Tag Archives: John Calvin

Sabbath Rest and the Moral Limits of Consumption

Each year it seems like the Christmas season starts a little earlier. I'm not talking about the four weeks of Advent or the Christmas season that begins on December 24. The church calendar and the liturgical year remain the same. It is, rather, the Christmas shopping season that seems to be pushed forward bit by bit with each passing year.

black-fridayStores stocking Christmas-themed paraphernalia well before Thanksgiving are only one aspect of the creeping consumerism that marks much of contemporary popular culture. Other holidays and holy days, too, have been invaded by the spirit of materialism. National retailer Kmart plans to begin its normal Black Friday sales, named for the Friday after Thanksgiving, at 6 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning. Internet giant Amazon just announced plans to offer regular Sunday shipping service on packages in the New York City and Los Angeles markets by employing the otherwise-dormant United States Postal Service fleet. After this year's holiday season, Amazon plans to extend the Sunday delivery options to more markets.

These are just the latest in a series of incremental steps that have increasingly threatened the moral limits of consumer activity. And although prudence is needed to discern them, and disagreement about where these limits are is unavoidable, such limits do exist.

Consumption and the Sabbath

Consumption is not in itself a bad thing. Indeed, it is a necessary and even salutary activity, instituted by God himself. We enjoy our daily bread and, for those of us living the midst of the blessings of affluence, much more besides. The exchange of material possessions, notably in the form of gifts, is a meaningful and often beautiful phenomenon. The first Thanksgiving was founded on gratefulness for provision of material needs, and we give gifts on Christmas in part because of the rich gifts bestowed on the Christ child by the Magi.

But unlimited consumption is not salutary. Although it is unfashionable nowadays to acknowledge it, the moral order imposes limits on human behavior. Gluttony and greed remain vices, and the commandment to keep the Sabbath day holy still matters.

To be sure, the fourth commandment (as numbered by the Reformed tradition) does involve significant complexity in terms of its application and relevance in today's world. In spite of sometimes-remarkable divergences in the understanding of the Sabbath, and particularly how it relates to the Saturday Sabbath as observed by Jews and seventh-day churches, Christians have long recognized the need for a separate day for corporate worship and rest from mundane works.

John Calvin defended the validity of these two uses of the Sabbath commandment, even as he drew attention to the spiritual rest represented in Sabbath observance. Thus, Calvin wrote, the pursuit of holiness "is not confined within a single day but extends through the whole course of our life, until, completely dead to ourselves, we are filled with the life of God."

So on one level, there is nothing special about Sundays or holidays like Thanksgiving. As Calvin puts it, because we seek spiritual rest from our evil works every day, "Christians ought therefore to shun completely the superstitious observance of days." We still need, however, to regularly observe days for corporate worship as well as physical and mental rest from labor. These "reasons for the Sabbath ought not to be relegated to the ancient shadows," Calvin says, "but are equally applicable to every age."

Daily Bread and Weekly Rest

Different Christians in various traditions have worked out these implications in distinct and sometimes contradictory or idiosyncratic ways. But amid diverse expressions of faithfulness to the Sabbath-keeping mandate, the principle of the commandment still governs the morality of human activity.

A key lesson of the Sabbath is that money is not the measure of all things, and that all of our human activity should not be oriented toward material gain. As Jesus himself said, "Life does not consist in an abundance of possessions" (Luke 12:15 NIV).

For these reasons, it is important for Christians to recognize that their consumption habits affect the larger society in significant ways. Blue laws are increasingly passé, often for good reasons. But blue laws represent a central cultural insight: certain times and places ought to be above the considerations of material consumption. We need room and time for spiritual nourishment as well as physical.

Kmart is opening at 6 a.m. because it perceives, rightly or wrongly, that people want to go shopping to get deals early on Thanksgiving morning. Amazon is offering Sunday delivery because it thinks people want such convenience. So ultimately the blame for encroachment and violations of the moral limits of consumption lies with those who demand such violations. It lies with the people who line up overnight for Black Friday sales and with those who trample others in mad rushes for discounted gadgets. It lies with those of us who prefer the convenience of ordering at the last minute and the instant gratification of delivery any day of the week.

The responsibility of moral consumption becomes all the more salient when we realize that markets are good at delivering what people want. As the economist Paul Heyne observed, this efficiency of the market "is no reason to cripple it. It is reason, however, to think more carefully about what we want." The market will make sure we get what we want. Let's make sure that what we want is what is really good for us.

