Monthly Archives: October 2015

Week 43 of 50 in the Institutes: Three Things Baptism Contributes to Our Faith

At the outset of the Reformation 21 Blog Through the Institutes, Thabiti Anyabwile posted a blog titled Be Discipled By John Calvin, in which he anticipated being able to sit at Calvin’s feet, so to speak, by taking a year to go through the Institutes.  For my part, the weekly pace seems a bit brisk as we come to Calvin’s treatment of the sacraments in these sections.  Here is where it seems appropriate to slow down and spend extra time taking in what Calvin has to say to us, particular to those who come from Baptist backgrounds, such as myself.

We will do well to keep in mind how Calvin defined sacrament in 4.14.1.  I kept referring back to it, from last week’s assignment:

It seems to me, then, a simple and appropriate definition to say, that it 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 our turn testify our piety towards him, both before himself, and before angels as well as men. We may also define more briefly by calling it a testimony of the divine favour toward us, confirmed by an external sign, with a corresponding attestation of our faith towards Him. You may make your choice of these definitions, which in meaning differ not from that of Augustine, which defines a sacrament to be a visible sign of a sacred thing, or a visible form of an invisible grace, but does not contain a better or surer explanation. As its brevity makes it somewhat obscure, and thereby misleads the more illiterate, I wished to remove all doubt, and make the definition fuller by stating it at greater length.

The first part of that definition (testimony of divine favor) is rejected by adherents to believer’s baptism, who focus exclusively on the second part (attestation of faith).  Consequently, the focus in baptism becomes largely man-centered, as a naked declaration of faith (what I have believed/done).  This focus is sharpened in the ceremony itself by virtue of the typical utterance by Baptist ministers to candidates prior to immersion:  “Based on your profession of faith, I baptize you . . .”  This failure to take into account the testimony of divine favor points away from Christ, the author and finisher of faith, to self (dead, dominated, and doomed apart from Christ, Eph. 2:1-3).  In so doing it misses the true office of the sacrament, as Calvin described it in 4.14.17, which is to point us to Christ, without Whom we are merely empty vessels:

Wherefore, let it be a fixed point, that the office of the sacraments differs not from the word of God; and this is to hold forth and offer Christ to us, and, in him, the treasures of heavenly grace. They confer nothing, and avail nothing, if not received in faith, just as wine and oil, or any other liquor, however large the quantity which you pour out, will run away and perish unless there be an open vessel to receive it. When the vessel is not open, though it may be sprinkled all over, it will nevertheless remain entirely empty.

Calvin identified three things which baptism contributes to our faith in Christ, which are not to be missed or sped past:

  1. A token and proof of our cleansing (4.15.1)
  2. A token of mortification and renewal in Christ (4.15.5)
  3. A token of our union with Christ (4.15.6)

Of the three, Calvin devoted more space to the first one, showing how baptism has no virtue without the Word (4.15.2), how it is a token of cleansing for the whole of life (4.15.3), and showing the relationship between baptism and repentance (4.15.4).  Recipients of the grace of God, we must understand, will lead godly lives, for as Calvin noted (4.15.3, emphasis added):

We ought to consider that at whatever time we are baptised, we are washed and purified once for the whole of life. Wherefore, as often as we fall, we must recall the remembrance of our baptism, and thus fortify our minds, so as to feel certain and secure of the remission of sins. For though, when once administered, it seems to have passed, it is not abolished by subsequent sins. For the purity of Christ was therein offered to us, always is in force, and is not destroyed by any stain: it wipes and washes away all our defilements. Nor must we hence assume a licence of sinning for the future (there is certainly nothing in it to countenance such audacity), but this doctrine is intended only for those who, when they have sinned, groan under their sins burdened and oppressed, that they may have wherewith to support and console themselves, and not rush headlong into despair. Thus Paul says that Christ was made a propitiation for us for the remission of sins that are past (Rom. 3:25). By this he denies not that constant and perpetual forgiveness of sins is thereby obtained even till death: he only intimates that it is designed by the Father for those poor sinners who, wounded by remorse of conscience, sigh for the physician. To these the mercy of God is offered. Those who, from hopes of impunity, seek a licence for sin, only provoke the wrath and justice of God.

