Results tagged “John Calvin” from Reformation21 Blog

The Old Perspective on the Works of the Law

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Biblical studies have undergone something of a seismic shift over the past three decades. Noted scholars such as James D.G. Dunn, E.P. Sander and N.T. Wright have questioned whether the theologians of the Reformation have properly understood the theological arguments of the Apostle Paul. This is especially so with regard to Paul's teaching on the meaning of justification in the letters to the Romans and Galatians. Their resounding conclusion is that Reformed and Protestant theologians have largely misunderstood Paul's argumentation concerning the nature of justification and the eschatological role of the Law in the life of believers. According to proponents of the New Perspective(s) on Paul, justification does not--as the Reformed have always maintained--involve the imputation of Christ's righteousness by faith alone. The crux of the argument has to do with how one defines the phrase "works of the Law" (and its various related forms in Pauline literature). Without wishing to do injustice to the nuanced differences that exist in the writings of these men, I want to point out what I believe to be an important historical theological fact that has often been overlooked in recent debates: the New Perspective's supposedly new understanding of the meaning of the phrase works of the Law is nothing other than the Old Roman Catholic perspective on the phrase. 

Proponents of the New Perspective(s) have insisted that the phrase "works of the Law" does not, as the Reformers and Puritans held, refer to "a man's attempt to work for his standing before God based on his own law keeping." They contend that the phrase refers to Jewish boundary markers. In redefining it in this way, they reduce the meaning of the phrase down to nothing other than the ceremonial laws of Israel. In doing so, they radically redefine Paul's argument concerning justification--rejecting the Reformed idea that Paul was teaching that "justification is the receiving of the forgiveness of sin and a legal standing of righteous by faith alone, based on the death of Christ and the imputation of His righteousness." Instead, they assert that justification is inclusion of Jew and Gentile into the one corporate body of God's Covenant people under the Lordship of Christ. In turn, N.T. Wright teaches that there is an eschatological (i.e. future) justification based on the Spirit wrought good-works of believers. 

The Apostle Paul's argument that a man is justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the Law (Rom. 3:28; Gal. 2:16; 3:11; 3:24) strikes a decisive blow to the thesis of the New Perspective, if Paul is, in fact, teaching that justification is what the Reformed taught it to be, namely, a once-for-all legal act of God. The Reformers understanding of Paul's argument radically impacted later Protestant formulations on the doctrine of justification. There is arguably no better formulation than that which we find in the Westminster Short Catechism

"Justification is an act of God's free grace, wherein He pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone" (WSC Q. 33). 

The essence of this definition is found in Calvin's Institutes, where we read:

"We simply interpret justification, as the acceptance with which God receives us into his favor as if we were righteous; and we say that this justification consists in the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of the righteousness of Christ" (Institutes 3.11.2).

Calvin labored tirelessly as an exegete, in dependence upon and in polemical interaction with the exegesis of those who went before him. It should come as no surprise for us to discover that Calvin paid a great deal of attention to the arguments of Roman Catholic theologians regarding Paul's arguments on justification--especially in his exegesis of Romans and Galatians. For instance, in his commentary on Galatians 2:15 Calvin wrote: 

"The first thing to be noticed is, that we must seek justification by the faith of Christ, because we cannot be justified by works. Now, the question is, what is meant by the works of the law? The Papists, misled by Origen and Jerome, are of opinion, and lay it down as certain, that the dispute relates to shadows; and accordingly assert, that by the works of the law are meant ceremonies" (Commentary on Galatians).

Here we discover that the argument of the theologians of the New Perspective(s) on the meaning of the phrase works of the Law is merely the Old Perspective of Early and Medieval Romans Catholic theologians. Calvin continued:

"As if Paul were not reasoning about the free justification which is bestowed on us by Christ. For they see no absurdity in maintaining that no man is justified by the works of the law, and yet that, by the merit of works, we are accounted righteous in the sight of God. In short, they hold that no mention is here made of the works of the moral law. But the context clearly proves that the moral law is also comprehended in these words; for almost everything which Paul afterwards advances belongs more properly to the moral than to the ceremonial law; and he is continually employed in contrasting the righteousness of the law with the free acceptance which God is pleased to bestow." 

As we celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, it would do us a world of good to turn our attention to the labors of those upon whose shoulders we stand. This includes our need to focus on their exegesis in light of the polemics in which they were engaged. As we do, we will find that many of the recent supposed advances in biblical studies are merely retorgrades back to the isogesis of Roman Catholicism from which the Reformers helped set us free. 

Luther's Loyal Son

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Many of us have probably been led to think of the Reformed (and Presbyterian) tradition as being separate and parallel tradition to the Lutheran tradition. There have been those within the modern Reformed tradition and within the Lutheran tradition since at least the 1550s who want us to think of things this way. This was not the story that John Calvin (1509-64) told, however, nor is it the way he saw his relationship to Martin Luther (1483-1546). In light of the 500th anniversary of the 95 Theses and the ongoing Calvinist "resurgence," it is worth asking how Calvin himself saw his relationship to Luther and how his perception should influence ours.

