Calvin on the sacraments

Profile Portrait of John Calvin

The Reformed and the Lutherans parted company over the sacraments. Reformed leaders, like Martin Bucer and then John Calvin, genuinely strove to achieve full doctrinal unity with the Lutherans. In the following excerpt from Calvin, you can see his frustration at being lumped together with “memorialists” and other radical views:

They [the Lutherans] pretend indeed to make it their ground of quarrel, that we do not give the sacraments their due virtue. But when we come to the point, some produce nothing but bad names and blind tumult, while others, with a toss of disdain, condemn, in a word, what they never read. That they quarrel without consideration, the case itself shows.

And now for Calvin’s response, which makes for a perfectly concise statement of the Reformed position:

Without making further mention of a man [Luther] whose memory I revere, and whose honour I am desirous to consult, let me declare my opinion simply. …the sacraments are neither empty figures nor mere external badges of piety, but seals of the divine promises, testimonies of spiritual grace to cherish and confirm faith, and, on the other, that they are instruments by which God acts effectually in his elect; that, therefore, although they are signs distinct from the things signified, they are neither disjoined nor separated from them; that they are given to ratify and confirm what God has promised by his word, and especially to seal the secret communion which we have with Christ; — there certainly remains no reason why they should rank us in their list of enemies.

(John Calvin, Tracts and Treatises on the Doctrine and Worship of the Church, volume 2 of Calvin’s Tracts and Treatises, pp. 223-224)

This was written following a joint statement from the pastors of Zurich (heirs to Zwingli) and Geneva, yielding a united front from the Reformed on the sacraments. If you would like to dig further into these issues, I was helped by Herman Bavinck’s discussion in volume four of his Reformed Dogmatics, especially pertaining to “sign and seal” terminology.



  1. For the life of me, I cannot see how any sacramental communion could find fault with this gloriously succinct and sanctifying description. Within an Augustinian framework, Calvin says nothing new here.

    Moreover, from what little I know of the nouvelle théologie, Calvin touches upon a critique of de Lubac’s toward his (neo-Thomist) compatriots: On the one hand, there’s complete separation between the sign and the reality to which it points (Protestant memorialists); and on the other, there’s a strict identification of the sign and the reality. But it’s believers—not the bread—that actually becomes the body of Christ, i.e., literally creates the ecclesial body.

    • Agreed. I want to explore the de Lubac critique more. I had never drawn that connection, but it makes sense. I am understandably wary of the “eucharist makes the church” motif, insofar as it can undermine the centrality of the Word and faith — and Bavinck does a great job connecting the sacraments to the Word — but there might be less to worry about in de Lubac’s presentation. I’ll have to revisit it.

  2. Yes. My way of alleviating that wariness is to indeed let the Word take its rightful place as the center: Word=the incarnate God; Word=the proclamation of what God the Father has done in and through his Son by the power of his Spirit; Word=those signs that make this salvation-history visible in (primarily) the eucharist and the waters of baptism, which signs seal us, to borrow from Calvin, in that “secret communion which we have with Christ.” All of which create the church (faith is in there somewhere ;-).

      • Ha. No less than seven, ’cause the Spirit really doesn’t start moving until then (I see hand a back there. And there. And in the balcony. Praise Jesus.) . . .

      • Well, my family attended a baptist church for a few years when I was a kid, and they had a guest preacher once who said that! He preached a pretty intense “are you really saved?” sermon and told us that we were serving the devil if we didn’t come back to see hear him preach again that night…pretty scary.

      • We would occasionally get that type of preacher at our Baptist church — among the myriad of traveling evangelists — but our church was slowly embracing more mainstream evangelicalism. That type of fundamentalist independent Baptist was popular in the South and spawned some of the earliest megachurches in the 70’s and 80’s, like our church in Charlotte (with 2,000+ members, which would probably no longer count as a “megachurch”) and institutions like Bob Jones U. But, the heyday of fundamentalism has passed and the survival of these churches has largely depended on their embrace of a more moderate evangelical ethos, while still very conservative. On the whole, this is a good thing — a move in the right direction.

  3. Sounds like we share a common past, folks. We began attending what I’d call a Southern Baptist church in Florida in the early 80s, complete with tent revivals and Freddy Gage Ministries. It then morphed into the so-called seeker-sensitive CEO-run megachurch by the late 80s. They survived, but still recuperating.

    • Interestingly, our church was independent Baptist and had no desire to join the Southern Baptist Convention, which had moderate and liberal elements from the 50’s to 70’s. But, with the conservative resurgence of the 80’s and 90’s, the SBC would be a perfect fit today. So, the independent fundy churches have moved “leftward” (oh so slightly) and the SBC has moved rightward. From what I’ve heard, independent Baptist churches are now encouraging their students to attend SBC seminaries, which was unthinkable prior to the conservative resurgence. Also, I think Jerry Falwell’s church — an exemplar of the independent fundamentalist Baptist movement — has joined the SBC.

    • By the way, something I appreciate about the old revivalists (perhaps like Gage) is that they really cared about the downtrodden, unemployed, in jail, and so forth. With the seeker-sensitive types, there was a push toward respectability and upper-middle-class affluence, but the old revival preachers didn’t care about that. They looked down upon it. The founder of our church was as poor as it gets, and he built the church from the ground up — through door-to-door evangelism and revivalist preaching.

      • Yes, no doubt. They themselves often came from those pasts, and thus were sensitive to them. The SBC we attended also had a similar start to the one you describe above (before it was SBC): the pastor, basically living out of his car, was visiting his brother in town. He had preached a few times at the local indy-fundy gathering and was on his way out of town when his car broke down. They laid hands on him, and he ended up staying.

      • Ah, I love those stories!

        When I was an undergraduate at UNC-Charlotte, I did a paper on the founding of our church (for a creative writing class), so I interviewed the widow of the founding pastor of our Baptist church. I was forever humbled by their almost naive faith and trust in God. We need more of that, and I fear that it may be lost as we become more acculturated and educated, necessarily so.

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