Monthly Archives: March 2015

Week 13 of 50 in the Institutes: Nothing Superstitious About Being Sabbatarian

How ironic it is that in week 13 of our 50 week jaunt through Calvin’s Institutes, our reading includes most of Calvin’s handling of the fourth commandment, wherein we find him deriding “Sabbatarian superstition”  (in 2.8.34; not that I’m superstitious, by any means you understand!).

I was delighted to discover Sinclair Ferguson was the blogger on the Reformation 21 website for this week’s assignments, and, being the gentleman and scholar that he is, he simply noted that Calvin takes the “continental view” on the Sabbath, and he didn’t bother critiquing or comparing the “continental view” with that of the Puritan view espoused in the WCF (see the Reformation 21 April 3rd blog).

I hesitate to take up this topic, since Ferguson (perhaps due to word count blog limitations) sidestepped it entirely.  And besides, who wants to be a picker of nits?  Nevertheless, I am compelled to share my reflections, critical as they are of some of what Calvin espoused, because I don’t think the issues involved are inconsequential.  So despite the risk of rushing in where angels dare to tread, here goes.

To begin with, let’s compare the most concise formulations of the Continental and Puritan views on the fourth commandment. Let’s start with the Continental view as found in the Heidelberg Catechism:

Q104: What doth God require in the fourth commandment?  Answer: First, that the ministry of the gospel and the schools be maintained; and that I, especially on the Sabbath, that is, on the day of rest, diligently frequent the church of God to hear His word, to use the sacraments, publicly to call upon the Lord, and contribute to the relief of the poor, as becomes a Christian.  Secondly, that all the days of my life I cease from my evil works, and yield myself to the Lord, to work by His Holy Spirit in me; and thus begin in this life the eternal Sabbath.

By way of contrast, here are the pertinent sections from the Westminster Confession:

20.7  As it is of the law of nature, that, in general, a due proportion of time be set apart for the worship of God; so, in his word, by a positive, moral, and perpetual commandment, binding all men in all ages, he hath particularly appointed one day in seven for a sabbath, to be kept holy unto him: which, from the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ, was the last day of the week; and, from the resurrection of Christ, was changed into the first day of the week, which in Scripture is called the Lord’s Day, and is to be continued to the end of the world, as the Christian Sabbath.

20.8 This sabbath is then kept holy unto the Lord, when men, after a due preparing of their hearts, and ordering of their common affairs before-hand, do not only observe an holy rest from all the day from their own works, words, and thoughts about their worldly employments and recreations; but also are taken up the whole time in the public and private exercises of his worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy.

Calvin identified three conditions involved in keeping the fourth commandment:

  1. A day of spiritual rest in which believers lay aside their own works to allow God to work in them.
  2. A stated day for worship and meditation.
  3. A day of rest for servants and those under the authority of others.

As Ferguson observed, for Calvin, the second and third conditions remain, and Christ is seen as the fulfillment of the Sabbath, foreshadowed in the OT (2.8.31).

But even Calvin’s observance of the Lord’s Day would very likely be labelled “sabbatarian” by those outside that camp today.  As Ferguson noted, Calvin himself was accused of nourishing people in Judaism (2.8.33). And we shouldn’t overlook Calvin’s longing to have a daily assembly for preaching and ministry of the word (third to last sentence of 2.8.32).

If we could time travel back to Calvin’s Geneva, we would find three church services held on Sunday: at sunrise, nine o’clock, and three o’clock.  At noon there was a children’s service which taught catechism.  And that was just on Sunday.  During the week, the city council had decided there should be more preaching, and so there were sermons given every week day.  This resulted in Calvin preaching three times on Sunday and five times during the week every other week (a rotation shared with other ministers), for a total of ten sermons every fortnight.  So Ferguson’s point is well taken (April 3rd blog) that “a day for worship and meditation has not been reduced to a morning,” either in Calvin’s day or ours.

Some say that the Sabbatarian principles of the WCF and the HC are different in argument, but the same in practice (follow this link for a discussion on The Puritan Board, later!).  As a Sabbatarian, I would have been very much at home with the Lord’s Day observances in Calvin’s Geneva.

Having said that, I want to point out a couple of the issues I have with Calvin’s handling of the fourth commandment.  As hinted in the title of this blog, it isn’t a matter of superstition to observe the fourth commandment as understood from Scripture and in good conscience, any more than it is to keep any of the other commandments (keeping the Lord’s commands is by no means superstitious).  Superstition by its very definition is a blindly accepted belief or notion.  The observance of the fourth commandment, as delineated in the WCF, is rooted in a particular understanding of the teaching of Holy Scripture, which leads me to the second issue I have with Calvin’s treatment.

Calvin seems to jettison sola scriptura and concede to the church the ultimate authority in establishing a particular day for worship and assembly.  In 2.8.34 we find this deference to ecclesiastical authority in selecting a day of worship (emphasis added):

The whole may be thus summed up: As the truth was delivered typically to the Jews, so it is imparted to us without figure; first, that during our whole lives we may aim at a constant rest from our own works, in order that the Lord may work in us by his Spirit; secondly that every individual, as he has opportunity, may diligently exercise himself in private, in pious meditation on the works of God, and, at the same time, that all may observe the legitimate order appointed by the Church, for the hearing of the word, the administration of the sacraments, and public prayer: And, thirdly, that we may avoid oppressing those who are subject to us.

For those interested in a fuller treatment of the Puritan view, in addition to the Westminster standards I recommend James Fisher’s catechism, questions 57-62, which are available here.

If Calvin were alive today, I venture to say he would be appalled by the essential abandonment of the fourth commandment in our age.  And when he inevitably expressed his concerns, he would be labelled a staunch Sabbatarian, by today’s standards.

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes:

Mar. 30:  2.8.2 – 2.8.7

Mar. 31:  2.8.8 – 2.8.14

Apr. 1:  2.8.15 – 2.8.19

Apr. 2:  2.8.20 – 2.8.26

Apr. 3:  2.8.27 – 2.8.32


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Week 12 of 50 in the Institutes: The First Step Toward Godliness

This week’s assignment affords many vistas for reflection, but I will limit myself to two.  The first is 2.6.4, where Calvin notes that faith in God is faith in Christ, and requires the following admission from his reader:

but what I wish to impress upon my readers in this way is, that the first step in piety is, to acknowledge that God is a Father, to defend, govern, and cherish us, until he brings us to the eternal inheritance of his kingdom; that hence it is plain, as we lately observed, there is no having knowledge of God without Christ, and that, consequently, from the beginning of the world Christ was held forth to all the elect as the object of their faith and confidence. In this sense, Irenæus says, that the Father, who is boundless in himself, is bounded in the Son, because he has accommodated himself to our capacity, lest our minds should be swallowed up by the immensity of his glory (Irenaeus, lib. 4 cap. 8).

Instead of “the first step in piety” as Beveridge rendered it above, the McNeill-Battles edition translates that phrase as ‘the first step toward godliness.”  Calvin’s point, in either translation, is well taken.  One cannot make much progress in sanctification where there is a lack of assurance of salvation.  One Puritan we read compared the doubting Christian to someone who is given a plot of land to farm, but instead of working the ground, he continually goes back and forth to the land office repeatedly, checking to see if his deed is valid.  So when harvest time comes, such a one has a meager return because all the time which should have been spent planting and harvesting was wasted in relentless questioning and doubt.

Such a one needs to learn to look fully unto Him who is an all sufficient Savior (Heb. 7:25), able to save to the uttermost all who come to him, Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever.  As we sit at Calvin’s feet in 2.7.8 we find this glorious invitation for refuge in Christ:

But while the unrighteousness and condemnation of all are attested by the law, it does not follow (if we make the proper use of it) that we are immediately to give up all hope and rush headlong on despair. No doubt, it has some such effect upon the reprobate, but this is owing to their obstinacy. With the children of God the effect is different. The Apostle testifies that the law pronounces its sentence of condemnation in order “that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God,” (Rom. 3:19).  In another place, however, the same Apostle declares, that “God has concluded them all in unbelief;” not that he might destroy all, or allow all to perish, but that “he might have mercy upon all,” (Rom. 11:32) in other words, that divesting themselves of an absurd opinion of their own virtue, they may perceive how they are wholly dependent on the hand of God; that feeling how naked and destitute they are, they may take refuge in his mercy, rely upon it, and cover themselves up entirely with it; renouncing all righteousness and merit, and clinging to mercy alone, as offered in Christ to all who long and look for it in true faith. In the precepts of the law, God is seen as the rewarder only of perfect righteousness (a righteousness of which all are destitute), and, on the other hand, as the stern avenger of wickedness. But in Christ his countenance beams forth full of grace and gentleness towards poor unworthy sinners.

