Calvin on Fictitious Worship

I come now to ceremonies, which, while they ought to be grave attestations of divine worship, are rather a mere mockery of God. A new Judaism, as a substitute for that which God had distinctly abrogated, has again been reared up by means of numerous puerile extravagancies, collected from different quarters; and with these have been mixed up certain impious rites, partly borrowed from the heathen, and more adapted to some theatrical show than to the dignity of our religion. The first evil here is, that an immense number of ceremonies, which God had by his authority abrogated, once for all, have been again revived. The next evil is that, while ceremonies ought to be living exercises of piety, men are vainly occupied with numbers of them that are both frivolous and useless. But by far the most deadly evil of all is, that after men have thus mocked God with ceremonies of one kind or other, they think they have fulfilled their duty as admirably as if these ceremonies included in them the whole essence of piety and divine worship.

With regard to self-abasement, on which depends regeneration to newness of life, the whole doctrine was entirely obliterated from the minds of men, or, at least, half buried, so that it was known to few, and to them but slenderly. But the spiritual sacrifice which the Lord in an especial manner recommends, is to mortify the old, and be transformed into a new man. It may be, perhaps, that preachers stammer out something about these words, but that they have no idea of the things meant by them is apparent even from this – that they strenuously oppose us in our attempt to restore this branch of divine worship. If at any time they discourse on repentance, they only glance, as if in contempt, at the points of principal moment, and dwell entirely on certain external exercises of the body, which, as Paul assures us, are not of the highest utility (Col. 2:23; 1 Tim. 4:8). What makes this perverseness the more intolerable is, that the generality, under a pernicious error, pursue the shadow for the substance, and, overlooking true repentance, devote their whole attention to abstinences, vigils, and other things, which Paul terms “beggarly elements” of the world.

Having observed that the word of God is the test which discriminates between his true worship and that which is false and vitiated, we thence readily infer that the whole form of divine worship in general use in the present day is nothing but mere corruption. For men pay no regard to what God has commanded, or to what he approves, in order that they may serve him in a becoming manner, but assume to themselves a license of devising modes of worship, and afterwards obtruding them upon him as a substitute for obedience. If in what I say I seem to exaggerate, let an examination be made of all the acts by which the generality suppose that they worship God. I dare scarcely except a tenth part as not the random offspring of their own brain. What more would we? God rejects, condemns, abominates all fictitious worship, and employs his word as a bridle to keep us in unqualified obedience. When shaking off this yoke, we wander after our own fictions, and offer to him a worship, the work of human rashness, how much soever it may delight ourselves, in his sight it is vain trifling, nay, vileness and pollution. The advocates of human traditions paint them in fair and gaudy colors; and Paul certainly admits that they carry with them a show of wisdom; but as God values obedience more than all sacrifices, it ought to be sufficient for the rejection of any mode of worship, that it is not sanctioned by the command of God.

John Calvin; The Necessity of Reforming the Church


Further Thoughts on Hospitality

Aaron Denlinger’s recent post (HT @rscottclark) over at Reformation21 about hospitality renewed a recent thought I had about church discipline and pastoral/elder home-vists.

My sister got married a little over one week ago and the wedding made me think on the nature of hospitality – how we show deference to guests by the location, what we provide, who we have speak, what kind of activities go on, etc. One of the things that came to mind was that one of the requirements for eldership in the church is hospitality.

What was interesting as I reflected on the wedding is that this requirement of hospitality for elders should not be isolated from its practice in the church – that is, the reason hospitality is important for those being considered for the role of elder isn’t just to find out if they’re a good guy. The point is that hospitality, like proper household management,  is a necessary role that will need to be carried in the duties as an elder.

One of the common interpretations in the reformed understanding of Elder is of one who visits the home of the church members to carry out church-discipline (not in the negative sense, but to check in with the family and see where they might encourage faithfulness amongst them as well as hear their needs and infirmities).

But this practice is almost non-existent among most reformed churches that I am aware of. I’ve read both positive and negative arguments for the practice of home-visitation in this manner (home-visitations for the sick is a different issue and not a matter of church-discipline), with some saying that home-visitations of this kind should actually be discouraged. I can see both sides as having merit, but I think this dimension of hospitality should inform how we view the issue of home-visitation and church-discipline.

