Blog 217: 4.16.20 - 4.16.24
For some, Calvin seems to be at his most feisty when he writes on the sacraments. Against those who complain that infant baptism is a travesty of the gospel, he stoutly insists "these darts are aimed more at God than at us"! But a little reflection reveals he is also at his most thoughtful, and his analysis of sacramental signs can strengthen credobaptists as well as paedobaptists.
If repentance and faith are in view in baptism, how can infant baptism be biblical? Calvin responds: the same was true of circumcision (hence references to Jer. 4:4; 9:25; Deut. 10:16; 30:6), yet infants were circumcised.
How then can either sign be applicable to infants who have neither repented nor believed?
Calvin's central emphasis here is simple, but vital.
Baptism, like circumcision, is first and foremost a sign of the gospel and its promise, not of our response to the gospel. It points first of all to the work of Christ for us, not to the work of the Spirit in us. It calls for our response. It is not primarily a sign of that response.
So, like the proclamation of the gospel (of which it is a sign), baptism summons us to (rather than signifies) repentance and faith.
In fact all believers are called to grow into an understanding and "improvement" of their baptism. This is as true for those baptized as believers as for those baptized as infants.
Consequently, whether baptism follows faith or precedes faith, its meaning remains the same. Its efficacy in our lives is related to (life-long!) faith and repentance. But its meaning is always the same--Christ crucified and risen, outside of whom there is no salvation.
To see baptism as a sign of my repentance and faith, then, is to turn it on its head. It diminishes, if not evacuates, the sign of its real power in our lives--which is to point us to Christ and to the blessings which are ours in him, and thus to draw forth faith. Grasp this whole-Bible principle, holds Calvin, and all the New Testament's teaching on baptism beautifully coheres.