Calvin on Infant Baptism

Calvin's InstitutesIn Calvin’s somewhat lengthy treatment of the sacrament of baptism in His Institutes of the Christian Religion, he devotes nearly 2/3 of that space (around 35 pages or so in the McNeill edition, translated by Ford Lewis Battles) to the subject of infant baptism.

One of the many arguments that John Calvin makes in support of the practice of infant baptism is based upon the words of Jesus in Matthew 19:14, where our Lord says,

“Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” (ESV)

At first glance this statement does not appear to have much of anything to do with baptism at all. And yet, as Calvin goes on to say, “For we must not lightly pass over the fact that Christ commands that the infants be presented to him, adding the reason, ‘for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven'” (4.16.7). When one takes the time to consider Christ’s words in this passage regarding infants, it becomes clear that they really do have something to say about the basis for infant baptism.

Calvin goes on to explain:

“And thereupon he attests his will by his act when, embracing them, he commends them with his prayer and blessing to his father. If it is right for infants to be brought to Christ, why not also to be received into baptism, the symbol of our communion and fellowship with Christ? If the kingdom of heaven belongs to them, why is the sign denied them which, so to speak, opens to them a door into the church, that, adopted into it, they may be enrolled among the heirs of the kingdom of heaven?” (Ibid.)

Christ not only received these little ones, taking them up in His arms and blessing them (Mark 10:16), but, as if that were not enough, goes as far as to say that to such as these belongs the kingdom of heaven! And, as Calvin points out, if the kingdom belongs to them, how then can the “sign” or mark of that kingdom rightly be denied them?

Not only is the practice of infant baptism (also known as paedobaptism) the majority practice in the Christian church throughout the world, but it has been such ever since the apostolic age, and so throughout the history of the church. Simply put, it clearly has both the majority of the church as well as the majesty of history on its side. These considerations, while certainly not primary, must not lightly be set aside.

Add to that the undeniable fact that the sign of the covenant was explicitly commanded by the Lord to be applied to infants in the Old Testament (i.e. circumcision), and many of the arguments against infant baptism begin to crumble under their own weight. As Calvin puts it, “For what will they [i.e. critics of infant baptism] bring forward to impugn infant baptism that may not be turned back against circumcision?” (Institutes, 4.16.9).



Good News of Great Joy

Every Christmas we are reminded of the message that the angel of the Lord proclaimed to a group of lowly shepherds who were out in the field watching over their flock at night (v.8). In Luke 2:10-12 it is written,

“And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” (ESV)

What was so “good” about this news? What was so joyful about the announcement of this baby’s birth?

First, the good news of Christmas is that the baby who was born that day was the “Savior” (v.11). And this Savior was not just born, but born “unto you” (v.11). In other words, He was born for our sakes. It is the same language that is found in the Messianic prophecy found in Isaiah 9:6-7, where we read:

“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.” (King James Version, emphasis mine)

Second, the birth of Jesus was not only the birth of the Savior, but also the birth of One who was and is “Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). As God spoke through the prophet Isaiah hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, the child who was born “unto us,” and the son who was given “unto us” was none other than “the Lord,” the “mighty God.”

Only someone who is truly God and truly man in one person could accomplish our redemption from sin. Our debt of sin is infinite because every sin is committed against an infinitely holy God. And yet only someone who is also truly a man could die in the place of men. It is only in the person of Jesus Christ that such a Savior is to be found! As the Apostle Paul writes in 1 Timothy 2:5,

“For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,” (ESV)

And so the manger of Christmas presupposes the cross of Good Friday. The purpose of the incarnation was that Jesus might die to save His people from their sins (Matthew 1:21) and rise from the dead on the third day for their justification (Romans 4:25).

Do you know the true joy of Christmas? It is only by faith in Jesus that the fear of judgment is replaced by the “great joy” of salvation from sin, and eternal life in Him.

