During this year celebrating the 500th anniversary of his birth, I have been trying to dip into some of the writings of John Calvin. Book IV of his Institutes of the Christian Religion deals with the church and the sacraments, and the interesting issue is how Calvin understands the relation between baptism and salvation. It’s a question that often occurs in discussion with people who are thinking about Reformed theology, and who are considering the Presbyterian position.
Some claim that Calvin taught a form of baptismal regeneration. Others say he taught presumptive regeneration. On occasions this discussion has taken place against a background where it is claimed that baptism is being treated as a “bare sign” and where it has become largely optional in the life and ministry of the church. In reaction to this low view of the sacrament, some want to affirm the importance and necessity of baptism. But it raises an important question: Does having a high view of baptism not entail a rather mechanical approach to sacramental efficacy (ex opere operato) which is, in effect, baptismal regeneration?
One article which I have found helpful on this subject is by James J. Cassidy in a feschschrift for my former colleague at Westminster Theological Seminary, Dr Richard Gaffin (Resurrection and Eschatology: Theology in the Service of the Church, edited by Lane Tipton and Jeff Waddington. P&R, 2008).
Cassidy points out that Calvin did not teach what we commonly call baptismal regeneration, but that his view might be more accurately described by the term “baptismal efficacy”. In other words, Calvin understood baptism to be a means of grace. The means of grace, which in Reformed theology are understood to be the Word, the sacraments and prayer, are efficacious only in the lives of the elect when they are received by faith and in the power of the Holy Spirit. For Calvin, grace is not communicated automatically nor in a mechanical fashion to the person receiving it. Instead, “means of grace” denotes the earthly and human way through which the Holy Spirit ordinarily communicates grace to the believer.
Cassidy explains Calvin’s concept of baptismal efficacy by showing how his understanding of the means of grace applies to the Word. The Word of God preached is never devoid of effect. Commenting on Matthew 16:19, Calvin says that Christ declared that the preaching of the Gospel would not be without effect “but that the odour of it would either be life-giving or deadly”. The nature of the effect depends on whether it is received in faith or rejected in unbelief. Only the elect can receive it in faith and be blessed; otherwise the unbelieving heart is hardened through the true preaching of the Word. For the person to be blessed, there must be Spirit-wrought faith.
What makes the preached Word a means of grace is not only faith, but the power of the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit alone that can give faith to make the preaching of the Word a means of grace. That efficacy of the Word may not take place at the time of hearing it, but may be a blessing at a much later date. The Holy Spirit can choose to make the preached Word a blessing to an elect person when and where he pleases.
The means of grace are the ways God “ordinarily” blesses his people. But, God, being sovereign, may work apart from or besides this means. This is the instance often cited by Calvin and others in the case of the death of an infant. The child would have received full grace apart from partaking in the ordinary means of grace.
With this understanding of the Word as a means of grace, Cassidy says we are in a better position to understand Calvin’s view of baptism. Like the preached Word, baptism communicates grace. It confers that which it signs and seals, namely, adoption, regeneration and the washing away of sins. It does not confer these blessings in an automatic way, but with the following qualifications. It confers what it seals and signifies only for the elect.
The Holy Spirit, whom the sacraments do not bring promiscuously to all, but whom the Lord especially confers on his people, brings the gifts of God along with him, makes way for the sacraments, and causes them to bear fruit.
Non-elect or reprobate people may receive the sacrament of baptism, but in such cases, like the preached Word, it is not a means of grace. This is not to say that it does not provide some external benefits, in that it initiates them into the life of the church. But what they receive are the common works of the Spirit, not the eternal and internal operations of the Spirit that accompany salvation.
Also, baptism confers what it signs and seals by faith.
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.
Although Calvin can speak about an infant having latent faith like that of Jeremiah, David or John the Baptist (Institutes, IV,16, 18-20), the baptism of an infant becomes a means of grace later in life when the child comes to faith. And Calvin makes the important point that baptism continues to be a means of grace as they continue to look back at their baptism and strive to improve it. (Institutes IV,15,3; Westminster Larger Catechism, Q167). As with the Word, baptism may be a mans of grace at times other than when it is received. The Holy Spirit is sovereign and he may or may not confer the grace signed and sealed in baptism at the time of its administration. The sacraments are effectual only where and when God is so pleased to work by his Spirit.
But as with the other means of grace, we must remember the grace signified in baptism is not necessarily tied to the sign. God is sovereign and may work with or without the sign, even though he “ordinarily” works through this means.
In his commentary on Galatians and Ephesians, Calvin puts it this way:
The grace of God is not confined to the sign; so that God may not, if He pleases, bestow it without the aid of the sign. Besides, many receive the sign who are not partakers of grace; for the sign is common to all, to the good and to the bad alike; but the Spirit is bestowed on none but the elect, and the sign, as we have said, has no efficacy without the Spirit.
It seems clear from this that Calvin cannot possibly be an advocate of baptismal regeneration. It is also clear that his sacramental theology is not different from later Reformed orthodoxy as found in the creeds and catechisms of the seventeenth century. Those who hold to the view of baptism taught in the Westminster Standards stand directly in the theological line of John Calvin. For both Calvin and the Westminster Divines, baptism is a means of grace. As a sign, it communicates and confers the thing signified when, and only when, the Holy Spirit sovereignly works in the hearts of the elect when they come to saving faith.