Dear Weak Sinner: Come to the Table! (Calvin)

Tracts and Treatises of John Calvin (8 vols.)  I’m so thankful that we don’t have to be superhero Christians to share in the Lord’s Supper.  We don’t have to have a strong, bullet-proof faith, nor do we need to reach a certain level of sanctification to partake in the table of the Lord.  As long as we’re repentant of our sin and at the same time believe that our hope is only in Christ, we can take Holy Communion even when we’ve had a miserable week.  I love how Calvin talked about this in his excellent pamphlet called “A Short Treatise on the Lord’s Supper.”  Calvin does mention that we have to come to the table denying ourselves and renouncing ourselves to rely only on Christ for salvation.  He also says we should come to the table with love for our brothers and sisters in Christ.  He then clarifies:

But as not a man will be found upon the earth who has made such progress in faith and holiness, as not to be still very defective in both, there might be a danger that several good consciences might be troubled by what has been said if we did not prevent it by tempering the instructions which we have given in regard both to faith and repentance.

It is a perilous mode of teaching which some adopt when they require perfect reliance of heart and perfect penitence and exclude all from the table who do not have them. For in so doing they exclude all without excepting one. Where is the man who can boast that he is not stained by some spot of distrust? That he is not subject to some vice or infirmity? Assuredly the faith which the children of God have is such that they have ever occasion to pray — Lord, help our unbelief. For it is a malady so rooted in our nature, that we are never completely cured until we are delivered from the prison of the body.

Moreover, the purity of life in which they walk is only such that they have occasion daily to pray for forgiveness of sins and for grace to make greater progress. Although some are more and others less imperfect, still there is none who does not fail in many respects. Hence the Supper would be not only useless, but pernicious to all, if it were necessary to bring a faith or integrity as to which there would be nothing to dispute about them. This would be contrary to the intention of our Lord, as there is nothing which he has given to his Church that is more salutary.

A few paragraphs later Calvin wrote this:

Nay, if we were not weak and subject to distrust and an imperfect life, the sacrament would be of no use to us, and it would have been superfluous to institute it. Seeing, then, it is a remedy which God has given us to help our weakness, to strengthen our faith, increase our charity, and advance us in all holiness of life.  The use of the Supper becomes more necessary the more we feel pressed by the disease; so far ought that to be from making us abstain from it. For if we allege as an excuse for not coming to the Supper, that we are still weak in faith or integrity of life, it is as if a man were to excuse himself from taking medicine because he was sick. See then how the weakness of faith which we feel in our heart, and the imperfections which are in our life, should admonish us to come to the Supper, as a special remedy to correct them? Only let us not come devoid of faith and repentance. 

The above (slightly edited) quote is found in Calvin, J., & Beveridge, H. (1849). Tracts Relating to the Reformation (Vol. 2, p. 179). Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, p. 178-9

 Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015


The “Admirable Method” of God’s Providence (Calvin)

Tracts and Treatises of John Calvin (8 vols.) Around 1560 John Calvin wrote “A Brief Confession of Faith” which was probably meant to be a shorter version of his larger confession for French Reformed churches.  Like other Protestant confessions of faith, it gives a good summary of the main teachings of Scripture – summaries which date back to the Nicene and Apostles’ creeds.  Below I’ve posted a paragraph on providence from “A Brief Confession of Faith.”  God’s sovereign providence is a comforting reality for the Christian.  As we face trials and hardships in life, we pray for submission to the good providence of our good God:

I confess that God once created the world to be its perpetual Governor, but in such manner that nothing can be done or happen without his counsel and providence. And though Satan and the reprobate plot the confusion of all things, and even believers themselves pervert right order by their sins, yet I acknowledge that the Lord, as the Sovereign Prince and ruler of all, brings good out of evil; in short, [he] directs all things as by a kind of secret reins, and overrules them by a certain admirable method, which it becomes us to adore with all submissiveness of mind, since we cannot embrace it in thought.

Calvin, J., & Beveridge, H. (1849). Tracts Relating to the Reformation (Vol. 2, pp. 130–131). Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church, OPC
Hammond, WI, 54015

“Some Pastors and Teachers” – Not for Pastors Only

 I recently started reading Sinclair Ferguson’s newest book, Some Pastors and Teachers.  I have to admit I am a bit disappointed to find out it is mostly a collection of previously published material.  Around 30 of the 39 chapters have been published elsewhere (Baker, Christian Focus, IVP, P&R, Ligonier, etc.).  I was expecting this book to be a book on pastoral theology.  However, the topics are more along these lines: around half of the book is historical theology (summaries of John Calvin, John Owen, and John Murray’s various teachings), the rest of the book is on systematic theology (Scripture, the atonement, justification, etc.) and there’s a section on preaching (preaching the atonement, exegetical preaching, etc.).  So it’s not exactly a book on pastoral theology, and I don’t think the title and subtitle are accurate.  Its title should have something to do with a collection or anthology or something along those lines.

