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Calvin, Salvation, Baptism

Question
I haven't read a whole lot of Calvin, but I do enjoy looking at his bible commentaries from time to time. I'm confused, though, about what he said regarding John 3:5 ("born of water and the spirit"):

"...But though we were to admit that Christ here speaks of baptism, yet we ought not to press his words so closely as to imagine that he confines salvation to the outward sign; but, on the contrary, he connects the Water with the Spirit, because under that visible symbol he attests and seals that newness of life which God alone produces in us by his Spirit. It is true that, by neglecting baptism, we are excluded from salvation; and in this sense I acknowledge that it is necessary..."

I understand that he's saying that "water" here refers to the Spirit, not water baptism, but he seems to be saying that water baptism IS necessary for salvation. But the Westminster Confession clearly says that baptism is NOT necessary for salvation (ch. 28.5). Do Calvin and the Westminster Divines differ on this issue?

Also, I'm still confused on the Reformed view of what the sacraments actually DO for you. If they're neither purely memorial, nor sacerdotal, as Rome teaches, then what are they? What kind of grace do they impart, and is it possible to partake of that grace without actually partaking of the sacraments?
Answer
On the specific issue of Calvin's view of baptism and that represented in the Westminster Standards, the two are basically the same. Also, just as a side note, Calvin himself said that his Commentaries and Institutes sometimes disagreed, and that when this occurred his Institutes were to be understood as presenting his actual view. I believe, however, that on this subject his Commentaries tend to be consistent with his Institutes. In any event, I'll provide quotes from the Institutes rather than from the Commentaries in order to demonstrate Calvin's view.

Both Calvin and the Westminster Divines taught that baptism is the typical means through which God applies certain benefits of salvation to us. Actually, in my estimation, the Westminster Divines ascribed more benefits to baptism than did Calvin (cf. WCF 28.1,6). Calvin tended to speak of baptism primarily as ingrafting us into the church, and confirming the covenant promises to us. But, like the Divines, he insisted that baptism was only a means by which God normally worked. He also wrote that baptism was not absolutely necessary to salvation:

"We must utterly reject the fiction of those who consign all the unbaptized to eternal deathà Baptism is not so necessary that one from whom the capacity to obtain it has been taken away should straightway be counted as lost" (Institutes 4.16.26).

It is also important to note that while Calvin and the Divines believed that baptism ensured that its recipients were heirs to the covenant promises, they also understood these promises to contain both blessings and curses. That is, a baptized individual is part of the church, and thereby is the heir to all the covenant promises. But that does not guarantee that the person will be saved. It does, however, guarantee that if the person is not saved, he or she will fall under the greatest condemnation of all, being subject to the curses of the covenant:

"What is a sacrament received apart from faith but the most certain ruin of the church? For nothing ought to be expected from it apart from the promise, but the promise no less threatens wrath to unbelievers than offers grace to believers" (Institutes 4.14.14).

With regard to the Reformed view of sacraments more generally, sacraments are seen to function as both "signs" and "seals." As signs, they publicly exhibit the truth of God's covenant and promises. But the greater aspect of them is the fact that they are "seals." By "seal" is meant that they are like signatures on legal documents. By giving us the sacraments, God guaranteed that the covenant promises were valid and in force. And by participating in the sacraments, we guarantee that we are bound by the covenant's stipulations, blessings and curses. So, when we are baptized — whether or not we have faith — we are placing our signature on the dotted line of God's covenant.

In the case of infants, the parents might be seen as acting with power of attorney on behalf of their children. Now, for clarity, I should point out that the child is obligated to obey the covenant, and is heir to its promises, by virtue of his or her birth into the covenant community. But baptism functions as the legal confirmation of that relationship.

Also, as I mentioned, the Reformed view is that Bible presents baptism as one of the means by which the Holy Spirit typically operates in applying certain blessings of salvation to saved individuals. This is evident not only from Calvin's statements to the effect that baptism is normally necessary for salvation, but also from the Westminster Confession of Faith's point that in baptism "the grace promised is not only offered, but à conferred" (WCF 28.6).

Although this view sounds very strange from a Baptist perspective, it really is no different from other doctrines that tie blessings to human actions. For example, faith is necessary to salvation; it is the typical means by which God applies justification to us. Prayers of confession are also efficacious in a way similar to sacraments — they are means through which God applies cleansing and forgiveness to us (1 John 1:9). These blessings can also be received through other means, and even apart from means, when God chooses to work that way. As the Westminster Confession of Faith puts it:

"God, in his ordinary providence, makes use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them, at his pleasure" (WCF 5.3).

Nevertheless, the Bible teaches that God commonly works through the means he has appointed in Scripture, e.g., baptism, the Lord's Supper, prayer, faith, the preaching of the Word, etc.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Creative Delivery Systems at Third Millennium Ministries.