I believe the trouble with home-visitations is due in part to trouble people have with anyone in authority over them. The problem is when that authority is detached from a personal relationship. It is much easier to hear instruction from someone who doesn’t simply say they care about you, but who actually demonstrates their care for you. It seems that if elders practice hospitality in the manner suggested below that this will not only overcome the innate aversion to authorial exercise, but additionally to warm people to the practice of home-visitation and proper church-discipline.

When an elder invites a member to their home they are, as Denlinger points out from Calvin, proving themselves to be “disinterestedly liberal”, which is someone who is not only safe, but primarily has the guest’s interests in mind not their own. This is not only disarming but engenders a level of trust and confidence in the church member.

In my estimation, it would be wise for elders to have in their home the members under their oversight. The point of this requirement in the NT is that elders should already be practicing such things and to do so would not be considered burdensome (within reason). This shouldn’t be done merely as an avenue to practice home visitation but as an effort to show kindness and hospitality to the members of one’s specific congregation.

The practice of home-visitation should always be viewed in subordination to the practice of hospitality by the elders of a congregation. As Luke shows us in 22:24-30, Christ has invited us to his table in his house and has prepared a feast for us. He has called us to go and do likewise (emphasis added):

A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.

“You are those who have stayed with me in my trials, and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

A Brief Response to Mark Jones on “Does the Gospel Threaten?”

Mark Jones recently asked the question, “Does the Gospel Threaten?“. I heartily disagree that the Gospel itself threatens. Within Mark’s question (and subsequent post) he seems to be positing that the Gospel itself contains within its announcement threatenings. As if to say that the Gospel consists of not only Good News but also Bad News (threats).

I do not dispute that there are “Gospel threatenings” if by that you mean there are particular threatenings that accompany or attend the Gospel. What is crucial to maintain though is that these threatenings are distinct from the Gospel (e.g., “Do not neglect so great a salvation) yet are a natural consequence of the nature of the Gospel itself. We must warn all that there are mortal consequences for our reception or rejection of the Gospel. And we must warn believers that our lives must be a reflection of and in accordance with this Gospel lest we so prove ourselves not to actually believe this Gospel.

By saying that they are a natural consequence I mean that they do not consist in or make up any part of the Gospel but do result from it. The grace of Christ abundantly poured out on wicked sinners is not lightly spurned. When the Son of God must become a man and die it is a matter of life an death when we consider our response to this message. But threatenings are by no means good news. The Gospel, by definition, is the good news par excellence. To refuse such good news is to our peril, but that does not change, alter or add to the content of that good news. It does not suddenly change the Good News to be simultaneously Good News and Bad News.

Can the Law Enable and Empower Believers to Follow Its Dictates?

That was the essence of a discussion I had on Twitter recently. I posted:

The Law does not nor cannot enable or empower believers to follow it. Only the Spirit working grace into the soul brings this about.

The following question was posed to me in response:

…when Jesus said, Lazarus come forth, was it law or gospel?

I presume the question was asked because it seems to contain within it both a command to be obeyed (Law) and life-giving power (gospel) in the same act. Jesus approached Lazarus’ tomb and issued his command and Lazarus clearly obeyed Jesus’ command. The command brought life.

But is it correct to see in this an instance of the Law bringing life?

The instance here is one of the creative act of God. There is not the obligatory response that the (Moral) Law calls for. The corollary to what occurs in this passage is the effectual call/irresistible grace in our regeneration. Like Lazarus, we were dead and God raises us to life. In the strict sense, we are not given a choice to obey this command of Christ – God raises us. It is entirely gracious of him to do so. This act is pointing to the very essence of the gospel – that through Christ, God raises the dead. Dead men do not have a choice in the matter – they are dead. Lazarus was simply a recipient of God’s unmerited favor. The raising of Lazarus is gospel through and through.

At issue though is a confusion between God’s creative command and revealed moral law/command. These are two different things. God’s creative command brings about what it declares (act/action) whereas his revealed moral law displays (no act/action) what ought to come to pass.

