Ben Underwood continues to pursue answers to questions about the purpose going to church is meant to serve in our lives. This time he knocks on John Calvin’s door and discovers Calvin’s appreciation for seeing church as a mother to believers, educating them in the life of faith.

Ben Underwood is an Associate Minister at St Matthew’s Shenton Park, WA

John Calvin in the Institutes

As I threatened in the last issue of Essentials, here is yet another installment of this meandering essay on what church is for.  I am interested to think about why we do what we do at church—all the singing and praying and preaching. What purpose or purposes are these thing supposed to serve? What am I to expect them to do for me and others present? How am I as a believer to make use of them? What am I to be seeking to do for myself as I go to church and participate in what goes on there? Having travelled backwards in time from John Piper to Broughton Knox to Thomas Cranmer and the Anglican homilies, we come to John Calvin, whose clarity of thought and brevity and power of expression has commended him to me for many years. What does Calvin say church is for? I’ll be confining myself, for better or worse, to his discussion of church in the Institutes of the Christian Religion.

John Calvin: Church is an outward help to beget and increase faith in us

Calvin’s substantial discussion of church in book 4 of the Institutes sets church in the context of God’s help given to Christians so that we may come to believe in Christ, and also to go on and grow in our faith in Christ. He begins in this way:

‘As explained in the previous book, it is by the faith in the gospel that Christ becomes ours and we are made partakers of the salvation and eternal blessedness brought by him. Since, however, in our ignorance and sloth (to which I add fickleness of disposition) we need outward helps to beget and increase faith within us and advance it to its goal, God has added these aids that he may provide for our weakness.’

The aids to which Calvin refers are the church (with her pastors and teachers), the sacraments, and the civil order. In this way Calvin makes church, ministry and sacraments (like civil government) a provision for this age, and the time of our mortal flesh.

Guided by her motherly care

Calvin begins to expound church explicitly in this way;
‘I shall start, then with the church, into whose bosom God is pleased to gather his sons, not only that they may be nourished by her help and ministry as long as they are infants and children, but also that they may be guided by her motherly care until they mature and at last reach the goal of faith.’

Calvin returns to the figure of the church as a mother in 4.1.4, after expounding the relevant sections of the creed. He writes,

‘But because it is now our intention to discuss the visible church, let us learn even from the simple title “mother” how useful, indeed how necessary, it is that we should know her. For there is no other way to enter into life unless this mother conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and lastly, unless she keep us under her care and guidance until, putting off mortal flesh, we become like the angels. Our weakness does not allow us to be dismissed from her school until we have been pupils all our lives.’

Continuing the theme of church as education, he soon after quotes Ephesians 4:10-13 and writes, ‘We see how God, who could in a moment perfect his own, nevertheless desires them to grow up into manhood solely under the education of the church.’

The education that believers receive is from the mouth of the pastor as he preaches the gospel and true doctine, which fosters agreement in faith and nourishes the believer. Here is Calvin on the ministry of the church;
‘by its ministry and labour God willed to have the preaching of his Word kept pure and to show himself the Father of a family, while he feeds us with spiritual food and provides everything that makes for our salvation.’
In discussing David’s lamentation over being unable to go up to the temple (Psalm 84:2-3) Calvin says, ‘Surely, this is because believers have no greater help than public worship, for by it God raises his own folk upward step by step.’
Ephesians 4:10-13 and its emphasis on ‘building up the body of Christ… to perfect manhood’ is never far from Calvin’s mind when he considers what church and its activities are for. In discussing what observances will be used in the church he says that ‘we should refer the entire use and purpose of observances to the upbuilding of the church’.  

In order to sustain the weakness of our faith

When it comes to what does in fact build up the body of Christ, for Calvin the foundation is Romans 10:17, ‘So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ’ (ESV). It is the word of Christ that nourishes and perfects faith and so that word must lie at the foundation of what happens in church. That is why the first mark of a true church is ‘wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard’.  

The second mark of the true church is where ‘the sacraments are administered according to Christ’s institution.’  In typical crisp fashion, Calvin opens his discussion of the sacraments saying, ‘We have in the sacraments another aid to our faith (italics mine) related to the preaching of the gospel.’  It is again clear that Calvin sees God’s institutions of church, ministry and sacrament as given to be aids to our faith. His definition of sacrament is
‘an outward sign by which the Lord seals on our consciences the promised of his good will towards us in order to sustain the weakness of our faith; and we in turn attest our piety toward him in the presence of the Lord and of his angels and before men.’

Notice the purpose; ‘in order to sustain the weakness of our faith.’ Calvin continually imagines Christians as weak, ignorant, slothful and fickle, and in great need of the aid of God in sustaining and maturing in faith. Church is the aid God gives, the means by which God parents us by word and sacrament throughout our lives.

That each one from his brother may receive the confession of faith and be prompted by his example.

Calvin does not imagine that the receipt of word and sacrament from the pastors of the church is the only way benfit comes to us in church. He sees important benefits for the the congregation in the activity of common prayer and singing, a benefit that comes in addition to the ministry of preachers of the word and the use of the sacraments. He says,
‘Yet we do not condemn here speaking and singing but rather strongly commend them, provided they are associated with the heart’s affection. For thus do they exercise the mind in thinking of God and keep it attentive – unstable and variable as it is, and readily relaxed and diverted in different directions, unless it be supported by various helps.’

Calvin sees virtue in participation in common prayers because in so praying we invite and prompt others to join in the praise of God. He writes,

‘But the chief use of the tongue is in public prayers, which are offered in the assembly of believers, by which it comes about that with one common voice, and as it were, with the same mouth, we all glorify God together, worshipping him with one spirit and the same faith. And we do this openly, that all men mutually, each one from his brother, may receive the confession of faith and be invited and prompted by his example.’

And noting that Paul, in Col 3, ‘commends spiritual songs, by which the godly may mutually edify one another’, Calvin sees that singing ‘has the greatest value in kindling our hearts to a true zeal and eagerness to pray.’

Until they at last reach the goal of faith

Calvin’s answer to the question what is church for is clear – it is for helping sustain, form and grow our faith in Christ towards its maturity, under conditions of the natural weakness, sloth and fickleness of believers’ hearts. Whereas Piper focussed on church as aimed at enabling the inner experience of satisfaction in God, and Knox focussed on church as enabling the shared experience of fellowship with one another in God’s presence, and the Anglican formularies saw church as enabling an increase in our godliness, Calvin sees church as enabling faith to grow under the unpromising conditions of life in our mortal flesh.

Concluding observations

Must we choose between church as aimed at either worship, fellowship, godliness or fostering faith, rejecting Piper or Knox in favour of Calvin or Cranmer and the Anglicans? In my judgment, if we ask who sticks closest to the exposition of church found in the most apposite biblical passages addressing the question of the purpose of church (e.g. 1 Corinthians 12-14 or Ephesians 4), Calvin would score the highest mark.  And I observe that the moderns (Piper and Knox) expound on church as the enabler of an experience (worship or fellowship, respectively), whereas the reformers focus on church as the enabler of a progression—growth in godliness (Cranmer et al) or maturity in faith (Calvin). (Perhaps the 20th century’s penchant for the existential makes its presence felt by contrast to the reformer’s penchant for, well, reformation!)
Looking at the differences between our theologians another way, if we try to distil the basic or foremost conception of who the church-going believer is in relation to God from their writing,it seems to me that for Piper the believer is a spiritual worshipper of the one glorious God; for Knox the believer is a joyful fellowshipper with Father, Son, Holy Spirit and God’s people; for certain Anglican homilies, perhaps the believer is best summed up as the thankful and dutiful subject of a great and kind King, and, finally, for Calvin the believer is a child in need of much care, help, instruction and encouragement to stick with Christ, encouragement that comes from our Father through the motherliness of his church. These anthropologies then inform the conception of the purpose of church in the various authors, giving us—expressed in an exaggerated manner to amplify the distinctives—church as ladder to the heavenly places (Piper), church as the communion of saints (Knox), church as our bounden duty and service (the Anglicans) and church as God’s home-schooling (Calvin). There is a job to do in comparing these with the New Testament’s conception(s) of the church going believer in relation to God (see note 14 below).

However interesting it may be to exaggerate the distinctive harmonics in these different accounts of church, it is perhaps best in closing to note how much they share the same basic frequencies. They have a fundamental conception of what church is for in common. They all want the Word of God in the ears of the congregation from the mouth of ministers. They all want ministers who are stirred up by the word of God themselves and are able to stir up the congregation with the same. They all believe church should be a place of encounter with God which inflames us with love for him and all that is his. They all want the congregation to draw near to God and to respond to him in praise and prayer. They all, to some extent, value the example that one believer sets for another as we engage with God together, and also the opportunity that the presence of other believers provides for love to grow up between Christians. May God make our churches such places as these.