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Calvin’s Covenantal Response to the Anabaptist View of Baptism

From pp. 185–232 of The Failure of the American Baptist Culture, James B. Jordan, ed. (Geneva Divinity School, 1982).

[p. 185]


Peter A. Lillback


ALTHOUGH many baptistic theologians drink deeply from the well of Calvin’s theology, his doctrine of infant baptism is deemed to be at best unpalatable, at worst poisonous. It is considered one of the unfortunate carryovers of Romish doctrine in the Reformers’ thought. Consequently, the baptists and those who hold a baptistic view of baptism see themselves as the completion of [p. 186] the Reformation begun by Luther and advanced by Calvin. Calvinistic Baptists believe that no great injustice is done to Calvin’s [p. 187] system by discarding this one doctrine. It is normally thought that Calvin’s penetrating insights into the doctrine of Scripture, the mediatorial work of Christ, justification, and eternal life are entirely independent of the baptism question. While this attitude is understandable, it raises the important question of whether Calvin himself perceived the significance of baptism in such a narrow and independent fashion.

Fortunately, Calvin’s conception of the relationship of baptism to other important doctrines of Scripture is not difficult to ascertain. The reason for this is found in his very detailed and lengthy response to the theology that developed from the Radical Reformers. In a passage from his discussion of infant baptism, Calvin assails the Anabaptists and others of similar conviction by claiming that their rejection of the equation of infant baptism and circumcision results in a horrible corruption of Scripture. Calvin exclaims:

Now let us examine the arguments by which certain mad beasts ceaselessly assail this holy institution of God. First of all, since they feel that they are immoderately cramped and constrained by the likeness between baptism and circumcision, they strive to set these two things apart by a wide difference so that there may seem to be nothing in common between them. For they say that these two signify different things, that the covenant in each is quite different, and the calling of children under each is not the same… In asserting a difference between the covenants, with what barbarous boldness do they dissipate and corrupt Scripture! And not in one passage only — but so as to leave nothing safe or untouched! For they depict the Jews to us as so carnal that they are more like beasts than men. A covenant with them would not [p. 188] go beyond the temporal life, and the promises given them would rest in present and physical benefits. If this doctrine should obtain, what would remain save that the Jewish nation was satiated for a time with God’s benefits (as men fatten a herd of swine in a sty), only to perish in eternal destruction? (IV. 16. 10)

While Calvin’s invective strikes the modern reader as extreme, it nonetheless indicates Calvin’s deep feelings on the issue. But more importantly, it must be noticed that Calvin’s concern is not simply for the sacrament of infant baptism, but for what he felt to be the inherent and inevitable danger to all of Scriptural doctrine if the Anabaptist argument was to be accepted. If infant baptism is to be overturned, then the continuity of the Old Covenant with the New Covenant must be denied. But to do this, Calvin argues, is to make the Old Testament saints nothing more than recipients of material blessings from God at the expense of their salvation. In light of this, [p. 189] one can see why Calvin did not view paedobaptism in a narrow class by itself, but instead as an important safeguard of Scripture and doctrine. To affirm infant baptism meant that one saw the unity of the Bible and consequently its constant theme of redemptive history. In other words, infant baptism was covenantal for Calvin, and since so many other doctrines of Scripture were related to the covenant, to deny the sacrament meant that other central truths were in jeopardy as well. It is clear, then, that Calvin would not agree with those who claim that they do little harm to his system by simply excising paedobaptism. To deny infant baptism is to deny the covenant, and so to put the other doctrines of Scripture in danger. As one explores Calvin’s thought with respect to the covenant, he is immediately struck with the numerous points of doctrine that he intimately couples with it. In this way, Calvin demonstrates the danger to all doctrine by the Anabaptist approach.

[p. 190]

I. Calvin’s Argument for the Continuity of Doctrine in the Old and New Covenants

Calvin’s fundamental proposition in his argument for the continuity of the covenants is that God always covenanted His people to Himself by the same law and doctrine. Thus he writes,

… all men adopted by God into the company of his people since the beginning of the world were covenanted to him by the same law and by the bond of the same doctrine as obtains among us. (II. 10. 1)

Similarly he states, “The covenant made with all the patriarchs is so much like ours in substance and reality that the two are actually one and the same. Yet they differ in the mode of dispensation” (II. 10. 2). Not even the Mosaic legal system can be seen to be without its necessary conjunction with the one divine covenant,

I understand by the word “law” not only the Ten Commandments, which set forth a godly and righteous rule of living, but the form of religion handed down by God through Moses. And Moses was not made a lawgiver to wipe out the blessing promised to the race of Abraham. Rather, we see him repeatedly reminding the Jews of that freely given covenant made with their fathers of which they were the heirs. It was as if he were sent to renew it. This fact was very clearly revealed in the ceremonies. (II. 7. 1)

Calvin beautifully portrays his understanding of the single covenant of God in its different administrations in terms of progressive redemptive history,

[p. 191]

The Lord held to this orderly plan in administering the covenant of his mercy: as the day of full revelation approached with the passing of time, the more he increased each day the brightness of its manifestation. Accordingly, at the beginning when the first promise of salvation was given to Adam it glowed like a feeble spark. Then, as it was added to, the light grew in fullness, breaking forth increasingly and shedding its radiance more widely. At last — when all the clouds were dispersed — Christ, the Sun of Righteousness, fully illumined the whole earth. (II. 10. 20)

Since all of God’s people have enjoyed the same law and doctrine albeit in different degrees of revelation and varying administration, it follows that they have always known Christ as Mediator. Speaking of the Old Covenant saints, Calvin says, “… they had and knew Christ as Mediator, through whom they were joined to God and were to share in his promises” (II. 10. 2). Again he asserts, “There are two remaining points: that the Old Testament fathers (1) had Christ as pledge of their covenant, and (2) put in him all trust of future blessedness” (II. 10. 23). And if the Old Covenant was blessed with Christ, it is just as certain that they also possessed the grace of justification. So Calvin argues,

For the same reason it follows that the Old Testament was established upon the free mercy of God, and was confirmed by Christ’s intercession. For the gospel preaching, too, declares nothing else than that sinners are justified apart from their own merit by God’s fatherly kindness; and the whole of it summed up in Christ. Who, then, dares to separate the Jews from Christ, since with them, we hear, was made the covenant of the gospel, the sole foundation of which is Christ? (II. 10. 4)

But if the grace of the covenant was equal in the Old Covenant era to that of the New Covenant era, then the sacraments must also have equal significance in both eras. Calvin contends that Paul held this,

[p. 192]

Indeed, the apostle makes the Israelites equal to us not only in the grace of the covenant but also in the signification of the sacraments. In recounting examples of the punishments with which, according to Scripture, the Israelites were chastised of old, his purpose was to deter the Corinthians from falling into similar misdeeds. So he begins with this premise: there is no reason why we should claim any privilege for ourselves, to deliver us from the vengeance of God, which they underwent, since the Lord not only provided them with the same benefits but also manifested his grace among them by the same symbols. (II. 10. 5)

Because the Word of God was present in the Old Covenant, eternal life was also a key blessing of the covenant that the Old Covenant saints shared with the New Covenant believers,

… the spiritual covenant was also common to the patriarchs…. Now since God of old bound the Jews to himself by this sacred bond, there is no doubt that he set them apart to the hope of eternal life…. Adam, Abel, Noah, Abraham and other patriarchs cleaved to God by such illumination of the Word. Therefore I say that without any doubt they entered into God’s immortal kingdom. For theirs was a real participation in God, which cannot be without the blessing of eternal life. (II. 10. 7)

The very formula of the covenant which was possessed by the Old Testament saints for Calvin demanded that they be seen to be possessors of eternal life.

… let us pass on to the very formula of the covenant. . . . For the Lord always covenanted with his servants thus: “I will be your God, and you shall be my people.” The prophets also commonly explained that life and salvation and the whole of blessedness are embraced in these words… He is our God on this condition: that he dwell among us, as he has testified through Moses. But one cannot obtain such a presence of him without, at the same time, possessing life. And although nothing further was expressed, they had a clear enough promise of spiritual life in these words: “I am … your God.” For he did not declare that he would be a God to their bodies alone, but especially to their souls. Still souls, unless they be joined to God through righteousness, remain estranged from him in death. On the other hand, such a union when present will bring everlasting salvation with it. (II. 10. 8)

[p. 193]

A little later, Calvin repeats this same point more briefly,

… the Old Testament or Covenant that the Lord had made with the Israelites had not been limited to earthly things, but contained a promise of spiritual and eternal life. The expectation of this must have been impressed upon the hearts of all who truly consented to the covenant. (II. 10. 23)

In light of all this evidence Calvin believes that he has established the spirituality of the covenant of the Old Testament saints, and hence its continuity with the New Covenant. He concludes, “Yet unless we shun the proffered light, we already possess a clear affirmation of the spiritual covenant” (II. 10. 5). Again, he concludes,

Therefore, when we hear the public oracles of the Holy Spirit, in which he so clearly and plainly discussed spiritual life in the church of the Jews, it would be intolerable stubbornness to relegate them solely to a carnal covenant, wherein mention is made only of the earth and of earthly riches. (II. 10. 19)

At this point, one can begin to understand Calvin’s vehement assault on the Anabaptist rejection of infant baptism. Since this rejection demanded that the Old Testament covenant be made into a material or carnal covenant — circumcision was not a spiritual symbol — several important doctrines associated with the covenant were as a result severely injured. If the Anabaptist basis for rejecting infant baptism prevailed, then there would be no Old Testament progressive revelation and preparation for the Messiah. Since the Old Testament covenant was only material, Christ would be never present before them, and so God would in essence have mocked them by withholding salvation from them. Just as serious, there would have been no Old Testament counterpart of the grace of justification which was founded upon Christ. If such a carnal covenant were correct, Paul’s argument on the example of Israel’s punishment for disobedience supported by the equality of sacraments of the Old and New Covenants would be utterly in error. And every bit as unthinkable, the Word of God present in the covenant formula would be severed from eternal life. It is because of these resulting errors that Calvin can speak of infant baptism as a safeguard of Scripture and doctrine. If it is taught, the continuity of Scripture in the one divine covenant of grace is affirmed. For Calvin, there is one covenant which is constant throughout Scripture. To reject infant baptism is to deny the unity of the covenant and thus to result in such confusion.

[p. 194]

It is undoubtedly true that no contemporary baptist would be willing to make the kind of affirmations that Calvin is refuting. Nevertheless, a serious inconsistency remains. If the Old Covenant was in fact a history of redemption, with Christ as Mediator being gradually revealed, Who was the ground of the Old Covenant saints’ justification, and Whose Word was truly present, how could the sacraments not be spiritual as well? Yet baptists of all varieties reject the equation of circumcision and infant baptism by asserting that circumcision was really a material–political sign, not primarily a spiritual sign as New Covenant baptism. If they agree with Calvin at the first points, it is impossible not to agree with Calvin at the last point of the spirituality of the covenantal sign of circumcision and remain consistent. And if this is granted, Calvin will argue, there is nothing that prevents the New Covenant believer from also claiming [p. 195] the same promise by the spiritual sacrament of infant baptism that the Old Covenant believer claimed in the spiritual sacrament of infant circumcision.

II. Calvin’s Explanation of the Differences Between the Covenants: The Relationship of Law to Gospel and Letter to Spirit

Having argued ardently for the essential unity of the Old and New Covenants, Calvin is conscious that his opponents can charge him with failing to come to grips with the numerous biblical testimonies to the differences between them. To this matter he next turns his attention,

[p. 196]

What then? You will ask: will no difference remain between the Old and New Testaments? What is to become of the many passages of Scripture wherein they are contrasted as utterly different? I freely admit the differences in Scripture, to which attention is called, but in such a way as not to detract from its established unity. (II. 11. 1)

Calvin enumerates five differences between the covenants, each of which is related only to the externals of the covenant and not to its substance. The first is that the Old Covenant used material or temporal blessings to represent spiritual blessings, while New Covenant members meditate upon these spiritual blessings directly. Although affirming this, Calvin distances himself from the materialistic covenant idea of the Old Covenant with no uncertain terms,

The point of our quarrel with men of this sort is this: they teach that the Israelites deemed the possession of the Land of Canaan their highest and ultimate blessedness, and that after the revelation of Christ it typified for us the heavenly inheritance. We contend, on the contrary, that, in the earthly possession they enjoyed, they looked, as in a mirror, upon the future inheritance they believed to have been prepared for them in heaven. (II. 11. 1)

Calvin perceives this difference as one of divine dispensation that is explained simply by God’s own will,

But we shall readily dispose of these misgivings if we turn our attention to this dispensation of God which I have noted. He willed that, for the time during which he gave his covenant to the people of Israel in a veiled form, be grace of future and eternal happiness be signified and figured under earthly benefits, the gravity of spiritual death under physical punishments. (II. 11. 3)

The next three differences Calvin summarizes as the differences between the law and gospel (cf. II. 11. 10). In this context, Old Testament means “law” and New Testament means “gospel.” The second difference between the covenants, and the first in this category, is that truth in the Old Testament was conveyed by images and ceremonies as types of Christ, while the New Covenant has the benefit of having the full revelation of Christ’s incarnation. Calvin depicts this difference this way,

The second difference between the Old and New Testaments consists [p. 197] in figures: that, in the absence of the reality, it showed but an image and shadow in place of the substance; the New Testament reveals the very substance of truth as present. (II. 11. 4)

But while Calvin appears to be making a distinction between the two covenants with respect to substance due to the presence and absence of the reality, he shortly clarifies himself. The difference is with respect to promise and fulfillment, or viewing Christ from the standpoint of His first advent that was future in the Old Covenant or from the New Covenant where His coming as man is past. Calvin explains,

Here we are to observe how the covenant of the law compares with the covenant of the gospel, the ministry of Christ with that of Moses. For if the comparison had reference to the substance of promises, then there would be great disagreement between the Testaments. But since the trend of the argument leads us in another direction, we must follow it to find the truth. Let us then set forth the covenant that he once established as eternal and never perishing. Its fulfillment, by which it is finally confirmed and ratified, is Christ. (II. 11. 4)

This difference is best seen in the presence of ceremonies that were temporary and hence accidental to the covenant, which were thus able to be discarded at Christ’s coming without harming the covenant itself,

While such confirmation was awaited, the Lord appointed, through Moses, ceremonies that were, so to speak, solemn symbols of that confirmation. A controversy arose over whether or not the ceremonies that had been ordained in the law ought to give way to Christ. Now these were only the accidental properties of the covenant, or additions and appendages, and in common parlance, accessories of it. Yet because they were means of administering it, they bear the name “covenant,” just as is customary in the case of other sacraments. To sum up, then, in this passage “Old Testament” means the solemn manner of confirming the covenant, comprised in ceremonies and sacrifices. (II. 11. 4)

Thus in Calvin’s mind, the Old Testament and the New Testament were not absolutely different, but the Old Testament actually became the New Testament when Christ came and ratified the New Testament that had always been symbolized in the shadowy ceremonies of the Old Testament. Calvin explains,

Or, if you prefer, understand it thus: the Old Testament of the Lord was that covenant wrapped up in the shadowy and ineffectual [p. 198] observance of ceremonies and delivered to the Jews; it was temporary because it remained, as it were, in suspense until it might rest upon a firm and substantial confirmation. It became new and eternal only after it was consecrated and established by the blood of Christ. Hence Christ in the supper calls the cup that he gives to his disciples, “the cup of the New Testament in my blood.” By this he means that the Testament of God attained its truth when sealed by his blood, and thereby becomes new and eternal. (II. 11. 4)

The third difference between the Old and New Covenants, and the second between the law and gospel, is the letter–spirit distinction. This idea is in many respects an extension of the point Calvin has just explained — that the Old Covenant became the New Covenant. In the prior point, the change from the Old to the New was by the coming of Christ. In this difference, the basis for the variation is due to the special work of the Holy Spirit in the New Covenant. Here Calvin explains Jeremiah 31:31–34 and II Corinthians 3:6–11. The passages are undeniably critical for Calvin’s perspective since they clearly contrast the Old and New Covenants. The “Old” is termed that which was broken by Israel or a covenant only of the letter, while the “New” is called a covenant that is written by God upon the heart and hence a spiritual covenant. These passages seem to argue that there is not one divine covenant throughout Scripture, but rather that there are two of quite a different character. Should that interpretation be correct, then Calvin would be forced to concede the argument to the Anabaptists after all. How can he explain this difference and still maintain the continuity of the Covenants?

[p. 199]

Calvin understands these texts to be calling the law “literal” and the gospel “spiritual” (II. 11. 7). This Calvin understands to be because of the purpose of Jeremiah and Paul to analyze law in terms of what properly belongs to it in contrast to what is associated with it by its borrowing elements from the gospel. He explains,

For example: the law contains here and there promises of mercy, but because they have been borrowed from elsewhere, they are [p. 200] not counted part of the law, when only the nature of the law is under discussion. They ascribe to it only this function: to enjoin what is right, to forbid what is wicked; to promise a reward to the keepers of righteousness, and threaten transgressors with punishment; but at the same time not to change or correct the depravity of heart that by nature inheres in all men. (II. 11. 7)

In other words, the law can only be letter because in itself it can only tell sinful men what to do and hence point out their sin, but never enable them to overcome their evil. The gospel, on the other hand, has the Holy Spirit that enables men actually to begin to be holy and do what the law demands, since all of their sin is forgiven by Christ’s redemptive work.

This letter–spirit distinction is very carefully addressed in Calvin’s commentaries on the passages under discussion. Thus Calvin explains how one ought to compare law and gospel in his comments on Jeremiah 31:32ff. First, Calvin notes, one must recognize what the law is in itself — a rule of righteousness that only speaks to the ear as letter since it does not have the Spirit. But secondly, Calvin adds, this contrast ceases once the Spirit is joined with the law. It is then no longer letter, but actually spirit or the gospel itself. In fact, Calvin insists that it is not a new law that the Spirit writes on the heart, but the very same law that was once only letter. Therefore Calvin insists that the benefits of the New Covenant were even present in the law of the Old Covenant. To illustrate this, Calvin mentions John 1:17. If grace and truth have come through Christ and the law was of Moses, does this mean that these benefits were absent from the law? His answer is that even though grace and truth are only found in Christ, and the law does not have them as benefits it can actually bestow, they were nonetheless present adventitiously. Simply, there were borrowed from the gospel. In light of this, Moses can be considered in two different senses. If he is [p. 201] considered without Christ in his narrow office (cf. comm. on Rom. 10:4ff) as lawgiver, his message was only letter and hence produced only death. But if Moses is considered in his whole teaching, he is seen to preach Christ as well. In that case, he must be considered as a preacher of the gospel, the same gospel as is found in the New Covenant.

Calvin’s explanation of this critical point of the differences between the Covenants in the midst of the one Covenant of Grace is even more fully explained in two other texts in his commentaries. In Calvin’s comments on Psalm 19:8, a “question of no small difficulty” is considered. David has been extolling the virtues of the law, but Paul later in his epistles seems to overthrow entirely the commendations of the law which David has cited — how can these two biblical authors be made to agree? Calvin spells the contrast out in sharp clarity. The law restores the souls of men, yet it is only a dead and deadly letter. It rejoices men’s hearts, yet by bringing in the spirit of bondage (Calvin’s fourth difference between the Old and New Covenants), it strikes men with terror. David says the law enlightens the eyes, yet Paul says that it casts a veil before men’s minds, and so excludes the light which ought to penetrate it. What Calvin here indicates is that the differences between the Covenants, presented by Paul and Jeremiah, actually contradict David’s understanding of the “Old” Covenant if they are taken in an absolute sense as the Anabaptists were wont to do. Calvin’s answer to the [p. 202] dilemma is similar to what he said in Jeremiah 31. Just as the law of Moses can be viewed with the Spirit and so be gospel, or without the Spirit and so be the letter that kills, so also David must be seen as speaking not just of the moral law, but of the “whole covenant by which God had adopted the descendants of Abraham.” Thus David is seen by Calvin to be joining to the law — the rule of living well — the free promises of salvation, or Christ Himself. On the other hand, Paul must be interpreted in light of the opponents he was dealing with. He was addressing persons who abused and perverted the law by making it a basis of human meritorious salvation. Thus it was Paul’s point to show that the law without the Spirit was unprofitable and deadly to men’s souls. The law without Christ could only be inexorable rigor which consequently curses all mankind to wrath and the curse of God. Calvin’s conclusion is that Paul must be seen to be rehearsing what the law can do by itself without the promise of grace. In this capacity, the law strictly and vigorously exacts men’s duty owed to God, which none fulfills. David’s praise of the law, however, is because he is considering the whole doctrine of the law, which includes the gospel. Thus Calvin concludes, “… under the law he comprehends Christ.” It is clear, therefore, that Calvin does not see the law as antithetical to the gospel since it includes Christ. It is only so when Christ is excluded from it as the Judaizers had done, and as was consequently considered by Paul in his refutation of their doctrine of salvation by human merit.

But Calvin does not simply explain the passages of Jeremiah and Paul on the differences between the Old and New Covenants by viewing the Old Covenant in a narrow sense without Christ and in a normative sense in which Christ or the whole of the blessings of the covenant are included. He is too much aware of the history of redemption and God’s distinctive administration of the covenant in [p. 203] various ages to do this. Thus in his evaluation of the citation of Jeremiah 31:31ff. found in the eighth chapter of Hebrews, Calvin indicates that there is also the important difference of the comparison of the lesser to the greater. Thus Calvin asks if the Spirit’s regeneration and Christ’s forgiveness of sins were benefits enjoyed by the Old Testament saints. These he has already called “the two main parts in this covenant.” He affirms that they indeed had these benefits of the covenant even in the Old Testament administration of the covenant of grace, but to a lesser extent than the New Testament saint. Calvin points to three ways in which the New Covenant is greater than the Old Covenant. First, he indicates that the power of the Spirit is greater. God the Father has more fully put forth the power of the Spirit under the kingdom of Christ. Second, He has poured forth more abundantly his mercy on mankind, such that in comparison to this the grace of God on the fathers is insignificant. Third, while the promises of God with respect to salvation were known in the Old Covenant, they were obscure and intricate in comparison to the clarity of revelation of the New Covenant. Calvin likens this to the light of the moon and the stars in comparison to the clear light of the sun.

Yet Calvin is aware that this interpretation can be challenged by the case of Abraham. In comparison to him, New Covenant believers are lesser, and he is the greater. Calvin’s response is that this comparison is not to be made of specific persons, but with respect to the economical condition of the church. Thus under the Old Covenant economy of the Covenant of Grace the fathers’ spiritual gifts were accidental to their age. They had to direct their eyes to Christ in order to possess them. So Calvin says that the apostle’s comparing of the law to the gospel as two different covenants was taking away from the law what was peculiar to the gospel. Nevertheless, Calvin asserts, “There is yet no reason why God should not have extended the grace of the New Covenant to the fathers.” This Calvin says is the “true solution of the question.”

In attempting to summarize Calvin’s viewpoint on the relationship of the Old and New Covenants in light of the letter–spirit distinction, it is helpful to keep in mind that he uses the term “New Covenant” in two distinct senses. In the strict sense of Biblical redemptive history, Calvin understands the New Covenant as the gospel era brought to pass by Christ’s redemptive work and His subsequent sending of the Holy Spirit in His full apostolic manifestation and power. But Calvin also understands the New Covenant in a broader sense, that is, the New Covenant has always [p. 204] been the saving relationship between God and His elect throughout the ages. It either looked forward in promise to Christ’s coming or it harks back to His accomplishment of redemption. While this viewpoint is distinctively a mark of Calvinism, it is not unimportant to realize that Calvin was fully conscious of his indebtedness to Augustine at this point. Referring to Augustine, he writes,

In the same passage he very aptly adds the following: the children of the promise, reborn of God, who have obeyed the commands by faith working through love have belonged to the New Covenant since the world began. This they did, not in hope of carnal, earthly, and temporal things, but in hope of spiritual, heavenly, and eternal benefits. For they believed especially in the Mediator; and they did not doubt that through him the Spirit was given to them that they might do good, and that they were pardoned whenever they sinned. It is that very point which I intended to affirm: all the saints whom Scripture mentions as being peculiarly chosen of God from the beginning of the world have shared with us the same blessing unto eternal salvation. (II. 11. 10)

Calvin in full agreement with Augustine understands that the New Covenant has always been the place of salvation. So Calvin must be read with care with respect to which of the two meanings of the New Covenant he is employing.

It is also true that Calvin has a twofold use of the term “law.” It can be used either in the strict sense of the Pauline usage to combat self-congratulatory works of human merit, or in the broad sense of the rule of living well which is coupled with the Spirit’s enablement and Christ’s forgiveness. In the first sense, there is a very profound difference between law and gospel. In the second, however, there is no longer any difference between the law and gospel since the Spirit has been added to the law and Christ’s forgiveness as well. Calvin states this with succinctness in his comments on Dt. 30:11 where he argues that law and gospel are one by the New Covenant. Under the heading of “The Use of the Law” in the same commentary, [p. 205] Calvin lists four distinct uses of the law which highlight this twofold use of the term “law.” The first two are for instruction and condemnation. The second two correspond to the first two respectively as explanations of them. Thus the third is that the law is used by the Spirit in His regenerating work in the believer (cf. instruction). The fourth is an explanation of why Paul “seems” to abrogate the law (cf. condemnation). The fourth point is once again Calvin’s [p. 206] understanding of Paul’s special task of refuting the attempt to gain salvation by meritorious observance of the law. Calvin himself offers a helpful summary of these matters in his comments on Galatians 3:25 and 4:1. In the first text he asks, “How is the law abolished?” His answer is that it is not abolished as a rule of life and cites II Timothy 3:16–17. It is abolished, however in all that differs in comparison of Moses with the covenant of grace. These differences he lists as an unabating demand for exact obedience without forgiveness, a severe reckoning of the smallest offenses, Christ is not openly exhibited, but rather He and His grace are seen only distantly in ceremonies. In the second text he concludes, “All this leads to the conclusion, that the difference between us and the ancient fathers lies in accidents, not in substance. In all the leading characters of the testament or covenant we agree… .” In light of these considerations, two texts already cited take on a greater depth of meaning. Calvin’s statement that God’s people “since the beginning of the world were covenanted to him by the same law and by the bond of the same doctrine” (II. 10. 2) can be seen to be understood by him as the normal use of the law as a rule of life. Similarly, Calvin’s view that “Moses was not made a lawgiver to wipe out the blessing promised to the race of Abraham. Rather, we see him repeatedly reminding the Jews of the freely given covenant made with their fathers. . .” is also clearly a further affirmation that the Pauline interpretation of law is not the normal use of law, but rather a special application of it. In interpreting Calvin’s theological perspective on the relationship of the Old and New Covenants, then, one must be cognizant of his twofold use of the terms “New Covenant” and “law.”