Luther was the pioneer of Protestant theology, piety, and practice. He gradually became Protestant in the period between 1513-21 as he lectured through the Psalms, Romans, Galatians, Hebrews, and the Psalms again. Reading Augustine as he lectured on the Psalms he realized that the doctrine of man and sin that he had learned in university did not agree with Scripture nor did it agree with Augustine. In the Psalms he saw that human depravity is greater than he had thought and grace is greater, more powerful, and more free than he thought, that God has elected his people to new life and true faith unconditionally, from all eternity (sola gratia). By the end of his lectures on the Psalms he had become young, restless, and Augustinian but he was not yet a Protestant. As he lectured through Romans, he began to see that the basis on which we stand before God is not the sanctity wrought in us by grace and cooperation with grace but Christ's righteousness accomplished outside of us and imputed to us. As he lectured through Galatians he came to see that view confirmed and he began to re-think what he had learned about the role of faith in salvation, that it was not just another virtue formed in us by grace and cooperation with grace. The picture became clearer as he lectured through Hebrews and the Psalms again. Late in life, looking back at his theological development, he said that it was as he lectured through Psalms again that the light went on, as it were, and he realized that it is faith that apprehends Christ, that rests in and receives Christ and his righteousness for us. It is through faith the Spirit unites us to Christ so that he becomes ours and we become his (sola fide).

In this period he also gradually came to see that the traditional way of speaking of law and gospel, i.e., of the "old law" and the "new law" were inadequate. Those categories did not account for the fundamental difference between the law and the gospel as distinct principles and as they relate to sinners. The old scheme had made the entire Bible bad news for sinners. Luther discovered that Scripture contains both bad news and good news for sinners.

His last breakthrough was to see that Scripture alone (sola Scriptura) is the magisterial authority for the Christian faith and life. He saw that whereas the various councils had contradicted themselves, that canon law was endlessly complex, where popes contradicted Scripture and each other, the Scriptures were wonderfully simple and clear on the gospel and the Christian life.

By the time Luther published his justly famous treatise on predestination, On the Bound Will (1525), his theology, piety, and practice had been revolutionized. He was no longer a medieval theologian nor a Roman Catholic, but a Protestant and evangelical theologian and minister.

By the time Luther reached his essential Protestant convictions, Calvin was about 12 years old. He was just beginning a kind of internship toward the priesthood in Noyon. He would not become a Protestant for a little more than another decade, after several years in university. Where Luther was educated in a theology faculty, Calvin was educated in the arts and law faculties. Nevertheless, Calvin, who had originally intended to read theology toward entering the priesthood, retained an interest in theology and read Luther in university. In a passing comment he later remarked that he had been unusually stubborn in his Romanism. His conversion to the Reformation theology seems to have surprised even himself and Luther's writing, categories, and theology played a central role.

In the early 1530s "Lutheran" and "Reformed" were developing categories. The boundaries between them were fuzzy. The divisions between the two traditions, Lutheran and Reformed, would begin to harden in the confessional period beginning in the 1550s but Calvin always saw himself as Luther's loyal son.

The two never met and never even corresponded. Luther became aware of Calvin about 1539 in connection with Calvin's defense of the Reformation and sent well wishes via Melanchthon. Calvin wrote to Luther in 1545 professing his admiration for Luther, whom he described as "the most excellent pastor of the Christian church." He repeatedly called Luther "my father" as he asked him to endorse two treatises he had written to the "Nicodemites," i.e., those who said that they were with the Reformation but who nevertheless remained in the Roman church. Unfortunately, Melanchthon, to whom Calvin had sent the letter, pocketed it and Luther never saw it.

Calvin received as basic Luther's five breakthroughs. In 1543 he wrote to the Emperor, Charles V, "God raised up Luther and others in the beginning [of the Reformation]." He wrote that it was Luther "who carried the torch for us toward re-discovering the way of salvation, who founded our ministry, who instituted our churches." In a volume defending the biblical doctrine of election and reprobation, he described Luther as "a distinguished apostle of Christ." A catalogue of similar expressions of identity with Luther is easily found in Calvin's works.

Calvin's intellectual and spiritual debt to Luther has often been missed by students. Why? The reasons are several but here are three: 1) We have read our post-sixteenth-century loyalties back into the sixteenth-century. 2) Modern Reformed Christians are typically not well read in Luther and thus miss Luther's structural influence on Calvin's theology as well as the allusions to and even verbatim (but unacknowledged) quotations from Luther in Calvin's works. 3) Students of Calvin, particularly in the modern period, have tended to rely almost exclusively on his Institutes where he did not cite contemporary (sixteenth-century) writers by name, which creates a misleading impression about his debt to Luther.

Calvin did criticize Luther's manner and theology. For decades he wrote privately to friends to complain about Luther's rhetoric against the Zürichers. He also complained about those who toadied up to Luther, who refused to stand up to him regarding his rhetoric on the Supper and the two natures of Christ. He resented the expectation among some orthodox Lutherans that the Protestants should unfailingly follow Luther's biblical exegesis without dissent. Finally, Calvin and the Reformed reached different conclusions from Luther (and the Lutherans) on what he called "the rule of worship." In public, however, he was rarely so critical of Luther, whom he praised lavishly, as the one from whom he learned the gospel and the basics of evangelical Christianity.

Wisdom Christology and the Bread of Life

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When Calvin speaks of sharing the Lord's Supper with Christ, covenantal concepts naturally arise, most notable when Calvin is discussing 1 Corinthians 10-11. Throughout his commentaries, Calvin frequently emphasizes that in the Supper we enjoy both the presence and the benefits of Christ. These are distinctly different lines of thoughts and they represent two different dimensions of Calvin's theology of the Supper. Whereas the motif regarding the presence of Christ involves Pauline themes and images, the motif regarding the benefits of Christ involves Johannine themes and images. When Calvin deals with passages about feeding on Christ, we discover the influence of the Wisdom School. In particular, John 6, which presents Christ as the bread of life, is filled with sapiential themes so typical of the wisdom writers of the Old Testament.

