The moon landing was a hoax. Chemtrails are poisoning our brains. Roswell is covering up an alien spacecraft. Obama is a secret Muslim. Jet fuel doesn’t melt steel beams. The Illuminati run the world.
Everyone knows about conspiracy theories. Most of us don’t believe most of them, of course. (Though most of us do have at least one or two that we think just might be true.) But they do tend to interest our imagination. We see this especially in movies and TV, where we make epic stories based on the idea of great conspiracies. We can’t help but think, “What if there is more than meets the eye? What if everything were connected behind the scenes? Could there be a plan behind all the apparent chaos of life?”
I’ve been working my way slowly through The Commentary of Zacharius Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism as of late. Ursinus was a brilliant teacher, and the Heidelberg Catechism remains one of the greatest, if not truly the greatest, of the Reformed confessional works. The opening question and its answer on their own are a fantastic summary of Christian faith. But recently, they have helped attune me to a peculiar theme in the early Reformation. Here’s the text:
Q: What is your only comfort in life and death?
A: That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by His Holy Spirit He also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for Him. (emphasis added)
I emphasize here the statement that “all things must work together for my salvation.” This wording probably sounds familiar. It’s a lot like Romans 8:28, “We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God.” That’s good stuff. But I’ve only recently realized how sweeping this theme was for the Reformers. For example, in Ursinus’ aforementioned commentary, he does something similar with the first line of the Apostles’ Creed.
When I say, “I believe in God,” I mean, I believe that he is my God, that is, whatever he is and has is all for my salvation. Or, to believe God, speaking properly, is to believe a certain person to be God, according to all his attributes. To believe in God, is to be persuaded that he will make all things attributed to him subservient to my salvation, for the sake of his Son.
For Ursinus, to believe in God is not just to know about the true God. Notice the wording: “he will make all things attributed to him subservient to my salvation.” Faith in God is faith that He has pledged His whole Self to us. And, of course, with God comes everything He has made, all devoted to saving us.
Similar quotes litter every section of Ursinus’ commentary. “To believe in God Almighty, is to believe in such a God…Who is also almighty for my benefit, and can and will direct and make all things subservient to my salvation.” “In short, to believe in the Creator, is to believe that God created me that I might contribute to his glory, and that he created all other things that they might be subservient to my salvation.”
Similar sentiments exist in John Calvin. For example, “God having been reconciled to us, there is no risk that all things will not turn out for our good.” And this paragraph on providence is even more fantastic:
Faith is comforted twice over in relation to God’s power. First, because it knows that he has ample ability to do good. Thus, in order to further the salvation of believers he puts forth his hand to rule and govern all things; heaven and earth are his possession and domain, and every creature depends on his goodwill. Faith is comforted in the second place because it finds ample assurance in his protection, since whatever might do harm is subject to his will, and the devil and his devices are restrained as by a curb. Everything, in short, which might impede our salvation is subject to his control.
The overarching theme here and elsewhere in the Reformers: there is a great conspiracy. There are connections behind what seems random. Everything goes much deeper than the surface. Those with eyes to see can perceive in all the apparent chaos of this life a semblance of order. There is a real conspiracy goes all the way up to the top. We can get “woke” and see what is really going on.
But what is it that’s really going on? God’s love. The Giver of life and Ruler of the cosmos is pulling every last string for us. From the control room of the universe, the Highest Power orders all His angels, every animal and light beam and bacteria and thunderstorm, to work 24/7 for us and for our salvation. It’s like the entirety of heaven and earth is a massive, impossibly complex machine, and at the center it fashions you and I, redeemed and glorified in the image of Christ. This is the picture of providence and grace that drove the Reformers. And it is, I think, the most marvelous source of awe and comfort even today. Praise to the Boss at the top of the infinitely tangled web, who conspires day and night to make us fully alive!