Calvin on the Mode of Baptism

Calvin's InstitutesThere is no small amount of debate and disagreement regarding the manner or mode of baptism. Some argue that total immersion is the only proper, biblical way to baptize in accordance with the Lord’s institution of the sacrament, while others hold to sprinkling or pouring as the proper manner or mode.

What was Calvin’s position on this subject? It may surprise you to know that he appears to have viewed immersion as most clearly representing the practice as it is described in Scripture.  In his Institutes of the Christian Religion he describes baptism in the following way:

“These things [i.e. washing away sins, sharing in Christ’s death, being united to Christ, etc.], I say, he performs for our soul within as truly as surely as we see our body outwardly cleansed, submerged, and surrounded by water.” (Book IV, Ch. XV.14, Italics added.)

So Calvin viewed baptism as involving the baptized person being “submerged” and “surrounded by water.”

Now, did Calvin view immersion as being somehow essential to baptism (i.e. as the only proper mode of baptism)? No. He goes on to write,

“But whether the person being baptized should be wholly immersed, and whether thrice or once, whether he should only be sprinkled with poured water -these details are of no importance, but ought to be optional to churches according to the diversity of countries. Yet the word “baptize” means to immerse, and it is clear that the rite of immersion was observed in the ancient church.” (Book IV, Ch. XV.19)

Part of that last sentence is debatable, as the New Testament writers used the Greek words for “baptize” or “baptism” to describe things that could not be reasonably thought of as referring to anything approaching immersion. (See Mark 7:3-4; 1 Corinthians 10:2, etc..) As John Murray  concludes,

” . . .though the word baptizw and its cognates can be used to denote an action performed by immersion yet they may also be used to denote an action that can be performed by a variety of modes. Consequently the word baptizw itself cannot be pleaded as an argument for the necessity of immersion as the mode of baptism.” (Christian Baptism, p.26)

But notice that both Calvin and John Murray are in agreement that the mode of baptism (whether by immersion, pouring, or sprinkling) is basically a matter of indifference. (Calvin above states that this is “of no importance.”) And this is also the stated position of the Westminster Confession of Faith as well, which puts the matter this way:

“Dipping of the person into the water is not necessary; but baptism is rightly administered by pouring, or sprinkling water upon the person.” (Westminster Confession of Faith 28.3)

So when it comes to the manner or mode of baptism, there is room for some disagreement and diversity of practice among the churches. On these things we may (as the saying goes) feel free to “agree to disagree.”

John Calvin on Baptism

It is noteworthy that in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin devotes well over 50 pages to the sacrament of baptism.

There he starts with a brief section dealing with the meaning of baptism, describing it as “the sign of initiation by which we are received into the society of the church, in order that, engrafted [sic] in Christ, we may be reckoned among God’s children” (Book IV, Chapter XV.1).

He then goes on to speak of the dual purposes or “ends” of baptism (and for all sacraments) as consisting in serving our faith before God, and in serving our confession (i.e. profession of belonging to Christ) before men. You could say that the former is directed toward the benefit of the Christian himself, while the latter is directed toward others (both inside and outside of the church).

Much of what is said about baptism in evangelical circles in our day seems to focus almost exclusively on the latter of these two things (i.e. that it serves as a profession of faith to others, and of one’s commitment to believe in, belong to, and obey the Lord Jesus Christ). On the other hand, much of what is said about baptism is some Reformed circles at times seems to emphasize the former at the expense of the latter. Calvin rightly avoids both of these extremes.

