Posted by: joelrbeeke | August 19, 2008

John Calvin on Piety – Part Seven

Piety in the Sacraments

Calvin defines the sacraments as testimonies “of divine grace toward us, confirmed by an outward sign, with mutual attestation of our piety toward him.”  The sacraments are “exercises of piety.” They foster and strengthen our faith, and help us offer ourselves as a living sacrifice to God. For Calvin, as for Augustine, the sacraments are the visible Word. The preached Word comes through our ears; the visible Word, through our eyes. The sacraments hold forth the same Christ as the preached Word but communicate Him through a different mode. In the sacraments, God accommodates Himself to our weakness, Calvin says. When we hear the Word indiscriminately proclaimed, we may wonder: “Is it truly for me? Does it really reach me?” However, in the sacraments God reaches out and touches us individually, and says, “Yes, it’s for you. The promise extends to you.” The sacraments thus minister to human weakness by personalizing the promises for those who trust Christ for salvation.

God comes to His people in the sacraments, encourages them, enables them to know Christ better, builds them up, and nourishes them in Him. Baptism promotes piety as a symbol of how believers are engrafted into Christ, renewed by the Spirit, and adopted into the family of the heavenly Father.  Likewise, the Lord’s Supper shows how these adopted children are fed by their loving Father. Calvin loves to refer to the Supper as nourishment for the soul. “The signs are bread and wine which represent for us the invisible food that we receive from the flesh and blood of Christ,” he writes. “Christ is the only food of our soul, and therefore our heavenly Father invites us to Christ, that refreshed by partaking of him, we may repeatedly gather strength until we shall have reached heavenly immortality.”

As believers, we need constant nourishment.  We never reach a place where we no longer need to hear the Word, to pray, or to be nurtured by the sacraments. We must constantly grow and develop. As we continue to sin because of our old nature, we are in constant need of forgiveness and grace. So the Supper, along with the preaching of the Word, repeatedly reminds us that we need Christ, and we need to be renewed and built up in Him. The sacraments promise that Christ is present to receive us, bless us, and renew us.

For Calvin, the word conversion doesn’t just mean the initial act of coming to faith; it also means daily renewal and growth in following Christ. The sacraments lead the way to this daily conversion, Calvin says. They tell us that we need the grace of Christ every day. We must draw strength from Christ, particularly through the body that He sacrificed for us on the cross.

As Calvin writes, “For as the eternal Word of God is the fountain of life so his flesh is the channel to pour out to us the life which resides intrinsically in his divinity. For in his flesh was accomplished man’s redemption, in it a sacrifice was offered to atone for sin, and obedience yielded to God to reconcile him to us. It was also filled with the sanctification of the Holy Spirit. Finally having overcome death he was received into the heavenly glory.”  In other words, the Spirit sanctified Christ’s body, which Christ offered on the cross to atone for sin. That body was raised from the dead and received up into heaven. At every stage of our redemption, Christ’s body is the pathway to God. In the Supper, then, Christ comes to us and says: “My body is still given for you. By faith you may commune with me and my body and all of its saving benefits.”

Calvin teaches that Christ gives Himself to us in the Supper, not just His benefits, just as He gives us Himself and His benefits in the preaching of the Word. Christ also makes us part of His body as He gives us Himself. Calvin cannot precisely explain how that happens in the Supper, for it is better experienced than explained.  However, he does say that Christ does not leave heaven to enter the bread. Rather, in the Holy Supper, we are called to lift up our hearts to heaven, where Christ is, and not cling to the external bread and wine.

We are lifted up through the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. As Calvin writes, “Christ, then, is absent from us in respect of his body, but dwelling in us by his Spirit, he raises us to heaven to himself, transfusing into us the vivifying vigor of his flesh just as the rays of the sun invigorate us by his vital warmth.”  Partaking of the flesh of Christ is a spiritual act rather than a carnal act that involves a “transfusion of substance.”
The sacraments can be seen as ladders by which we climb to heaven. “Because we are unable to fly high enough to draw near to God, he has ordained sacraments for us, like ladders,” Calvin says. “If a man wishes to leap on high, he will break his neck in the attempt, but if he has steps, he will be able to proceed with confidence. So also, if we are to reach our God, we must use the means which he has instituted since he knows what is suitable for us. God has then given us this wonderful support and encouragement and strength in our weakness.”

We must never worship the bread because Christ is not in the bread, but we find Christ through the bread, Calvin says. Just as our mouths receive bread to nourish our physical bodies, so our souls, by faith, receive Christ’s body and blood to nourish our spiritual lives. When we meet Christ in the sacraments, we grow in grace; that is why they are called a means of grace.  The sacraments encourage us in our progress toward heaven. They promote confidence in God’s promises through Christ’s “signified and sealed” redemptive death. Since they are covenants, they contain promises by which “consciences may be roused to an assurance of salvation,” Calvin says.  The sacraments offer “peace of conscience” and “a special assurance” when the Spirit enables the believer to “see” the Word engraved upon the sacraments.

Finally, the sacraments promote piety by prompting us to thank and praise God for His abundant grace. They require us to “attest our piety toward him.” As Calvin says, “The Lord recalls the great bounty of his goodness to our memory and stirs us up to acknowledge it; and at the same time he admonishes us not be ungrateful for such lavish liberality, but rather to proclaim it with fitting praises and to celebrate [the Lord’s Supper] by giving thanks.”

Two things happen in the Supper: the receiving of Christ and the surrender of the believer. The Lord’s Supper is not eucharistic from God’s perspective, Calvin says, for Christ is not offered afresh. Nor is it eucharistic in terms of man’s merit, for we can offer God nothing by way of sacrifice. But it is eucharistic in terms of our thanksgiving.  That sacrifice is an indispensable part of the Lord’s Supper which, Calvin says, includes “all the duties of love.”  The Eucharist is an agape feast in which communicants cherish each other and testify of the bond that they enjoy with each other in the unity of the body of Christ.

We offer this sacrifice of gratitude in response to Christ’s sacrifice for us. We surrender our lives in response to the heavenly banquet God spreads for us in the Supper. By the Spirit’s grace, the Supper enables us as a royal priesthood to offer ourselves as a living sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to God. The Lord’s Supper thus prompts both piety of grace and piety of gratitude, as Brian Gerrish has shown.  The Father’s liberality and His children’s grateful response are a recurrent theme in Calvin’s theology. “We should so revere such a father with grateful piety and burning love,” Calvin admonishes us, “as to devote ourselves wholly to his obedience and honor him in everything.”  The Supper is the liturgical enactment of Calvin’s themes of grace and gratitude, which lie at the heart of his piety.

In the Lord’s Supper, the human and divine elements of Calvin’s piety are held in dynamic tension. In that dynamic interchange, God moves toward the believer while His Spirit consummates the Word-based union. At the same time, the believer moves toward God by contemplating the Savior who refreshes and strengthens him. In this, God is glorified and the believer edified.

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