Some of you may have missed that July 10 was Calvin’s 500th birthday. Celebrations were held all over the world in honor of Calvin and especially in Geneva, Switzerland, where many Calvinists gathered for the Calvin500 Conference. I’ve taught World History for almost 20 years, so in the historic realm, I see Calvin as an important figure in the history of the world. I believe that God providentially used the reformers at that point in time to counteract the harmful effects of Roman Catholicism on Europe. Although not itself a grand purveyor of freedom, the Protestant Reformation loosened the tyranny of a Catholic stranglehold. The translation, printing, and distribution of the Bible brought the real freedom as men and women could decide for themselves what God had said.
At the same time, the state churchism of Calvin, Zwingli, and Luther are not my ecclesiastical heritage. Mine is found in the independent New Testament church movement represented in the Schleitheim Confession of 1527. In response to this document, in 1544 Calvin disseminated his Brief Instruction for Arming All the Good Faithful against the Errors of the Common Sect of the Anabaptists, at the beginning of which, Calvin said it was was written by “ignorant persons ” and with “nothing beneficial for persons of learning and understanding, seeing that, in addition to being inept and haphazardly written, it sufficiently discredits itself.” Calvin went on to passionately denounce believer’s baptism and defend infant sprinkling, despite the fact that Calvin himself conceded that baby baptism itself was found nowhere in the Bible. His chief argument was that since scripture says nothing about women recieving the Lord’s Table, and yet women partake of that ordinance and it is good for them, then baptism, also being good for its recipients, should be applied to the never mentioned infants, seeing that the Lord regards these babies as the “servants of His church.” In addition to passing down the heritage of a state church, which we can all be thankful was rejected by the Baptists in colonial America, Calvin also bequeathed this dangerous and unscriptural doctrine of infant sprinkling, of which John Gill later wrote in 1765:
The Paedobaptists are ever restless and uneasy, endeavoring to maintain and support, if possible, their unscriptural practice of infant-baptism; though it is no other than a pillar of popery; that by which Antichrist has spread his baneful influence over many nations; is the basis of national churches and worldly establishments; that which unites the church and world, and keeps them together; nor can there be a full separation of the one from the other, nor a thorough reformation in religion; until it is wholly removed: and though it has so long and largely obtained, and still does obtain; I believe with a firm and unshaken faith, that the time is hastening on, when infant-baptism will be no more practiced in the world; when churches will be formed on the same plan they were in the times of the apostles; when gospel-doctrine and discipline will be restored to their primitive luster and purity; when the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper will be administered as they were first delivered, clear of all present corruption and superstition.
Calvin and Baptismal Regeneration
When I read Calvin’s massive Institutes of the Christian Religion and other writings, I read a false gospel. The Calvinists often rush to explain that we just don’t understand Calvin or that we’re wrongly interpreting him. I didn’t get the Calvin code book, I guess, because he seems very clear to me, clearly wrong, but communicating it in plain fashion. He wrote (Institutes, 4:17:1, 4:15:3, 4):
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.
Calvin also published (1547 Antidote to the Council of Trent, Reply to the 1st Decree of the 5th Session):
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 . . . by baptism . . . the guilt is effaced [and] it is null in regard to imputation. Nothing is plainer than this doctrine.
He continued in the same publication (Canon #5):
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.
John Calvin also wrote in his Commentary on Matthew (19:14):
We . . . maintain that since baptism is the pledge and figure of the forgiveness of sins and likewise of adoption by God, it ought not to be denied to infants whom God adopts and washes with the blood of His Son.
In answer to these quotes of Calvin, an advocate of sole fide might quote the Westminster Confession of Faith (Article V of Chapter XXVIII):
Although it is a great sin to contemn or neglect this ordinance, yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it, as that no person can be regenerated, or saved, without it: or, that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated.
I admit that this part of the WCF sounds great. But it’s only great in that it clears up one problem, that is, baptism isn’t necessary for salvation if an adult without baptism later places faith in Christ alone for salvation. However, it’s easy to see upon reading Calvin that he believed that baptism is not the only way of regeneration or salvation. This WCF statement does not repudiate baptismal regeneration.
Are we going to be loyal to the God and the Bible in our belief and teaching on the gospel and baptism? I’m not going to agree to disagree. I’m just going to disagree.
Calvin and the Lord’s Supper
In part one of his commentary on Jeremiah (fourth paragraph), Calvin wrote:
That we really feed in the Holy Supper on the flesh and blood of Christ, no otherwise than as bread and wine are the aliments of our bodies, we freely confess. If a clearer explanation is asked, we say, that the substance of Christ’s flesh and blood is our spiritual life, and that it is communicated to us under the symbols of bread and wine; for Christ, in instituting the mystery of The Supper, promised nothing falsely, nor mocked us with a vain shew, but represented by external signs what he has really given us.