Calvin then notes that baptism is the “token and proof” (or sign and seal) of at least three (3) things:

  1. Our Cleansing from Sin – He notes that our baptism “is like a sealed document to confirm to us that all our sins are so abolished, remitted, and effaced that they can never come to his sight, be recalled, or charged against us” (p.1304).  Calvin then adds a wonderfully pastoral word of exhortation, stating, “Therefore, there is no doubt that all pious folk throughout life, whenever they are troubled by a consciousness of their faults, may venture to remind themselves of their baptism, that from it they may be confirmed in assurance of that sole and perpetual cleansing which we have in Christ’s blood” (p.1306-1307).
  2. Our Mortification and Renewal in Christ – Another benefit of our baptism is that “it shows us our mortification in Christ, and new life in him” (p.1307). He cites both Romans 6:3-4 and Colossians 2:11-12 as clearly teaching this. He then puts these first two things (i.e. cleansing from sin and mortification & renewal) together by adding, “Thus, the free pardon of sins and the imputation of righteousness are first promised to us, and then the grace of the Holy Spirit to reform us to newness of life” (ibid). In other words, baptism is the sign and seal, not only of forgiveness or justification, but also of sanctification (our dying to sin in Christ and walking in newness of life in Him) as well!
  3. Our Union with Christ – Lastly, he mentions that in our baptism our faith receives the “advantage” or benefit of “its sure testimony to us that we are not only engrafted [sic] into the death and life of Christ, but so united to Christ himself that we become sharers in all his blessings” (ibid). In other words, we are not just baptized into certain benefits of Christ’s work of redemption (as if they could be abstracted from Him), but rather into Christ Himself!

What a beautiful and robust picture of what baptism is a sign and seal (or “token and proof”) of to those who are in Christ, and how it serves our faith in Christ, strengthening us in our assurance of salvation in Him!

Justification (The Westminster Confession of Faith – Chapter 11)

WCFThe Westminster Confession of Faith includes an entire chapter dealing with the doctrine of justification. It starts of with something of a definition:

“Those whom God effectually calls, he also freely justifies: not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness, by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God.” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 11.1)

So justification is not a matter of “infusing” righteousness into a believer, and so making him or her to be righteous (which is the Roman Catholic position on justification), but rather a matter of: 1.) “pardoning their sins” (i.e. forgiveness), and 2.) “accounting and accepting their persons as righteous.” This is forensic or court room language. In justification, God both forgives all of our sins and views or accounts us as righteous in His sight (not just as if we had never sinned, but also as if we had always obeyed His will in all things).

How does He do this? How can God then (to use Paul’s phrase) “be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26, ESV)? How can a holy and just God justify the wicked? The Confession goes on to say that it is “not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them.” So it is not on the basis of anything that we are or even that we become (i.e. infused righteousness), nor is it on the basis of anything that we do. Rather it is “for Christ’s sake alone,” on the basis of who He is and what He has done for us.

Notice also that while justification is through faith alone, that faith itself is in no way meritorious. Faith in and of itself does not justify; faith in and of itself is not accounted to us as righteousness. Rather, it is through faith alone that “the obedience and satisfaction of Christ” are imputed to us as our righteousness.

Notice also what the Confession explicitly excludes as the basis or grounds of our justification – “the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience.” The good works of obedience to God’s law  may be “the fruits and evidences of a true and living faith” (WCF 16.2), but they play no part in our justification. We are not counted righteous in God’s sight on the basis of them.

The justification of believers is a matter of God “imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness, by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God.”  Even our faith itself is the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8)!

The Confession’s chapter on justification continues by stating:

“Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but works by love.” (11.2)

So while faith alone is the only “instrument of justification” (cf. Belgic Confession Article 22), that faith is never alone in the one who has been justified. As the old saying (attributed to Martin Luther) goes, “Faith alone saves, but the faith that saves is never alone.” Rather, the saving grace of faith is “ever [i.e. always] accompanied with all other saving graces.”

That means that all of the other benefits of Christ’s redemption (not just justification) are also communicated to us in Him, things such as adoption, sanctification, and even (in the life to come) glorification. This is what Paul is saying in Romans 8:29-30, where we read:

“For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” (ESV)

Everything that is commonly considered as part of the ordo salutis (or order or salvation) is assured to everyone who is in Christ Jesus. And so if someone presumes to be justified by faith in Christ, but the other saving graces (such as sanctification) are yet absent, that person’s faith is nothing but “dead faith.” True saving faith “works by love.” Justification and sanctification must always be distinguished from each other, but never separated.