Calvin on Lent and Ministry to Roman Catholics

The life and ministry of John Calvin provides insight into a range of ministry related issues—from biblical exegesis to training pastors to the effect of preaching upon civil government. But what, if anything, does Calvin teach us about ministry among Roman Catholics? It turns out that he teaches us a valuable lesson.

Contrary to those who would portray Calvin as a clerical despot, bent on micro-managing religious practice in his Genevan fiefdom, there is instead much evidence demonstrating his concern for the outward thrust of evangelism. Through each successive edition of his Institutes, for example, he retained his dedication to the French king. Some believe that this signified Calvin's commitment to nurturing the Protestant church in France, a movement for which he equipped pastors and missionaries. Whether it was in forming the Geneva Academy in 1559 (to train church leaders), his tireless routine of writing letters of encouragement to oppressed Huguenots, or in caring for refugees who had escaped the fires of persecution, the centrifugal impulse of Calvin's Christianity moved beyond the borders of Geneva and into the world.

It is interesting to notice how Calvin's missional outlook informed his approach to ministry among Roman Catholics, something with which he had much experience (given his time period when virtually everyone was from a "Romanist" background). Michael A. Mullett, in the recent update of his book John Calvin, stresses this point with regard to the standards and protocols that Calvin implemented for the church in Geneva: "we should try to understand the importance [Calvin] placed on the educational function of the liturgy," he writes, "deliberately using it to instruct a population of ex-Catholics in Protestant ways" (101). Through such instruction, Calvin sought to guide newcomers from patterns of superstition into a biblically chaste religion.

We observe Calvin's intentionality in his comments about Lent, for example. In the Institutes 4.12.19-21, the French reformer enumerates reasons for taking "precaution lest any superstition creep in, as has previously happened to the great harm of the church." He first quotes Joel 2:13 in opposition to religious hypocrisy. Second, citing Augustine, he cautions readers to avoid Lenten fasts as a work of merit. He then goes on to tackle the problems of legalism and spiritual pride. In all of this exhortation, Calvin is helping ex-Catholics evaluate familiar traditions in the light of Scripture. While recognizing a proper observance of Lent--one that flows from a heart of gratitude—he opposes superstitious distortions. By way of conclusion, Calvin writes:

Wicked laws were passed which bind consciences with deadly chains. The eating of meat was forbidden, as if it would defile a man. Sacrilegious opinions were piled upon one another, until the depth of all errors was reached. And not to overlook any depravity, they began, with a completely absurd pretense of abstinence, to mock God.

Reason for the Rhetoric

It is easy to make direct application from Calvin's polemic, especially when it involves a similar liturgical phenomenon such as Lent. The case of Lent is particularly interesting because, as in Calvin's period, some today may display penitent works for reasons of superstition or merit-seeking. Is such an error any less grievous now than it was then, and, if not, shouldn't we address it with the same degree of candor? I would say yes to the first question and probably not to the second. Let me explain.

With regard to our rhetorical engagement with Catholics, we must recognize that we live in a different time period from Calvin's. In the 21st century we don't link Christian faith to physical violence. However, it was far different for the 16th and 17th centuries when religious solidarity and national destiny went hand-in-hand. In such a society, the idea of religious pluralism was new and frightening. With what church does one identify? Even saying it this way is misleading. There was hardly a pluralistic choice. When Luther published his Appeal to the German Nobility, for instance, he was not proposing an alternative option. It was, for him, a necessary replacement of an apostate church institution. In addition to generating profound existential angst among rank and file Christians, such transition created a social and political revolution, which the wars of religion vividly remind us.    

In this setting, words were employed to heighten concern, awaken emotions, and motivate action. In this clash of competing worldviews, where the stakes were life and death, rhetorical conventions permitted and even promoted an aggressive confrontation aimed at demeaning opponents. In this polemical universe, you could not punch below the belt, because there was no belt marking off acceptable and unacceptable blows. My friend Jason illustrated this point during seminary. The consummate Calvinist, Jason once mentioned nonchalantly to our classmate Linford, a beloved Mennonite friend: "If we were living 500 years ago, I'd be drowning you about now." The strength of their friendship allowed for such a bizarre statement. Perhaps the most bizarre part, however, was its truth.

