Monthly Archives: November 2015

Week 48 of 50 in the Institutes: The Mass and Universal Atonement

Calvin came down hard against the Mass because of its affront to the once-for-all sacrificial death of the Lord Jesus Christ. The notion that ongoing sacrifices are necessary presumes that what preceded was insufficient, and hence this was too much for Calvin and should be for any student of Scripture (Heb. 9:24-28; 10:10-18). As I reflected on this, I began to draw a parallel between the Mass and “universal” atonement. Let me see if I can trace if for you.

Most evangelicals today hold to “universal” as opposed to “particular” or “limited” atonement. These adjectives refer to the extent of the atonement of Jesus Christ, and if a person holds to substitutionary atonement, either the extent or the efficacy of the atonement must be limited. The irony is that those who hold to universal atonement limit the efficacy or power of Christ’s atonement (what His death actually accomplished). Those who hold to particular atonement limit the scope of the atonement (those for whom Christ died). We aren’t picking fruit here, either, so whatever a person believes must be rooted firmly in Scripture (and I can’t take time to address this here).

In his treatise on this subject, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, John Owen identified four possibilities in this respect with regard to how either the 1) extent/scope or 2) efficacy/power is limited when one holds to substitutionary atonement:

  1. Christ died for ALL the sins of ALL men.
  2. Christ died for ALL the sins of SOME men.
  3. Christ died for SOME of the sins of ALL men.
  4. Christ died for SOME of the sins of SOME men.

Those who hold to universal atonement may be inclined to pick #1, until asked about the sin of unbelief. They then pick #3, with the idea that Christ died for every sin except the sin of unbelief for all men, which turns out to be a far greater limitation. The classic Reformed view is #2, with the idea being that Christ died for the sins of the elect. Here is Charles Haddon Spurgeon’s response to a common exchange on this topic:

“We are often told that we limit the atonement of Christ, because we say that Christ has not made a satisfaction for all men, or all men would be saved. Now, our reply to this is, that, on the other hand, our opponents limit it: we do not. The Arminians say, Christ died for all men. Ask them what they mean by it. Did Christ die so as to secure the salvation of all men? They say, ‘No, certainly not.’ We ask them the next question – Did Christ die so as to secure the salvation of any man in particular? They answer, ‘No.’ They are obliged to admit this, if they are consistent. They say, ‘No. Christ has died that any man may be saved if’ – and then follow certain conditions of salvation. Now, who is it that limits the death of Christ? Why, you. You say that Christ did not die so as infallibly to secure the salvation of anybody. We beg your pardon, when you say we limit Christ’s death; we say, ‘No, my dear sir, it is you that do it.’ We say Christ so died that he infallibly secured the salvation of a multitude that no man can number, who through Christ’s death not only may be saved, but are saved, and cannot by any possibility run the hazard of being anything but saved. You are welcome to your atonement; you may keep it. We will never renounce ours for the sake of it.” [Quoted from James I. Packer, “Introductory Essay,” in The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, by John Owen (London: Banner of Truth, 1959), 14]

When I was going through seminary I pressed this point in New Testament survey class when we were considering the atonement. I knew the professor’s stance on this and I also thought he would be honest and forthright (not to mention open to frank exchange). I restated his position back to him as: “You are saying that Christ could have died and no one would have been saved. In other words, Christ’s death in and of itself accomplished nothing.” And his answer was “Yes”, but with the caveat that it was understood that the Holy Spirit would convict men of sin and convert them to make Christ’s death effectual. Hands went up all over the room to make various assertions to offset the disturbing impact of his admission, which I have always viewed as a far greater limitation of the atonement than that of the classic Reformed view.

And here is where I make the connection between “universal” atonement and the Mass. Whereas the latter sees the need for ongoing sacrifices in the elevation of the host in the sacrament, the former essentially makes a sacrament of the exercise of man’s will. Christ’s death, you see, didn’t accomplish anything in and of itself. Only when man of his own “free will” chooses to believe in Christ as Savior does the Savior’s death become effectual. And the human will, in this view, is typically considered to be unmarred by the fall of Adam. Consequently, both the Mass and the notion of universal atonement are grievous affronts and insults to the atoning death of Jesus Christ. The Mass declares Christ’s death to be insufficient as a once-for-all atonement for sins, and universal atonement makes Christ’s death insufficient for any single sinner, because it leaves some sins (unbelief, at least) for the sinner to absolve himself, through the exercise of his free will.