This chapter in the Confession goes on to speaking of the nature of Christ’s work of atonement:

“Christ, by his obedience and death, did fully discharge the debt of all those that are thus justified, and did make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to his Father’s justice in their behalf. Yet, inasmuch as he was given by the Father for them; and his obedience and satisfaction accepted in their stead; and both, freely, not for anything in them; their justification is only of free grace; that both the exact justice and rich grace of God might be glorified in the justification of sinners.” (11.3)

In other words, Christ’s death really did make satisfaction or propitiation for our sins. The justice of God was satisfied by His obedience and death (the active and passive obedience of Christ). And so our justification is a matter of justice toward Christ and His work, but grace alone toward us. Christ alone earned or merited our salvation by His work, which we receive all of the benefits of by the sheer grace of God! In this way both the justice and the grace of God are glorified!

The next thing that this chapter deals with is the idea of eternal justification or justification from eternity. It says:

“God did, from all eternity, decree to justify all the elect, and Christ did, in the fullness of time, die for their sins, and rise again for their justification: nevertheless, they are not justified, until the Holy Spirit doth, in due time, actually apply Christ unto them.” (11.4)

God’s decree of justification (i.e. His decision and plan to justify His elect) was from all eternity, and so cannot fail to come to pass in His appointed time. But we are not then to suppose that the elect were justified from all eternity. Not only that, but here the Confession also rules out the idea that the elect were justified when Christ died and rose again. We must not confuse the historia salutis (i.e. Christ’s accomplishment of our redemption in time through His death and resurrection) with the ordo salutis (or the application of Christ’s work of redemption to us).

Rather, we are not justified until the Holy Spirit (in our effectual calling – see Westminster Shorter Catechism Q.29-31) applies Christ and the benefits of His redemption to us. This is simply to affirm what Paul says in Romans 5:1, that we are “justified by faith” (emphasis mine).

This chapter of the Confession then turns our attention to a right understanding of the implications of our justification, saying,

“God does continue to forgive the sins of those that are justified; and, although they can never fall from the state of justification, yet they may, by their sins, fall under God’s fatherly displeasure, and not have the light of his countenance restored unto them, until they humble themselves, confess their sins, beg pardon, and renew their faith and repentance.” (11.5)

Justification can never be intermitted or lost. Believers in Christ “can never fall from the state of justification.” But this does not mean that God literally no longer sees or notices our sins. In fact, we may at times, by means of our sins, “fall under God’s fatherly displeasure” and so experience His chastisement or discipline. God’s fatherly displeasure is in no way inconsistent with the doctrine of justification. As the writer of the book of Hebrews puts it:

“It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” (Hebrews 12:7-11, ESV)

God’s fatherly displeasure and discipline are not signs of wrath, but of love toward His justified and adopted children in Christ. Justification does not mean that we no longer need to confess our sins, ask for forgiveness for them, and renew our repentance from them.

The last thing that this chapter of the Confession points out to us is that justification has always been this way, both in the Old Testament as well as in the New:

“The justification of believers under the old testament was, in all these respects, one and the same with the justification of believers under the new testament.” (11.6)

Everything that the Confession of Faith states regarding justification (in 11.1-11.5 above) held true for the saints in the Old Testament, just as it does in our day! It cannot be emphasized enough that the way of salvation has always and only been by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.

Abraham, Moses, David, and the rest of the saints in the Old Testament were justified the exact same way that you and I are today – by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. They were justified the exact same way that believers have always been justified – through faith alone. The good news of the gospel has not changed.

