Results tagged “Institutes” from Reformation21 Blog

Calvin's Four Rules of Prayer

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Reading through some old notes on Calvin's Institutes made me realize what always gets dropped when life feels like one giant game of whirlyball: prayer. Calvin says that if we do not pray, we are like a man who "neglect[s] a treasure, buried and hidden in the earth, after it had been pointed out to him" (3.20.1). "So true is it," Calvin explains, "that we dig up by prayer the treasures that were pointed out by the Lord's gospel, and which our faith has gazed upon" (ibid.). The metaphor is apt: digging is hard work, but digging for a treasure known to be there is worth the effort.

Then Calvin offers four rules for prayer--four rules for when we need the basics all over again. The first rule of prayer, according to Calvin, is reverence for the one to whom we pray. We need to remember that we address our Almighty Creator and Father through the mediation of the exalted Lord by the power of the Spirit who searches "even the depths of God" (1 Cor 2:10). Just work through the opening sections over at www.matthewhenry.org to learn this first and vital step. 

The second rule, Calvin says, is realizing just how needy we are before God. Too often people offer prayers while their "hearts are . . . cold, and they do not ponder what they ask" (3.20.6); even worse, "for the sake of mere performance men often beseech God for many things that they are dead sure will, apart from his kindness, come to them from some other source" (ibid.). (Just when we are crushed with conviction, Calvin offers a word of sympathy: "If anyone should object that we are not always urged with equal necessity to pray, I admit it" [3.20.7]. Even the great Calvin struggled at times to pray!)

The first two rules of prayer (reverence for God and a keen sense of neediness) naturally lead to a third: humility. The humble prayer casts away all smugness or pretension and rests wholly in God's mercy to sinners. For this reason, Calvin argues, it is fitting that we begin our prayers to God by repenting of individual sins. As the Westminster Confession puts it, we are to repent of "particular sins, particularly" (WCF 15:5). Do you do this, out loud if necessary?

Finally, a fourth rule: "we should be . . . encouraged to pray by a sure hope that our prayer will be answered" (3.20.11). Such confidence is the antithesis of pride, since we are to trust in God's goodness even as we revere his holiness.

It should be clear by now that the Institutes' four rules for prayer (reverence, a deep sense of need, humility, and trust) cohere: knowing God as he has revealed himself magnifies our helplessness; and the humility that results takes God at his Word that he will hear the prayers of his children. The crux, according to Calvin, is this: if prayer is to do us any good, we must place our entire trust in God's self-revealed character, promises, and faithfulness.

Friend, the more we are overwhelmed by our own unworthiness before God and the myriad, sometimes agonizing, circumstances of life, the more we ought "to grasp with both hands" (3.20.12) the assurance that God will hear and answer our cries for help. Biblical faith, after all, does not teach us to approach God as slaves, but to pour out our hearts "as children unburden their troubles to their parents" (ibid.).


*This post is an adaptation of a post published at Reformation21 in August 2011. 

Calvin's Institutes for 2019

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"For, until men feel that they owe everything to God, that they are cherished by his paternal care, and that he is the author of all their blessings, so that nought is to be looked for away from him, they will never submit to him in voluntary obedience; nay, unless they place their entire happiness in him, they will never yield up their whole selves to him in truth and sincerity." -- Institutes, I.2.1.

Few have explained the Christian faith as clearly, vividly, and faithfully as John Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. For centuries, readers have turned to the Institutes in order to better understand God's Word and its implications for the Christian life. "But when will I have time to read it?" Such a mammoth tome can seem intimidating, preventing many from us from ever taking it up in the first place.  

For this reason, the Alliance is pleased to offer a free, year-long reading schedule. Keyed to Calvin's 1559 edition, this schedule will keep you on-track as you delve into the treasury of Calvin's thought. May you be blessed in the coming year as you study to the glory of God! 

Download Our Reading Schedule Today!