Now I must acknowledge that Calvin wasn’t as explicit about the extent of the atonement as those who followed him, but he was clear enough (see his commentary on 1 John 2:2 here). Space will not allow me to chase the rabbit of the notion of “free will” very far here, except to say that free will doesn’t exist, as typically posited. This is because the will of any creature is bound by its nature. Suppose, for example, we had a donkey and placed before it a t-bone steak and a bunch of carrots. Which one would it choose? It would choose the carrots, of course. Set the same objects before a lion, and it will always choose the steak. Why? Their choices are governed by their natures. A donkey is an herbivore, and a lion is a carnivore. Given the choice between sinning and glorifying God, sinners always choose sin (Rom. 3:9-18). Any idea that a sinner can choose otherwise is not rooted in reality, so it is utterly preposterous to think that a sinner could choose Christ purely by virtue of the power of his own will (dead men, for instance, cannot will themselves alive, Eph. 2:1-3). Let anyone who thinks otherwise demonstrate the power of his will by willing himself never to sin the rest of his life, that is, to keep the whole moral law perfectly in thought, word, and deed. Impossible? Exactly!

This is why the Savior came. Even the very word Savior is instructive here. Jesus came to save His people from their sins (Mt. 1:21). In “universal” atonement, Christ functions merely as a sponsor who makes salvation possible, rather than a Savior who actually saves. I’ll take the Savior rather than a sponsor any day: food for thought this first day of Advent!

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes:

Nov. 30: 4.17.46 – 4.18.1

Dec. 1: 4.18.2 – 4.18.7

Dec. 2: 4.18.8 – 4.18.13

Dec. 3: 4.18.14 – 4.18.20

Dec. 4: 4.19.1 – 4.19.6




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Week 47 of 50 in the Institutes: What It Means to Eat Worthily

I wonder how many people are pleasantly surprised and comforted by Calvin’s teaching on what it means to eat the bread or drink the cup in a manner unworthy of the Lord (1 Cor. 11:27). This is yet another instance where the real Calvin turns out to be more pastoral than his caricature.

I know in the Independent Baptist church where I partook of communion for the first time as a teenager, that 1 Cor. 11 passage was used to instill fear and anxiety rather than to encourage and nurture faith. Calvin gloriously does the latter (4.17.41, emphasis added to Beveridge’s translation):

In seeking to prepare for eating worthily, men have often dreadfully harassed and tortured miserable consciences, and yet have in no degree attained the end. They have said that those eat worthily who are in a state of grace. Being in a state of grace, they have interpreted to be pure and free from all sin. By this definition, all the men that ever have been, and are upon the earth, were debarred from the use of this sacrament. For if we are to seek our worthiness from ourselves, it is all over with us; only despair and fatal ruin await us.

Ironically, partaking worthily of the Lord’s Supper means coming to terms with and confessing one’s utter unworthiness, hence relying completely on Jesus Christ (4.17.42, emphases added):

Therefore, lest we should rush over such a precipice, let us remember that this sacred feast is medicine to the sick, comfort to the sinner, and bounty to the poor; while to the healthy, the righteous, and the rich, if any such could be found, it would be of no value. For while Christ is therein given us for food, we perceive that without him we fail, pine, and waste away, just as hunger destroys the vigour of the body. Next, as he is given for life, we perceive that without him we are certainly dead. Wherefore, the best and only worthiness which we can bring to God, is to offer him our own vileness, and, if I may so speak, unworthiness, that his mercy may make us worthy; to despond in ourselves, that we may be consoled in him; to humble ourselves, that we may be elevated by him; to accuse ourselves, that we may be justified by him; to aspire, moreover, to the unity which he recommends in the Supper; and, as he makes us all one in himself, to desire to have all one soul, one heart, one tongue. If we ponder and meditate on these things, we may be shaken, but will never be overwhelmed by such considerations as these, how shall we, who are devoid of all good, polluted by the defilements of sin, and half dead, worthily eat the body of the Lord? We shall rather consider that we, who are poor, are coming to a benevolent giver, sick to a physician, sinful to the author of righteousness, in fine, dead to him who gives life; that worthiness which is commanded by God, consists especially in faith, which places all things in Christ, nothing in ourselves, and in charity, charity which, though imperfect, it may be sufficient to offer to God, that he may increase it, since it cannot be fully rendered.