Can Men Break the New Covenant?

Yet one last matter of importance for Calvin’s understanding of [p. 207] the relationship of the Old and New Covenants must be examined in relation to the letter–spirit distinction. If these two are really one and the same covenant that are different only in externals, then does the mass defection of Israel also imply that there can be a mass defection of the New Covenant era saints? But if this is admitted is not one forced to say that the covenant is defective since God would therefore seem not to write His law effectually on the hearts of His people? But if this is denied, then does not the letter–spirit distinction actually prove that they are two different covenants having a different substance? The Old Covenant of the letter could obviously have many who could fall away from it since the law was not Spirit written. On the other hand, the New Covenant cannot allow any to fall away since they are infallibly secured by the effectual application of the law to their heart. In a word, does the New Covenant allow for such covenant-breaking as the Old Covenant experienced in light of the former’s being only of the letter and the latter’s being of the Spirit? How can Calvin’s claim that the only difference between the two is with respect to the extent and power of the Spirit’s work explain this dilemma? Does this accord with the Bible’s view of the church?

Calvin is keenly aware of this argument that would substantiate the Anabaptist claim of a substantial rather than an accidental difference between the Old and New Covenants. For instance, he admits that the Old Covenant is seen as inferior to the New, “Indeed, Jeremiah calls even the moral law a weak and fragile covenant.” Yet Calvin is unwilling to see this defect in the covenant, but rather in the people.

But that is for another reason: by the sudden defection of an ungrateful people it was soon broken off. However, because the people were to blame for such a violation, it cannot properly be charged against the covenant. (II. 11. 8)

Calvin’s answer thus far is that the covenant was not weak in itself but was weak by the ingratitude of the covenanted people. His next point is that the difference between the two is once again to be interpreted not as an absolute contrast but as a comparison.

We are not to surmise from this difference between letter and spirit that the Lord had fruitlessly bestowed his law upon the Jews, [p. 208] and that none of them turned to him. But it was put forward by way of comparison to commend the grace abounding, where with the same Lawgiver — assuming, as it were, a new character — honored the preaching of the gospel. (II. 11. 8)

Even though the covenant was weak due to the people’s ingratitude, Calvin says, this must not be made to teach that there were none who experienced its benefits in the Old Testament era. Rather, in comparison to the New Covenant, there were almost none although in its own right there were many. Calvin states,

For suppose we reckon the multitude of those whom he gathers into the communion of his church from all peoples, men regenerated by his Spirit through the preaching of the gospel. Then we will say that in ancient Israel there were very few — almost none — who embraced the Lord’s covenant with their whole hearts and minds. Yet, reckoned by themselves without comparison, there were many. (II. 11. 8)

Since Calvin has argued for the continuity of the covenant on the basis of comparison, must he not therefore admit the reality of covenant-breaking in the New Covenant? Further, how can this concept be consistent with the very benefit of the covenant that promises that God writes the law upon the believer’s heart?

Calvin’s answer to this question is not found in the immediate context of the letter–spirit distinction (II. 11. 8). While Calvin makes passing reference to this question at numerous points in the Institutes, his most thorough explanation comes from his comments on Romans 11:22. There is no question in Calvin’s mind that people in the New Covenant era can by their ingratitude not persevere in God’s goodness.

They indeed who have been illuminated by the Lord ought always to think of perseverance; for they continue not in the goodness of God, who having for a time responded to the call of God, do at length begin to loathe the kingdom of heaven, and thus by their ingratitude justly deserve to be blinded again.

In saying this, Calvin is fully admitting that there is in reality the experience of covenant-breaking in the New Covenant era even as [p. 209] there was in the Old Covenant administration,

For he would have the gentiles to depend on the eternal covenant of God, so as to connect their own with the salvation of the elect people, and then, lest the rejection of the Jews should produce offence, as though their ancient adoption were void, he would have them to be terrified by this example of punishment, so as reverently to regard the judgment of God.

At this point, Calvin goes on to make an important distinction between God’s corporate and individual election. Paul, according to Calvin, is speaking primarily of corporate election and covenant breaking,

But as he speaks not of the elect individually, but of the whole body, a condition is added, if they continued in his kindness. I indeed allow, that as soon as any one abuses God’s goodness, he deserves to be deprived of the offered favour; but it would be improper to say of any one of the godly particularly, that God had mercy on him when he chose him, provided he would continue in his mercy; for the perseverance of faith, which completes in us the effect of God’s grace, flows from election itself. Paul then teaches us, that the Gentiles were admitted into the hope of eternal life on the condition, that they by their gratitude retained possession of it.

Thus Calvin sees this breaking away from the covenant as a real possibility for the gentiles of the New Covenant as the corporate people of the covenant, although Calvin states that this has implications for individuals as well. But not only does Calvin state that covenant-breaking is a distinct possibility for the gentiles in the New Covenant, he insists that this has already happened,

And dreadful indeed was the defection of the whole world, which afterwards happened; and this clearly proves, that this exhortation was not superfluous; for when God had almost in a moment watered it with his grace, so that religion flourished everywhere, soon after the truth of the gospel vanished, and the treasure of salvation was taken away. And whence came so sudden a change except that the Gentiles had fallen away from their calling?

Calvin applies this point specifically to the Roman Church with a profound sense of the God-abandonedness that he sees characteristic [p. 210] of the Papal Church in the Reformation. Calvin declares, in his commentary on Hosea 2:4, 5,

… that it is not enough that God should choose any people for himself, except the people themselves persevere in the obedience of faith; for this is the spiritual chastity which the Lord requires from all his people. But when is a wife, whom God bath bound to himself by a sacred marriage, said to become wanton? When she falls away, as we shall more clearly see hereafter, from pure and sound faith. Then it follows that the marriage between God and men so long endures as they who have been adopted continue in pure faith, and apostacy in a manner frees God from us, so that he may justly repudiate us. Since such apostacy prevails under the Papacy, and has for many ages prevailed, how senseless they are in their boasting, while they would be thought to be the holy Catholic Church, and the elect people of God? For they are all born by wantonness, they are all spurious children. The incorruptible seed is the word of God; but what sort of doctrine have they? It is a spurious seed. Then as to God all the Papists are bastards. In vain then they boast themselves to be the children of God, and that they have the holy Mother Church, for they are born by filthy wantonness.

Calvin makes use of this fact of the covenant-breaking of the Roman Church several times in his writings. But Calvin has already said that this has some bearing on individuals even though it has primary application to the corporately elect people of the gentile church. How does this idea of covenant-breaking apply to individuals in the New Covenant?

Continuing in his exposition of Romans 11:22, Calvin addresses the question of how this warning of covenant-breaking applies to the elect,

We now understand in what sense Paul threatens them with excision, whom he has already allowed to have been grafted into the hope of life through God’s election. For, first, though this cannot happen to the elect, they have yet need of such warning, in order to subdue the pride of the flesh; which being really opposed to their salvation, ought justly to be terrified with the dread of perdition. As far then as Christians are illuminated by faith, they hear, for their assurance, that the calling of God is without repentance; but as far as they carry about them the flesh, which wantonly resists the grace of God, they are taught humility by this warning, “Take heed lest thou be cut off.”

In essence, Calvin here affirms that the warnings of Scripture are not merely hypothetical, but are true warnings. Even though one is elect, he still is in battle with the pride of the flesh which is [p. 211] opposed to his salvation. To be taught humility before God, the warnings are a necessary means of grace. Calvin does not stop with his adherence to the necessity of warnings for the elect in his explanation of how covenant-breaking applies to New Covenant people. To this idea, he adds a highly developed scheme of how an individual is grafted into and excised from the covenant. Calvin explains,

But if it be asked respecting individuals, “How any one could be cut off from the grafting, and how after excision, he could be grafted again,” — bear in mind, that there are three modes of insition, and two modes of excision. For instance, the children of the faithful are ingrafted, to whom the promise belongs according to the covenant made with the fathers; ingrafted are also they who indeed receive the seed of the gospel, but it strikes no root, or it is choked before it brings any fruit; and thirdly the elect are ingrafted, who are illuminated unto eternal life according to the immutable purpose of God.

Calvin begins his approach to this question with three possible modes of entrance into the covenant: by birth into a Christian home, by hypocritical faith, and by true conversion growing out of divine election. To these three modes of insition, Calvin adds two modes of excision,

The first are cut off, when they refuse the promise given to their fathers, or do not receive it on account of their ingratitude; the second are cut off, when the seed is withered and destroyed; and as the danger of this impends over all, with regard to their own nature, it must be allowed that this warning which Paul gives belongs in a certain way to the faithful, lest they indulge themselves in the sloth of the flesh. But with regard to the present passage, it is enough for us to know, that the vengeance which God had executed on the Jews, is pronounced on the Gentiles, in case they become like them.

Covenant children according to Calvin can be cut off from the covenant by refusing the promise or by ingratitude. Hypocrites are cut off from the covenant when the seed of the Word of God is destroyed in their lives. With respect to the elect, Calvin once again affirms his conviction that this warning is also applicable to the elect since they in this life are burdened with the lust of the flesh and could from the vantage point of human responsibility apostatize. For Calvin, it is highly significant to realize that the warnings of apostasy are not to be ignored, since there are always members of the church — the corporately elect people of the covenant — who will fall away from the promise of their baptism or their profession of faith. While the truly [p. 212] elect of God can never fail to persevere, they must ever be on guard against the flesh and are in fact aided in their struggle by the warnings.

Here, then, one sees that Calvin’s understanding of the letter–spirit distinction has a bearing of his view of the church. The church is not composed entirely of those who have the Spirit-written law upon their hearts, but also of those who have the promise that such will be done (baptized children) and those who claim that it has been done, but in reality are hypocrites. The Anabaptist view of the gathered church grows out of an absolute view of the differences between the Old and New Covenants. Calvin’s perspective on the church recognizes that there is a broader sphere of election than those who are the true recipients of the Spirit. This is in keeping with the church of Israel where there was a mixed multitude. The difference for Calvin, then, is found in the fact that there are many more truly elect in the New Covenant church than in the Old Covenant church, but since the covenant is broader than its actual application, there can be still covenant-breaking in the New Covenant.

In this way Calvin is able to explain how the reality of covenant-breaking relates to the infallibly applied New Covenant. It is of interest to observe how Calvin applies this approach to the covenant to his own experience. Calvin had been baptized into the covenant by a Roman priest. Yet, he failed to keep the promise of baptism and become a covenant-breaker. Nevertheless, God in His mercy restored him back into the covenant relationship. Each of these points may be observed in his comments on Hosea 2:19, 20,

What fellowship have we with God, when we are born and come out of the womb, except he graciously adopts us? For we bring nothing, we know, with us but a curse: this is the heritage of all mankind. Since it is so, all our salvation must necessarily have its foundation in the goodness and mercies of God. But there is also another reason in our case, when God receives us into favour; for we were covenant-breakers under the Papacy; there was not one of us who had not departed from the pledge of his baptism; and so we could not have returned into favour with God, except he had freely united us to himself and God not only forgave us, but contracted also a new marriage with us, so that we can now, as on the day of our youth, as it has been previously said, openly give thanks to him.

Did Calvin take the warning of falling away from the covenant seriously? Did he believe that he might stumble away from the covenant even though he was one of God’s elect? Calvin answers this question [p. 213] very pointedly although indirectly in his prayer at the conclusion of Lecture Fourth in his Commentary on Hosea. There he depicts the idea of the broken covenant he had experienced in the Roman Church that had been restored in his life by the Reformation with the earnest prayer that he might not fall away again, this time as a hypocrite,

Grant, Almighty God, that as thou hast not only of late adopted us as thy children but before we were born, and as thou hast been pleased to sign us, as soon as we came forth from our mother’s womb, with the symbol of that holy redemption, which has been obtained for us by the blood of thy only begotten Son, though we have by our ingratitude renounced so great a benefit — O grant, that being mindful of our defection and unfaithfulness, of which we are all guilty, and for which thou hast justly rejected us, we may now with true humility and obedience of faith embrace the grace of thy gospel now again offered to us, by which thou reconciles thyself to us; and grant that we may steadfastly persevere in pure faith, so as never to turn aside from the true obedience of faith, but to advance more and more in the knowledge of thy mercy, that having strong and deep roots, and being firmly grounded in the confidence of sure faith, we may never fall away from the true worship of thee, until thou at length receivest us into that eternal kingdom, which has been procured for us by the blood of thy only Son. Amen.

While the matter is quite complex, it must be admitted that Calvin has thoroughly thought through his viewpoint of the letter–spirit distinction. He insists that the distinction of law–gospel is a specific application of the law — severed from Christ — and not its normative use. The law is fully in accord with the New Covenant in its continual progress in all the ages of redemption, even until the New Covenant actually “became” new with its ratification in Christ’s redemptive work. Thus Calvin asserts that the relationship of the Old and New Covenants is one of lesser to greater in comparison rather than an absolute dichotomy. In keeping with this viewpoint, Calvin further maintains that there is covenant-breaking even in the New Covenantal era of the “New” Covenant or Covenant of Grace. This is different from Israel only in the extent of those who fall away; nevertheless, the apostasy of Rome indicates that a near total apostasy of the gentiles was equally possible as that of Israel. Therefore, Calvin understands that the Covenant is broader than the actual application of the Spirit-written law to the heart in the New Covenant even as it was in the Old Covenant. Thus, for Calvin, the church is not made up exclusively of [p. 214] “regenerate” members of a gathered church, but of those who have some claim to the promise of the covenant. In fact, Calvin includes himself among those who have been severed from the covenant by ingratitude, and who have been restored by divine grace. Further, Calvin also is struck by the warnings of apostasy and prays that he be kept from falling away again as a hypocrite.

