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!

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