Molly Worthen on Mark Driscoll (and Calvin)

You should probably read Molly Worthen’s essay on Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill (HT: Justin Taylor). I don’t know if she gets Driscoll right. If (that’s a big condition. It means if the condition isn’t met then what follows is irrelevant) what she says about how they practice discipline is true, however, I suggest they look into a Reformed church order. Reformed Churches do not practice discipline that way. It usually takes us a couple years before someone is actually excommunicated and shunning is an Anabaptist practice. We have local, regional, and national assemblies to hear appeals and to give advice on matters of discipline. In our polity, our consistory cannot proceed to the final steps of discipline without consulting the regional assembly of ministers and elders!

More to the point, she resurrects the worst caricatures of Calvin. I suppose her resuscitation of them a good reminder that we have to keep repeating the history. I admit, I don’t remember hearing or reading any story about Calvin making “a man who casually criticized him at a dinner party march through the streets of Geneva, kneeling at every intersection to beg forgiveness.”  As far as I know the polity in Geneva, he didn’t have that sort of authority. Typically the Consistory fined people. I’ve never seen any instances of this sort of discipline. If everyone who criticized Calvin in Geneva was made to do this there would have been no place to walk!


As a follow-up, I admit that I don’t know much about Mark Driscoll. As a historian I’m generally much more interested in dead people than the living. I do think, however, that the R&R folks need to dig a little more deeply into the Reformed confession. We have a theology, a piety, and a practice. I’m glad that folk are enthused about aspects of the Reformation but welding those aspects to American revivalism and pietism and evangelicalism will probably create a monster. If these emerging/R&R guys want to be “Reformed” why don’t they identify themselves with the Reformed Churches? I have my guesses as to why not but it says something about folk who like Calvin’s soteriology but who reject his church.

Ms Worthen was kind enough to respond to a query about her about this passage:

The Reformed tradition’s resistance to compromise and emphasis on the purity of the worshipping community has always contained the seeds of authoritarianism: John Calvin had heretics burned at the stake and made a man who casually criticized him at a dinner party march through the streets of Geneva, kneeling at every intersection to beg forgiveness. [Benedict cites the Calvini Opera 21:21, 367, 370-77 and several secondary texts as evidence for this episode].

In fairness, Worthen has a word count and an editor so things get compressed. Nevertheless, this compressed account of Calvin’s authority in Geneva reinforces the old and false stereotypes about Calvin, Calvinism, and the Reformed Churches as inherently authoritarian and tyrannical.

Here’s the text of my reply:

Hi Molly,

I won’t detain you long.

Thanks for the quick reply and the lead. I appreciate the difficulties and compromises required by editors! You can imagine, however, that my concern is that the sort of shorthand you used feeds what P. E. Hughes called “the popular fantasy” of Calvin as tyrant of Geneva. Calvin was more refugee than tyrant. At any rate, church-state relations in Geneva were fluid and complex.

I have Benedict (Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed) in front of me (very good memory you have!) and on p. 103 he says,

“When Ameaux’s words found their way to Calvin, he demanded action from the council. It decided to have Ameaux apologize on bended knees to Calvin before the assembly of the Two Hundred, but this was not a public penance enough to suit the minister. He refused to present himself for the ceremony and was not satisfied until the council condemned Ameaux to process through the city, kneeling at every major square or intersection to proclaim his regret at having dishonored the Word of God, the magistrates, and the ministers.”

Yes, it happened because Calvin insisted, but technically it was the city council who effected the sentence and, more importantly, it was part of a metaphorically bloody political fight, dating to the mid-40s, over the direction of the city and the church. This was less about Calvin’s person than it was about the authority of the church to make ecclesiastical policy. Ameaux was a member of a party contesting the Consistory’s authority and especially Calvin’s. Benedict’s account, in this respect, is a little overdrawn. In a survey a certain amount of nuance goes by the boards.*

As to authoritarianism and Calvinism generally, there’s a serious argument, that Bruce Gordon, I, and others have advanced that Calvinism in the period was a religion of refugees not tyrants. After all no other group suffered more martyrs in that period than the Reformed.

As to Driscoll and Mars Hill, he would not be admitted as a member of most [confessional] Reformed Churches much less as a minister. He’s a typical evangelical religious entrepreneur, part of a long line of such going back to the 18th century, but he’s hardly Reformed. The Calvin-Driscoll link, in that respect, is quite tenuous.

Thanks for your time,



ps. I see Gordon has a biography of Calvin appearing in May. I expect it will be terrific.

*I should add that this followed a legal and an ecclesiastical case (Register of the Company of Pastors, 1.309-10) concerning Ameaux’s wife, so there was some history there. Further, Ameaux wasn’t just “some guy.” He was a member of the city council (i.e., a member of either the Petit Conseil or the Two Hundred, it’s not clear) and a leading member of the “Libertine” party seeking to discredit Calvin and the Reformation in Geneva. Pierre Ameaux was a businessman who manufactured playing cards. According to Bernard Cottret, Calvin, 187, “he was sentenced to make a circuit of the city, his head bare, a lighted torch in his hand.” This is a translation CO 21.377, Registres du Conseil 41, fol. 68.

Here is the text of the French:

Ameaulx. Ayans vheu le contenuz de ces responces par lesquelle nous appert que il a meschamment parle contre Dieu le magestral et M. Calvin ministre etc. comment amplement est conpensez voz que ce pays soyt vostre? il est a moy tenus en ces responces: Ordonne qui soyt conet a mes compagnyons et serez gouvernés par nous dampne a debvoyer fere le tour a la ville en chemise teste nue une torche allumee en sa maien et dempuys devant le tribunal venyr crie mercy a Dieu et a la justice les genoulx a terre confessant avoyer mal parle le condampnant aussy a tous despens et que la sentence soyt profere publiquement.

Surely it strikes us as severe today—It wasn’t for nothing that Calvin was called “The Accusative Case” by his fellow students—but remember the times and the context. See Parker, John Calvin: A Biography, 99. According to Parker, what was at stake was the authority of the Word. Was it a confusion of the two kingdoms for Calvin to demand civil penalties for being identified with the sufferings of Christ? Absolutely! From the perspective of the 2 kingdoms, Calvin might have had a case before the Consistory but not before the Two Hundred.

This post first appeared in two parts, in 2009, on the Heidelblog.

Calvin: Short Treatise On The Lord’s Supper (1541)

The following is Calvin’s Short Treatise on the Lord’s Supper (Petit traicté de la saincte cène; 1541). As general background to the theology, piety, and practice of the Lord’s Supper and to Calvin’s doctrine of the Supper, we should put this treatise in a broader and narrower context. For that I’m borrowing sections from an earlier essay, “The Evangelical Fall from the Means of Grace” published in John Armstrong, ed. The Compromised Church (Wheaton: Crossway, 1998).


Who should participate in the Lord’s Supper and how they should do it were two of the most hotly contested questions of the sixteenth-century Reformation. For both Luther and Calvin, the Supper was of critical importance as a means of grace, as a testimony to Christ’s finished work, and as a seal of His work for us. Furthermore, it was a means by which our union and fellowship with the risen Christ and with one another was strengthened and renewed. As much as the Lutherans and Reformed disagreed about the relations of Christ’s humanity to His deity and thus the nature of His presence in the Supper they agreed on one very important truth—in the Supper the living, Triune God meets His people and nourishes them. The question was not whether, but how.

The most immediate reason for our fall from the Protestant idea of the Supper as a means of grace is that we have become practical modernists. Modernism (or the Enlightenment) was a profoundly anti-Christian theology and worldview. Building upon the conclusions of the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), theologians such as Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834) and others began to remove the overtly supernatural elements from Christian theology in order to make it acceptable to the cultured despisers of religion. The task and trajectory of modernist theology has been to find a way to do theology without actually believing (in the same way as Luther and Calvin) what it actually taught. (By modernism and modernity I mean to encompass the various Enlightenment movements of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. By rationalism I mean the use of human reason and sense experience as the fulcrum by which all authorities, including Scripture, the creeds, and confessions, are levered.)

Those theologians who accepted the basic rationalist belief of modernity (man is the measure of all things) worked to find ways to express their modernism in Christian terms. Where the Reformation theologians were convinced of God’s present activity in history, modernist theologians were convinced of His present inactivity and hiddenness from us.

The modernist theology provoked a crisis and a reaction. Since we could no longer be certain of God’s existence and care for us by the old-fashioned Protestant ways (preaching of the Word and the use of the sacraments), we abandoned them for more direct and immediate means of knowing and experiencing God. This flight to the immediate encounter with God is pietism or mysticism. Pietism is not to be confused with piety. The latter is that grateful devotion to God, His Word, and His people that is at the heart of Christianity. Pietism believes that what is truly important about Christianity is one’s personal experience of Jesus; it is a retreat into the subjective experience of God apart from any concrete, historical factuality…..

American evangelicalism is a pietist, experiential religion that is too busy with cell-group meetings to be troubled with the Lord’s Supper At the same time, we have functionally excommunicated ourselves and, to borrow Calvin’s language, robbed ourselves of Christ’s benefits. The remedy for the pietist transformation of sixteenth-century Protestant evangelical religion into a religion of private, personal experience is to repent of our unbelief that God does not or cannot use created means to strengthen or edify us as His people. Here is one of the central differences between the religion of the Protestants and pietist-mysticism: Protestantism believes in the use of divinely ordained means. It also seeks to recapture those divinely ordered gospel instruments.

… For Luther and Calvin, the reformation of the church was first of all a recovery of the gospel message itself: Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, lived and died to justify helpless sinners, not to enable them to cooperate with God toward sanctification and eventual, final justification. I fear that our devotion to private exercises is, partly at least, a sort of idolatry in which we worship the “Christ of faith,” i.e., a savior of our own making. In short, it may be that we are disinterested in the Lord’s Supper because we are disinterested in the Lord Himself and His free gift of righteousness.

It is not that Calvin thought that we should love the sacraments in themselves. Rather, the sacrament of the Supper is valuable because it is an “appendix” to the preaching of God’s Word that confirms and seals (obsignet) it to the elect.Though we ought to believe the Word by itself, and it is certainly true as it stands, nevertheless the sacraments are God’s kind “gifts” (dotes) to strengthen our trust in the Word. The Christ of the Supper is the same Christ offered to us in the gospel word. Since it was not meant to be a mute witness by itself, the Supper therefore can be effective only in the context of gospel preaching.

At the heart of Calvin’s view is that the Eucharist is a supper, and even more intimately, a family meal. Scripture calls it a supper because it was given to nourish us and feed us. He called it a “spiritual feast” (spirituale epulum), a “high mystery,” and “this mystical blessing” (mystica haec benedictio) of which Satan hopes to deprive us.

How does the Supper feed us? In several ways. First, as a visible representation of the Gospel it symbolizes for us the “invisible nourishment” we receive from Christ’s flesh and blood. Just as it is Christ who is preached to us in the Gospel, so it is Christ we eat in the Supper. Not that the elements are transformed; no, they remain bread and wine. Christ, however, uses the elements to share Himself with us by the power of His deity. He is the “only food of our soul.”

We are fed by the Supper as Christ uses it to strengthen His spiritual union with us. Just as water pours from a spring, so “Christ’s flesh is like a rich and inexhaustible fountain.” Though we confess that, with respect to Christ’s humanity, he “ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of God,” nevertheless God the Spirit overcomes the spatio-temporal distance between us and the risen Christ and unites us to Him. For this reason, one does not need to think of Christ as being physically present in the elements of the table. His flesh is present by the “secret operation of the Spirit” drawing us up to Himself, not bringing Christ down to us. It is not necessary “to drag Him from heaven” for us to enjoy Him.

We eat because God has entered into a covenant with us to be our God, and He has given signs and seals to this covenant union. Thus when He calls us to the Lord’s Table, “as often as He pours out His sacred blood as our drink,” it is for the “confirmation of our faith” in which “He renews or continues the covenant once ratified in His blood.” So the Supper does not initiate faith in us; that is the function of the Spirit working through the preached Gospel. As we “constantly” eat this bread (by trusting in Christ’s imputed righteousness), so in the Supper “we are made to feel the power of the bread.” There is more to union with Christ than “mere knowledge” (simplex cognitio). Christ meant to teach something more “sublime” in John 6:53. Just as it is not “seeing” (aspectus) the bread, but “eating” (esus) it that feeds the body, it is not the mere intellectual apprehension of Christ that is saving faith, but “the soul must partake of Christ truly and deeply,” entering into His promises.

The prime benefit of this mystical Supper with earthy elements is that by it the Holy Spirit works assurance of our faith. Christ is the object of our faith. His promises are the sure foundation of our confidence. As we eat it, Christ again says to us, “You are Mine.” As we hear the promises set before us weekly in the preaching of the Gospel, so we also see them in the Supper. In this way “pious souls” can derive “great confidence and delight from the sacrament.”



1. Reason Why Many Weak Consciences Remain in Suspense as to the True Doctrine of the Supper

As the holy sacrament of the Supper of our Lord Jesus Christ has long been the subject of several important errors, and in these past years been anew enveloped in diverse opinions and contentious disputes, it is no wonder if many weak consciences cannot; fairly resolve what view they ought to take of it, but remain in doubt and perplexity, waiting till all contention being laid aside, the servants of God come to some agreement upon it. However, as it is a very perilous thing to have no certainty on an ordinance, the understanding of which is so requisite for our salvation, I have thought it might be a very useful labor to treat briefly and, nevertheless, clearly deduce a summary of what is necessary to be known

of it. I may add that I have been requested to do so by some worthy persons, whom I could not refuse without neglecting my duty. In order to rid ourselves of all difficulty, it is expedient to attend to the order which I have determined to follow.

2. The Order to be Observed in This Treatise

First, then, we will explain to what end and for what reason our Lord instituted this holy sacrament.

Secondly, What fruit and utility we receive from it, when it will

likewise be shown how the body of Jesus Christ is given to us.

Thirdly, What is the legitimate use of it.

Fourthly, We will detail the errors and superstitions with which it has been contaminated, when it will be shown how the servants of God ought to. differ from the Papists.

Lastly, We will mention what has been the source of the discussion which has been so keenly carried on, even among those who have, in our time, brought back the light of the gospel, and employed themselves in rightly edifying the Church in sound doctrine.

