A month ago I was preparing for my Thursday morning Berkhof reading group. The Dutchman was writing about fallen angels, and made this comment: “They are even now chained to hell and pits of darkness, and though not yet limited to one place, yet, as Calvin says, drag their chains with them wherever they go...” (Systematic Theology, pg. 149).
Well, this quote triggered two things in me: the unstoppable desire to hunt down the original quote (always find the source!) and a sudden yearning for the Advent season.
First, the source. John Calvin says what he says about dragging chains around speaking not of the fallen angels (as Berkhof used the imagery), but of the lost: “The lot of the reprobate is doubtless the same as that which Jude assigns to the devils; to be held in chains until they are dragged to the punishment appointed for them” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.25.6). A chilling image. Those who are without Christ in this world are already bound to hell by chains which they drag around everywhere they go. Billions of people going about normal everyday life (Matthew 24:36-42) bound by chains which find their anchor in eternal fire. I just read The Christian Atheist last night – there was a chapter in this book where he describes the person who believes in God but doesn’t share his/her faith. Groeschel does the important job of reminding the reader of the (unpopular) reality of hell in that chapter. And, as Calvin says, they’re already chained to that hell and dragging the rattling fetters about everywhere they go and in everything they do. The bride coming down the aisle, the fan cheering for the game, the soccer mom going about her ceaselessly busy life, the farmer in his tractor, the teacher, the...well, every type of person you can imagine...chained to hell...the noise in the spirit realm must be deafening. Powerful image. May God give the Church ears to hear it.
As I said, Berkhof sent me hunting for the Calvin quote, but it also made me long for the Advent season. Why? Because Charles Dickens once wrote a Christmas ghost story (A Christmas Carol, 1843), and Berkhof’s quote made me think of Jacob Marley (yes, I had to resist call of mental chaos to reggae-jump to Bob Marley): “Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that... You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”
I’m not a Halloween guy, and have never cared for A Christmas Carol (the line in 1963’s “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” about “scary ghost stories” has always seemed stupid to me), but culture’s a pretty powerful influence. So Berkhof made me think not just of Calvin, but of Dickens. “Marley was as dead as a door-nail.” But still he shows up in Scrooge’s room one night.
“After several turns, [Scrooge] sat down again. As he threw his head back in the chair, his glance happened to rest upon a bell, a disused bell, that hung in the room, and communicated for some purpose now forgotten with a chamber in the highest story of the building. It was with great astonishment, and with a strange, inexplicable dread, that as he looked, he saw this bell begin to swing. It swung so softly in the outset that it scarcely made a sound; but soon it rang out loudly, and so did every bell in the house. This might have lasted half a minute, or a minute, but it seemed an hour. The bells ceased as they had begun, together. They were succeeded by a clanking noise, deep down below; as if some person were dragging a heavy chain over the casks in the wine merchant’s cellar. Scrooge then remembered to have heard that ghosts in haunted houses were described as dragging chains. The cellar-door flew open with a booming sound, and then he heard the noise much louder, on the floors below; then coming up the stairs; then coming straight towards his door. ‘It’s humbug still!’ said Scrooge. ‘I won’t believe it.’ His colour changed though, when, without a pause, it came on through the heavy door, and passed into the room before his eyes. Upon its coming in, the dying flame leaped up, as though it cried, ‘I know him; Marley’s Ghost!’ and fell again. The same face: the very same. Marley in his pigtail, usual waistcoat, tights and boots; the tassels on the latter bristling, like his pigtail, and his coat-skirts, and the hair upon his head. The chain he drew was clasped about his middle. It was long, and wound about him like a tail; and it was made (for Scrooge observed it closely) of cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel. His body was transparent, so that Scrooge, observing him, and looking through his waistcoat, could see the two buttons on his coat behind.”
This is what Berkhof’s quote brought to my mind. Any excuse to be in an Advent frame of mind – even when it’s a stretch like this. But this whole collision of images made me look at the people around me differently. They are walking around right now as I once was. “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest” (Ephesians 2:1-3).
“Again the spectre raised a cry, and shook its chain and wrung its shadowy hands. ‘You are fettered,’ said Scrooge, trembling. ‘Tell me why?’ ‘I wear the chain I forged in life,’ replied the Ghost. ‘I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?’”
“Scrooge followed to the window: desperate in his curiosity. He looked out. The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley’s Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free.”
“Free will” is not free. We all sin (Romans 3:10-12,23), and sinners are slaves (John 8:34; 2 Peter 2:19). Your “free will” is enslaved and can only choose rebellion against God unless it is freed in Christ. It is the instrument by which you forge your chains to hell (Romans 6:1-23). The air is filled with phantoms. “We beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20).
Lose the chains. Repent of your rebellion against God’s Law and put your faith in the free gift of salvation He has given in His Son, Jesus Christ. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Ephesians 2:4-10).