The Many Faces of Calvin

Keith A. Mathison
Thursday, June 11th 2009
Jun/Jul 2009

In recognition of the 500th anniversary of John Calvin's birth, Modern Reformation editors have solicited essays from a number of authorities on Calvin's life and work. Not all of our writers are "Calvinists" (that is, they would not all necessarily agree with him or follow in his theological footsteps), but each has identified a particular point of Calvin's thought that helps contribute to an overall perspective of Calvin's influence in his time and ours. We're grateful to these writers, some of whom might not normally appear in our pages, for lending us their own words as we contemplate the many faces of John Calvin.

Among the many doctrines debated at the time of the Protestant Reformation, none was the source of more discussion and debate than the Lord's Supper. John Calvin wrote and spoke extensively on the subject in his sermons, tracts, and theological treatises, and numerous studies have examined what Calvin taught in these. However, we can also gain insight into his understanding of this Sacrament by examining the liturgy he prepared for use at the church in Geneva.

It is clear from even a cursory glance at the liturgy that Calvin wanted the communicants to understand the meaning of the Supper. The liturgy of the church of Geneva included much more than the recitation of the words of institution. At times, the minister was to make the Supper the topic of the entire sermon in order to explain its meaning to the people. But even when this did not occur, the observance of the Supper was to be a time for instruction. According to Calvin's liturgy, when the Supper is celebrated, the minister must first turn the attention of the church to the Sacrament. After doing so, the minister recites the words of institution found in 1 Corinthians 11:23-29.

The words of institution are then followed by a warning to the unworthy. Here the seriousness with which Calvin took the Supper is evident. The minister declares that unbelievers are not to be admitted and then verbally excommunicates "all idolators, blasphemers, despisers of God, heretics" and a number of others, "declaring to them that they must abstain from this holy table, for fear of polluting and contaminating the sacred viands [items of food] which our Lord Jesus Christ gives only to his household and believers."

After warning unbelievers and unrepentant sinners to abstain, Calvin's liturgy warmly encourages the repentant believers who have carefully examined themselves to come to the table. In spite of all the sins we know remain within us, "let us all be assured that the vices and imperfections which are in us will not prevent his receiving us, and making us worthy of taking part at this spiritual table; for we do not come to declare that we are perfect or righteous in ourselves; but, on the contrary, by seeking our life in Christ, we confess that we are in death." Communicants are to understand that the Supper "is a medicine for the poor spiritual sick."

Following this invitation, the minister offers an explanation of the promises that are sealed in the Sacrament of the Supper. First, communicants are to believe that Christ "is indeed willing to make us partakers of his own body and blood, in order that we may possess him entirely in such a manner that he may live in us, and we in him." Therefore, "although we see only bread and wine, yet let us not doubt that he accomplishes spiritually in our souls all that he shows us externally by these visible signs; in other words, that he is heavenly bread, to feed and nourish us unto life eternal." Christians are also to be grateful for the "infinite goodness of our Saviour, who displays all his riches and blessings at this table, in order to dispense them to us." Calvin encourages believers further to "receive this sacrament as a pledge that the virtue of his death and passion is imputed to us for righteousness, just as if we had suffered it in our own persons."

At this point in the liturgy, the minister is to encourage believers to "raise our hearts and minds on high, where Jesus Christ is, in the glory of his Father, and from whence we look for him at our redemption." Believers are reminded not to look for Christ in the elements as if he were enclosed in the bread and wine. "Let us be contented, then, to have the bread and wine as signs and evidences, spiritually seeking the reality where the word of God promises that we shall find it." At this point, the bread and wine are distributed while Psalms are sung or some passage of Scripture relevant to the Supper is read.

Calvin's liturgy is instructive for us today in a number of ways. In many churches, the observance of the Lord's Supper is accompanied by little more than the words of institution. Is this sufficient today? Calvin found it important to include not only explicit warnings to unbelievers, but also good news (gospel) and warm encouragement for believers fighting the world, the flesh, and the devil. It is also instructive that Calvin included a basic explanation of the meaning and significance of the Lord's Supper in the liturgy to be recited every time the Supper was observed. Most of the people of his day had been brought up with the Roman Catholic Mass and were ignorant of the true meaning of the Sacrament. While most Christians today may not have been brought up in the Roman Catholic Church, there is still widespread ignorance of the meaning of the Supper that could be rectified by following Calvin's example during our own celebration of the Lord's Supper.

1 [ Back ] In this essay, the author has used the Henry Beveridge translation of the Form of Administering the Sacraments Composed for the Use of the Church of Geneva. This translation is found in the second volume of the Tracts and Letters of John Calvin (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2009), 113-28.
Thursday, June 11th 2009

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