The Priority of Calvin

One of, perhaps the only, qualification for calling oneself Calvinist or Reformed these days and jumping on board the bandwagon of New Calvinism (Neo-Calvinism) is an adherence to the doctrines of grace, otherwise known as the sovereignty of God in salvation. This doctrine says that man is totally depraved, God sovereignly elects via His irresistible grace, Christ redeems by means of His limited (not universal) atonement, and that God’s elect are then sovereignly preserved. In a very real sense, simply holding to these doctrines has led to a broad reformed ecumenism. For instance, one is just as likely to find themselves agreeing on this doctrinal level with a charismatic as with a Lutheran or Presbyterian or even a Calvinistic Methodist. In my own experience, I have mistakenly used ‘reformed’ as the rule for fellowship, and that is simply an ungracious position to hold. The gospel is where our fellowship exists. Now before I’m labeled as an ecumenist, let’s look at the namesake from which this movement has been derived (in name only).

Writing in his tract entitled, “The Necessity of Reforming the Church,” in 1543, Calvin addresses Emperor Charles V and other government leaders just prior to the Diet of the Empire at Spires (1544) in order to provide a defense for the reformation he had undertaken. In his introduction, Calvin draws attention to the corrupt church that had become disease-laden. He simply asks whether these diseases are fatal or whether they are capable of cure.

He writes

First, then, the question is not, Whether the Church labors under diseases both numerous and grievous, (this is admitted even by all moderate judges,) but whether the diseases are of a kind the cure of which admits not of longer delay, and as to which, therefore, it is neither useful nor becoming to await the result of slow remedies. We are accused of rash and impious innovation, for having ventured to propose any change at all on the former state of the Church. What! Even if it has not been done either with out cause or imperfectly? I hear there are persons who, even in this case, do not hesitate to condemn us; their opinion being, that we were indeed right in desiring amendment, but not right in attempting it. From such persons, all I would ask at present is, that they will for a little suspend their judgment until I shall have shown from fact that we have not been prematurely hasty — have not attempted any thing rashly, any thing alien from our duty — have, in fine, done nothing until compelled by the highest necessity. To enable me to prove this, it is necessary to attend to the matters in dispute.

The Necessity of Reforming the Church – John Calvin

First, there is a lesson here with Calvin that sometimes the situation is so grievous that it requires reform (other times such that it requires restoration). Second, when the necessity for reformation is recognized we must be bold, and willing, enough to see it through. Third, those who are most comfortable with the status quo, be it ever so diseased, will often be the loudest to decry that reformation is unnecessary.

Following this identification of the need, Calvin shifts to the meat of his tract in which he identifies two primary areas for reform within the Church (his language; remember this is a state-church, which is why the tract is addressed to the Emperor; see Magisterial Reformation). The first area was the worship of God and the second was the source of salvation, or what we might call the doctrines of grace. We need to stop and consider this for a moment. Here we have Calvin, the alleged champion of Calvinism; the staunch Father of the Reformed, yet for Calvin his priority was not on whether one held to the doctrines of grace, but how one worshiped God.

Concerning worship, Calvin writes,

Let us now see what is meant by the due worship of God. Its chief foundation is to acknowledge Him to be, as He is, the only source of all virtue, justice, holiness, wisdom, truth, power, goodness, mercy, life, and salvation; in accordance with this, to ascribe and render to Him the glory of all that is good, to seek all things in Him alone, and in every want have recourse to Him alone.

For Calvin, this was the chief line of demarcation in a church, namely how one worshiped God. In detailing this, he goes on to describe the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW), though it had yet to be called that. A longer quote helps summarize well the heart of Calvin’s understanding of the RPW

Moreover, the rule which distinguishes between pure and vitiated worship is of universal application, in order that we may not adopt any device which seems fit to ourselves, but look to the injunction of Him who alone is entitled to prescribe. Therefore, if we would have Him to approve our worship, this rule, which he everywhere enforces with the utmost strictness, must be carefully observed. For there is a twofold reason why the Lord, in condemning and prohibiting all fictitious worship, requires us to give obedience only to his own voice. First, it tends greatly to establish His authority that we do not follow our own pleasures but depend entirely on his sovereignty; and, secondly, such is our folly, that when we are left at liberty, all we are able to do is to go astray. And then when once we have turned aside from the right path, there is no end to our wanderings, until we get buried under a multitude of superstitions. Justly, therefore, does the Lord, in order to assert his full right of dominion, strictly enjoin what he wishes us to do, and at once reject all human devices which are at variance with his command. Justly, too, does he, in express terms, define our limits that we may not, by fabricating perverse modes of worship, provoke His anger against us.

Calvin limits the worship of God to what may be found only in God’s Word, meaning that God Himself has prescribed how He will be worshiped. Any additions or subtractions, via human inventions or preferences, is simply will worship (see Col. 2:23) Understanding the difficulties with trying to explain this fact to those who had yet to consider what Scripture brings to bear on worship, or to those who had simply become accustomed to the church practices of the day, perhaps even coming to love their traditions, Calvin comments

I know how difficult it is to persuade the world that God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by His Word. The opposite persuasion which cleaves to them, being seated, as it were, in their very bones and marrow, is, that whatever they do has in itself a sufficient sanction, provided it exhibits some kind of zeal for the honor of God. But since God not only regards as fruitless, but also plainly abominates, whatever we undertake from zeal to His worship, if at variance with His command, what do we gain by a contrary course? The words of God are clear and distinct, “Obedience is better than sacrifice.” “In vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men,” (1 Samuel 15:22; Matthew 15:9.) Every addition to His word, especially in this matter, is a lie. Mere “will worship” is vanity. This is the decision, and when once the judge has decided, it is no longer time to debate.

For Calvin, he recognized the importance and significance of worship. Obviously, this was due to his break from Roman Catholicism, which in itself was primarily due to Rome’s false worship which included, Mariology, relics and images, worship of saints, etc. Clearly though, when placed alongside the doctrines of grace, which has principally come to be equated with Calvinism, we see that worship took precedence in his thought. How ironic is it that some 500 years later we have prioritized that which Calvin did not and have subsequently called it Calvinism. True, genuine Calvinism, therefore, should be that which is primarily concerned with worship. This concern would not simply leave worship up to the good intentions of each person or congregation, but would be grounded in and regulated by the very Word of Almighty God.

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