Scripture's account of God's command to Abraham to "circumcise the flesh of [his] foreskin" (Gen. 17.11; KJV) affords Calvin ample opportunity to reflect on the reality and nature of sacramental signs. Thus he is keen, in his comments on this and surrounding verses, to emphasize the close relationship of sacramental signs to God's covenant word of promise (and so the need to articulate that word of promise when administering said signs). He is equally keen to highlight the critical role that such signs, being "sculpture[s] and image[s] of that grace of God which the word more fully illustrates," play in sustaining human faith. He is likewise keen to insist that God's promises are themselves, apart from those signs, "effectual to... salvation," and so to discourage his readers from "restrict[ing] God's own effectual working [of the spiritual realities that sacraments signify] to those signs." And closely following from the last point, he is keen to censure any person who holds God's sacramental signs in contempt, and so -- "feigning himself to be contented with the bare promise" -- violates God's covenant "by an impious severance of the sign and the word" (i.e., by a failure to observe the sacrament).
Yet Calvin does not fail, in the midst of such sacramentologizing, to note the remarkable character of what God actually commands Abraham to do in Gen. 17.11. God's bidding of Abraham to "circumcise the flesh of [his] foreskin" is particularly noteworthy, in Calvin's estimation, given the unprecedented nature (to Calvin's knowledge) of such a surgical procedure in the ancient world, not to mention the primitive nature (again to Calvin's knowledge) of ancient medicine if measured in terms of proper surgical tools, adherence to principles of hygiene, possibilities for anesthesia, and so on.
"Very strange and unaccountable would this command at first sight appear," the Reformer reckons. Calvin further speculates about what Abraham's thought process might have been regarding this "strange and unaccountable... command": "this might [have] come into his mind, '...if, by this symbol, [God] would consecrate me to himself as a servant, why has he put me off to extreme old age? What does this mean, that I cannot be saved unless I, with one foot almost in the grave, thus mutilate myself?'" Reservations about circumcising himself (and his household) might, Calvin reflects, have likewise stemmed from the prospect of "acute pain" associated with the act, some "danger of [the loss of] life," and the almost certain consequence of being made the "laughing-stock" of his immediate world.
Such consideration of Abraham's sentiments toward the act he was bid to perform ultimately serves to highlight the remarkable character of Abraham's faith and obedience. "He must, of necessity, have been entirely devoted to God," Calvin reasons, "since he did not hesitate to inflict upon himself [that] wound." Abraham likewise "circumcised the whole of his family as he had been commanded," testimony both to Abraham's obedience and to the respect and trust he had previously earned from his servants, who "meekly receive[d] the [same] wound, which was both troublesome and the occasion of shame to carnal sense." Abraham's promptness in obeying God also deserves note: "he does not defer the work to another day, but immediately obeys the Divine mandate."
All in all, one gets the impression that Calvin considers Abraham's willingness to trust and obey God in this command almost as extraordinary as his subsequent willingness to trust and obey God when ordered to sacrifice Isaac upon the altar some years later.
But Calvin is equally keen to discern some motive on God's part for issuing such a strange command, beyond (of course) the appropriateness of the ritual commanded to represent the peculiar promise of God's covenant. And, naturally, Calvin succeeds in this, ultimately arguing that God's command served its own peculiar role in humbling Abraham.
On this score again the sign corresponds to God's word of promise, which itself elicits humility by reminding Abraham (and every true believer) that ultimate blessing lies outside any person's grasp and is freely offered to those (and only those) who understand and feel their inability to seize such blessing by some effort or merit of their own. God's command to Abraham to circumcise himself and his household humbles the patriarch in two distinct ways. Abraham is humbled, first of all, by the sheer and simple "shame" associated with the act he is ordered to perform. "It was necessary," Calvin comments, "for Abraham to become a fool , in order to prove himself obedient to God."
But Abraham is humbled even more profoundly by God's further instructions, having just identified circumcision as "a sign of the covenant between you and me," to circumcise both his sons and his slaves without any apparent distinction between the two. By these further instructions "the pride... of the flesh is cast down; because God, without respect of persons, gathers together both freemen and slaves."
Calvin's logic runs something like this: by administering the sign of the covenant to his slaves, Abraham was -- at God's express bidding -- extending God's twofold promise of redemption through the Seed and inheritance of a (heavenly) land to persons who, at least according to their earthly station, never expected (nor were expected) to inherit much. Abraham was, in other words, reminded that God shows no partiality (Rom. 2.11) in the distribution of his grace and gifts, no matter man's natural proclivity to privilege sons over slaves in the bequeathing of material blessings. The truth so clearly expressed in Gal. 3.28-29, then, that in Christ "there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female," but all are equally "heirs according to promise" was foreshadowed at the earliest expression of God's promise, when Abraham extended the sign of said promise to all (both slave and free) within his household.
Calvin's teaching on this point yields several practical considerations. For one, it reminds us that God seldom -- or rather, never -- shares our biases, whether such be founded on social, economic, racial, or other differences. For another, it reminds us that humility is indispensable to securing a share in God's promise of eternal fellowship with himself. Indeed, God's promise itself induces humility (inasmuch as faith entails humble recognition of one's need). But even in our day, the signs that God has attached to his promise can do their part to hasten the debasing of our pride. Few things, after all, are as un-cool (by the standards of the world) as having water applied to oneself in the Triune name, or regularly breaking bread and sharing a cup in remembrance of Christ with fellow members of Christ's church.
This is the second of 4 parts in response to Dr. Mark Jones on the question and meaning of Baptism and the Lord's table as the question stands between Baptistic types who practice a closed table and Presbyterian types who practice a more-open table.