Reigning Omnipotent in Every Place

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When--in the Institutes of the Christian Religion (1.15.1)--John Calvin turned his attention to the creation of mankind, he did so with a view to further elaborate his assertion that we cannot have a clear and complete knowledge God unless we have a corresponding knowledge of ourselves. Calvin did not have in view here some sort of an introspective, therapeutic journey of self-discovery. He meant knowing humanity as created and fallen. We can't properly appreciate man as created without understanding man as fallen, and we need to understand man as fallen in light of what he was when originally created.

One reason this is important is because we have a tendency to blame God for our own evil - excusing our sin with "I'm only human" or "To err is human." But this is to place our sin at God's feet. So, Calvin said: "Since, then, we see the flesh panting for every subterfuge by which it thinks that the blame for its own evils may in any way be diverted from itself to another, we must diligently oppose this evil intent. Therefore we must so deal with the calamity of mankind that we may cut off every shift, and may vindicate God's justice from every accusation" (1.15.1, Battles trans.)

Calvin (1.15.2) flatly asserted the obviousness of man as body and soul (theologians call this view of humanity "dichotomy," as opposed to "trichotomy" which holds that we are made up of "body, soul and spirit" differentiating the latter two). He then proceeded to argue for the immortality of the soul from 1. Our conscience's perception of right and wrong, dread of guilt and fear of punishment for evil. 2. The "many pre-eminent gifts of the human mind, superior to that of animals. 3. Our ability to conceive of God and the supernatural, and to discern what is right, just and honorable. 4. Our mental activity when asleep, in which we sometimes conceive of things that have never happened, or that will happen in the future. 5. Copious arguments from specific texts of Scripture.

Finally, in 1.15.3, he appealed to man's creation in the image of God as the strongest proof of the immortality of the soul. Calvin says: "although God's glory shines forth in the outer man, yet there is no doubt that the proper seat of his image is in the soul" (Battles).

Having introduced the subject of our creation in the image of God in 1.15.3, Calvin went on to argue that we learn what the image of God entails not only by studying man as originally created (Genesis 1-2), but by studying what Scripture says about the image of God as it is renewed in Christ. Calvin wrote: "a full definition of 'image'...can be nowhere better recognized than from the restoration of his corrupted nature" (1.15.4, Battles).

It should be noted that Calvin used the terms regeneration and renewal here a little more broadly than do modern Reformed systematics. The Shorter Catechism, however, perfectly mirrors Calvin's statements in 1.15.4 on the image (Q. 10. How did God create man? A. God created man male and female, after his own image, in knowledge, righteousness and holiness, with dominion over the creatures).

Calvin proceded to hammer on Andreas Osiander (1.15.4), a Germn Lutheran theologian, who was also criticized by Calvin's Lutheran friend Philip Melanchthon. Calvin also rejected Augustine's speculation on the soul's reflection of the trinity, then takes aim at the Manichaeans (1.15.5, their idea that the soul is derived from God's substance), Servetus (his resurrection of the old Manichaean error), and "the philosophers" (1.15.6, praising only Plato) in their views on the powers and faculties of the soul. While conceding that the philosophers may indeed say some true and helpful things about the soul, the main thing that Calvin wants to assert is that "the human soul consists of two faculties, understanding and will" (1.15.7).

Institutes 1.15.8 is a "rock your world" important passage in the Institutes. In it, Calvin explained a fundamental source of confusion in the quest for "free will.""The Philosophers," says Calvin, by discussing the question of free will apart from understanding the consequences of the fall "were seeking in a ruin for a building, and in scattered fragments for a well-knit structure." Christians who follow the philosophers in failing to take into account the gravity of the fall when discussing human free choice are  "playing the fool." This section shows how crucial the doctrine of the fall is to Calvin's understanding of humanity.

