At the outset of the Reformation 21 Blog Through the Institutes, Thabiti Anyabwile posted a blog titled Be Discipled By John Calvin, in which he anticipated being able to sit at Calvin’s feet, so to speak, by taking a year to go through the Institutes. For my part, the weekly pace seems a bit brisk as we come to Calvin’s treatment of the sacraments in these sections. Here is where it seems appropriate to slow down and spend extra time taking in what Calvin has to say to us, particular to those who come from Baptist backgrounds, such as myself.
We will do well to keep in mind how Calvin defined sacrament in 4.14.1. I kept referring back to it, from last week’s assignment:
It seems to me, then, a simple and appropriate definition to say, that it is an external sign, by which the Lord seals on our consciences his promises of good-will toward us, in order to sustain the weakness of our faith, and we in our turn testify our piety towards him, both before himself, and before angels as well as men. We may also define more briefly by calling it a testimony of the divine favour toward us, confirmed by an external sign, with a corresponding attestation of our faith towards Him. You may make your choice of these definitions, which in meaning differ not from that of Augustine, which defines a sacrament to be a visible sign of a sacred thing, or a visible form of an invisible grace, but does not contain a better or surer explanation. As its brevity makes it somewhat obscure, and thereby misleads the more illiterate, I wished to remove all doubt, and make the definition fuller by stating it at greater length.
The first part of that definition (testimony of divine favor) is rejected by adherents to believer’s baptism, who focus exclusively on the second part (attestation of faith). Consequently, the focus in baptism becomes largely man-centered, as a naked declaration of faith (what I have believed/done). This focus is sharpened in the ceremony itself by virtue of the typical utterance by Baptist ministers to candidates prior to immersion: “Based on your profession of faith, I baptize you . . .” This failure to take into account the testimony of divine favor points away from Christ, the author and finisher of faith, to self (dead, dominated, and doomed apart from Christ, Eph. 2:1-3). In so doing it misses the true office of the sacrament, as Calvin described it in 4.14.17, which is to point us to Christ, without Whom we are merely empty vessels:
Wherefore, let it be a fixed point, that the office of the sacraments differs not from the word of God; and this is to hold forth and offer Christ to us, and, in him, the treasures of heavenly grace. They confer nothing, and avail nothing, if not received in faith, just as wine and oil, or any other liquor, however large the quantity which you pour out, will run away and perish unless there be an open vessel to receive it. When the vessel is not open, though it may be sprinkled all over, it will nevertheless remain entirely empty.
Calvin identified three things which baptism contributes to our faith in Christ, which are not to be missed or sped past:
- A token and proof of our cleansing (4.15.1)
- A token of mortification and renewal in Christ (4.15.5)
- A token of our union with Christ (4.15.6)
Of the three, Calvin devoted more space to the first one, showing how baptism has no virtue without the Word (4.15.2), how it is a token of cleansing for the whole of life (4.15.3), and showing the relationship between baptism and repentance (4.15.4). Recipients of the grace of God, we must understand, will lead godly lives, for as Calvin noted (4.15.3, emphasis added):
We ought to consider that at whatever time we are baptised, 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. Nor must we hence assume a licence of sinning for the future (there is certainly nothing in it to countenance such audacity), but this doctrine is intended only for those who, when they have sinned, groan under their sins burdened and oppressed, that they may have wherewith to support and console themselves, and not rush headlong into despair. Thus Paul says that Christ was made a propitiation for us for the remission of sins that are past (Rom. 3:25). By this he denies not that constant and perpetual forgiveness of sins is thereby obtained even till death: he only intimates that it is designed by the Father for those poor sinners who, wounded by remorse of conscience, sigh for the physician. To these the mercy of God is offered. Those who, from hopes of impunity, seek a licence for sin, only provoke the wrath and justice of God.
Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes: