Archive

Posts Tagged ‘John Calvin’

Baptism as a Means of Grace

August 14, 2019 2 comments

From one of the earlier Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals’ PCRT conferences (1981) on “How to Grow your Faith” comes an interesting lecture from Robert Godfrey, on Baptism as a means of grace.  It’s a subject I’ve been considering lately, the scripture and reasoning for paedo (versus believer) baptism, and this lecture fits in along with other online articles I’ve come across.

In this post I want to look at this sacrament, baptism, as a means of grace (regardless of whether paedo or believers’ baptism); and a lot of the material comes from John Calvin’s writing in the Institutes, and referenced in this lecture.

Church history has shown two extremes to be avoided – first, the superstitious “magical” view of the Roman Catholicism, that the Reformers responded to in their day.  The current day evangelicalism – and just as true if not more so than in 1981 – has tended to the other extreme, of viewing the sacraments (sometimes called ordinances due to over-reaction again the Roman Catholic view of sacraments) as of no value, something to be neglected, as an “appendix” and an after thought.  There are the churches that only observe the Lord’s Supper once a quarter (every 3 months), or even once a year.  Then, too, are the cases of unusual practice, that remove the significance of the sacraments, where people don’t think about the symbolism and the purpose of the sacraments:  a church observance of the Lord’s Supper in which the bread is put into the bottom of the plastic drink cup and people “drink” the bread from the cup into their mouth; or, a church that wants to be culturally relevant and so refers to baptism as “coming out”–complete with online postings of testimonials from young believers who talk about their life and past problems and then they came to Jesus (more focused on the person’s experience than about the triune God and what He has done for us).

Yet as pointed out in Godfrey’s lecture (back to Calvin), the main point regarding baptism is not about us—but it is something that God has done.   Baptism should first be viewed as God’s pledge and promise to us as individuals, as a part of the “visible word” to us as individuals.  After all, sermons are given generally, to everyone in the audience, but each person has their own baptism experience to look back to.  Baptism is not to be seen as just a one-time event at the start of the Christian life, and then we go forward and forget about it; properly viewed, it is something we look back to, in relation to God’s purpose for me, something that brings assurance (as do the other means of grace).

Martin Luther referred to baptism in this way, that his baptism was something that told him he was a Christian:  not thinking of baptism in a legalistic way as though the baptism itself is what saves someone, the error of baptismal regeneration – but in this “means of grace” view, thinking about what God in Christ has done for us, of baptism as God’s sign of the covenant relationship with Luther as an individual.  Godfrey agrees that baptism also serves as a testimony of our faith, of each of us being one of God’s people.  Yet this is a secondary purpose, and we must never forget the primary purpose and meaning of baptism.

Martin Luther quote:

No one should be terrified if he feels evil lust or love, nor should he despair even if he falls. Rather he should remember his Baptism and comfort himself joyfully with the fact that God has there pledged Himself to slay his sin for him, and not to count it a cause for condemnation, if only he does not say yes to sin and remain in it.

Godfrey’s lecture used the “P” letter for the sermon outline – including the Prominence of the term baptism in scripture, then the Pledge and Promise of God, and the People (recipients) of baptism.  One section does address the Presbyterian-view scripture reasons for the paedo view, an informational part done with respect—observing that people rarely heard actual discussion about the paedo Baptist view in Presbyterian sermons, referencing even the Presbyterian scholar Charles  Hodge as one who said he had never heard a sermon on paedobaptism.

Godfrey’s lecture is very informative and helpful, a Reformed look at the sacrament of baptism and how baptism can be thought of in terms of our sanctification and assurance.  It is part of a set from the 1981 Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology, and soon I’ll be listening to the other lectures from this conference.

Bible Application from the Patriarchs’ Lives

April 20, 2018 2 comments

It has been well observed that God’s word instructs us in two ways: by precepts, and by illustrations. Sections including the Decalogue, the Proverbs and New Testament epistles emphasize right living by precepts and commands; then we have illustrations of real people’s lives – such as the patriarchs and King David – that show us the good and bad, including the consequences of sin.

The Tabletalk 2007 back-issues (the same calendar year as 2018), going through the lives of the patriarchs, are excellent studies, packed with application regarding Christian living.  I was familiar with some of the more obvious issues — such as the repeated patterns of lying (Abraham and Isaac), parental favoritism (Isaac and Rebekah with Esau and Jacob), and Jacob’s years with Laban, for Jacob to learn some things about his deceitful behavior the hard way – and the general point that the Bible is a divine book, that it does not whitewash the heroes of the faith, it does not hide but tells us the many faults of these men, to show that it is all of God’s grace and not ourselves.