Those interested in Calvin's apologetic views will be fascinated by two comments in 1.16.1 - "the minds of the impious too are compelled by merely looking upon earth and heaven to rise up to the Creator..." and "the wisdom, power, and goodness" of God revealed in creation "are self-evident, and even force themselves upon the unwilling." But the main thing Calvin wants to assert in this section is that creation and providence are inseparably connected, and that by his providence God "sustains, nourishes, and cares for, everything he has made."Consequently, there is no such thing a luck, fortune or chance (1.16.2).

Asserting again God's universal providence in 1.16.3, Calvin puts the truth to pastoral use immediately: "they may safely rest in the protection of him to whose will are subject all the harmful things which, whatever their source, we may fear; whose authority curbs Satan with all his furies and his whole equipage; and upon whose nod depends whatever opposes our welfare."

For Calvin, providence meant God governing, not merely watching, his creation (1.16.4). Calvin sought to emphasize that providence entails more than "bare foreknowledge." It involves God's will, and his acts. Nor is it merely a general control, but a specific direction. Indeed, Calvin asserted that God "directs everything by his incomprehensible wisdom and disposes it to his own end."

In 1.16.5, Calvin adduced biblical evidence for God's general providence. Calvin says: "not one drop of rain falls without God's sure command." In 1.16.6, Calvin considers God's more particular governance over mankind. Again he complies biblical testimony to show that "Scripture, to express more plainly that nothing at all in the world is undertaken without his determination, shows that things seemingly most fortuitous are subject to him." In 1.16.7 he considers what might be called God's providence over "natural" occurrences (things that seem to be part of what is just the normal course of event - the wind blowing, women having babies, etc.) and even here Calvin says that "particular events are generally testimonies of the character of God's singular providence."

In 1.16.8, Calvin both rejected the accusation that his doctrine of providence is a Stoic doctrine of fate (determinism or fatalism), and at the same time repudiated the ideas of fortune and chance (approving Basil the Great's [AD 330-379, one of the Cappadocian fathers] strictures against and Augustine's retractions of his earlier use of this terminology).

Calvin reminded in 1.16.9 that though all things are ordained by God's plan yet the events of our lives and world often look to us as if they are random and fortuitous. As Calvin says "the order, reason, end, and necessity of those things which happen for the most part lie hidden in God's purpose." This is a hugely important pastoral point. Consequently, the believer must realize that events will happen in this life that are simultaneously seemingly senseless and fortuitous and yet also part of God's perfect plan. Thus, in our hearts, we must be fixed on the truth that nothing happens that the Lord has not decreed and foreseen.

Calvin began a sustained application of this truth in 1.17.1. He first announced four things (though he says he's going to give three!) that we need to remember when we are considering God's providence: "Three things, indeed, are to be noted. First, God's providence must be considered with regard to the future as well as the past. Secondly, it is the determinative principle of all things in such a way that sometimes it works through an intermediary, sometimes without an intermediary, sometimes contrary to every intermediary. Finally, it strives to the end that God may reveal his concern for the whole human race, but especially his vigilance in ruling the church, which he deigns to watch more closely. Now this, also, ought to be added, [fourthly!] that although either fatherly favor and beneficence or severity of judgment often shine forth in the whole course of providence, nevertheless sometimes the causes of the events are hidden." The echoes of this in the Westminster Confession, chapter 5, are not difficult to hear.

Consequently, no mature believer will weigh the matter of God's providence without assuming a posture of reverence, awe and humility (1.17.2). This is important, Calvin says, because "it happens that today so many dogs assail this doctrine with their venomous bitings, or at least with barking: for they wish nothing to be lawful for God beyond what their own reason prescribes for themselves."


*This post originally ran as a number of posts in the "Blogging the Institutes" series, published in February of 2009. You can find the original posts here

An Intro to the Institutes

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The opening sentence of John Calvin's The Institutes of the Christian Religion alone is worth a lifetime's contemplation: 'Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.'

