John Calvin likewise taught that baptism was a means of regeneration and salvation. He declared that “God, regenerating us in baptism, ingrafts us into the fellowship of his Church, and makes us his by adoption . . . whatever time we are baptized, we are washed and purified . . . forgiveness, which at our first regeneration we receive by baptism alone . . . forgiveness has reference to baptism. . . . In baptism, the Lord promises forgiveness of sins.”[i] However, defining regeneration as the renovation of the new man which continued over the course of one’s life, rather than the work of an instant, he asserted that the guilt of sin is removed in baptism, but regeneration only begins at that moment of time. Calvin wrote, “We assert that the whole guilt of sin is taken away in baptism, so that the remains of sin still existing are not imputed. That this may be more clear, let my readers call to mind that there is a twofold grace in baptism, for therein both remission of sins and regeneration are offered to us. We teach that full remission is made, but that regeneration is only begun and goes on making progress during the whole of life. Accordingly, sin truly remains in us, and is not instantly in one day extinguished by baptism, but as the guilt is effaced it is null in regard to imputation. Nothing is plainer than this doctrine.”[ii] However, while the Holy Spirit wrought the work of regeneration, and the blood of Christ washed away the sins of baptized infants through the instrumentality of the ordinance, Calvin held, however, contrary to the Catholic and Lutheran doctrines, that baptism was not absolutely essential to salvation, but people could be saved by faith who had no opportunity to be baptized. For “when we cannot receive [baptism] from the Church, the grace of God is not so inseparably annexed to them that we cannot obtain it by faith, according to his word.”[iii] Grace is annexed to baptism, and the sacrament is the ordinary vehicle for sealing grace, remission of sins, and regeneration, but God may perform an extraordinary and unusual work to save some even apart from baptism. Calvin stated, “We, too [as do the Catholics], acknowledge that the use of baptism is necessary—that no one may omit it from either neglect or contempt. In this way we by no means make it free (optional). And not only do we strictly bind the faithful to the observance of it, but we also maintain that it is the ordinary instrument of God in washing and renewing us; in short, in communicating to us salvation. The only exception we make is, that the hand of God must not be tied down to the instrument. He may of himself accomplish salvation. For when an opportunity for baptism is wanting, the promise of God alone is amply sufficient.”[iv] Ordinarily, baptism is the means of communicating salvation. However, in the rare situations where one cannot receive the sacrament, then God “may” of Himself save the unbaptized. The limitation of this exception to situations where “an opportunity for baptism is wanting” is significant—no hope of heaven is set forth for the unbaptized in the great majority of situations where access to the sacrament is possible. Nonetheless, infants who die without baptism, as long as they have Christian parents and the omission of sacrament was not on account of “sloth, nor contempt, nor negligence,”[v] can expect to be saved. Indeed, elect infants are “received into the Church by a formal sign [of baptism] because, in virtue of the promise [of a saving covenant between God, Christians, and the children of Christians], they previously belonged to the body of Christ. . . . the children of believers are not baptized, in order that though formerly aliens from the Church, they may then, for the first time, become children of God.”[vi] Since the children of the Church were already part of the body of Christ from the womb by virtue of God’s covenant, they can be saved even without the seal of baptism. Their membership in the Church before baptism explains how Calvin can maintain both the salvation of the children of Reformed parents and the doctrine that outside of the visible Church there is no salvation. Since infants with Reformed parents were also not “aliens” but already “the children of God” at that time, it would also be unnecessary, indeed, sinful, for such “covenant children” to come to a place where they recognized themselves as lost, hell-bound sinners who were certain of present damnation on account of their sins and needed to, for the first time, consciously repent and believe the gospel, and so become Christians and be adopted into God’s family through a conversion experience. “Our children [those in the Reformed faith], before they are born, God declares that he adopts for his own when he promises that he will be a God to us, and to our seed after us. In this promise their salvation is included.”[vii] All that was required for eternal bliss on the part of these infants was perseverance in their adherence to the Reformed faith and perseverance in the type of life consistent with Christian morality, thus evincing their election and regeneration in infancy.
As already noted, Calvin taught that the visible Church was necessary for salvation. He wrote:
It is now our purpose to discourse of the visible Church. Let us learn, from her single title of Mother, how useful, nay, how necessary the knowledge of her is, since there is no other means of entering into life unless she conceive us in the womb and give us birth, unless she nourish us at her breasts, and, in short, keep us under her charge and government, until, divested of mortal flesh, we become like the angels (Matt 22:30). For our weakness does not permit us to leave the school until we have spent our whole lives as scholars. Moreover, beyond the pale of the Church no forgiveness of sins, no salvation, can be hoped for, as Isaiah and Joel testify (Isa 37:32; Joel 2:32). [Of course, for this argument to be even the slightest bit convincing, one must reject literal interpretation and equate Israel with the church.] To their testimony Ezekiel subscribes, when he declares, “They shall not be in the assembly of my people, neither shall they be written in the writing of the house of Israel” (Ezek 13:9), as, on the other hand, those who turn to the cultivation of true piety are said to inscribe their names among the citizens of Jerusalem. For which reason it is said in the psalm, “Remember me, O Lord, with the favour that thou bearest unto thy people: O visit me with thy salvation; that I may see the good of thy chosen, that I may rejoice in the gladness of thy nation, that I may glory with thine inheritance” (Ps 106:4-5). By these words the paternal favour of God and the special evidence of spiritual life are confined to his peculiar people, and hence the abandonment of the Church is always fatal” (Calvin, Institutes, 4:1:4).
