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Calvin on the Meaning and Benefits of Baptism, from Francois Wendel

19 June, 2009

john_calvin_2_in_library_1-708209Here is a noteworthy excerpt from Francois Wendel’s Calvin, on Calvin’s understanding of baptism (mainly from Institutes 4.15). This excerpt doesn’t discuss everything, of course, but it’s very good nonetheless, and shows how greatly Calvin emphasized baptism as a gospel sacrament. In other words, baptism is a sign and seal of something God has done and is doing, that he has brought us into. It’s not at bottom our personal performance, but God’s faithful promise. The discussion of baptism in relation to justification is particularly noteworthy.

Baptism appears to [Calvin] first of all as the sign of the remission of sins: ‘Those who have dared to write that baptism is nothing but a mark and sign, by which we profess our religion before men, as a man-at-arms puts on the uniform of his prince to show whom he serves, have not considered the principal thing about baptism — that is, that we have to take it with this promise, that all those who believe and are baptized will be saved.’ But in his customary manner, he immediately follows up this demonstration against what we might call the ‘Left’ [i.e. Zwinglianism and Anabaptism], with a warning against the extreme ‘Right’ [i.e. Roman Catholicism and some Lutherans]. The power to purify us does not reside in the water of baptism itself, but in the very blood of Christ. ‘We could find no better argument to refute the error of those who ascribe everything to the water, than by a reminder of what is the meaning of baptism, which withdraws us no less from the visible element that meets the eye than from all means of acquiring salvation, to make us rely wholly upon Jesus Christ.’…

He is taking inspiration from [Luther’s] De Captivitate Babylonica when he writes:

We ought not to think that baptism is given us only for time past, so that for the sins into which we fall after baptism we have to look for another remedy. I know that this error crept in in ancient times because some people did not want to be baptized until the end of their lives and at the hour of their death, so that they could obtain plenary forgiveness for their whole life — a foolish fantasy which is often revived by the bishops in their writings. But it must be shown that whenever we may be baptized we are washed and purged once for all the time of our life. However, whenever we may fall again into sin, we must return again in memory to the baptism and thereby confirm ourselves in this same faith, that we are always certain and assured of the remission of our sins.

But if he concludes from this that baptism and repentance are closely related, he none the less underlines — again like Luther — that the mercy of God is offered only to repentant sinners; and ‘those who, on the contrary, expecting impunity, are seeking and taking herein reason and freedom to sin, are but provoking against themselves the wrath and judgment of God.’

But baptism is not only an ablution signifying the forgiveness of sins. Its second religious significance resides in the fact that ‘it shows us our mortification in Jesus Christ, and also our new life in Him.’ In support of this, Calvin adduces Romans 6:3, 4, of which he gives an explanation taht strives to delve deeper and establish a connection with what he had been saying before about our union with Christ. ‘[St Paul] does not exhort us simply to an imitation (of Christ), as if he were saying that we are admonished by baptism so that, in some likeness and example of the death of Jesus Christ we might die to our concupiscences [lusts] and by the example of his resurrection be revived in righteousness: he takes a much higher line, namely that Jesus Christ by baptism has made us partakers of his death, in order that we might be engrafted thereto.’

Thence we come to the third benefit that baptism confers upon our faith, which is that ‘we are so united with Christ that he makes us sharers in all his goods.’….Christ is shown to be the true end of baptism, ‘for everything that is held out at baptism concerning the gifts of God is found in Christ alone.’

He then attacks the Catholic doctrine of baptism, in so far as it claims ‘that by baptism we are loosed and liberated from original sin and the corruption that is inherited from Adam by all his posterity, and that we are restored to an original righteousness and purity of nature, the same that Adam would have had if he had remained always in the integrity in which he had first been created.’ But then, what difference is there, after all, between this and the conception that Calvin has been expounding all along? It is not difficult for him to reply, however, that this would be a misunderstanding of the nature of original sin, original righteousness and the grace of baptism. Our whole nature is corrupted by original sin and by that fact ‘it is hateful and abominable to God.’ But baptism gives to the faithful the certitude

that this damnation is taken away and driven out of them, since…our Saviour promises us, by this sign, that we have full and complete remission of sins, of the guilt that should be imputed to us no less than of the punishment which, for that guilt, we were to bear and suffer. And they also receive righteousness, but such as the people of God can receive in this life; that is, by imputation only, in that our Lord, of his mercy, regards them as just and innocent.

