Calvin on Sacramental Efficacy

Calvin offers these helpful insights in his comments on Deuteronomy 30.6.

JohnCalvin

6. And the Lord thy God will circumcise thine heart. This promise far surpasses all the others, and properly refers to the new Covenant, for thus it is interpreted by Jeremiah, who introduces God thus speaking,—“Behold, the days come that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and the house of Judah, not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers, … which covenant they brake, … but … I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts.” (Jer. 31:31–33.) Moses now declares the same thing in different words, that, lest the Israelites, according to their wonted instability, should fall back from time to time into new rebellions, a divine remedy was needed, i.e., that God should renew and mould their hearts. In short, he reminds them that this would be the chief advantage of their reconciliation, that God should endow them with the Spirit of regeneration. There is a metaphor in this word circumcise; for Moses alludes to the legal sign of consecration, whereby they were initiated into the service of God. The expression, therefore, is equivalent to his saying, God will create you spiritually to be new men, so that, cleansed from the filth of the flesh and the world, and separated from the unclean nations, you should serve Him in purity. Meanwhile, he shews that, whatever God offers us in the Sacraments, depends on the secret operation of His Spirit. Circumcision was then the Sacrament of repentance and renewal, as Baptism is now to us; but “the letter,” as Paul calls it, (Rom. 2:27,) was useless in itself, as also now many are baptized to no profit. So far, then, is God from resigning the grace of His Spirit to the Sacraments, that all their efficacy and utility is lodged in the Spirit alone.

Calvin, J. & Bingham, C.W., 2010. Commentaries on the Four Last Books of Moses Arranged in the Form of a Harmony, Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software. (Emphasis added.)

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What’s the big deal with intinction? Who cares?

Bread CupLast week at the Tennessee Valley Presbytery meeting, we had the opportunity to take up the matter of intinction. Intinction is the practice of serving the two elements of the Lord’s Supper, bread and wine, in a mixed form typically by dipping the bread into the wine.

The 2012 General Assembly passed an amendment to our Book of Church Order (BCO) to clarify that intinction is not a proper way to administer the Lord’s Supper. Before that amendment can become an official part of our church order, it must be approved by 2/3 of the Presbyteries. So, this was the matter before us.

Now, the BCO is already sufficiently clear as it states that the bread is to be distributed with distinct biblical instruction prior to the distribution of the cup which also has distinct biblical instruction. However, that is not clear enough for the many who are practising intinction in the PCA.

Sadly, we voted down the amendment leaving the current wording in place without clarification. There was no real opportunity for debate, either. What time was permitted was taken up with a great deal of fussing and fuming over the fact that this matter was even being discussed at all. Much was said against the amendment, but before any answer could be given, someone called for the vote and it was over.

Since there was no opportunity afforded in Presbytery to answer the questions and comments opposing the amendment, I’d like to take the opportunity here. I’ll enumerate many of the arguments raised and provide an answer for each.

  1. ‘The men who are practising intinction are doing a work of evangelism where others are not and we should not hinder them.’

    A: How is intinction a tool for evangelising those whom others have not reached? Are the men practising intinction using it in ‘open’ communion and calling the unreached to come and partake? Surely not. If the sacrament is being served only to those who have made a profession of faith and have been admitted to the table, then how is intinction related to more effective evangelism at all? This would appear to be a bit of a red herring.

  2. ‘These men are actually trying to be more biblical by having a common cup. But to avoid concerns over germs and disease they have to use intinction.’

    A: It is not at all clear that a common cup is more biblical, but even supposing that it is, the common cup does not require intinction. There are other ways to use a common cup without overthrowing the plain instruction of Christ to serve bread separate from wine in two separate sacramental actions. There are other solutions.

  3. ‘How can we address this detail of the Lord’s Supper when there are so many other details that might also be called into question, such as reclining at a table rather than sitting in pews, using wine rather than grape juice, using leavened or unleavened bread?’

    A: This is the fallacy of suggesting that we must do nothing unless we can do everything. That is simply false. By all means, let us consider these other issues in their turn to see if the Bible is as plain about them as it is about intinction! But we have not been asked to address everything. We have been asked to address one thing. Let’s do that.

  4. ‘What about the utility of intinction for ministering the Lord’s Supper to shut-ins or the to infirm?’

    A: The Lord’s Supper is to be administered in public worship and never in private ceremonies (WCF 29.3-4). Consequently, it’s unclear to me how the shut-in question makes sense here. But even if a private ceremony were permissible (and it is not), it would not require intinction. In the case of the infirm, assuming that there is difficulty in eating and drinking, a small flake of bread may be given rather than a full piece, and a small drop of wine on the tongue rather than a full swallow. So, even if intinction were biblically acceptable (and it is not), there is no practical advantage to it here.

  5. ‘I can’t believe we’re even talking about this! Why does this matter at all?’

    A: First, the right administration of the Sacraments is one of the marks of a true church. This is one of the reasons why Presbyterians are not Lutherans or Baptists. The details about the Sacraments matter. Second, the Sacraments are the Gospel in visible form. Getting the details of the Gospel right is important whether in the preached Word or in the visible Word. Third, the Lord’s Supper is a memorial of Christ crucified. Christ did not say, ‘Do this for better outreach,’ or ‘Do this however it is most meaningful to you.’ He said, ‘Do this in remembrance of Me.’ It is a memorial of Christ crucified and we should lovingly care about the details of how He said to remember Him right before He took the full bloody wrath of Hell for us. The details of this should matter to us.

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Bookmarks for 4 January 2013 through 14 January 2013

These are my Pinboard links for 4 January 2013 through 14 January 2013:

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Protest Filed Against PacificNW Presbytery Decision

The Rev. Jason Stellman was the prosecutor in the case examining the Rev. Dr Peter Leithart. I was disappointed that the Pacific Northwest Presbytery ruled against the prosecution in that case, but I am encouraged that orderly procedures continue in this case in keeping with our Book of Church Order. The Rev. Jason Stellman is filing a protest against the ruling and has begun publishing portions of that protest on his blog at the following links.

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Feeding upon Christ

Westminster Larger Catechism #170

Q. How do they that worthily communicate in the Lord’s Supper feed upon the body and blood of Christ therein?

A. As the body and blood of Christ are not corporally or carnally present in, with, or under the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper,1 and yet are spiritually present to the faith of the receiver, no less truly and really than the elements themselves are to their outward senses;2 so they that worthily communicate in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, do therein feed upon the body and blood of Christ, not after a corporal and carnal, but in a spiritual manner; yet truly and really,3 while by faith they receive and apply unto themselves Christ crucified, and all the benefits of his death.4


  1. Acts 3.21 
  2. Matt. 26.26,28 
  3. 1 Cor. 11.24-29 
  4. 1 Cor. 10.16 
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