Blessed Assurance

From Sinclair Ferguson’s lecture “Blessed Assurance & Bickering Theologians” (iTunes):

“Calvin’s great emphasis in The Institutes is that the Christian life is adoption into the family of God and that he is such a father as you would hope to be yourself as a father, who desires to leave his children no doubt whatsoever whether they really are his or not.

Part of the drive in Calvin to focus on Christ is a drive against the demonic doctrine of God that he saw in the Roman Catholic Church because it presented a father who needed a gentler son and a gentler son who needed an even gentler mother in order that the son’s arm might be twisted, that the father’s arm might be twisted, until at last—contrary to their better judgments—to give grace and salvation to lost sinners.

So you can understand the thrill and the joy of the reformation, to discover that the son is not hidden behind his mother, that the father is not hidden behind the son, but the son fully discloses the heavenly father. And as heavenly father his desire is not to leave his children in doubt, whipping them constantly into a spirit of bondage but to give to them the spirit of sonship by whom they cry ‘Abba! Father!’ [Galatians 4:6]. This explains the vigor and the joy that we find in the expressions of assurance both in Luther, but particularly in Calvin, whose theology is dominated by the wonderful release of having certitude. A huge motif in Calvin’s theology is this: The gospel gives us certitude.”

Calvin’s “pastoral variation of the Institutes”

“…only two years lie between the appearance of the commentary on the Psalms (1557) and the publication of the last Latin edition of the Institutes (1559). Given certain passages which are duplicated nearly verbatim in both works, it is noticeable that Calvin worked on both books simultaneously. In light of the distinction in genre and reading audience as well as the correspondence in content, I would like to define the commentary on the Psalms as a pastoral variation of the Institutes. In his commentary in particular Calvin applies himself to the main themes of the Institutes and gives them form so that they are directly applicable to the practice of living in faith. This would also explain why Calvin sometimes brings issues into consideration during his exposition which neither appear in the text of the Psalm nor seem to directly relate to it, and meanwhile Calvin makes far fewer references to contemporary events and situations than others commentators from the era do. Hence discussions of such things as the Lord’s Supper and the Trinity do not occur at all, and the matter of election scarcely occurs.”

—Herman J. Selderhuis, Calvin’s Theology of the Psalms (Baker Academic 2007) pp. 283-284.

Calvin on the Sacraments

This post is dedicated to T-Bomb.

John Calvin turns 500 in about 8 hours and in the festive spirit I’ve been reading a few new Calvin tomes over the last month. This week my selection is one of the newest Calvin titles, John Calvin’s Sermons on Genesis: Chapters 1—11 (Banner of Truth 2009), an English translation of his French sermons. Nothing written by Calvin is more enjoyable to read than his sermons (my opinion).

In one sermon—“Jesus Christ, the Tree of Life (Gen. 3:22—24)”—Calvin writes that for the pre-fall Adam “the tree of life was for him a sacrament.”

Calvin was a paedobaptist, but it’s clear in these words that he was no memorialist, but a man able to balance a theologically-careful middle ground somewhere located between Luther and Zwingli. “We will never be disappointed,” Calvin says, “when we lean firmly on the visible signs he gives us, even though we see only water, bread, and wine, while we rise above the heavens by the power of the promise given to us in them.”

The sermon–the volume–is a real treat of experiential reformed preaching!

I was blessed by Calvin’s entire sermon, specifically this lengthy portion. Enjoy!

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“…In short, the tree of life was for him [Adam] a sacrament, just as baptism and the Supper are for us. A little water that is put on the head and face of a child is not to cleanse the soul, which is stained with sin. The water is nothing so far as the heavenly life is concerned, but it refers us to the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is our true washing, by whom we are cleansed of all our blemishes, and it sends us to his Holy Spirit, by which we are made new after he has put to death all our carnal desires and all the vices which reside in the flesh. And in the Supper we see something other than bread and wine. Now meat is for the stomach, says Paul, and all that is for destruction (1 Cor. 6:13). But the subject here is nourishment but for our bodies, but spiritually, for our souls.

These external images lead us further, even to our Lord Jesus Christ. Now it is true the sacraments we have today declare to us that Jesus Christ is our Redeemer, as will be developed more fully. But here the tree of life has truly signified that God’s Word was the source and origin of our life even though Jesus Christ had not yet been established as our Redeemer. It is true that was hidden in God’s strict counsel and had not been manifested. That is because no remedy was necessary since there was not as yet a disease.

Now that we know what good the tree of life was to Adam and now that we know what role the prohibition of the tree of life had for him, we will easily be able to understand that God excommunicated him from this sacrament so he will be more astonished and, having become guilty, will aspire more earnestly after the remedy and be urged to seek his salvation where it can be gotten back, knowing that in himself there is only abomination. In short, what Moses recounts is like an excommunication delivered to Adam—as today, when we see a hardened and headstrong man living a scandalous life, wishing to receive no correction. Is that the case here? This wretched man must be excommunicated and, in a manner of speaking, cut off from the body of the faithful so he will better realize his evil and be heartsick because of it, and so that will lead him to shame for his sins, teach him to be humble and ask for forgiveness. That, then, is how our Lord still wants excommunication to be practiced in the church today so that sinners will be drawn to repentance because they do not sense their evil and, having defamed the church, they do nothing but claim innocence. So when we see they are thus stupid, they have to be lanced for a bloodletting, so to speak.

Moreover, when the text says, ‘lest Adam put forth his hand and eat of that tree of life and live’, it is not, as we have already mentioned, because the tree possessed in itself such power, for it was only a sacrament by which God was working to strengthen Adam’s faith and keep him humble. But this relates to a true confidence Adam could lay hold to. We see that hypocrites and those who are witless and stupid and are not touched by a true fear of God used the sacraments to cover themselves, as if they were in a den of thieves, and we see how they harden themselves against God. When a man is filled with godlessness, blasphemies, is malicious, full of hatred and rancor, in whom there is no uprightness or mercy, he will, when in the fellowship of Christians, boast of his baptism: ‘What? Have I not been baptized? Do I not partake of the Lord s Supper? Do I not come to the church and confess my faith, as others do?’ He will talk that way and have as much faith as a dog. Yet he will use declarations of the love and grace of God as shields. But he does not care a fig about the truth. We see examples of that every day. And would to God that not a tenth of their kind profaned the sacraments that way! That is what Adam and Eve had done. And God took that into consideration, saying, ‘If Adam extends his hand to the tree of life, he will live.’ In other words, he will always think he is in his state. Now that is how to show contempt for God. And Adam would have even been intoxicated with that foolish, inordinate pride, and that would have caused him to forget his sin, but he needed to have the memory of it refreshed so he would groan all of his life and seek regularly God’s mercy because he had been stripped of every good thing. So we see now the natural meaning of the passage.

Now we must glean two things from those words.

One is that we are advised of the use of the sacraments, that is, they are sure and infallible pledges both of the grace acquired for and communicated to us in our Lord Jesus Christ and of the salvation we obtained through him, provided however that we apply them as necessary to strengthen our faith. For whenever I am tempted to offend God in many ways and am as one truly lost, I will return to my baptism. It is not in vain that God bore witness to me that I was pure and clean by means of our Lord Jesus Christ’s blood. I will then conclude that he can never reject me. Therefore, although l am soiled, stinking, and execrable before my God, I possess the confirmation that he will receive me because he has been pleased to declare and ratify to me by means of baptism that I am justified by another means, namely, by the washing of our Lord Jesus Christ’s blood. Indeed, but at the same time I must experience repentance, I must repel temptations by using the power of the sacrament I have received. And when I realize that, except for our Lord Jesus Christ’s help, I am dead and that there is only rottenthess in my soul, I must come to the sacrament.

I indeed have the Lord’s Supper, by which God gives me a guarantee and pledge that I share in the life of our Lord Jesus Christ. So if I find no salvation in myself, he still acts as a father and gives me what I lack, for it is in him that all fullness and perfection of good things lie. And when our Lord Jesus Christ shows that he is mine, that I possess him, that I am grafted into him, and that he is my life—as he himself once said that the bread was his body and the wine his blood (cf. Matt. 26:26-28)—I can assure myself and conclude that my soul finds its nourishment in him.