Beyond that, though, Genesis has much more to say about day to day life and the trials and suffering, showing us by way of illustration that it has always been this way for God’s people, and that what we experience is nothing new or unusual (ref. 1 Peter 4:12 and 1 Peter 5:9).

Abraham and Sarah lived, day by day, through 25 years before the promised heir was born.

Isaac and Rebekah clearly did not have a great marriage, one that had broken down in communication by the time of Genesis 27, such that each was doing their own thing.  Along the way, they both experienced the daily grief of Esau’s wives—and this went on for decades, from the time when Esau married them (age 40) to the time of Jacob’s stealing the blessing when they were about age 76-77: life events did not come and go quickly, but they endured this situation for over 35 years.

One of the Tabletalk articles from February 2007 consists of John Calvin’s exposition of Genesis 26:26-35.  In the details of Isaac’s life we see a Bible example of what Spurgeon pointed out in his sermons: when God does not answer our prayers and provide relief in one specific area, He will answer us in some other way (a truth which I have come to know, time and time again, in my own trials):

Here we see on the one side, how God would comfort his servant [Isaac] every way: For it was not only showed him that he should be assured from then on that none should hurt him — seeing the king himself of the country came to seek him — but also he had water given him, which he might enjoy peaceably and quietly as his own. When therefore our Lord shows this great favor towards Isaac, let us know that He does not tempt him above their strength, but always sweetens their afflictions in such sort, that they shall not be, as it were, ever oppressed and quite overthrown. Let us hope, that just as Isaac was upheld, God after He had afflicted him, looked also again unto him to give him some comfort, so likewise must we wait, and then we shall not be disappointed if we rest there. For God knows our frailty, and there is no doubt He will always give us such taste of His mercy and favor that we shall have good cause to bless His name and have no occasion to think the sad thought that we do not know how to comfort ourselves anymore in Him.

Then another Tabletalk article from this same issue defines the law of retaliation, the talion (an eye for an eye, for equivalence of punishment), followed by reference to the specifics of Jacob’s life.  Jacob deceived his father who was blind; later, Jacob was deceived by Laban due to the blindness of night (Genesis 29:21-30, Leah substituted for Rachel).  Jacob deceived his father with a goat skin; his own sons deceived Jacob with the blood of a goat (Genesis 37:31).  Noting the specifics of how God worked out His justice in the life of Jacob, is good application to God’s Providence regarding our own lives, to reflect on the reality of this in our own lives. I can relate the events in Jacob’s life, and the truth of Galatians 6:7, to my own circumstances, to better understand the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of God’s chastening in the specific events in my own life.

Yet God’s grace and kindness comes through as well, sometimes in very amazing and unexpected ways–in their lives, as well as ours.

But God is rich in mercy as well as justice. By Leah, Jacob’s wife through Laban’s deception, was born Judah, through whom Christ was to come (Gen. 29:35). And by Joseph, who was at last restored to Jacob, God delivered the world from a famine (41:57). So in all of this we see that God is rich in mercy as well as justice. In wisdom He works to accomplish His sovereign ends even through the just punishments He visits upon His errant covenant people for their evil means.

John Calvin and the Early Church Fathers

July 13, 2016 2 comments

I’m reading Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, now in book 2 (text available online here), the section on the issue of supposed “free will” and the true nature of the will.  The following observation from Calvin reminded me of a topic I have addressed before, such as in this post about Steve Lawson’s book concerning the history of the “doctrines of grace”  and this later post on historical theology:

Moreover, although the Greek Fathers, above others, and especially Chrysostom, have exceeded due bounds in extolling the powers of the human will, yet all ancient theologians, with the exception of Augustine, are so confused, vacillating, and contradictory on this subject, that no certainty can be obtained from their writings.

Throughout this chapter Calvin considers, at some length, what previous scholars believed concerning the human will, even addressing their sub-categories of different parts of what makes up the human will and mind.  After observing that the Greek (pagan) philosophers all held a high view of the human will and human reason, Calvin noted that the Greek early church fathers in particular held a high regard for Greek philosophy.  This agrees with what was brought out in an early church history (Reformed Theological Seminary iTunes University) lectures series, as summarized in this previous post:

Another factor was their background as Greek philosophers, pagan Greeks who only converted to Christianity as adults, and who highly valued Greek philosophy as what helped to bring people to Christianity.  They all had interest in knowledge, the “gnosis,” and at least some of the Greeks were influenced by gnostic and platonic ideas.

