Quarterly (!?!?) Celebration of the Lord’s Supper (Calvin)

The Letters of John Calvin (4 vols.) I’m one of those Presbyterian pastors who believes that celebration of the Lord’s Supper should be done frequently.  In the church I served before, we celebrated Holy Communion once per month.  In the church I serve now, we celebrate it weekly.  To be honest, I’ve never heard anyone who is accustomed to celebrating the Lord’s Supper frequently say, “We should celebrate it less frequently; it’s becoming too ordinary.”  In fact, the opposite is true.  I have heard someone who was ill for around a month say when he made it back to church that he really missed taking the Lord’s Supper!

Each Lord’s Day here we hear a brief explanation of the Lord’s Supper from a different angle.  One Sunday we’ll hear about how Christ was our substitute as he died on the cross for us.  Another Sunday we’ll focus on how his blood cleanses us from all sin.  The next we’ll hear that although Christ is in heaven, we feed on him by the power of the Holy Spirit through the faith he’s given to us.  At a different time we’ll hear the fact that God loves us so much that he gave his only Son to die and save us.  And so on.  It’s a gospel celebration each Lord’s Day; the sacrament echoes the preaching of the Word!

I recently ran across a paragraph of Calvin’s where he talked about this very subject (I mentioned this letter yesterday).  The authorities made the decision to celebrate the Supper quarterly (four times per year).  Calvin, since he was no maverick, submitted to the authority even though he was much more in favor of  frequent use of the Lord’s Supper.  Don’t miss the last sentence of the quote!

In one thing we differ, but the difference is not an innovation. We celebrate the Lord’s supper four times a year, and you thrice. Now would to God, messeigneurs [lords], that both you and we had a more frequent use of it. For we see in the Acts of the Apostles by Saint Luke that in the primitive church they communicated much oftener. And that custom continued in the ancient church during a long space of time, till the abomination of the mass was devised by Satan, and was the cause why people communicated but once or twice a year. Wherefore we must confess that it is a defect in us not to follow the example of the Apostles. 

Jules Bonnet, Letters of John Calvin, vol. 3 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2009), 162–163.

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

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Churches Have a Certain Latitude of Diversity (Calvin)

The Letters of John Calvin (4 vols.)In the early part of 1555, some important men of Berne, Switzerland heard that John Calvin was causing problems in the church by being something of a maverick in the areas of ceremonies, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and other aspects of church life and liturgy.  When Calvin found out that these men were upset with him, he wrote a letter to clear up the situation.  In the letter he calmly but clearly showed that the accusations were false, and that he was not innovative in the areas of ceremonies, baptism, and so forth.  It’s an excellent letter that shows how Calvin was not a rogue, disobedient Reformer, but one who very much submitted to authority and sought the peace of the church.

Below are two parts of the letter that caught my attention.  In these two parts he explains how he has not been innovative in ceremonies and celebrations.  I especially like the first two sentences of this first paragraph:

Respecting ceremonies, because they are things indifferent, the churches have a certain latitude of diversity. And when one has well weighed the matter, it may be sometimes considered useful not to have too rigid a uniformity respecting them, in order to shew that faith and Christianity do not consist in that. Nevertheless those who have informed you that, from curiosity or other motives, I have introduced a new mode, have not made a correct statement. My brother Master William Farel is present here, who can moreover bear witness, that before my arrival at Geneva, the manner of celebrating the Lord’s supper, baptism, marriage, and the festivals, was such as it is at present, without my having changed any thing. So that it is impossible on these points to attribute to me any thing that has originated with me.

…I am reproached with having created a new feast on the Wednesday. In this I am sadly wronged. For the magistracy of Geneva have indeed, by my exhortation, set apart one day in the week to offer up extraordinary prayers, as necessity and the exigencies of the times should require it. And on that day we pray for you and the other churches who are in need of it. But we carry on our usual labours on that day; and besides we have not so constantly established a certain day as not to select now one, now another, just as the magistrates shall deem proper for their convenience. But a more serious charge is involved in the rumour that they have diligently spread about, of my intentions to transfer the Lord’s Day to the Friday. The truth is, that, for my part, I have never shown the least sign of lusting after such innovations, but very much the contrary.

 Jules Bonnet, Letters of John Calvin, vol. 3 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2009), 162–165.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

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