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Posts Tagged ‘Baptism’


Whenever one begins ‘reading up’ on a certain doctrine or a challenging issue, countless hours can go into endless reading.  If the case is particularly thorny, one can often end up even more confused (and frustrated) than ever before. It seems fair to say that the doctrine of baptism is probably one of thorniest issues in recent church history.

My effort here is to merely introduce readers to John Calvin (1509-1564) and his teaching on baptism. It would seem a misfortune if Protestants today attempt to learn about this doctrine all the while overlooking the work of theologians and teachers in our church’s history like Calvin.

Personally, I have found Calvin to be incomparably helpful in expounding biblical truth and clarifying difficult doctrines. Furthermore, his ability to engage polemical issues, take opponents objections in their full force, and then turn them around and dispatch them in a definitive manner, makes his writing seem unparalleled in some respects.

The following is a compilation of  Calvin quotations from his Institutes of the Christian Religion on the doctrine of baptism.  It begins with his explanation of the sacraments in general, moves to the doctrine of baptism itself, and finally ends with a defense of infant baptism. Without further introduction, here is Calvin:

The Sacraments

We have in the sacraments another aid to our faith related to the preaching of the gospel. It is very important that some definite doctrine concerning them be taught, that we many learn from it both the purpose for which they were instituted and their present use.

It is clear from the outset that the sacraments (and thus baptism) are about the gospel, and are as such to be an “aid to our faith.” For this reason, the sacraments were very important to Calvin, and their right use of tremendous importance.

First we must consider what a sacrament is. It seems to me that a simple and proper definition would be to say that it is an outward sign by which the Lord seals on our consciences the promise of his good will toward 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. Here is another briefer definition: one may call it a testimony of divine grace toward us, confirmed by an outward sign, with mutual attestation of our piety toward him. (4.14.1)

So we see that there are two things here: First (and primarily), the sacrament is a sign and seal of God’s gracious promise of good will toward us in the Gospel. And secondarily, it is an attestation of our own commitment to God.

Word and Sign

Now, from the definition that I have set forth we understand that a sacrament is never without a preceding promise but is joined to it as a sort of appendix, with the purpose of confirming and sealing the promise itself, and of making it more evident to us and in a sense ratifying it. By this means God provides first for our ignorance and dullness, then for our weakness. Yet properly speaking, it is not so much needed to confirm his Sacred Word as to establish us in faith in it. For God’s truth is of itself firm and sure enough, and it cannot receive better confirmation from any other source than from itself. But as our faith is slight and feeble unless it be propped on all sides and sustained by every means, it trembles wavers, totters, and at last gives way. Here our merciful Lord, according to his infinite kindness, so tempers himself to our capacity that, since we are creatures wo always creep on the ground, cleave to the flesh, and, do not think about or even conceive of anything spiritual, he condescends to lead us to himself even by these earthly elements, and to set before us in the flesh a mirror of spiritual blessings. (4.14.3)

So, the sacraments come as a confirmation of the word of promise, further sealing it upon our consciences, and strengthening our otherwise always weak and trembling faith.  Once again, the sacraments are gospel, and are intended to help us in our neediness. God has purposed to condescend to our weakness in this way, and instituted this rite – even these sacramental signs. Because of this, we realize that God has considered us weak enough that he would not leave us with only his word, but would further confirm it by visible and tangible signs. That’s how weak we really are.

Naturally, then, we may expect our human pride to despise any notion of our dependency upon God’s provision. We might also expect our mortal enemy to defuse as much confusion and disruption into this ordinance as possible. If this is to be our lifeline, it stands to reason that the flesh oppose it and the enemy seek to over throw it.  And this can be seen in Church history:

What, therefore, was practiced under papal tyranny involved a monstrous profanation of the mysteries [sacraments]. For they thought it enough if the priest mumbled the formula of consecration while the people looked on bewildered and without comprehension. Indeed, they deliberately saw to it that, from this, nothing of the doctrine should penetrate to the people; for they spoke everything in Latin among unlearned men. Afterward, superstition came to the point that they believed consecration duly performed only in a hoarse whisper which few could hear.

Consequently, (and contrary to the Roman practice), “the sacrament requires preaching to beget faith.”

Indeed, it was known even from the beginning of the world that whenever God gave a sign to the holy patriarchs it was inseparably linked to doctrine, without which our senses would have been stunned in looking at the bare sign. Accordingly, when we hear the sacramental word mentioned, let us understand the promise, proclaimed in a clear voice by the minster, to lead the people by the hand wherever the sign tends and directs us. (4.14.4)

Thus, although we know and believe that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ (Rom 10.17), and as Luther said, the ears are the organ of the Christian, we still see that God has condescended to give us just these view visible signs. He hasn’t given us very many images, but these are two of them: Baptism, and The Supper.

And as Calvin never seemed to tire from citing the Church fathers (particularly Augustine) to help ground his teaching within the tradition of the church, he does so here:

Augustine calls a sacrament “a visible word” for the reason that it represents God’s promises as painted in a picture and sets them before our sign, portrayed graphically and in the manner of images. (4.14.6)

Received by Faith

Here Calvin moves onto discussing objections regarding those who partake of the sacramental signs and yet are impious and still under God’s wrath.

They are not reasoning closely enough when they argue that the sacraments are not testimonies of God’s grace because they are also offered to the wicked, who, however, do not find God more favorable but rather incur a heavier condemnation.  For by the same argument, because the gospel is heard but rejected by many, and because Christ was seen and recognized by many but very few of them accepted him, neither gospel nor Christ would be a testimony of God’s grace.

A similar thing can be seen in official documents. For most of the people ridicule and scorn that authentic seal, although they know that it was put forth by the prince to attest his will. Some treat it with indifference as not applying to them; others even curse it. Thus it can apply equally to both…

It is therefore certain that the Lord offers us mercy and the pledge of his grace both in his Sacred Word and in his sacraments. But it is understood only by those who take Word and sacraments with sure faith, just as Christ is offered and held forth by the Father to all unto salvation, yet not all acknowledge and receive him. In one place, Augustine, meaning to convey this, said that the efficacy of the Word is brought to light in the sacrament, not because it is spoken, but because it is believed. (4.14.7)

Thus, the sacraments actually hold forth the grace of God in Christ before the hearts of men. This is the free offer of the gospel, proclaimed in the Word, and attested and confirmed in the sacrament. This offer comes to us by God, well-intentioned and sincere.

And yet while some held too low a view of the sacraments (Zwinglian memorialists), others had too high a view (Lutherans, and namely Rome).

On the contrary, we must be reminded that, as these men weaken the force of the sacraments and completely overthrow their use, so, on the opposite side, there are those who attach to the sacraments some sort of secret powers with which one nowhere reads that God has endowed them. By this error the simple and unskilled are dangerously deceived, while they are both taught to seek God’s gifts where they cannot be found, and are gradually drawn away from God to embrace mere vanity rather than his truth. The schools of the Sophists have taught with remarkable agreement that the sacraments of the new law (those now used in the Christian church) justify and confer grace, provided we do not set up a barrier of mortal sin. How deadly and pestilential this notion is cannot be expressed–and the more so because for many centuries it has been a current claim in a good part of the world, to the great loss of the church. Of a certainty it is diabolical. For in promising a righteousness apart from faith, it hurls souls headlong to destruction. Secondly, because it draws the cause of righteousness from the sacraments, it binds men’s pitiable minds (of themselves more than enough inclined to earth) in this superstition, so that they repose in the appearance of a physical thing rather than in God himself.

But what is a sacrament received apart from faith but the most certain ruin of the church? For nothing ought to be expected from it apart from the promise but the promise no less threatens wrath to unbelievers than offers grace to believers. Hence, any man is deceived who thinks anythings more is conferred upon him thorough the sacraments than what is offered by God’s Word and received by him in truth faith.

From this something else follows: assurance of salvation does not depend upon participation in the sacrament, as if justification consisted in it. For we know that justification is lodged in Christ alone, and that it is communicated to us no less by the preaching of the gospel than by the seal of the sacrament, and without the latter can stand unimpaired. (4.14.14)

Thus, the sacraments (just like the word) brings the gospel to us, but is only effectual by faith. It must be mixed with faith. Apart from faith in Christ (the object of our faith) the sacraments (just like the word) only brings judgement to us. And poor souls are deluded who believe they can receive anything from God apart from faith in Christ. Separated from faith in Christ, the sacraments only condemn unbelievers.

The Sign Must be Distinguished from the Thing Signified

Hence that distinction (if it be duly understood), often noted by the same Augustine, between a sacrament and the matter of the sacrament. […]

He speaks of their separation when he writes, “in the elect alone the sacraments effect what they represent.” Again, when he writes thus of the Jews: “Although the sacraments were common to all, grace was not common–which is the power of the sacraments. So also the laver of regeneration is now common to all; but grace itself, by which the members of Christ are regenerated with their Head, is not common to all.” (4.14.15)

… by not lifting our minds beyond the visible sign, to transfer to it the credit for those benefits which are conferred upon us by Christ alone. And they are conferred through the Holy Spirit, who makes us partakers in Christ; conferred, indeed, with the help of outward signs, if they allure us to Christ; but when they are twisted in another direction, their whole worth is shamefully destroyed. (4.14.16)

Therefore, let it be regarded as a settled principle that the sacraments have the same office as the Word of God: to offer and set forth Christ to us, and in him the treasures of heavenly grace. But they avail and profit nothing unless received in faith. As with wine or oil or some other liquid, no matter how much you pour out, it will flow away and disappear unless the mouth of the vessel to receive it is open; moreover, the vessel will be splashed over on the outside, but will still remain void and empty. (4.14.17)

The Similarity between the Sacraments in the New Testament and the Old Testament

When these things are individually pointed explained, they will become much clearer.

For the Jews, circumcision was the symbol by which they were admonished that whatever comes forth from man’s seed, that is, the whole nature of mankind, is corrupt and needs pruning. Moreover, circumcision was a token and reminder to confirm them in the promise given to Abraham of the blessed seed in which all nations of the earth were to be blessed, from whom they were also to await their own blessing. […]

Accordingly, circumcision was the same thing to them as in Paul’s teaching it was to Abraham, namely, a sign of the righteousness of faith; that is, a seal by which they are more certainly assured that their faith, with which they awaited that seed, is accounted to them as righteousness by God. But elsewhere at a more appropriate occasion we shall pursue a fuller comparison of circumcision and baptism.

Baptisms and purification disclose to them their own uncleanness, foulness, and pollution, with which they were defiled in their own nature; but these rites promised another cleansing by which all their filth would be removed and washed away. And this cleansing was Christ. Washed by his blood, we bring his purity before God’s sight to cover all our defilements. (4.14.21)

So we see that just as the Israelites were to look beyond the sign of circumcision to the things signified (even Christ who was to be cut off for them) so too our sacraments today are the same.  Theirs looked forward in anticipation to the baptism of Christ in his death, and ours look back at it already accomplished.

As for our sacraments, the more fully Christ has been revealed to men, the more clearly do the sacraments present him to us from the time when he was truly revealed by the Father as he had been promised. For baptism attest to us that we have been cleansed and washed; the Eucharistic Supper, that we have been redeemed. In water, washing is represented; in blood, satisfaction. These two are found in Christ “… who” as John says, “came in water and blood” [1 John 5:6]; that is, to wash and to redeem. The Spirit of God is also witness of this. Indeed, “there are three witnesses in one: the water, the blood, and the Spirit” [5:8].

In the water and the blood we have testimony of cleansing and redemption. But the Spirit, the primary witness, makes us certain of such testimony. This lofty mystery has been admirably shown us in the cross of Christ, when water and blood flowed from his sacred side [John 19:34]. For this reason, Augustine has called it the wellspring of our sacraments. (4.14.22)

And now Calvin gets into the heart of the issue: Just what is the similarity between the Old and New Covenant? Where do we draw the line between continuity and discontinuity?