Having said that, and having already read some of this material in other publications, I can say the content is solid and helpful.  There is a wealth of Christian truth in it!   This book really isn’t just for pastors; it’s for anyone who wants a good Reformed resource for learning more about Calvin, Owen, and Murray’s theology and other Reformed topics like justification, faith alone, repentance, and so forth.  Some Pastors and Teachers contains just under 800 pages of good theology that is also practical theology.

I’ll come back and mention parts of this book in the near future as I read the chapters I haven’t already read elsewhere.  For now, if you’re interested in a collection (or anthology?) of articles by Sinclair Ferguson on historical theology, systematic theology, and preaching, you’ll for sure want to check this one out: Some Pastors and Teachers.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

For the Establishment of True Religion (Calvin)

 I realize many evangelicals do not like the term “religion” and even use it primarily in a negative way.  However, we have to remember that the word is found in Scripture (e.g. James 1:26).  Granted, we do have to define it properly, but we shouldn’t by default think of “religion” as a bad thing.  For example, John Calvin called his now famous work the Institutes of the Christian Religion.  In his work on the history of Reformed doctrine,  Richard Muller spends some time discussing “religion” and its use/definition among Reformers and Reformed scholastics.  Here’s his section on Calvin and the term “religion”:

This systematic approach to religion as the pattern of knowledge and worship directly related to faith and foundational to the elaboration of theology is profoundly evident in the successive editions of Calvin’s Institutes. In 1536 Calvin identified his work as an “institute” or instruction “of the Christian religion embracing almost the whole sum of piety and whatever it is necessary to know in the doctrine of salvation.” What is more, Calvin’s expansion of the Institutes, in which five chapters on the knowledge of God were added or developed as a kind of prologue, only serves to underscore in those introductory sections the primary emphasis on religion, piety and instruction in them.

Calvin’s 1539 expansion of this portion of the Institutes has a series of significant antecedents, not the least of which is Zwingli’s linking of the discussion of religion to the problem of the “knowledge of God” and the “knowledge of man.” Like Zwingli, moreover, Calvin rests much of his discussion on Cicero’s De Natura Deorum. Given the universal recognition, implanted in all human beings, that there is a God, Calvin argues, it would be sheer folly to claim that religion is a human invention: it is certainly true that wicked and “clever” persons have invented many superstitions designed to keep human beings in subjection, but it is equally clear that they would never have been able to do so had there not been a fundamental conviction of the existence of God and the need to worship him already present in all human beings. Given, moreover, the depth of human sinfulness and the extent of idolatry and superstition wrought by sin, Scripture is needed for the establishment of a right knowledge of God—and, by extension, for the establishment of true religion.

Although Calvin does not spell out the etymology and definition of “religion” in the detail one finds in Zwingli, the conception is quite similar: true religion must ultimately be grounded in the word of God and it is set apart from the false religions of idolatry and superstition. Nowhere is it assumed, moreover, that “religion” indicates a human phenomenon: even in its false forms, it presumes the fundamental sensus divinitatis and is grounded in the objective reality of the God who must be worshiped. This sensibility will carry over into Reformed orthodoxy.

(This quote is found on page 167 of PRRD, Volume 1)

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Not Trusting My Own Merits (Calvin)

Tracts and Treatises of John Calvin (8 vols.)  Those whom God justifies he also sanctifies.  These two truths are twin truths.  Where one is the other will also be.  We don’t want to separate justification and sanctification.  On the other hand, we don’t want to mix them together.  We need to make a proper biblical distinction between the two or we mess up the gospel of grace.  John Calvin understood this and explained it well more than a few times.  Here’s one instance from his tract called “On the True Method of Giving Peace to Christendom and Reforming the Church.”  (Note that “regeneration” in this context is broadly defined and means renewal and sanctification.)

Let the children of God consider that regeneration is necessary to them, but that, nevertheless, their full righteousness consists in Christ:

—let them understand that they have been ordained and created unto holiness of life and the study of good works, but that, nevertheless, they must recline on the merits of Christ with their whole soul;

—let them enjoy the righteousness of life which has been bestowed upon them, still, however, distrusting it so as not to bring before the tribunal of God any other trust than trust in the obedience of Christ.