Central to the development of the ideas found in John 6 is Proverbs 9:1-6 where Wisdom invites the faithful to a feast. The wisdom theology understood this banquet as a figure for the delight of sacred learn. Wisdom, according to this passage, has built her house, set up her seven pillars, arranged her table and now invites all to come and eat of her bread and drink of her wine. The Bread of Life Discourse picks up on this figure to show that Jesus is the Word of God upon whom the Christian feasts. However, a passage of Scripture that may have been more important for Calvin would have been Isaiah 55:1-3:

"Ho, every one who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price! Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Hearken diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourself in fatness."

Calvin explained that references to eating and drinking are taken as figures for receiving divine teaching and thereby entering into an everlasting covenant. The idea that the Word of God should be understood as spiritual food and that the bread and wine were signs of that spiritual food is embedded in the biblical wisdom tradition. Near the beginning of his commentary on the Bread of Life Discourse, Calvin says that its simple meaning is "our souls are fed by the teaching of the Gospel, the inner work of the Holy Spirit, and all other gifts of Christ." If it is true that the Word of God is a sacred food and drink which nourishes unto eternal life, it is also true that this food is given both in the reading and preaching of Scripture and in the celebration of the Supper. In fact, according to Calvin, the Supper is a sign and seal that Christ is the Bread of Life for us today, just as it was a sign for the multitude of Galileans whom Jesus fed with loaves and fishes.

Even more important to the Bread of Life Discourse in the story of the feeding of the manna. The rabbis of New Testament times had richly elaborated and augmented the story of the feeding of the children of Israel with manna in the wilderness. We already find this in the Old Testament itself where manna is called the grain of heaven and the bread of angels (cf. Psalm 78:24-25) and in Deuteronomy the manna is understood sacramentally as a sign of the Word of God delivered on Mt. Sinai. God fed Israel with manna to teach them that man does not live by bread alone, but by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord (cf. Deuteronomy 8:3). The Law of Moses came down from heaven as a gracious gift from God to enlighten the people of Israel with sacred wisdom. Of this, the manna was the divinely given sign. However, the soul is fed now with earthly things, but God's Word from heaven. Thus, a sapiential interpretation of the story of the manna demonstrates that the Word of God is clearly a heavenly or spiritual food. In the Bread of Life discourse, John contrasts the manna (which fed the bellies of the murmuring children of Israel) with the spiritual food believers receive from Christ in the ministry of Word and sacrament.

The last central theme of the Bread of Life Discourse is the Feast of Passover. At the beginning of John 6, John indicates that the event took place around the time of Passover. If we are to understand the sacrifice of Jesus in terms of Passover imagery, speaking of feeding on the Passover lamb comes quite naturally. Toward the end of his commentary on the Bread of Life Discourse, Calvin recognizes the paschal theme and stated: "It would be of no use to us that the sacrifice was once offered, if we did not now feed upon that sacred feast."

This should make it clear that Calvin's understanding of the Lord's Supper had a place for feeding on Christ. At the Supper, as Calvin sees it, we feed on the paschal lamb whose sacrifice atoned for the sin of the world. Hence, the Word of God is the Lamb of God, who by His sacrifice takes away the sin of the world. The paschal themes alluded to in the story of the feeding of the multitude and the Bread of Life Discourse becomes patent in John 6:51-58. The Supper reveals that the wisdom which nourishes to eternal life is the cross.

Here, the Passover imagery is essential for an understanding of this passage. The vicarious suffering of the Lamb of God is the sacred food which enable those who believe to pass from death to life. Hence, the proclamation that the Lamb of God who died for the sin of the world and is alive forevermore is the Gospel of salvation, the divine wisdom which unmasks the wisdom of this world. When this Word is received by faith, it is a sacred food that nourishes unto eternal life. This is the great feast of the children of God - to feed upon the Lamb of God. It is a feast kept in faith and by faith, for it is faith that feeds upon the divine Word, the holy Wisdom from on High. 

The Lord's Supper is not only a symbol of this truth. It is, to use Calvin's words, "actually presented;" it is promised and sealed. When the bread and wine of the sacrament is offered, Christ is truly offered for salvation. When we accept it, the promise is sealed. The sermon and the Supper both proclaim the Lord's death until Christ comes, and yet they are two distinct moments in our receiving God's gracious gift of salvation. In the sermon, it is presented; in the Supper it is sealed. Thus, Calvin understands the Bread of Life Discourse to mean that in the worship of the Church, both in the sermon and the Supper, we feast upon the divine Wisdom - the wisdom revealed in the cross.

Gabriel Williams (Ph.D., Colorado State University) is assistant professor of atmospheric physics at the College of Charleston and a member of Christ Church Presbyterian in Charleston, SC. He also writes at The Road of Grace. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of the College of Charleston.

Luther and Calvin's Quiet Discussions in Heaven

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Those who cherish the Reformation have often sought out what, if any, influence Martin Luther may have had on John Calvin. Did the two Reformers ever meet in person? Was Calvin influenced by the writings or ministry of "the Initiator" of the Reformation? Did he ever rely on the writing of Luther in the development of his own theology? These and many other related questions surface when we begin, with admiration, to give ourselves to a study of these two massively important figures. 