One thing becomes clear: with Abraham and all his children after him, although the sign of the promise differed for them (circumcision / baptism, passover feast / Lord’s Table), the thing signified always remained the same — namely the person of Christ and his work as part of the Covenant of Grace.

But we must utterly reject that Scholastic dogma (to touch on it also in passing) which notes such a great difference between the sacraments of the old and new law, as if the former only foreshadowed God’s grace, but the later give it as a present reality. Indeed, the apostle speaks just as clearly concerning the former as the latter when he teaches that the fathers ate the same spiritual food as we, and explains that food as Christ [1 Cor. 10:3]. Who dared treat as an empty sign that which revealed the true communion of Christ to the Jews? […]

Now, that the comparison should be appropriate, it was needful for him to show that there is no inequality between us and them in those boons in which he forbade us to boast falsely. He therefore first makes them equal to us in sacraments. And he leaves us no shred of privilege which could make souls hope to go unpunished. Nor is it lawful for us to attribute more to our baptism than he elsewhere attributes to circumcision when he calls it the seal of the righteousness of faith [Rom. 4:21]. Therefore, whatever is shown us today in the sacraments, the Jews of old received in their own–that is, Christ with his spiritual riches. They felt the same power in their sacraments as do we in ours; these were seals of divine good will toward them, looking to eternal salvation. If our opponents had been skilled interpreters of The Letter to the Hebrews, they would not have been thus deceived. (4.14.23)

Here we see Calvin touching on issues that haven’t seemed to go away in our day either. The question boeing: How much, then, is our baptism likened unto their circumcision?

But by way of objection they will quote what they read concerning “circumcision of the letter” in Paul [Rom. 2:29], that it has no place with God, confers nothing, and is empty. For such statements seem to press it down far beneath our baptism. Not at all! The very same thing could justly be said of baptism. But this is even said, and first by Paul himself, when he is showing that God cares nothing about the outward washing with which we are initiated into religion, unless the heart also be inwardly cleansed and persevere in purity to the end. Then it is said by Peter when he bears witness that the truth of baptism rests not in outward washing but in the testimony of a clear conscience [1 Pet. 3:21].

But in another place (they will say) Paul also seems completely to despise the circumcision made with hands when he compares it with Christ’s circumcision [Col. 2:11-12]. I reply: in this passage its dignity is not in any way reduced. There Paul is disputing against those who require it as necessary although it has already been abolished. He therefore admonishes believers to forsake the old shadows and stand fast in the truth. These teachers (he says) urge you to have your bodies circumcised. Yet you have been spiritually circumcised both in soul and body. You therefore have a revelation of the reality, which is far better than the shadow. But someone could have objected, on the other hand, that men ought not to despise the figure because they had the thing itself, inasmuch as among the patriarchs too there was that putting off of the old man, of which Paul is there speaking; yet outward circumcision was not superfluous for them. Paul forestalls this objection when he immediately adds that the Colossians had been buried with Christ through baptism [Col. 2:12]. By this he means that baptism is today for Christians what circumcision was for the ancients, and that therefore circumcision cannot be enjoined upon Christians without injustice to baptism. (4.14.24)

This then represents the clear continuity of substance between the old and new sacraments, not withstanding their differences in form. Although the signs differs, the thing signified is the same: Christ and all his benefits to be apprehended and embraced by faith alone.

This concludes part 1 on Calvin’s discussion on the sacraments in general. The next continues with Calvin’s discussion on the doctrine of baptism itself.

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Over the last week I’ve been digging in more deeply to our understanding of baptism, particularly in light of covenant theology.  However, one of the issues that comes up is that of baptismal regeneration.  Of course, it is generally those who hold to a ‘higher’ (or more potent) view of the sacrament who are labeled with the term.  Lately (in Reformed circles) this issue has come up in response to the Federal Vision movement.  Some critics of the movement claim its proponents hold to some form of baptismal regeneration. Of course, this is generally denied.

