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Calvin on the Sacraments: On the General Meaning

Many assume when they heard "Reformed Theology" that you've gotten a 5-Point nutcase running around waving TULIP. And that certainly is the case with many individuals who accept Calvin's case for predestination without enjoy the true fruits of Calvin's labor.

Calvin's views on election came out of his discussion about the church. Calvin's view on involvement with the state stemmed from the church. And likewise his sacraments stemmed from the church. And of all the things I have learned most from Calvin, it is a better grasp of the sacraments and their provisions to the church.

In the fourteenth chapter of the fourth book, Calvin begins his lengthy discussion on the sacraments in general, baptism and the Lord's Supper. Today we'll look at elements of his teaching on the sacrament in general. In fairness to Calvin, his opening words are truly the best way to open the discussion,

Akin to the preaching of the gospel, we have another help to our faith in the sacraments, in regard to which, it greatly concerns us that some sure doctrine should be delivered, informing us both of the end for which they were instituted, and of their present use. First, we must attend to what a sacrament is. It seems to me, then, a simple and appropriate definition to say, that it is an external sign, by which the Lord seals on our consciences his promises of good-will toward us, in order to sustain the weakness of our faith, and we in our turn testify our piety towards him, both before himself, and before angels as well as men. We may also define more briefly by calling it a testimony of the divine favour toward us, confirmed by an external sign, with a corresponding attestation of our faith towards Him. (ICR, 4.14.1)

It is interesting to watch modern protestants look back at Calvin and Luther as the instigators of Protestant worship. Their new emphasis on the preaching of the Word has remained in Protestant churches ever since the two began their lengthy discourses on the Scriptures. In fact, in both a joking manner and one of concern, many Eastern Orthodox writers see this as the time of change from the Pastor/Shepherd to the Pastor/Professor. Today I would say we try to mix both and do so poorly but that is a different subject.

Despite this high exaltation of the word of God, perhaps even because of it, Calvin places the sacraments along side preaching as a way our faith is strengthened. Fundamentally, this is already a great departure from many modern views of the sacraments. Within the Baptist denomination that I serve, the reduction of the sacraments to simple memorials cannot co-exist with Calvin's assertion. And yet I both accept and approve of Calvin. Does he provide any proof of this argument? Well of course. But I'll let him describe both the objections and his response,

They argue thus: We either know that the word of God which precedes the sacrament is the true will of God, or we do not know it. If we know it, we learn nothing new from the sacrament which succeeds. If we do not know it, we cannot learn it from the sacrament, whose whole efficacy depends on the word. Our brief reply is: The seals which are affixed to diplomas, and other public deeds, are nothing considered in themselves, and would be affixed to no purpose if nothing was written on the parchment, and yet this does not prevent them from sealing and confirming when they are appended to writings. It cannot be alleged that this comparison is a recent fiction of our own, since Paul himself used it, terming circumcision a seal (Rom. 4:11), where he expressly maintains that the circumcision of Abraham was not for justification, but was an attestation to the covenant, by the faith of which he had been previously justified. And how, pray, can any one be greatly offended when we teach that the promise is sealed by the sacrament, since it is plain, from the promises themselves, that one promise confirms another? The clearer any evidence is, the fitter is it to support our faith. But sacraments bring with them the clearest promises, and, when compared with the word, have this peculiarity, that they represent promises to the life, as if painted in a picture. (ICR, 4.14.5)

It is irrational to contend that sacraments are not manifestations of divine grace toward us, because they are held forth to the ungodly also, who, however, so far from experiencing God to be more propitious to them, only incur greater condemnation. By the same reasoning, the gospel will be no manifestation of the grace of God, because it is spurned by many who hear it; nor will Christ himself be a manifestation of grace, because of the many by whom he was seen and known, very few received him. Something similar may be seen in public enactments. A great part of the body of the people deride and evade the authenticating seal, though they know it was employed by their sovereign to confirm his will; others trample it under foot, as a matter by no means appertaining to them; while others even execrate it: so that, seeing the condition of the two things to be alike, the appropriateness of the comparison which I made above ought to be more readily allowed. It is certain, therefore, that the Lord offers us his mercy, and a pledge of his grace, both in his sacred word and in the sacraments; but it is not apprehended save by those who receive the word and sacraments with firm faith: in like manner as Christ, though offered and held forth for salvation to all, is not, however, acknowledged and received by all. (ICR, 4.14.7)

We conclude, therefore, that the sacraments are truly termed evidences of divine grace, and, as it were, seals of the good-will which he entertains toward us. They, by sealing it to us, sustain, nourish, confirm, and increase our faith. The objections usually urged against this view are frivolous and weak. They say that our faith, if it is good, cannot be made better; for there is no faith save that which leans unshakingly, firmly, and undividedly, on the mercy of God. It had been better for the objectors to pray, with the apostles, “Lord, increase our faith” (Luke 17:5), than confidently to maintain a perfection of faith which none of the sons of men ever attained, none ever shall attain, in this life. Let them explain what kind of faith his was who said, “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief” (Mark 9:24). That faith, though only commenced, was good, and might, by the removal of the unbelief, be made better. But there is no better argument to refute them than their own consciousness. For if they confess themselves sinners (this, whether they will or not, they cannot deny), then they must of necessity impute this very quality to the imperfection of their faith. (ICR, 4.14.7)

There are many other great words within Calvin's writing on this subject. But we'll have to suffice with those words alone for the time being. The brevity of my words is worse than Calvin but he concluded with a thundering answer against those who then thought he placed too much value in the sacrament instead of the matter of the sacrament,

If this is obscure from brevity, I will explain it more at length. I say that Christ is the matter, or, if you rather choose it, the substance of all the sacraments, since in him they have their whole solidity, and out of him promise nothing. (ICR, 4.10.16)

So alongside my brothers who want to make Christ the center of preaching, I say "amen" and let us put Christ back at the center of the sacraments with regular practice for the strengthening of the congregation. Alas, I fear the sacraments have become powerless as the word has become powerless. With many words left unspoken, I suggest everyone read the whole chapter of Calvin if they still have questions of his intent and purpose to drawing this conclusion on the sacraments.

In future posts, we will look at the two sacraments: baptism and the eucharist.

Gospel Presence III: Gospel Presence and the Armor of God (Benjamin Merkle)

BBC: Genesis 2:1-3

BBC: Genesis 2:1-3