Category Archives: Sacraments

Calvin on the Sacraments

This post is dedicated to T-Bomb.

John Calvin turns 500 in about 8 hours and in the festive spirit I’ve been reading a few new Calvin tomes over the last month. This week my selection is one of the newest Calvin titles, John Calvin’s Sermons on Genesis: Chapters 1—11 (Banner of Truth 2009), an English translation of his French sermons. Nothing written by Calvin is more enjoyable to read than his sermons (my opinion).

In one sermon—“Jesus Christ, the Tree of Life (Gen. 3:22—24)”—Calvin writes that for the pre-fall Adam “the tree of life was for him a sacrament.”

Calvin was a paedobaptist, but it’s clear in these words that he was no memorialist, but a man able to balance a theologically-careful middle ground somewhere located between Luther and Zwingli. “We will never be disappointed,” Calvin says, “when we lean firmly on the visible signs he gives us, even though we see only water, bread, and wine, while we rise above the heavens by the power of the promise given to us in them.”

The sermon–the volume–is a real treat of experiential reformed preaching!

I was blessed by Calvin’s entire sermon, specifically this lengthy portion. Enjoy!

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“…In short, the tree of life was for him [Adam] a sacrament, just as baptism and the Supper are for us. A little water that is put on the head and face of a child is not to cleanse the soul, which is stained with sin. The water is nothing so far as the heavenly life is concerned, but it refers us to the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is our true washing, by whom we are cleansed of all our blemishes, and it sends us to his Holy Spirit, by which we are made new after he has put to death all our carnal desires and all the vices which reside in the flesh. And in the Supper we see something other than bread and wine. Now meat is for the stomach, says Paul, and all that is for destruction (1 Cor. 6:13). But the subject here is nourishment but for our bodies, but spiritually, for our souls.

These external images lead us further, even to our Lord Jesus Christ. Now it is true the sacraments we have today declare to us that Jesus Christ is our Redeemer, as will be developed more fully. But here the tree of life has truly signified that God’s Word was the source and origin of our life even though Jesus Christ had not yet been established as our Redeemer. It is true that was hidden in God’s strict counsel and had not been manifested. That is because no remedy was necessary since there was not as yet a disease.

Now that we know what good the tree of life was to Adam and now that we know what role the prohibition of the tree of life had for him, we will easily be able to understand that God excommunicated him from this sacrament so he will be more astonished and, having become guilty, will aspire more earnestly after the remedy and be urged to seek his salvation where it can be gotten back, knowing that in himself there is only abomination. In short, what Moses recounts is like an excommunication delivered to Adam—as today, when we see a hardened and headstrong man living a scandalous life, wishing to receive no correction. Is that the case here? This wretched man must be excommunicated and, in a manner of speaking, cut off from the body of the faithful so he will better realize his evil and be heartsick because of it, and so that will lead him to shame for his sins, teach him to be humble and ask for forgiveness. That, then, is how our Lord still wants excommunication to be practiced in the church today so that sinners will be drawn to repentance because they do not sense their evil and, having defamed the church, they do nothing but claim innocence. So when we see they are thus stupid, they have to be lanced for a bloodletting, so to speak.

Moreover, when the text says, ‘lest Adam put forth his hand and eat of that tree of life and live’, it is not, as we have already mentioned, because the tree possessed in itself such power, for it was only a sacrament by which God was working to strengthen Adam’s faith and keep him humble. But this relates to a true confidence Adam could lay hold to. We see that hypocrites and those who are witless and stupid and are not touched by a true fear of God used the sacraments to cover themselves, as if they were in a den of thieves, and we see how they harden themselves against God. When a man is filled with godlessness, blasphemies, is malicious, full of hatred and rancor, in whom there is no uprightness or mercy, he will, when in the fellowship of Christians, boast of his baptism: ‘What? Have I not been baptized? Do I not partake of the Lord s Supper? Do I not come to the church and confess my faith, as others do?’ He will talk that way and have as much faith as a dog. Yet he will use declarations of the love and grace of God as shields. But he does not care a fig about the truth. We see examples of that every day. And would to God that not a tenth of their kind profaned the sacraments that way! That is what Adam and Eve had done. And God took that into consideration, saying, ‘If Adam extends his hand to the tree of life, he will live.’ In other words, he will always think he is in his state. Now that is how to show contempt for God. And Adam would have even been intoxicated with that foolish, inordinate pride, and that would have caused him to forget his sin, but he needed to have the memory of it refreshed so he would groan all of his life and seek regularly God’s mercy because he had been stripped of every good thing. So we see now the natural meaning of the passage.