Justification By Faith Alone (Belgic Confession Article 22)

with-heart-and-mouthThe Belgic Confession (1561) contains no less than two (2) articles dealing with the topic of justification. The first of these is Article 22 (“Our Justification Through Faith in Jesus Christ”), which is as follows:

We believe that, to attain the true knowledge of this great mystery, the Holy Spirit kindles in our hearts an upright faith, which embraces Jesus Christ with all His merits, appropriates Him, and seeks nothing more besides Him. For it must needs follow, either that all things which are requisite to our salvation are not in
Jesus Christ, or if all things are in Him, that then those who possess Jesus Christ through faith have complete salvation in Him. Therefore, for any to assert that Christ is not sufficient, but that something more is required besides Him, would be too gross a blasphemy; for hence it would follow that Christ was but half a Savior.

“Therefore we justly say with Paul, that we are justified by faith alone, or by faith apart from works. However, to speak more clearly, we do not mean that faith itself justifies us, for it is only an instrument with which we embrace Christ our righteousness. But Jesus Christ, imputing to us all His merits, and so many holy works which He has done for us and in our stead, is our righteousness. And faith is an instrument that keeps us in communion with Him in all His benefits, which, when they become ours, are more than sufficient to acquit us of our sins.”

First note the source of justifying faith – it is the work of the Holy Spirit who “kindles in our hearts an upright faith.” No doubt this is what Paul means in Ephesians 2:8 when he tells us that we have been saved by grace through faith, and then adds, “And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (ESV). Even our very faith in Christ is the gift of God! Left to ourselves, none of us would ever believe in Christ for salvation.

Second, note the object (so to speak) of justifying faith – Jesus Christ with all His merits.” In other words, by faith we embrace or receive Christ Himself (His person) and all of His merits (i.e. His work – all that He has done for our salvation). In his exposition of the Belgic Confession (With Heart and Mouth), Daniel Hyde writes,

“By faith we look outside of our merit and ourselves. Like beggars, we receive only that which is given by another. What is given is the only One who has done anything good in the eyes of God, the only One who merited, that is, earned, and therefore was rewarded with righteousness to give to his people on the basis of his obedience to the law.” (p.294-295)

Notice thirdly the “instrument” of our justification – faith alone. We must be careful to understand that it is not faith of itself that justifies us, as if it were somehow inherently meritorious before God, but rather that faith itself is the only instrument by which we receive Christ and all of the benefits of redemption. Faith is “only an instrument with which we embrace Christ our righteousness.” Christ Himself is our righteousness. Christ Himself justifies us and saves us from our sins. 

Faith alone is the instrument of our justification, for it is through faith alone that we look outside of ourselves and “embrace Christ our righteousness,” and so are justified in Him!


Martin Luther on “Alien Righteousness”

AlienMartin Luther is often quoted as speaking of the imputed  righteousness of Christ in the justification of sinners as an “alien righteousness.”

Now that may sound like a rather odd phrase, but Luther here is not speaking of little green men. What he means is that such a righteousness is utterly foreign to us; it is not inherent or even infused in us, but is entirely from outside of us.

He says of this alien righteousness:

“[It] is the righteousness of another, instilled from without. This is the righteousness of Christ by which he justifies through faith, as it is written in I Cor. 1[:30]: “Whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.”” (Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, p.155)

He spells this out in more detail later in the same paragraph, where he writes,

“Therefore a man can with confidence boast in Christ and say: “Mine are Christ’s living, doing, speaking, his suffering and dying, mine as much as if I had lived, done, spoken, suffered, and died as he did.””

Can you say those same things confidently? If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, you can! For in your justification by faith in Christ, Christ’s own “living, doing, speaking, suffering and dying” are just as much yours as if you yourself “had lived, done, spoken, suffered, and died as he did.”

In justification, the perfect righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ is imputed to you by faith. That includes what is often referred to as His “passive obedience” (i.e. His suffering and death on the cross), as well as His “active obedience” (i.e. His life of perfect, sinless obedience to the will of His Father).

Now that really is good news that is out of this world!