Posted by: joelrbeeke | July 28, 2008

John Calvin on Piety – Part Four

Piety’s Major Theme: Communion and Participation

The heartbeat of Calvin’s practical theology and piety is communion (communio) with Christ. This involves participation (participatio) in His benefits, which are inseparable from union with Christ.  The Confessio Fidei de Eucharistia (1537), signed by Calvin, Martin Bucer, and Wolfgang Capito, supported this emphasis.  However, Calvin’s communion with Christ was not shaped by his doctrine of the Lord’s Supper; rather, his emphasis on spiritual communion with Christ helped shape his concept of the sacrament.
Similarly, the concepts of communio and participatio helped shape Calvin’s understanding of regeneration, faith, justification, sanctification, assurance, election, and the church. He could not speak of any doctrine apart from communion with Christ. That is the heart of Calvin’s system of theology.

Piety’s Double Bond: The Spirit and Faith

Communion with Christ is realized only through Spirit-worked faith, Calvin teaches. It is actual communion not because believers participate in the essence of Christ’s nature, but because the Spirit of Christ unites believers so intimately to Christ that they become flesh of His flesh and bone of His bone. From God’s perspective, the Spirit is the bond between Christ and believers, whereas from our perspective, faith is the bond. These perspectives do not clash with each other, since one of the Spirit’s principal operations is to work faith in a sinner.
Only the Spirit can unite Christ in heaven with the believer on earth. Just as the Spirit united heaven and earth in the Incarnation, so in regeneration the Spirit raises the elect from earth to commune with Christ in heaven and brings Christ into the hearts and lives of the elect on earth.  Communion with Christ is always the result of the Spirit’s work—a work that is astonishing and experiential rather than comprehensible.  The Holy Spirit is thus the link that binds the believer to Christ and the channel through which Christ is communicated to the believer.  As Calvin writes to Peter Martyr: “We grow up together with Christ into one body, and he shares his Spirit with us, through whose hidden operation he has become ours. Believers receive this communion with Christ at the same time as their calling. But they grow from day to day more and more in this communion, in proportion to the life of Christ growing within them.”
Calvin moves beyond Luther in this emphasis on communion with Christ. Calvin stresses that, by His Spirit, Christ empowers those who are united with Him by faith. Being “engrafted into the death of Christ, we derive from it a secret energy, as the twig does from the root,” he writes. The believer “is animated by the secret power of Christ; so that Christ may be said to live and grow in him; for as the soul enlivens the body, so Christ imparts life to his members.”
Like Luther, Calvin believes that knowledge is fundamental to faith. Such knowledge includes the Word of God as well as the proclamation of the gospel.   Since the written Word is exemplified in the living Word, Jesus Christ, faith cannot be separated from Christ, in whom all God’s promises are fulfilled.  The work of the Spirit does not supplement or supersede the revelation of Scripture, but authenticates it, Calvin teaches. “Take away the Word, and no faith will remain,” Calvin says.
Faith unites the believer to Christ by means of the Word, enabling the believer to receive Christ as He is clothed in the gospel and graciously offered by the Father.  By faith, God also dwells in the believer. Consequently, Calvin says, “We ought not to separate Christ from ourselves or ourselves from him,” but participate in Christ by faith, for this “revives us from death to make us a new creature.”
By faith, the believer possesses Christ and grows in Him. What’s more, the degree of his faith exercised through the Word determines his degree of communion with Christ.  “Everything which faith should contemplate is exhibited to us in Christ,” Calvin writes.  Though Christ remains in heaven, the believer who excels in piety learns to grasp Christ so firmly by faith that Christ dwells within his heart.  By faith the pious live by what they find in Christ rather than by what they find in themselves.
Looking to Christ for assurance, therefore, means looking at ourselves in Christ. As David Willis-Watkins writes, “Assurance of salvation is a derivative self-knowledge, whose focus remains on Christ as united to his body, the Church, of which we are members.”

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