Sunday, January 13, 2008

Calvin's Insitutes: On the sacraments

[continued from here]

Calvin stated that Baptism and the Lord's Supper are sacraments. Now, Baptists typically call them ordinances and deny them the name of sacraments. But what are the differences between these two terms? Let us look as to how Calvin defined the very concepts of sacraments, and evaluate them accordingly as to what they should be called. After all, no one ever denies that these are ordinances, since the concept of 'ordinance' only mean that they have been ordained by Christ. But of course, Baptists have a problem, since a few things seem to be ordained by Christ also, like feet-washing (cf Jn. 13:14). Of course, I do know one way of how this issue is handled by the Baptists, but that does not make the term 'ordinance' is a specific enough term to be limited to only Baptism and the Lord's Supper.

In his Institutes, Calvin wrote the following:

First, we must attend to what a sacrament is. 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 promise 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 therefore 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, ... (Vol. II, p. 492)

... that the sacraments are truly termed evidences of divine grace, and as it were, seals of the good-will which He entertains toward us. They, by sealing it to us, sustain, nourish, confirm, and increase our faith. (Vol. II, p. 496)

For the schools of the Sophists have taught that with general consent that the sacraments of the new law, in other words, these now in use in the Christian Church, justify, and confer grace, provided only that we do not interpose the obstacle of mortal sin. It is impossible to describe how fatal and pestilential this sentiment is, and the more so, that for many ages it has, to the great loss of the Church, prevailed over a considerable part of the world. It is plainly of the devil: for first, in promosing a righteousness without faith, it drives souls headlong on destruction; secondly, in deriving a cause of righteousness from the sacraments, it entails miserable minds, already of their own accord too much inclined to the earth, in a superstitious idea, which makes them acquiesce in the spectacle of a corporal object rather than in God Himself. ... For what is a sacrament received without faith, but most certain destruction to the Church? (Vol. II, p. 501)

He [God] alone can give the sign, and bear witness to Himself. ... There never can be a sacrament without a promise of salvation. All men collected into one canot, of themselves, give us any promise of salvation, and., therefore, they cannot 0f themselves, give out and set upn a sacrament. (Vol. II, p. 620)

A sacrament ought to be a testimony of the good will of God toward us. (Vol. II, p. 624)

For in a sacrament, the thing required is not only that it be a work of God, but that it be an external ceremony appointed by God to confirm a promise. (Vol. II, p. 647)

From this, it can be seen that foundational to the concept of Sacraments is that they signify something gracious being done by God through that action. In fact, to be more precise, we could use the terms signs and seals, echoing the statements made about them in the Westminster Confession of Faith.

I. Sacraments are holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace, immediately instituted by God, to represent Christ and his benefits, and to confirm our interest in him: as also to put a visible difference between those that belong unto the Church, and the rest of the world; and solemnly to engage them to the service of God in Christ, according to his Word.

II. There is in every sacrament a spiritual relation, or sacramental union, between the sign and the thing signified; whence it comes to pass that the names and effects of the one are attributed to the other. (WCF, Chapter XXVII — On the sacraments)

By means of the sacraments being signs, they function as evidences to us of the divine reality signified through them. Thus, they are "a testimony of the divine favor" (Vol. II, p. 492), "evidences of divine grace" (Vol. II, p. 496), and "testimony of the good-will of God towards us" (Vol. II, p. 624). Unlike any other ordinary ordinances therefore, the sacraments (Baptism and the Lord's Supper) point to a larger spiritual reality rather than just being instituted for remembrance's sake alone. For example, Baptism signifies the dying of the Old Man and the putting on of the New, into the grace of salvation, while the Lord's Supper points to the Atonement of Christ and the New Covenant that He instituted in the New Testament — the fulfilment of all the Covenant promises in Him and the actualization of the true significance of all the ceremonial rituals previously given. They are not just mere remembrances that we do because Christ has told us to do so.

Of course, what riles the Baptists up is not this per se, but the insinuation that such ordinances are gracious in their outworking. First of all, it must be stated that Calvin and the Reformed community in general, and most definitely the Bible, rejects the entire sacramentalist idea of sacraments confering grace Ex opere operato. For Calvin, this can be seen in the passage quoted above from p. 501 of volume 2, where he refuted the Sophists who believed "in deriving a cause of righteousness from the sacraments". Although sacraments have a gracious outworking in them, they are not gracious because they are sacraments, but because God is pleased to use them (when done in God's way) to grant us grace. Of course, the next question that would be asked is of what grace this is then, which we shall cover a bit later.

Before that, what does it mean for a sacrament to be a seal? This is reflected in the phrases by Calvin when he states that they "sustain, nourish, confirm, and increase our faith" (Vol. II, p. 496), having a "promise of salvation" (Vol. II, p. 620), and "appointed by God to confirm a promise" (Vol. II, p. 647). From this, I do not see that Calvin meant that partaking of the sacraments by themselves will 'magically' increase our faith etc. Rather, when we refer to the sacraments as seals, it seems to be the case that this meant that assuring grace which is given as we participate in it with a right spirit, or as Calvin puts it, our "corresponding attestation of our faith towards Him" (Vol. II, p. 492). In other words, the seals function as we partake of it rightly. In Baptism, therefore, we will have a larger measure of assurance through the grace of God because we have publicly identified with Christ totally (as our Prophet, Priest and King). Similarly, in the Lord's Supper, we would have the assuring and comforting grace of God with us that we are His, and He has died and paid the penalty for our sins, which ought to confirm and increase our faith.

We now come to the issue of the grace of God. In what way are the sacraments to be considered as gracious? Also, since it is denied that they confer grace by their operation, then how is it gracious? Well, they should be understood as ordiances whereby God is pleased to visit His people with His grace, not be confering it based on the fact that the ritual is performed, but by giving it to those whose hearts are prepared for it when they are done validly. As visible signs, they are the only physical aids to the flesh instituted by our Lord Jesus Christ in a life of spiritual reality. And thus because God so condescends to us by displaying spiritual realities in a manner which caters to our weakness (through our physical senses), saints, especially the weaker ones, would feel the reality of Christian truths much easier. Such is the grace which the sacraments give to us, and that is why they are termed here assuring and confirming grace, because that is their function.

In conclusion, it can be seen that the sacraments are not just mere ordinances, because they are grace-imparting signs and seals of God's Covenant of Grace with us. May we therefore learn to treasure them more and participate in them more fully, with the right attitude of spirit and mind.

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