Today, I was reading through Josh Moon’s defense of TE Lawrence (Siouxland Presbytery PCA). And in it I found much to think about. Moon argues that Lawrence’s position on baptism (and the benefits it confers) is well within the bounds of our Reformed tradition.  To support this claim he points to Calvin, Ursinus, Owen, Bavinck, Hodge and others. All these great men are then cited as affirming the basic idea that all who are baptized into Christ are indeed “Christians” — and at least should be considered as such by the Church. Now, does that sound all that controversial? Well, I suppose it depends on what one means by  “Christian.”

However, as Moon moved to the ‘Testimony of Scripture’ I think I would have some questions. He writes:

We are told by the complainants that you cannot attribute forgiveness of sins to the potential reprobate. But that is clearly wrong. The unmerciful servant, Jesus says, was “forgiven his debt.” He moved from a state of condemnation to true and real forgiveness. This was no pretended forgiveness. Yet the servant was finally apostate. He failed to live up to the grace shown to him, and so the privilege of that forgiveness was revoked. And that, Jesus says, is how my father will treat each of you if you do not forgive your brother from your heart. This, remember, is addressed to Peter and Christ’s own disciples. It is a parable about forgiveness and apostasy, and gives the complainants no ground at all for their complaint.

Moon claims that one can indeed have “real forgiveness” and yet, in the end, be damned. He says that this parable (found in the Gospel of Matthew ch 18:21-35) actually teaches about apostasy. My question is whether our Reformed theologians have understood this passage to be teaching what Moon believes it is.

On this passage (Mat 18) Calvin comments:

[I]t is foolish to inquire how God punishes (“how it is possible for God to punish”) those sins which he has already forgiven; for the simple meaning is this: though he offers mercy to all, yet severe creditors, from whom no forgiveness can be obtained, are unworthy of enjoying it.

So it seems Calvin wouldn’t go as far as Moon would in interpreting this parable.

Francis Turretin writes:

Although remission of sins ought to be applied often to daily sins, yet falsely would anyone thence gather that sins once discharged revive and return again by subsequent sins (as some of the Romanists hold), since it is a unchangeable gift of God. Nor does the parable of that ungrateful servant (…[Mt. 18]) prove this. It pertains to nothing else than to show that the remission of sins proposed conditionally does not belong to him in whom the condition is lacking. The design of the parable (which is to be regarded here simply) is no other than to teach that the mercy of God is not exercised towards the unmerciful; nor are sins pardoned by God, except to those who forgive the offenses of others. (Inst. 2.687)

Furthermore, one can read Matthew Henry on this passage who states:

We are not to suppose that God actually forgives men, and afterwards reckons their guilt to them to condemn them; but this latter part of the parable shows the false conclusions many draw as to their sins being pardoned, though their after-conduct shows that they never entered into the spirit, or experienced the sanctifying grace of the gospel.

All of these men interpret this passage in a particular way — and it appears — in a way at variances with Moon. Now, a little later Moon further writes:

We are told that the language of union with Christ cannot be attributed in any sense to the baptized indiscriminately – that it cannot be true for the reprobate. Yet John 15 and Romans 11 both use the language of being “in Christ”, which is union with Christ. And they use that language in speaking of those who might finally be (or have been) cut off. In both cases it is covenantal union in Christ that is then broken. And in both cases the possibility and the reality exist of apostasy. Paul in Romans 11 even speaks of those branches who are being “nourished by the root” who are then cut off.

But on these passages as well, I am curious as to whether our Reformed divines would have agreed with his interpretation. On Romans 11 Calvin writes:

Let us remember that in this comparison man is not compared with man, but nation with nation. (v. 16)

(v. 20: Do not be arrogant, but be afraid.) But it seems that he throws in a doubt as to salvation, since he reminds them to beware lest they also should not be spared. To this I answer, — that as this exhortation refers to the subduing of the flesh, which is ever insolent even in the children of God, he derogates nothing from the certainty of faith. And we must especially notice and remember what I have before said, — that Paul’s address is not so much to individuals as to the whole body of the Gentiles, among whom there might have been many, who were vainly inflated, professing rather than having faith. On account of these Paul threatens the Gentiles, not without reason, with excision…