Now we must glean two things from those words.

One is that we are advised of the use of the sacraments, that is, they are sure and infallible pledges both of the grace acquired for and communicated to us in our Lord Jesus Christ and of the salvation we obtained through him, provided however that we apply them as necessary to strengthen our faith. For whenever I am tempted to offend God in many ways and am as one truly lost, I will return to my baptism. It is not in vain that God bore witness to me that I was pure and clean by means of our Lord Jesus Christ’s blood. I will then conclude that he can never reject me. Therefore, although l am soiled, stinking, and execrable before my God, I possess the confirmation that he will receive me because he has been pleased to declare and ratify to me by means of baptism that I am justified by another means, namely, by the washing of our Lord Jesus Christ’s blood. Indeed, but at the same time I must experience repentance, I must repel temptations by using the power of the sacrament I have received. And when I realize that, except for our Lord Jesus Christ’s help, I am dead and that there is only rottenthess in my soul, I must come to the sacrament.

I indeed have the Lord’s Supper, by which God gives me a guarantee and pledge that I share in the life of our Lord Jesus Christ. So if I find no salvation in myself, he still acts as a father and gives me what I lack, for it is in him that all fullness and perfection of good things lie. And when our Lord Jesus Christ shows that he is mine, that I possess him, that I am grafted into him, and that he is my life—as he himself once said that the bread was his body and the wine his blood (cf. Matt. 26:26-28)—I can assure myself and conclude that my soul finds its nourishment in him.

So the true use of the sacraments is to assure us that God will never deceive us, provided we apprehend his promises with the certainty of faith and conclude we will never be disappointed when we lean firmly on the visible signs he gives us, even though we see only water, bread, and wine, while we rise above the heavens by the power of the promise given to us in them. And then when God sets the water, bread and wine apart to show he wants us to acknowledge our Lord Jesus Christ in them, let us know he allies himself with us with an unbreakable bond. That, I say, is the legitimate use of the sacraments. We must not separate the truth from the image, but we must reconcile everything, that is, there is a very close correspondence between the promise and faith, and these two are so joined together that God speaks by the one and we respond in faith by honouring him by clinging completely to his word. That, I say, is how God’s word and our faith will join the truth and the image in all sacraments and visible signs.

Let us now note that, conversely, when we are refused the sacraments and are not permitted to commune, it is as if God were banishing us from his house and his church and had separated us from the union which we have with his Son. That is why Paul, speaking of excommunication, said that he delivered to the devil those who were excommunicated (1 Cor. 5:5; 1 Tim. 1:20). What does that mean? God reigns in his church only as Father and Saviour. He reigns everywhere as Judge, and does so to show he is the Father of our salvation, which is a benefit enclosed within his church. Therefore, when we speak of casting someone out, it is like saying he is being exposed to Satan. That is why we must receive the sacraments with all fear of God and with reverence for his word and with full sincerity, and why we must desire to enjoy them truly because they are always signs by which God certifies that he is with us, that he even lives within us by means of our Lord Jesus Christ, and that we are united with him to participate in his life. So, in short, that is what we need to remember from this passage.”

John Calvin’s Sermons on Genesis: Chapters 1—11 (Banner of Truth 2009), pp. 339—343

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