What is it about Calvin that so inspires me? This: his disciplined style, his determination never to speculate, his utter submission to Bible words as God's words, his submission to Christ's Lordship, his sense of the holy, his concern to be as practical as possible; the fact that godly living was his aim and not theology for the sake of it. In a forest of theologians, Calvin stands like a Californian Redwood, towering over everyone else.

The Institutes begins with an introductory, "To the Reader" making references to the unexpected "success" of "the first edition" (1536), the "summary" nature of its contents, the publication of further editions (in Latin: 1539, 1543, 1550 and 1559; and in French: 1541 and 1560), and the hope that in this (1559) edition he has "provided something that all of you will approve," written in the winter of 1558 when in the grip of a fever which he believed threatened his life and a rumor that he had defected "to the papacy." His aim throughout, he tells us, is "to benefit the church by maintaining the pure doctrine of godliness" and providing "the sum of religion in all its parts" arranged in such a manner so as to indicate what is fundamental in doctrine.

Calvin saw the Institutes as a handmaiden to his commentaries; the latter, as he explains in the Epistle Dedicatory to his commentary on Romans, written with "lucid brevity." The exegete cannot interpret soundly without the control of systematic theological formulation. The part cannot be understood without a firm grasp of the whole. Readers of Calvin's commentaries need to have a copy of the Institutes at hand.

The Institutes as we now have it is the product of a lifetime's thought and reflection by one of the greatest theologians the church has known. In part, as it grew from six to eighty chapters, it reflects Calvin's own growth in his understanding of the Christian life. In all of its pages it reflects, as the preface to the first edition had indicated, not so much (as in Aquinas) a sum of all theology (summa theologiae), but a sum of all piety (summa pietatis). Theology and ethics have a symbiotic relationship.

Although The Institutes itself grew five-fold from its first to the fifth edition, the contents of the Preface written to King Francis I remained largely the same. Precedent for publishing an introductory theological essay to the King had been set by both Guillaume Farel and Huldrych Zwingli in 1525. Thus, in 1536, at the occasion of the first edition of the Institutes, Calvin wrote what was in effect a letter (a "Prefatory Address") to the King, which was included in all succeeding editions, both Latin and French. Though minor changes were made, reflecting historical developments in the 1550s in France and elsewhere, Calvin retained the original date at the close of the Address: "At Basel, on the 1st August, in the year 1536."

The occasion - false and base rumors concerning evangelicals which no doubt the king was disposed to believe - required from Calvin both firmness and finesse in persuading His Majesty to examine the accusation justly - indeed it will be the measure of his leadership that he do so! Calvin's case is that all matters be judged according to the "analogy of faith," that is, according to what the Scriptures teach (rightly interpreted). For this cause, "shackled with irons, some beaten with rods, some led about as laughingstocks, some proscribed, some most savagely tortured, some forced to flee. All of us are oppressed by poverty, cursed with dire execrations, wounded by slanders, and treated in most shameful ways." As Calvin commented on 1 Peter 1:11: "the Church of Christ has been from the beginning so constituted, that the cross has been the way to victory, and death a passage to life."

Rome's antagonism towards the Reformers, and Calvin in particular, was that what they taught was "new" and "of recent birth." To this charge Calvin responds with evident feeling: "First, by calling it "new" they do great wrong to God, whose Sacred Word does not deserve to be accused of novelty. Indeed, I do not at all doubt that it is new to them, since to them both Christ himself and his gospel are new. But he who knows that this preaching of Paul is ancient, that "Jesus Christ died for our sins and rose again for our justification" [Romans 4:25], will find nothing new among us." For Calvin, an appeal to Scripture is itself an appeal to something ancient! But Calvin's point remains vulnerable to the charge that the Reformers were disregarding church teaching - teaching which had fifteen hundred years precedence.

The charge may be brushed aside lightly in an age when modernity is valued above antiquity, but it was a serious and potentially deadly accusation in the mid-sixteenth century. The Reformers did not see themselves as the Anabaptists did in forming a new church. They saw themselves in the line of the ancient church and the early church fathers, and perhaps to a lesser extent, the church of the medieval period.