3. At Baptism God Receives us into His Church and as Members of His Family

In regard to the first article — Since it has pleased our good God to receive us by baptism into his Church, which is his house, which he desires to maintain and govern, and since he has received us to keep us not merely as domestics, but as his own children, it remains that, in order to do the office of a good father, he nourish and provide us with every thing necessary for our life. In regard to corporal nourishment, as it is common to all, and the bad share in it as well as the good, it is not peculiar to his family. It is very true that we have an evidence of his paternal goodness in maintaining our bodies, seeing that we partake in all the good things which he gives us with his blessing. But as the life into which he has begotten us again is spiritual, so must the food, in order to preserve and strengthen us, be spiritual also. For we should understand, that not only has he called us one day to possess his heavenly inheritance, but that by hope he has already in some measure installed us in possession; that not only has he promised us life, but already transported us into it, delivering us from death, when by adopting us as his children, he begot us again by immortal seed, namely, his word imprinted on our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

4. The Virtue and Office of the Word of God in Regard to Our Souls

To maintain us in this spiritual life, the thing requisite is not to feed our bodies with fading and corruptible food, but to nourish our souls on the best and most precious diet. Now all Scripture tells us, that the spiritual food by which our souls are maintained is. that same word by which the Lord has regenerated us; but it frequently adds the reason, viz., that in it Jesus Christ, our only life, is given and administered to us. For we must not imagine that there is life any where than in God. But just as God has placed all fullness of life in Jesus, in order to communicate it to us by his means, so he ordained his word as the instrument by which Jesus Christ, with all his graces, is dispensed to us. Still it always remains true, that our souls have no other pasture than Jesus Christ. Our heavenly Father, therefore, in his care to nourish us, gives us no other, but rather recommends us to take our fill there, as a refreshment amply sufficient, with which we cannot dispense, and. beyond which no other can be found.

5. Jesus Christ, the Only Spiritual Nourishment of Our Souls

We have already seen. that Jesus Christ is the only food by which our souls are nourished; but as it is distributed to us by the word of the Lord,which he has appointed an instrument for that purpose, that word is also called bread and water. Now what is said of the word applies as well to the sacrament of the Supper, by means of which the Lord leads us to communion with Jesus Christ. For seeing we are so weak that we cannot receive him with true heartfelt trust, when he is presented to us by simple doctrine and preaching, the Father of mercy, disdaining not to condescend in this matter to our infirmity, has been pleased to add to his word a visible sign, by which he might represent the substance of his promises, to confirm and fortify us by delivering us from all doubt and uncertainty. Since, then, there is something so mysterious and incomprehensible in saying that we have communion with the body and the blood of Jesus Christ, and we on our part are so rude and gross that we cannot understand the least things of God, it was of importance that we should be given to understand it as far as our capacity could admit.

6. The Cause Why Our Lord Instituted the Supper

Our Lord, therefore, instituted the Supper, first, in order to sign and seal in our consciences the promises contained in his gospel concerning our being made partakers of his body and blood, and to give us certainty and assurance that therein lies our true spiritual nourishment, and that having such an earnest, we may entertain a right reliance on salvation. Secondly, in order to exercise us in recognizing his great goodness toward us, and thus lead us to laud and magnify him more fully. Thirdly, in order to exhort us to all holiness and innocence, inasmuch as we are members of Jesus Christ; and specially to exhort us to union and brotherly charity, as we are expressly commanded. When we shall have well considered these three reasons, to which the Lord had respect in ordaining his Supper, we shall be able to understand, both what benefit accrues to us from it, and what is our duty in order to use it properly.

7. The Means of Knowing the Great Benefit of the Supper

It is now time to come to the second point, viz., to show how the Lord’s Supper is profitable to us, provided we use it profitably. Now we shall know its utility by reflecting on the indigence which it is meant to succor. We must necessarily be under great trouble and torment of conscience, when. we consider who we are, and examine what is in us. For not one of us can find one particle of righteousness in himself, but on the contrary we are all full of sins and iniquities, so much so that no other party is required to accuse us than our own conscience, no other judge to condemn us. It follows that the wrath of God is kindled against us, and that none can escape eternal death. If we are not asleep and stupified, this horrible thought must be a kind of perpetual hell to vex and torment us. For the judgment of God cannot come into our remembrance without letting us see that our condemnation follows as a consequence.

8. The Misery of Man

We are then already in the gulf, if God does not in mercy draw us out of it. Moreover, what hope of resurrection can we have while considering our flesh, which is only rottenness and corruption? Thus in regard to the soul, as well as the body, we are more than miserable if we remain within ourselves, and this misery cannot but produce great sadness and anguish of soul. Now our heavenly Father, to succor us in this, gives us the Supper as a mirror, in which we may contemplate our Lord Jesus Christ, crucified to take away our faults and offenses, and raised again to deliver us from corruption and death, restoring us to a celestial immortality.

9. The Supper Invites us to the Promises of Salvation

Here, then, is the singular consolation which we derive from the Supper. It directs and leads us to the cross of Jesus Christ and to his resurrection,to certify us that whatever iniquity there may be in us, the Lord nevertheless recognises and accepts us as righteous — whatever materials of death may be in us, he nevertheless gives us life — whatever misery may be in us, he nevertheless fills us with all felicity. Or to explain the matter more simply — as in ourselves we are devoid of all good, and have not one particle of what might help to procure salvation, the Supper is an attestation that, having been made partakers of the death and passion of Jesus Christ, we have every thing that is useful and salutary to us.

10. All the Treasuries of Spiritual Grace Presented in the Supper

We can therefore say, that in it the Lord displays to us all the treasures of his spiritual grace, inasmuch as he associates us in all the blessings and riches of our Lord Jesus. Let us recollect, then, that the Supper is given us as a mirror in which we may contemplate Jesus Christ crucified in order to deliver us from condemnation, and raised again in order to procure for us righteousness and eternal life. It is indeed true that this same grace is offered us by the gospel, yet as in the Supper we have more, ample certainty, and fuller enjoyment of it, with good cause do we recognize this fruit as coming from it.

11. Jesus Christ is the Substance of the Sacraments

But as the blessings of Jesus Christ do not belong to us at all, unless he be previously ours, it is necessary, first of all, that he be given us in the Supper, in order that the things which we have mentioned may be truly accomplished in us. For this reason I am wont to say, that the substance of the sacraments is the Lord Jesus, and the efficacy of them the graces and blessings which we have by his means. Now the efficacy of the Supper is to confirm to us the reconciliation which we have with God through our Savior’s death and passion; the washing of our souls which we have in the shedding of his blood; the righteousness which we have in his obedience; in short, the hope of salvation which we have in all that he has done for us. It is necessary, then, that the substance should be conjoined with these, otherwise nothing would be firm or certain. Hence we conclude that two things are presented to us in the Supper, viz., Jesus Christ as the source and substance of all good; and, secondly, the fruit and efficacy of his death and passion. This is implied in the words which were used. For after commanding us to eat his body and drink his blood, he adds that his body was delivered for us, and his blood shed for the remission of our sins. Hereby he intimates, first, that we ought not simply to communicate in his body and blood, without any other consideration, but in order to receive the fruit derived to us from his death and passion; secondly, that we can attain the enjoyment of such fruit only by participating in his body and blood, from which it is derived.

12. How the Bread is Called the Body, and the Wine the Blood of Christ

We begin now to enter on the question so much debated, both anciently and at the present time — how we are to understand the words in which the bread is called the body of Christ, and the wine his blood. This may be disposed of without much difficulty; if we carefully observe the principle which I lately laid down, viz., that all the benefit which we should seek in the Supper is annihilated if Jesus Christ be not there given to us as the substance and foundation of all. That being fixed, we will confess, without doubt, that to deny that a true communication of Jesus Christ is presented to us in the Supper, is to render this holy sacrament frivolous and useless — an execrable blasphemy unfit to be listened to.

13. What is Prerequisite in Order to Live in Jesus Christ

Moreover, if the reason for communicating with Jesus Christ is to have part and portion in all the graces which he purchased for us by his death, the thing requisite must be not only to be partakers of his Spirit, but also to participate in his humanity, in which he rendered all obedience to God his Father, in order to satisfy our debts, although, properly speaking, the one cannot be without the other; for when he gives himself to us, it is in order that we may possess him entirely. Hence, as it is said that his Spirit is our life, so he himself, with his own lips, declares that his flesh is meat indeed, and his blood drink indeed. (John 6:55.) If these words are not to go for nothing, it follows that in order to have our life in Christ our souls must feed on his body and blood as their proper food. This, then, is expressly attested in the Supper, when of the bread it is said to us that we are to take it and eat it, and that it is his body, and of the cup that we are to drink it, and that it is his blood. This is expressly spoken of the body and blood, in order that we may learn to seek there the substance of our spiritual life.

14. Of the Imperfection and Perfection of Believers

Now, although being called to do good works, we produce the fruits of our calling, ask it is said, (<420175>Luke 1:75,) that we have been redeemed in order to serve God in holiness and righteousness, we are however always encompassed with many infirmities while we live in this world. What is more, all our thoughts and affectations are so stained with impurity that no work can proceed from us which is worthy of the acceptance of God. Thus so far are we, in striving to do well, from being able to merit anything, that we always continue debtors. For God will always have just cause to blame us in whatever we do, and reward is promised to none but those who fulfill the law; which we are very far from doing. (Deuteronomy 18:5; Ezekiel 20:11; Romans 10:5; Galatians 3:12.) See then how we hold that all our merits are suppressed. It is not only that we fail in the perfect fulfillment of the law, but that also in every act there is some evil vicious taint. We are well aware that the instruction commonly given is to repair the faults we commit by satisfactions; but as the Scripture teaches us that our Lord Jesus Christ has satisfied for us, we cannot repose in any thing else than the sacrifice of his death, by which the wrath of God is appeased, wrath which no creatures could sustain. (Galatians 3:13; 4:5; Titus 2:14; 1 Peter 1:18, 19.) And the reason why we hold that we are justified by faith alone is because it is necessary for us to borrow elsewhere, namely, from our Lord Jesus Christ, that righteousness which is wanting to us, not in part but wholly.

15. Of Invocation 

It is this which gives us boldness to call upon God, for without this we should have no access, Scripture teaching that we never shall be heard while in doubt and disquietude. (Hebrews 11:6; James 1:6, 7.) Therefore we hold that our sovereign good and repose consists in being assured of the forgiveness of sins, by the faith which we have in Jesus Christ, seeing that this is the key which opens the gate that leads us to God. (Romans 4:6; James 1:32.) Now it is said that whosoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved. Still, according as Scripture teaches us, we address our prayers to God in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has become our Advocate, because without him we should not be worthy of obtaining access. (Ephesians 3:12;  Hebrews 4:16.) That we do not pray to holy men and women in common fashion, should not be imputed to us as a fault for since in all our actions we are required to have our conscience decided, we cannot observe too great sobriety in prayer. We accordingly follow the rule which has been given us, viz., that without having known him, and that his word has been preached to us in testimony of his will, we cannot call upon him. Now in regard to prayer, the whole of Scripture refers us to him only. What is more, he regards our prayers as the chief and supreme sacrifice by which we do homage to his Majesty, as he declares in the fiftieth Psalm, and hence to address our prayers to creatures, and go gadding about to this quarter and to that, is a thing which we may not do, if we would not be guilty of sacrilege. To seek other patrons or advocates than our Lord Jesus Christ, we hold not to be in our choice or liberty. True it is that we ought to pray one for another, while we are conversant here below, but as to having recourse to the dead, since Scripture does not tell us to do so, we will not attempt it, for fear of being guilty of presumption. Even the enormous abuses which have been, and still are in vogue, warn us to confine ourselves within such simplicity, as a limit which God has set to check all curiosity and boldness. For many prayers have been forged full of horrible blasphemies, such as those which request the Virgin Mary to command her Son, and exert her authority over him — and which style her the haven of salvation, the life and hope of those who trust in her.

16. The Proper Body and Blood of Jesus Christ Received Only by Faith 

Hence when we see the visible sign we must consider what it represents, and by whom it has been given us. The bread is given us to figure the body of Jesus Christ, with command to eat it, and it is given us of God, who is certain and immutable truth. If God cannot deceive or lie, it follows that it accomplishes all which it signifies. We must then truly receive in the Supper the body and blood of Jesus Christ, since the Lord there represents to us the communion of both. Were it otherwise, what could be meant by saying, that we eat the bread and drink the wine as a sign that his body is our meat and his blood our drink? If he gave us only bread and wine, leaving the spiritual reality behind, would it not be under false colors that this ordinance had been instituted?

17. The Internal Substance is Conjoined with the Visible Signs 

We must confess, then, that if the representation which God gives us in the Supper is true, the internal substance of the sacrament is conjoined with the visible signs; and as the bread is distributed to us by the hand, so the body of Christ is communicated to us in order that we may be made partakers of it. Though there should be nothing more, we have good cause to be satisfied when we understand that Jesus Christ gives us in the Supper the proper substance of his body and blood, in order that we may possess it fully, and possessing it have part in all his blessings. For seeing we have him, all the riches oil God which are comprehended in him are exhibited to us, in order that they may be ours. Thus, as a brief definition of this utility of the Supper, we may say, that Jesus Christ is there offered to us in order that we may possess him, and in him all the fullness of grace which we can desire, and that herein we have a good aid to confirm our consciences in the faith which we ought to have in him.

18. In the Supper We Are Reminded of Our Duty Towards God. 

The second benefit of the Supper is, that it admonishes and incites us more strongly to recognize the blessings which we have received, and receive daily from the Lord Jesus, in order that we may ascribe to him the praise which is due. For in ourselves we are so negligent that we rarely think of the goodness of God, if he do not arouse us from our indolence, and urge us to our duty. Now there cannot be a spur which can pierce us more to the quick than when he makes us, so to speak, see with the eye, touch with the hand, and distinctly perceive this inestimable blessing of feeding on his own substance. This he means to intimate when he commands us to show forth his death till he come. (1 Corinthians 11:26.) If it is then so essential to salvation not to overlook the gifts which God has given us, but diligently to keep them in mind, and extol them to others for mutual edification; we see another singular advantage of the Supper in this, that it draws us off from ingratitude, and allows us not to forget the benefit which our Lord Jesus bestowed upon. us in dying for us, but induces us to render him thanks, and, as it were, publicly protest how much we are indebted to him.

19. The  Sacrament a Strong Inducement to Holy Living and Brotherly Love 

The third advantage of the Sacrament consists in furnishing a most powerful incitement to live holily, and especially observe charity and brotherly love toward all. For seeing we have been made members of Jesus Christ, being incorporated into him, and united with him as our head, it is most reasonable that we should become conformable to him in purity and innocence, and especially that we should cultivate charity and concord together as becomes members of the same body. But to understand this advantage properly, we must not suppose that our Lord warns, incites, and inflames our hearts by the external sign merely; for the principal point is, that he operates in us inwardly by his Holy Spirit, in order to give efficacy to his ordinance, which he has destined for that purpose, as an instrument by which he wishes to do his work in us. Wherefore, inasmuch as the virtue of the Holy Spirit is conjoined with the sacraments when we duly receive them, we have reason to hope they will prove a good mean and aid to make us grow and advance in holiness of life, and specially in charity.