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes

Oct. 26: 4.14.4 – 4.14.9

Oct. 27: 4.14.10 – 4.14.15

Oct. 28: 4.14.16 – 4.14.20

Oct. 29: 4.14.21 – 4.14.26

Oct. 30: 4.15.1 – 4.15.8


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Week 42 of 50 in the Institutes: Getting Away From It All In the Midst Of It All

The idea of getting away from it all is very appealing in our day.  Just the mention of a vacation getaway planned or just completed will usually gain the attention of everyone within earshot.  Calvin takes the time in these sections of the Institutes to deal with those who really wanted to get away from it all in his day, not on vacations, but via the monastic life.

Calvin didn’t find anything commendable with monasticism.  It required the taking of vows not authorized by God, deprived the church of pastors, and produced decadence more than it did holiness in the lives of those who pursued it, sadly enough.  The interesting observation Calvin makes in 4.13.16 is that God is honored more by the life lived faithfully in the daily callings of life, than in the cloistered lifestyle of purported total devotion to God:

By this contrast between ancient and modern monasticism, I trust I have gained my object, which was to show that our cowled monks falsely pretend the example of the primitive Church in defence of their profession; since they differ no less from the monks of that period than apes do from men. Meanwhile I disguise not that even in that ancient form which Augustine commends, there was something which little pleases me. I admit that they were not superstitious in the external exercises of a more rigorous discipline, but I say that they were not without a degree of affectation and false zeal. It was a fine thing to cast away their substance, and free themselves from all worldly cares; but God sets more value on the pious management of a household, when the head of it, discarding all avarice, ambition, and other lusts of the flesh, makes it his purpose to serve God in some particular vocation. It is fine to philosophise in seclusion, far away from the intercourse of society; but it ill accords with Christian meekness for any one, as if in hatred of the human race, to fly to the wilderness and to solitude, and at the same time desert the duties which the Lord has especially commanded. Were we to grant that there was nothing worse in that profession, there is certainly no small evil in its having introduced a useless and perilous example into the Church.

So the truth Calvin has touched upon here is one our generation needs to discover.  The truth is not “out there”, to be conquered and uncovered by those to want to believe (as portrayed by Mulder in X-Files).  Nor is it to be found if we can just have some time alone, get away from it all and figure it out.  Nor is it a hopeless, fool’s errand.  Rather, wisdom is always right in front of the discerning, as Proverbs 17:24 puts it:

“Wisdom is in the presence of one who has understanding, but the eyes of a fool are on the ends of the earth.”  (NASB)

Calvin could have gotten his insight on God’s appraisal on the pious management of a household (i.e., living out one’s particular calling) from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.  The first three chapters of that letter deal with the call of God.  Most of the last three deal with the walk worthy of that call.  Walking worthy of the call involves walking in unity, holiness, love, light, and wisdom.  Now if you were going to write a prescription to Christians about the essence of living wisely, what would you suggest?  Work for world peace?  Start a new missions agency?  Become politically active to accomplish X (fill in the blank)?

Paul gave none of those directives.  The simplicity of Paul’s prescription as to how to live wisely in light of God’s call is what makes it so profound.  In revealing what it means to walk wisely in light of God’s call, Paul gets down to everyday relationships in a typical household (Eph. 5:15-6:9): wives and husbands, children and parents, servants and masters.  Who woulda thunk it?

So the way to “get away from it all”, to live above the world while in the world, isn’t by being physically removed from its trying circumstances.  Rather, the way to get away from it all is by living in the midst of it all with spiritual eyes that enable you to see what really matters and living accordingly, right where you are, right in the midst of everything.  That is the essence of true wisdom.  And since no one is sufficient for these things in himself alone, the wise person keeps wisdom at the top of his prayer list.  Truly then will wisdom be found near at hand.