But Calvin didn’t stop here with these strong encouragements and exhortations to look by faith to Christ as poor contrite sinners. Knowing the deceitfulness of the human heart and how prone we are to insert our own works at the slightest opportunity, he had this rebuff against any attempt to smuggle in human effort under the guise of faith and love, both of which are found in Christ alone as well (4.17.42, emphasis added):

Some, concurring with us in holding that worthiness consists in faith and charity, have widely erred in regard to the measure of worthiness, demanding a perfection of faith to which nothing can be added, and a charity equivalent to that which Christ manifested towards us. And in this way, just as the other class, they debar all men from access to this sacred feast. For, were their view well founded, every one who receives must receive unworthily, since all, without exception, are guilty, and chargeable with imperfection. And certainly it were too stupid, not to say idiotical, to require to the receiving of the sacrament a perfection which would render the sacrament vain and superfluous, because it was not instituted for the perfect, but for the infirm and weak, to stir up, excite, stimulate, exercise the feeling of faith and charity, and at the same time correct the deficiency of both.

It’s a shorter reading assignment due to Thanksgiving holidays this week. Enjoy and be thankful!

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes:

Nov. 23: 4.17.33 – 4.17.34

Nov. 24: 4.17.35 – 4.17.39

Nov. 25: 4.17.40 – 4.17.45



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Week 46 of 50 in the Institutes: The Definition of “Is”

Reading this week’s assignment reminded me of a bit of parsing a former American President did with the English language when giving testimony under oath: “It all depends on what the definition of ‘is’ is”.

Calvin went to some length to show that the Lord’s assertion that “this is my body” (Mt. 26:26; Mk 14:22 1 Cor. 11:24) must rightly be understood as a figure of speech, namely, a metonymy.  Any failure to recognize the expression as such results in the absurdity of the literal (4.17.21):

I say that the expression which is uniformly used in Scripture, when the sacred mysteries are treated of, is metonymical. For you cannot otherwise understand the expressions, that circumcision is a “covenant”—that the lamb is the Lord’s “passover”—that the sacrifices of the law are expiations—that the rock from which the water flowed in the desert was Christ,—unless you interpret them metonymically.  Nor is the name merely transferred from the superior to the inferior, but, on the contrary, the name of the visible sign is given to the thing signified, as when God is said to have appeared to Moses in the bush; the ark of the covenant is called God, and the face of God, and the dove is called the Holy Spirit.  For although the sign differs essentially from the thing signified, the latter being spiritual and heavenly, the former corporeal and visible,—yet, as it not only figures the thing which it is employed to represent as a naked and empty badge, but also truly exhibits it, why should not its name be justly applied to the thing? But if symbols humanly devised, which are rather the images of absent than the marks of present things, and of which they are very often most fallacious types, are sometimes honoured with their names,—with much greater reason do the institutions of God borrow the names of things, of which they always bear a sure, and by no means fallacious signification, and have the reality annexed to them.

Dr. Derek Thomas did a nice job describing the literary nature of Scripture in the blog for Nov. 18th.  Many exegetical fallacies would be avoided if these literary devices occurring throughout Scripture were taken into account routinely.

As for Calvin’s own view of the Lord’s Supper, he takes the reader to sacred ground which consists of the very presence of Christ himself, rooted in the believer’s union and communion with Him. Rather than thinking that Christ comes down to us (either in transubstantiation or consubstantiation), we must realize that believers are lifted up to him through the working of the Spirit which unites us to Christ, as Calvin put it.  How this happens, he says, is mystery which is more to be experienced than fully comprehended or declared (4.17.32):

Now, should any one ask me as to the mode, I will not be ashamed to confess that it is too high a mystery either for my mind to comprehend or my words to express; and to speak more plainly, I rather feel than understand it. The truth of God, therefore, in which I can safely rest, I here embrace without controversy. He declares that his flesh is the meat, his blood the drink, of my soul; I give my soul to him to be fed with such food. In his sacred Supper he bids me take, eat, and drink his body and blood under the symbols of bread and wine. I have no doubt that he will truly give and I receive.

In his book, The Lord’s Supper, Thomas Watson noted how carnal persons fail to “discern the Lord’s body”, being totally oblivious to what Calvin described above:

“The manna lay round about Israel’s camp, and they knew it now: ‘They wist not what it was’ (Exod. 16:15).  So carnal persons see the external elements, but Christ is not known to them in his saving virtues: there is honey in the Spiritual Rock, which they never taste.  They feed on the bread, but not Christ in the bread: ‘They eat the bread of the Lord, but not the Bread which is the Lord.’  Isaac ate the kid, when he thought it had been venison (Gen. 27:25).  Unbelievers go away with the shadow of the sacrament; they have the rind and the husk, not the marrow.  They eat the kid, not the venison.” 

Until we put off this flesh, may we truly know and experience often the blessed truth of our Lord’s command: “Take, eat, this is my body.”

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes

Nov. 16: 4.17.12 – 4.17.15

Nov. 17: 4.17.16 – 4.17.20

Nov. 18: 4.17.21 – 4.17.24

Nov. 19: 4.17.25 – 4.17.28

Nov. 20: 4.17.29 – 4.17.32

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Week 45 of 50 in the Institutes: High Maintenance Christianity

An owner of a Harley Davidson recently told me that those bikes are nice to have and ride, but that they are high maintenance.  So unless you have deep pockets and can pay to have the maintenance done regularly by someone else, be prepared to turn a wrench yourself, he warned.  Owning a Harley has never been a dream of mine, and that sage advice snuffed out whatever sliver of a notion of Harley ownership that may have lurked deep down in my subconscious.  I can think of a thousand other things I would rather do in my spare time besides doing motorcycle, car, house, or any other kind of maintenance, for that matter.

Fortunately for us all, it is not so with our Lord and Savior, because every Christian is “high maintenance”.  The sacraments illustrate this truth vividly. As Sinclair Ferguson pointed out (Nov. 10 blog, below), both baptism and the Lord’s Supper point to Christ, just with different emphases on union with Him.  Baptism points to a once-for-all initiation into Christ, underscoring something done to us, not something that we do ourselves.  The Lord’s Supper points to communion which involves discerning the Lord’s body, examination, proclaiming the Lord’s death, and celebrating in remembrance of Christ.  Both sacraments underscore a total dependence on the Lord: the epitome of high maintenance.

So let’s “ride” with this analogy for a moment.  A Harley has a gas tank that can be filled so that it can at least run a while without being tethered to a gas pump.  But apart from Christ, we can do nothing: there is no life, no vitality, no sustenance, nothing at all, except the vast emptiness of death. Christ alone is the bread of life.  How appropriate and kind it is of our Lord in instituting the Supper to provide us with a vivid reminder of this truth, and to sustain us with spiritual food regularly through its observance.

Harley’s can have all kinds of problems.  A search of the internet turns up several items (tail lights, fuel tanks, brake light and fluid, etc.).  Mankind, on the other hand, only has one problem: sin.  Every problem in this world ultimately falls under that category, and sin entered by the transgression of the first Adam.  But life and light are found exclusively in the second Adam, Jesus Christ.

Consequently, being the high maintenance people that we all are, the only way to honor and glorify the Savior, as depicted in the sacraments, is to own our brokenness.  This is the message of Psa. 116:12-14 (part of the Egyptian Hallel comprised of Psa. 113-118, used during the Passover):

“What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me?  I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord, I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people.” (ESV)

Here we see that the Lord’s goodness is first repaid by taking ever more and more of it!  No other response is rooted in reality, for He alone has the words of life, and He is the only Savior.  So the person with true knowledge of himself and God engages in daily “commutation” with the Lord Jesus Christ.  He recognizes and confesses his sin, looking unto Christ’s righteousness in a glorious exchange, John Owen put it:

“They hearken to the voice of Christ calling them to him with their burden, ‘Come unto me, all ye that are weary and heavy laden;’ – ‘Come with your burdens; come, thou poor soul, with thy guilt of sin.’  Why?  What to do? ‘Why, this is mine,’ saith Christ; ‘this agreement I made with my Father, that I should come, and take thy sins, and bear them away: they were my lot.  Give me thy burden, give me all thy sins.  Thou knowest not what to do with them; I know how to dispose of them well enough, so that God shall be glorified, and thy soul delivered.’”  (John Owen, On Communion With God, vol. 2 of The Works of John Owen, p. 194; available online here)

Harley’s are big bikes.  In the sacraments we are confronted with the enormity of our sin, but, wonder of wonders, we discover an ever larger Savior.  So in the final analysis, “high maintenance Christianity” is the only authentic kind there is.  Glory be to Him!

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes

Nov. 9: 4.16.20 – 4.16.24

Nov. 10: 4.16.25 – 4.16.30

Nov. 11: 4.16.31 – 4.16.32

Nov. 12: 4.17.1 – 4.17.5

Nov. 13: 4.17.6 – 4.17.11

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Week 44 of 50 in the Institutes: Credobaptism – the Appendicitis of “Reformed” Theology?

Is it fair to compare credobaptism (believer’s baptism) to appendicitis?  This comparison popped into my head when reading 4.16.1 through 4.16.5 (upcoming Nov. 4 assignment).  This is because in the opening sentence of chapter 16 (4.16.1), Calvin referred to the entire chapter as an “appendix” added to restrain the fury of those in his day who raged against the doctrine of infant baptism.  Then in 4.16.5 when showing how infants are participants in the covenant, Calvin refers to the sign of baptism as an appendix (McNeill-Battles; Beveridge renders it “appendage”) of the word, as applied to infants.

Now here is where the connection with appendicitis comes in.  Calvin enumerated two marks of the true church back in 4.1.9.  The first mark was for the Word of God to be purely preached and heard. The second was for the sacraments to be administered according to Christ’s institution.  Even the most casual reader of 4.16 must conclude that Calvin thought infant baptism to be essential to a proper administration of the sacraments (he identified the source of attacks against this doctrine as being from Satan himself; see 4.16.32).  So it stands to reason that any “inflammation”, so to speak, over the doctrine of infant baptism, cannot be allowed to fester in the body, and must be removed.  That seems to be the guiding principle Calvin follows as chapter 16 unfolds.  At the end of the chapter he delivers what Sinclair Ferguson described as “twenty theological karate chops” against Servetus (an Anabaptist heretic, later executed) over his railings against infant baptism.

In the final analysis, though, I felt let down by Calvin’s overall handling of infant baptism, and if I had to give it a grade, I would assign it a B+.  Calvin left too many threads of thought dangling in mid-air to merit a higher grade.  For instance, Calvin was indifferent about the mode of baptism, as he flatly stated in 4.15.19:

Whether the person baptised is to be wholly immersed, and that whether once or thrice, or whether he is only to be sprinkled with water, is not of the least consequence: churches should be at liberty to adopt either, according to the diversity of climates, although it is evident that the term baptise means to immerse, and that this was the form used by the primitive Church.