Calvin was unmoved by the charge--not because he saw the issue as irrelevant but rather because he knew antiquity lay on his side: "If the contest were to be determined by patristic authority, the tide of victory--to put it very modestly--would turn to our side." It is almost unimaginable that such a thing could be said of evangelicalism five hundred years later.

So, how is the true church to be known?  Calvin's response in the preface to The Institutes is clear: it is known by "the pure preaching of God's Word and the lawful administration of the sacraments." Contrary to Roman insistence that the church is always marked by great pomp and is always visible, Calvin (perhaps to the encouragement of beleaguered evangelicals in France secretly meeting is small numbers and without outward show) reminds King Francis that the church often appeared in less than glorious form to the human eye, both in the Old Testament and in church history.

It is important to see this emphasis on the church in Calvin. He commented on psalm 115:17, "The whole order of nature would be subverted, unless God preserved the church. For the creation of the world would serve no purpose if there were no people to call upon God." And it is well to remember that Calvin was, at every point in his adult life and ministry, a pastor as well as a theologian.

The rancid tone of these sections of the preface, aimed as they are against the bishops and prelates of the Roman Church, are not an indication of Calvin's low view of the church and the ease with which one could criticize or leave it.  On the contrary, Calvin viewed schism as "the worst and most harmful evil in the church of God" (Commentary on John 9:16), and warned in Book 4 of the Institutes "it is always disastrous to leave the church" (4.1.4). In the words of Charles Partee, "Calvin insisted that the Protestants were reformers of the church, not its deformers." (The Theology of John Calvin [Westminster: John Knox Press, 2008], 267).

"Catabaptists" is Calvin's term for "Anabaptists" - the sixteenth century radicals who basically wanted nothing to do with the earthly state, and did not encourage concern for the office of a magistrate or (in this case) the monarch. Calvin is keen to demonstrate to the King that Protestants, whilst critical of religious matters, are of a different stripe. Protestants prove loyal citizens, regularly pray for the King, demonstrate courage and fortitude as both citizens and soldiers and are the salt of the earth. Calvin is speaking of himself in these closing lines of the preface; speaking, let it be said, with uncharacteristic personal reference and self-defense. Employing a touch of irony, Calvin concedes: "We are, I suppose, wildly chasing after wanton vices!" since this is, presumably, what some had been saying to the King.

In truth, he and his fellow-evangelicals were doing nothing of the sort. Nevertheless his colleagues were being treated brutally, some (as the five prisoners of Lyons could testify) unjustly imprisoned and facing martyrdom. It is Satan's work: "when the light shining from on high in a measure shattered his darkness, when that "strong man" had troubled and assailed his kingdom [cf. Luke 11:22], he began to shake off his accustomed drowsiness and to take up arms."

The preface has grown into what now looks like a "full-scale apology," and Calvin pleads with the King hoping that by these words "we may regain your favor, if in a quiet, composed mood you will once read this our confession, which we intend in lieu of a defense before Your Majesty."

Whether or not King Francis ever viewed Calvin or his Institutes in a better light as a result is doubtful. Nor can we be sure if he ever read this preface. Those of us, on the other hand, who have (or are committed to doing so on this, on the quincentenary year of his birth) will discover a mine that "keeps opening up as a veritable treasure trove of biblical wisdom on all the main themes of the Christian faith" (J. I. Packer, Foreword, Theological Guide to Calvin's Institutes, Eds. David Hall and Peter Lillback [P & R, 2008], xiii).  


*This post is a compilation of posts that originally appeared as part of the Ref21 series, "Blogging the Institutes," published in 2008.  

Calvin on the Sacraments

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For some, John Calvin seems to be at his most feisty when he writes on the sacraments. Against those who complain that infant baptism is a travesty of the Gospel, in the Institutes he stoutly insists, "these darts are aimed more at God than at us!" But a little reflection reveals he is also at his most thoughtful, and his analysis of sacramental signs can strengthen credobaptists as well as paedobaptists.

If repentance and faith are in view in baptism, how can infant baptism be biblical?  Calvin responds: the same was true of circumcision (hence references to Jer. 4:4; 9:25; Deut. 10:16; 30:6), yet infants were circumcised.

How then can either sign be applicable to infants who have neither repented nor believed? Calvin's central emphasis here is simple, but vital.

Baptism, like circumcision, is first and foremost a sign of the gospel and its promise, not of our response to the gospel. It points first of all to the work of Christ for us, not to the work of the Spirit in us. It calls for our response. It is not primarily a sign of that response. So, like the proclamation of the gospel (of which it is a sign), baptism summons us to (rather than signifies) repentance and faith.

In fact all believers are called to grow into an understanding and "improvement" of their baptism. This is as true for those baptized as believers as for those baptized as infants.

Consequently, whether baptism follows faith or precedes faith, its meaning remains the same. Its efficacy in our lives is related to (life-long!) faith and repentance. But its meaning is always the same--Christ crucified and risen, outside of whom there is no salvation.

To see baptism as a sign of my repentance and faith, then, is to turn it on its head. It diminishes, if not evacuates, the sign of its real power in our lives--which is to point us to Christ and to the blessings which are ours in him, and thus to draw forth faith.  Grasp this whole-Bible principle, holds Calvin, and all the New Testament's teaching on baptism beautifully coheres.

While Calvin was a theologian of the ages and his theology comes to us clothed in the garments of the sixteenth century some things never change--including many of the arguments, pro and con, in relation to the baptism of infants. This he passionately believed to be a biblical doctrine.

Calvin meets many of the arguments against infant baptism head on. Typically he deals with them by underlining ways in which they depend on a mis-reading of Scripture.

Thus faced with the insistence that regeneration is required for baptism, he questions the use of Scripture that lies behind such thinking.  Rebuffed by arguments that the order of biblical language ("teach, baptize") presupposes instruction prior to baptism, he points out that of course this is the order when adults are hearing and responding to the gospel for the first time. It would be a logical fallacy to think that the corollary of "adults should hear, believe and be baptized" is "infants must not be baptized"!  One would no more deduce that infants must not be fed because Paul states that 'those who do not work should not eat (2 Thess. 3:10).

But there is one argument that credobaptist proponents, then and now, have often used as a kind of reductio ad absurdum: if you baptize infants, you ought also to give them the Lord's Supper.

Calvin sees a serious flaw here. For while both baptism and the Supper point to Christ, they each point to different aspects of union with him. Baptism points to a once-and-for-all initiation into Christ. It is done to us, not done by us. We do not baptize ourselves, we are baptized.

The Supper, however, is not a sacrament of initiation but of communion.  That is why we are active and engaged at the Lord's Table. For it is essential to be able to

• Discern the Lord's body 
• Examine oneself 
• Proclaim the Lord's death 
• Celebrate the Supper "in remembrance" of Christ.

Just why is Calvin so passionate about this--when, after all, baptism is never more than a sign?

One of the perplexities we modern Christians encounter in admiring magisterial Reformers like Calvin is the severity of their attitude to, and treatment of, Anabaptists. In Calvin's case this may seem all the more mysterious since he married the widow of a former Anabaptist! Our problem is partly--if only partly--due to the unspoken assumption that credobaptism involves, virtually by definition, personal faith and a commitment to evangelical fundamentals.

Sadly it has become clear that there is no necessary connection between the two. If a credobaptist can point the finger at the baptized babies who now have no connection with the church, the paedobaptist can note churches of fourteen thousand members baptized on profession of faith with a weekly attendance of only eight thousand. The sign is not the reality it signifies.

Perhaps this makes it possible for us to understand Calvin a little better. For him "Anabaptist" was not a synonym for "Evangelical."  After all, the best known Anabaptist with whom he had long-term, if profoundly unhappy personal dealings, was Michael Servetus. Horrific though it may sound to an enthusiastic credobaptist, Servetus held to "believer's baptism."  His attempted demolition job of orthodox Christianity--none too subtly titled Christianismi restitutio (guess what book that rhymes with!)--included an attack on infant baptism.

Calvin responds in the Institutio with twenty theological "karate chops." Again his underlying contention is that a false hermeneutic is at work--"He always falls back into the same false reasoning for he preposterously applies to infants what was said concerning adults alone."

It is in this context (Institutes IV. 16. 31) that Calvin reveals the reason for his passion in the whole controversy. Baptism is intended to give the Lord's people the assurance of sight (in the visible sign) as well as of sound (in the audible word of promise). Ignore the sign of the promise and little by little the promise itself will be obscured.

For Calvin, the obscuring of any, and every, divine promise is attributable ultimately to one being: Satan. That being the case, the little Frenchman will muster all the weapons he can to vindicate the promise of God that--even after our death--our God and Father will be to our children everything he has been to us--all within the context of faith. The sign is no more than a sign, but it is never a bare sign (signum nudum)--not so long as the one who gives it is the covenant making and covenant keeping God!

Calvin next turns to the theme of the Lord's Supper. His concern is twofold: (i) to provide a simple explanation of the Supper and (ii) to resolve difficulties related to it. What he does in IV. 17. i is worthy of imitation, namely the provision of a simple but rich exposition of the meaning of Communion. This at least we should share with Calvin: a concern that the Lord's people understand what they are doing at, and how they are to think about, the Supper: What is the Lord showing us at the Table?

The Supper is the Father's provision of nourishment in Christ for his children (Calvin's use of adoptio--adoptive sonship--is particularly striking here, and underscores again how important this is in his theology--as it was in his life). By it the Father means to give assurance to his children.

In essence the Supper is a gospel drama:

• Christ is set before us as the One who was crucified for us 
• Christ is offered to us as food to be received by us 
• Christ is received by us so that we feel him to be working in us.

Calvin's poetic eloquence here should be allowed to stand on its own:

This is the wonderful exchange which, out of his measureless benevolence, 
he has made with us; 
That, becoming Son of man with us, 
he has made us sons of God with him; 
That, by his descent to earth,    
he has prepared an ascent to heaven for us; 
That, by taking on our mortality, 
he has conferred our immortality upon us
That, accepting our weakness, 
he has strengthened us by his power
That, receiving our poverty into himself, 
he has transferred his wealth to us; 
That, taking the weight of our iniquity upon himself (which oppressed us) 
he has clothed us with his righteousness.

So--urges Calvin--let us make neither too little of the signs by severing them from the living Christ, nor too much so that we obscure him.

As he moves forward in his teaching on the Supper, Calvin's great concern is that Christians should "rightly use the Lord's Supper." He is, from beginning to end, a pastoral theologian. In seeking to serve the church he wants to be sensitive to two things: (i) the mystery of the Lord's Supper, and (ii) the nature of communion with Christ...

With respect to (i) he urges those who can to go beyond him. With respect to (ii) a number of  reformed writers have felt that he has already gone too far!  Statements such as his words in Institutes 4.17.8-9 are typical: "Whoever has partaken of his flesh and blood may . . . enjoy participation in life...The flesh of Christ is like a rich and inexhaustible fountain that pours into us the life springing forth from the Godhead into itself."

These words need to be read in context. Calvin's logic here is: 

• The Father gave life to the incarnate Son so that he might give us life. 
• This life is in the incarnate Son. It is not a commodity extraneous to him. 
• In order to enjoy this life we must be united to the incarnate Son. 
• This union with the incarnate Son is realized through the Holy Spirit

In a word--our salvation and eternal life are resourced in Christ, incarnate, crucified, buried, raised, exalted, ascended, reigning, and returning. Our experience of salvation comes only from Spiritual union and communion with his still-incarnated Person. There is no other source of salvation and life than this incarnate Person. The life he received from the Father he now gives to us.