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes

Oct. 19: 4.12.19 – 4.12.24

Oct. 20: 4.12.25 – 4.13.3

Oct. 21: 4.13.4 – 4.13.10

Oct. 22: 4.13.11 – 4.13.17

Oct. 23: 4.13.18 – 4.14.3

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Week 41 of 50 in the Institutes: Solid Food for the Mature

Part of this week’s assignments reminded me of Hebrews 5:14:

“But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.”  (ESV)

Calvin dishes out this solid food in 4.12.11 when counselling against excessive demands for church discipline (emphasis added):

Another special requisite to moderation of discipline is, as Augustine discourses against the Donatists, that private individuals must not, when they see vices less carefully corrected by the Council of Elders, immediately separate themselves from the Church; nor must pastors themselves, when unable to reform all things which need correction to the extent which they could wish, cast up their ministry, or by unwonted severity throw the whole Church into confusion. What Augustine says is perfectly true: “Whoever corrects what he can, by rebuking it, or without violating the bond of peace, excludes what he cannot correct, or unjustly condemns while he patiently tolerates what he is unable to exclude without violating the bond of peace, is free and exempted from the curse” (August. contra Parmen. Lib. 2 c. 4). He elsewhere gives the reason. “Every pious reason and mode of ecclesiastical discipline ought always to have regard to the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. This the apostle commands us to keep by bearing mutually with each other. If it is not kept, the medicine of discipline begins to be not only superfluous, but even pernicious, and therefore ceases to be medicine” (Ibid. Lib. 3 c. 1). “He who diligently considers these things, neither in the preservation of unity neglects strictness of discipline, nor by intemperate correction bursts the bond of society” (Ibid. cap. 2). He confesses, indeed, that pastors ought not only to exert themselves in removing every defect from the Church, but that every individual ought to his utmost to do so; nor does he disguise the fact, that he who neglects to admonish, accuse, and correct the bad, although he neither favours them, nor sins with them, is guilty before the Lord; and if he conducts himself so that though he can exclude them from partaking of the Supper, he does it not, then the sin is no longer that of other men, but his own. Only he would have that prudence used which our Lord also requires, “lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them” (Mt. 13:29). Hence he infers from Cyprian, “Let a man then mercifully correct what he can; what he cannot correct, let him bear patiently, and in love bewail and lament.”

The sooner one learns the lessons Calvin holds out here, the better, because they are a masterful blending of truth and love.  I heard a pastor once compare truth to strength and love to beauty.  He then posed the question: which would you rather have, strength or beauty?  The pastor then said he would prefer strength (truth) to beauty (love).  Sadly, that isn’t a biblical option, and this particular pastor should have known better.

Consider Psalm 117.  What that little psalm lacks in length, it makes up for in potency in that it answers the pastor’s question head on.  Most likely writing after the exile, the Psalmist exhorts all nations to praise the Lord, for two reasons: 1) great is the Lord’s steadfast love; and 2) the faithfulness of the Lord endures for ever.  The Hebrew here rendered as steadfast love is chesed, which refers to God’s condescending lovingkindness.  The word translated as faithfulness is emet, which means firmness, faithfulness, or truth.  So the lesson the Psalmist has learned is that God has been infinitely loving (his lovingkindness has conquered) and He has been true to his word (He carried out the forewarned judgment).  Israel rebelled repeatedly against God and, true to his many warnings through all the prophets, God judged the nation by overthrowing it and sending the people into captivity.  But the Lord also restored them and lovingly brought them back into the land after purging them of their idolatry.  And so the Psalmist holds out hope for all nations, in essence proclaiming: if God can deal justly and lovingly in our case, he can do the same for every nation.

But the take-away here is that one may not camp out on either truth at the expense of love, or vice versa, for the simple fact that they are not separated in the holiness of God.  In his holiness God is both infinitely just and infinitely merciful.  And this is where wisdom is distinguished from folly by the former’s ability to distinguish good from evil (Heb. 5:14) and hence to cut a faithful course between two extremes when confronted with unaddressed “vices”, to borrow Calvin’s term.  One extreme is to cut and run or do nothing, which is what laymen are most inclined to do when church discipline fails to live up to expectations, with the rationalization that such is the best way to preserve peace and purity.  The other is to seek to impose one’s will in a boorish, unloving manner.  The former approach abandons the truth, and the latter abandons love, and so both fall short.

I confess looking back over my life I can think of instances where I have shown too much zeal and not enough love.  The pastors in Calvin’s Geneva failed in this area as well at times.  In their zeal for the truth, the pastors sought to stop what they regarded as the superstitious practice of parents naming their children after local saints.  So when parents brought their children for baptism, the pastor would change the child’s name on the spot.  If parents brought “Claude” to be baptized, for instance, the pastor would baptize him as “Abraham”, or some such name.  According to an account detailed by Herman Selderhuis in his biography on Calvin (John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life, pp. 152-153), this very thing happened on August 26, 1546.  The father was so distraught that he took his child back, proclaimed the baptism as illegitimate, and said he would wait until his son turned 15 to have him baptized when he could choose his own baptismal name!  Now that is a prime example of “unwonted severity” throwing the whole church into confusion!

May be grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord to be able always to speak the truth in love, no matter how much that solid food is a challenge to get down!Solid Food

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes

Oct. 12: 4.11.2 – 4.11.7

Oct. 13: 4.11.8 – 4.11.13

Oct. 14: 4.11.14 – 4.12.4

Oct. 15: 4.12.5 – 4.12.10

Oct. 16: 4.12.11 – 4.12.18

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Week 40 of 50 in the Institutes: Picking Up the Slack

I was looking forward to reading the daily blogs on the Reformation 21 website for this week’s assignments in the Institutes (see bottom for schedule).  But, alas!  They were skipped entirely by their Blogging the Institutes initiative back in 2009, and no one ever back-filled them.  I’m not about to attempt to fill their shoes by providing summaries of each section.  I will, instead, provide at least one reflection for each day’s reading assignment, in a meager attempt to pick up the slack left in the rope here.

October 5:  When reading these sections, the plight of Kim Davis kept coming to mind.  What relevant counsel or insight may we glean from Calvin’s definition of conscience, and what it means to bind the conscience?  Calvin had the situation of his own day in mind with regard to the dictates of the Roman Catholic Church concerning worship, so his handling of the topic isn’t as broad as we might hope for here relative to our current events.  The closest he comes seems to be in 4.10.5.  Laws of the magistrate or church are “necessary to be observed” when they are just and good:

Another thing also worthy of observation, and depending on what has been already said, is, that human laws, whether enacted by magistrates or by the Church, are necessary to be observed (I speak of such as are just and good), but do not therefore in themselves bind the conscience, because the whole necessity of observing them respects the general end, and consists not in the things commanded. Very different, however, is the case of those which prescribe a new form of worshipping God, and introduce necessity into things that are free.

So it stands to reason that it is not necessary to observe unjust and bad laws.  After all, we must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29; see Calvin’s Commentary on this passage here).  In such cases the conscience is not bound, Calvin would say, because such laws are in conflict with the law of God (since to be in conflict with God’s law puts the matter beyond the pale of being a subject of indifference, or morally neutral).  I vehemently disagree with the position taken by Brad Littlejohn in his post here with regard to supporting Kim Davis’ stance.  Marriage is not a pet issue, and its definition is not something over which the Supreme Court has jurisdiction by any fanciful stretch of judicial imagination.  In the end, Littlejohn’s “prudence test” seems little more than a pragmatic, spineless capitulation: don’t make waves, and surrender at the slightest opposition.

October 6:  Calvin pegged man’s penchant for the products of his own imagination and wisdom in 4.10.11 where he discussed the appeal of human traditions, as found in the RCC or anywhere else.  So it should be no surprise that natural man would take offense at being required to worship God in the way He proscribes (i.e., the regulative principle of worship):

Human traditions, he says, deceive by an appearance of wisdom. Whence this show? Just that being framed by men, the human mind recognizes in them that which is its own, and embraces it when recognized more willingly than anything, however good, which is less suitable to its vanity.

October 7: Calvin denies the right of any institution to use the name of “church” if it refuses to follow God’s commands (4.10.17).  How many “churches” today are illegitimate by this definition?