If modern Baptists object to this approach by claiming that the baptistic approach is much simpler and more likely to maintain the purity of the church by its insistence on regenerate church membership, it is important to realize that the problems that Calvin has here struggled with are applicable to them as well. Is it not true that many “regenerate” people have walked an aisle or sought baptism and have received the ordinance of baptism as adult believers only to fall away from their profession? It is this fact of experience itself that indicates the impossibility of inerrantly practicing the regenerate church concept. If anyone has ever been baptized and then later shown himself to be a genuine hypocrite who has finally apostatized from the truth, the reality of a regenerate church membership is disproved. While Calvin’s approach may not appear ideal to the baptistic viewpoint, it nevertheless is the only approach that can handle the state of the church as it really exists in this world.

Perhaps no better illustration from Calvin’s writings of this interplay between law, letter–spirit, and the genuine and hypocritical peoples of the covenant or church can be found than his comment on Genesis 21:12. There Calvin speaks of the “perpetual condition of the church.” Calvin says that the church or the spiritual kingdom of Christ is born of the law. From the law, two types of children are born — those born of the letter and those born of the Spirit. The first are illustrated by Hagar who is the letter giving birth to Ishmael who is an adulterous son. Over against these two are Sarah who illustrates the Spirit, and Isaac who is the true son. Calvin proceeds to say that the church has children of the letter or adulterous sons who are born into slavery to the law and are so hypocrites. In his day, these children of the letter, or adulterous sons in slavery to the law and hypocrisy are the members of the papal church. One can now understand why he called them “bastards” in his comment on Hosea 2:4, 5 cited above. On the other hand, Calvin sees the true sons of the Spirit as those who are born into liberty as the sons of God. These, of course, are the Protestants, although Calvin does not say so in this passage. The first group, Calvin says, are “apparently [p. 215] born of the Word of God, and therefore in a sense, the sons of God.” The latter group, however, are “born of the incorruptible seed of the Word” and hence are true sons. For Calvin, then, “law” can result in slavery and hypocrisy or it can result in liberty and true sonship. What makes the difference? The answer is found in a proper understanding of the letter–spirit distinction. To absolutize the distinction results in an Anabaptist conception of the church. Yet this view leaves the Old Covenant saints as without the Spirit’s blessing. Nor can it explain why there are covenant-breakers in the New Covenant era, if the difference is taken as absolute. On the other hand, Calvin’s interpretation of a comparison from lesser to greater explains the Old Covenant saints’ experience of salvation, how David can delight in the law and Paul can be terrified by it, and how there can be covenant-breaking even in the New Covenant. The result is a Reformed conception of the church that recognizes the impossibility of having a totally “regenerate” church membership. Calvin’s view recognizes that the unity of the covenants in all the ages demands that the church also be arranged along the lines of the covenant. While all of this may seem complex, it can be simplified if it is studied in graphic form. This chart attempts to incorporate the main points considered so far.

Calvin’s View of the Relationship of the Church and the Covenant Throughout History


It would perhaps be helpful to provide a few more specific examples from Calvin’s writings to illustrate how he viewed this matter [p. 216] of members of the New Covenant in the sense of “general election” being designated as covenant-breakers. Calvin sees the reality of covenant-breaking associated with baptism in the case of the papal church.

The same thing that the Prophet brought against the Israelites may be also brought against the Papists; for as soon as infants are born among them, the Lord signs them with the sacred symbol of baptism; they are therefore in some sense the people of God. We see, at the same time, how gross and abominable are the superstitions which prevail among them: there are none more stupid than they are. Even the Turks and the Saracenes are wise when compared with them. How great, then, and how shameful is this baseness, that the Papists, who boast themselves to be the people of God, should go astray after their own mad follies!

Even though they have the sign of the covenant, they fail to keep God’s Word by their superstitious practices. Not only does Calvin see this form of covenant-breaking, but he also is keenly aware of the reality of hypocrisy, both in the papal church and in the church of the Reformation as well.

Since then the sacrifices were daily performed and since the kingdom still retained its outward form, they thought that God was, in a manner, bound to them. The same is the case at this day with the great part of men; they presumptuously and absurdly boast of the external forms of religion. The Papists possess the name of a Church, with which they are extremely inflated; and then there is a great show and pomp in their ceremonies. The hypocrites also among us boast of Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper, and the name of Reformation; while, at the same time, these are nothing but mockeries, by which the name of God and the whole operation of religion are profaned, when no real piety flourishes in the heart.

Because of the ever present danger of disobedience, one who is in the “special election” sphere must be ever mindful of his responsibility to keep the covenant. Even one who believes that he is truly elect may stumble and prove himself to be a hypocrite. Perhaps no passage in Calvin’s writings more graphically presents the necessity of taking the warnings of Scripture seriously and thus repenting from sin than his comments on Leviticus 26:40:

Whence too, it follows, that all punishments are like spurs to arouse the inert and hesitating to repentance, whilst the sorer [p. 217] plagues are intended to break their hard hearts. Yet at the same time, it must be observed that this favor is vouchsafed by special privilege, to the church of God. Moses soon afterwards expressly assigns its cause, that is, that God will remember his covenant. Whence it is plain that God out of regard to his gratuitous adoption, will be gracious to the unworthy whom He has elected; and whence also it comes to pass, that provided we do not close the gate of hope against ourselves, God will still voluntarily come forward to reconcile us to Himself, if only we lay hold of the covenant from which we have fallen by our own guilt, like shipwrecked sailors seizing a plank to carry them safe into port. (Italics mine.)

Here Calvin pointedly indicates the reality of falling from the covenant by disobedience. Only if one does not “close the gate of hope against” himself, and seizes the covenant from which he has fallen, will God “come forward to reconcile” Himself. Here Calvin is emphasizing the element of human responsibility in the covenant relationship. The covenant-breaker is responsible to seize the “plank” if he desires to be carried “safe into port.” It is of utmost importance to note that Calvin once again uses the personal pronouns “we”, “ourselves”, and “us” in his application. He undoubtedly saw this as a reality for himself, that could be prevented by taking the abundant warnings of Scripture seriously. Calvin here unhesitatingly unites the danger of falling away from the covenant with the doctrine of election (note italicized words). Once again it is seen that Calvin’s view of baptism is not an independent doctrine with little significance for his other doctrinal formulations. Instead, as here, it results in a very important perspective in his overall doctrinal perspective: Calvin sees that his doctrine of infant baptism explains why there is at least in part covenant-breaking in the new covenant. Because the letter–spirit distinction is one of comparison and not absolute contrast, the baptized members of the New Covenant can fall away by ingratitude from their place in the covenant even as Old Covenant people rejected in unthankfulness the promise of their circumcision. In fact, Calvin avers, this is the experience of the Roman Church and his own spiritual life.

*  *  *  *  *  *

The remaining differences between the Old and New Covenants in Calvin’s understanding have already been touched upon above in an indirect manner. The fourth difference and the third between law and gospel is the bondage of the Old Covenant and the freedom of [p. 218] the New Covenant. Calvin explains,

The fourth difference arises out of the third. Scripture calls the Old Testament one of “bondage” because it produces fear in men’s minds; but the New Testament, one of “freedom” because it lifts them to trust and assurance. (II. 11. 9)

This understanding of the Old Testament seems, however, to take away the blessings of the Spirit that Calvin has already argued properly belonged to the holy patriarchs. Did they not have the same freedom and joy? Calvin’s explanation once again indicates his understanding of the New Covenant as the place of salvation in all of redemptive history. It further points to his recognition of the comparison of lesser to greater in that the Old Testament saints did not have this freedom and joy to the same extent as the New Testament saints. He states,

But when through the law the patriarchs felt themselves both oppressed by their enslaved condition, and wearied by anxiety of conscience, they fled for refuge to the gospel. It was therefore a particular fruit of the New Testament that, apart from the common law of the Old Testament, they were exempted from those evils. Further, we shall deny that they were so endowed with the spirit of freedom and assurance as not in some degree to experience the fear and bondage arising from the law. For, however much they enjoyed the privilege that they had received through the grace of the gospel, they were still subject to the same bonds and burdens of ceremonial observances as the common people. They were compelled to observe those ceremonies punctiliously, symbols of tutelage resembling bondage… Hence, they are rightly said, in contrast to us, to have been under the testament of bondage and fear…. (II. 11. 9)

The fifth and final difference between the Covenants for Calvin is that the Old Covenant was limited to the nation of Israel while the New Covenant is extended by God to all nations. Calvin explains,

The fifth difference, which may be added, lies in the fact that until the advent of Christ, the Lord set apart one nation within which to confine the covenant of his grace… He lodged his covenant, so to speak, in their bosom; he manifested the presence of his majesty over them; he showered every privilege upon them. But — to pass over the remaining blessings — let us consider the one in question. In communicating his Word to them, he joined them to himself, that he might be called and esteemed their God. In the meantime, “he allowed all other nations to walk” in vanity, as if they had nothing whatsoever to do with him. (II. 11. 11)

[p. 219]

Because God changed His administration of the gospel by opening it up to all nations, Calvin sees this as a superiority of the New Covenant over the Old Covenant. He states,

The calling of the Gentiles, therefore, is a notable mark of the excellence of the New Testament over the Old. Indeed, this had been attested before by many very clear utterances of the prophets, but in such a way that its fulfillment was postponed until the Kingdom of Messiah. (II. 11. 12)

III. Calvin’s Use of the Covenant to Defend Infant Baptism

Thus far, we have seen Calvin’s understanding of the continuity of the Old and New Covenants as well as his perspective on how they differ from one another. In both instances, Calvin develops his conception of the covenant against the viewpoint of the Anabaptist theology. In the first case, Calvin insists that the New Covenant has always been the place of redemption whether in the Old economy or the New. Thus he rejects the Anabaptist idea of the radical disjuncture of the Old Testament and the New Testament. He refuses the idea of a materialistic covenant versus a spiritual covenant. Secondly, Calvin also recognizes Biblical differences between the two covenants, but not in a substantial sense as the Anabaptists aver. The differences are due to variations in externals. Thus there is in Calvin’s mind a real ministry of the “Spirit” in the Old Covenant of the “letter.” With this “hermeneutical” background, we can now approach the question of Calvin’s defense of infant baptism vis a vis the Anabaptist view of believer’s baptism.

It must be strongly emphasized that Calvin’s exposition of infant baptism is saturated with the concept of the covenant. In fact, the sacrament of baptism is the common vow of the church whereby both God and man are joined in a contractual relationship. Baptism is for Calvin the contract of the covenant of grace. In this relationship, God gives mercy and eternal life while man accepts the stipulation of perfect obedience in the context of forgiveness of sins and the Spirit’s sanctification. In light of this and all that has been presented above, it is little wonder that Calvin unleashes his assault on Anabaptist theology by a barrage of covenantal argumentation.

[p. 220]

Calvin both presents his case for paedobaptism as well as defends it against various attacks by employment of the covenant idea. His positive arguments build initially upon his already established point of the continuity of the Old and New Covenants. It is due to the continuity of the covenant with the Jews and with Christians that enables Christians to baptize their infants:

For he expressly declares that the circumcision of a tiny infant will be in lieu of a seal to certify the promise of the covenant. But if the covenant still remains firm and steadfast, it applies no less today to the children of Christians than under the Old Testament it pertained to the infants of the Jews. Yet if they are participants in the thing signified, why shall they be debarred from the sign? (IV. 16. 5)

On the other hand, the discontinuity of the covenants in externals allows Calvin to refute an objection against his view:

The objection that there was a stated day for circumcision is sheer evasion. We admit that we are not now bound to certain days like the Jews; but since the Lord, without fixing the day yet declares that he is pleased to receive infants into his covenant with a solemn rite, what more do we require? (IV. 16. 5)

Calvin is so adamant that the covenant with the Jews continues into the New Covenant era that he asserts that to deny this is nothing less than blasphemy. This is because such a view implies that Christ’s coming actually narrowed God’s grace rather than expanding it:

[p. 221]

Yet Scripture opens to us a still surer knowledge of the truth. Indeed, it is most evident that the covenant which the Lord once made with Abraham is no less in force today for Christians than it was of old for the Jewish people, and that this work relates no less to Christians than it then related to the Jews. Unless perhaps we think that Christ by his coming lessened or curtailed the grace of the Father — but this is nothing but execrable blasphemy! Accordingly, the children of the Jews also, because they had been made heirs of his covenant and distinguished from the children of the impious, were called a holy seed. For this same reason the children of Christians are considered holy; and even though born with only one believing parent, by the apostle’s testimony they differ from the unclean seed of idolators. Now seeing that the Lord immediately after making the covenant with Abraham commanded it to be sealed in infants by an outward sacrament, what excuse will Christians give for not testifying and sealing it in their children today? (IV. 16. 6)

Because children in the Old Testament as well as in the New Testament are a holy seed in virtue of the same covenantal promise made by God with Abraham, infant baptism bears the same force of command as circumcision. Nor does Calvin accept the evasion that the children of the Old Testament Covenant simply foreshadow the true children of Abraham of the New Covenant, that is, believers. This [p. 222] cannot be, because of this ongoing covenant that God established with Abraham:

In the use of the term “children” they find this difference: those who had their origin from his seed were called children of Abraham under the OT; now, those who imitate his faith are called by this name. They therefore say that that physical infancy which was engrafted into the fellowship of the covenant through circumcision foreshadowed the spiritual infants of the NT, who were regenerated to immortal life by God’s Word. In these words, indeed, we see a feeble spark of truth. But those fickle spirits gravely sin in seizing upon whatever first comes to hand where they ought to proceed further, and in stubbornly clinging to one word where they ought to compare many things together…. We should, accordingly, aim at a better target, to which we are directed by the very sure guidance of Scripture. Therefore, the Lord promises Abraham that he will have offspring in whom all the nations of the earth will be blessed, and at the same time assures him that he will be his God and the God of his descendants. All those who by faith receive Christ as author of the blessing are heirs of this promise, and are therefore called children of Abraham. (IV. 16. 12)

Calvin’s point is that while there is an element of truth in the objection, it does not fully explain all of the salient Scriptural data. It is true that the offspring of Abraham’s flesh foreshadowed the future offspring of Abraham by faith. Yet, Calvin insists, this fact does not in the least remove the promise that God made to Abraham’s physical offspring. God did in fact assure Abraham “that he will be his God and the God of his descendants.” Calvin’s response, then, is that it is not an either/or, but a both/and. The implication for the practice of baptism is that the offspring of Abraham are heirs of the promise, even those who become his offspring by faith. Thus, even the children of Abraham’s offspring by faith are made full partakers of the promise made to Abraham, since they too are now part of the family of Abraham. Calvin insists that the covenant with Abraham does in fact exist in the New Covenant era.