Much remains uncertain about which of Luther's works Calvin read and which of Calvin's works Luther read. It is, however, clear that Calvin had knowledge of the controversies that surrounded Luther's theological writings and debates and that Luther read Calvin on certain theological issues. For instance, Calvin labored to wed Zwingli's spiritual view of the Supper to Luther's insistence on real presence. In John Calvin: A Pilgrim's Life, Herman Selderhuis explains:

"Calvin was left with the pieces of the dispute and tried to resolve things by combining the elements that both Luther and Zwingli insisted on. He thus arrived at a belief in the real presence of Christ through his Spirit, a solution through which some kind of unity was established both with the Wittenbergers and with the Swiss. Unfortunately a three-party consensus was never achieved."1  

Luther was aware that Calvin was seeking to reconcile his view with that of Zwingli, as Selderhuis notes:

"Melanchthon reported that when someone tried to incite Luther to attack Calvin's teaching on the Lord's Supper...Luther actually praised Calvin after reading the relevant passages."2 

The bulk of Calvin's references to Luther have to do, not with theological matters but with personal assessment (which is unsurprising given the strong personalities possessed by the two Reformers). Calvin was critical as well as celebratory in his opinions about the Wittenberg Reformer. In a letter to Bullinger, Calvin deemed Luther "immoderately ardent and violent in character;" and, in a letter to Melanchthon, he criticized Luther for getting too worked up and for being too quick tempered. However, Calvin praised Luther to Bullinger when he wrote: 

"I understand that Luther pours invectives on you and on us all. I dare scarcely request you to keep silence. But I supplicate you at least to remember what a great man Luther is, by what admirable qualities he is distinguished, what courage, what constancy, what ability, what power of doctrine there is in him to beat down the kingdom of anti-christ, and to propagate the knowledge of salvation. I say it, and have often repeated it, even though he called me a devil, I would not cease to honor him, and to acknowledge him as an illustrious servant of God."3 

Despite having to endure personal attacks from Luther, Calvin praised Luther for being a "most learned father in the Lord." Merle d'Aubigne wrote: "Calvin did not even fear to say, that in his eyes Luther was far above Zwingli;--Nam si inter se comparantur, scis ipse quanto intervallo Lutherus excedat."4

On one occasion, Luther sent word to Calvin from Martin Bucer. Selderhuis notes that "Calvin was thrilled when Bucer brought him personal greetings from Luther, along with a report that their German colleague had been pleased with Calvin's writings."5 Calvin received word that Luther was finally appreciative of something that he had written. Not unaffected by this commendation, Calvin wrote, "If we are not appeased by such moderation, we must be completely of stone. I am really appeased. I wrote something that satisfied him."6

Despite his criticisms of Luther, Calvin acknowledged the early influence that Luther has on him regarding the other Reformers. Later in life, Calvin reflected on the fact that "'when he began to liberate himself from the darkness of the papacy,' he was so influenced by Luther that he distanced himself from the writings of Oecolampadius and Zwingli."7

One of the most beautiful statements about Calvin's view of Luther is in a letter that he wrote to Luther toward the end of Luther's life (a letter that Luther sadly never received). In it, the Genevan Reformer suggested he and Luther "would soon be together in heaven where they could continue their discussion in quiet."8 What more beautiful way to pursue the peace that Christ longs for His followers to experience! Despite what appears to have been a tumultuous relationship, there was, on the part of Calvin, a deep desire for unity and peace with the great "Initiator" of the Reformation. While they may not have had the sweetest of fellowship on earth, of this much we may be sure: Calvin and Luther are engaging themselves in perfectly loving discussions in heaven before the presence of the Christ whom they sought to glorify here on earth.


1. Herman Selderhuis John Calvin: A Pilgrim's Life (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Press, 2009) p. 94
2. Ibid., p. 105

3. Emmanuel Stickelberger, Calvin, a Life. Translated by Georg Gelzer (Richmond, Virginia: John Knox Press, 1954), 70. 

4. Robert Baird, D'Aubigne and His Writings (New York: John S. Taylor, 1847) p. 257

5. John Calvin: A Pilgrim's Life, p. 33

6. Ibid., p. 106

7. Ibid., p. 105

8. Ibid. p. 259

Imitatio Sanctorum

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"The things related in Scripture are not always proper to be imitated." So notes Calvin midway through his commentary on the story of Isaac and Rebekah's engagement and marriage--a story that, rather unpromisingly to modern ears, begins not with star-cross'd lovers flung forth from the fatal loins of ancient foes, but with the efforts of Abraham's unnamed servant to contract a suitable spouse for his master's son from his master's place of origin. Calvin's permission (or even exhortation) not to imitate all that even Scripture's rosiest characters do comes as a relief in a chapter chalk full of ancient near-eastern practices and customs far removed from contemporary ritual.

Clear biblical mandates, rather than dubious examples, are to be our moral guide: "Whatever the Lord commands in general terms is to be accounted as an inflexible rule of conduct; but to rely on particular examples [of characters in the biblical narrative] is not only dangerous, but even foolish and absurd." And yet. Calvin feels quite happy to encourage imitatio Sanctorum when the biblical Saints of old conform to biblical precepts in their actions. And, rather unnervingly, he ends up, on the basis of that principle, applauding many of the doings in Gen. 24 that we are likely to think most dubious, and discouraging the doings that we are likely to think morally indifferent if not most acceptable. The reformer, as ever, drives a hard moral bargain, and refuses to leave us in our comfort zone when it comes to our personal conduct.

For instance, Calvin raises the alarm when Abraham's servant gifts Rebekah with a golden ring and two golden bracelets in exchange for her kindness to his camels at the well (Gen. 24.22), lest anyone think this demonstrates that "God approves ornaments of this kind, which pertain not so much to neatness as to pomp." For "we know," Calvin admonishes, "how highly displeasing to God is not only pomp and ambition in adorning the body, but all kind of luxury." Abstinence from such extravagance, especially for the fairer sex who might be more prone towards "adorning the body," is the safest path: "Because the cupidity of women is, on this point, insatiable, not only must moderation, but even abstinence, be cultivated as far as possible." But Calvin's words contain a moral warning for persons less interested in jewelry (i.e., me) as well. His swipe against "all kind of luxury" in addition to "pomp and ambition in adorning the body" spells trouble, presumably, for the Bimmers and Benzes in our churches' parking lots just as much as the bling on display inside.

Calvin likewise expresses concern over the method that Abraham's servant employs for choosing a spouse for Isaac (Gen. 24.10-12). He applauds the servant for making the decision a matter of prayer, but objects when the servant demands a peculiar sign from God spotlighting the right woman. The servant obviously "desires to be made fully certain respecting the whole affair of God" concerning the matter at hand. But since God never promises to disclose his sovereign purposes to us, we step out of line when we require or ask him to do so. "Since the servant prescribes to God what answer shall be given, he appears culpably to depart from the suitable modesty of prayer." That God went ahead and provided the requested sign to Abraham's servant speaks merely of God's "extraordinary indulgence," not the propriety of seeking such signs. Calvin seems considerably worried that the servant's sign-seeking, as recorded in the biblical text, might encourage others to indulge in "vain prognostications." The moral: don't seek a sign from God to determine your path forward. Pray for wisdom, observe whatever biblical commands might bear upon your choices in life, and step forward in faith and confidence that God is sovereign even over your freely made decisions. Or, as Augustine somewhat more bluntly put it, "love God and do what you want."

But other actions of the characters in Gen. 24 garner admiration from Calvin. So, for instance, he lauds the same servant whose sign-seeking he criticized when that servant praises God for leading him to Abraham's kin to find a wife for Isaac (Gen. 24.26-27), and again when that servant worships God in response to Laban and Bethuel's favorable response to his proposal for their daughter's marriage to Isaac (Gen. 24.52). The servant's proper example reminds us "always to have the providence of God before our eyes, in order that we may ascribe to him whatever happens prosperously to us."

Calvin's highest words of praise, however, are reserved for Rebekah's parents, who exercise just the right degree of parental involvement in their daughter's prospective marriage. When Laban puts the decision to accompany Abraham's servant back to Abraham's home to his daughter, Calvin notes with obvious approval that "[Laban] did not exercise tyranny over his daughter, so as to thrust her out reluctantly, or to compel her to marry against her will, but left her to her own free choice." This prompts further reflection from Calvin on the proper path for parents in negotiating marriages for their children. As always, Calvin presents his proposal on the matter as a via media between two extremes: "Truly, in this matter, the authority of parents ought to be sacred: but a middle course is to be pursued, so that the parties concerned may make their contract spontaneously, and with mutual consent." Love may not reign supreme in Calvin's perspective, but it has a voice. Or at least children have a voice. 

It's hard to see how any love but that for her parents played much of a role in Rebekah's decision to marry Isaac, since she had never met the chap. Calvin discerns a similar dynamic between Abraham and Isaac reflected in Gen. 24.67, which, in Calvin's view, records Isaac's free decision to make Rebekah his wife, no matter the role that Abraham played in securing the young woman. "Isaac was not compelled by the tyrannical command of his father to marry; but after he had given his mind to [Rebekah] he took her freely, and cordially gave her the assurance of conjugal fidelity."

One final note of praise is reserved for Rebekah when she veils herself, "a token of shame and modesty," upon first meeting Isaac. Calvin expresses complete confidence that this custom prevailed in every honorable age. "So much the more shameful," he complains, "is the licentiousness of our own age, in which the apparel of brides seems to be purposely contrived for the subversion of all modesty."

In sum, Calvin's application of the principle he enunciates in Gen. 24--that "things related in Scripture are not always proper to be imitated" -- may be open to criticism. His advice on marriage contracts and appropriate wedding apparel (veil and all), for instance, seem to reflect the mores and customs of his age more than unambiguous biblical commandments. His condemnation of luxurious living and vain prognostication strike me as somewhat better founded on biblical precept. Regardless, the principle itself that Calvin advances here is sound and well worth repeating--we are, after all, far too prone to seek whatever justification we can for whatever it is we want to do, whether in biblical examples or elsewhere.

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. 

Reformation 101: Priests in Jesus

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Having recently passed the 499th anniversary of Luther's posting of the 95 Theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, there is great anticipation of the 500th celebration of this momentous event and the Reformation that it catalyzed. We typically summarize the Reformation by the five solas - the Scriptures alone teach us that sinners are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone. But there was another key theme recovered by the Reformers, intimately connected to those solas (particularly the last one), that is forgotten and denied on a practical level even today: the priesthood of all believers.

In the 16th century, the Roman church divided mankind into two groups, the "spiritual estate" and the "temporal estate." The former consisted of those involved in "full time Christian ministry," who were closest to God and salvation because of their positions in the church. The latter was the common folk, who only had access to God, His word and salvation through the clerics and the sacraments. To this way of thinking and living, the Reformers shouted "No!" In his 1520 book, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther declared, "All Christians whatsoever really and truly belong to the religious class, and there is no difference among them except in so far as they do different work." Additionally, John Calvin stated, "In Christ we are all priests, but to offer praises and thanksgiving, in short, to offer ourselves and ours to God" (Institutes, IV.xix.28). The Second Helvetic Confession (chapter 18) affirmed this teaching as well: "To be sure, Christ's apostles call all who believe in Christ 'priests,' but not on account of an office, but because, all the faithful having been made kings and priests, we are able to offer up spiritual sacrifices to God through Christ (Exod. 19:6; I Peter 2:9; Rev. 1:6). Therefore, the priesthood and the ministry are very different from one another..."

Where did the Reformers get this teaching? From the Scriptures alone, of course. I Peter 2:4-10 is one of the clearest declarations of the priesthood of all believers in the whole Bible. Peter, writing to the church, says that we "are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood." We are "a royal priesthood." But Peter didn't make this language up; rather, he got it from the Old Testament, in particular Exodus 19. Before God forms the Aaronic priesthood, He says that the whole nation was a kingdom of priests. Out of all the nations, Israel had nearness of access to God, was set apart to serve God, to represent God to the nations, and the nations to God. Peter is taking OT language and is applying it to the church, made up primarily of the Gentile nations. The church of Jesus Christ, saved from every tribe, tongue, people and nation, is a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God's own possession.

