Blog 212: 4.15.9 - 4.15.16
One suspects that Calvin's candor in his treatment of baptism makes us uneasy. Today, we fear the connection between the "sign" and the "thing signified" that we tend to be more cautious than the Reformers (or Paul!) in asserting synecdochal inferences. Calvin on the other hand, whilst clear that water has no innate regenerative or sanctifying power, moves freely from the sign (baptism) to that which it signifies (in this section, mortification) without feeling the need to reassert that what baptism signifies is only effective in those who believe.
Calvin's baptismal theology gives rise to certain distinct patterns of Christian living in the world. Baptism does not open the door to license; Calvin views baptism as covenantal and therefore conditional. By reminding us of Paul's use of the ordeal of water-judgment in the exodus at the Red Sea in 1 Corinthians 10, Calvin ensures that we recall the effects of baptism on those who failed to believe -- they were drowned. The sign became effectual in those who believed, and moreover, while baptism was a sign of death to the unbeliever, it was a sign of life and obedience to those in whom the Spirit dwelt.
Since baptism is a sign (to faith) of justification, the same antinomian temptation applies: since we have been baptized, can we then sin at leisure? No, of course not! For Calvin, the baptized life is a constant war against sin. Taking the latter half of Romans 7 as depicting the experience of the believer, Calvin says, "He therefore says that he has a perpetual conflict with the vestiges of his flesh, and that he is held bound in miserable bondage, so that he cannot consecrate himself wholly to obedience to the divine law from (7:18-23). Hence, he is compelled to exclaim with groaning: 'Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body subject to death?' (7:24)."