The following is an excerpt of an address that Mike recently presented at a conference on the campus of Mackenzie University, a conservative Presbyterian institution in Sao Paulo, Brazil with over 40,000 students. He gave this address on Friday, October 4th. Today he’s in Fortaleza, Brazil preparing to speak for another Fiel Leadership Conference.
How God Delivers His Grace
Much like monastic piety, evangelical spirituality often tends toward viewing the Christian life as the individual’s ascent of mind or spirit. It is a personal relationship with God—direct and unmediated. One “gets saved” and then decides to join (or, perhaps, not join) his visible church. Along this line of thinking, “means of grace” are chiefly private disciplines or activities that facilitate the individual’s spiritual growth. Consequently, it strikes many Protestants as “Romish” to talk about public preaching, baptism and the Lord’s Supper as means of grace—that is, as sacramental. There are first of all saved individuals, whose relationship with the Lord has nothing to do with such outward and public rites, and then there is a church that sometimes performs these ceremonies in order to illustrate personal salvation or afford an opportunity for individuals to testify to their commitment to following the Lord. Rome tends simply to collapse the individual and personal faith into the collective faith of the church and its sacramental system. The Anabaptist tendency, on the other hand, is to separate what God has joined together.
Calvin assumes an entirely different paradigm. There is a distinction between the believer and the church: each of us is united to Christ through a personal act of faith. Nevertheless, to be united to Christ is simultaneously to be united to his body. It is God who works through creaturely means such as preaching and sacrament to create and deepen this union and communion. Preaching, baptism, and the Supper are public events that socialize individual believers into “one holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” Therefore, the purpose of this public ministry is not simply to illustrate a merely private salvation, much less simply to get us to do something that will initiate or deepen that relationship. First and foremost, its purpose is to convey God’s saving blessings that unite each person to Christ and therefore to each other in a communion of saints.
This is why Calvin, in the Institutes, moves directly from Christ’s person and work in book 2 to “The Way in Which We Receive the Grace of Christ” in book 3. There is one unfolding argument: (1) Everyone knows God but suppresses the truth in unrighteousness; apart from the gospel we know God only as Creator and Judge; (2) Christ alone is the mediator and has fully accomplished our redemption, but all of this would be for naught if the Spirit did not unite us to Christ; (3) the way in which he does this is by the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments.
Consequently, on Calvin’s map, the means of grace appear at the intersection of the doctrines of salvation (soteriology) and the church (ecclesiology). To switch metaphors, the means of grace form the hinge that turns from personal salvation to the communion of saints. Piety, knowing God and ourselves, begins with a general awareness of and reverence for God that only measures our ingratitude and idolatry until we encounter Christ as he is clothed in his gospel. Through this very specific gospel, the Spirit unites each of us to Christ and therefore to his body. But then the line begins moving out again in a broader trajectory, as the church created and sustained through the word and sacraments expresses its holy calling through mission and its members fulfill their common callings in the world.
So at this point in the story, the means of uniting believers to Christ opens into the doctrine of the church. If all that Christ accomplished for us in the past can only become ours by being united with Christ in the present, then how does this happen? Again, even the Reformer’s ordering of subjects is driven by pastoral sensitivity.
And once more the maxim distinction without separation is in play. Where the priority of the church in Roman Catholic theology tends to smother personal faith, and in many Protestant approaches the emphasis on personal faith tends to be separated from the church, in Calvin’s piety, the two are distinguished but inseparably connected. Each of us is united to Christ through faith, but at the same time united to Christ’s body. The church is not only the place where the means of grace are administered; it is itself the communion that the Spirit creates through these means. Just as Calvin’s view of the image of God is social, so too is his understanding of the restoration of that image in Christ.
Sign and Reality
Since we could not rise up to God, he descended to us in saving mercy. But that is not all: he even brings us the gift here and now. There are no rungs of the ladder left for us to climb. It is easy for us to imagine that Christ accomplished our redemption and now we have to go get it. Calvin interprets Paul’s handling of this question with superb skill.
In preaching, the creaturely sign or medium is obviously human speech; water in baptism and bread and wine in the Supper. The reality is Christ with all of his saving benefits. Scripture unmistakably places the creaturely signs in the closest relationship with the reality, while at the same time teaching that it is the Spirit who makes these means effectual.