Two items as caveats, as listed previously, before you read this and start hurling fruit at my kind hosts here at Ref21:
The Meaning of Baptism
There are a lot of important ideas to run down from where we left off last time, such as the meaning of maturity and how we can know the difference between immaturity and actual apostasy or faithlessness, but the scope of this essay is the question of Baptism. If we accept the WCF's definition of saving faith (and I have, previously), do we really need anything else to understand who is and isn't "a Christian"?
The answer, obviously, is "no" and "yes." In some important sense, we really don't need any more hair-splitting to answer the question of who is and is not a Christian - we just have to see it through to the end. That is, we have to agree that someone who starts down the path of obedience to Christ ought to continue down that road (we hope with few pit-stops and detours, but we also know that even Peter actually denied Christ after declaring him to be the Son of God), and as James says in his letter we should show our faith by doing works.
There's absolutely nothing controversial about this as the WCF says plainly:
Good works are only such as God hath commanded in his holy Word, and not such as, without the warrant thereof, are devised by men out of blind zeal, or upon any pretense of good intention.
These good works, done in obedience to God's commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith: and by them believers manifest their thankfulness, strengthen their assurance, edify their brethren, adorn the profession of the gospel, stop the mouths of the adversaries, and glorify God, whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus thereunto, that, having their fruit unto holiness, they may have the end, eternal life.
And all good Protestant warning labels stipulated to this statement. But foremost among these things "commanded by God in his holy Word," certainly not "devised by men out of blind zeal," are the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper -- and this is where the "yes" part comes in. For my money, we Baptists would be best served to use the Presbyterian word here for two good reasons: (1) we are talking about the means of corporate worship in these items and not merely the more-common acts of obedience which the Bible commands, and (2) I think it clarifies what is at stake as we approach the question of how one influences the use of the other.
That relationship is the one which Dr. Jones' essay misses broadly as it considers why some of us Baptists are closed-table at the supper - because surely when Dr. Jones accuses Baptists of denying the Christianity of Presbyterians he isn't denying that one's baptism ought to come before one participates with the body of Christ and in the body of Christ at the Lord's table. Of course not - what he is saying is that because baptism makes one a Christian, denying that one is baptized (by drizzling, before personal faith) denies that one is a Christian. He isn't denying the logic that only the baptized ought to participate in the Lord's supper; he's questioning the meaning of denying the baptism of those baptized as Presbyterians are inclined to do -- which is to say, to baptize infants.
This is why the question of what makes one a Christian had to be addressed first. In the Presbyterian view, what makes one a Christian is the sign and seal of Baptism. It puts one inside the covenant in some way which may or may not be finally determinative -- I'll leave that for the FV and non-FV readers to settle in a back alley after school today. This is why, after all, it is also called "christening" by many - it is what makes one a Christian in a formal and regulated way as opposed to the rather disappointing "asking Jesus into your heart" sort of way which doesn't really mean anything biblically or ecclesiologically.
But let's be honest: Jesus didn't put it that way. Jesus' mentioning of baptism comes at the end of all his other statements about the life of obedience, and at the beginning of the great mission of the church. When the Apostles went out , they didn't first baptize anyone and then preach to them repentance until it made sense to them. The message of the Gospel comes in the NT first by the preaching of repentance, then by the washing of the water for the sake of a clean conscience. What is true under the new covenant is what was actually true under the old covenant: the right offering to God is a broken spirit and a contrite heart; God does not desire sacrifices but obedience; he desires that we love Him more than we commit to duties and rituals. That doesn't eliminate the rituals by any means, but it does put the rituals in a place subordinate to the truth which they are communicating.
And that, frankly, is the actual Baptist objection to Presbyterian baptism - not that one does not have right faith now, but that one has somehow allowed that the ritual means anything prior to the real condition of the one practicing the ritual. We may be guilty of waving off the baptism of babies as "sprinkling," but the meaning there is not that there's not enough water added: it is that somehow adding water takes the place of the faith the water ought to represent.
Honestly, only the Baptist with the hardest heart toward formal theology would deny any of the following from the WCF:
Baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible Church, but also to be unto him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in newness of life: which sacrament is, by Christ's own appointment, to be continued in his Church until the end of the world.
But we would have to be gullible to read the phrase, "a sign and seal of regeneration," and not ask the question: doesn't regeneration imply faith? We certainly commit our (baptist) children to the waters when the waters definitely imply faith - because we ask them to make a confession of faith to be admitted to the waters. And in that way, for us the sign and seal overtly demonstrate that faith which this child has as it has been given by God, and show them being raised in newness of life in the forgiveness of their sins on the basis of faith.
The problem we are objecting to, then, in paedobaptism, is that the sacrament is not a King James Version of "just add water." We deny it's a baptism because we deny it's a sacrament unless it is preceded by faith. That is:
Works done by unregenerate men, although for the matter of them they may be things which God commands, and of good use both to themselves and others; yet, because they proceed not from a heart purified by faith; nor are done in a right manner, according to the Word; nor to a right end, the glory of God; they are therefore sinful and can not please God, or make a man meet to receive grace from God. And yet their neglect of them is more sinful, and displeasing unto God.
The problem is not that you are not Christians now: it is that when you were wetted down, you were not Christians then. You did not have faith then. And with full respect to those who did have faith when they did this to you, the sacrament is meaningless apart from the faith for which the sacrament is a sign -- which is, your faith, the faith God gave, not the faith which God might give.
Because of this, we would say you have not been baptized. And without baptism, of course you cannot come to the Lord's table.
More on that next time.