Outreach in Our Day

With regard to polemics, we live in a new day. The influence of Christian virtue on verbal etiquette has delivered us from the violent vituperations of yesteryear. In other words, we can disagree with charity. This is not to say that the Reformation is therefore over. Far from it. The same fundamental issues of difference that separated Catholics and Protestants in the 16th century largely exist today. But instead of drowning or impaling our Catholic conversation partners, we may now enjoy a cup of coffee with them at Starbucks, pray for their families, and cherish them as friends.

This sort of humility doesn't mean that we have compromised our conviction of what constitutes truth any more than being meek suggests that we lack strength. Jesus was all powerful, and yet he humbled himself to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil 2:1-11). Only after reaching informed convictions, having taken time to listen, learn, and think, do we possess the requisite courage to relate to others in a vulnerable, humble way. Conversely, when we attack the jugular of the one who disagrees with us, we demonstrate our insecurity. Once again, Jesus is our example. Although God, Jesus did not exploit his deity, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant (Phil 2:6-7).

So what is the lesson that Calvin teaches us about ministry to Catholics? It starts with understanding the religious assumptions of those Catholics whom we serve. With such a perspective, Calvin initiated a process that called superstition into question in favor of biblical faith and practice. Whether in evangelism or in catechizing members at Saint-Pierre Cathedral, Calvin's "Reformed" vision consisted of just that: reforming religion in the light of Scripture. The same opportunity is before us. By asking informed questions of our Catholic friends, questions that reveal the limitations (or outright error) of sacred tradition, we can serve a process of reflection in which biblical truth comes into sharper focus and eventually dominates life.

John Calvin, Missionary and Church Planter

So long as some Christians have called themselves Calvinists, other Christians have probably alleged that Calvinists care little about evangelism, missions, and church planting. The critique isn't new. But only recently have we learned the extent of the zeal and effectiveness of the early reformers in evangelism, missions, and church planting. Elias Medeiros, Harriet Barbour professor of missions at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, will lead a workshop on The Reformer's Commitment to the Propagation of the Gospel to All Nations at TGC's National Conference in April, likely presenting this wider understanding.

But in this short article, I want to give a small taste of John Calvin's missionary and church planting zeal in particular. If you want to get a sense of Calvin's theology of missions and activity, you can read Calvin's sermon on 2 Timothy 1:8-9, "The Call to Witness," Herman J. Selderhuis's John Calvin: A Pilgrim's Life, and Frank James III's series of lectures, The Calvin I Never Knew. From these works, I have compiled several fascinating, surprising, and convicting facts about the missionary and church planting movement John Calvin launched in France and throughout Europe.

Calvin, Equipper and Sender of Missionaries

In the 1550s the population of Geneva doubled as refugees, many of them from France, poured in. Many of them sat under Calvin's preaching five times each week.

They heard sermons like this one on 2 Timothy 1:8-9, where he said:

If the gospel be not preached, Jesus Christ is, as it were, buried. Therefore, let us stand as witnesses, and do him this honor, when we see all the world so far out of the way; and remain steadfast in this wholesome doctrine. . . . Let us here observe that St. Paul condemns our unthankfulness, if we be so unfaithful to God, as not to bear witness of his gospel; seeing he hath called us to it.

Something happened to a number of these French refugees. As they listened to Calvin's preaching their hearts were stirred for their homeland. Many of them yearned to go back to France and preach the gospel. Calvin agreed to commission some of them to return but wanted to train them first. "A good missionary is a good theologian," he told them.

He trained them to preach, taught them theology, and assessed their moral character, making sure they were qualified to be ministers of the gospel.

Calvin, Missionary Correspondent

But he didn't just train them, give them money, and send them off. Even after he sent them, he corresponded with them frequently. We have thousands of letters back and forth between the missionaries and Calvin. They weren't just magnets on a refrigerator, Frank James notes. They were his brothers in Christ. When troubles came, they asked Calvin, "What should we do next?"

James reminds pastors, "You need to keep in close contact with your missionaries. You'll be a good Calvinist if you do."

Calvin, Leading Church Planter in Europe

By 1555, Calvin and his Geneva supporters had planted five churches in France. Four years later, they had planted 100 churches in France. By 1562, Calvin's Geneva, with the help of some of their sister cities, had planted more than 2,000 churches in France. Calvin was the leading church planter in Europe. He led the way in every part of the process: he trained, assessed, sent, counseled, corresponded with, and prayed for the missionaries and church planters he sent.

Pete Wilcox, writing in a doctrinal dissertation cited by James, concluded that in the last 10 years of Calvin's life, missions was his absolute preoccupation.