20. What it is to Pollute the Holy Supper — The Great Guilt of So Doing. 

Let us come to the third point which we proposed at the commencement of this treatise, viz., the legitimate use, which consists in reverently observing our Lord’s institution. Whoever approaches the sacrament with contempt or indifference, not caring much about following when the Lord calls him, perversely abuses, and in abusing pollutes it. Now to pollute and contaminate what God has so highly sanctified, is intolerable blasphemy. Not without cause then does St. Paul denounce such heavy condemnation on all who take it unworthily. (1 Corinthians 11:29.) For if there is nothing in heaven nor on earth of greater price and dignity than the body and blood of the Lord, it is no slight fault to take it inconsiderately and without being well prepared. Hence he exhorts us to examine ourselves carefully, in order to make the proper use of it. When we understand what this examination should be, we shall know the use after which we are inquiring.

21.The Manner of Examining Ourselves

Here it is necessary to be well on our guard. For as we cannot be too diligent in examining ourselves as the Lord enjoins, so, on the other hand, sophistical doctors have brought poor consciences into perilous perplexity, or rather into a horrible Gehenna, requiring I know not what examination, which it is not possible for any man to make. To rid ourselves of all these perplexities, we must reduce the whole, as I have already said, to the ordinance of the Lord, as the rule which, if we follow it, will not allow us to err. In following it, we have to examine whether we have true repentance in ourselves, and true faith ill our Lord Jesus Christ. These two things are so conjoined, that the one cannot subsist without the other.

22. To Participate in the Blessings of Christ, We Must Renounce All That is Our Own

If we consider our life to be placed in Christ, we must acknowledge that we are dead in ourselves. If we seek our strength in him, we must understand that in ourselves we are weak. If we think that all our felicity is in his grace, we must understand how miserable we are without it. If we have our rest in him, we must feel within ourselves only disquietude and torment. Now such feelings cannot exist without producing, first, dissatisfaction with our whole life; secondly, anxiety and fear; lastly, a desire and love of righteousness. For he who knows the turpitude of his sin and the wretchedness of his state and condition while alienated from God, is so ashamed that he is constrained to be dissatisfied with himself, to condemn himself, to sigh and groan in great sadness. Moreover, the justice of God immediately presents itself and oppresses the wretched conscience with keen anguish, from not seeing any means of escape, or having any thing to answer in defense. When under such a conviction of our misery we get a taste of the goodness of God, it is then we would wish to regulate our conduct by his will, and renounce all our bygone, life, in order to be made new creatures in him.

23. The Requisites of Worthy Communion

Hence if we would worthily communicate in the Lord’s Supper, we must with firm heart-felt reliance regard the Lord Jesus as our only righteousness, life, and salvation, receiving and accepting the promises which are given us by him as sure and certain, and renouncing all other confidence, so that distrusting ourselves and all creatures, we may rest fully in him, and be contented with his grace alone. Now as that cannot be until we know how necessary it is that he come to our aid, it is of importance to have a deep-seated conviction of our own misery, which will make us hunger and thirst after him. And, in fact, what mockery would it be to go in search of food when we have no appetite? Now to have a good appetite it is not enough that the stomach be empty, it must also be in good order and capable of receiving its food. Hence it follows that our souls must be pressed with famine and have a desire and ardent longing to be fed, in order to find their proper nourishment in the Lord’s Supper.

24. Self-Denial Necessary

Moreover, it is to be observed that we cannot desire Jesus Christ without aspiring to the righteousness of God, which consists in renouncing ourselves and obeying his will. For it is preposterous to pretend that we are of the body of Christ, while abandoning ourselves to all licentiousness, and leading a dissolute life. Since in Christ is nought but chastity, benignity, sobriety, truth, humility, and such like virtues, if we would be his members, all uncleanness, intemperance, falsehood, pride, and similar vices must be put from us. For we cannot intermingle these things with him without offering him great dishonor and insult. We ought always to remember that there is no more agreement between him and iniquity than between light and darkness. If we would come then to true repentance, we must endeavor to make our whole life conformable to the example of Jesus Christ.

25. Charity Especially Necessary

And while this must be general in every part of our life, it must be specially so in respect of charity, which is, above all other virtues, recommended to us in this sacrament for which reason it is called the bond of charity. For as the bread which is there sanctified for the common use of all is composed of several grains so mixed together that they cannot be distinguished from each other, so ought we to be united together in indissoluble friendship. Moreover, we all receive there one body of Christ. If then we have strife and discord among ourselves, it is not owing to us that Christ Jesus is not rent in pieces, and we are therefore guilty of sacrilege, as if we had done it. We must not, then, on any account, presume to approach if we bear hatred or rancour against any man living, and especially any Christian who is in the unity of the Church. In order fully to comply with our Lord’s injunction, there is another disposition which we must bring. It is to confess with the mouth and testify how much we are indebted to our Savior, and return him thanks, not only that his name may be glorified in us, but also to edify others, and instruct them, by our example, what they ought to do.

26. All Men Imperfect and Blameworthy

But as not a man will be found upon the earth who has made such progress in faith and holiness, as not to be still very defective in both, there might be a danger that several good consciences might be troubled by what has been said, did we not obviate it, by tempering the injunctions which we have given in regard both to faith and repentance. It is a perilous mode of teaching which some adopt, when they require perfect reliance of heart and perfect penitence, and exclude all who have them hot. For in so doing they exclude all without excepting one. Where is the man who can boast that he is not stained by some spot of distrust? that he is not subject to some vice or infirmity? Assuredly the faith which the children of God have is such that they have ever occasion to pray, — Lord, help our unbelief. For it is a malady so rooted in our nature, that we are never completely cured until we are delivered from the prison of the body. Moreover, the purity of life in which they walk is only such that they have occasion daily to pray, as well for remission of sins as for grace to make greater progress. Although some are more and others less imperfect, still there is none who does not fail in many respects. Hence the Supper would be not only useless, but pernicious to all, if it were necessary to bring a faith or integrity, as to which there would be nothing to gainsay. This would be contrary to the intention of our Lord, as there is nothing which he has given to his Church that is more salutary.

27. Imperfection Must Not Make us Cease to Hope for Our Salvation

Therefore, although we feel our faith to be imperfect, and our conscience not so pure that it does not accuse us of many vices, that ought not to hinder us from presenting ourselves at the Lord’s holy table, provided that amid this infirmity we feel in our heart that without hypocrisy and dissimulation we hope for salvation in Christ, and desire to live according to the rule of the gospel. I say expressly, provided there be no hypocrisy. For there are many who deceive themselves by vain flattery, making themselves believe that it is enough if they condemn their vices, though they continue to persist in them, or rather, if they give them up for a time, to return to them immediately after. True repentance is firm and constant, and makes us war with the evil that is in us, not for a day or a week, but without end and without intermission.

28. The Imperfections of Believers Should Rather Incline Them To Use the Supper

When we feel within ourselves a strong dislike and hatred of all sin, proceeding from the fear of God, and a desire to live well in order to please our Lord, we are fit to partake of the Supper, notwithstanding of the remains of infirmity which we carry in our flesh. Nay, if we were not weak, subject to distrust and an imperfect life, the sacrament would be of no use to us, and it would have been superfluous to institute it. Seeing, then, it is a remedy which God has given us to help our weakness, to strengthen our faith, increase our charity, and advance us in all holiness of life, the use becomes the more necessary the more we feel pressed by the disease; so far ought that to be from making us abstain. For if we allege as an excuse for not coming to the Supper, that we are still weak in faith or integrity of life, it is as if a man were to excuse himself from taking medicine because he was sick. See then how the weakness of faith which we feel in our heart, and the imperfections which are in our life, should admonish us to come to the Supper, as a special remedy to correct them. Only let us not come devoid of faith and repentance. The former is hidden in the heart, and therefore conscience must be its witness before God.The latter is manifested by works, and must therefore be apparent in our life.

29. Times of Using the Supper&emdash;Propriety of Frequent Communion

As to the time of using it, no certain rule can be prescribed for all. For there are sometimes special circumstances which excuse a man for abstaining; and, moreover, we have no express command to constrain all Christians to use a specified day. However, if we duly consider the end which our Lord has in view, we shall perceive that the use should be more frequent than many make it for the more infirmity presses, the more necessary is it frequently to have recourse to what may and will serve to confirm our faith, and advance us in purity of life; and, therefore, the practice of all well ordered churches should be to celebrate the Supper frequently, so far as the capacity of the people will admit. And each individual in his own place should prepare himself to receive whenever it is administered in the holy assembly, provided there is not some great impediment which constrains him to abstain. Although we have no express
commandment specifying the time and the day, it should suffice us to know the intention of our Lord to be, that we should use it often, if we would fully experience the benefit which accrues from it.

30. Impropriety of Abstaining on Frivolous Grounds—Pretended Unworthiness in Ourselves

The excuses alleged are very frivolous. Some say that they do not feel themselves to be worthy, and under this pretext, abstain for a whole year. Others, not contented with looking to their own unworthiness, pretend that they cannot communicate with persons whom they see coming without being duly prepared. Some also think that it is superfluous to use it frequently, because if we have once received Jesus Christ, there is no occasion to return so often after to receive him. I ask the first who make a cloak of their unworthiness, how their conscience can allow them to remain more than a year in so poor a state, that they dare not invoke God directly. They will acknowledge that it is presumption to invoke God as our Father, if we are not members of Jesus Christ. This we cannot be, without having the reality and substance of the Supper accomplished in us. Now, if we have the reality, we are by stronger reason capable of receiving the sign. We see then that he who would exempt himself from receiving the Supper on account of unworthiness, must hold himself unfit to pray to God. I mean not to force consciences which are tormented with certain scruples which suggest themselves, they scarcely know how, but counsel them to wait till the Lord deliver them. Likewise, if there is a legitimate cause of hindrance, I deny not that it is lawful to delay. Only I wish to show that no one ought long to rest satisfied with abstaining on the ground of unworthiness, seeing that in so doing he deprives himself of the communion of the Church, in which all our well-being consists. Let him rather contend against all the impediments which the devil throws in his way, and not be excluded from so great a benefit, and from all the graces consequent thereupon.

31. Abstaining Because of Pretended Unworthiness in Others

The second class have some plausibility. The argument they use is, that it is not lawful to eat common bread with those who call themselves brethren, and lead a dissolute life — a fortiori, we must abstain from communicating with them in the Lord’s bread, which is sanctified ill order to represent and dispense to us the body of Christ. But the answer is not very difficult. It is not the office of each individual to judge and discern, to admit or debar whom he pleases; seeing that this prerogative belongs to all the Church in general, or rather to the pastor, with the elders, whom he ought to have to assist him in the government of the Church. St. Paul does not command us to examine others, but each to examine himself. It is very true that it is our duty to admonish those whom we see walking disorderly, and if they will not listen to us, to give notice to the pastor, in order that he may proceed by ecclesiastical authority. But the proper method of withdrawing from the company of the wicked, is not to quit the communion of the Church. More-ever, it will most frequently happen, that sins are not so notorious as to justify proceeding to excommunication; for though the pastor may in his heart judge some man to be unworthy, he has not the power of pronouncing him such, and interdicting him from the Supper, if he cannot prove the unworthiness by an ecclesiastical judgment. In such case we have no other remedy than to pray God that he would more and more deliver his Church from all scandals, and wait for the last day, when the chaff will be completely separated from the good grain.

32. Excuse, That Having Already Received Christ, It is Uncessary to Return Often to Receive Him

The third class have no semblance of plausibility. The spiritual bread is not given us to eat our fill of it all at once, but rather, that having had some taste of its sweetness, we may long for it the more, and use it when it is offered to us. This we explained above. So long as we remain in this mortal life, Jesus Christ is never communicated in such a way as to satiate our souls, but wills to be our constant nourishment.

33. Fourth General Division—Errors on the Supper

We come to the fourth principal point. The devil knowing that our Lord has left nothing to his Church more useful than the holy sacrament, has after his usual manner labored from the beginning to contaminate it by errors and superstitions, in order to corrupt and destroy the benefit of it, and has never ceased to pursue this course, until he has as it were completely reversed the ordinance of the Lord, and converted it into falsehood and vanity. My intention is not to point out at what time each abuse took its rise and at what time it was augmented; it will be sufficient to notice articulately the errors which the devil has introduced, and against which we must guard if we would have the Lord’s Supper in its integrity.

34. First Error

The first error is this — While the Lord gave us the Supper that it might be distributed amongst us to testify to us that in communicating in his body we have part in the sacrifice which he offered on the, cross to God his Father, for the expiation and satisfaction of our sins — men have out of their own head invented, on the contrary, that it is a sacrifice by which we obtain the forgiveness of our sins before God. This is a blasphemy which it is impossible to bear. For if we do not recognize the death of the Lord Jesus, and regard it as our only sacrifice by which he has reconciled us to the Father, effacing all the faults for which we were accountable to his justice, we destroy its virtue. If we do not acknowledge Jesus Christ to be the only sacrifice, or, as we commonly call it, priest, by whose intercession we are restored to the Father’s favor, we rob him of his honor and do him high injustice.

35. The Sacrament Not a Sacrifice

The opinion that the Supper is a sacrifice derogates from that of Christ, and must therefore be condemned as devilish. That it does so derogate is notorious. For how can we reconcile the two things, that Jesus Christ in dying offered a sacrifice to his Father by which he has once for all purchased forgiveness and pardon for all our faults, and that it is every day necessary to sacrifice in order to obtain that which we ought to seek in his death only? This error was not at first so extreme, but increased by little and little, until it came to what it now is. It appears that the ancient fathers called the Supper a sacrifice; but the reason they give is, because the death of Christ is represented in it. Hence their view comes to this—that this name is given it merely because it is a memorial of the one Sacrifice, at which we ought entirely to stop. And yet I cannot altogether excuse the custom of the early Church. By gestures and modes of acting they figured a species of sacrifice, with a ceremony resembling that which existed under the Old Testament, excepting that instead of a beast they used bread as the host. As that approaches too near to Judaism, and does not correspond to our Lord’s institution, I approve it not. For under the Old Testament, luring the time of figures, the Lord ordained such ceremonies, until the sacrifice should be made in the person of his well- beloved Son, which was the fulfillment of them. Since it was finished, it now only remains for us to receive the communication of it. It is superfluous, therefore, to exhibit it any longer under figure.

36. The Bread in the supper is Ordained to be Eaten not Sacrificed—Errors of the Mass

And such is the import of the injunction which Jesus Christ has left. It is not that we are to offer or immolate, but to take and eat what has been offered and immolated. However, though there was some weakness in such observance, there was not such impiety as afterwards supervened. For to the Mass has been wholly transferred what was proper to the death of Christ, viz., to satisfy God for our sins, and so reconcile us to him. Moreover, the office of Christ has been transferred to those whom they name priests, viz., persons to sacrifice to God, and in sacrificing, intercede to obtain for us grace, and the pardon of our offenses.