Which brings us to the essence of the issue. The Moral Law cannot accomplish anything, it is not its nature. To declare to someone, particularly a believer, “Do not covet” does not stop necessarily a person from coveting. There is no power in the command. It may be supposed that this is neglecting the operation of the Spirit, but this is does not escape us from the nature of the Law.

WCF 19.6 clarifies the nature of the law for believers. Below is my highlighting of what this law ‘does’:

it [is] of great use to them; in that, as a rule of life informing them of the will of God.. their duty, it directs and binds them to walk accordingly; discovering also the sinful pollutions of their nature, hearts, and lives; so as, examining themselves thereby, they may come to further conviction of, humiliation for, and hatred against sin, together with a clearer sight of the need they have of Christ, and the perfection of his obedience. It is likewise of use to the regenerate, to restrain their corruptions, in that it forbids sin: and the threatenings of it serve to show what even their sins deserve; and what afflictions, in this life, they may expect for them, although freed from the curse thereof threatened in the law. The promises of it, in like manner, show them God’s approbation of obedience, and what blessings they may expect upon the performance thereof: although not as due to them by the law as a covenant of works. So as, a man’s doing good, and refraining from evil, because the law encourageth to the one, and deterreth from the other, is no evidence of his being under the law; and, not under grace.

In sum, this law informs, directs and binds, discovers sin, restrains by forbidding sin, shows (1) what our sins deserve, and (2) what our obedience will receive. Such language shows why the Law is called a guide. It is like the guardrails, the yellow lines, the roadway upon which we go – they display the way to go, we perceive what will happen should we deviate off course, and understand what will happen should we stay the course. They are a help to us, but they do not give us the power to move down that path.

This brings us back to Lazarus in that, unlike Christ with Lazarus, there is no power given to these commands. They simply guide. They help us in that they clarify for us God’s moral law (due to our sinful flesh hindering us from comprehending perfectly God’s holy law upon our consciences), but it is the Spirit who empowers us to follow them – to “walk accordingly”.

How the Spirit empowers us is fundamental here. We are strengthened by grace (not law). But how precisely are we strengthened by grace? Grace is not primarily an energy but a status. Grace is what is given to those who not only do not deserve it, but who have actually demerited the favor of the one giving the favor. Grace is the status of being in favor with one whom, though you have defied, they have recognized your fault yet willingly place their favor upon you. It is first and foremost a status before you receive any actual benefit from that status. The Spirit strengthens us with grace by revealing to us our [gracious] status with God. Not only so, but he reveals further the manner in which that status came about and the ongoing nature of that status.

This empowers us because, when the Law comes and reveals to us (or shows or guides) the way in which we ought to go, at first glance must always be met with defeat. We have no strength against the law. Even as believers, as regards our works, we are woefully deficient. As the WCF declares:

16.4. They who, in their obedience, attain to the greatest height which is possible in this life, are so far from being able to supererogate, and to do more than God requires, as that they fall short of much which in duty they are bound to do.


16.5. …but when we have done all we can, we have done but our duty, and are unprofitable servants: and because, as they are good, they proceed from his Spirit; and as they are wrought by us, they are defiled, and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection, that they cannot endure the severity of God’s judgment.


16.6. …he, looking upon them in his Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections.

The Spirit takes this Gospel and quite literally makes our hearts willing to hear this message of grace. The Spirit empowers us by applying this Gospel (status) to our hearts – by bringing us to believe (having faith in) what, contrary to all appearances of what the Law declares, the gospel actually declares to be true. This is our power, that “there is therefore now no condemnation” and even more so, that we now possess the righteousness of God. This liberates us from the fear of punishment, from the fear of the dread of the Law. Yes, we must face the temporal consequences of our sins, but we are no longer subject to the Law’s damning declaration.

This leads us, once on the other side of the gospel, to look at the law not as a task-master over us but as our guide, revealing the way in which we should go. The law has no fangs for the believer. This is how the Psalmist could write Psalm 119 (a passage usually given in defense of the Law empowering believers to obey its dictates). The whole Psalm presupposes one who has wrestled with his sin and received the forgiveness/righteousness of God.

This leads often to the declaration that Sanctification is diving deeper into our Justification. I do not find this to be an unjustified statement. Surely there is more to Sanctification than our Justification, but our Sanctification only progresses as we pour more deeply over how our Justification is applied to our lives.