Sunday, August 16, 2015

So You Want to Be a Calvinist? John Calvin on the Nature of Sacraments

as remembrance of Him
In this section from the 1559 edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin explores the relation between a sacramental sign and the grace which it signifies. Notice the emphasis placed on God’s deliberate accommodation to human weakness. He writes:

To start with, we must consider what a sacrament is. It seems to me that a simple and proper definition is that it is an outward sign by which the Lord [Jesus] seals on our consciences the promises of his good will towards us in order to sustain the weakness of our faith; and by which we in turn bear witness to our piety toward him in the presence of the Lord and of his angels, and before human beings. More briefly, it is a testimony of divine grace toward us, confirmed by an outward sign, with mutual attestation of our piety towards him. Whichever of these definitions is preferred, its sense does not differ from that given by Augustine, who teaches that a sacrament is ‘a visible sign of a sacred thing’ or ‘a visible form of an invisible grace’; however, it explains the thing itself better and more clearly…

Now, from this definition we understand that a sacrament is never without a prior promise but is joined to it as a sort of appendix, with the objective of confirming and sealing the promise itself, and of making it clearer to us and, so to speak, ratifying it. God thus makes allowance first for our ignorance and slowness, then for our weakness. Yet, properly speaking, it is not so much needed to strengthen his holy Word as to support out faith in it. For God’s truth is of itself firm and sure enough; nor can it receive better confirmation from any source other than from itself. But as our faith is slight and feeble unless it is supported at every point and sustained by every means, it trembles, wavers, totters, and finally falls down.

So our merciful Lord, by his infinite kindness, adjusts himself to us in such a way that, since we are creatures who always creep on the ground, cleave to the flesh, and, do not think about or even conceive of anything spiritual, uses these earthly elements, and sets before us in the flesh a mirror of spiritual blessings. For if we were incorporeal (as Chrysostom says), he would give us these very things naked and incorporeal. Now, because we have souls inserted into our bodies, he imparts spiritual things under visible ones. This does not mean that the gifts set before us in the sacraments are bestowed with the natures of those things; rather, that they have been given this signification by God.


1) Institutes, IV.xiv.1, 3; in Joannis Calvini: Opera Selecta, ed. P. Barth and W. Niesel, vol.5 (Munich: Kaiser Verlag, 1936), 259.1-261.3

2) The Christian Theology Reader, edited by Alister E. McGrawth (Oxford UK: Blackwell Publishers Inc, 1995), 312-313.
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