37. Attempted Defense of the Sacrifice of the Mass

I wish not to keep back the explanations which the enemies of the truth here offer. They say that the Mass is not a new sacrifice, but only an application of the sacrifice of which we have spoken. Although they color their abomination somewhat by so saying, still it is a mere quibble. For it is not merely said that the sacrifice of Christ is one, but that it is not to be repeated, because its efficacy endures for ever. It is not said that Christ once offered himself to the Father, in order that others might afterwards make the same oblation, and so apply to us the virtue of his intercession. As to applying to us the merit of his death, that we may perceive the benefit of it, that is done not in the way in which the Popish Church has supposed, but when we receive the message of the gospel, according as it is testified to us by the ministers whom God has appointed as his ambassadors, and as sealed by the sacraments.

38. Errors Connected with the Abomination of the Mass

The common opinion approved by all their doctors and prelates is, that by hearing Mass, and causing it to be said, they perform a service meriting grace and righteousness before God. We say, that to derive benefit from the Supper, it is not necessary to bring any thing of our own in order to merit what we ask. We have only to receive in faith the grace which is there presented to us, and which resides not in the sacrament, but refers us to the cross of Jesus Christ as proceeding therefrom. Hence there is nothing more contrary to the true meaning of the Supper, than to make a sacrifice of it. The effect of so doing is to lead us off from recognizing the death of Christ as the only sacrifice, whose virtue endures for ever. This being well understood, it will be apparent that all masses in which there is no such communion as the Lord enjoined, are only an abomination. The Lord did not order that a single priest, after making his sacrifice, should keep himself apart, but that the sacrament should be distributed in the assembly after the manner of the first Supper, which he made with his apostles. But after this cursed opinion was forged, out of it, as an abyss, came forth the unhappy custom by which the people, contenting themselves with being present to partake in the merit of what is done, abstain from communicating, because the priest gives out that he offers his host for all, and specially for those present. I speak not of abuses, which are so absurd, that they deserve not to be noticed, such as giving each saint his mass, and transferring what is said of the Lord’s Supper to St. William and St. Walter, and making an ordinary fair of masses, buying and selling them with the other abominations which the word sacrifice has engendered.

The second error which the devil has sown to corrupt this holy ordinance, is in forging and inventing that after the words are pronounced with an intention to consecrate, the bread is transubstantiated into the body of Christ, and the wine into his blood. First of all, this falsehood has no foundation in Scripture, and no countenance from the Primitive Church, and what is more, cannot be reconciled or consist with the word of God. When Jesus Christ, pointing to the bread, calls it his body, is it not a very forced construction to say, that the substance of the bread is annihilated, and the body of Christ substituted in its stead? But there is no cause to discuss the thing as a doubtful matter, seeing the truth is sufficiently clear to refute the absurdity. I leave out innumerable passages of Scripture and quotations from the Fathers, in which the sacrament is called bread. I only say that the nature of the sacrament requires, that the material bread remain as a visible sign of the body.

40. From the Nature of a Sacrament The Substance of the Visible Sign Must Remain

It is a general rule in all sacraments that the signs which we see must have Some correspondence with the spiritual thing which is figured. Thus, as ill baptism, we are assured of the internal washing of our souls when water is given us as an attestation, its property being to cleanse corporal pollution; so in the Supper, there must be material bread to testify to us that the body of Christ is our food. For otherwise how could the mere color of white give us such a figure? We thus clearly see how the whole representation, which the Lord was pleased to give us in condescension to our weakness, would be lost if the bread did not truly remain. The words which our Lord uses imply as much as if he had said Just as man is supported and maintained in his body by eating bread, so my flesh is the spiritual nourishment by which souls are vivified. Moreover, what would become of the other similitude which St. Paul employs? As several grains of corn are mixed together to form one bread, so must we together be one, because we partake of one bread. If there were whiteness only without the substance, would it not be mockery to speak thus? Therefore we conclude, without doubt, that this transubstantiation is an invention forged by the devil to corrupt the true nature of the Supper.

41. False Opinion of the Bodily Presence of Christ in the Supper

Out of this fantasy several other follies have sprung. Would to God they were only follies, and not gross abominations. They have imagined I know not what local presence and thought, that Jesus Christ in his divinity and humanity was attached to this whiteness, without paying regard to all the absurdities which follow from it. Although the old doctors of Sorbonne dispute more subtilely how the body and blood are conjoined with the signs, still it cannot be denied that this opinion has been received by great and small in the Popish Church, and that it is cruelly maintained in the present day by fire and sword, that Jesus Christ is contained under these signs, and that. there we must seek him. Now to maintain that, it must be confessed either that the body of Christ is without limit, or that it may be in different places. In saying this we are brought at last to the point, that it is a mere phantom. To wish then to establish such a presence as is to enclose the body within the sign, or to be joined to it locally, is not only a reverie, but a damnable error, derogatory to the glory of Christ, and destructive of what we ought to hold in regard to his human nature. For
Scripture everywhere teaches us, that as the Lord on earth took our humanity, so he has exalted it to heaven, withdrawing it from mortal condition, but not changing its nature.

42. The Body of Our Savior in Heaven the Same as That Which He Had on Earth

We have two things to consider when we speak of our Lord’s humanity. We must neither destroy the reality of the nature, nor derogate in any respect from his state of glory. To do so we must always raise our thoughts on high, and there seek our Redeemer. For if we would place him under the corruptible elements of this world, besides subverting what Scripture tells us in regard to his human nature, we annihilate the glory of his ascension. As several others have treated this subject at large, I refrain from going farther. I only wished to observe, in passing, that to fancy Jesus Christ enclosed under the bread and wine, or so to conjoin him with it as to amuse our understanding there without looking up to heaven, is a diabolical reverie. We will touch on this in another place.

43. Other Abuses Arising Out of An Imaginary Bodily Presence

This perverse opinion, after it was once received, engendered numerous other superstitions. First of all comes that carnal adoration which is mere idolatry. For to prostrate ourselves before the bread of the Supper, and worship Jesus Christ as if he were contained in it, is to make an idol of it rather than a sacrament. The command given us is not to adore, but to take and eat. That, therefore, ought not to have been presumptuously attempted. Moreover, the practice always observed by the early Church, when about to celebrate the Supper, was solemnly to exhort the people to raise their hearts on high, to intimate, that if we would adore Christ aright, we must not stop at the visible sign. But there is no need to contend long on this point when the presence and conjunction of the reality with the sign (of which we have spoken, and will again speak) is well understood. From the same source have proceeded other superstitious practices, as carrying the sacrament in procession through the streets once a-year; at another time making a tabernacle for it, and keeping it to the year’s end in a cupboard to amuse the people with it, as if it were a god. As all that has not only been invented without authority from the word of God, but is also directly opposed to the institution of the Supper, it ought to be rejected by Christians.

44. Reason Why the Papists Communicate Only Annually

We have shown the origin of the calamity which befell the Popish Church—I mean that of abstaining from communicating in the Supper for the whole period of a year. It is because they regard the Supper as a sacrifice which is offered by one in the name of all. But even while thus used only once a year, it is sadly wasted and as it were torn to pieces. For instead of distributing the sacrament of blood to the people, as our Lord’s command bears, they are made to believe that they ought to be contented with the other half. Thus poor believers are defrauded of the gift which the Lord Jesus had given them. For if it is no small benefit to have communion in the blood of the Lord as our nourishment, it is great cruelty to, rob those of it to whom it belongs. In this we may see with what boldness and audacity the Pope has tyrannized over the Church after he had once usurped domination.

45. The Pope Has Made Exceptions to the General Rules Laid Down by Our Lord

Our Lord having commanded his disciples to eat the bread sanctified in his body, when he comes to the cup, does not say simply, “drink,” but he adds expressly, that all are to drink. Would we have any thing clearer than this? He says that we are to eat the bread without using an universal term. He says that we are all to drink of the cup. Whence this difference, but just that he was pleased by anticipation to meet this wickedness of the devil? And yet such is the pride of the Pope that he dares to say, Let not all drink. And to show that he is wiser than God, he alleges it to be very reasonable that the priest should have some privilege beyond the people, in honor of the sacerdotal dignity; as if our Lord had not duly considered what distinction should be made between them. Moreover, he objects dangers which might happen if the cup were given in common to all. Some drop of it might occasionally be spilt; as if our Lord had not foreseen that. Is not this to accuse God quite openly of having confounded the order which he ought to have observed, and exposed his people to danger without cause?

46. Frivolous Reasons for Withholding the Cup

To show that there is no great inconvenience in this change, they argue, that under one species the whole is comprised, inasmuch as the body cannot be separated from the blood as if our Lord had without reason distinguished the one from the other. For if we can leave one of the parts behind as superfluous, what folly must it have been to recommend them separately. Some of his supporters, seeing that it was impudence to maintain, this abomination, have wished to give it a different color, viz., that Jesus Christ, in instituting, spoke only to his apostles whom he had raised to the sacerdotal order. But how will they answer what St. Paul said, when he delivered to all the people what he had received of the Lord—that each should eat of this bread and drink of this cup?Besides, who told them that our Lord gave the Supper to his apostles as priests? The words import the opposite, when he commands them to do after his example. (Luke 22:19.) Therefore he delivers the rule which he wishes to be always observed in his Church; and so it was anciently observed until Antichrist, having gained the upper hand, openly raised his horns against God and his truth to destroy it totally. We see then that it is an intolerable perversion thus to divide and rend the sacrament, separating the parts which God has joined.

47. The Buffoonery of the Pope in Regard to the Supper

To get to an end, we shall embrace under one head what might otherwise have been considered separately. This head is, that the devil has introduced the fashion of celebrating the Supper without any doctrine, and for doctrine has substituted ceremonies partly inept and of no utility, and partly dangerous, having proved the cause of much mischief. To such an extent has this been done, that the Mass, which in the Popish Church is held to be the Supper, is, when well explained, nothing but pure apishness and buffoonery. I call it apishness, because they there counterfeit the Lord’s Supper without reason, just as an ape at random and without discernment imitates what he sees done.

48. The Word Ought Always to Accompany the Sacraments

The principal thing recommended by our Lord is to celebrate the ordinance with true understanding. From this it follows that the essential part lies in the doctrine. This being taken away, it is only a frigid unavailing ceremony. This is not only shown by Scripture, but attested by the canons of the Pope, (Can. Detrahe. 1:4, 1,) in a passage quoted from St. Augustine, (Tract 80, in Joan.) in which he asks — “ What is the water of baptism without the word but just a corruptible element? The word (he immediately adds) not as pronounced, but as understood.” By this he means, that the sacraments derive their virtue from the word when it is preached intelligibly. Without this they deserve not the name of sacraments. Now so far is there from being any intelligible doctrine in the Mass, that, on the contrary, the whole mystery is considered spoiled if every thing be not said and done in whispers; so that nothing is understood. Hence their consecration is only a species of sorcery, seeing that by muttering and gesticulating like sorcerers, they think to constrain Jesus to come down into their hands. We thus see how the Mass, being thus arranged, is an evident profanation of the Supper of Christ, rather than an observance of it, as the proper and principal substance of the Supper is wanting, viz., full explanation of the ordinance and clear statement of the promises, instead of the priest standing apart and muttering to himself without sense or reason. I call it buffoonery, also, because of mimicry and gestures, better adapted to it; farce than to such an ordinance as the sacred Supper of our Lord.

49. The Ceremonies of the Ancient Law, Why Appointed—Those of the Papists Censurable

It is true, indeed, that the sacrifices under the O1d Testament were performed with many ornaments and ceremonies, but because there was a good meaning under them, and the whole was proper to instruct and exercise the people in piety, they are very far front being like those which are now used, and serve no purpose but to amuse the people without doing them any good. As these gentry allege the example of the Old Testament in defense of their ceremonies, we have to observe what difference there is between what they do, and what God commanded the people of Israel. Were there only this single point, that what was then observed was founded on the commandment of the Lord, whereas all those frivolities have no foundation, even then the difference would be large. But we have much more to censure in them.

50. The Jewish Ceremonies Having Served Their Purpose, The Imitation of Them is Absurd

With good cause our Lord ordained the Jewish form for a time, intending that it should one day come to an end and be abrogated. Not having then given such clearness of doctrine, he was pleased that the people should be more exercised in figures to compensate for the defect. But since Jesus Christ has been manifested in the flesh, doctrine having been much more clearly delivered, ceremonies have diminished. As we have now the body, we should leave off shadows. To return to the ceremonies which are abolished, is to repair the vail of the temple which Jesus Christ rent by his death, and so far obscure the brightness of his gospel. Hence we see, that such a multitude of ceremonies in the Mass is a form of Judaism quite contrary to Christianity. I mean not to condemn the ceremonies which are subservient to decency and public order, and increase the reverence for the sacrament, provided they are sober and suitable. But such an abyss without end or limit is not at all tolerable, seeing that it has engendered a thousand superstitions, and has in a manner stupified the people without yielding any edification.

51. The Death and Passion of Our Lord the Perfect and Only Sacrifice

Hence also we see how those to whom God has given the acknowledge of his truth should differ from the Papists. First, they cannot doubt that it is abominable blasphemy to regard the Mass as a sacrifice by which the forgiveness of sins is purchased for us; or rather, that the priest is a kind of mediator to apply the merit of Christ’s passion and death to those who purchase his mass, or are present at it, or feel devotion for it. On the contrary, they must hold decidedly that the death and suffering of the Lord is the only sacrifice by which the anger of God has been satisfied, and eternal righteousness procured for us; and, likewise, that the Lord Jesus has entered into the heavenly sanctuary in order to appear there for us, and intercede in virtue of his sacrifice. Moreover, they will readily grant, that the benefit of his death is communicated to us in the Supper, not by the merit of the act, but because of the promises which are given us, provided we receive them ill faith. Secondly, they should on no account grant that the bread is transubstantiated into the body of Jesus Christ, nor the wine into his blood, but should persist in holding that the visible signs retain their true substance, in order to represent the spiritual reality of which we have spoken. Thirdly, they ought also to hold for certain, that the Lord gives us in the Supper that which he signifies by it, and, consequently, that we truly receive the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless they will not seek him as if he were enclosed under the bread, or attached locally to the visible sign. So far from adoring the sacrament, they will rather raise their understandings and their hearts on high, as well to receive Jesus Christ, as to adore him.

52. View of Enlightened Christians in Regard to the Supper

Hence they will despise and condemn as idolatrous all those superstitious practices of carrying about the sacrament in pomp and procession, and building tabernacles in which to adore it. For the promises of our Lord extend only to the uses which he has authorized, Next, they will hold that to deprive the people of one of the parts of the sacrament, viz., the cup, is to violate and corrupt the ordinance of the Lord, and that to observe it properly it must be administered in all its integrity. Lastly, they will regard it as a superfluity, not only useless but dangerous, and not at all suitable to Christianity, to rise so many ceremonies taken from the Jews contrary to the simplicity which the Apostles left us, and that it is still more perverse to celebrate the Supper with mimicry and buffoonery, while no doctrine is stated, or rather all doctrine is buried, as if the Supper were a kind of magical trick.

