Reformed Churchmen

We are Confessional Calvinists and a Prayer Book Church-people. In 2012, we remembered the 350th anniversary of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer; also, we remembered the 450th anniversary of John Jewel's sober, scholarly, and Reformed "An Apology of the Church of England." In 2013, we remembered the publication of the "Heidelberg Catechism" and the influence of Reformed theologians in England, including Heinrich Bullinger's Decades. For 2014: Tyndale's NT translation. For 2015, John Roger, Rowland Taylor and Bishop John Hooper's martyrdom, burned at the stakes. Books of the month. December 2014: Alan Jacob's "Book of Common Prayer" at: January 2015: A.F. Pollard's "Thomas Cranmer and the English Reformation: 1489-1556" at: February 2015: Jaspar Ridley's "Thomas Cranmer" at:

Friday, May 27, 2011



By Rich Lusk

(Version 1.7)

Copyright © 2002

This paper is something of a follow-up to my earlier study, “Baptismal Efficacy and the Reformed Tradition: Past, Present, and Future.” One of the more controversial aspects of that paper was my claim that Calvin held to a very high view of baptismal efficacy. Indeed, he was a baptismal regenerationist, of sorts. This supplemental postscript will not resolve once and for all the question of Calvin’s views on baptismal efficacy, but I do hope it will further the discussion and make my claims in the earlier paper more plausible. I also take some sideways glances at Luther to show how close his views were to those of Calvin.


Calvin was a highly nuanced theologian. Sometimes, though, these nuances have been lost on his theological descendants. For example, Calvin’s discussion of predestination includes numerous careful qualifications that are intended to short cut philosophical speculation and prevent the doctrine from appearing arbitrary or tyrannical. But many modern followers of Calvin, especially his numerous popularizers, often truncate, and therefore distort, his pastoral, Christ-centered view of election, turning Calvinism into a caricature of its real self. Nowhere is the loss of nuance more evident than in contemporary views of Calvin’s teaching on the sacraments.

Two strands continually emerge in Calvin’s sacramental theology. On the one hand, Calvin views the sacraments as signs of assurance that serve to confirm and strengthen our faith. Through the sacraments, God grants certainty to believers. On the other hand, Calvin speaks of the sacraments as genuine instruments of salvation. As means of grace, the sacraments are said to effect what they represent and perform what they picture [1]. In the sacraments, God creates, as well as nourishes, faith. While latter day Calvinists have often felt the need to choose one of these two strands at the expense of the other (and have all too often chosen the first), Calvin himself felt no tension. The two strands were not in a tug-of-war, pulling against each other, but woven together into a beautiful sacramental tapestry [2].

How are these two strands harmonized in Calvin’s mind? Certainly Calvin’s systematic intellect would not allow his sacramental theology to contain a blatant contradiction on so crucial an issue. One possible approach to relating the two strands would be to offer a diachronic analysis of Calvin’s sacramental theology. At different points in his career, he emphasized different aspects of the sacraments’ usefulness. Often Calvin seemed to modify his sacramental theology, or at least its emphases, depending on his opponents at the time, his desire for a Reformed ecumenism, his pastoral concerns, and so forth, all the while attempting to build a Protestant consensus. He had quite a gauntlet to run, as he sought to avoid the errors of the Romanists, Zwinglians, Anabaptists, and so forth. For example, during his time in Strassbourg, he worked closely alongside Martin Bucer. No doubt, Bucer’s own high view of sacramental instrumentality and his ambitious ecumenical projects exercised decisive influence on Calvin. After Calvin returned to Geneva, his attempts to build a coalition with Ulrich Zwingli’s successor Heinrich Bullinger led him to tone down, or at least de-emphasize, sacramental efficacy. The result was the less than satisfactory Consensus Tigurerinus of 1549. Towards the end of his career, debates with pesky Lutherans such as Joachim Westphal led Calvin to re-emphasize God’s powerful, saving action in the sacraments. Because the Institutes went through several drafts, it is to be expected that bits and pieces reflect the various emphases of the various phases of Calvin’s turbulent career. But this in itself cannot account completely for the nuance found in the final 1559 version of the Institutes. There is no question Calvin himself considered the final product to be a coherent, consistent manual of theology.

Another method of resolution is to take into account Calvin’s definition of faith. In Book three, he writes, “Now we shall possess a right definition of faith if we call it a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” In other words, faith = assurance. We can then bridge the gap between sacraments as assuring pledges that fortify pre-existing faith and sacraments as salvific, faith-giving instruments by simply pointing out that faith and assurance are two sides of a single coin. To say the sacraments give assurance is to say they give saving faith, and vice versa [3].

I think the most satisfactory answer is simply to leave the strands side by side. Calvin does not seem to think they need harmonizing, so why should we? The salvific and assuring functions of the sacraments can simply be combined into an organic whole. Calvin himself does this repeatedly and effortlessly in his baptismal theology, as a brief examination of Book 4, chapter 15 in the Institutes shows.