One of the criticisms most often brought against Calvin’s argument for Paedobaptism due to the continuity of the covenant is that the sign of circumcision has ceased. Since this is true, it is concluded that the covenant signified by it is no longer valid in its original form. The covenant of circumcision has changed even as the sign that characterized it has been changed. From this, it would seem apparent that it is an invalid argument for infant baptism. Calvin’s simple answer to this challenge is that the changing of the sign does not change the covenant.

[p. 223]

And let no one object against me that the Lord did not command that his covenant be confirmed by any other symbol than circumcision, which has long since been abolished. There is a ready answer that for the time of the Old Testament he instituted circumcision, to confirm his covenant, but that after circumcision was abolished, the same reason for confirming his covenant (which we have in common with the Jews) still holds good. Consequently, we must always diligently consider what is common to both, and what they have apart from us. The covenant is common, and the reason for confirming it is common. Only the manner of confirmation is different — what was circumcision for them was replaced for us by baptism. (IV. 16. 6)

In fact, Calvin goes on to argue, if it were true that there is no replacement for circumcision since it was abolished, Christ’s coming actually narrowed the manifestation of God’s grace rather than increasing it:

Otherwise, if the testimony by which the Jews were assured of the salvation of their posterity is taken away from us, Christ’s coming would have the effect of making God’s grace more obscure and less attested for us than it had previously been for the Jews. Now, this cannot be said without grievously slandering Christ, through whom the Father’s infinite goodness was more clearly and liberally poured out upon the earth and declared to men than ever before. (IV. 16. 6)

Because the Anabaptist rejection of infant baptism often argued that circumcision was not the spiritual equal of baptism, Calvin points out with detail how Paul assumes the spirituality of the sign of circumcision in opposition to their assertion:

Paul, also, therefore when he shows to the Ephesians out of what destruction the Lord has delivered them, from the fact that they had not been admitted into the covenant of circumcision infers that they were without Christ, without God, without hope, strangers to the testaments of promise — all of which the covenant itself contained. But the first access to God, the first entry into immortal life, is the forgiveness of sins. Accordingly, this corresponds to the promise of baptism that we shall be cleansed. Afterward, the Lord covenants with Abraham that he should walk before him in uprightness and innocence of heart. This applies to mortification, or regeneration…. Circumcision is the sign of mortification… As God when he adopts the posterity of Abraham as his people commands them to be circumcised, so Moses declares that they ought to be circumcised in heart, explaining the true meaning of this carnal circumcision. Again, that no man should strive after it by his own strength, Moses teaches that it is a work of God’s grace… We have, therefore, a [p. 224] spiritual promise given to the patriarchs in circumcision such as is given us in baptism, since it represented for them forgiveness of sins and mortification of flesh. Moreover, as we have taught that Christ is the foundation of baptism, in whom both of these reside, so it is evident that he is the foundation of circumcision. For he is promised to Abraham, and in him the blessing of all nations. To seal this grace, the sign of circumcision is added. (IV. 16. 3)

Calvin then turns this argument of the Anabaptists back on themselves. If baptism and circumcision are paralleled by Paul, and circumcision is only a material sign, then baptism as well must be a material sign.

Clearly, if circumcision was a literal sign, we must estimate baptism to be the same. For the apostle, in the second chapter of Colossians, makes neither more spiritual than the other…. It is quite certain that the primary promises, which contained that covenant ratified with the Israelites by God under the Old Testament, were spiritual and referred to eternal life; then, conversely, that they were received by the fathers spiritually (as was fitting) in order that they might gain therefrom assurance of the life to come, to which they aspired with their whole heart. (IV. 16. 11)

For Calvin, the Bible in its Old and New Testaments insists in clear language that circumcision is a spiritual sign that signifies all that baptism does. While the Bible speaks of the change of the sign, it affirms the continuity of the covenant and the equivalence of the two signs. Since baptism has taken the place of circumcision, it surely must be administered in the same fashion as its counterpart: to infants of believers as well as to new believers and their children.

While Calvin has asserted the covenantal arguments growing from the continuity of the covenant and the parallel of circumcision and baptism, he also argues for paedobaptism by the implications for the covenant and baptism from Christ’s attitude toward infants. Calvin writes:

If it is right for infants to be brought to Christ, why not also to be received into baptism, the symbol of our communion and fellowship with Christ? If the kingdom of heaven belongs to them, why is the sign denied which, so to speak, opens to them a door into the church, that adopted into it, they may be enrolled among the heirs of the kingdom of heaven? How unjust of us to drive away those whom Christ calls to himself! To deprive those whom he adorns with gifts! To shut out those whom he willingly receives! But if we wish to make an issue of the great difference between baptism and this act of Christ, how much more precious shall we regard baptism, by which we attest that infants are contained [p. 225] within God’s covenant, than the receiving, embracing, laying on of hands, and prayer, by which Christ himself present declares both that they are his and are sanctified by him? (IV. 16. 7)

His argument in essence is that regardless of how different the actions of Christ’s embracing infants and infants being baptized may appear to be, their significance is identical. Calvin’s concluding question must be answered by “none at all.” Being received into the covenant (baptism) and being embraced by Christ and thus sanctified are not capable of being interpreted as the Anabaptists attempt. To them baptism is a blessing of a far greater sort than being brought to Christ. But how can this be since each implies the full acceptance and sanctification of Christ? What Calvin has done with this argument is to change the comparison from a greater spiritual reality (baptism) and a lesser spiritual reality (reception by Christ), to simply a matter about the external mode of offering the child to Christ. If the two actions imply the same thing, then there is no reason to prohibit infants from the sign of baptism on the ground that the unbelieving child is not entitled to the sign of spiritual grace. This is because Christ has made abundantly clear that infants are received by him, and that to such belongs the kingdom of heaven. Of course, the paedobaptist cannot find any water in this text. But, this is simply a matter of externals at this point since the spiritual equivalence of Christ’s embracing infants and baptism has been established, which is the most critical point. The propriety of water for infants is established by the continuity of the covenant and the replacement of circumcision by baptism. Baptism, almost needless to say, implies water. For Calvin, then, Christ’s embracing infants and promising them the kingdom of heaven is tantamount to attesting “that infants are contained within God’s covenant.” For Calvin, the arms of Christ are the arms of the covenanting God. This episode from the life of Christ corroborates the legitimacy of infant baptism for Calvin.

Calvin’s concluding positive argument for infant baptism by the covenant is the great blessing for parents and children that results from this administration of the covenant sign, as well as the accompanying danger inherent in the delay of the administration of the sign. Calvin explains:

Accordingly, let those who embrace the promise that God’s mercy is to be extended to their children deem it their duty to offer them to the church to be sealed by the symbol of mercy, and thereby to arouse themselves to a surer confidence, because they see with their very eyes the covenant of the Lord engraved upon the bodies [p. 226] of their children. On the other hand, the children receive some benefit from their baptism: being engrafted into the body of the church, they are greatly spurred to an earnest zeal for worshiping God, by whom they were received as children through a solemn symbol of adoption before they were old enough to recognize him as Father. Finally, we ought to be greatly afraid of that threat, that God will wreak vengeance upon any man who disdains to mark his child with the symbol of the covenant; for by such contempt the proffered grace is refused, and, as it were, foresworn. (IV. 16. 9)

The parents benefit in the confidence gained by visibly seeing God’s covenant promise attested. The children benefit by nurture in the church and later by the humble joy of realizing that God had made them His own even before they chose Him. Infant baptism is thus a graphic representation of the sovereign grace of God — He loved us before we loved Him. Further, the danger of spurning the promised grace of God is not only wicked, but a risk that no believer should take.

Not only does Calvin defend infant baptism by employment of the covenant idea, but he also resists the arguments that oppose paedobaptism by constant reference to the covenant. The first example of this comes from the Anabaptist charge that God’s sovereign election and rejection of Israel in the Old Covenant disproves any validity for the practice of infant baptism by the argument from circumcision. Calvin presents the objection:

But they will bring forward in opposition another passage of the apostle, where he teaches that those who are of the flesh are not children of Abraham, but that only those who are children of promise are counted among his offspring. This seems to hint that physical descent from Abraham, to which we give some place, is nothing. (IV. 16. 14)

Calvin’s response begins with an affirmation of divine sovereign grace in election. He then points out that this election of Israel was not a grounds for complacency on their part since the covenant demands obedience to its stipulations:

Paul cites, by way of proof, Ishmael and Esau, who were rejected just as if they were strangers; even though they were real offspring of Abraham according to the flesh, the blessing rests on Isaac and Jacob. From this follows what he afterwards affirms, that salvation depends upon God’s mercy, which he extends to whom he pleases; but that there is no reason for the Jews to preen themselves and boast in the name of the covenant unless they keep the law of the covenant, that is, obey the Word. (IV. 16. 14)

[p. 227]

In saying this, Calvin once again affirms his recognition that those who have had a place in the covenant, can in fact fall away as covenant-breakers, and this can in fact be traced back to the divine election. But does this certain fact of Scripture set aside the divine promise to Israel made in His covenant with Israel’s father Abraham? To this Calvin responds with an emphatic “no.” He explains:

Nevertheless, when Paul cast them down from vain confidence in their kindred, he still saw, on the other hand, that the covenant which God had made once for all with the descendants of Abraham could in no way be made void… For this reason, despite their stubbornness and covenant-breaking, Paul still calls them holy (such great honor does he give to the holy generation whom God had held worthy of his sacred covenant)… Therefore, that they might not be defrauded of their privilege, the gospel had to be announced to them first. For they are, so to speak, like the first-born in God’s household. Accordingly, this honor was to be given them until they refused what was offered, and by their ungratefulness caused it to be transferred to the Gentiles. (IV. 16. 14)

In essence, Calvin here insists that Israel has broken covenant, yet God continues to stand faithful to His promise made to Abraham. As a result of this perspective, Calvin is able to assert that physical Jews are in fact children of the covenant by right of birth, but if they do not keep the obligations of the covenant, they lose the reality of the covenant blessing. Even though only true believers are members of the covenant in its fullest sense, God still holds forth his promise to covenant-breaking Israel. The condition of restoration to the covenant is repentance:

However the covenant might be violated by them, the symbol of the covenant remained ever firm and inviolable by virtue of the Lord’s institution. Therefore, on the sole condition of repentance they were restored into the covenant which God had once made with them in circumcision; and which, moreover, they had received at the hand of a covenant-breaking priest, and then done their utmost to defile and render ineffectual. (IV. 15 .17)

Calvin then goes on to show that his view that the physical offspring of Abraham have a right to the covenant in spite of their covenant-breaking is supported by the perspective of the New Testament itself. He writes:

The apostle writes that “Christ” is “a minister of the circumcision, to fulfill the promises which had been given to the fathers.” Speaking [p. 228] thus, he does not philosophize as subtly as if he had spoken in this fashion: “Inasmuch as the covenant made with Abraham applies to his descendants, Christ, to perform and discharge the pledge made once for all by his Father, came for the salvation of the Jewish nation.” Do you see how, after Christ’s resurrection also, he thinks that the promise of the covenant is to be fulfilled, not only allegorically but literally, for Abraham’s physical offspring? To the same point that the benefit of the gospel belongs to them and their offspring by right of the covenant; and in the following chapter he calls them “sons of the covenant,” that is, heirs. (IV, 16. 15)

Calvin’s answer to this objection made by the Anabaptists is that the reality of covenant-breaking does not set aside the promise of God to the physical seed of Abraham. The promise still stands if they repent or not. The blessing of the covenant is only received, however, if they do repent. Thus Calvin points out that election can only be spoken of in any specific case by its fruits. Only the children of promise are truly the children of Abraham, but they are known only by their keeping the “laws of the covenant.” The promise of God, however, is unchanging and is open to all of Abraham’s seed if they claim it in their human responsibility, and thus keep the covenant as those marked out by promise as “sons of the covenant.”

