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§ 115. Calvin’s Theory of the Sacraments.


Inst. bk. IV. chs. XIV.–XIX.


Next to the doctrine of predestination, Calvin paid most attention to the doctrine of the sacraments. And here he was original, and occupied a mediating position between Luther and Zwingli. His sacramental theory passed into all the Reformed Confessions more than his view of predestination.

Calvin accepts Augustin’s definition that a sacrament (corresponding to the Greek "mystery") is "a visible sign of an invisible grace," but he improves it by emphasizing the sealing character of the sacrament, according to Rom. 4:11, and the necessity of faith as the condition of receiving the benefit of the ordinance. "It is," he says, "an outward sign by which the Lord seals in our consciences the promises of his good-will towards us, to support the weakness of our faith, or a testimony of his grace towards us, with a reciprocal attestation of our piety towards him." It is even more expressive than the word. It is a divine seal of authentication, which sustains and strengthens our faith. "Lord, I believe, help thou mine unbelief" (Mark 9:24). To be efficacious, the sacraments must be accompanied by the Spirit, that internal Teacher, by whose energy alone our hearts are penetrated, and our affections moved. Without the influence of the Spirit, the sacraments can produce no more effect upon our minds, than the splendor of the sun on blind eyes, or the sound of a voice upon deaf ears. If the seed falls on a desert spot, it will die; but if it be cast upon a cultivated field, it will bring forth abundant increase.

Calvin vigorously opposes, as superstitious and mischievous, the scholastic opus operatum theory that the sacraments justify and confer grace by an intrinsic virtue, provided we do not obstruct their operation by a mortal sin. A sacrament without faith misleads the mind to rest in the exhibition of a sensuous object rather than in God himself, and is ruinous to true piety.

He agrees with Augustin in the opinion that the sign and the matter of the sacrament are not inseparably connected, and that it produces its intended effect only in the elect. He quotes from him the sentence: "The morsel of bread given by the Lord to Judas was poison; not because Judas received an evil thing, but because, being a wicked man, he received a good thing in a sinful manner." But this must not be understood to mean that the virtue and truth of the sacrament depend on the condition or choice of him who receives it. . The symbol consecrated by the word of the Lord is in reality what it is declared to be, and preserves its virtue, although it confers no benefit on a wicked and impious person. Augustin happily solves this question in a few words: "If thou receive it carnally, still it ceases not to be spiritual; but it is not so to thee." The office of the sacrament is the same as that of the word of God; both offer Christ and his heavenly grace to us, but they confer no benefit without the medium of faith.

Calvin discusses at length the seven sacraments of the Roman Church, the doctrine of transubstantiation, and the mass. But it is sufficient here to state his views on baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the only sacraments which Christ directly instituted for perpetual observance in the Church.


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