For Calvin, baptism has a God-manward meaning and a man-Godward meaning. Of course, God’s action towards man has primacy: “Now baptism was given to us by God for these ends (which I have taught to be common to all sacraments): first to serve our faith before him; secondly, to serve our confession before men…Accordingly, they [e.g., the Zwinglians and Anabaptists] who regarded baptism as nothing but a token and mark by which we confess our religion before men, as soldiers bear the insignia of their commander as a mark of their profession, have not weighed what was the chief point of baptism” [4]. Baptism, in reality, is God’s work: “For inasmuch as [baptism] is given for the arousing, nourishing, and confirming of our faith, it is to be received as from the hand of the Author himself. We ought to deem it certain and proved that it is he who speaks to us through the sign; that it is he who purifies and washes away sins, and wipes out the remembrance of them; that it is he who make us sharers in his death, who deprives Satan of his rule, who weakens the power of our lust; indeed, that it is he who comes into a unity with us so that, having put on Christ, we may be acknowledged God’s children. These things, I say, he performs for our soul within as truly and surely as we see our body outwardly cleansed, submerged, and surrounded with water [5]…And he does not feed our eyes with a mere appearance only, but leads us to the present reality and effectively performs what he symbolizes” [6].

The God-towards-man action of baptism is then unpacked in three dimensions [7]. “The first thing that the Lord sets out for us is that baptism should be a token and proof of our cleansing; or (the better to explain what I mean) it 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.” Calvin begins (in a very pastoral way) with baptism as an assuring pledge. All who believe may know they are washed in Christ’s blood just as surely as the waters of baptism have come upon them. As he goes on to explain, the water does not cause salvation by itself; rather “in this sacrament are received the knowledge and certainty of such gifts” [8]. However, this does make the significance of baptism merely cognitive, as the next two points demonstrate. Baptism’s assuring function does not exhaust its usefulness.

For Calvin, baptism means union with Christ: “Baptism also brings another benefit, for it shows us our mortification in Christ, and new life in him…[T]hrough baptism Christ makes us sharers in his death, that we may be engrafted in it” [9]. Calvin then turns to a brief exposition of Romans 6. It is this baptismal union with the crucified and risen Christ that gives the Christian life its basic pattern of mortification and vivification [10]. Calvin, following Paul exhorts the baptized to live out their union with Christ, dead to sin and alive to righteousness. According to Calvin, Christ himself was baptized in order to include us in his work: “For he dedicated and sanctified baptism in his own body [Mt. 3:13] in order that he might have it in common with us as the firmest bond of the union and fellowship which he has deigned to form with us…Thus we see that the fulfillment of baptism is in Christ, whom also for this reason we call the proper object of baptism…For all the gifts proffered in baptism are found in Christ alone” [11]. Our baptisms unite us to The Baptized One, Christ himself in whom all blessings are found.

The third benefit received in baptism is adoption: “Lastly, our faith receives from baptism the advantage of its sure testimony to us that we are not only engrafted into the death and life of Christ, but so united to Christ himself that we become sharers in all his blessings…Hence, Paul proves that we are children of God from the fact that we are put on Christ in baptism [Gal. 3:26-27].” Baptism is not only a kind of marriage, uniting us to Christ, but also an adoption ceremony, placing us in God’s family. As adopted sons, we are co-heirs of God together with Christ.

As Calvin expounds this threefold grace of baptism, he continually mixes in the two strands: baptism as assuring pledge and baptism as efficacious instrument. Sometimes these two angles on baptism appear side by side on the same page! Consider his words on 1304-5: “For Paul [in Eph. 5:26 and Tit. 3:5] did not mean to signify that our cleansing and salvation are accomplished by water, or that water contains in itself the power to cleanse, regenerate, and renew; nor that here is the cause of salvation, but only that in this sacrament are received the knowledge and certainty of such gifts…[The water of baptism] attests with certainty that Christ’s blood is our only laver.” It seems Calvin has limited baptism to giving assurance, taking away any salvific efficacy. However in the very next section, he states, “But we must realize that at whatever time we are baptized, we are once for all washed and purged for our whole life” [12]. Thus, the salvific, instrumental power of baptism is preserved.

The same combination shows up on 1315. In expounding Acts 22:16, Calvin focuses on the assuring function of baptism: “Ananias meant only this: ‘To be assured, Paul, that your sins are forgiven, be baptized. For the Lord promises forgiveness of sins in baptism: receive it and be secure.” However, Calvin immediately corrects the impression of those who would view the sacraments as merely assuring seals: “Yet it is not my intention to weaken the force of baptism by not joining reality and truth to the sign, in so far as God works through outward means.”

For more, see:
Theologia » Calvin on Baptism, Penance, & Absolution

No comments: