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: