Calvin on Baptism

The Protestant Reformation is rightly viewed as a reaction against the theological, doctrinal and moral abuses of the Roman Catholic Church. Many educated members of the Latin church applied reason and scripture to what they witnessed in the common European religion of the day and saw that not only was the papacy and the bishopric corrupt, but it was also unscriptural. This conclusion was almost if not completely unanimous among the Reformers. I have read quite a bit of their writings and am unaware of an exception.

Like many revolutions that swing too far in opposition, such as the French Revolution, many Protestant movements would become guilty themselves of many of the same abuses (both Luther and Calvin endorsed persecution and execution of heretics). Like the Catholics they opposed the Protestants would also be guilty massacring people that disagreed with them. They took many theological and doctrinal stances that contradicted not just the Catholics, but the scriptures as well.

John Calvin is an interesting historical figure. Trained as a lawyer, upon fleeing the violent religious turmoil in 1530 France he published “Institutes of the Christian Religion” from Switzerland in 1536. This work formed the basis of the theology named for this man and remains one of the most influential religious treatises among western religions today. I cannot say how many contemporary Calvinists have read it. It seems to me that many Calvinists are not even aware that they are Calvinists. They would be surprised I think were they to read what he wrote on the subject of baptism in “Institutes”. In chapter 15 “Of Baptism” Calvin rightly searches the scripture to argue his points and he makes some good arguments for baptism that I happily agree with.

He begins by admitting that it is by baptism in Christ that we are “ingrafted” into His fellowship per Hebrews 11: 17-24 and rightly connects it with confession of Christ or “calling on the name of Lord” per Acts 22:16. In no uncertain terms he writes that it is for the remission/removal, he styles this “deletion”, of our sins and cites Matthew 28:19 and Acts 2:38 as proof. What he says next would surely be contentious among today’s Calvinists. To quote him, ‘Hence those who have thought that baptism is nothing else than the badge and mark by which we profess our religion before men, in the same way as soldiers attest their profession by bearing the insignia of their commander, have not attended to what was the principal thing in baptism; and this is, that we are to receive it in connection with the promise, “He that believeth and is baptised shall be saved,” (Mark 16: 16.)’. I agree with Calvin on this point and think it interesting that so many of his modern adherents do not, nor would they concur with his further arguments.

In the section that follows he quotes from Ephesians 5: 25-6, Titus 3:5 and I Peter 3:21. Calvin concluded that the water itself is not special, but our faith working from the Word makes it so. He even connects baptism with the sprinkling of the blood of Christ which, as he puts it, is ‘figured by water from the resemblance to cleansing and washing’. He understood the typology of baptism and he will continue to explore that line of thought.

To make sure we can at least all agree on what he believed baptism symbolizes I will quote “Of Baptism” part 5:

Another benefit of baptism is, that it shows us our mortification in Christ and new life in him. “Know ye not,” says the apostle, “that as many of us as were baptised into Jesus Christ, were baptised into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death,” that we “should walk in newness of life,” (Rom. 6: 3, 4.) By these words, he not only exhorts us to imitation of Christ, as if he had said, that we are admonished by baptism, in like manner as Christ died, to die to our lusts, and as he rose, to rise to righteousness; but he traces the matter much higher, that Christ by baptism has made us partakers of his death, in grafting us into it (Rom. 6:5). And as the twig derives substance and nourishment from the root to which it is attached, so those who receive baptism with true faith truly feel the efficacy of Christ’s death in the mortification of their flesh, and the efficacy of his resurrection in the quickening of the Spirit (Rom. 6:8). On this he founds his exhortation, that if we are Christians we should be dead unto sin, and alive unto righteousness (Rom. 6:11). He elsewhere uses the same argument, viz., that we are circumcised, and put off the old man, after we are buried in Christ by baptism, (Col. 2: 11-12.) And in this sense, in the passage which we formerly quoted, he calls it ” the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost,” (Tit. 3: 5.) We are promised, first, the free pardon of sins and imputation of righteousness; and, secondly, the grace of the Holy Spirit, to form us again to newness of life.