Such a status isn't because of anything in us, but only through a faith union with Jesus Christ - "As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood...This precious value, then is for you who believe..." (I Peter 2:4-5, 7). It's as we are joined to Jesus by faith alone apart from obedience to the law that we become a brick in this spiritual temple for the purpose of being a priest. The priesthood of all believers is intimately connected with that other key Reformation truth, justification by faith alone. Just as the priests in the OT were washed with clean water before putting on their priestly garments, so we have been washed in the blood of Christ and clothed in His righteousness. Peter is saying to the nations who have trusted in Jesus Christ alone for salvation, "You are connected with Israel of old; you have inherited all the promises and privileges and responsibilities that God gave to Israel! You've been called for the same purpose, redeemed by the same God, committed to the same response."

So what are the privileges and responsibilities that come with our priesthood in Jesus? First, we are called to worship and intercede. Peter is clear: as priests, we offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. We "proclaim the excellencies of Him who called us out of darkness and into His marvelous light" (I Peter 2:9). In the words of Hebrews 13:15, through Jesus we offer a sacrifice of praise to God, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name, for we remember that once we are not a people, but now we are by His mercy the people of God (I Peter 2:10). We do not need any other human intermediary but Jesus; through Him we can draw near confidently to the throne of grace. This means we do not need to go to a confessional to confess our sins. It means that we are not spectators but participants in corporate worship. And it means we intercede for one another. Like the priests of old carried the names of God's people into the holy place, like Jesus ever lives to intercede for His own, so we in Christ can pray for one another, and God hears the prayers of the saints as quickly as He hears the prayers of pastors.

Second, we are to fulfill our vocation to the glory of God. Here we're thinking about worship more broadly. That is, in whatever God calls us to do, we can and we must do it to His glory, for His sake, as unto Him. Colossians 3:23-24, "Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve." In the Reformers' day, only those who worked for the church or the monastery or convent were seen as doing God's work. But the Reformers read passages like Romans 12:1-2 and said that as priests, in view of God's mercies, all Christians are to present their bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, as their spiritual service of worship. To be sure, Jesus has instituted in His church the offices of elder and deacon; but those who hold these special offices are not special people; you don't need to be a missionary or pastor or ruling elder or deacon to serve God.

One could be a salesman, a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, an engineer, a mechanic, a computer technician, an accountant, a waitress, a grocery clerk, a carpenter, a farmer, a banker, a student - whatever our calling, if it is lawful and legitimate, it is pleasing to God, and we can and ought to glorify God in it by fulfilling the creation mandate to exercise dominion over the creation, to subdue the earth. We are to use the gifts that God has given us, to bring order out of chaos, to create value and delight for those we serve, to do our work with excellence, beauty, creativity and skill. Soli Deo Gloria is true not just when we think about our salvation, but when we think about our calling in creation. Just as "holy to the Lord" was inscribed on the turban of the OT priests, so "holy to the Lord" is to be written across our entire lives.

Third, missions and evangelism. In Exodus 19:4-6, as Christopher Wright has argued in his book The Mission of God, God is not declaring a condition of Israel's salvation; rather, it's a condition of Israel's mission. By keeping the covenant they would continue to be set apart from the world, and so be able to mediate the presence and blessing of the Lord as a light to the nations. As a kingdom of priests, Israel was to represent God to the nations in holy conduct, bringing God's word and glory to the nations around them; and they were to represent the nations to God, interceding on their behalf, making provision for the nations to find God through the atoning sacrifices. They were to be a vehicle of salvation for the nations; all the earth was the Lord's, but God had set Israel apart within the world the way a priest was set apart within the community.

In the same way, we who belong to Jesus are called to be a blessing to the nations; we exist for the sake of the world around us. God calls us to intercede for the nations, bringing them to God, and to bring the light of the gospel to the nations, that they might have fellowship with God through the atonement of Jesus. Our worship declares to the world that God is more satisfying and desirable than anything in this life, and we call our neighbors to repent of their idolatries and trust in Jesus alone. I Peter 2:11 tells us that as aliens and strangers in this world we are to abstain from fleshly lusts, living holy lives, consistent with our status as priests. And our holy lives will be a means by which the Gentiles around us will be converted, or without excuse on the last day (I Pet. 2:12).

The truth is, whether in our worship, our vocation, or our evangelism, we often don't do a very good job of being the priest we have already been made by Christ. This is precisely why we need Jesus as our great High Priest! With that confidence, we cry out to the Lord to enable us to cling to this doctrine as a most precious inheritance of our Reformation forbears, and use it for His glory, walking as priests in Jesus every day of our life.


Related Resources

Colin J. Bulley The Priesthood of Some Believers
Mark Dever "The Priesthood of All Believers: Reconsidering Every Member Ministry," in John H. Armstrong ed. The Compromised Church (Crossway, 1998)
"This chapter contains a most memorable narrative." Thus Calvin introduces his readers to Gen. 22, that text which records God's instruction to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, the long-awaited fulfillment of God's promise and source of Abraham's profound joy.