One French church in Bergerac exulted to Calvin:

There is, by the grace of God, a movement in our region that the devil is already driven out for the most part and we are able to provide ministers for ourselves [churches were now able to start planting their own churches in the region]. Day to day, we are growing and God has caused his work to bear such fruit that on sermons on Sunday, there are between 4,000-5,000 people at worship.

Another letter from Montpellier rejoiced, "Our church, thanks to the Lord, has so grown and so continues to grow every day that we are obliged to preach three sermons on Sundays to a total of five- to six-thousand people." A pastor in Toulouse wrote to the Genevan Consistory,"Our church has grown to the astonishing number of about eight- to nine-thousand souls."

Calvin and Geneva sent missionaries not only to France but also to Italy, the Netherlands, Hungary, Poland, and the free Imperial city-states in the Rhineland. We even know of two missionaries sent from Geneva in 1557 to Brazil. "Missions was not a 'section' of his systematic theology," Keith Coleman says, "it was central to what he was trying to accomplish in his ministry."

Church planting and missions aren't a byproduct of the young Reformed resurgence of the last decade but something embedded in the Reformation's God-centered commitment to advancing the gospel.

"Two Kinds of Popularity"

For much of his life, John Calvin had two close friends -- Farel and Viret. Farel was very hot-headed and out-spoken, while Viret was of very mild temperament, an instinctive peace-keeper. Farel often came to Geneva and stayed at Calvin's home, where, sometimes with Viret, the friends would have long talks about theology and current events over a glass. Calvin delighted in the company of his zealous friend. Nevertheless, as time went on he came to see that Farel's inflexible nature made him a doughty defender but a limited propagator of the gospel. He often sent his own discourses and letters to Viret, whose job was to moderate his language. Calvin himself had been more hot-headed as a young man, and he worked to curb his own tongue.

After Farel inappropriately denounced a prominent woman in Geneva from the pulpit, which turned her whole family against him, Calvin wrote him a remarkable letter:

When you have Satan to combat, and you fight under Christ's banner, he who puts on your armor and draws you into battle will give you the victory. But ... we only earnestly desire that insofar as your duty permits you will accommodate yourself more to the people. There are, as you know, two kinds of popularity: the one, when we seek favor from motives of ambition and the desire of pleasing; the other, when, by fairness and moderation, we gain their esteem so as to make them teachable by us. You must forgive us if we deal rather freely with you...You are aware how much we love and revere you...We desire that in those remarkable endowments which the Lord has conferred upon you, no spot or blemish may be found for the malevolent to find fault with, or even to carp at.

Here Calvin draws an extremely important distinction. There are two very different motivations for adapting and accommodating our message to the sensibilities of a group of people. The first motive is 'ambition' -- we do it for our sake, for our own glory and approval. The other reason we may accommodate people is for their sake, so that we can gradually win their trust until they become open to the truth they need so much. The first motive will so control us that we will never offend people. The second motive will help us choose our battles and not offend people unnecessarily. The Farels of the world cannot see any such distinction -- they believe any effort to be judicious and prudent is a cowardly 'sell-out'. But Calvin wisely recognized that his friend's constant, intemperate denunciations often stemmed not from a selfless courage, but rather from the opposite -- pride. He wrote of Farel to Viret saying, "He cannot bear with patience those who do not comply with his wishes."

There's a reason for gaining people's esteem that is not vain-glorious, and, at the same time, there's a motivation for boldly speaking the truth -- that is vain-glorious.

[The letters of Calvin and the information for this came from the great new biography by Bruce Gordon, Calvin (Yale, 2009) pp.150-152.]

With Calvin in the Theater of God

Speaking of conferences, the Desiring God 2009 National Conference begins today. The good folks at DG have created a Website for the conference including a live blog (and Twitter stream) that will keep those of us that can't attend updated on the event. Here's the welcome post from Eric Johnson:

Welcome to the Desiring God 2009 National Conference! We're excited to worship and learn with you and look forward to an amazing weekend. When the conference kicks off on Friday evening, watch this space for live blog updates, photos, and summaries of each session posted by DG staff and volunteers. We trust this site will help both those in attendance and those following along at home to feel even more connected to what's happening during this year's conference. Thanks for your interest and support. We thank God for you all!

To learn more about the Desiring God 2009 National Conference including speaker bios, go here. Please see the video below where John Piper explains what we can learn from Calvin today.