 John Calvin and Henry Beveridge, Tracts Relating to the Reformation, vol. 3 (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1851), 246.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Pride, Celebrity, Self-Flattery, and Donkeys

 Andreas Kostenberger has a nice section about humility in his book Excellence.  He notes that humility is one of the “cardinal virtues in the Christian life and in academic work.”  In the chapter Kostenberger quotes Calvin:

I was always exceedingly delighted with that saying of Chrysostom, “The foundation of our philosophy is humility”; and yet more pleased with that of Augustine: “As the orator, when asked, What is the first precept in eloquence? answered, Delivery: What is the second? Delivery: What is the third? Delivery: so if you ask me concerning the precepts of the Christian religion, I will answer, first, second, and third, Humility.”

Kostenberger also spends some time saying that we should be humble in our academics and ministry because 1) we could be wrong, 2) we are not nearly as brilliant as scholars before us, 3) our ministry is at most a mere footnote in history that will barely be mentioned by others in the future, and 4) in the overall scheme of things we are not that important.  Our life is a vapor (James 4:14).  Kostenberger then talked about celebrity pastors and near the end of this section on humility he noted a great quote by Luther:

[If] you feel and are inclined to think you have made it, flattering yourself with your own little books, teaching, or writing, because you have done it beautifully and preached excellently; if you are highly pleased when someone praises you in the presence of others; if you perhaps look for praise, and would sulk or quit what you are doing if you did not get it– if you are of that stripe, dear friend, then take yourself by the ears, and if you do this in the right way you will find a beautiful pair of big, long, shaggy donkey ears.

Then do not spare any expense! Decorate them with golden bells, so that people will be able to hear you wherever you go, point their fingers at you, and say, ‘See, see! There goes that clever beast, who can write such exquisite books and preach so remarkably well.’ That very moment you will be blessed and blessed beyond measure in the kingdom of heaven. Yes, in that heaven where hellfire is ready for the devil and his angels. To sum up: Let us be proud and seek honor in the places where we can. But in this Book the honor is God’s alone, as it is said, ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble’ (1 Pet. 5:5); to whom be glory, world without end, Amen.

The above quotes came from chapter 15 of Excellence: The Character of God and the Pursuit of Scholarly Virtue by Andreas Kostenberger.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Righteous in Christ, Not Ourselves (Calvin)

Tracts and Treatises of John Calvin (8 vols.) In volume 3 of Tracts and Treatises you can find Calvin’s 1547 critical commentary on the canons and decrees of the Council of Trent.  It’s an excellent resource that not only sheds theological light on the central aspects of the Reformation, it’s also a wonderful and edifying defense of the solas and the doctrines of grace.  Here are some of Calvin’s helpful comments on the distinction between justification and sanctification:

It is not to be denied, however, that the two things, Justification and Sanctification, are constantly conjoined and cohere; but from this it is erroneously inferred that they are one and the same. For example: The light of the sun, though never unaccompanied with heat, is not to be considered heat. Where is the man so undiscerning as not to distinguish the one from the other? We acknowledge, then, that as soon as any one is justified, renewal also necessarily follows: and there is no dispute as to whether or not Christ sanctifies all whom he justifies. It were to rend the gospel, and divide Christ himself, to attempt to separate the righteousness which we obtain by faith from repentance.

The whole dispute is as to The Cause of Justification. The Fathers of Trent pretend that it is twofold, as if we were justified partly by forgiveness of sins and partly by spiritual regeneration; or, to express their view in other words, as if our righteousness were composed partly of imputation, partly of quality.

I maintain that it is one, and simple, and is wholly included in the gratuitous acceptance of God. I besides hold that it is without us [outside of us], because we are righteous in Christ only. Let them produce evidence from Scripture, if they have any, to convince us of their doctrine. I, while I have the whole Scripture supporting me, will now be satisfied with this one reason, viz., that when mention is made of the righteousness of works, the law and the gospel place it [righteousness of works] in the perfect obedience of the law; and as that nowhere appears, they leave us no alternative but to flee to Christ alone, that we may be regarded as righteous in him, not being so in ourselves. Will they produce to us one passage which declares that begun newness of life is approved by God as righteousness either in whole or in part? But if they are devoid of authority, why may we not be permitted to repudiate the figment of partial justification which they here obtrude [impose]?

…I, on the contrary, while I admit that we are never received into the favour of God without being at the same time regenerated to holiness of life, contend that it is false to say that any part of righteousness (justification) consists in quality, or in the habit which resides in us, and that we are righteous (justified) only by gratuitous acceptance. For when the Apostle teaches that “by the obedience of one many were made righteous,” (Rom. 6:19,) he sufficiently shews, if I mistake not, that the righteousness wanting in ourselves is borrowed elsewhere. …For however small the portion attributed to our work, to that extent faith will waver, and our whole salvation be endangered.

 John Calvin and Hendry Beveridge, Tracts Relating to the Reformation, vol. 3 (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1851), 115–116.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015