59. Duty of the Servants of God in Regard to the Advancement of Truth

Both parties failed in not having the patience to listen to each other in order to follow the truth without passion, when it would have been found. Nevertheless, let us not lose sight of our duty, which is not to forget the gifts which the Lord bestowed upon them, and the blessings which he has distributed to us by their hands and means. For if we are not ungrateful and forgetful of what we owe them, we shall be well able to pardon that and much more, without blaming or defaming them. In short, since we see that they were, and still are, distinguished for holiness of life, excellent knowledge, and ardent zeal to edify the Church, we ought always to judge and speak of them with modesty, and even with reverence; since at last God, after having thus humbled them, has in mercy been pleased to put an end to this unhappy disputation, or at least to calm it preparatory to its final settlement. I speak thus, because no formulary has yet been published in which concord is fixed, as is most expedient. But this will be when God will be pleased to assemble those who are to frame it in one place.

60. Fraternal Concord Among the Churches

Meanwhile it should satisfy us, that there is fraternity and communion among the churches, and that all agree in so far as is necessary for meeting together, according to the commandment of God. We all then confess with one mouth, that on receiving the sacrament in faith, according to the ordinance of the Lord, we are truly made partakers of the proper substance of the body and blood of Jesus Christ. How that is done some may deduce better, and explain more clearly than others. Be this as it may, on the one hand, in order to exclude all carnal fancies, we must raise our hearts upwards to heaven, not thinking that our Lord Jesus is so debased as to be enclosed under some corruptible elements; and, on the other hand, not to impair the efficacy of this holy ordinance, we must hold that it is made effectual by the secret and miraculous power of God, and that the Spirit of God is the bond of participation, this being the reason why it is called spiritual.

To the Evangelical Nicodemites

Over the last few years there have been a few laments about “Reformed rocks stars.” Carl Trueman has rightly warned against the cult of personality. Now I would like to turn the tables. If we should be concerned about rock stars and personalities in evangelicalism and Reformed-dom then we should also be concerned about about another party to all this: those who attend those conferences and those who do not.

First, there are lots of Christians who attend congregations which, shall we say, are part of the problem more than they are part of the solution, where the gospel is not preached purely, where the sacraments are not administered purely, and where discipline is not practiced. These folk also attend Reformed conferences. They attend because they are “fed” there, because they can fellowship with like-minded folk there, because, in some cases, it’s a relief from their congregation. Still they stay in their congregations.

I know this happens because I have heard the stories and I’ve met such. They bring to mind Nicodemus (John 9), who came to Jesus late at night when it was safe to visit, so that he would not have to pay the price for being publicly associated with Jesus. In the 16th century, there was an analogous group whom the Reformed called “Nicodemites.” These were Roman Catholics who professed to hold the evangelical faith but who, nevertheless, were unwilling to leave their Roman congregations. They told their Reformed friends and sometimes even wrote to the reformers themselves to ask for counsel about this very problem. They felt the tension themselves. They were fearful of offending family. They feared leaving the familiar and the comfortable. They feared social consequences, even economic consequences, losing a job or an inheritance. In some cases it might have meant leaving town for purely religious reasons. There were strong external incentives to remain in the Roman Church while practicing the evangelical faith privately.

There are discontinuities, of course, between 16th-century Roman Catholics and 21st-century evangelicals, but there are continuities too. There are strong external reasons not to leave the local mega-church. There is a comfortable anonymity and safety in the theater seating, at the coffee bar, or on the couch with the candles. The services might not be great but the small groups are fantastic. It is the place to be. The band is hot. One can dress casually. All one’s friends attend. There’s a peer pressure or family pressure to conform.

There are things to be lost in walking away from one’s comfortable evangelical congregation. Indeed, I have known more than a few Reformed folk who, upon leaving their evangelical congregation have been shunned, have lost business or business opportunities and have hurt family connections. Calvin addressed these very problems in a number of letters and in A Short Treatise Setting Forth What the Faithful Man Must Do When He is Among the Papists and Knows the Truth of the Gospel (1543). It is worth considering this treatise and it is useful to apply it to our evangelical Nicodemite friends in hopes of encouraging them to identify with those churches who were, in the 16th century and who, in the late modern period, are once again “under the cross.”

In his brilliant work, War Against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship From Erasmus to Calvin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), Carlos M. N. Eire adds some context to the Nicodemite problem as Calvin faced it. As Eire, notes, the problem was not in Geneva, but in France (235) where “French Protestants lives in an environment that was hostile to their beliefs and practices, making the threat of idolatry even greater.” Before “such pressure, some Protestants assumed the attitude of compromise and deceit that came to be known as Nicodemism” (236). Beza explained.

There were also at that time in France certain persons, who, having renounced the protestant religion at the commencement, through fear of persecution, had begun afterwards so far to flatter themselves as to deny there was any sin in being present with their bodies only at the celebration of the mass, provided they embraced the true religion in their hearts. Calvin, whom they blamed for the excess of his severity, plainly refuted, by his clear and elegant writings, this very pernicious error, which the fathers had long ago condemned. He annexed also the opinions of the most learned reformers, Philip Melanchthon, Peter Martyr, Bucer, and the church of Zurich, and so far restrained the progress of this error, that the Nicodemites, which name they had acquired by adducing the example of this most holy person as a pretext for their false sentiments, he fell into bad repute in the church.

As Beza noted (and as Eire follows him) Calvin wasn’t the only one to face this problem. It was universal to the confessional Protestants. The confessional Lutheran theologian, Johannes Brenz used the adjective “Nicodemish” in 1529. Calvin wrote Luther to and translated two books into Latin just for him to ask him to speak out against it (but Melanchthon pocketed the letter because, as he told Calvin, “Pericles” was in no mood just then to hear from the Reformed about worship). There is a debate in the scholarship over whether Nicodemism was a coherent movement. Carlo Ginzburg argues it was and Eire disagrees (239). If we compare the 16th-century “Nicodemites” to today’s churchless evangelicals wandering from congregation to congregation to to no congregation at all, we can see how there can be a sort of intellectual community with no organization. There seem to be a lot of folk who share certain ideas but just as they seem to be allergic to the visible church so they lack any formal organization. It is hard to imagine any sort of formal organization of people afraid to identify publicly as Protestants or as Reformed or as evangelicals.

Calvin was conscious that there were some difficulties in calling these “dissemblers” Nicodemites. He didn’t regard Nicodemus as a dissembler (Eire, 243). The cowardly Nicodemus became a faithful man. He even describes his contemporaries as “pseudo-Nicodemites” because at least Nicodemus came forward to identify openly with Jesus. By 1562 he stopped using it as an epithet altogether. Nevertheless, we persevere if only for the ease of the label. He identified 4 different classes of Nicodemites:

  1. Those who do it for money
  2. Those who try to convert high-born ladies, but who do not take the gospel seriously.
  3. Those who try to reduce Christianity to a philosophy
  4. Those merchants and common people who fear danger.

Not everyone in Paris was pleased with Calvin’s critiques. Some, of a certain social status, felt he was rocking the boat too much. They thought he was too harsh. The more they complained, the more Calvin pushed. “When I heard that many people complained about my strictness, especially those kinds of people who think that their wisdom increases proportionately to the care they take in protecting their lives, I wrote an apology which made their ears twitch even harder than the first book….” (Letter to Luther; Eire, 246). Calvin was less worried about what French elites thought than what Christ thinks.

The problem of the refusal of crypto-evangelicals to come out of the Roman church and into the confessing Protestant churches (and especially into the Reformed Churches) troubled Calvin enough to cause him to write on the topic repeatedly and to publish several letters and other short writings through his career until the early ‘60s.

In the 1562 treatise he concluded, “That if no service is agreeable to God, except that which comes from an honest conviction: the opposite holds true, that no simulation can displease him, when one only pretends to adore the idols without having devotion in order to please the unbelievers.”

For Calvin, one cannot separate body and soul. They can be distinguished, but Calvin was an anti-Gnostic. We are embodied persons. We cannot worship Christ with our “souls” if our bodies are in the wrong place at the wrong time, doing the wrong thing (violating his moral will). It’s a 1 Corinthians 8 and 10 problem. It’s one thing to eat meat offered to idols. It’s another thing to sit at table with one who involves one in his offering. Once it’s not just a meal anymore, then we have communion with idols and, for Calvin, as for Paul, one cannot be joined to Christ and to idols.

In France and in modern Belgium there were a considerable number of people who privately, personally identified with Reformed or evangelical theology (in the 16th century “evangelical” meant confessional Lutheran or Reformed theology. Calvin frequently spoke of “the evangelical” view when describing his view of this or that) but they did so without leaving their local Roman congregation. These churches were the status quo. They had family ties or political connections or perhaps there was no local Reformed congregation with which to identify. In some cases to leave the Roman Church meant leaving a Roman city and moving to an “evangelical” city where there was a Reformed congregation. In some cases the local Roman Cathedral was the local mega-church. It was the biggest or best show in town. After all, a high mass was quite a sight. It was high, visual drama. It produced intense religious feelings, people “experienced” God.  It was the “place to be” and the “place to be seen.” But what about those poor souls who weren’t allowed to “by the papists to worship God purely”?

Calvin said the answer is easy, “if their hearts were fully resolved to follow everything that God declares to them completely and unquestioningly.”  The problem is “most men , having learned a thing to be displeasing to God, nevertheless give themselves leave to go seeking its defence.” [sic] Calvin said that “a hundred people” had asked him about this in the same way Balaam asked God for leave to go before King Balak (Num 22). He knew it was contrary to God’s will but he asked anyway. In the same way, crypto-evangelicals (my term; perhaps better than “Nicodemites” and in our case we might speak of “crypto-Calvinists”) attend the mega-church because of the youth group or or the praise and worship or what have you.  Calvin says these folk are “fairly convinced in their consciences that it is wrong to bow down before idols , inquire and query about what they should do, and not to subdue their affections to God by submitting to his word, but so that they may have free rein, and having an answer to their liking, may flatter themselves enough to remain in their evil doing.” He says that this lot is looking for “cushions to put their consciences to sleep, and for someone to make them believe they are alive when really they are dead.”

Remember, he was speaking to people who were “not allowed” to worship God according to the Scriptures. In some cases obeying God would have meant tremendous hardship and possibly the most extreme hardship: arrest, imprisonment, torture, and death. In the 16th century probably no fewer than 62,000 Calvinists were martyred for the faith by Roman authorities. Tens of thousands of those died in one week, in 1572, during the “St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.” The rest were systematically hunted and murdered by Spanish troops in the Netherlands. In many places, knowing the Calvinist and Reformed conviction that only God’s Word may be sung in worship (and that often meant the psalms), authorities banned the singing of psalms and then, when Christians were found to be singing the psalms, they arrested them. When people were converted through watching the Calvinists go to the stake singing God’s praise in his own Word, in their own language, the Roman authorities began cutting out the tongues of the martyrs to prevent them from praising God.

Calvin was well aware of what he was about to ask of the crypto-Calvinists or secret Calvinists. He wrote letters of comfort to some of them as they languished in dark, rat-infested prisons, awaiting a sham trial and a bloody, fiery death. He also understood that what he was saying was controversial. Some influential Parisian Protestants thought or alleged that he was saying that the only way to go to heaven was to be a member of the Genevan church. Of course he was not saying that at all. Some of Calvin’s critics were misrepresenting his argument in order to discredit it. They were attempting to justify themselves. At the same time, despite their scorn, he was loving them. He was concerned that those Roman Catholics who did not “come out” of the Roman communion and identify publicly with the evangelical (in the 16th-century sense, which today would mean “confessional Protestant” or as the Synod of Dort put, “who profess the Reformed Religion”) church would find themselves in genuine spiritual danger.

This attempt to discredit Calvin was, of course, self-serving since some of these folk were well placed and would have suffered significant personal setbacks and loss by leaving Rome and uniting with the suffering French Reformed Church.  Despite the scorn, Calvin persevered.

However, since our office is to give pure testimony to the truth, I cannot dissemble or draw back from saying what I think of things which are useful to know, even when it is required of me to do so. However, since the whole difficulty stems from our being more interested in remaining the good graces of the world than in pleasing God, I exhort every believer in the name of the Lord Jesus to compel his affections to, in order to make them obedient to the Master’s will.

He understood

it is a hard thing to put oneself in danger of losing body and goods, of arousing everyone’s ire against oneself, of being held in contempt and scorned, of leaving the land where one can live comfortably in order to depart for a strange land, like someone lost. Yes, what is the first lesson we must learn in the school of Jesus Christ, but to renounce ourselves?

In contemporary evangelicalism, words such as “mortification”  and “self-denial” are not fashionable. One is much more likely to hear about “self-affirmation’ and improving one’s “self-image.” To be sure, as a pastor and as one who grew up in the lower Midwest, where everyone is or used to be, as Garrison Keillor says, “a dark Lutheran,” (even those who aren’t Lutherans) people do suffer real damage to their self-image and there is psychological harm done by sin and by sinners. Nevertheless, the fundamental Christian message is not, “You’re okay, I’m okay,” but “God made us good, we fell, Christ obeyed and died for sinners and was raised on the third day for their justification.” Our self-image rests in the image of God and in his grace in Christ.

For Calvin, denying to self, dying to sin (mortification) was of the essence of the Christian life. We do by God’s grace alone. It’s a catch-22. The crypto-evangelicals (or today’s crypto-Reformed) aren’t going to grow as they ought in their present circumstances but they won’t really grow until they leave. They need to leave to grow but in order to leave they need to trust Christ enough (which implies growth) to leave!

Indeed, no one but Calvin is calling them to identify  with Christ, to suffer, to change. The current congregations and their friends are all telling them to stay, that religion is a private matter, an interior matter. But real mortification is interior with exterior consequences. Comfort is borne of security and familiarity, even when that comfort and familiarity are wrongly, even wickedly placed.

Calvin understood:

Now, if there are some who are so weak, that they cannot determine from the word ‘go’ to do what they should, I beseech them at least not to flatter themselves, looking for subterfuges and frivolous excuses to conceal themselves. This is nothing but reckoning without one’s host. Such ways of escape shall not deliver them fro God’s judgment.

He knew whereof he spoke. There was a period of murkiness as he became an evangelical. There must have been a period of transition in Paris, an inward wrestling with whether or when to stop attending Mass. Whether and when to identify with the evangelicals. How? Where? At what cost? His public identification with the evangelical church in Geneva, his virtual imprisonment by Farel, being pressed into service in Geneva against his will, having been unceremoniously dismissed by the City Council and then recalled from a much more pleasant place–Calvin only wanted to study and write–these were all crosses he bore. He considered that living in Geneva was like being crucified 1000 times a day. He did it at the expense of his own health, his own happiness, his own peace of mind, against his better judgment and personal inclinations, because his Savior did it for him.

He writes, “Indeed, we shall see that this has been, as it were, the part of the ruin of those who have become alienated from the grace of God: seeing that it was not safe for them to reveal themselves openly before men as true servants of god, in order to duly honor him, and they wanted to be considered just and above reproach because they polluted themselves in many idolatries. ” This passage from Calvin’s 1543 short treatise against the Nicodemites or the crypto-evangelicals who refused to leave the Roman communion and identify openly with the Reformation cause illustrates two very important Reformed doctrines.

First, because we do not know the divine decree ahead of time, we must deal with life in the covenant of grace as it unfolds before us. Call this the “Hebrews 6/10” view of the church, i.e. this is the view taken in Hebrews chapters 6 and 10. People are in the external covenant community, they “taste of the powers of the age to come” and the “trample underfoot” the covenant when they apostatize. When they are with us, professing faith, we regard them as believers, as members of Christ according to the judgment of charity. After they have apostatized, however, we realize that, in fact, they were only members externally, that they lacked true faith and genuine union with Christ.

So, for Calvin, it was with the crypto-evangelicals who remained in false churches. He was willing to accept the genuineness of their profession provisionally and to be understanding about the difficulties they faced in leaving their current congregation in order to join a true church. At a certain point, however, the understanding changes. If the profession is never matched by action a discontinuity arises. They say that they are Protestants (evangelicals) but they continue to worship outwardly like Romanists, they continue to attend mass, they continue to participate in the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ (Session 22, Council of Trent, Canon 3)—which Calvin and all the Protestants regarded as an abomination to God and “an accursed idolatry” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 80).

In view of the existential reality of the outward reality of their evangelical profession Calvin warned of the very real possibility of their “ruin” and becoming “alienated” from grace. This is a genuine spiritual danger to the Nicodemites or the crypto-evangelicals. This is also a genuine danger to the crypto-Calvinists in the evangelical mega-churches and other congregations that lack the marks of a true church, in which the crypto-Calvinists find themselves. How long can they sit through therapeutic, moralistic, Deistic sermons and worship without doing real harm to themselves? I’ve had correspondence from people in such circumstances and they testify that the are “dead inside” and that they “dread” going to church. Sometimes they just stop going. After all, if what happens on Sunday morning is a poor imitation of Oprah or George Will, what’s the point?

The second truth here, however, is reflected in Calvin’s phrase, “as it were.” This is the difference between Calvin’s handling of this problem and the way the so-called, self-described Federal Vision movement handles this same situation. The FV says that every baptized person is, by virtue of his baptism, united to Christ. They reject any distinction between those who are merely outward members of the visible church or of the administration of the covenant of grace, and those who are outward and inward members [Rom 2:28] of the church and the covenant of grace. Because they reject this distinction they have it that one can be actually united to Christ, elect, regenerate, justified, adopted etc and yet still fall away. In this view their view is formally like the Remonstrants who were rejected at the Synod of Dort.

Calvin and the Reformed Churches understood, however, that only those who are actually united to Christ, sola gratia et sola fide  (by grace alone and through faith alone) in Christ alone, are actually united to Christ and receive his benefits. This is because Calvin and the Reformed Churches made a distinction between the two ways of being in the one covenant of grace. Not everyone who participates in the administration of the covenant of grace is necessarily elect, regenerate, or united to Christ. This is the force Calvin’s little phrase, “as it were.” All forms of rationalism, whether Open Theism or the FV, ignore this “as it were” qualification. The Heidelberg Catechism says “by his hand, as it were…” signaling that we understand that God, considered apart from the incarnation, does not have a body. We are not Mormons.

When Calvin wrote “as it were,” he recognized the tentative nature of human judgment in this world. He recognized that we are not God and that we do not know things as God knows them. We make the best judgments we can and we urge folk to live according to God’s self-disclosure (Deut 29:29) in God’s Word. We do not play “guess the elect.”  Christ has a church, and it exists where ever the gospel is preached purely, where ever the sacraments are administered purely, and where ever discipline is administered. From all one can tell these are not the three marks of most so-called evangelical congregations today. They are marked by programs, power points, and puppets.

Lest my evangelical friends think I’m being too hard on then, I well recognize that too many nominally Reformed or Presbyterian congregations are indistinguishable from the great mass of therapeutic, moralistic Deism that passes for Christianity in our age. It may well be possible to be a crytpo-Calvinist in a nominally Reformed or Presbyterian congregation where the substance of the Reformed theology, piety, and practice has been replaced with weak alternatives.

Calvin continued:

Then later, seeing that they still could not avoid all suspicion in this way, they considered it to be doing their duty when they concealed their Christianity altogether, not speaking a single word about God, except when they were with their close friends and family members, well enclosed in some room. Meanwhile, they permitted the truth of God to be blasphemed and whatever dishonor anyone did Jesus Christ, not only did they not say anything against it, but they put on a good show of consenting to it, being concerned only to take care that no one perceive that they were Christians.

Remember, when he said “Christianity,” he’s not speaking about people living in a predominantly pagan world or in a post-Christian culture (or in a pre-Christian culture). He’s speaking about crypto-evangelicals who are, for reasons of safety or comfort, hiding in Roman congregations. The blasphemies to which he refers are either Roman criticisms of the evangelical (i.e. confessional Protestant) faith or/and the Roman doctrine of the eucharistic sacrifice and the like.

In response, the cryptos clam up. If they do not say anything then no one will know that they dissent inwardly. When folk around them slander the evangelicals or invoke saints or pray to the BVM, they keep their mouths shut.  Calvin reminded the cryptos that, in redemptive history, God dealt harshly with those who practiced “wicked subtlety,” that God “let them stumble into a n abyss of darkness, depriving them of the knowledge he had formerly given them.”

The proper response is not that one should seek to “justify himself in his iniquity” but rather that we should “give glory to God” by “confessing our wretchedness, rather than doubly confounding and condemning ourselves by squirming about  and seeking vain excuses.”

Over the years I have had posts from crypto-Calvinists who hide themselves in the local megachurch. Sometimes they seek to justify themselves by arguing that they are seeking reformation of the congregation. If so, then they are not really “crypto” (secret) Calvinists or Reformers at all, are they? If they are seeking reformation then the ministers and congregational leadership will be aware of them and of their efforts. If this megachurch is worth its salt as a megachurch, they have a plan and they have read the church growth literature. Rule #1 of the church growth program is to get rid of dissenters. Any “reformer” worth his salt is a dissenter from the tawdry songs, puppets, Playdoh, and powerpoint that passes for public piety in the megachurch. Immovable object meet irresistible force. Something has to give. Maybe the megachurch leadership will be struck in the heart but maybe not. What then? Most of the time, however, the cryptos remain just that: hidden, quiet, secret.

For Calvin, the core issue of the Nicodemite (crypto-evangelical) problem is the Lordship of Christ, not necessarily in the sense in which that word was used in the recent American evangelical controversy but in the sense that the cryptos are acting as if they were God’s “counterparts.”  The issue is whether the Christian will submit to the revealed will of God. He appealed to the example of Cyprian to illustrate what he meant obedience. He reminds his readers that “St. Cyprian, after being condemned to death, because he was unwilling to sacrifice to idols, was asked to consent to it in order to save his life.” The judge did not want to put Cyprian to death and urged him to simply say the magic words. Cyprian, however, was so determined to follow God’s will that he would do it even if death was the necessary result. For Calvin, Cyprian is a perfect example of one who “did not take counsel from” his “own” head, “turning aside from his Word….”  Calvin offered several proofs that, in fact, it is the Lord’s revealed, moral will for the cryptos to identify publicly with the Reformation. First he appealed to Jesus saying in Luke 9:26 that “if we are ashamed of him before me, he will likewise be ashamed of us when he appears in his majesty with the angels of God.” He appealed to Romans 10:10, that if we “believeth with the heart unto righteousness” then one will confess “with the mouth unto salvation.” True faith produces confession.  “Whoever draws back from doing so must seek another master.”

Calvin anticipated the objection that he was attempting to make all believers into preachers. Not at all. “For, since it is a particular office to preach publicly, it is not necessary, nor even expedient or suitable for everyone to intrude himself in it….I do not therefore mean for everyone to climb up into a pulpit to prove their Christianity…. However, let everyone take thought to give God glory in the vocation in which he finds himself.”

He would have it that every professing Christian should confess his faith in the place and station in which he finds himself. He appeals to 1 Peter 3:15. We should each be ready to give an account of his faith. It is “the office of every believer” to “take his neighbor by the hand and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of Zion, to the house of Jacob, and he shall teach us to talk in his ways (Isa 23:3; Mic 4:2).

What does this have to do with crypto-Calvinists in the local evangelical congregation? Well, the fundamental point, about submitting to the revealed will of God applies to all Christians everywhere but particularly where a crypto-Calvinist finds himself in a congregation dominated by therapeutic, moralistic deism, where the gospel is absent, the means of grace are deformed or ignored, and discipline was banished by the church growth gurus as impractical.

Calvin did not call the cryptos in his day to superhuman feats. He only wanted them to speak to the truth in love and to trust the providence of God. It’s true he was, in effect, calling many to great suffering and possible even death. In our case, however, there is much less at stake and even less reason why our cryptos cannot confess their faith openly before men, since, in many cases, it merely involves stopping at that local NAPARC congregation by which they drive on the way to the mega-church.

Once more an admonition to my NAPARC brothers and sisters. If our evangelical crypto-Calvinists do step out in faith to lay hold of the blessings of the heritage of the Reformation, what will they find this Sabbath in your congregation? Will they find what they just left behind, cliques, clans, and clowns or will they find the law distinguished from the gospel and the latter preached sweetly? Will they find joy in the Lord or some nasty congregational contention over who is in charge? Will they find a socio-political rant or the ministry of Christ? When they visit, our evangelical friends are looking for three things: the pure preaching of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and discipline. Indeed, that is what the Lord asks of us. It doesn’t seem unreasonable that we should be doing these things, even if no crypto-Calvinists visit.

Calvin recognized that there is a certain degree of subjectivity in deciding “how far and how much we must proceed….” Therefore each one must “pray our Lord to direct him in true prudence, in order to judge what will be suitable.” For Calvin, the driving principle, is the same in any case: “there must be in us such a seal, both exalt the reign of God and to edify our neighbors, that we extend all our powers and apply all our efforts to it.” In other words, because Calvin wouldn’t go beyond Scripture and good and necessary deductions and because he recognized that circumstances would vary he was unwilling to legislate exactly how each one must act in every case. Nevertheless, it was clear to Calvin that each one must act.Our goal is the appropriate imitation of Christ, who was consumed by zeal for the house of God (Ps 69:9; John 2:17). This zeal caused Christ to be restless in his desire to glorify and serve his Father. Calvin reminds us that some of his followers “did not dare to confess Jesus Christ after having believed on him: ‘They loved the glory of men better than that of God’ (John 12:43). How sad and perverse a choice is it to prefer men to God!”

The question, for Calvin and for us, is “whether the Christian man, being rightly instructed in the truth of the gospel, offends God or not, by doing as the others do when he is among Papists, by going to Mass and other such ceremonies.” The first part of the question is that of “dissumulation” or “hiding the truth one has within the heart. The second part concerns “simulation” or “pretending and faking something that is not so. In short, what lying is in words, simulation is in deeds.”

This a question because we are not disembodied. We are not Gnostics seeking to overcome the body (contrary to the repeated Romanist criticism of historic, confessional Protestantism). Rather, Calvin recognized that because we are body and soul we must love God with our bodies and our souls. We owe to God a “two-fold honor—namely the spiritual service of the heart, and outward worship — likewise there is a, on the contrary, a twofold sort of idolatry. First, when man corrupts and perverts the spiritual service of the only God by a lying fantasy. The other sort is when he transfers to some creature, such as an image, the honor which belongs to God alone.”

To those crypto-Calvinists in broad, mega, “evangelical,” congregations which offer neither the “evangel,” or are hardly “congregations,” (but rather a collection of “venues” — someone recently asked one of our members which “venue” he attended? Puzzled, this member said, “Well, the worship venue.” “Which one is that? Do they serve coffee? Is there a praise band?” “No,” the member replied, “It’s the whole congregation together, worshiping God, singing psalms, listening to the sermon.” Talk about a clash of paradigms. Our member was mystified by the “venue question and the broad evangelical fellow was completely mystified by historic Reformed worship) the question remains. There may not be the memorial, ritual, propitiatory sacrifice of the mass but there there are “dramas” and there is clowning, and Narcissism and the trivialization of God and of his Christ so that the service is hardly recognizably “Christian”  any longer. Few strangers are in jeopardy of walking into such services and of being confronted by the awful reality of the living God so that they might want to throw themselves to the ground (1 Cor 14:25).

In their own ways the broad “evangelical” seeker service (with all its venues) and the Roman Mass seek to tame God. Since Rome made Jesus so utterly transcendent (because of their Christology and their piety) his place as a truly human Mediator was taken by saints and the BVM. By transubstantiation God the Son becomes manageable. The Mass, confession, and penance are all things that we do. We process in, we adore, we remember, we offer. So too in the evangelical megachurch, we worship, we praise, we experience, we entertain, we choose the venue by which we shall approach God. Different dramas, same story.

The God is scripture is not manageable. He has a nasty tendency to “break out” against sin or trivialization. The golden calf trivialized God. The golden calf made them comfortable. It allowed them to approach God on terms that were familiar. The God of history, the God of Scripture, the God who is, however, will not be approached, not that way. He comes to us on his terms and calls us to respond, to come to him, on his terms. There are no venues for approaching God except humble and holy worship in response to his Law and his Gospel. Calvin understood this and knew that God, the God of Scripture, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

To illustrate and prove the connection between inward and outward piety, between body and soul, Calvin turned to 1 Corinthians 8. When eating food offered to idols leads others to worship the idols it’s obvious that eating the food isn’t innocent. At stake is the spiritual well being of “one for whom Christ died.” The case is even clearer in 1 Corinthians 10. Participating in ritual sacrifices to God makes one a “partaker of the true consecration” and participating in sacrifices to idols also makes one a participant in idolatry. The true worship of the true God is exclusive. It is impossible to worship the true God false or to truly worship a false god. “Whoever takes the one, utterly renounces the other.” That principle of exclusivity alone explains Daniel and his companions. Were it otherwise they would have been able “to escape by this subtlety.” Indeed, were it otherwise it would have been foolish for them to “expose themselves to death.”They could have said, “others will worship the statue, nut  our spirit shall be lifted up to heaven to worship the living God….” Either they were guilty of “ill considered zeal” or the Nicodemites are wrong.