In our Table communion with Christ, we share his life--just as we share that life in all communion with him.  What is unique about the Supper, therefore, is not so much the mysterious nature of the communion, but the focus in that communion on the bodily Christ specifically as crucified and now risen.

For Calvin, therefore, the communion of the Table is not a communion with the Spirit, but a communion with Christ in and through the Spirit. But there is no other Christ with whom we can have communion than the embodied Son of God.

Sometimes Calvin's view is described as "spiritual." Indeed it is Spiritual (i.e. through the Spirit). But it is so because it is Christological. The Spirit glorifies the incarnate Son in our eyes. In this way, in our Table communion with the Lord Jesus Christ, we "feel his power in partaking of all his benefits" (Institutes 4.17.9).

 

*This post originally appeared as a series of posts on the Institutes, published at Reformation21 in November 2009. 

John Calvin on the Keys of the Kingdom

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Calvin's teaching has never been for shrinking violets, nor is John Calvin himself thought of as "soft."  He uses strong language about those who are enemies of the gospel ("pigs," "dogs"). 

In discussing church discipline he notes the special responsibilities borne by pastors (some are not sufficiently watchful, others tend to be over-lenient).  But he also grants that pastors are often hindered from consistency by those who belong to the church they serve.  The truth is, elders can turn down the thermostat of a congregation virtually at will. Yet Calvin is also concerned about Christians who acts in haste and without grace and precipitously separate from the church because of its faults.  The individual dare not do that simply out of personal whim or a unilateral declaration of independence. He is, after all, a member of the church, not a lone-ranger believer. Unwise zeal, pride and arrogance, false views of holiness (or, more accurately, false views of other's holiness or lack thereof) need themselves to be disciplined. 

Separation from the visible church is, therefore, to be considered only when it actually ceases to be the visible church--for in its very nature its sanctity is mixed with ongoing sin and failure.  Thus, when the Prophets, the Apostles, and the Savior himself are considered, we learn a biblical balance of commitment to truth with commitment to the imperfect community.  It is inexcusable for an individual to abandon the church so long as it remains a real church. 

Forgiveness is always a watchword in church life. Calvin strikingly points out the significance of words many of us recite every Lord's Day: "I believe in the holy catholic church, the forgiveness of sins . . ."  The former (church) is the context in which the latter (forgiveness) is realized.  The very forgiveness by which we enter the church is the forgiveness in which we are ever and again sustained. 

The 16th century Reformers fought to win back the keys of the kingdom. Calvin held that ordinarily there is no salvation outside of the church, but he did not hold that the church itself was the repository of forgiveness. No, forgiveness comes through the preaching of the gospel and its application to the conscience through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.  Rome, therefore, had usurped the role of the word of God and the Spirit of God. 

God's people stand daily in need of forgiveness and an ever-deepening assurance that they are forgiven. All sins repented of may be forgiven. This is the testimony of the patriarchs, of David, of the prophets, of Simon Peter and of all Scripture. There is forgiveness of sins at the entry into the Christian life; but it is ever and again available to us. 

Especially when we are engaged in the discipline of sinners we need to remember that its function is to lead to a fresh sense of divine forgiveness and church forgiveness and restoration.  For that reason its rigor must not endanger, and then destroy,  the very pardon and restoration it seeks to produce. 

"Therefore," says Calvin, "in the communion of saints, our sins are continually forgiven us by the ministry of the church itself when the presbyters or bishops to whom this office has been committed strengthen godly consciences by the gospel promises in the hope of pardon and forgiveness. This they do both publicly and privately as need requires. For very many, on account of their weakness, need personal consolation." 

This post is a combination of two previously published posts by Sinclair Ferguson on Calvin's Institutes 4.1.5 - 4.1.29. You can find the original posts at Ref21 here and here.