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Calvin on the Sacraments: The Lord's Supper


Well we have reached our conclusion to this brief evaluation of John Calvin's views on the sacraments. We're going to close with an inspection of his views on the Lord's Supper which many have found to be downright confusing. And I understand why many think that way. Calvin is down right paradoxical in his language and explanations. Hopefully we can avoid some of the confusions by properly contrasting his points.

It's better to just let Calvin speak. I'll try to limit the quotes to passages that work better together to show his unity.

First, then, the signs are bread and wine, which represent the invisible food which we receive from the body and blood of Christ. For as God, regenerating us in baptism, ingrafts us into the fellowship of his Church, and makes us his by adoption, so we have said that he performs the office of a provident parent, in continually supplying the food by which he may sustain and preserve us in the life to which he has begotten us by his word. Moreover, Christ is the only food of our soul, and, therefore, our heavenly Father invites us to him, that, refreshed by communion with him, we may ever and anon gather new vigour until we reach the heavenly immortality. But as this mystery of the secret union of Christ with believers is incomprehensible by nature, he exhibits its figure and image in visible signs adapted to our capacity, nay, by giving, as it were, earnests and badges, he makes it as certain to us as if it were seen by the eye; (ICR, 4.17.1)

It is seen quite quickly that John Calvin is not talking about your normal "memorial view" of the Lord's Supper. Although some might be distracted by the words "regenerating" and "adoption" being associated with baptism, let me put some fears to rest. Calvin was much better at using Biblical language. And these things are Biblically true of Baptism even if we don't speak that way. Back to the Lord's Supper. There is in fact substance to the symbol of the meal and that substance is truly Jesus Christ. Isn't this to say the elements become Christ? Well no. Hopefully soon it will be shown that John Calvin was also neither Lutheran or Catholic in his view. But this next quote might only work to scare the memorial masses more.

Pious souls can derive great confidence and delight from this sacrament, as being a testimony that they form one body with Christ, so that everything which is his they may call their own. Hence it follows, that we can confidently assure ourselves, that eternal life, of which he himself is the heir, is ours, and that the kingdom of heaven, into which he has entered, can no more be taken from us than from him; on the other hand, that we cannot be condemned for our sins, from the guilt of which he absolves us, seeing he has been pleased that these should be imputed to himself as if they were his own. This is the wondrous exchange made by his boundless goodness. Having become with us the Son of Man, he has made us with himself sons of God. (ICR, 4.17.2)

How differently we would take the Lord's Supper if this was brought to mind every time!? The sacraments were given to represent truths and deliver testimonies of it to us. This is principally why I can't accept the memorial view. And in discussions with many Baptist I am finding fewer and fewer who hold to the strict memorial view. Christ did not present a memorial representation to the meal. The whole concept of "memorial" comes as an allergenic reaction to the Catholic Mass. Calvin and Luther rejected the Catholic Mass. For those struggling to distinguish any difference I would recommend reading the whole section by John Calvin. I do think know the distinction and embracing something other than the memorial view is to the benefit of the church.

And we ought carefully to observe, that the chief, and almost the whole energy of the sacrament, consists in these words, It is broken for you: it is shed for you. It would not be of much importance to us that the body and blood of the Lord are now distributed, had they not once been set forth for our redemption and salvation...For if we duly consider what profit we have gained by the breaking of his sacred body, and the shedding of his blood, we shall clearly perceive that these properties of bread and wine, agreeably to this analogy, most appropriately represent it when they are communicated to us. (ICR, 4.17.3)

This is one of the more simple ways to show Calvin's departure from the previous views on the Lord's Supper held before him. He is not saying that the bread and wine correlate to the actual presence (Catholic) or local presence (Luther). Instead that the bread and wine represent the breaking of the body and the shedding of the blood. And these works of Christ are present in the elements for us. Calvin spoke much on this which must for the time being be skipped (hopefully in the future we can do lengthy evaluations of his writings on the subject).

In fact, for the sake of brevity I will close with a remark from Calvin concerning the sacrament and its mystery. Calvin would go on to talk lengthily about the subject with a see-saw type of balance between the reality of the sacrament and the memory of Christ's work. But for the practical application what has been quoted here will be enough.

If, indeed, it be lawful to put this great mystery into words, a mystery which I feel, and therefore freely confess that I am unable to comprehend with my mind, so far am I from wishing any one to measure its sublimity by my feeble capacity. Nay, I rather exhort my readers not to confine their apprehension within those too narrow limits, but to attempt to rise much higher than I can guide them. For whenever this subject is considered, after I have done my utmost, I feel that I have spoken far beneath its dignity. And though the mind is more powerful in thought than the tongue in expression, it too is overcome and overwhelmed by the magnitude of the subject. All then that remains is to break forth in admiration of the mystery, which it is plain that the mind is inadequate to comprehend, or the tongue to express. (ICR, 4.17.7)

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