Calvin's subsequent comments on this "narrative" are remarkable when considered against the backdrop of pre-Reformation reflection on the text in question. Given the rather astonishing divine imperative issued to Abraham in the text -- an imperative which, at least on the surface, appears to contradict God's own prohibition of murder as embodied in both natural and revealed law -- Gen. 22 had figured prominently in medieval debates about the relationship of God to good (and vice versa), the relationship between God's will and God's character vis-à-vis God's law, and so on. Showing noteworthy restraint, Calvin denies such medieval disputes so much as a nod when he meets God's commandment to Abraham in Gen. 22.2 to "take your son, your only son, whom you love -- Isaac -- and ... sacrifice him." Calvin chooses, rather, to focus on the extraordinary nature of the test Abraham is thus set, and the extraordinary nature of the faith Abraham subsequently evidences as he endures that test. All this, for Calvin, towards the end of establishing an example of patient faith and confidence in God's providence for believers today. Indeed, no chapter in Calvin's entire commentary on Genesis contains more frequent reference to the need "for every one of us to apply... to himself" the "example" of virtuous activity encountered in the biblical narrative.

Calvin identifies multiple layers to the test that Abraham, at God's initiative, is set in this text. At the most basic level, Abraham faces the loss of his son, and that by "a violent death," an abhorrent prospect to any good parent. But aggravating the pain of this prospect is the reality that Abraham has only recently lost his other son, Ishmael. Indeed, when God refers to Isaac as Abraham's "only son" (vs. 2) in this text, Calvin reckons that God purposefully "irritates the wound recently inflicted by the banishment of his other son." Abraham's divinely dictated course of action is made even more dreadful, of course, by the fact that Abraham himself is the intended author of the violence awaiting his remaining son. "It was sad for him to be deprived of his only son, sadder still that this one should be torn away by a violent death, but by far most grievous that he himself should be appointed as the executioner to slay him with his own hand."

Calvin judges the ingredients of Abraham's agony mentioned thus far rather trivial -- or in his words "mere play, or shadows of conflict" -- in comparison to two further, more critical components of Abraham's distress. There is, first of all, the reality that Isaac embodies God's promise of redemption to the world. Thus God's command to "slay him" must have seemed to Abraham a requirement "not only to throw aside, but to cut in pieces, or cast into the fire, the charter of his [own] salvation, and to have nothing left for himself but death and hell." Abraham is essentially ordered to assume the role of humankind's salvation slayer.

But most painful of all the to Patriarch in Calvin's estimation was that God's commandment to slay Isaac seemed so obviously at odds with God's promise of redemption through Isaac, and thus raised questions for Abraham about the character and intention of God Himself. This, Calvin judges, is what ultimately constitutes the core of the "labyrinth of temptation" in which Abraham finds himself. "God, in a certain sense, assumes a double character, that, by the appearance of disagreement and repugnance in which He presents Himself in his word, He may distract and wound the breast of the holy man.... It was difficult and painful to Abraham to forget that he was a father... by becoming the executioner of his son. But [this] was a far more severe and horrible thing; namely, that he conceives God to contradict Himself and His own word." In sum, Abraham faced not only the loss of his own son and his salvation, but also the God whom he had come to trust and love over the course of the preceding decades. That God now threatened to prove an adversary, if not a capricious monster.

Calvin rounds out his consideration of Abraham's anguish by noting that God bids Abraham slay his son not in Abraham's back yard, but on a mountain three days' journey from his current location. "The bitterness of grief is not a little increased by this circumstance. For God does not require him to put his son immediately to death, but compels him to revolve this execution in his mind during three whole days, that in preparing himself to sacrifice his son, he may still more severely torture all his own senses." Calvin compares this "delay" between God's command and its intended fulfillment to being "stretched upon the rack," thus referencing one of early modernity's most notable forms of torture, made (in)famous by the Spanish Inquisition.

So how does Abraham find his way through and out of this "labyrinth of temptation"? In Calvin's judgment, Abraham's faith throughout this trial (and thus also his obedience) is sustained less by God's word of promise (regarding his progeny and mankind's salvation) and more by his convictions regarding God's wisdom, mercy, and providence. God's commandment to him, to all appearances, contradicts and annuls God's promise to him, and so renders God's promise unsure footing, as it were, for his faith. Abraham does of course speculate that God might (immediately) resurrect Isaac after his sacrifice, and so yet fulfill his promise to and through Isaac, but he has no certain word from God regarding this. In the final analysis, then, Abraham simply and doggedly maintains his confidence that God knows what he is up to, and that God's sovereign government of this world and its affairs is informed by infinite wisdom and mercy, no matter circumstances that point to the contrary. "His mind must of necessity have been severely crushed, and violently agitated, when the command and the promise of God were conflicting within him. But when he had come to the conclusion, that the God with whom he knew he had to do could not be his adversary, although he did not immediately discover how the contradiction might be removed, he nevertheless, by hope, reconciled the command with the promise, because being indubitably persuaded that God [is] faithful, he left the unknown issue to Divine Providence. Meanwhile, as with closed eyes, he goes whither he is directed."

The biblical narrative of Abraham's trial and obedience ultimately, then, provides Calvin opportunity to reinforce a point that he has made previously in his Genesis commentary; namely, that in the journey which is the Christian life, our faith must occasionally look to and lean upon God's character rather than a particular word of divine promise. Abraham illustrates this point in a unique fashion, since his particular dilemma is not that he lacks a divine word, but that he finds that word in (apparent) contradiction to itself. The lesson Calvin thus discerns in Abraham's trial is most pertinent in our day. Too often in times of uncertainty and testing in life we are more prone to manufacture a divine word of promise than to lean upon God's character and sovereignty and move forward in faith. Thus we become an oracle to ourselves, glossing our own prophetic promises to ourselves as divine, when what God actually requires from us is not absolute certainty about our steps forward, but confidence that his sovereign purpose and love surround us as we take those steps.