In other words, baptism does not restore us to the state of integrity which was enjoyed by Adam, but it assures us that God has remitted our sin and the punishment which would normally have had to follow from it, and that he looks upon us as righteous by imputing the righteousness of Christ to us. The doctrine of baptism is thus logically connected with that of justification.

After having thus explained the properly religious content of baptism, Calvin turns to the second object for which this sacrament was instituted: that it might also serve as a confession towards men. This second aspect of baptism was, as we know, the only one that Zwingli had admitted. ‘It is a mark and sign,’ writes Calvin, ‘by which we profess that we wish to be numbered with the people of God, by which we testify that we consent and agree to the service of one God alone, and of one religion with all Christians; by which, lastly, we publicly declare and avow what our faith is.’ The purpose of this public confession of the Christian faith is to promote the glory of God.

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  1. 20 June, 2009 9:04 pm

    This reminds me of an interesting quote someone showed me the other day from Calvin:

    “… Experience shows that the reprobate are sometimes affected in a way so similar to the elect that even in their own judgment there is no difference between them. Hence, it is not strange, that by the Apostle a taste of heavenly gifts, and by Christ himself a temporary faith is ascribed to them. Not that they truly perceive the power of spiritual grace and the sure light of faith; but the Lord, the better to convict them, and leave them without excuse, instills into their minds such a sense of goodness as can be felt without the Spirit of adoption …. there is a great resemblance and affinity between the elect of God and those who are impressed for a time with a fading faith …. Still it is correctly said, that the reprobate believe God to be propitious to them, inasmuch as they accept the gift of reconciliation, though confusedly and without due discernment; not that they are partakers of the same faith or regeneration with the children of God; but because, under a covering of hypocrisy they seem to have a principle of faith in common with them. Nor do I even deny that God illumines their mind to this extent …. there is nothing inconsistent in this with the fact of his enlightening some with a present sense of grace, which afterwards proves evanescent” (3.2.11, Institutes)”

    So to tie this into the issue of Baptism as viewed by Calvinists, the sacrament is only efficacious for those who “truly believe,” yet there are those who are deceived who think they believe and are in God’s favor (and God even instills this false sense into their minds) who also receive the sacrament but to no effect. The disastrous problem the Calvinist is in is that he doesn’t know if he is a true believer or one who only thinks he is (and thus deceived), so your comments about “God’s faithful promise” or what “God has done” for you cannot ultimately comfort the individual at all.

    • 22 June, 2009 4:43 pm


      You’re missing Calvin’s point throughout that discussion of true and false faith in Institutes 3.2. Calvin’s making a point about Spirit-wrought faith versus the counterfeit that stems from a wicked heart. And it’s vital to keep in mind what Calvin also said, that Christ is the mirror of our election. Calvinists don’t sit around and wonder, ‘Am I deceived in being convinced that Christ is all my salvation, and of embracing the promises of God by faith?’ Those who *truly* believe in Jesus, truly are in Jesus. If I’m looking only to Christ by faith and resting on and receiving him, then that is the fruit of the Spirit of God. And it doesn’t even rest on the strength or constancy of my faith — it is the *object* of my faith who is strong to save, and he will do it.

      Neither does Calvin suggest true faith and false faith are indistinguishable, so that the latter is in every way identical to the former, except that it turns out to be a delusion. False faith is such ‘confusedly’ and in ‘hypocrisy’. It’s the same way with true love and false love; love of God and neighbor can appear to be genuine and from genuine motives, but it can be coming from a heart that is not right with God or neighbor. Again, *that’s why God’s faithfulness in Christ is our assurance.*

      Finally, God’s ‘enlightening’ of some to a certain extent is neither a trick nor, with respect to baptism, unefficacious: it is intended, as you quote, ‘to convict them, and leave them without excuse’. It is God’s (just!) judgment, just as on the other hand those who are given true faith justly deserve the same judgment, but are in free, merciful and mysterious favor gifted with the opposite of what they deserve, all to the glory of both the righteousness and the grace of God.

      It only lacks comfort when assurance is discussed in abstraction from the reality of sin and condemnation, and from looking to Christ unto justification.

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