There are basically three ways to understand the relationship between signs and reality in the ministry of preaching and sacrament: (1) The creaturely means are saving in themselves; (2) The creaturely means have nothing to do with salvation; (3) The Spirit creates and confirms faith in our hearts through these creaturely means. These views correspond roughly to Rome, Anabaptists, and the Reformed position that Calvin follows.
The first view confuses sign and reality. In transubstantiation, the creaturely elements of bread and wine no longer exist; they are annihilated, replaced with the reality: the body and blood of Christ. Not surprisingly, Rome failed to distinguish between the ministerial word of the church and the magisterial word of God, baptism and regeneration, and so forth. The church could even conjure Christ’s bodily return at every Mass by the ringing of a bell. Seated on the lap of the Virgin Mary (symbolizing the church), and held fast on the crucifix hanging above the altar, the presence of Jesus was under ecclesiastical control. The church could distribute the benefits of Christ, Mary, and the saints from the treasury of merit according to the officially prescribed arithmetic and the specific penances required by the priest.
The second option is to separate sign and reality. This was done by Zwingli, but even more radically by the Anabaptists who contrasted the “external word” (preaching) with the “inner word” (the Spirit speaking directly to the heart). Preaching was a form of teaching and exhortation: talking about God and his word, more than the means through which God himself acted in judgment and grace. The goal was to explain and exhort, to get the hearers to do something, rather than to see preaching as the medium of God’s action. Similarly, baptism was the believer’s act of testifying to the true baptism by the Spirit and the Supper was another opportunity to express faith and obedience. In short, the public ministry was an occasion for the believer’s decisive response to the Spirit’s inner voice.
The third option is a sacramental union of sign with the reality. This view sees the signs as the instruments through which God communicates the reality. “Distinction without separation” is the watch-phrase. The preacher’s proclamation of the word is the word of God, but only insofar as it is consistent with Scripture. Through this preaching of the gospel the Spirit creates faith in our hearts, but he gives this faith only to the elect. God so identified his activity with the ark of the covenant that it could be called “the Presence.” So too baptism in the New Testament is identified with the remission of sins, the new birth, and the gift of the Spirit. The reality is not identical to the signs, but it is also not separated from them. Ordinarily, the reality is given through them. This was Calvin’s view, nicely summarized in question 65 of the Heidelberg Catechism: “If it is by faith alone that we share in Christ and all his benefits, then where does this faith come from?” Answer: “The Holy Spirit produces it in our hearts by the preaching of the holy gospel [Ro 10:17; 1 Pet 1:23-25] and confirms it through our use of the holy sacraments [Mt 28:19-20; 1 Cor 10:16].”
Calvin saw the physical aspect as the means chosen by God for delivering and strengthening the spiritual communion with Christ. There is a “sacramental union” accomplished by the Spirit working through his word that makes preaching, baptism, and the Supper means of grace. Christ is not intrinsically bound to these means, but he has voluntarily bound himself to them as covenantal signs and seals that communicate his saving work to his people. According to Calvin, Rome binds God to earthly means, while the Anabaptists disallow that God can bind himself to them. Lutherans, he argued, leaned too far in the direction of Rome’s confusion of sign and reality, while Zwingli’s tendency to separate them was too close to Anabaptism.
It is not simply by invoking the rule “distinction without separation” that distinguishes Calvin’s approach to the means of grace. Crucial to his thinking is that union with Christ is brought about by the Holy Spirit. Grace is not a substance infused into the soul to empower it to cooperate in its healing. Rather, it is the personal favor, activity, and gift of the Father, in the Son, delivered to us by the Holy Spirit at work within us. While Rome seemed to give more efficacy to the means than to the Spirit, Anabaptists underscored the work of the Spirit within us over against any creaturely means. Yet, in scripture, everything that the Holy Spirit does is associated with visible, material, creaturely reality. He separated the waters in creation and the exodus, filled the temple, brought about the conception of the Incarnate Word in Mary’s womb, empowered Jesus to perform physical miracles, and raised him bodily. He indwells us and will raise us bodily with our Head at his return. Therefore, to emphasize the person and work of the Holy Spirit, as Calvin does, is never to disparage the external means through which he is pleased to accomplish his saving ministry.