October 8: The surprising thing in these sections is that Calvin leaves no neutral zone for the casual, compliant, don’t-rock-the-boat, non-reflective worshipper where God’s dictates are not observed.  We might expect Calvin to lay the blame for defective worship entirely at the feet of the church leaders, but he doesn’t.  Rather than viewing compliance as a manifestation of humility (man to man), Calvin held such behavior in utter contempt, because every such participant presumes to prescribe how God is to be worshipped (4.10.24), whether he realizes it or not, by his very actions.  It would seem that Calvin placed a premium on personal responsibility in this regard, and that worship was no passive, slight, or inconsequential act. As we might expect, such high regard for the significance of worship on Calvin’s part was rooted in his knowledge of Scripture and the examples made therein of those who took worship lightly (4.10.24):

Many wonder why God threatens so sternly that he will bring astonishment on the people who worship him with the commandments of men, and declares that it is in vain to worship him with the commandments of men. But if they would consider what it is in the matter of religion, that is, of heavenly wisdom, to depend on God alone, they would, at the same time, see that it is not on slight grounds the Lord abominates perverse service of this description, which is offered him at the caprice of the human will. For although there is some show of humility in the obedience of those who obey such laws in worshipping God, yet they are by no means humble, since they prescribe to him the very laws which they observe.

October 9:  In this last reflection for this week’s assignment, I have to take issue with the apparatus of John T. McNeill’s edition of the Institutes we have been using, because the editor put words in Calvin’s mouth in a way that should be readily apparent to the observant reader.  Calvin’s concluding admonition in 4.10.30 with regard to bondage and freedom of church constitutions was to let love be our guide.  The editor then made the following comment in footnote 50 on p. 1208 of the McNeill-Battles edition of the Institutes:

While Calvin warmly approves the kneeling posture in prayer, for reasons both of human tradition and of divine sanction, he finally leaves the choice of posture (with the like manners) to the best interest of the church and the judgment of charity.  A sensible freedom in such secondary matters is illustrated in the reference to women’s headwear in church, in sec. 31, where the limiting factors mentioned are custom, humanity, and the rule of modesty. On this passage, F. Wendel observes that Calvin does not require ‘a servile imitation of the primitive church’ (Wendel, Calvin, pp. 229 f).

A careful reading of section 31, however, reveals that Calvin nowhere refers to the issue of women’s headwear in church, but rather to the issue of everyday apparel (4.10.31, bold emphasis added):

Things which have been appointed according to this rule, it is the duty of the Christian people to observe with a free conscience indeed, and without superstition, but also with a pious and ready inclination to obey. They are not to hold them in contempt, nor pass them by with careless indifference, far less openly to violate them in pride and contumacy. You will ask, What liberty of conscience will there be in such cautious observances? Nay, this liberty will admirably appear when we shall hold that these are not fixed and perpetual obligations to which we are astricted, but external rudiments for human infirmity, which, though we do not all need, we, however, all use, because we are bound to cherish mutual charity towards each other. This we may recognize in the examples given above. What? Is religion placed in a woman’s bonnet, so that it is unlawful for her to go out with her head uncovered? Is her silence fixed by a decree which cannot be violated without the greatest wickedness? Is there any mystery in bending the knee, or in burying a dead body, which cannot be omitted without a crime? By no means. For should a woman require to make such haste in assisting a neighbor that she has not time to cover her head, she sins not in running out with her head uncovered.

To be sure of Calvin’s position here, I checked his commentary on 1 Cor. 11:2-17.  Therein Calvin takes the stance that head coverings for women in worship are required universally in the church, and not matters left up to individual conscience or cultural settings.  This would seem to be one aspect of worship where God binds the conscience (as Calvin addressed it in 4.10.3 and 4.10.4).  But the majority of evangelicals today do their best to skate around this rather straightforward reading of 1 Cor. 11 to try and make it culturally relative, despite Paul’s rooting of the practice in creation and redemption.

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes:  Skipped!

This week’s reading schedule:

Oct. 5:  4.10.3 – 4.10.8

Oct. 6:  4.10.9 – 4.10.15

Oct. 7:  4.10.16 – 4.10.21

Oct. 8: 4.10.22 – 4.10.28

Oct. 9: 4.10.29 – 4.11.1

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