What about the ordinary, mere Christian? After all, “not everyone can be so steadfast?” Calvin accused those who make such pleas  of “seeking cover-ups for our sins….” They argue that 1 Corinthians 10 was about rank paganism, not about the Roman mass and, however corrupt, the intention of the mass is to worship the God. It seems to them that “there is not so great a danger in partaking in idolatry which is cloaked in the name of God….” To which he responded by pointing to the example of the brass serpent (Num 21:8). Here is an example of a “holy sacrament of Jesus Christ” instituted by God that had been corrupted into idolatry. They too “pleaded the fair colors of the name of God.” Then there is the case of the golden calf (Ex 32) which was “designed to represent” God.” Nevertheless it was “false and perverse” and idolatry.  The same was true of the calves erected by Jereboam at Bethel and Dan (1 Kgs 12:28). They were dedicated to the worship of God and yet they were idolatrous. The same was true of the temple in Samaria. It was not dedicated to Jupiter, but to God.  “I therefore conclude that it is no more permitted to partake in idolatry wich has the name of God imposed upon it than if it was purely something of the Saracens [i.e., Muslims] or pagans.”

What Calvin saw, which we in our late modern subjectivist time have difficulty seeing, is that intention is not everything, it doesn’t change the truth, the reality. Christ died for our bodies and our souls and demands that we return to him true, grateful worship without bodies and souls, inwardly and outwardly. There is more to worship than intention. Actions matter. Location matters. There is an objective reality that cannot be denied. Participating in false worship, however sincerely, is still participating in false worship. It offends God and hurts other Christians. For Calvin it was indefensible on both grounds.

He  recognized that difference between some of the biblical narratives and his own time and yet he also recognized that some of the narratives described situations quite like his. Mutatis mutandis (with the changes having been changed), he moved from the biblical narratives to his own time. If there were difficulties for Calvin so there are for us. This series is not aimed at Roman Christians who profess the Reformed faith but to those in nominally evangelical congregations where the preaching of the gospel has been replaced with therapy and the sacraments are absent or corrupt and where the 2nd commandment isn’t even a distant memory. Yes, these congregations may be nominally Protestant, but how different are they really from those of which Calvin was thinking? The most fundamental issue remains the same: the ostensible good intention of private worship in a corrupt congregation that has rejected reformation is corrupt whatever the private intention of the crypto-Calvinist.

Sometimes it seems as if Calvin were living in our day. Sometimes his criticism of our hypocrisy is so penetrating that it’s hard to believe that it was written more than 400 years ago. The next section in his Short Treatise (1543) is a good example. He addressed first those who “wish to be perceived as more devout than others” who attend the “daily” mass. “Anyone who has made modest progress in the gospel knows that what the priest does there is sacrilege and abomination.” For Calvin it was obvious that it was the moral equivalent of prostrating oneself “before an idol.” It was sin. It was partaking of the “useless works of darkness” (Eph 5:11). How can one participate in it, pretend “to acknowledge it” then later wash ones hands of it? Does God see nothing? Here Calvin penetrated the heart: “But they say, ‘We are not the ones who commit the evil. What more can we do, since it is not up to us to correct it?’ I answer that the evil that I reprove in them is that they do not abstain from what they know to be bad….”

The “parochial Mass” (weekly) is a similar case. The Nicodemite defends himself by arguing that at least there, despite the great corruption, they may participate in the Supper “‘because it is a memorial to us of the Supper of the Lord, we take it thus.’” Calvin replied to the crypto-evangelical, “Indeed? Can we thus transform things to our taste, and say that darkness is light?” Once more his arrow hit dead center. Ours is an age of extreme subjectivism, i.e. the thought and attitude that says that how one experiences something (or someone) is the most important thing. Indeed, in our time, it is widely held that experience determines reality. Of course this is complete rubbish and is easily shown to be so. Try “experiencing” a red light as a green light. Try explaining to the nice police officer that you experienced the light as green and that it was green for you. In response, he will explain that he is writing you a citation for $271 and that the law expects your experience to conform to objective reality henceforth.

What is fascinating here is that, in the crypto-evangelicals, Calvin faced the very same subjectivism that dominates American religion and particularly the religion of American “evangelicals,” including that of our “crypto-Calvinists” who make the very same argument in defense of their remaining in the mega-church, multi-venue worship services. Since they receive the service in a certain way, it is that way to them.

Calvin was not having any of it:

I ask you, what similarity is there between the holy sacrament instituted by the Lord Jesus, and this mixture made up of all sorts of garbage? First do they thing it’s nothing that the Mass is accounted a sacrifice, whereby God is appease not only concerning the living, but also concerning the dead? Is it nothing that the canon, which is the main substance of the Mass, is full of abominable blasphemies? Again, is it nothing that the prayer is made for the souls in purgatory, which we know to be utterly superstitious? However, were there only the diabolical delusion of sacrificing Jesus Christ to God, so that such a work could a satisfaction and payment for the living and the dead, this is not altogether a patent renunciation of his death and passion, which is nullified if one does not recognize it as a unique and perpetual sacrifice? Is it not a direct corruption of his sacred Supper? Certainly these to such execrable pollutions cannot be separated from the Mass anymore than heat can be separated from fire.

The objective facts of the Roman Mass are too plain to be denied. Our experience does not create or norm reality. God spoke creation into existence. Certainly we do experience reality, but our experience of it isn’t normative. We cannot transform, as if by fiat, sins into righteousness, whether those sins be part of the parochial mass or the “evangelical” skit. Are puppets, playdoh, and powerpoint really any better than the sorts of things about which Calvin complained concerning the Roman Mass?

Finally, we should not miss the obvious tension that now exists between Calvin’s (and that of Reformed orthodoxy) understanding of the Roman Mass and the understanding that which is being promoted in certain borderline (see Recovering the Reformed Confession, 1-2, 169) Reformed communions. They cannot both be right. Either the Roman Mass includes an ostensible memorial, propitiatory, sacrifice or it does not. The Council of Trent, Session 22, in 1562 declared that the Eucharist is a propitiatory sacrifice. It condemned anyone who denied that doctrine. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994) perpetuates that dogma. That is what Calvin, who was raised in the Roman Communion, was taught and that is the view he rejected as completely inimical to biblical doctrine of the Supper. The Heidelberg Catechism rejected the same doctrine in Q. 80. The Reformed did not misrepresent the the Roman doctrine and practice. As with the doctrine of justification, it seems that their desire to be ecumenical has caused our friends to attempt to transform (to use Calvin’s word) certain unpleasant realities in the Roman doctrine and practice in order to justify their ecumenism.

[This essay was first published serially in 2009 and appears here slightly revised]

Calvin As Theologian Of Comfort

Wikipedia, that ubiquitous source of unimpeachable scholarship, defines “consolation” as “something of value, when one fails to get something of higher value….” That is precisely the opposite of what John Calvin (1509–64) meant by “consolation.”For Calvin, the consolation that Christ gives to his people, by the gospel, through the Spirit, is not second prize but to be valued above that which we lost. When we consider Calvin, “consolation” might not be the thing we first associate with him. The dominant perception of Calvin in our culture is that of a tyrannical, dyspeptic fellow, who delighted in nothing more than to dispatch a few heretics to the flames before breakfast. That caricature, however, was one drawn by his enemies during his lifetime and sadly, despite the facts, it has stuck for a variety of reasons.

First, the modern picture of Calvin has been skewed badly by the uncritical acceptance by earlier modern historians of partisan caricatures of Calvin and thus, he has been a useful foil for advocates of the modernist religion. Just as the Renaissance scholars juxtaposed themselves as enlightened, in contrast to the allegedly benighted middle ages, so in the various European and British Enlightenments of the 18th and 19th centuries scholars capitalized on sixteenth-century caricatures of Calvin to create a useful whipping boy with which to contrast their own view of the world.

Second, enlightened Modernity went to war against Christian theism, against its doctrines of the Trinity, of God as Creator, of Adam as federal head of humanity, of sin, of grace, of salvation through faith in Christ, and of a divinely instituted church. In short, enlightened Modernity rejected the historic catholic faith and Calvin became a symbol of repressive Christian theism. In place of Christianity, Modernity advocated a religion of a unitarian, unknowable God, of human perfectibility, of the universal fatherhood of God, of the universal fraternity of man, and of human autonomy with respect to all external authorities (e.g., Scripture or the church). For Modernity, nothing was more antithetical to the religion of the Enlightenment than the doctrine of unconditional predestination and thus, in the modern period, Calvin became the theologian of the decree from which writers began to draw inferences about what he must have done in Geneva. The one thing every modern, enlightened person thinks he knows about Calvin is that he killed Servetus. Of course the story was much more complicated and most of what people think they know is false.

The result of the modernist, Enlightenment polemic against Calvin has been what P. E. Hughes called a “popular fantasy” of Calvin as the tyrant of Geneva. Consider a January 2009 article in the New York Times Magazine, which discusses the resurgence of aspects of Reformed theology among evangelicals. To buttress the author’s contention that Calvinism is inherently oppressive she appeals to an unhappy episode in Calvin’s life, suggesting, in effect, that Calvin was a tyrant and thus it is not surprising that his modern followers have similar impulses. To be sure Calvin could be severe with enemies and even friends but he was also a theologian of consolation.

Yes, Calvin was a sinner, but he was more a suffering pilgrim in Geneva than he was a conquering, jack-booted tyrant. He endured regular insults that today would drive most ministers from their pulpits. His opponents discharged firearms outside his house. Some named their dogs after him and threatened him. People made rude comments during sermons and when that was forbidden, they made rude noises in their attempt to thwart his preaching. He was summarily and unjustly fired from his position as minister in the church in Geneva because he dared oppose some of the leading families in Geneva. When, three years later, he was called to return, ostensibly for a short period that turned into 23 years, he obeyed more out of duty than joy.

He married Idelette de Bure in 1540. They were married for nine years. In that time she bore him a son, Jacques, who died in infancy, in August of 1542. Idellete herself died in 1549 leaving Calvin a widower. We do not often think of Calvin as a widower and father who lost an infant child, and Calvin did not encourage others to pity him. He recorded very little about his interior, emotional life and there was no sixteenth-century equivalent of Oprah in Geneva. Nevertheless, Idellette’s suffering and death and the loss of his son “left a mark,” as we say. These aspects of Calvin’s life, however, did not make it into the New York Times Magazine.

It is those who know their sins, who know their need for a Savior, who look to Christ for consolation. John Calvin was just such a one. He found comfort in the good news of Christ’s incarnation, obedience, death, resurrection, and ascension, in justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. He found consolation in his union with Christ, in the sacraments, in corporate and private prayer, in friendship, and in the support of fellow ministers in and around Geneva. Calvin was, as Herman Selderhuis has reminded us, a theologian of the cross.

The Calvin of history, however, was, as Bob Godfrey reminds us, a pilgrim and a pastor, who needed and found consolation in the midst of suffering, in Christ and his work for us, through the work of his Spirit in us, and who ministered that comfort to others. In the following parts of this series we will see how he was an exegete, theologian, and pastor of consolation.

I. Calvin’s Exegesis of Consolation (in Paul)
In the first part we saw that Calvin was a pilgrim who himself needed the consolation of the gospel, given by the Spirit, through the ministry of Word, sacrament, and prayer. He was also a careful, thoughtful, and sophisticated reader of texts and principally Scripture. It is well known that Calvin was deeply influenced by Renaissance humanism. We all know about the Renaissance concern to get back to original sources (ad fontes) and to read them in their original context, according to the original intent of the author. A less well-known aspect of the humanism in which Calvin was trained was concern for the well-being of humans as God’s image bearers.

In his 1539 commentary on Romans we get a picture of how he understood Paul’s doctrine of paraklesis (consolation or comfort). Commenting on Romans 15:4, on the phrase, “through the patience and the consolation of the Scriptures we might have hope,” he recognized that the noun paraklesis might be translated a couple of different ways. He wrote:

The word consolation some render exhortation; and of this I do not disapprove, only that consolation is more suitable to patience, for this arises from it; because then only we are prepared to bear adversities with patience, when God blends them with consolation.

There were two reasons for not translating “paraklesis” as “exhortation,” the first is because “consolation” or “comfort” fit the context better, but the second reason is pastoral, because it is better pastoral theology. One of the chief purposes of Scripture is to “to raise up those who are prepared by patience, and strengthened by consolations, to the hope of eternal life, and to keep them in the contemplation of it.” He made the same choice in his interpretation of paraklesis in his 1548 commentary on Philippians 2:1.

No Pauline epistle focuses more on consolation than 2 Corinthians. In his 1546 commentary on 2 Corinthians Calvin had opportunity to consider the biblical doctrine of consolation at length. On 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, “The God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our tribulation.” Calvin argued that Paul was able to endure “his tribulations with fortitude and alacrity” because of the “support derived from his consolation….” The source of our consolation is the “Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” who is the source of blessings, “for where Christ is not, there the beneficence of God is not.”

On verse 4, he noted that the consolation that Paul had received was not for his own benefit but for that of the Corinthians, because “whatever favors God conferred upon him, were not given for his own sake merely, but in order that he might have more in his power for helping others. And, unquestionably, when the Lord confers upon us any favor, he in a manner invites us by his example to be generous to our neighbors.” This he said is particularly true for pastors.

In his comment on 2 Corinthians 2:15 he argued that the comfort spoken of there should not be taken “actively” but “passively,” to mean “that God multiplied his consolations according to the measure of his tribulations.” The troubles of this life are “common to good and bad alike,” but when they happen to “the wicked” there is nothing redemptive in them. When they happen to believers, those Christians “are conformed to Christ, and bear about with them in their body his dying, that the life of Christ may one day be manifested in them.” Because our sufferings are in union with Christ, part of our identity with his sufferings, we are “sustained by the consolations of Christ, so as to prevent him from being overwhelmed with calamities.”

The ground of comfort is extrinsic, it is the promise of God in Christ. It has subjective consequences, however, just as the afflictions of which Paul speaks in 2 Corinthians 1:6 refers to our personal experience of misery. Comfort or consolation is the antidote, as it were, for our experience of being “pressed down with anxiety from a feeling of misery.” Consolation refers to the lightening of the mind of grief.

For Calvin, Paul’s sufferings and experience of consolation “flowed out to the whole Church” and served as an encouragement to them that, “inasmuch as they concluded, that God who had sustained and refreshed him in his emergency, would, in like manner, not be wanting to them.” Paul’s sufferings were for the salvation of the Corinthians, not that they were “expiations or sacrifices for sins, but as edifying them by confirming them.” Salvation and comfort were joined “with the view of pointing out the way in which their salvation was to be accomplished.”