The notion that outside of the visible church there is no salvation is not inconsistent with the doctrine of an invisible church made up of the elect; Calvin’s favorite patristic writer, Augustine, held both dogmas, affirming that the invisible church of the elect consisted of a portion of the members of the visible catholic church, but nobody was a member of the invisible church who was not as well a member of the visible Catholic denomination.
The Reformed doctrine of baptism as a sign and seal of saving grace has no support in Scripture. The Biblical uses of the words “sign” and “seal” give no support whatever to the idea that baptism is a vehicle of saving grace. A Biblical “sign” was by no means a method of bestowing grace that led to the forgiveness of sin. The censers of false worshippers who were burned by the fire of God and eternally damned were a “sign unto the children of Israel” (Numbers 16:38), but they neither saved those that worshipped with them nor any other Israelite from hell. No use of “sign” in either the Old or New Testament provides any support whatever to the idea that “signs” are conjoined to justifying grace.
The use of the word “seal” (sphragis) in Romans 4:11—for the already justified and already believing Abraham—by no means supports the Reformed sacramental notion that infant baptism is a vehicle conveying saving grace and that through baptism grace is “conferred by the Holy Ghost” upon the elect (Westminster Confession of Faith, Article 28). Since Romans 4:11 is the only verse in Scripture that could with any plausibility be used to support the Reformed view, its advocates argue from this text that circumcision is a “seal” of grace, that their sacrament of infant baptism is equivalent to circumcision, and that, therefore, infant baptism seals or conveys grace to their infants. This argument breaks down at many points. First, the verse does not say that circumcision was a seal of grace to Jewish male infants. While circumcision was a “sign” by nature, it is not affirmed to have been a “seal” to all, but only personally to believing Abraham, who received it when he had already been justified by faith. A recognition of this distinction in Romans 4:11 explains the Old Testament use of the word sign or token (Hebrew ‘oth) in connection with circumcision (Genesis 17:11) but the complete absence of references in the Old Testament to the ceremony as a “seal.” Second, the New Testament does not equate circumcision with baptism or state that the latter replaces the former. Third, the Biblical immersion of believers has nothing to do with the ceremonial application of water to infants that Catholics and Protestants claim is baptism. Fourth, a seal is a visible mark or impression evidencing the authority of the one who authorizes the seal to the genuineness or correctness of whatever is witnessed to by its presence. However, baptism does not leave a visible mark upon those who receive it, and it is not administered to single individuals by Divine authority—the authority given the church to administer baptism is general (Matthew 28:18-20). No man can put marks upon the elect of God which shall authoritatively certify that they are His, and neither baptism nor the Lord’s Supper authenticate one’s personal election to himself or to others; such authentication is given to the regenerate individual himself by the presence of true faith and the manifestation of that faith in a changed life, as taught in 1 John (cf. 5:13). Unlike the ordinance of baptism, the “seal” of circumcision given to Abraham was indeed a visible mark and was applied to the individual man Abraham by direct Divine authority. Circumcision was a seal to Abraham, but to nobody else. Finally, when advocates of Reformed theology and other Protestants speak of baptism as a “seal” or vehicle of grace, they use the word in a sense entirely absent in Scripture. None of the appearances of the word “seal” (sphragis) in the New Testament indicate that grace is conveyed through a “seal” (Romans 4:11; 1 Corinthians 9:2; 2 Timothy 2:19; Revelation 5:1-2, 5, 9; 6:1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 12; 7:2; 8:1; 9:4). Those who think that infant baptism was the instrument of their receiving forgiveness, those who think that they received the sacrament as confirmation and evidence that they were already regenerated in the womb, and those who think they had water applied to them in infancy as evidence that they were certain to be regenerated in the future unless they consciously rejected the “sacrament” and its efficacy are underneath a terrible spiritual delusion. They will certainly be damned unless they recognize that their unbiblical religious ceremony did nothing beneficial for them, admit they are still lost, and then repent and believe the gospel.
Indeed, baptism is not even a “sign” in the sense regularly employed in Reformed theology. The ordinance is indeed a sign of what Christ did and suffered, but it is not a “sign” promising that any saving work will be done in the one who receives it—yet it is in this latter sense that the Reformed generally speak of the ordiance as a “sign.”
[i] Institutes, 4:17:1, 4:15:3, 4, 15.
[ii] John Calvin, 1547 Antidote to the Council of Trent, Reply to the 1st Decree of the 5th Session.
[iii] Institutes, 4:15:22.
[iv] John Calvin, 1547 Antidote to the Council of Trent, Antidote to the Canons of Baptism, Canon #5.
[v] Institutes, 4:15:22.
[vi] Institutes, 4:15:22.
[vii] Institutes, 4:15:20.