Yet, as another response to those who would project the extreme Pelagian view onto the early Church pre-Augustine, to those who bring forth Calvin’s quote about how they were all confused on the subject, later in this chapter Calvin does point out the positive contributions and overall understanding of the early church writers:

The language of the ancient writers on the subject of Free Will is, with the exception of that of Augustine, almost unintelligible. Still they set little or no value on human virtue, and ascribe the praise of all goodness to the Holy Spirit.

 

At one time they teach, that man having been deprived of the power of free will must flee to grace alone; at another, they equip or seem to equip him in armour of his own. It is not difficult, however, to show, that notwithstanding of the ambiguous manner in which those writers express themselves, they hold human virtue in little or no account, and ascribe the whole merit of all that is good to the Holy Spirit.

 

This much, however, I dare affirm, that though they sometimes go too far in extolling free will, the main object which they had in view was to teach man entirely to renounce all self-confidence, and place his strength in God alone.

For this topic, I still consider Luther’s “The Bondage of the Will” as the main “go-to” book, one with great detail concerning the natural human will as not free (Erasmus’ view) but in bondage.  Calvin’s Institutes is another lengthy study of its own, regarding many doctrinal points, and this section contributes good information to the topic, including summary of the views of unbelieving philosophers as well as Christian teaching up to Calvin’s time.

Historical Theology, the Early Church, and the ‘Doctrines of Grace’

May 19, 2014 5 comments

In a recent online discussion, someone asserted that the early church (premillennialists) “spoke vehemently in favor of freewill (what we would nowadays refer to philosophically as “libertarian freewill”) and against the idea that God or fate determined any man’s actions for good or evil. … the ideas that would later be formulated into Calvinism weren’t introduced until the 5th century, by Augustine, who notably rejected Premillennialism around the same time that he rejected the freewill theism of the early Christians.” This person further noted that Calvin (and the other Reformers) heavily quoted from Augustine as an authority, rather than earlier church leaders. The response to information from Steve Lawson’s book, “Pillars of Grace (A Long Line of Godly Men, Volume Two)” was to claim that Lawson performed eisegesis to come up with his claims, and that no one before Lawson had done so.

My impression from reading Lawson’s book is that he did readily acknowledge, and quoted, the inconsistent, “free will” writings from the early church, along with their writings in support of various doctrines now considered a part of the “Doctrines of Grace.” And, that the full development of the “Doctrines of Grace” really did not take place before Augustine. Many of the early writers sometimes contradicted themselves: on the one hand acknowledging God’s sovereignty in election, but at other times advocating “free will.” Mainly this shows that they had not fully developed and “thought out” the details of the doctrines of God’s sovereignty. But Augustine did not simply create the “Doctrines of Grace” as ideas never before known, in a vacuum completely independent of scriptural and/or cultural ideas. And so we certainly do find understanding of “total depravity,” “sovereign election,” “irresistible call,” and even “definite atonement” in the writers as early as the 2nd century, and among those who also affirmed premillennialism.

Regarding the development of all biblical doctrine — historical theology — this is something we find generally true: the ideas are not at first really thought through; but as various errors entered the church, each controversy helped the church leaders at that time further consider and define their views. As Dr. S. Lewis Johnson often described it, in many ways the believers of later generations are the “fathers” and the early writers were the “children”; and this truth is brought out in John 16:13, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” The earliest writers (as also pointed out in Lawson’s book) primarily quoted scripture itself rather than giving detailed commentary as to their specific understanding. The earliest theological controversies (before the 5th century) concerned the nature of Christ and the Trinity, the nature of God. Not until Pelagius, providentially on the scene at the same time as Augustine, did the church have a serious challenge to the doctrine of man and man’s will.

