Calvin also held that all those who received remission of sins as sealed in baptism were secure; those God made true Christians in their infancy in accordance with the baptismal covenant could not later fall and be finally lost. This was contrary to the Catholic and Lutheran doctrines that the regeneration given in baptism could be lost by subsequent sinning,[i] so that a true Christian could fall from a state of grace and be eternally lost on account of acts of post-baptismal transgression. Calvin held that the saving power of baptism affected one’s entire life, rather than only communicating grace at the moment of its administration. “Nor is it to be supposed that baptism is bestowed only with reference to the past, so that, in regard to new lapses into which we fall after baptism, we must seek new remedies of expiation in other so-called sacraments, just as if the power of baptism had become obsolete. To this error, in ancient times, it was owing that some refused to be initiated by baptism until their life was in extreme danger, and they were drawing their last breath, that they might thus obtain pardon for all the past. Against this preposterous precaution ancient bishops frequently inveigh in their writings. We ought to consider that at whatever time we are baptized, we are washed and purified once for the whole of life. Wherefore, as often as we fall, we must recall the remembrance of our baptism, and thus fortify our minds, so as to feel certain and secure of the remission of sins. For though, when once administered, it seems to have passed, it is not abolished by subsequent sins. For the purity of Christ was therein offered to us, always is in force, and is not destroyed by any stain: it wipes and washes away all our defilements.”[ii] When a follower of Calvin’s theology sins, he does not need to fear that he is again lost; by recalling that in baptism he was washed and purified once for his whole life, he can feel certain and secure of the remission of his sins—at least until he stands before God, when he finds out that his whole system is a diabolical lie.
Bromiley provides an insightful analysis of John Calvin’s baptismal theology:
Calvin referred to baptism as “an incorporation into Christ, an entry into the divine Sonship.”[iii] He said “we are baptized for the mortification of our flesh, which is begun in baptism [note by this writer: consider that Calvin does not say that mortification begins at the point of faith, prior to baptism, but at the moment of baptism itself], is prosecuted every day, and will be finished when we depart from this life to go to the Lord.”[iv] Calvin said that the necessity of precept of baptism, was not an absolute necessity, so that it was not true “that all who have not obtained baptism must perish.”[v]
The teaching of Calvin . . . like Bucer . . . repudiated the traditional “enclosing of the grace and virtue of the Spirit by the external sign.”[vi] But he avoided the opposite extreme of denying that there is any connection between the sacraments and the grace which they signify.[vii] He emphasized three main facts: first, that God has ordained the sacraments as means of grace; second, that repentance and faith are indispensable to their proper use; and third, that their efficacy depends ultimately upon the divine election. The sacrament of baptism does have a real effect, but only as it is sovereignly used by the Holy Spirit and received and understood in faith.
It may be noted that there are many affinities between the doctrine of Calvin and that of the Schoolmen, for they started from the same fundamental principles. But they applied the principles in very different ways and with widely divergent results. On both sides, for example, it was held that God Himself is the true and sole author of baptismal grace. But while the Schoolmen deduced from this that God will inevitably operate through the means which He Himself has instituted, Calvin contended for His continuing freedom and sovereignty as “the internal master.”[viii] Again, both sides could admit the indispensability of repentance and faith, but whereas the Schoolmen conceived of repentance and faith narrowly and negatively, and argued that even the insincere and unbelieving will receive at least a spiritual impress, Calvin regarded repentance and faith positively as themselves the creative work of the Holy Spirit by which baptism has its effect and without which it can never be more than the external sign.[ix] And although he did not dispute that in baptism an offer of grace is made to all, and that “the grace of baptism may resume its place” at any time when there is true repentance, he could not accept either the artificial concept of a baptismal character or the view that grace itself is present even when obstructed by insincerity or unbelief. As Calvin saw it, “the promises are common to all, but the ratification of them is the gift of the Spirit.”[x] . . . With the believing . . . as they received the sign they perceived Christ Himself, and therefore they enjoyed the grace. In the normal course, it was the specific function of the sacrament to confirm the faith in Christ already evoked by the word, but in the case of infants baptism could be a powerful adjunct to the word even in the evocation of the faith by which its benefits were subsequently received and enjoyed.
