Calvin on the Sacraments

calvin-john7Article by Dr. Sinclair Ferguson (original source 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. Continue reading

Worship in Word and Sacrament

Scripture indicates that we are to worship God, yet much of what passes for worship today is merely a thinly veiled attempt to entertain men. In this message, Dr. J. Ligon Duncan will explain how a biblical understanding of the basic elements of Christian worship should inform the way in which we approach God.

What is Really Happening in the Lord’s Supper?

A Biblical overview of Communion, it’s frequency, qualifications and importance as a means of grace for the believer.

Calvin’s View of the Lord’s Supper

communion03In an article entitled, “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper,” Keith Mathison writes:

John Calvin is widely considered to be one of the greatest theologians of the Reformation era. Many associate his name with doctrines such as the sovereignty of God, election, and predestination, but fewer are aware that he wrote extensively on the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. The topic occupied many of his sermons, tracts, and theological treatises throughout his career. Calvin’s emphasis was not unusual. Among the many doctrines debated during the Reformation, the Lord’s Supper was discussed more than any other.

By the time Calvin became a prominent voice in the late 1530s, the Reformers had been debating the Lord’s Supper with Roman Catholics and with each other for years. In order to understand Calvin’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, it is necessary to understand the views he opposed. Throughout the later Middle Ages and up until the sixteenth century, the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Mass was the received view in the Western church. Two aspects of the Roman Catholic doctrine require comment: Rome’s view of the Eucharistic presence and Rome’s view of the Eucharistic sacrifice.

According to Rome, Christ’s presence in the sacrament is to be explained in terms of the doctrine of transubstantiation. The doctrine of transubstantiation asserts that when the priest says the words of consecration, the substance of the bread and wine is transformed into the substance of the body and blood of Christ. The accidens (that is, the incidental properties) of the bread and wine remain the same. Rome also teaches that the Eucharist is a propitiatory sacrifice; in fact, the same sacrifice Christ offered on the cross. The Eucharistic sacrifice is offered for the sins of the living and the dead.

The Reformers were united in their rejection of both aspects of Rome’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. They rejected transubstantiation, and they rejected the idea that the Lord’s Supper is a propitiatory sacrifice. In his book The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520), Martin Luther attacked both of these doctrines. Also opposed to Rome’s doctrine was the Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli. However, although Luther and Zwingli agreed in their rejection of Rome’s doctrine, they were not able to come to agreement on the true nature of the Lord’s Supper.

Zwingli argued that Christ’s words “This is my body” should be read, “This signifies my body.” He claimed that the Lord’s Supper is a symbolic memorial, an initiatory ceremony in which the believer pledges that he is a Christian and proclaims that he has been reconciled to God through Christ’s shed blood. Martin Luther adamantly rejected Zwingli’s doctrine, insisting that Christ’s words “This is my body” must be taken in their plain, literal sense. Continue reading

The Lord’s Supper – A Means of Grace

In an article entitled “Grow in Grace at the Table: David Mathis it is simply an ordinary means of God’s grace to his church, but as eating and drinking go, it can be an unusually powerful experience.

Along with baptism, the Supper is one of Jesus’s two specially instituted sacraments for the signifying, sealing, and strengthening of his new-covenant people. Call them ordinances if you please. The true issue is not the term, but what we mean by it, and whether we handle these twin means of God’s grace as Jesus means, to guide and shape the life of the church in her new covenant with the Bridegroom.

The means of grace — also known as the “spiritual disciplines” — are the various channels God has appointed for regularly supplying his church with spiritual power. The key principles behind the means of grace are Jesus’s voice (the word), his ear (prayer), and his body (the church). The various disciplines and practices, then, are ways of hearing, and responding, to his word in the context of his church.

Shaped and supported by these principles, a thousand practical flowers grow in the life of the new-covenant community. But few, if any, other practices bring together all three principles of grace like the preaching of God’s word, and the celebration of the sacraments, in the context of corporate worship. Here, then, are four aspects of the Supper to consider in seeing it as a means of grace.

The Gravity: Blessing or Judgment Continue reading

Baptism – A Means of Grace

In an article entitled “Wash in the waters again” David Mathis touching, smelling, and tasting. Alongside preaching, they reveal to us again and again the very heart of the gospel we profess and aim to echo. They are enacted “signs,” pointing to realities beyond themselves.

But these ordinances are not just signs, but “seals.” They confirm to us not just that God has done something salvific for mankind, but that it applies to me in particular. The gospel is not only true in general, but specifically for me. And when a Bible-believing, gospel-cherishing church applies the seal to me, it can be a great grounds of assurance that I myself am included in the rescued people of Christ.