But then later on in 4.16.2 when dealing with the meaning of baptism, Calvin seemed to imply that outward sprinkling lies at the core of a right understanding of the true meaning of baptism without any subsequent elaboration.  After reading the following, I hastened on to finish the entire chapter hoping for some development on the topic, only to be severely disappointed:

In the first place, then, it is a well-known doctrine, and one as to which all the pious are agreed,—that the right consideration of signs does not lie merely in the outward ceremonies, but depends chiefly on the promise and the spiritual mysteries, to typify which the ceremonies themselves are appointed. He, therefore, who would thoroughly understand the effect of baptism—its object and true character—must not stop short at the element and corporeal object but look forward to the divine promises which are therein offered to us, and rise to the internal secrets which are therein represented. He who understands these has reached the solid truth, and, so to speak, the whole substance of baptism, and will thence perceive the nature and use of outward sprinkling. (emphasis added)

Calvin apparently felt no need whatever to reconcile these diverse practices by the ancient church with regard to baptism.  Perhaps you noticed in the passage cited above from 4.15.19 how Calvin casually conceded that baptize means “to immerse”, along with his observation that this was the form used by the primitive Church.  Later on in 4.16.8 we find Calvin asserting that there is no ancient writer that does not trace the origin of infant baptism back to the apostles.  Given the number of times Calvin pointed out the differences in the administration of baptism to adults versus infants, the reader is abandoned to conclude, because of these glaring gaps in Calvin’s treatment, that he considered immersion to be predominant for adults from ancient times, and sprinkling of infants to be just as ancient.  But by failing to fill in the blanks with regard to how sprinkling is core to a right understanding of the whole substance of baptism, Calvin armed his opponents with ample room to find fault with his “appendix”.  Given enough time and subsequent reviews, perhaps this is one section Calvin would have revised if there had been another version of the Institutes issued after 1559.

I characterize Calvin’s concession that “baptize” means immersion as casual because that definition was so hotly debated when the Scriptures were being translated into English that the translators simply brought the Greek word in as a transliteration.  Any consultation of a Greek lexicon today will reveal that the term may mean: 1) to dip, immerge, submerge; 2) to clean, to wash, to make clean with water; 3) metaphorically, to overwhelm (Thayer’s).  With regard to this metaphorical usage, I recall Sinclair Ferguson pointing out how that baptize was used once in a classical Greek text to refer to blood falling into water and overcoming (that is, baptizing) it.  I expected Calvin to point out the times in the OT where purification was generally effected by sprinkling (as noted by Louis Berkhof for Num. 8:7; 19:13, 18, 19, 20; Ps. 51:7; Ezek. 36:25; Heb. 9:10, 13).  Or he could have pointed out how baptism with the Spirit in the NT occurred via sprinkling rather than immersion (Mt. 3:11; 1 Cor. 12:13).  In addition, there are several baptisms in the NT which likely involved sprinkling instead of immersion.  The baptism of the Philippian jailor and his household most certainly involved sprinkling (Acts 16:33), since it is hardly likely they escorted everyone down to the river, but rather performed the baptisms in the home of the jailor himself, where immersion would have been impractical if not impossible.

Calvin did a nice job of showing the anagogic relationship between circumcision and baptism, so no marks off on that topic.   In keeping with this, years ago when I became convinced of paedobaptism over against credobaptism, I ran across an article online which I haven’t been able to relocate.  It traced the progression in the book of Acts with regard to baptism replacing circumcision. In the Old Testament, the sign of circumcision was only for men of the nation of Israel and male proselytes.  In the New Testament as the gospel goes forth, we find an ever expanding circle of people now eligible to receive the sign of the covenant: men and women (8:12); a eunuch (8:38); and Gentiles (18:8).  Under the OT economy, those who were castrated were prohibited from entering the assembly of the Lord to the tenth generation (Deut. 23:1-2), so it is not insignificant to have the baptism of a eunuch on record for us in the NT.  Christ’s coming didn’t lessen or curtail the grace of the Father, but instead had quite the opposite effect (4.16.6).  To Him be the glory!

So in the spirit of Calvin’s tone in these sections, I have to refer back to an earlier post in closing here: just because you are a five-pointer doesn’t mean you are a Calvinist.  Calvin, it seems, would have considered “Reformed Baptist” to be an oxymoron.  But no one’s perfect: not even Calvin.

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes

Nov. 2: 4.15.9 – 4.15.16

Nov. 3: 4.15.17 – 4.15.22

Nov. 4: 4.16.1 – 4.16.6

Nov. 5: 4.16.7 – 4.16.13

Nov. 6: 4.16.14 – 4.16.19


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