Along lines such as these Calvin was able to hold a definite doctrine of sacramental efficacy without slipping into that static conception which meant an automatic efficacy and a practical denial of the free sovereignty of the Holy Spirit. The presentation of his doctrine varied to some extent with his successors, but not in any important particular. . . . The lesson had been well learned that although there is a sacramental union of sign and grace it must be understood in a dynamic rather than a static sense, related on the one hand to the sovereign freedom of God, and on the other to the individual faith of the recipient.[xi]
The insistence of Luther and Lutheranism on the real presence and oral manducation in the Lord’s Supper, not Lutheran insistence on baptismal regeneration, was the reason for the inability for the Lutheran and the Reformed denominations to combine, either at the Colloquy of Marburg during the disputation between Luther and Zwingli, or in later times. “‘In regard to the Confession of Augsburg [which affirms, “baptism . . . is necessary to salvation,” Article IX], [Calvin] says in his Last Admonition to Westphal, ‘my answer is, that, as it was published at Ratisbon (1541) [in this version Luther’s position on communion was moderated], it does not contain a word contrary to our doctrine.’”[xii] Baptismal regeneration was not a primary matter of disagreement between Luther, Calvin, and the denominations that adopted their theologies, because all involved held to the doctrine. Calvin’s view that a possibility of salvation existed for those infants of Christian parents who died without the sacrament in the rare situations where it was not possible to have it performed, and other secondary differences from the position of Luther, did not alter the primary agreement between these Reformers that the sacrament of baptism was a means of bestowing grace and regeneration on infants and others who received it.
In agreement with Luther, John Calvin advised that “Anabaptists . . . should . . . be put to death.”[xiv] The Baptist doctrines of justification by faith apart from sacraments, the necessity of personal conversion, and believer’s baptism, were anathema to him. Calvin and the Baptists were by no means partakers of a common Christian faith.
The lack of Reformed dissent from and contention against the Lutheran doctrine of baptismal regeneration (“The only serious doctrinal difference which divided Luther and Zwingli at Marburg was the mode of the real presence in the eucharist,” History of the Christian Church, Schaff, vol. 8, 3rd rev. ed.) continued after the time of the Reformation into later centuries and down to modern times. The position expressed by Charles Hodge, the famous Presbyterian theologian of old Princeton, as seen in his Systematic Theology (vol. 3, Soteriology. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2003, reprint ed., pg. 522-523, 517, 604), is representative. After a stirring denunciation of the Roman Catholic doctrine of baptismal regeneration, including declarations such as “Any one, therefore, who teaches that no man can be saved without the rite of baptism, and that by receiving that rite he is made a child of God and heir of heaven, is antichrist,” Hodge declares that his “remarks are not intended to apply, and in fact are not applicable, to the Lutheran system,” despite the fact that both “the Lutherans and Romanists . . . hold that the sacraments are necessary means of grace, in the sense that the grace which they signify is not received otherwise than in their use. There is no remission of sin or regeneration without baptism [in the Roman and Lutheran view],” and Hodge knows very well that “the Lutheran standards . . . the Augsburg Confession . . . the Apology for that Confession . . . the two catechisms of Luther, the larger and smaller . . . [affirm] that the baptism of infants is not in vain but necessary and effectual to salvation.” The Reformed have constantly opposed the Roman doctrine of infant salvation, but pronounced no denunciation against the Lutheran doctrine of baptismal regeneration. It is not much different than the Reformed view.
[i] The Catholic Council of Trent declared “that the received grace of justification is lost, not only by infidelity whereby even faith itself is lost, but also by any other mortal sin whatever” (Session VI, Chapter 15). The Lutheran Augsburg Confession “condemn[s] the Anabaptists, who deny that those once justified can lose the Holy Ghost.”
[ii] Institutes, 4:15:3.
[iii] Pg. 17, Baptism, Bromiley.
[iv] Pg. 29, Baptism, Bromiley, citing Institutes, IV, 15, 11.
[v] Pg. 54, Baptism, Bromiley, citing Harmony of the Evangel., pg. 387.
[vi] Tracts, II, pg. 574.
[vii] Tracts, II, pg. 87.
[viii] Tracts, II, pg. 214; Institutes, IV, 14, 9.
[ix] Tracts, II, pg. 343.
[x] Tracts, II, pg. 342-343.
[xi] Pg. 189-190, Baptism, Bromiley.
[xii] Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 8 (3rd. revised ed), chap. 15, sec. 133, “Calvin and the Augsburg Confession.”
[xiv] Vol. 1, Chapter 15, A History of the Baptists, John T. Christian, 1922, 1926. Way of Life Literature electronic edition (Oak Harbor, WA), May 2003, citing Froude, History of England, V.99.