A second major criticism against paedobaptism that Calvin answers by use of the covenant is the Anabaptist argument that New Testament baptism demands mental awareness of the significance of the act, that is, a spiritual understanding by conscious faith. Calvin’s answer is that the child grows into an understanding of his baptism. What is important is that circumcision was not an act that placed no significance on understanding, and yet it was used by God to seal His covenant. Calvin reasons:

But they repeatedly go wrong through their deluded notion that the thing ought always to precede the sign in order of time. For the truth of circumcision too rested upon the same testimony of a good conscience. But if it ought of necessity to have preceded, infants would never have been circumcised by God’s command. Still, in showing that the testimony of a good conscience underlies the truth of circumcision, yet at the same time commanding the infants to be circumcised, he clearly indicates that circumcision is conferred, in this case, for the time to come. Accordingly, in infant baptism nothing more of present effectiveness must be [p. 229] required than to confirm and ratify the covenant made with them by the Lord. The remaining significance of this sacrament will afterward follow at such time as God himself foresees. (IV. 16. 21)

Since circumcision was a sign that demanded understanding and yet God commanded His covenant to be sealed by it to infants who were unconscious of its import, the same must hold for baptism. Calvin thus argues that the sign is to confirm and ratify the covenant promise, which will later be experienced by the infant as God’s sovereign purpose has already determined.

Further, Calvin asserts that it is a basic misunderstanding of Scripture to treat children and adults in the same fashion. This is seen in the differing way new converts to Judaism in the Old Covenant were given circumcision as opposed to the manner of giving circumcision to infants. Calvin says:

But it is perfectly clear that infants ought to be put in another category, for in ancient times if anyone joined himself in religious fellowship with Israel, he had to be taught the Lord’s covenant and instructed in the law before he could be marked with circumcision, because he was of foreign nationality, that is, alien to the people of Israel, with whom the covenant, which circumcision sanctioned, had been made. (IV. 16. 23)

Calvin then goes on to illustrate this difference between adults and infants by the examples of Abraham and Isaac. God declares His covenant to Abraham before the sign was given since in his case it was dependent on faith. This, however, was not the case with Isaac. Calvin interprets this in terms of an adult’s coming into the covenant from the outside and an infant’s receiving the promise of the covenant by hereditary right:

The Lord also, when he adopts Abraham, does not begin with circumcision, meanwhile concealing what he means by that sign, but first declares what the covenant is that he intends to make with him, then after Abraham has faith in the promise, the Lord makes him partaker in the sacrament. Why, in Abraham’s case, does the sacrament follow faith, but in Isaac, his son, precede all understanding? Because it is fair that he who as a grown man is received into the fellowship of the covenant to which he had been till then a stranger should learn its conditions beforehand; but is not the same with his infant son. The latter by hereditary right, according to the form of the promise is already included within the covenant from his mother’s womb. Or (to put the matter more clearly and briefly), if the children of believers are partakers in the covenant without the help of understanding, there is no reason why they should be barred from the sign merely because they cannot swear [p. 230] to the provisions of the covenant. (IV. 16. 24)

Having shown this basic distinction between adult and infant in covenant with God, Calvin proceeds to clarify how an adult unbeliever is outside of the benefits of the covenant. Then, Calvin contrasts this with the right an infant of believers has in the covenant:

But he who is an unbeliever, sprung from impious parents, is reckoned as alien to the fellowship of the covenant until he is joined to God through faith. No wonder, then, if he does not partake in the sign when what is signified would be fallacious and empty in him! Paul also writes to this effect: that the Gentiles, so long as they were immersed in their idolatry, were outside the covenant. The whole matter, unless I am mistaken, can be clearly disclosed in this brief statement. Those who embrace faith in Christ as grown men, since they were previously strangers to the covenant, are not to be given the badge of baptism unless they first have faith and repentance, which alone can give access to the society of the covenant. But those infants who derive their origin from Christians, as they have been born directly into the inheritance of the covenant, and are expected by God, are thus to be received into baptism. (IV. 16. 24)

With this development of the believer’s entering the covenant as an adult by faith, and the simultaneous inclusion of his children by right of the covenant, Calvin believes that he has successfully answered the Anabaptist argument of the universal necessity of faith before the administration of baptism.

Calvin concludes his analysis of paedobaptism with a denial and an affirmation. He first denies that his doctrine of infant baptism implies that all unbaptized are lost. Having said this, however, Calvin nevertheless resists the implication that baptism is unimportant. To despise baptism is to despise God’s covenant:

The promise of the Lord is clear: “Whosoever believes in the Son will not see death, nor come into judgment, but has passed from death into life.” Nowhere do we find that he has ever condemned anyone as yet unbaptized. I do not want anyone on this account to think of me as meaning that baptism can be despised with impunity (by which contempt I declare the Lord’s covenant will be violated — so far am I from tolerating it!); it merely suffices to prove that baptism is not so necessary that one from whom the capacity to obtain it has been taken away should straightway be counted as lost. (IV. 16. 26)

In these words, Calvin is attempting to insist on the necessity of [p. 231] baptism without giving room to the idea of baptismal regeneration or the saving efficacy of baptism. It is worthy of note that the necessity of baptism arises out of the need to keep rather than violate God’s covenant.

IV. Summary and Conclusion

Our study has been designed to highlight Calvin’s use of the concept of the covenant as he responded to the Anabaptist view of baptism. Calvin’s general perspective can be summarized in three propositions. First, there is one covenant of grace throughout all of Scripture, both Old and New Testaments. If this is denied, either we must hold that the Old Testament saints are robbed of salvation and received only material benefits, or else we are left with the contradiction of affirming the salvation of the Old Testament believers who nevertheless did not have a spiritually significant sacrament.

Second, there are differences in the Old and New Testaments when they are compared. These differences are with respect to administration and externals but not substance. Thus the main differences are bound up in promise and fulfillment. With this viewpoint, Calvin naturally unfolds the distinction of the Old and New Covenant as primarily one of comparison of the lesser to the greater since the blessings of the New Covenant have always existed either in terms of promise or in terms of fulfillment. Thus too, Calvin sees that the church is made up of those who can in reality break covenant in hypocrisy since the departure of people marked by the covenant in the Old Testament is a reality for people of the New Testament. While the elect can never fall, the warnings must be taken seriously due to the weakness of the flesh.

Third, baptism is an expression of the continuity of the covenant in that infants are still included within the covenant, as well as an expression of the discontinuity of the covenant since circumcision has ceased and has been replaced by baptism. In expounding this doctrine, Calvin shows that the covenant is its center. It is the explanation of Christ’s embracing arms, as well as the comfort of believing parents. The covenant stands fast even if Israel or the church falls away since the promise of God made in baptism can be renewed by true repentance. It is entrance into the covenant that explains why some must believe first before administration of the sacrament and others receive it before faith — adults enter by faith, infants enter by birth into the promise. While salvation does not demand baptism, nevertheless, not to baptize one’s children is to [p. 232] violate God’s covenant. Obedience to God requires the baptism of one’s children and in this sense baptism is necessary.

While Calvin’s interpretation of the sacrament of baptism may be distasteful to many, it must not be thought of as an irrelevant or minute part of his theology. Baptism means covenant to Calvin, and covenant means almost everything else! To preserve the Calvinian system, paedobaptism is not an option but a prerequisite. It is thus clear that Calvin’s answer to the Anabaptist perspective on baptism was that they failed to understand this foundational doctrine of the covenant between God and his people and their children.

[p. 185]

Several examples of Reformed or Calvinistic Baptists can be given to illustrate their abrupt about-face in their attitude toward Calvin’s theology when the question of paedobaptism arises. Charles Spurgeon wrote, “If I thought it wrong to be a Baptist, I should give it up and become what I believed to be right. If we could find infant baptism in the Word of God, we would adopt it. It would help us out of a great difficulty, for it would take away from us that reproach which is attached to us — that we are odd and do not as other people do. But we have looked well through the Bible and cannot find it, and do not believe it is there; nor do we believe that others can find infant baptism in the Scripture, unless they themselves first put it there,” Autobiography I, London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1899–1900, cited by Paul K. Jewett, Infant Baptism & the Covenant of Grace (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1978), p. v. G. Beasley–Murray, Baptism in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1962), p. 339 writes, “it is difficult to see how this view [the Reformed view] is reconcilable with the teaching of Paul on the covenant in Galatians 3.” The greatest of the Reformed Baptist theologians John Gill wrote, “It is not fact, as has been asserted, that the infants of believers have, with their parents, been taken into covenant with God in the former ages of the church if by it is meant the covenant of grace,” (italics mine) in A Body of Divinity (Grand Rapids: Sovereign Grace Publishers, 1971), p. 903. Jewett describes Calvin’s view as “a study in paradox” (p. 99) and as a “palpable incongruity” (p. 100).

Again, several examples of this sentiment can be found. A. H. Strong in his Systematic Theology (New York: A. C Armstrong & Son, 1889), p. 538 writes, “There is therefore no logical halting place between the Baptist and the Romanist positions. The Roman Catholic Archbishop Hughes of New York, said well to a Presbyterian minister, ‘We have no controversy with you, our controversy is with the Baptists.’ Lange of Jena: ‘Would the Protestant Church fulfill and attain to its final destiny, the baptism of infants must of necessity be abolished.’” William R. Estep, The [p. 186] Anabaptist Story (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1975), p. 145 writes, “Luther’s battle cry, ‘Justification by faith,’ became his plumb line for interpreting the Bible. However, due to the persistent Roman Catholic appendages of his theology, he was never able to give this truth consistent expression.” James A, Kirkland, The People Called Baptists (Texarkana: Bogard Press, 1971), p. 28 states, “The Reformation was not a full return to New Testament teachings. The Protestants brought some of Rome’s errors, modified somewhat, into their new churches.” Again on p. 29, he writes, “The Reformers refused to renounce Roman Baptism.” Jewett’s remarks imply a similar merging of Catholic and Protestant thought at this juncture, “Confronted with this argument from ancient custom, early Baptists used to remind their Paedobaptist brethren that subjects of the triple crown are fond of tradition, and that it ill becomes a Protestant to cry, ‘The Fathers, the Fathers,’” p. 15.

Kirkland writes, “When the Anabaptists saw that the Reformers were halting short of a full return to the New Testament faith, they separated completely from the Reformation movement” (p. 30). C. E. Tulga writes in Why Baptists are Not Protestants, “Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli considered them heretics and consented and sometimes encouraged their punishment and death as heretics. The Reformers must share with the Roman Catholics the responsibility for the bloody persecution and death of a great host of Anabaptists. It is true that the history of the Baptists can be traced by their bloody footprints on the sands of time; it is also true that the hands of the Reformers are stained with the blood of many of the saints of God who dared to stand by the Word of God and oppose their sinful compromises.” Cited by Kirkland, p. 30.

While the point of these citations is to illustrate the baptistic conception of their role in “completing the Reformation,” it also raises the question of the problem of persecution. First, it must be admitted that both Rome and the original “Protestants” at the Diet of Speyer in 1529 joined in reenacting the death penalty for rebaptism as provided by the Justinian Code. Yet, this was not the standard practice. Luther for several years refused to accept the notion that the sword could be brought in defense of the gospel and thus advocated exile as the extreme form of punishment. Later, in the wake of what he viewed as seditious activities, he allowed for capital punishment as a means of restraining Anabaptist threats to the social order. It is well known that Zwingli executed Anabaptists. The reason, however, appears to be less theological than political. In view of their official defeat at the two baptismal disputations against Zwingli in Zurich, their continued activities were seen as directly contrary to the authority of the civil leaders. Once this became a repeated pattern of resistance, the death penalty was imposed. While it can be argued that religious tolerance should have pervaded, it must also be admitted that in that age, Zwingli was carrying out his understanding of obedience to the civil order.

Martin Bucer, the theological mentor of Calvin, is undoubtedly the best example of religious toleration among the early Reformers. He sought to exercise Christian love and acceptance if this was mutually shared by both the Reformed and the Anabaptists. If this proved impossible, the penalty was not then death, but rather exile. Bucer’s attitude two years after the Diet of Speyer is well illustrated in his letter written to Margaret Blaurer on September 19, 1531, concerning Pilgram Marpeck: “What is the view of your Anabaptist of whom you write to me but that of the ancient [p. 187] Cyprian who wanted to rebaptize all those who had been baptized by heretics! And if he does not condemn other churches, neither do the others condemn him. Heresy is not this or that fancy or error at all, but a disease of the flesh which presumes to adopt a better doctrine or life (only in appearance) than that of the common church’s divine practice, and therefore separates from the church and a separatist gang and sect is formed. They want to be better than other people but in love they are grossly lacking.” Cited by John C. Wegner in the Mennonite Quarterly Review, XII, 148. Bucer had followed this policy with Marpeck, but after repeated confrontations, exile was imposed.

This is illustrated by the Reformed Baptist theology of John Gill. He is often termed a “Hyper-Calvinist” due to his rejection of the free offer of the gospel. Many of the historic Baptist confessions used in America are quite consciously extracted from the Westminster Confession of Faith excepting the articles on the doctrines of baptism, the church, and the relationship of church and state. In fact, Paul Jewett in the early 1950’s reissued the Baptist Catechism that was the same catechism used by Spurgeon, “the prince of Baptist Calvinists.”