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes:

Mar. 23:  2.5.18 – 2.6.2

Mar. 24:  2.6.3 – 2.7.1

Mar. 25:  2.7.2 – 2.7.7

Mar. 26: 2.7.8 – 2.7.13

Mar. 27: 2.7.14 – 2.8.1

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Week 11 of 50 in the Institutes: God is Great, and God is Good

Reflecting on this coming week’s reading assignment in the Institutes brings to mind a simple but profound truth that many of us were taught as part of prayer at mealtime: “God is great, and God is good.”

God is so great that when we consider the question of how God works in men’s hearts (2.4), we must affirm that God, Satan, and man may be active in the same event (2.4.2).  And yet at the same time we must affirm that Satan is not excused in his evil part, nor is man, and neither is God the author of evil.  And how does all this come to pass?  Calvin notes that there is no inconsistency in assigning the same deed to Satan, man, and God because of the distinction in purpose and manner of each party involved, causing God’s righteousness to shine forth blameless (last sentence of 2.4.2).  The Chaldeans pillaging of Job’s possessions (Job 1:21), as Calvin noted, perfectly illustrates this interplay of purpose and manner of acting:

The Lord permits Satan to afflict his servant; and the Chaldeans, who had been chosen as the ministers to execute the deed, he hands over to the impulses of Satan, who, pricking on the already depraved Chaldeans with his poisoned darts, instigates them to commit the crime. They rush furiously on to the unrighteous deed, and become its guilty perpetrators. Here Satan is properly said to act in the reprobate, over whom he exercises his sway, which is that of wickedness. God also is said to act in his own way; because even Satan when he is the instrument of divine wrath, is completely under the command of God, who turns him as he will in the execution of his just judgments.

In 2.4.5 where Calvin elaborated more on how Satan also must serve God, he refers the reader back to earlier sections where he previously vindicated God from any blame in his rule and overrule even of Satan. I find 1.18.4 to be particularly helpful here (thanks in no small part to footnote 9 on p. 313 of the McNeill-Battles edition):

If I mistake not, I have already shown clearly how the same act at once betrays the guilt of man, and manifests the righteousness of God. Modest minds will always be satisfied with Augustine’s answer, “Since the Father delivered up the Son, Christ his own body, and Judas his Master, how in such a case is God just, and man guilty, but just because in the one act which they did, the reasons for which they did it are different?” (August. Ep. 48, ad Vincentium). If any are not perfectly satisfied with this explanation—viz. that there is no concurrence between God and man, when by His righteous impulse man does what he ought not to do, let them give heed to what Augustine elsewhere observes: “Who can refrain from trembling at those Judgments when God does according to his pleasure even in the hearts of the wicked, at the same time rendering to them according to their deeds?” (De Grat. et lib. Arbit. ad Valent. c. 20). And certainly, in regard to the treachery of Judas, there is just as little ground to throw the blame of the crime upon God, because He was both pleased that his Son should be delivered up to death, and did deliver him, as to ascribe to Judas the praise of our redemption. Hence Augustine, in another place, truly observes, that when God makes his scrutiny, he looks not to what men could do, or to what they did, but to what they wished to do, thus taking account of their will and purpose. Those to whom this seems harsh had better consider how far their captiousness is entitled to any toleration, while, on the ground of its exceeding their capacity, they reject a matter which is clearly taught by Scripture, and complain of the enunciation of truths, which, if they were not useful to be known, God never would have ordered his prophets and apostles to teach. Our true wisdom is to embrace with meek docility, and without reservation, whatever the Holy Scriptures, have delivered. Those who indulge their petulance, a petulance manifestly directed against God, are undeserving of a longer refutation.

