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History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: Modern Christianity. The Swiss Reformation.
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§ 116. Baptism.


Inst. IV. chs. XV. and XVI. Also his Brieve instruction, pour armer tous bons fideles contre les erreurs de la secte commune des Anabaptistes, Geneva, 1544, 2d ed. 1545; Latin version by Nicolas des Gallars. In Opera, VII. 45 sqq. This tract was written against the fanatical wing of the Anabaptists at the request of the pastors of Neuchâtel. His youthful treatise On the Sleep of the Soul was also directed against the Anabaptists. See above, § 77, pp. 325 sqq. Calvin’s wife was the widow of a converted Anabaptist.


Baptism, Calvin says, is the sacrament of ablution and regeneration; the Eucharist is the sacrament of redemption and sanctification. Christ "came by water and by blood" (1 John 5:6); that is, to purify and to redeem. The Spirit, as the third and chief witness, confirms and secures the witness of water and blood; that is, of baptism and the eucharist (1 John 5:8).859859    Calvin confines himself (IV. ch. XIV. § 22) to the genuine words of the three witnesses in this passage, and justly ignores the interpolation of the textus receptus, which is omitted in the Revised Version. This sublime mystery was strikingly exhibited on the cross, when blood and water issued from Christ’s side, which on this account Augustin justly called ’the fountain of our sacraments.’ "

I. Calvin defines baptism as, a sign of initiation, by which we are admitted into the society of the Church, in order that, being incorporated into Christ, we may be numbered among the children of God."

II. Faith derives three benefits from this sacrament.

1. It assures us, like a legal instrument properly attested, that all our sins are cancelled, and will never be imputed unto us (Eph. 5:26; Tit. 3:5; 1 Pet. 3:21). It is far more than a mark or sign by which we profess our religion before men, as soldiers wear the insignia of their sovereign. It is "for the remission of sins," past and future. No new sacrament is necessary for sins committed after baptism. At whatever time we are baptized, we are washed and purified for the whole life. "Whenever we have fallen, we must recur to the remembrance of baptism, and arm our minds with the consideration of it, that we may be always certified and assured of the remission of our sins."

2. Baptism shows us our mortification in Christ, and our new life in him. All who receive baptism with faith experience the efficacy of Christ’s death and the power of his resurrection, and should therefore walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:3, 4, 11).

3. Baptism affords us "the certain testimony that we are not only engrafted into the life and death of Christ, but are so united to him as to be partakers of all his benefits" (Gal. 3:26, 27).

But while baptism removes the guilt and punishment of hereditary and actual sin, it does not destroy our natural depravity, which is perpetually producing works of the flesh, and will not be wholly abolished till the close of this mortal life. In the mean time we must hold fast to the promise of God in baptism, fight manfully against sin and temptation, and press forward to complete victory.

III. On the question of the validity of baptism by unworthy ministers, Calvin fully agrees with Augustin against the view of the Donatists, who measured the virtue of the sacrament by the moral character of the minister. He applies the argument to the Anabaptists of his day, who denied the validity of Catholic baptism on account of the idolatry and corruption of the papal Church. "Against these follies we shall be sufficiently fortified, if we consider that we are baptized not in the name of any man, but in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and consequently that it is not the baptism of man, but of God, by whomsoever administered." The papal priests "did not baptize us into the fellowship of their own ignorance or sacrilege, but into the faith of Jesus Christ, because they invoked, not their own name, but the name of God, and baptized in no name but his. As it was the baptism of God, it certainly contained the promise of remission of sins, mortification of the flesh, spiritual vivification, and participation of Christ. Thus it was no injury to the Jews to have been circumcised by impure and Apostate priests; nor was the sign on that account useless, so as to render it necessary to be repeated, but it was sufficient to recur to the genuine original … . When Hezekiah and Josiah assembled together out of all Israel, those who had revolted from God, they did not call any of them to a second circumcision."

He argues against the Anabaptists from the fact also, that the apostles who had received the baptism of John, were not rebaptized. "And among us, what rivers would be sufficient for the repetition of ablutions as numerous as the errors which are daily corrected among us by the mercy of the Lord."860860    These passages (IV. ch. XV. §§ 16 and 17) furnish arguments against the decision of the Old-School-Presbyterian General Assembly held at Cincinnati, 1845, which, with an overwhelming majority, declared Roman Catholic baptism to be invalid, and thus virtually unchurched and unbaptized the greater part of Christendom, including the founders of the Protestant churches, who were baptized in the Roman communion, as the apostles were circumcised in the synagogue. But Drs. Charles Hodge of Princeton and Henry B. Smith of New York—the two leading Presbyterian divines of that day—vigorously protested against that anomalous decision; and when, in the United Assembly, held likewise at Cincinnati, in the year 1885, an attempt was made to re-enact that decision, it failed by a very large majority. Calvin did not unchurch the Church of Rome. "While we refuse," he says (Inst. IV. ch. II. § 12), "to allow to the papists the [exclusive] title of the Church, without any qualification or restriction, we do not deny that there are churches among them … . I affirm that there are churches, in as much as God has wonderfully preserved among them a remnant of his people, and as there still remain some marks of the Church, especially those, the efficacy of which neither the craft of the devil, nor the malice of men can ever destroy."

IV. He pleads for the simplicity of the ordinance against the adventitious medley of incantation, wax-taper, spittle, salt, and "other fooleries," which from an early age were publicly introduced. "Such theatrical pomps dazzle the eye and stupify the minds of the ignorant." The simple ceremony as instituted by Christ, accompanied by a confession of faith, prayers, and thanksgivings, shines with the greater lustre, unencumbered with extraneous corruptions. He disapproves the ancient custom of baptism by laymen in cases of danger of death. God can regenerate a child without baptism.

V. The mode of baptism was not a subject of controversy at that time. Calvin recognized the force of the philological and historical argument in favor of immersion, but regarded pouring and sprinkling as equally valid, and left room for Christian liberty according to the custom in different countries.861861    IV. ch. XV. 19: "Caeterum mergaturne totus qui tingitur, idque ter an semel, an infusa tantum aqua aspergatur, minimum refert: sed id pro regionum diversitate ecclesiis liberum esse debet. Quanquam et ipsum baptizandiverbum mergeresignificat, et mergendi ritum veteri ecclesiae observatum fuisse constat." See above, p. 373, note. Luther held substantially the same view, with a stronger leaning to immersion or dipping, which he prescribes in his Taufbuechlein, 1523. See vol. VI. 218 and 607 sq. Immersion was then still the prevailing mode in England, and continued till the reign of Elizabeth, who was herself baptized by immersion.

VI. But while meeting the Baptists half-way on the question of the mode, he strenuously defends paedobaptism, and devotes a whole chapter to it.862862    Ch. XVI. 1-32. He urges, as arguments, circumcision, which was a type of baptism; the nature of the covenant, which comprehends the offspring of pious parents; Christ’s treatment of children, as belonging to the kingdom of heaven, and therefore entitled to the sign and seal of membership; the word of Peter addressed to the converts on the day of Pentecost, who were accustomed to infant circumcision, that "the promise is to you and your children" (Acts 2:39); Paul’s declaration that the children are sanctified by their parents (1 Cor. 7:14), etc. He refutes at length the objections of the Anabaptists, with special reference to Servetus, who agreed with them on that point.

He assigns to infant baptism a double benefit: it ratifies to pious parents the promise of God’s mercy to their children, and increases their sense of responsibility as to their education; it engrafts the children into the body of the Church, and afterwards acts as a powerful stimulus upon them to be true to the baptismal vow.



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