In this way, baptism and the Lord’s Supper serve to mark us out as the church, distinct from the world, and are part of what it means for the new covenant to be a covenant — with acts of both initiation and ongoing fellowship, both inauguration and renewal. Continue reading

The Sacraments (2)

Some notes and reflections on the Sacraments:

The protests of those wishing to bring reform to the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th Century (in what we now call the Protestant Reformation) highlighted two central issues: firstly (the formal issue), that which is God breathed, namely holy Scripture alone, is the sole infallible rule of faith for the people of God (Sola Scriptura); secondly, (the material issue), that justification before God (to be declared in right standing with God by God) is by faith alone (sola fide).

The Two Views Contrasted:

Roman Catholic View: The Church gives us the word of God and she is the authority to inform/instruct us as to what it teaches

Protestant View: The word of God creates the Church and the Church receives and submits herself to it.

“…have you not read what was spoken to you by God…” – Jesus Christ (Matt. 22:31)

“In the empire of the church, the ruler is God’s Word.” – Martin Luther – Works, Vol. 41, p. 134.

“I have learned to ascribe the honor of infallibility only to those books that are accepted as canonical. I am profoundly convinced that none of these writers has erred. All other writers, however they may have distinguished themselves in holiness or in doctrine, I read in this way. I evaluate what they say, not on the basis that they themselves believe that a thing is true, but only insofar as they are able to convince me by the authority of the canonical books or by clear reason.” – Martin Luther

“Since the church is Christ’s Kingdom, and he reigns by his Word alone, will it not be clear to any man that those are lying words by which the Kingdom of Christ is imagined to exist apart from his scepter (that is, his most holy Word)?” – John Calvin, Institutes

On the basis of the word of God then we discuss the sacraments which are seals and confirmations of the Word (visible Word).

Rom 4:9 Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. 10 How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. 11 He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well…
Continue reading

The Sacraments (1)

[Abraham] received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised” (v. 11a). – Romans 4:9–12

God uses means to convey grace to His people. While our understanding of the sacraments is firmly rooted in the teaching of the New Testament, the altar call (as used in most Churches today) is not. It actually is a very recent development in Church history.

The Roman Catholic Church teaches that there are seven sacraments:
• Baptism (Christening)
• Confirmation
• Holy Eucharist
• Penance (Confession)
• Anointing of the Sick (known prior to the Second Vatican Council as Extreme Unction (or more literally from Latin: Last Anointing), then seen as part of the “Last Rites”)
• Holy Orders
• Matrimony (Marriage)

Protestant (Evangelical) Churches teach that there are two sacraments: baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

In an over-reaction to Roman Catholicism, many Protestant/Evangelical Churches downplay sacraments altogether. Yet to do so violates Scripture itself. God is aware of our weakness and our need to be reassured of our standing with Him. God promises that we are His in the Gospel, and He confirms His favor toward us through baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Yes, God invites believing sinners to come to Him — not to an altar — but to a baptistry (where the water of baptism is applied) and to a communion table (where bread and wine are given to struggling sinners to remind them of God’s favor and to strengthen weak faith).

Summarizing the teaching of Scripture, the Heidelberg Catechism (Question 65) defines the two sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper as: “holy signs and seals for us to see. They were instituted by God so that by our use of them he might make us understand more clearly the promise of the gospel, and might put his seal on that promise.” And what is the promise of the Gospel? “To forgive our sins and give us eternal life by grace alone because of Christ’s one sacrifice finished on the cross.”

Sacraments are tangible signs and seals of God’s invisible grace promised to His people in the Gospel. They are given by God to confirm that faith already given through the preaching of the Gospel. Just as the altar call seemed to be the logical outcome of a sermon — the Word often calls us to do something — so too the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments are intimately connected.

What God promises to us in the Gospel (the forgiveness of sins) is confirmed in baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The Gospel is both promised and then made visible when the Word is preached and when the sacraments are administered.

Yet, there is one huge difference between the altar call and the Reformed understanding of the sacraments. In the altar call the qualification was “if you truly meant it,” which made the subjective state of the sinner the critical factor in whether or not one actually benefited from going forward. In both sacraments, however, the emphasis falls squarely upon God’s sovereign oath: “I will be your God and you will be my people,” an oath that can be paraphrased as God stating to struggling sinners, “I really mean it!”

In the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the emphasis falls squarely upon what God has done for sinners in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ, and not upon the strength of a sinner’s faith.

Circumcision was a sign — a visible act that pointed beyond itself to an invisible reality. This invisible reality was the fact that Abraham was cut out from the world and set apart unto God through faith alone (Gen. 15:6; 17). It was a visible reminder of the Lord’s promise to cut out of this fallen world a people for Himself. Circumcision, Romans 4 also reveals, was a seal. In the ancient world, a seal marked off ownership — people knew to whom an object belonged based on the seal affixed to it. Thus, circumcision was the mark of God’s ownership, tangible proof that those who bore the mark actually belonged to the Lord and would inherit all His promises if they had faith in Him.

“[As with circumcision, the new covenant sacraments are also visible and tangible ways in which we are reminded of God’s promises and marked off as His people. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper have no inherent power to make us the children of God. That is, the performance of these rites themselves does not benefit us if we have no faith. We can access the grace available in them only if we believe the gospel. In fact, if we receive the sacraments without faith, we call down curses upon ourselves (1 Cor. 11:27–30).

John Calvin writes in his famous Institutes that a sacrament “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 turn testify our piety towards him, both before himself and before angels as well as men” (4.14.1). Using elements that we can taste, see, and touch, the sacraments help us, as embodied creatures, to understand spiritual realities. In turn, when we participate in the sacraments, we testify to our faith in God’s promises before a watching world.

In what way do the Scriptures represent the sacraments of the church as being different from other practices, such as the reading of Scripture or prayers, which are not sacramental? What constitutes a sacrament? There are four elements (Boice):

1. The sacraments are divine ordinances instituted by Christ himself.
2. The sacraments are ordinances in which material elements are used as visible signs of God’s blessing.
3. The sacraments are means of grace to the one who rightly partakes of them.
4. The sacraments are seals, certifications or confirmations to us of the grace they signify. The sacraments are God’s seal on the attestation that we are his children and are in fellowship with him.

The Sacraments

From the Ligonier website:

“[Abraham] received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised” (v. 11a). – Romans 4:9–12

God has given us several means of grace through which He strengthens the faith of those who trust in Christ alone. These means of grace include the sacraments, and the definition of a sacrament is taken up in question and answer 66 of the Heidelberg Catechism.

The catechism looks to today’s passage in order to define the nature of a sacrament, which is fitting because Romans 4:9–12 deals with one of the sacraments of the old covenant, namely, circumcision. Circumcision was a sign — a visible act that pointed beyond itself to an invisible reality. This invisible reality was the fact that Abraham was cut out from the world and set apart unto God through faith alone (Gen. 15:6; 17). It was a visible reminder of the Lord’s promise to cut out of this fallen world a people for Himself. Circumcision, Romans 4 also reveals, was a seal. In the ancient world, a seal marked off ownership — people knew to whom an object belonged based on the seal affixed to it. Thus, circumcision was the mark of God’s ownership, tangible proof that those who bore the mark actually belonged to the Lord and would inherit all His promises if they had faith in Him.

As with circumcision, the new covenant sacraments are also visible and tangible ways in which we are reminded of God’s promises and marked off as His people. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper have no inherent power to make us the children of God. That is, the performance of these rites themselves does not benefit us if we have no faith. We can access the grace available in them only if we believe the gospel. In fact, if we receive the sacraments without faith, we call down curses upon ourselves (1 Cor. 11:27–30).

John Calvin writes in his famous Institutes that a sacrament “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 turn testify our piety towards him, both before himself and before angels as well as men” (4.14.1). Using elements that we can taste, see, and touch, the sacraments help us, as embodied creatures, to understand spiritual realities. In turn, when we participate in the sacraments, we testify to our faith in God’s promises before a watching world.

Coram Deo
We are creatures with both physical and spiritual components. We understand what happens to us physically when we are washed with water and when we eat, and the sacraments portray spiritual realities to us by way of analogies with our physical experience. The Spirit truly washes us clean of sin, and we truly receive necessary spiritual nourishment from Christ. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper help us understand these truths better.

*****

Extreme abuses tend to evoke extreme responses, especially in the history of Christian theology. Roman Catholic sacerdotalism — the idea that salvation is mediated through the priesthood and the sacraments — has long distorted the biblical gospel. So, it is understandable that many Christians have tried to answer this problem by downplaying the importance of the clergy and the sacraments. Modern evangelicals, due in part to our insistence on the biblical truth that salvation demands personal faith in Christ, often view the sacraments as bare memorials. In many circles, baptism and the Lord’s Supper are reduced to ordinances that we do simply because we are supposed to do them, and little thought is given as to why the sacraments exist. Moreover, the idea that the sacraments convey grace in a special way is probably foreign to many evangelicals, at least in America.
Continue reading

What Does Rome teach about the Mass?

Influential blogger Justin Taylor posted an article, quoting Chris Castaldo’s “Three Misnomers to Avoid” concerning what the Roman Catholic Church teaches concerning the Mass. Rather than bringing clarity, I believe the article is very unhelpful and confusing.

Castaldo asserts that it is a misnomer to say that:

1. “[Roman] Catholics teach that Christ is ‘physically present’ in the Mass.”
2. “[Roman] Catholics teach that Christ is re-sacrificed at the Mass.”
3. “[Roman] Catholics teach that Christ dies at the Mass.”

Turretinfan provides an excellent response to Castaldo’s claims here.