I close by passing along a “shield” from the Lord’s panoply which I have found to be fully capable of absorbing every fiery dart of Satan which seeks to call into question God’s goodness:   “The Lord is righteous in all His ways, and kind in all His deeds.”  (Psalm 145:17, NASB)

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes:

Mar. 16:  2.4.1 – 2.4.6

Mar. 17:  2.4.7 – 2.5.3

Mar. 18:  2.5.4 – 2.5.8

Mar. 19: 2.5.9 – 2.5.12

Mar. 20: 2.5.13 – 2.5.17

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Week 10 of 50 in the Institutes: Calvin, Owen & Sanctification

Before putting down my thoughts on the upcoming week’s reading assignments in the Institutes, I like to peruse the Reformation 21 blogs to see if the assigned blogger back in 2009 addressed any of the issues that stood out to me (to save time such can I can merely point to them).  Those with rapid recall of everything we have read to this point may begin to have some consternation by this coming Friday when you read 2.3.11 in the Institutes and mentally compare it to what John Owen had to say in Mortification of Sin. So as point man for the group, let me try to save you a headache, or at least a little consternation.

First let’s go back to the following passage from On the Mortification of Sin, where Owen answers the question of why a person is exhorted to mortify sin, if such mortification is the work of the Spirit (at the end of chapter 3):

Secondly. If this be the work of the Spirit alone, how is it that we are exhorted to it? — seeing the Spirit of God only can do it, let the work be left wholly to him.

[1.] It is no otherwise the work of the Spirit but as all graces and good works which are in us are his. He “works in us to will and to do of his own good pleasure,” Phil. ii.13; he works “all our works in us,”  Isa. xxvi. 12, — “the work of faith with power,” 2 Thess 1. 11, Col. ii. 12; he causes us to pray, and is a “Spirit of supplication,” Rom. viii. 26, Zech. xii. 10; and yet we are exhorted, and are to be exhorted, to all these.

[2.] He doth not so work our mortification in us as not to keep it still an act of our obedience. The Holy Ghost works in us and upon us, as we are fit to be wrought in and upon; that is, so as to preserve our own liberty and free obedience. He works upon our understandings, wills, consciences, and affections, agreeably to their own natures; he works in us and with us, not against us or without us; so that his assistance is an encouragement as to the facilitating of the work, and no occasion of neglect as to the work itself.

With reference to the believer’s duty to mortify sin (Romans 8:13), Owen clearly affirmed the responsibility of man, and the idea that God doesn’t do this work “against us or without us”.  Compare this to Calvin’s remarks in 2.3.11 in regard to our efforts to cooperate in sanctification or perseverance:

As to the common saying, that after we have given admission to the first grace, our efforts co-operate with subsequent grace, this is my answer:—If it is meant that after we are once subdued by the power of the Lord to the obedience of righteousness, we proceed voluntarily, and are inclined to follow the movement of grace, I have nothing to object. For it is most certain, that where the grace of God reigns, there is also this readiness to obey. And whence this readiness, but just that the Spirit of God being everywhere consistent with himself, after first begetting a principle of obedience, cherishes and strengthens it for perseverance? If, again, it is meant that man is able of himself to be a fellow-labourer with the grace of God, I hold it to be a most pestilential delusion.

Putting these two passages side by side without careful consideration might leave the casual reader scratching his head and wondering: “So who’s right, Calvin or Owen?”  The answer is both, and I don’t think they are truly contradicting one another (read above excerpt more closely).  How could they, since they were both called “the theologian of the Holy Spirit” in their respective generations?