Why does God permit us to suffer? On 2 Corinthians 1:9 Calvin argued that we don’t appreciate how “how displeasing to God confidence in ourselves must be” so that, as a corrective, “it is necessary that we should be condemned to death.” The good news is that “God raises the dead. As we must first die, in order that, renouncing confidence in ourselves….” We must begin with despair, but “with the view of placing our hope in God.” He returned to that theme on 2 Corinthians 7:6. The Lord “comforts the lowly.” “Hence a most profitable doctrine may be inferred—that the more we have been afflicted, so much the greater consolation has been prepared for us by God.”

Though he is often pictured as a systematic theologian and though most people give most of their attention to Calvin’s Institutes, in fact Calvin was a preacher and a student of Scripture. His Institutes were harvested out of his biblical commentaries and preaching. So, his conception of the necessity, nature, and source of consolation, for the Christian, was shaped by the way he encountered the biblical teaching about consolation and particularly from his work in the Pauline epistles.

II. His Theology of Consolation (1559 Institutes)
In the previous installment we looked at the way Calvin read Paul’s epistles and how he drew from them a doctrine of consolation, of God’s presence with his people in Christ, by the Spirit, in the gospel, in the sacraments, and in prayer. In this (third) part of this series we consider Calvin as a theologian of consolation.

We think of Calvin’s Institutes as a summary of doctrine and it is that, but it is more than that. It is a harvest of his biblical exegesis and a rich collection of pastoral and spiritual reflection that brings help and relief to Christ’s people. In Institutes 2.15.12 on the clause in the Apostles’ Creed, “he descended into hell” Calvin insisted on the true humanity of Jesus. In order to be our Mediator and our helper Jesus must be like us in every way, sin excepted. Of course, this is the teaching of Scripture (Hebrews 4:15) and it permeated Calvin’s understanding of Christ’s person and work for us and in us. He wrote, “Mediator has experienced our weaknesses the better to help us in our miseries.” According to Calvin, Christ submitted to “weakness” “purely by his love for us.” Calvin’s opponents, he said, don’t appreciate what Christ has done for us because “they have never earnestly considered what it is or means that we have been redeemed from God’s judgment. Yet this is our wisdom: duly to feel how much our salvation cost the Son of God.”

Because Christ suffered the pangs of death, we know that he experienced “the feeling of pain and fear was not contrary to faith.” He himself felt that he was “forsaken by God.” Even so, Jesus did not waver in the least from trust in the goodness of God. This is a frequent theme with Calvin. Even in the cry from the cross, Calvin noted that Jesus “did not cease to call him his God….”

The focus on consolation was most intense in book 3. He observed that “there are very many who so conceive God’s mercy that they receive almost no consolation from it.” They are full of anxiety because they are full of doubt. They lack assurance because they doubt that the promises of God apply to them in particular. They are guilty of poor reasoning and they misunderstand the true nature of faith. “But there is a far different feeling of full assurance that in the Scriptures is always attributed to faith. It is this which puts beyond doubt God’s goodness clearly manifested for us But that cannot happen without our truly feeling its sweetness and experiencing it in ourselves” (Institutes, 3.2.15).

True faith produces confidence (fiducia). The very boldness or confidence which the Council of Trent damned as “presumption,” Calvin said is “right faith” which dares “with tranquil hearts to stand in God’s sight. This boldness arises only out of a sure confidence in divine benevolence and salvation. This is so true that the word ‘faith’ is very often used for confidence” (fiducia).

He called this “confidence” the “axis” (cardo) “on which faith turns: that we do not regard the promises of mercy that God offers as true only outside ourselves, but not at all in us; rather that we make them ours by inwardly embracing them.” (Institutes, 3.2.16).

He recognized that the subjective experience of believers does not always match the definition of faith considered in itself. He was not only a theologian, he was also a pastor and counselor. He understood that Christians are “‘…repeatedly shaken by gravest terrors. For so violent are the temptations that trouble their minds as not to seem quite compatible with that certainty of faith.’” It’s impossible to “imagine any certainty that is not tinged with doubt, or any assurance that is not assailed by some anxiety” (Institutes, 3.17.1).

The source of consolation is faith and the object of faith is the promises of God in Christ. The first thing that faith apprehends is Christ and the first benefit of Christ is justification sola gratia, sola fide (by grace alone, through faith alone). He called this benefit the “axis of religion” (religionis cardinem) or the thing on which the Christian faith pivots.

For unless you first of all grasp what your relationship to God is, and the nature of his judgment concerning you, you have neither a foundation on which to establish your salvation nor one on which to build piety toward God. But the need to know this will better appear from the knowledge itself (Institutes, 3.11.1).

On the connection between justification through faith resting in and receiving Christ alone and consolation he wrote: “This is our whole confidence, this is our only consolation, this is the whole ground of our hope (Institutes 3.13.4). Here he invoked a series of crucial biblical, evangelical, and Reformed ideas. He equated consolation with confidence. They are two sides of the same coin. We have consolation because we have confidence in the gospel and we have confidence because we have consolation.

III. Consolation and Pastoral Ministry
For Calvin, christian consolation is not only a theological reality but it is also the result of good pastoral practice. Christians often fail to appropriate the consolation they might because they don’t humble themselves to confess their sins to one another.

Let us take the apostle’s view, which is simple and open: namely, that we should lay our infirmities on one another’s breasts, to receive among ourselves mutual counsel, mutual compassion, and mutual consolation. Then, as we are aware of our brothers’ infirmities, let us pray to God for these (Institutes, 3.4.6).

He recognized that all Christians have a duty to admonish and rebuke one another, but ministers have a special responsibility here. They “have been ordained witnesses and sponsors of it to assure our consciences of forgiveness of sins, to the extent that they are said to forgive sins and to loose souls.” The Christian should “use private confession to his own pastor; and for his solace, he should beg the private help of him whose duty it is, both publicly and privately, to console the people of God by the gospel teaching” (Institutes, 3.4.12).

Another great source of consolation for believers is heaven. Despite the frequent portrayal of Calvin as a theologian of glory and triumph, it is simply untrue. He was a theologian of the cross. He understood that the lot of “the entire company of believers, so long as they dwell on earth, must be “as sheep destined for the slaughter” [Romans 8:36] to be conformed to Christ their Head.” When this happens, it causes us to lift our “heads above everything earthly….” To appropriate consolation in this vale of tears, we have to learn to seek the heavenly existence, where the Lord “will clothe them with “a robe of glory… and rejoicing” [Ecclus. 6:31, EV], will feed them with the unspeakable sweetness of his delights, will elevate them to his sublime fellowship—in fine, will deign to make them sharers in his happiness.”

We also experience Christian consolation when we pray the Lord’s Prayer because, in it, Christ has “prescribed a form for us in which he set forth as in a table all that he allows us to seek of him, all that is of benefit to us, all that we need ask. From this kindness of his we receive great fruit of consolation: that we know we are requesting nothing absurd, nothing strange or unseemly—in short, nothing unacceptable to him—since we are asking almost in his own words” (2.20.34).

As we pray and make use of Word and sacrament ministry, we learn to think about our election properly and that strengthens our consolation. We are all tempted to doubt, to wonder if the promises are really true. We learn not to try to make our election “more certain” by attempting to “investigate God’s eternal plan apart from his Word.” To do that is to “engulf” oneself “in a deadly abyss.” When we approach the question of election “as it is contained in his Word” we “reap the inestimable fruit of consolation. Let this, therefore, be the way of our inquiry: to begin with God’s call, and to end with it” (Institutes, 3.24.4).

He explained,

First, if we seek God’s fatherly mercy and kindly heart, we should turn our eyes to Christ, on whom alone God’s Spirit rests…But if we have been chosen in him, we shall not find assurance of our election in ourselves; and not even in God the Father, if we conceive him as severed from his Son. Christ, then, is the mirror wherein we must, and without self-deception may, contemplate our own election (Institutes, 3.13.5).

Calvin, we should not ask the question, “Am I elect?” but rather, “Do I believe?” Only the elect come to faith and thereby enjoy union with Christ. Contrary to what some would have us expect, for Calvin, the choices we make in this life are both real, free from compulsion, and encompassed in God’s secret providence. Our business is not to guess God’s providence ahead of time but to respond appropriately to God’s Word (Deut 29:29).

For Calvin, the first thing we must know is our need of a Savior, and this we learn from God’s holy, unyeilding law. This is because, for sinners, the requirements of the law are “far above human capacity” such that, relative to acceptance with God, apart from Christ, sinners can only see in them “the most immediate death.” (Institutes 2.7.3). Apart from God’s law we are tempted to think that we are well but, in its light, the sinner begins to feel that he is “panting under so heavy a weight as to stagger and totter, and finally even to fall down and faint away.” The law strips us of our blinding arrogance (Institutes, 2.7.6).

The good news for sinners is that, for those who trust that Christ died and rose again for them, in their place (Institutes, 3.11.14), who with “confidence…embrace the mercy of God as forgiving sin for Christ’s sake” (Antidote to Trent), who come to God “independent of, nay, in the absence of the merit of [ones own] works, because faith receives that righteousness which the Gospel bestows” (Institutes, 3.11.18), have what the gospel offers: a right standing with God, in Christ, grounded not on what is happening in them (Rome) but upon what Christ has done for them and promised to them in the good news.

Calvin did not set the objective (“for us”) against the subjective (“in us”). Both are essential. The same Triune God who created us, who redeemed us, is also sanctifying us. God the Spirit is at work in us, making us alive, giving us faith and union with Christ. Through those benefits the Spirit is working an abiding assurance and confidence that whatever hard providences we may endure, we do so under the Father’s gentle hand, with Christ our Savior, the Spirit helping, assuring, and renewing us in Christ’s image.

IV. Consolation Preached
In part one of this series we considered Calvin’s interpretation of several biblical passages on consolation. In part two we looked at how he harvested a theology of consolation from his exegetical work. In part three we examined what he wrote in his Institutes on consolation, and in part four we focused on consolation in pastoral ministry. In this section we will analyze how Calvin preached the biblical doctrine of consolation to his congregation.

Calvin was a preacher. All his work in his biblical commentaries and theological treatises came to expression in his preaching on the Lord’s Days in in the mid-week sermons on the Old Testament. We can see briefly a little bit of Calvin’s pastoral wisdom in his approach to the matter of Job’s friends in his 1554 sermons on Job 2:11. He preached:

It is a good likelihood at the first blush that God meant to relieve his servant Job, when he sent men unto him that pretended to have pity upon his miseries, and were skillful and wise to console him, as we shall see by their discourses anon after, how they were exquisite persons. And so a man might suppose, that God would henceforth stretch out his hand unto Job to deliver him from miseries that that he had sent him. But we see that this visitation of his friends was to increase his misery and to plunge him even into the bottom of endless waves.

The first thing that strikes one is his bold language about God’s intention, and second, how deeply Calvin had entered into the narrative, how much he identified with Job and how he expected his congregation to identify with Job.

We should remember that such identification might have been a little easier in the 16th century. We recall how much Calvin suffered physically and emotionally through his adult life, and especially in Geneva where he faced constant and often vicious opposition for decades.

He continued:

Whereby we be admonished, that if at any time we be in hope to be drawn out of our afflictions: we must not think it strange though the matter fall not out as we have conceived. For we see how Job was disappointed of his hope which he had when he saw his friends, and how they became as devils to torment him more than he had been tormented before.

n was quite conscious of the fallenness and frailty of humanity. There is a profoundly realistic quality to his comments throughout this section on Job. Thus he did not attack Job’s counselors as some have done. He said,

Yet notwithstanding, their mind was not to do so, neither came they to mock Job: they brought no malicious purpose nor wicked intent with them: but they had a right and hearty good will and love toward him. For it is said that their meaning was to have compassion on him, i.e. to say, to make themselves part of his misery, so far as was possible for them to bear such a grief, as if they had been joined and knit together in this person.

These are the words of a man who had not only suffered physically and emotionally but also faced the inappropriate comments of well-intended but bungling friends and acquaintances.

…Let us take warning by such example, that although we be well minded toward our neighbors and be desirous to console them in their miseries, yet God must guide us or else our said good intent will avail us nothing. Therefore when we see our neighbors in any danger or necessity truly we ought beseech God to give us the grace to have compassion on them and to help them, but yet that is not all.

The medieval theologians and Rome had made a great deal about “good intentions.” There were indulgences for those who had good intentions. For Calvin, however, real love is more than good intentions. Would-be comforters need the grace of a genuine feeling for others and wisdom.

We see how there be many zealous persons which are very earnest and desirous to show themselves charitable toward those whom they are able to help, but what for that there is not handsomeness nor good fashion. When they come to a poor creature that is already afflicted they bring him a new torment.

According to Calvin, before (and as) we offer consolation to the hurting we should pray that God would give us the “intended and right use” of consolation at the moment. That we would be of genuine use and that we would have “skill to handle folk as shall be convenient and agreeable to their nature.”

He was a skilled and patient student of Scripture and preacher but he was also a pastor who had suffered significant losses. He knew the difference between genuine and false consolation, that which directs us to Christ and his mercies and that which calls attention to the would-be comforter.

Though it does not fit the old modernist view of Calvin, he had genuine compassion for those whom today we call “the hurting.” He was not, however, a subjectivist, i.e., his first reflex was not to turn inward. He consistently grounded the Christian’s consolation in the objective facts of redemption in Christ, in the person of Christ, and in the promises of Christ. Nevertheless, he valued highly the Christians’ subjective experience of and appropriation of grace. When wrote and preached about consolation he evidenced a strong concern that ministers particularly understand, offer, and preach to their congregations the consolation of Christ.

At the center of Calvin’s doctrine of consolation is the gospel of the obedience, suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ and the doctrine justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. The old medieval and Roman doctrine of progressive justification through sanctification was, for Calvin, no basis for consolation or assurance or confidence but only a basis for doubt and fear.

For Calvin, Christian consolation is an essential aspect of faith. Its opposite is despair, a refusal to trust in the goodness, kindness, and mercy of God. The consolation of the Christian faith is an essential part of sanctity and all these are grounded in the gospel.

In contrast to some contemporary approaches to pastoral care, Calvin was what we might call a “supernaturalist.“ He was also a Trinitarian in his theology of pastoral care. As B. B. Warfield noted, Calvin was the theologian of the Holy Spirit. Arguably half of his Institutes were devoted to the person and work of the Spirit and according to Calvin, it is the Spirit who consoles grieving Christians. Nevertheless, in contrast to those whom we might call ”hyper-supernaturalists,” Calvin did not set the work of the Spirit in the believer over against the means ordained by God: the churchly ministry of the Word, sacraments, and prayer. The Spirit brings consolation but he does so through the means he gave to his church. Thus, when we confess the “due use of ordinary means” we are following in Calvin’s footsteps.

John Calvin was a scholar and recipient of the consolation that God gives to his suffering people. For him, consolation was not, as we might think, a second prize, a replacement for what we really want but rather, he thought it as bringing us the most important thing: Christ, his grace, and his mercy.