From further research on this question: the general consensus is that the early Church did not have a clear, discernible position either way.  So, while it is true that the Church pre-Augustine was not strongly “Calvinist,” yet it was not strongly Pelagian/ Arminian-style “libertarian freewill” either.  Here is one helpful resource, William Cunningham, Historical Theology: The Doctrines of Grace, with the following important observations:

Calvinists and anti-Calvinists have both appealed to the early church in support of their respective opinions, although we believe it cannot be made out that the fathers of the first three centuries give any very distinct deliverance concerning them. These important topics did not become subjects of controversial discussion during that period; and it holds almost universally in the history of the church, that until a doctrine has been fully discussed in a controversial way by men of talent and learning taking opposite sides, men’s opinions regarding it are generally obscure and indefinite, and their language vague and confused, if not contradictory. These doctrines did not become subjects of controversial discussion till what is called the Pelagian controversy, in the beginning of the fifth century. At that time, Augustine, the great defender of the truth against Pelagius and his followers, while appealing to the early writers in support of the doctrines which he had established from Scripture, and which he has the distinguished honour of having first developed in a connected and systematic way, admitted that many of them had spoken without due care and precision upon these points, but contended that in the main they concurred in his opinions….. That these great doctrines were not very thoroughly understood, were not very prominently brought forward, and were not very fully applied, is but too evident. That they had been wholly laid aside, and that an opposite set of doctrines had been substituted in their room, is what cannot be established.

Also, this 18th century book, free text available online, referenced in Cunningham’s article as an example of attempts by later authors to prove definitive Calvinist teaching in the early Church. Thus we can also know that Lawson was not the first to take up this topic, and good online material from earlier years is available (public domain text) to argue the same basic points; Lawson’s real contribution has been to revisit this issue with a new book on the topic, more accessible for 21st century readers, but the issue itself goes back a few centuries within the Protestant Reformed tradition.

The Last (Divinely Sanctioned) Passover, the First Lord’s Supper: S. Lewis Johnson on 1 Corinthians 11

June 17, 2013 5 comments

Continuing through S. Lewis Johnson’s 1 Corinthians series, chapter 11 includes a mini-series, exploring the depth of the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper.  In a set of five messages (messages 27 through 31)  Dr. Johnson covers the Passover (as a type of Christ the final Passover Lamb); the Particular Redemption extent of the atonement (“Limited Atonement”); addresses the error of the Catholic Church while describing the variations of meaning (“this is my body”) within different Protestant groups; and notes the three components of the early church meeting.

Parallels between the Passover and The Lord’s Supper

  • Both are memorials for deliverance
  • Both are anticipations of future blessing:  Israel delivered from Egypt in order to be brought into the promised land.  The church of Jesus Christ: we in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper anticipate also the coming again of our Lord Jesus Christ and the entrance and the fullness of the blessings that our ours by redemption. (1 Cor. 11:26  “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He come.”
  • Both were/are highlights of corporate worship: Israel’s yearly celebration of the Passover/  In the Christian Church, the Lord’s Supper is the highlight of worship.

The Passover service included four cups.  It is likely that the Lord used the third cup — the “cup of blessing”  (reference 1 Cor. 10:16).

Limited Atonement

I don’t like the term ‘limited’ because it seems to suggest that the grace of God is not full and great and sufficient for all.  It is sufficient for all.  Any believing person who comes to the Lord God will be received by Him.  It’s sufficient for all.  And I don’t know the elect.  The elect make themselves known by the work of the Holy Spirit in their hearts.  If I must answer the question, yes I believe in a limited atonement; but I would like to tell you Arminians who don’t understand the grace of God, that you do, too.

So you have plastered us with the term “limited,” but I say to you, your atonement is limited also, because your atonement, which you say is intended for everybody, doesn’t save everybody.  In other words, it is not all powerful.  My atonement that I celebrate is all powerful.  It saves everyone intended by the Lord God in Heaven.   So I like that atonement.  I love its power.  It celebrates the great power of our God in Heaven.

I do not want a God who is frustrated in his purposes.  I do not want a God who cannot do what he intended to do.   And so I must say, yes, my atonement is limited, but it is sufficient for all.

As SLJ notes, most evangelicals see the Lord’s Supper as symbolic and a memorial, the Zwingli view.  Dr. Johnson himself aligned more with John Calvin’s view: I tend myself to feel that there is something in what John Calvin says.  That is, when we partake of the elements, there is a ministry from the Lord Jesus himself that we receive by virtue of His spiritual presence in our meetings and the ministry of Himself to us as we partake of the elements. 

As referenced in Acts 2:42, the early church meeting had three parts: teaching (the apostles’ teaching), fellowship and the breaking of bread (the Lord’s Supper), and prayer.