followers of the Pope] try to frighten us by
objecting to our separation, as though it were a most heinous crime? They call
us [Protestants] apostates, because we have departed from their assemblies;
truly if Jeremiah was an apostate, we need not be ashamed to follow his example,
since he was approved by God, though he separated from the whole people and also
from the ungodly priests. Let us at this day openly and boldly confess that
we have separated. There is then a separation between us, and one
indeed irreconcilable . . .
When Jeremiah speaks of one heart,
he refers to union and consent, but of such a kind that all obey God. Men often
unite together for evil, and the children of God are often compelled to separate
themselves from the ungodly; and hence are those discords which now prevail in
the world, the blame of which is cast on us. . . . Agreement or union is, indeed,
singularly a good thing, because there is nothing better or more desirable than
peace. But we must ever bear in mind, that in order that men may happily
unite together, obedience to God’s word must be the beginning. The bond, then,
of lawful concord [friendship] among us is this—that we obey God from first to
last; for accursed is every union where there is no regard for God and His word.
True believers trust in God
alone. Religious hypocrites trust in themselves and other people.
When water is blended with fire, both perish; so, when one seeks in part to
trust in God and in part to trust in men, it is the same as though he wished to
mix heaven and earth together and to throw all things into confusion. It is,
then, to confound the order of nature, when men imagine that they have two
objects of trust, and ascribe half of their salvation to God, and the other half
to themselves or to other men (Jer. 17:5-6).
It is the foundation of all true
religion to depend on the mouth or word of God; and it is also the foundation of
our salvation. As, then, the salvation of men as well as true religion is
founded on faith and the obedience of faith; so also when we are drawn away to
some false trust, the whole of true religion falls to the ground, and at the
same time every hope of salvation vanishes. This ought to be carefully
observed, so that we may learn to embrace that doctrine which teaches us to
trust in no other than in the only true God, and reject all those inventions
which may lead us away from Him, even in the least degree, so that we may not
look around us nor be carried here and there (Jer. 29:30-32).
True Christians live first and
foremost for heaven; they are strangers and pilgrims on earth, as their
citizenship is in heaven (Heb. 11:13; Phil. 3:20). False believers live first
and foremost for this world.
The prophets often compare the Church to a tent. Though indeed it is said
elsewhere that the Church is built on the holy mountain (Ps. 77:1) and great
firmness is ascribed to it, yet, as to its external condition, it may justly be
said to be like a tent, for there is no fixed residence for God’s children on
earth, for they are often constrained to move about and change their residences;
hence Paul speaks of the faithful as “homeless” (1 Cor. 4:11). (Jer.10:20)
True religion is based on the light
of truth. False religion is shrouded in spiritual darkness.
The grace of God, then, was hidden for
a time, but never extinguished; for at last a rod did grow up form the stem of
Jesse, as it is said by Isaiah. We must, therefore, come to the time of Christ
if we would reconcile these two things which seem repugnant—that Jeconiah became
childless and that a successor from the seed of David never failed; it was so,
because this childlessness was only for a time; and this interruption of God’s
grace was something like death; but in the course of time it appeared that God
was mindful of His covenant, even at a time when He seemed to have forgotten it
If any one, during a long period, had
sought for the Church in the world, there was none in appearance; yet God showed
that He was faithful to His promises for suddenly there arose a people
regenerated by the Gospel so that His covenant was not dead but as it were for a
time buried. The truth of God, then, was proved by the event; and yet He took a
dreadful vengeance on the ingratitude of men when He thus blinded the whole
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