I’ll let that speak for itself. I don’t find it to be anything different than what I read in Calvin’s Institutes and in his Short Treatise on the Holy Supper of our Lord Jesus Christ, in which he wrote this:
But as the blessings of Jesus Christ do not belong to us at all, unless he be previously ours, it is necessary, first of all, that he be given us in the Supper, in order that the things which we have mentioned may be truly accomplished in us. For this reason I am wont to say, that the substance of the sacraments is the Lord Jesus, and the efficacy of them the graces and blessings which we have by his means. Now the efficacy of the Supper is to confirm to us the reconciliation which we have with God through our Savior’s death and passion; the washing of our souls which we have in the shedding of his blood; the righteousness which we have in his obedience; in short, the hope of salvation which we have in all that he has done for us. It is necessary, then, that the substance should be conjoined with these, otherwise nothing would be firm or certain. Hence we conclude that two things are presented to us in the Supper, viz., Jesus Christ as the source and substance of all good; and, secondly, the fruit and efficacy of his death and passion. This is implied in the words which were used. For after commanding us to eat his body and drink his blood, he adds that his body was delivered for us, and his blood shed for the remission of our sins. Hereby he intimates, first, that we ought not simply to communicate in his body and blood, without any other consideration, but in order to receive the fruit derived to us from his death and passion; secondly that we can attain the enjoyment of such fruit only by participating in his body and blood, from which it is derived.
Calvin taught that the real presence of Christ was found in the elements of the Lord’s Table. If John Calvin was not teaching that we receive salvation through the Lord’s Supper, he was at least making it very confusing as to whether someone could or could not be saved by partaking of the elements.
What did Calvin do for Baptists?
John T. Christian writes this in volume one, chapter fifteen, of his History of Baptists:
The influence of John Calvin had begun to be felt in English affairs. His books had appeared in translations in England. He was responsible in a large measure for the demon of hate and fierce hostility which the Baptists of England had to encounter. He advised that “Anabaptists and reactionists should be alike put to death” (Froude, History of England, V. p. 99). He wrote a letter to Lord Protector Somerset, the translation was probably made by Archbishop Cranmer (Calvin to the Protector, MSS. Domestic Edward VI, V. 1548) to the effect: “These altogether deserve to be well punished by the sword, seeing that they do conspire against God, who had set him in his royal seat.”
For those that think that Baptists are reformed or come out of the Reformation, they really need to study that time period and the relationship of the reformers to the Baptists. They were separate from one another. You also have the early history of the United States, when in the colonial period, the Puritans hated the Baptists. The Baptists were treated criminal in the colonies. They bore the persecutions of whipping, imprisonment, excommunication, banishment, ridicule, and starvation–all for believing and practicing principles which Baptists hold dear. Henry Dunster (1612-1659), first president of Harvard, began to preach against infant baptism and in 1653, after twelve years of impressive service at Harvard, would not submit to sprinkling his fourth child. Despite earnest pleading he was refused the use of his home, cast out into the winter, and died within five weeks.
The Baptists sacrificed to separate from infant sprinklers. Today Baptists cozy up to them and appreciate them. Men died rather than to subject their families to baby baptism. Today Baptists are enthralled with John Calvin and the reformers, forgetting that heritage and that suffering. C. H. Spurgeon wrote (from The New Park Street Pulpit, Volume VII, p. 225):
We believe that the Baptists are the original Christians. We did not commence our existence at the reformation, we were reformers before Luther or Calvin were born; we never come from the Church of Rome, for we were never in it, but we have an unbroken line up to the apostles themselves. We have always existed from the very days of Christ, and our principles, sometimes veiled and forgotten, like a river which may travel underground for a little season, have always had honest and holy adherents. Persecuted alike by Romanists and Protestants of almost every sect, yet there has never existed a Government holding Baptist principles which persecuted others; nor, I believe, any body of Baptists ever held it to be right to put the consciences of others under the control of man. We have ever been ready to suffer, as our martyrologies will prove, but we are not ready to accept any help from the State, to prostitute the purity of the Bride of Christ to any alliance with Government, and we will never make the Church, although the Queen, the despot over the consciences of men.
There are Baptists today who won’t separate over mode and recipient of baptism. They say it’s a non-essential. On this birthday of John Calvin, let us reconsider the authoritative Bible doctrine and love for the Lord that motivated our Baptist forefathers.