So the true use of the sacraments is to assure us that God will never deceive us, provided we apprehend his promises with the certainty of faith and conclude we will never be disappointed when we lean firmly on the visible signs he gives us, even though we see only water, bread, and wine, while we rise above the heavens by the power of the promise given to us in them. And then when God sets the water, bread and wine apart to show he wants us to acknowledge our Lord Jesus Christ in them, let us know he allies himself with us with an unbreakable bond. That, I say, is the legitimate use of the sacraments. We must not separate the truth from the image, but we must reconcile everything, that is, there is a very close correspondence between the promise and faith, and these two are so joined together that God speaks by the one and we respond in faith by honouring him by clinging completely to his word. That, I say, is how God’s word and our faith will join the truth and the image in all sacraments and visible signs.

Let us now note that, conversely, when we are refused the sacraments and are not permitted to commune, it is as if God were banishing us from his house and his church and had separated us from the union which we have with his Son. That is why Paul, speaking of excommunication, said that he delivered to the devil those who were excommunicated (1 Cor. 5:5; 1 Tim. 1:20). What does that mean? God reigns in his church only as Father and Saviour. He reigns everywhere as Judge, and does so to show he is the Father of our salvation, which is a benefit enclosed within his church. Therefore, when we speak of casting someone out, it is like saying he is being exposed to Satan. That is why we must receive the sacraments with all fear of God and with reverence for his word and with full sincerity, and why we must desire to enjoy them truly because they are always signs by which God certifies that he is with us, that he even lives within us by means of our Lord Jesus Christ, and that we are united with him to participate in his life. So, in short, that is what we need to remember from this passage.”

John Calvin’s Sermons on Genesis: Chapters 1—11 (Banner of Truth 2009), pp. 339—343

The Betrayal

2009 marks the 500th birthday of Jean Cauvin. You may have noticed a lot of buzz around the reformer this year, as evidenced by the stack of new books published on Calvin in 2009. Included in that stack of new releases is one creative historical novel of the life of Calvin, The Betrayal (P&R 2009). The novel is written from the perspective of a (fictional) confidant, turned betrayer of Calvin, named Jean-Louis Mourin. But much of the book’s detail and dialog is taken straight from the letters and sermons of Calvin. The book is well written and the author pulls you into life during the period of the reformation. I hope to have it read by the end of the long weekend.

Today I’ll share an excerpt from the book that provides us a peek into how the reformation affected the average person. When I read this it reminded me of the scenes in the modern Luther movie featuring the young mom with her crippled daughter. Or the scene of the masses praying up the stairs in Rome on their knees. These little snapshots are reminders that the reformation was more than academic kerfuffle over doctrine. The doctrinal debates were vital to the reformation because they made the gospel clear, prioritized the preaching of the Word of God, and sharpened the practices of the church. And these changes directly influenced the lives of commoners. I find my appreciation for the reformation deepens when I am invited into the story to brush shoulders with fellow commoners and to view the reformation changes from their eyes.

An excerpt from The Betrayal:

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That evening, with torches burning, Calvin stepped before a peasant band of illiterates, who reeked of the hayfields, of laboring sweat, and of chickens. Standing before a rough stone for a pulpit, opening his Gospels, he read therein to the people. I studied their faces as they listened. For many it must have been the first time they had ever heard and understood the words they were hearing in their own language. Hence, there was wonder glowing in the cheeks of a fair maiden, there were tears of joy in the eyes of an old man, there was hunger and attention on the faces of fathers and mothers and ruddy-cheeked youths.

When he completed his sermon, I observed him—nay, I was drawn into assisting him—as he offered the bread of the Lord’s Supper to these poor folks. Scowling, I rendered up our last loaf into Calvin’s waiting hands, wondering what we would eat that night. He proceeded to break it.

“From the physical things set forth in the sacrament we are led by analogy to spiritual things. This bread is given as a symbol of Christ’s body, and as bread nourishes, sustains, and keeps the body, so Christ’s body is the only food to invigorate and enliven our soul.”

He paused, then continued. “Christ said, ‘This is my body which is given for you.’ All those here who genuinely hope in Christ alone for their eternal salvation, freely take and eat.”

When our last loaf had been mangled by the coarse hands of the attending peasants, and not a crumb remained, Calvin continued.

“When they had eaten, our Lord took up the cup and said, ‘This is the blood of the covenant shed for many. Drink all of it.'”

Beckoning me to him, he whispered in my ear for me to bring to him a bottle of wine and a cup. When I had fetched these from our cart and handed these to him, I expected Calvin to do what every priest in Christendom always did: while the peasant masses looked on in thirst, the priest quaffed the wine to the dregs. So it had, in my experience, always been. But not so John Calvin. He did the remarkable, the unthinkable.

Pouring wine into the cup, he held it in both hands and said, “When Christ sets wine before us as a symbol of his blood, we must reflect on the benefits which wine imparts to the body, and so realize that the same are spiritually imparted to us by Christ’s blood. These benefits are to nourish, refresh, and gladden our hearts. So Christ, by the mystery of his secret union with the devout, does with his blood for our souls. All you who trust alone in Christ’s blood and imputed righteousness for your salvation, take and drink.”

He extended the cup of wine to the one nearest him. The poor soul stared blankly back at Calvin. Never before in the Roman Mass had the priest so extended the cup to him. Never before had the elements in both kinds been offered to the common man. Not one of them made a move to receive the cup. Wine was for the priests, but here, for the first time in centuries, Calvin was extending the cup of wine to the peasants.

“Take and drink,” he said again. This time he took hold of the man’s hand and placed the cup in it. “Now drink,” he said kindly.

—Douglas Bond, The Betrayal (P&R 2009), pp. 251-253.

Engaging Culture and the Supremacy of God (pt 1)

tsslogo.jpgI’m personally interested by discussions over how to engage culture. The discussions seem to challenge one’s theology and methodology all at the same time.

And so I was recently drawn (of all places) back to Calvin’s Institutes. Last year we opened Calvin and studied his thought and theology. As a man ministering under a hostile climate, Calvin applied theology to his contemporary culture. Though separated by centuries and continents, I’ve learned to respect Calvin on matters of engaging culture.

In an age where the message itself is molded by the contours of culture, worldview interpretation needs an unshaken, eternal context. It seems Calvin was aware of this, too.

Self-knowledge

Calvin was aware that for genuine Christian piety to take root, our worldview (and even our self-identity) must be rooted in the character of God. It’s in Him that we see our own sin, and in Him that we see our frailty, in Him that we see our need for the Savior.

Notice Calvin’s opening words in his magnum opus—“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.”

We find eternal truth by looking at ourselves, not because we are the final reference point, but because in ourselves we can feel and experience the miseries of personal sin. We feel the “teeming horde of infamies” and are driven by our “unhappiness” to long for something outside of us. It’s in our perception of our personal sin and misery that this proper self-knowledge “not only arouses us to seek God, but also, as it were, leads us by the hand to find him.”

By saying that we know God by first knowing ourselves is not Calvin’s attempt to make man the centerpoint of theology. Calvin uses self-knowledge of personal sin and unworthiness to point us towards God. By pointing us towards God, our reference is pushed beyond the sphere of cultural fluctuation.

By knowing ourselves truly, and assessing ourselves honestly, we are faced with our own frailty, sinfulness, unhappiness, and misery. Self-knowledge drives us to God.

Theology

Calvin’s next section opens with these words, “man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself.” By starting with God, and working backwards to interpret my heart, I will discover the hypocrisy or the “empty image” of self-righteousness. In the light of God’s holiness, I see my sinfulness and the rebellious tendencies of my wicked heart. As Calvin says, “man is never sufficiently touched and affected by the awareness of his lowly state until he has compared himself with God’s majesty.”

See, the ultimate reference point for my life is not “me.” It’s not my preference, and it’s not the shifting cultural interpretations of God. The ultimate reference point for my life, my soul, the church, and the eternal hope of our generation, is found in the supremacy of our eternally unchanging God as he reveals himself.

Calvin illustrates this point by looking at the self-effacing, self-discovery of Job. You’ll recall Job’s self-understanding and perspective gets turned on its head after God asks the questions. As Calvin says, “The story of Job, in its description of God’s wisdom, power, and purity, always expresses a powerful argument that overwhelms men with the realization of their own stupidity, impotence, and corruption (Job 38:1-ff).”

It was not in dialogue with friends that Job discovered himself. God’s one-way communication about his supremacy brought about Job’s true self-discovery.

I’m not opposed to communicating carefully to our culture. Certainly, we need to be sensitive to our hearers. But I would also argue what makes us relevant to contemporary culture is a commitment to explaining the supremacy of God (i.e. the priority of one-way proclamation in preaching).

Next time we’ll look at an example of how the preaching of the supremacy of God dominated the engagement of one non-Christian culture.