Or as Calvin more elegantly puts it: "Many things are perpetually occurring to enfeeble our purpose: means fail, we are destitute of counsel, all avenues seem closed. In such straits, the only remedy against despondency is to leave the event to God, in order that he may open a way for us where there is none. For as we act unjustly towards God when we hope for nothing from him but what our senses can perceive, so we pay Him the highest honor, when, in affairs of perplexity, we nevertheless entirely acquiesce in his providence."

Praying in four directions

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[The introductory paragraph was originally posted in an unfinished form. Mea culpa. I have not changed the sentiment and substance, but have adapted and I hope improved the tone and the direction. I do not have the original piece, but what follows is close to the original intention. Other clarifications are here.]

At this time of year, we may see provided a variety of what I shall call scripted prayers. Some of them are entirely personal productions and some are woven together from other sources. Some are occasional pieces and some are habitual constructions. Such offerings and collections may have some value, when used and not abused. I stand pretty much with Bunyan on the matter of formally scripted and read prayers. I consider them close to an abomination. I appreciate the personal reading of thoughtful and careful prayers that were offered extemporaneously and recorded as they came (such as Spurgeon's pulpit prayers [e.g. Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk / Westminster] or those which conclude many of Calvin's sermons [e.g. Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk / Westminster]). I value prayers that were written as part of a longer project and were not intended to be recited as some kind of intercessory ritual, but into the spirit of which we might enter as a means of priming the pump of the soul (e.g. The Valley of Vision [Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk / Westminster]). But such reading does not and cannot replace our own praying. The idea of taking those words, reciting the script, and calling it heart prayer is not something I can countenance. I do not doubt the sincerity of some who pursue such a course, but the thing is so dangerous in its practice (inviting us to a mere performance) and deadly in its tendency (replacing the form for the substance) that I would advise anyone to steer well clear (and I am fully aware that more extemporaneous prayer can fall into the same traps, but I do not think it has the same measure of inherent weakness at this point). Do not misunderstand me, it is a rare privilege to listen - either really or at a distance - to a true man of God pleading with his heavenly Father, and there is much to learn from so doing. But the mere recitation or repetition of such words - even if they are our own - is not, in itself, prayer. Carefully used, such examples can be, in measure, spiritual springboards. Carelessly abused, they become spiritual shackles and militate against a true spirit of prayer.

So, by all means use some of these examples, but do not abuse them. Employ them, if need be, to prime the pump. And then, pray! The new year provides one of those natural turning points that gives us an opportunity to pause and reflect. The instinct to pray is entirely right and proper, but we must ourselves bow the knee and engage the heart, however carefully we ponder and prepare beforehand. With that in mind, let me suggest that we should pray in four directions.

Pray back. As you ponder where you have come from, remember who has brought you to where you are. Every child of God, whatever the gloom that seems presently to surround us, has the gospel light shining in our soul. Whatever your heavenly Father has seen fit to give you, it is as your Father in heaven that he gave it. Wherever the good Shepherd has led you, it is as the Shepherd that he led you there and through there. If you are Christ's, and Christ is yours, then all things are yours. Every step of the past year, let alone every day of every year of your life, have been governed by divine love and gracious compassion. All has been intended to bring you to God and keep you with God, and to develop likeness to Christ in you, in accordance with God's design. So look back, and lift up your Ebenezer, for till now, the Lord has helped us (1Sam 7:12).

Pray around. Remember your present circumstances and blessings, frailties and responsibilities. On the one hand, the Christian is the most privileged and the richest person on earth:
"All things are ours;" the gift of God,
And purchas'd with our Saviour's blood;
While the good Spirit shows us how
To use and to improve them too.
Like the Kingswood colliers of whom Wesley wrote, on all the kings of earth, with pity we look down, and claim - in virtue of our birth - a never-fading crown. We are heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ, and for that we should sing with joy and gladness. We stand in grace, and yet the world moves on around us. Week by week I prepare a sheet for the church where I serve, each one numbered as the year turns. It is often very unsettling to see the speed at which the weeks pass by, those days swifter than a weaver's shuttle. It is not morbid or maudlin to consider that we do not know how many more of those days we shall be granted, to remember that you may not see another new year, that you are a creature of the dust, and to assess how we shall live in the days allotted to us. So we look around, and pray, asking the Lord to "teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom" (Ps 90:12). It is what we need for every moment as we wrestle with the demands of this day, and then the next, each day having enough trouble of its own, and supplies of grace to meet every trouble that comes.

Pray forwards. There are before each one of God's children countless opportunities and responsibilities, many of which we have not yet seen. They may come with minutes or it may take months. For the days to come we need wisdom, and it is wisdom which the Lord himself has undertaken to provide, and commanded us to seek: "If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him" (Jas 1:5). This, and every other good thing, is promised to those who ask, seek and knock. It is the Father's delight to provide those needful things for kingdom life that his beloved children request. We never need to be ashamed of our asking, if we are asking in accordance with his will and our character as trusting children. We do not need to twist his arm, bargain with him, or fear a harsh response. He is ready to provide every needful blessing, through his Spirit, that we need to secure his certain glory and enjoy his promised good.

And so, pray upwards. Every prayer must be directed to heaven. The greatest abominations in prayer are those self-referential or performed prayers that have more regard for the approval of men than concern to be heard by God. Far too many prayers are like damp fireworks; they may splutter a little with a few sparks, but they barely get off the ground. True prayer is, in essence, an expression of dependence upon God. If we do not pray, it is a practical atheism. But the saints pray to the Lord for what we can only receive from the Lord. We look to him, and - anxious for nothing - in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, we let our requests be made known to God. Thus the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard our hearts and minds through Christ Jesus (Phil 3.6-7). May the new year, in its beginning, continuing and ending, prove that so.