And here again it appears more evident, that the discourse is addressed generally to the body of the Gentiles, for the excision, of which he speaks, could not apply to individuals, whose election is unchangeable, based on the eternal purpose of God. (v. 21)

But as he speaks not of the elect individually, but of the whole body, a condition is added, If they continued in his kindness I indeed allow, that as soon as any one abuses God’s goodness, he deserves to be deprived of the offered favor; but it would be improper to say of any one of the godly particularly, that God had mercy on him, when he chose him, provided he would continue in his mercy; for the perseverance of faith, which completes in us the effect of God’s grace, flows from election itself.

Otherwise thou also shalt be cut off, etc. We now understand in what sense Paul threatens them with excision, whom he has already allowed to have been grafted into the hope of life through God’s election. For, first, though this cannot happen to the elect, they have yet need of such warning, in order to subdue the pride of the flesh; which being really opposed to their salvation, ought justly to be terrified with the dread of perdition. As far then as Christians are illuminated by faith, they hear, for their assurance, that the calling of God is without repentance; but as far as they carry about them the flesh, which wantonly resists the grace of God, they are taught humility by this warning, “Take heed lest thou be cut off.” Secondly, we must bear in mind the solution which I have before mentioned, — that Paul speaks not here of the special election of individuals, but sets the Gentiles and Jews in opposition the one to the other; and that therefore the elect are not so much addressed in these words, as those who falsely gloried that they had obtained the place of the Jews: nay, he speaks to the Gentiles generally, and addresses the whole body in common, among whom there were many who were faithful, and those who were members of Christ in name only.

But if it be asked respecting individuals, “How any one could be cut off from the grafting, and how, after excision, he could be grafted again,” — bear in mind, that there are three modes of insition, and two modes of excision. For instance, the children of the faithful are ingrafted, to whom the promise belongs according to the covenant made with the fathers; ingrafted are also they who indeed receive the seed of the gospel, but it strikes no root, or it is choked before it brings any fruit; and thirdly, the elect are ingrafted, who are illuminated unto eternal life according to the immutable purpose of God. The first are cut off, when they refuse the promise given to their fathers, or do not receive it on account of their ingratitude; the second are cut off, when the seed is withered and destroyed; and as the danger of this impends over all, with regard to their own nature, it must be allowed that this warning which Paul gives belongs in a certain way to the faithful, lest they indulge themselves in the sloth of the flesh. But with regard to the present passage, it is enough for us to know, that the vengeance which God had executed on the Jews, is pronounced on the Gentiles, in case they become like them. (v. 21)

It seems abundantly clear that Calvin is not applying this passage to the elect in the same way as Moon, but deliberately makes a distinction: Some are in the covenant in a way different than others. Some can’t be ‘cutoff’.

On John 15 Calvin similarly won’t go where Moon goes:

(v. 6) Not that it ever happens that any one of the elect is dried up, but because there are many hypocrites who, in outward appearance, flourish and are green for a time, but who afterwards, when they ought to yield fruit, show the very opposite of that which the Lord expects and demands from his people.

To be fair, I am not saying that these interpretations are necessarily diametrically opposed or incompatible with each other (although maybe they are). However, there might be overlap. But, if so, it’s not clear. It seems there is at least a substantial differences between the way Calvin (and others) interpret these texts and how Moon and Lawrence do.

Now, I’ve met Pastor Moon, and have no ill feelings toward him at all. In fact, this December, I heard him preach on the ‘Preservation of the Saints’ which I thought was very good and which blessed me tremendously. However, I’m writing this because I find this language concerning, and frankly, contrary to what I have heretofore held to be correct.

Is there such a thing as ‘temporary forgiveness’? And if there is, is it based on ‘temporal justification’?  Is there any forgiveness without justification? Any forgiveness without atonement? Any atonement without the blood of Christ? And is there any blood of Christ spent on damned reprobates? May it never be.

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