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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On the use of analogies in explaining the Trinity

Sassafras2 300A friend of mine asked about using analogies to explain the Trinity to children. I tend to avoid analogies for explaining the Trinity — note, I do not condemn or discourage such analogies if they are used carefully. However, I find that such analogies fall so far short of the reality that they tend to add confusion rather than clarity. The Trinity is the most profound mystery at the very centre of all reality; it is no surprise that this is beyond our comprehension.

When I explain the doctrine of the Trinity to my children I make a point of saying I do not fully understand it and, indeed, no one can because it is just that profound and amazing! This is ultimate reality! I give the child as much as I can but, personally, I do not try to make the mystery more accessible with analogy. Again, I’m not condemning doing that! I’m just sharing what I’ve done.

God has revealed something of Himself in regard to His Being — this mysterious ‘ultimate reality’ — and what He has revealed we can understand and affirm so far as He has granted us the ability. This mysterious God is always and forever One and Three but in different respects.

I usually explain to the child that, just as we understand what it is to know different persons (Mommy, brother, Daddy), we know that there are three distinct persons when we talk about God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But unlike us, these Three aren’t separate each from the other in the same way that we are. Here is part of the mystery! Depending on the age and capacity of the child, that may be enough for the time, or I may introduce language about ‘Being’ and ‘Essence’, and how that distinguishes us each from the other, but in the case of the mysterious Trinity this is the very thing in which the Three are One! It’s heady stuff and I want them to develop an awe of it! I want them to be comfortable with the idea that God is ultimately so amazing that I cannot fully grasp everything about Him! That’s okay! He’s just that profoundly marvelous!

So, my thinking on this approach is that analogies of the Trinity are inherently frustrating and counterproductive. An effective analogy must have some fundamental aspect in common with the thing it is intended to illustrate. But this is precisely where every analogy of the Trinity breaks down so quickly! Nothing is ‘three’ in precisely the way the Divine Persons are Three! Nothing is One in precisely the way God is One! Consequently, the very thing the analogy is intended to do it is profoundly ill equipped to accomplish. The more one uses an analogy to grasp the Trinity, the more failing the analogy becomes! So, instead, I encourage my child to embrace the mysterious nature and awesome incomprehensibility of our marvelous God. I encourage him to hold onto what God has given us, but be satisfied with the limits of our comprehension.

I only offer this as a warm recommendation of the direction I have chosen, not at all as a condemnation or discouragement for those who have chosen a different direction. God must bless our efforts as parents and teachers or all our efforts should surely fail! God grant us wisdom in shepherding the godly offspring He desires!

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