John Calvin, The Necessity of Reforming the Church. Audubon, NJ: Old Paths Publications, 1994. xi, 117 (3)pp, paperback $7.50 [also reprinted, but not seen by the reviewer, Dallas: Presbyterian Heritage Publications, 1995. 160pp, paperback $6.95] Reviewed by Dr. David C. Lachman, an antiquarian book dealer in Wyncote, PA, and a ruling elder at Calvary PCA in Willow Grove. The almost simultaneous reprinting of Calvin's Necessity of Reforming the Church by two publishers is noteworthy. The reviewed volume has an introduction by W. Robert Godfrey, President and Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary in California. Although it is a significant bit of church history, it is considerably more than that. For, while it's easy to say we're Reformed, or even Reformed and Reforming, as many do, it's not so clear that our ideas, our priorities are remotely compatible, much less in harmony with those of Calvin and the Reformed Churches, historically considered.
As the only the treatise in which Calvin presents the work of the Reformation without replying to a previous work, he is here at liberty to present the subject as he thinks suitable, without the constraints of controversy. Consequently he focuses on what he calls the soul and body of the church. The soul: worship and salvation. The body: sacraments and church government.
He begins: "If it be inquired, then, by what things chiefly the Christian religion has a standing existence among us and maintains its truth, it will be found that the following two not only occupy the principal place, but comprehend under them all the other parts, and consequently the whole substance of Christianity, viz. a knowledge, first, of the mode in which God is duly worshipped; and, secondly, of the source from which salvation is to be obtained."
Perhaps what most distances us today from Calvin_and the Reformed Churches, historically considered_is worship, which he considers first, even before he inquires into the source of our salvation. Perhaps to the late 20th century mind this is to place a minor consideration before the great work of the Reformation, salvation through Christ alone, by faith alone. But not to Calvin. For him the due worship of God is primary.
What does Calvin mean by "due worship"? He describes it thus: "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." And accordingly for us "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." From this "arises prayer, . . . praise and thanksgiving_these being attestations to the glory which we attribute to Him. "
Why is this of first importance? Calvin answers: "This is that genuine sanctification of His name which He requires of us above all things." This is, granted, not a modern way of looking at life; mostly people are interested in knowing 'what's in it for me?' But for Calvin true religion is God-centered and thus the focus is on glorifying Him.
He proceeds to distinguish between true and false worship: "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." Pure worship is that which God has prescribed; no device of our own is to be intruded into it, at least if we would have Him accept our worship. Calvin continues: "Therefore, if we would have Him to approve our worship, this rule, which He everywhere enforces with the utmost strictness must be observed."
Why, we ask, does the Lord condemn and prohibit all fictitious worship and require obedience to Him alone? Calvin replies: "First, it tends greatly to establish His authority that we do not follow our own pleasurs 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 go astray. . . . 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." If we proceed to ignore God's limits by "fabricating perverse modes of worship," we will "provoke His anger against us."
Calvin is not unaware of the difficulty of persuading people of the truth of this: "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 this is readily rejected, ". . . 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.'"
Calvin, writing in the context of the perversions and abominations of the Medieval church, proceeds to allude to some of the ways in which true worship had become utterly corrupted. At this point many think that what Calvin has to say on this subject does not pertain to us. But a quick look around the church, even the so-called conservative and evangelical Presbyterian churches, will show that much clearly not commanded by God has sprung up among us. In the worship services of some churches one will find dramatic presentations, in others various sorts of musical entertainment, including a full orchestra, soloists and even ballet! Certainly this is an indication we at least need to pay sufficient attention to what Calvin is saying to see if it applies to us. Certainly if it is possible that in our worship we are doing what is fruitless and abominated by God, it is worth a bit of time to consider it carefully, to see of our own worship is "will worship" of our own devising or if it is a worship commanded by Him and thus is worship which will be accepted by Him.
Later, after a discussion of salvation through Christ's righteousness, as well as the administration of the sacraments and the government of the church, Calvin returns to suggest remedies for the correction of the evils which had befallen the church. In regard to worship, he contends for a simple spiritual worship of God, and for an abandoning of ceremonies, whether those devised by human imaginations or those which God had enjoined under the old dispensation, but which under the new obscure His glory as revealved in Christ.
Perhaps a few more quotations from Calvin will demonstrate that this matter is one which is of primary importance to all who would call themselves Christians:
"Since God has prescribed a certain economy, how presumptuous to set up one which is contrary to it, and openly repudiated by Him! But the worst of all is, that though God has so often and so strictly interdicted all modes of worship prescribed by man, the only worship paid to him consisted of human inventions" (p. 32).
"I am not unaware how difficult it is to persuade the world that God rejects and even abominates every thing relating to His worship that is devised by human reason. The delusion on this head is owing to several causes, . . . the offspring of our own brain delights us, and besides, as Paul admits, this fictitious worship often presents some show of wisdom" (p. 32).
"The mockery which worships God with nought but external gestures and absurd human fictions, how could we, without sin, allow to pass unrebuked? . . . We hear how bitter the terms in which the Prophets inveigh against all worship fabricated by human rashness. . . . A dog, seeing any violence offered to his master, will instantly bark; could we, in silence, see the sacred name of God dishonoured so blasphemously?" (p. 70).
There is, of course, much more in this book well worthy of our attention, particularly in that many are advocating a rapprochement with Rome, without any concern for the continued existence of all those abominations which caused the Reformation in the first place.
Although this work by Calvin can readily be obtained in the three volume of tracts and treatises, it is far more accessible in this form. It would be beneficial if it has wide circulation and, more important, careful reading and consideration throughout the church.