[p. 188]

All citations of Calvin’s Institutes are from the translation of Ford Lewis Battles in The Library of Christian Classics series. All citations of Calvin’s commentaries are from the Calvin Translation Society as reprinted by Baker Book House, 1979. These works will be referred to simply by Scripture reference.

This conception of the discontinuity of the Old and New Covenants is repeatedly seen not only in the early Anabaptists, but also in the modem Anti-paedobaptist writings. For the Anabaptists’ writings, cf. George H. Williams, The Radical Reformation (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975), pp. 828–32; Leonard Verduin, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980), p. 209ff.; Jan J. Kiwiet, Pilgram Marbeck (Kassel: J. G. Oncken Verlag, 1957), pp. 101, 102; August Baur, Zwinglis Theologie (Halle: Max Niemeyer, 1889), II:228–29. For modern Anti-paedobaptist writings, cf. Beasley–Murray, op. cit., pp. 337, 338; Estep, op cit., pp. 86, 87; Gill, op. cit., p. 903; Jewett, op. cit., pp. 93, 96. Gill goes so far as to deny that the Abrahamic covenant was even a covenant of grace! He writes, “Now that this covenant was not the pure covenant of grace, in distinction from the covenant of works, but rather a covenant of works, will soon be proved; and if so, then the main ground of infant’s baptism is taken away.” This reminds one of the efforts of dispensationalists to discover two new covenants in the New Testament so that their Church/Israel distinction can continue. Cf. John F. Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), pp. 210, 218. Gill goes on to argue that the covenant of grace referred to in Galatians 3 refers to God’s covenant with Abraham in Genesis 12, but not to this “covenant of works” in Genesis 17. Thus in both the Baptist and Dispensationalist approaches, the clear teaching of the continuity of the Old and New Covenants has compelled some of their writers to search out a “second” covenant so that their structures might conform better to the evidence.

Calvin has in view here Servetus and some of the Anabaptists: “Indeed, that wonderful rascal Servetus and certain madmen of the Anabaptist sect, who regard the Israelites as nothing but a herd of swine, make necessary what would in any case have been very profitable for us” (II. 10. 1). Not all Anabaptists would have argued as perversely as Servetus. Nevertheless, as was seen in the citation from IV. 16. 10, [p. 189] Calvin’s point in this extended discussion is to show that this same destructive view weighs on all Anabaptists as a logical result of their insistence on distinguishing so absolutely the Old and New Testaments. Even if it is denied, it must be done by an inherent logical inconsistency.

It is often thought that Calvin paid little attention to the covenant idea, and that covenant theology developed after the Reformation. Cf. Perry Miller, The New England Mind (New York: The MacMillan Co., 1939), pp. 381, 389. Fred Lincoln, “The Development of the Covenant Theory” Bibliotheca Sacra 100 (1943): 136 states, “It was [covenant theology], of course, unknown to the apostolic and early church fathers, never taught by the church leaders of the middle ages, and not mentioned even by any of the great teachers of the reformation period itself” (italics mine). Similarly, Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today (Chicago: Moody Press, 1965), p. 180, writes, “Covenant theology does not appear in the writings of Luther, Zwingli, Calvin or Melanchthon. They had every opportunity to incorporate the covenant idea, but they did not. It is true that Calvin, for instance, spoke of the continuity of redemptive revelation and of the idea of a covenant between God and His people, but this was not covenant theology.” While Ryrie indicates an advance on Lincoln’s “not mentioned,” he still insists that there is no covenant theology in Calvin.

Perhaps the best response to this assertion is to point out the frequency of the covenant idea in Calvin’s writings and the general contexts where Calvin makes important use of the idea. Calvin uses in the 1559 edition of the Institutes the Latin terms Pactum 35x, Foedus 154x, and Testamentum 84x, for a total of 273x. As we shall see, Calvin makes great use of the idea of the covenant in the context of the relationship of the Old and New Covenants and sacraments (53x in IV. 16 in his discussion of infant baptism alone!). In addition, he uses the idea in several texts: on the law — II. 8 (7x), on faith — III. 2 (2x), on prayer — III. 20 (1lx), on repentance — once each in III. 4. 32, IV. 1. 27, IV. 15. 17. His discussion of justification uses the concept 13x in III. 17. His analysis of election uses the idea 12x in III. 21. This is remarkable since many see the covenant as an idea that is antithetical to the doctrine of election! He also uses the idea of the covenant as a justification of the Protestant Reformation against Rome in IV. 2. 11, IV. 7. 30, IV. 8. 2, IV. 9. 2, IV. 18. 15. I personally [p. 190] believe that Calvin taught an inchoative doctrine of works as well. Cf. the Spring 1981 edition of the Westminster Theological Journal where I seek to defend this in an article entitled, “Ursinus’ Development of the Covenant of Creation: A Debt to Melanchthon or Calvin?” Considering the fact that the Bible only uses the covenant idea 314x, and even Dispensationalists give a great deal of attention to this idea, it does not seem quite accurate to say that Calvin’s teaching at this point “was not covenant theology!” He did in fact teach a covenant of grace and a covenant of works, as well as make extensive use of idea in a wide range of contexts.

That Calvin understands this “law” and “covenant” that have existed from the “beginning of the world” to include Adam in his unfallen state is seen in the fact that the moral law is equivalent to man’s conscience and natural law: “… the very things contained in the two tablets are in a way dictated to us by that internal law written and stamped on every heart,” (II. 8. l) and “… the law of God, which we call moral, is nothing other than the testimony of the natural law and of that conscience which God has engraved on the minds of men” (IV. 20. 6). This is important evidence for the question of whether Calvin taught a pre-fall covenant with Adam. It appears from this that he did.

[p. 191]

In view of Calvin’s clear understanding of redemptive history as revealed by this text, the charge that he failed to discern any progress in revelation cannot be legitimately lodged against him. Cf. Ryrie, op. cit., p. 19. In fact, this emphasis on the history of redemption led some Anabaptists to criticize the Reformed theology at this point. Cf. II. 11. 13 and note 17. The real state of the question is whether there is progress in unity (Reformed viewpoint) or progress by discontinuity (Anabaptists, Baptists, Dispensationalists)?

Besides the use of the covenant in the context of justification in III. 17 mentioned above, cf. the following passages in the commentaries: Gen. 7:1, Dt. 30:11, Ps. 18:20, 19:11, Ezk. 14:14, 18:17, 20:11, Mal. 3:17, Luke 1:6, 17:10.

[p. 192]

One of Calvin’s great themes in II. 6–11 is that eternal life is the great benefit of the covenant regardless of what point in the history of redemption one is discussing. In Psalm 67:2 Calvin calls the covenant “the source and spring of salvation.” In Zech. 12:1 he says that the “hope of salvation is founded on the covenant.”

[p. 194]

Modern Anti-paedobaptists continue to reject the equivalence of the spiritual significance of circumcision and baptism by their insistence on the material blessings associated with circumcision, although they affirm emphatically the existence of salvation in the Old Testament. Cf. Gill, op. cit., p. 903, Beasley–Murray, op. cit., p. 341, Jewett, op. cit., pp. 95, 97. While many Baptists do not espouse dispensationalism, this strong emphasis on God’s covenant and material blessings is a fundamental argument for the dispensation scheme of an eternal “earthly people” and “heavenly people.” Cf. Lewis Sperry Chafer, Dispensationalism (Dallas: Dallas Seminary Press, 1951), pp. 32–33, 107. If the material blessings of the covenant share an equal importance with the spiritual, and if there is such a profound difference between the testaments as the Anti-paedobaptists argue, then the dispensational interpretation appears rather convincing! While Chafer was a paedobaptist (Cf. Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology [Dallas: Dallas Seminary Press, 1948], VII 34–43), his rejection of the covenant theology and hence the equation of the spiritual significance of the two signs leaves little more than the household baptism texts in its defense. It is little wonder that he makes the matter of the subjects of baptism an unimportant issue in the church (cf. VII:34, “… the consideration of ritual baptism cannot be eliminated, though to do so would be easier and to avoid countering good men would in itself be desirable.”). Nor is it surprising that dispensational schools are today essentially baptistic or in fact Baptist.

Jewett, op. cit., pp 89, 93, continually criticizes the Reformed approach for its movement from the New to the Old. This seems rather strange since the Reformed always resist that their viewpoint is the Old Testament practice of circumcision in its spiritual implications being carried over into the New (cf. Col. 2:10–12), or exactly the opposite of Jewett’s contention. Jewett makes this charge because he believes that the Paedobaptists’ contention that faith was always a requirement for circumcision is not substantiated by the cases of the circumcision of Abraham’s household, Ishmael and the sons of Keturah, and the practice of Old Testament Israel. This requirement, he says, is reading the requirement of New Testament baptism back into Old Testament circumcision. Thus the Reformed viewpoint reads the Old Testament as though it were the New. Yet, in each case, this approach fails to secure its point. In the cases of Abraham’s household and thus Ishmael and later the [p. 195] sons of Keturah, it is precisely Abraham’s faith as a covenantal head of the household that allows this sign to be administered.

In respect to Israel, faith was still required although as Calvin points out so forcefully, hypocrisy often took the place of true faith: “He says, that the Israelites had transgressed the covenant of the Lord, and conducted themselves perfidiously against his law. He repeats the same thing twice, for the covenant and the law are synonymous: only the word, law, in my view, is added as explanatory, as though he had said, that they had violated the covenant of the Lord, which had been sanctioned or sealed by the law. God then had made a covenant with Israel, which he designed to be comprehended in the tables. Since then it was not unknown to the Israelites what they owed to God, they were covenant-breakers. It was then the doubling of their crime, as the Prophet shows, that they had not fallen through mistake when they transgressed the covenant of the Lord, for they had been more than sufficiently taught by the law what faith and what purity the Lord required of them. At the same time, the covenant which the Lord so openly made with them was yet neglected” (Hosea 8:1). Note below Calvin’s comments on Gen. 21:12.

The point really is that Jewett is refusing to see that it is the New Testament itself that presents baptism as the legitimate expression of the spiritual reality of the Old Testament practice of circumcision. Contrary to Jewett’s assertion, Paedobaptists do not try to turn Old Testament circumcision into New Testament baptism. Rather, they accept the fact that the New Testament itself declares that baptism is circumcision, in their proper spiritual meanings. So then, even though Jewett is bothered by all the paedobaptists who repeatedly “intone such conventions as ‘circumcision was not exclusively a national sign,’” he nevertheless must not only admit this fact (which he does, p. 89), but must also come to grips with its implications. Jewett is entirely correct that the history of redemption has shown us that the material aspects of circumcision have been jettisoned in its New Testament form of baptism. Nevertheless, it is precisely the history of redemption that demands the spiritual equivalency of the two sacraments! If the Old Testament sign which was fraught with such spiritual significance and was demanded by God to be given to infants who yet could not consciously believe (as Jewett himself forcefully argues), then how can the validity of infant baptism be gainsaid? Thus, the Paedobaptist does not make the error of reading the Old Testament as if it were the New. He reads the New in light of its own expression of its relationship of continuity with the Old. Rather, it is the Anti-paedobaptist who reads the New Testament in discontinuity with the Old Testament and with itself.

[p. 196]

This might be termed the “sacramental” character of the land. This idea is well developed by Philip E, Hughes, Interpreting Prophecy (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1976), pp. 41–44. This is undoubtedly one of the chief hermeneutical principles for the amillennial interpretation of Scripture.

[p. 198]

This point is argued by Lincoln, op. cit., p 135, “Therefore, in spite of the multitude of texts which place the ‘old covenant’ of the law of Moses in direct contrast with the ‘new covenant’ of grace in Christ, showing that the one was a failure and the other superseded it (comp. Jer. 31:31–34; Heb. 8:7–12, etc.), in order to maintain the unbroken continuity of the Covenant of Grace, they are forced to the unscriptural and untenable position of saying that the law of Moses was a part of the grace covenant.”

An interesting departure from historic Reformed covenant theology is that viewpoint articulated by Meredith G. Kline, By Oath Consigned (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1968), pp. 16–25. Kline in essence accepts the viewpoint of dispensationalism in asserting that there is a fundamental opposition of the covenant made at Sinai with that made with Abraham and renewed by Christ. Hence, Kline articulates the law–gospel distinction as portrayed by Lincoln as the difference between the “law–covenant” and the “promise–covenant.” In the “law–covenant,” God is not the one who swears to the stipulations of the covenant, but only man. On the other hand, the “promise–covenant” occurs without human stipulation but only divine stipulation, or promise. While it is not our purpose to critique Kline’s perspective here, it is important to evaluate his use of Calvin to justify his viewpoint. Kline [p. 199] writes, “Calvin reflects the contrast in principle brought out by Paul when he says that although promises of mercy are found in the law taken as a whole (‘the whole law’), they are borrowed elements there and ‘are not considered as part of the law when the mere nature of the law is the subject of discussion.’” To begin with, it is worth quoting a passage already cited above from II. 7. 1, “And Moses was not made a lawgiver to wipe out the blessing promised to the race of Abraham. Rather, we see him repeatedly reminding the Jews of that freely given covenant made with their fathers of which they were the heirs. It was as if he were sent to renew it. This fact was very clearly revealed in the ceremonies.” Here we see Calvin asserting that Moses was one who renewed the covenant of grace made with Abraham. Further, the very requirements of the law such as the ceremonies illustrated the covenant of grace. Thus Kline’s desire to make Calvin affirm that the Sinai covenant was primarily law with a sprinkling of mercy is out of accord with Calvin’s fundamental understanding of the covenant.

