What does it mean to have business with God, to engage with the creator of the universe, the Holy One, in life and worship? In this blog Dr. Cornelius Plantinga unpacks that question with the aid of John Calvin’s writing on negotium cum Deo, our business is with God.
One of the ways to speak with a Reformed accent is to refer to God with awe. God is the supreme being, after all. Transcendent in power, limitless in love, matchless in imagination and inventiveness, God is one from whom angels hide their faces. God’s glory would otherwise blind them.
John Calvin keeps reminding his readers that we are never to think of God casually. Always bear in mind that it is the Master of the Universe with whom we have to do. We have negotium cum Deo. Our business is with God.
In the first book of his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion Calvin treats God’s providence. To Calvin, God’s providence for creation is as impressive as creation itself. God launches the creation and then ”sustains, nourishes, and cares for” everything. There is no chance or luck (1.16.1).
How should we creatures receive the knowledge of God’s providence? Calvin sums up his thought in a key sentence: “Therefore no one will weigh God’s providence properly and profitably but him who considers that his business is with his maker [negotium cum Deo] and the Framer of the universe, and with becoming humility submits himself to fear and reverence” (1.17.2).
For us human beings, the proper response to God is humility. Humility fits us, suits us. It’s “becoming” to us, says Calvin. The humble person knows God is their superior and they let God be God. They know the rest of us are on a par with them, and they let us be their equals. Humble people don't pretend to be more than they are.&
Our problem, says Calvin, is that we try to judge God as if God were merely human—as if we had a right to judge God. We should listen to Paul in Rom. 11:33-34: “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and how inscrutable his ways!” (1.17.2).
In the Institutes 3.3 Calvin treats repentance—the wholesale turning of our life to God, consisting in the mortification of our old self and the coming to life of our new self. Calvin assures us that we can’t fake repentance. Why not? Because God records all the devices and desires of my heart. God knows not only what I say, but also what I think. God knows not only what I say, but also what I almost said. God knows the kind word I forgot to say and the kind word I never dreamt of saying.
Calvin’s point is that God knows when our repentance is phony. It is with God that we have to deal and God can spot hypocrisy a mile away (3.3.6).
Not Our Own
In the Institutes 3.7.2 Calvin reminds that we are not our own. We belong to God. We are therefore to seek God’s will over our own. All of our gifts and capacities are to be offered to God. Every longing, every endowment, each of our intellectual gifts, any athletic talent or computer skill or musical talent, all social intelligence, all capacity for delight, every good thing that has our fingerprints on it—we are to take all this, says Calvin, and refer it to God. Take our longing, and long for God; take our creaturely riches, and endow God; take our eye for beauty, and appreciate God. With all our heart and soul and mind, with all our needs and splendors, we are to make a full turn toward God. Always remember that it is with God that we have to deal (3.7.2).
Three Implications for Worship
The implications for worship here are limitless. But let’s consider three of them.
First, humility before a stupendous God means everything in worship needs a reverent tone. Not a stained-glass tone of voice in prayer, which sounds phony. But a deeply, deeply respectful tone. It is with God that we have to do.
Confession of Sin
Second, our worship events need to be accompanied by the awareness that we are good at self-deception. Hypocrisy is a threat. This means confession of sin is appropriate in our worship. After all, “if we say that we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us (1 John 1:8). Confession is not only good for strengthening our integrity; it’s also good for reminding us that God may be trusted to “forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9).
It’s God’s World
Third, the knowledge that we belong to God and should refer all things to God suggests that in the sending/blessing parts of our worship we are re-entering God’s world. This might be especially noted in connection with World Communion Sunday, also called All Nations Heritage Sunday. It’s not only we who belong to God! It’s also the whole splendid array of nations and tribes and peoples who belong to God and whose cultural treasures will one day be brought into the new heaven and earth.
It is with God that we have to do. God loves not only humankind, but also human kinds, and it’s our delight to love those whom God loves.