Louis Berkhof comes in handy here, in the following excerpt from his Systematic Theology, in the section on sanctification (note: we are talking about sanctification here, NOT justification):

It [sanctification] is a work of God in which believers co-operate.  When it is said that man takes part in the work of sanctification, this does not mean that man is an independent agent in the work, so as to make it partly the work of God and partly the work of man; but merely, that God effects the work in part through the instrumentality of man as a rational being, by requiring of him prayerful and intelligent co-operation with the Spirit.  That man must co-operate with the Spirit of God follows: (a) from the repeated warning against evils and temptations, which clearly imply that man must be active in avoiding the pitfalls of life, Rom. 12:9, 16, 17; 1 Cor. 6:9,10; Gal. 5:16-23; and (b) from the constant exhortations to holy living.  These imply that the believer must be diligent in the employment of means at his command for the moral and spiritual improvement of his life, Micah 6:8; John 15:2, 8, 16; Rom. 8:12, 13; 12:1, 2, 17; Gal. 6:7, 8, 15.

So the resolution lies in the affirmation of both the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man.  Both Owen and Calvin cited Philippians 2:13 when dealing with this issue, which is one of the most remarkable passages in all of Scripture with regard to the affirmation of both of these non-contradictory doctrines.  John Murray had an excellent interpretation of Phil. 2:12-13 (as cited by Moises Silva in his commentary on Philippians):

God’s working in us is not suspended because we work, nor our working suspended because God works.  Neither is the relation strictly one of cooperation as if God did his part and we did ours so that the conjunction or coordination of both produced the required result.  God works and we also work.  But the relation is that because God works we work. All working out of salvation on our part is the effect of God’s working in us. . . . We have here not only the explanation of all acceptable activity on our part but we also have the incentive to our willing and working. . . . The more persistently active we are in working, the more persuaded we may be that all the energizing grace and power is of God.

Now if you still have a headache, I recommend aspirin at this point!

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes:

Mar. 9:  2.2.18 – 2.2.23

Mar. 10:  2.2.24 – 2.2.27

Mar. 11:  2.3.1 – 2.3.4

Mar. 12: 2.3.5 – 2.3.9

Mar. 13: 2.3.10 – 2.3.14

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Week 9 of 50 in the Institutes: Humility, Humility, Humility

The opening lines of 2.2.11 nicely summarize the proper attitude which should characterize fallen man:

I have always been exceedingly delighted with the words of Chrysostom, “The foundation of our philosophy is humility;” and still more with those of Augustine, “As the orator, The French is, “Demosthene orateur Grec;”—the Greek orator Demosthenes. when asked, What is the first precept in eloquence? answered, Delivery: What is the second? Delivery: What the third? Delivery: so, if you ask me in regard to the precepts of the Christian Religion, I will answer, first, second, and third, Humility.” By humility he means not when a man, with a consciousness of some virtue, refrains from pride, but when he truly feels that he has no refuge but in humility. This is clear from another passage, “Let no man,” says he, “flatter himself: of himself he is a devil: his happiness he owes entirely to God. What have you of your own but sin? Take your sin which is your own; for righteousness is of God.”

This reminds me of the saying of Martin Luther, that man’s only contribution to salvation is sin!  All too often, however, man attempts to usurp the glory of God by trying to stake a claim to various forms of self-righteousness, while minimizing or denying altogether culpability for sin.  I’m also reminded of Thomas Brooks’ quote of a Mr. Hooper, who said, “Lord, I am hell, but you are heaven!”

In the section just prior to this one above (2.2.10), Calvin leaves his reader in no doubt that, without humility, there is no salvation.  After surveying several passages which expose man’s spiritually destitute and hopeless state apart from God (Jer. 17:5; Psa. 147:10-11; Isa. 40:29-31; James 4:6; 1 Pet. 5:5; Prov. 3:34; Isa. 44:3; 55:1), he described the blessed state of the poor in spirit thusly:

These passages declare, that none are admitted to enjoy the blessings of God save those who are pining under a sense of their own poverty.

So to be full of one’s self, in the popular expression, is to be a son of perdition.  Better by far to be emptied of self, and abide in Christ, which happens only by grace, and say: More of Him, and less of me.  Or as John the Baptist put it: He must increase, but I must decrease.

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes:

 Mar. 2:  2.1.5 – 2.1.8

Mar. 3:  2.1.9 – 2.2.3

Mar. 4:  2.2.4 – 2.2.7

Mar. 5: 2.2.8 – 2.2.11

Mar. 6: 2.2.12 – 2.2.17

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