As to the point where Kline affirms that promises of mercy are “borrowed” by the Old Covenant, we must carefully evaluate Calvin’s own thought to see if this faithfully reflects his viewpoint. Perhaps no clearer passage in Calvin can be found than that of II. 9. 4: “Hence, also, we refute those who always erroneously compare the law with the gospel by contrasting the merit of works with the free imputation of righteousness. This is indeed a contrast not at all to be rejected. For Paul often means by the term ‘law’ the rule of righteous living by which God requires of us what is his own, giving us no hope of life unless we completely obey him, and adding on the other hand a curse if we deviate even in the slightest degree. But the gospel did not so supplant the entire law as to bring forward a different way of salvation. Rather, it confirmed and satisfied whatever the law had promised, and gave substance to the shadows. From this we infer that, where the whole law is concerned, the gospel differs from it only in clarity of manifestation.” In sum, Calvin’s point is that there is not an irreducible difference of merit versus grace between the Old and New Covenants. Nor was there a different “way of salvation” implicit in the law or the gospel. The difference was of degree of manifestation but not in substance. Calvin’s point in speaking of the “whole law” was not to speak of it in some abnormal sense, but in its regular role in the believer’s life. It was Paul’s taking the law in an “abnormal” sense due to his opponents that results in the law–gospel dichotomy in his theology. This point will be fully illustrated in the discussion to follow. So Calvin can speak of the law in separation from Christ or in union with Christ (cf. I. 9. 3) with the latter’s being normative. He also can speak of the “restricted sense.” “Whenever the word law is used in this restricted sense, Moses is implicitly contrasted with Christ. We are then to see what the law contains in itself when separated from the Gospel.” (Rom. 10:4).

[p. 200]

The Lutheran conception is quite distinct from Calvin’s view of the law at this point. Commenting on Psalm 19, Luther writes, “This psalm teaches similarly that a new Word will be preached, namely, one that will go through the whole world and save those who believe in it, for the Law of Moses was given only to the Jews.” (Luther’s Works, 12:139) Again, he says, “For the Law reveals God’s wrath and not God’s grace to us. Therefore now God is rightly known” (LW, 12:140). Here one can see that Luther interprets Psalm 19 as a prophecy of the Gospel to the utter rejection of the law of Moses. Not only does this overlook entirely the historical context of the Psalm, but it also shows the great difference between Calvin and Luther at this point, For Calvin, the law is unquestionably the law of Moses in terms of the moral law.

[p. 201]

This is well illustrated in Pilgram Marpeck’s letter translated in the Mennonite Quarterly Review, XXXII, 198–99. “Ah, my brethren, how diligently and carefully we have to take heed that we do not consider our own impulse the impulse of the Holy Spirit, our own course the course and walk of Christ. God also uses such servants now, often as a provisional forerunner and preparer of the way for those who are rightly driven of the Holy Spirit of Christ, that they may make the path and the road, clear it, and weed it; they are however only servants and not friends or children, who do not know what their master is doing nor what he has in mind. Such a servile compulsion has taken place in our time, for quite a while now and by contributing to all divisions and sects, in order that the righteous driven by the Holy Spirit of Christ may become manifest.

“Luther, Zwingli, M. Hofman, C. Schwenckfeld, S. Frank, and others have been only servants who did not know what their Lord would do.” [This last line was printed in red for emphasis.] Just as the Old Testament saints were only servants and not friends of God due to their not having the Spirit, so also, Marpeck says that not only the Reformers but other Anabaptists were without the Spirit and were also only servants while the true Anabaptists were the friends due to their possession of the Holy Spirit. Williams points out the interesting implications of this aspect of Marpeck’s thought for his view of the civil order: “At issue with Bucer was Marpeck’s insistence that the freedom of the gospel should never be thrust upon the whole [p. 202] population, indeed that the untutored masses in so far as they were incapable of self-discipline should remain under the yoke of the law of the Old Covenant, Marpeck sought for the true, self-discipling evangelicals (the Anabaptists) the public authorization of their use of at least one of the church edifices of the city.

“Constitutive for such evangelical or truly New Covenantal church living under the gospel rather than under the law was the acknowledgment of personal sin, the entry into the New Covenant by believers’ baptism, and the observance of the evangelical law. This meant expressly the separation from the world, including the whole sphere of the law and its legitimate but subchristian institutions such as the state.” (pp. 274–75) In light of this, one can also understand why the magistrates of the Reformation period saw the Anabaptist movement as seditious and hence by definition dangerous for the state.

[p. 204]

Calvin comments on Dt. 30:11: “But this is the peculiar blessing of the new covenant, that the Law is written on men’s hearts, and engraven on their inward parts, whilst that severe requirement is relaxed so that the vices under which believers still labour are no obstacle to their partial and imperfect obedience being pleasant to God.” In light of this doctrine, Calvin can go on to say that believers actually receive the promises of the law, that is the reward promised to obedience, because of their being viewed in light of the promises of the gospel. Calvin writes in III. 17. 3, “But when the promises of the gospel are substituted, which proclaim the free forgiveness of sins, these not only make us acceptable to God but also render our works pleasing to him. And not only does the Lord adjudge them pleasing; he also [p. 205] extends to them the blessings which under the covenant were owed to the observance of his law. I therefore admit that what the Lord has promised in his law to the keepers of righteousness and holiness is paid to the works of believers, but in this repayment we must always consider the reason that wins favor for these works.”

In this same context, a further criticism of Kline’s viewpoint may be discerned. Kline avers that “the systematic theologian possesses [p. 25] ample warrant to speak both of ‘promise covenant’ and, in sharp distinction from that, of ‘law covenant,’” For Calvin, however, this sharp distinction does not exist once God begins to exercise his “fatherly indulgence” toward His people (cf. Commentaries on the Last Four Books of Moses, III: 199–205, 214, 218, 227). See the references cited in note 11 as well.

Nor would Calvin accept the idea that the “covenant of mercy” or Kline’s covenant of promise does not include the believers’ oath of obedience. First, Calvin insists that “in all covenants of his mercy the Lord requires of his servants in return uprightness and sanctity of life, lest his goodness be mocked or someone, puffed up with empty exultation on that account, bless his own soul, walking meanwhile in the wickedness of his own heart. Consequently, in this way he wills to keep in their duty those admitted to the fellowship of the covenant; nonetheless the covenant is at the outset drawn up as a free agreement, and perpetually remains as such.” Thus when Calvin speaks of covenant, the condition of obedience remains.

In fact, Calvin resists that the covenant of grace still demands the perfect obedience of the believer. Calvin explains in IV. 13. 6, “All believers have one common vow which, made in baptism, we confirm and, so to speak, sanction by catechism and receiving the Lord’s Supper. For the sacraments are like contracts by which the Lord gives us his mercy and from it eternal life, and we in turn promise him obedience. And there is no obstacle in the fact that no one can maintain in this life the perfect obedience to the law which God requires of us. For inasmuch as this stipulation is included in the covenant of grace under which are contained both forgiveness of sins and the spirit of sanctification, the promise which we make there is joined with a plea for pardon and a petition for help” (italics mine). Since the “vow” or oath made in covenant of grace by baptism includes the believer’s obedience to the law, Calvin must be seen to be in deep disagreement with the Kline perspective. Grace does not exempt absolute obedience, rather it pardons imperfect obedience by the believer (“plea for pardon”) and it enables the believer to begin to accomplish this goal (“petition for help”).

Calvin in his Last Four Books of Moses, III:199 says: “Further, because Paul seems to abrogate the Law, as if now-a-days it did not concern believers, we must now see how far this is the case” (italics mine). Contrast this with what Melanchthon says, “That part of the law called the Decalogue or the moral commandments has been abrogated by the New Testament.” Melanchthon and Bucer, ed. Wilhelm Pauck (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1969), p. 121. Luther, in fact states, “The [p. 206] greatest art of Christians is to be ignorant of the whole of active righteousness and of the law; whereas outside the people of God, the greatest wisdom is to know and to contemplate the law. For if I do not remove the law from my sight and turn my thoughts to grace, as though there were no law and only pure grace. I cannot be blessed.” Cited in Gerhard Ebeling, Luther, trans. R. A. Wilson (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972), pp. 123–24. It should from this be clear that Luther and Melanchthon understood that the law had been abrogated even in the form of the moral law while Calvin believed that this was a misreading of Scripture. Calvin insists that Paul only seems to abrogate the law. While Luther would have the Christian ignorant of the law, Calvin would remind them that the covenant of grace includes perfect obedience to the law as one of its stipulations!

[p. 207]

Cf. Strong, op. cit., pp. 536–37; Gill, op. cit., pp. 903–04.

Gall, ibid., p. 903 states, “It is plain, it was a covenant that might be broken; of the uncircumcised it is said, He hath broken my covenant, Gen. xvii 14, whereas the covenant of grace cannot be broken; God will not break it, and men cannot. . .”

[p. 208]

I have counted over thirty examples in the Institutes alone where Calvin argues from the idea of conditionality, mutuality, and covenant-breaking. Cf. II. 5. 12; II. 10. 8, II. 11. 8, III. 2. 22; III. 17. 3, III. 17. 6; III. 21. 6; IV. 8. 2; IV. 13. 6; IV. 15. 17; IV. 16. 14, IV. 16. 24. In his commentaries cf.: Zech 8:7, 8; Mal. 2:6, 4; Dan 9:4; Hos. 5:7; Amos 6:13, Gen. 17:1, 9, 14; Hos. 2:4, 5; 4:6; Zech. 11:10, 11; Ps. 89:30; Rom 2:25; 3:3, 29; 8:12; Heb. 8:7, 9.

[p. 209]

Calvin employs his distinction between “corporate” and “individual” election at several places in his writings: III. 2. 22, III. 21. 5–7, III. 22. 6, Zech. 1:17, Hos. 12:3–5, Mal. 1:2–6. Cf. Calvin’s Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God, trans. J. K. S. Reid (London: James Clarke & Co. Limited, 1961), pp. 132–33.

[p. 214]

Calvin admits that there are hypocrites in the Reformation as well in Zeph. 1:2, 3. Micah 3:11, 12 will be cited below saying the same.

[p. 216]

Hosea 4:12.

Micah 3:11, 12.

[p. 219]

This is a summation of the passage from IV. 13. 6 cited in note 19.

As was mentioned above in note 8, Calvin utilizes the term covenant or testament 53x in this chapter (IV. 16) alone. Karl Barth’s criticisms of Calvin’s approach [p. 220] at this point are worth citing: “I venture the affirmation: the confusion into which Luther and Calvin and their respective disciples have tumbled headlong in this matter is hopeless. Let anyone read chapters XV and XVI of Book IV of the Institutio in order and convince himself where the great Calvin is sure of his subject and where he obviously is not sure of it, but is patently nervous, revolved in an exceedingly unperspicuous train of thought, scolding; where he lectures when he should convince, seeks a way in the fog which can lead him to no goal because he has none.” Cited in Jewett, op. cit., p. 92. One can only remark that Barth’s analysis does not accord with Jewett’s own frequent comment on how often Calvin’s various arguments have been employed by his theological descendants! If they were that “unperspicuous” they would have been discarded long ago. It also appears evident that Barth’s deepest charge against Calvin that his thought is a “fog” that leads him to a non-existent “goal” is a direct negation of Calvin’s fundamental concept of covenant. Can one really believe that Barth faithfully reflects Calvin’s thought elsewhere if he so little appreciates and understands Calvin’s intense commitment to the doctrine of the covenant?

Beasley–Murray addresses this question in a few words, op. cit., p. 343. His response attempts to use election as that which “cuts right across the distinctions of circumcision and uncircumcision: not all of Israel are Israel (Ro m. 9:7, Gal. 4:30).” [p. 221] Because of this, he believes that Christian parents are not at an inferior position than Old Testament parents. The failure of this response, however, is that it once again sets at opposition the Old and New Testaments as if God’s electing purposes did not function in the Old Testament as they do in the New. Every baptist who accepts the doctrine of election is compelled to affirm as equally true that “divine election cuts right across the distinctions of” baptism and unbaptism! Baptists believe that their unbaptized infants who die are in fact elect. They also often assert that new converts who die before their baptism are also elect. They also affirm that some baptized people are not elect. So whatever this argument may establish, it still does not set aside the fundamental fact that Baptist theology narrows the scope of the grace of God in its historical manifestations inasmuch as it excludes infants from an initiatory sign of promise that had always been theirs in virtue of God’s administration of the Abrahamic covenant.

Cf. Calvin’s powerful words in Gen. 17:14 where he treats the subject of what punishment is due to those who neglect baptism. Cf. also IV. 16. 9 cited below.

Cf. Strong, op. cit., pp. 536–537. Strong remarks, “As the national Israel typified the Spiritual Israel, so the circumcision which immediately followed, not preceded, natural birth, bids us baptize children, not before, but after spiritual birth.” And again he says, “The Christian church is either a natural, hereditary body, or it was merely typified by the Jewish people. In the former case, baptism belongs to all children of Christian parents, and the church is indistinguishable from the world. In the latter case, it belongs only to spiritual descendants, and therefore only to true believers.”

[p. 228]

Calvin points out that the Anabaptist assertion that a covenant cannot take place without mental awareness is disproved by the Noahic covenant where God covenants with “brute animals” in Gen. 9:10.