Calvin understood and has just explained that baptism signifies the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. Like many before and so few today he could see that the New Testament teaching on baptism is clear and easily recognized. The application of the symbolism is easy for even the very simple to grasp. In part 6 Calvin shows that it is through baptism that we are joined to Christ by putting Him on just as we read in Galatians 3: 26-7. Do we need to put on Christ to be saved? If baptism is how Christ is put on, then don’t we need to be baptised? It seems Calvin saw that the New Testament teaching was clear: Yes we do.

I am unaware of anyone that I have completely agreed with 100% of the time. There are quite a few things connected with baptism in the 15th chapter of Calvin’s “Institute” that I disagree with him on. I confess that I also would contend with the majority of Calvinist doctrine. But I try to be fair and I can see that he was right about quite a few things and much of what he says concerning baptism I wholeheartedly agree with and can appreciate his use of scripture and simple logic to explain the necessity of it. I wish others in the religious community would do the same rather than abuse Greek language trickery to dodge a conspicuous and plain New Testament teaching that is so fundamental and vital to our hopes of salvation in the Lord Jesus.

As I close consider this quotation from part 6:

Thus we see the fulfilment of our baptism in Christ, whom for this reason we call the proper object of baptism. Hence it is not strange that the apostles are said to have baptised in the name of Christ, though they were enjoined to baptise in the name of the Father and Spirit also, (Acts 8: 16; 19: 5; Matth. 28: 19.) For all the divine gifts held forth in baptism are found in Christ alone. And yet he who baptises into Christ cannot but at the same time invoke the name of the Father and the Spirit. For we are cleansed by his blood, just because our gracious Father, of his incomparable mercy, willing to receive us into favour, appointed him Mediator to effect our reconciliation with himself. Regeneration we obtain from his death and resurrection only, when sanctified by his Spirit we are imbued with a new and spiritual nature. Wherefore we obtain, and in a manner distinctly perceive, in the Father the cause, in the Son the matter, and in the Spirit the effect of our purification and regeneration. Thus first John baptised, and thus afterwards the apostles by the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins (Matt. 3:6; 11; Luke 3:16; John 3:23; 4:1; Acts 2:38-41), understanding by the term “repentance”, regeneration, and by the “remission of sins”, cleansing.

I pray you will search the scriptures on this topic if you are confused by baptism. Help is always available and you are free to use Comments to voice any questions you may have. As you look into God’s Word ask yourself ‘have I been baptized into Christ for the removal of my sins?’ If not can I securely say that I have put on Christ and received the gift of the Spirit? Am I saved if I have not? God’s Word testifies of all these things and more regarding baptism. Apparently, John Calvin did too.

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4 thoughts on “Calvin on Baptism”

  1. @Richard
    I hate for this to sound too simplistic, but the “elect” will be baptized for the remission of their sins. You’re right, the teaching of baptism IS contradictory to unconditional election. Calvin did not see “UE” as unwillful obedience or that the “elect” were automatons. He simply believed that the foreordained elect would inevitably hear the Word and put faith in it.

  2. Kyle, really good thoughts. I never knew that John Calvin held this stance on Baptism. Do you know how he reconciled his views on baptism with something like the doctrine of unconditional election? As I understand it, the doctrine of unconditional election asserts that God’s choice from eternity of those whom he will bring to himself is not based on foreseen virtue, merit, or faith in those people. Rather, it is unconditionally grounded in God’s mercy alone.

    Yet, the doctrine of baptism clearly places the emphasis on the individual turning to God.

    I Peter 3:20-21 “Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.
    The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ:”

    In my mind the two doctrines are mutually exclusive. How can you, on the one hand, claim that there is nothing one can/needs to do for salvation, and on the other uphold the need for a person to be baptized? Peter clearly states that it is through the mechanism of Baptism that God has chosen to cleanse us. Not through a process of unconditional election.

    Thoughts?

  3. I have a friend who is the Pastor at a Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He told me that Calvin was wrong on Baptism and the modern church has corrected his stance. I think that Calvin has suffered the same fate as Christ and the Apostles as popular teachings have replaced the original. He also said that baptism was the same as circumcision and was therefore meaningless. I beg to differ, could anyone other than a circumcised male offer sacrifices for their sins and the sins of his family? The answer is no! The same answer applies to non-baptized Christians.

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