What did John Calvin teach on the doctrine of baptism?
We can see a brief examination of his teaching on baptism in Book 4, chapter 15 in the Institutes. This section is taken from another website (link below):
For Calvin, baptism has a God-manward meaning and a man-Godward meaning. Of course, God’s action towards man has primacy: “Now baptism was given to us by God for these ends (which I have taught to be common to all sacraments): first to serve our faith before him; secondly, to serve our confession before men…Accordingly, they [e.g., the Zwinglians and Anabaptists] who regarded baptism as nothing but a token and mark by which we confess our religion before men, as soldiers bear the insignia of their commander as a mark of their profession, have not weighed what was the chief point of baptism”. Baptism, in reality, is God’s work: “For inasmuch as [baptism] is given for the arousing, nourishing, and confirming of our faith, it is to be received as from the hand of the Author himself. We ought to deem it certain and proved that it is he who speaks to us through the sign; that it is he who purifies and washes away sins, and wipes out the remembrance of them; that it is he who make us sharers in his death, who deprives Satan of his rule, who weakens the power of our lust; indeed, that it is he who comes into a unity with us so that, having put on Christ, we may be acknowledged God’s children. These things, I say, he performs for our soul within as truly and surely as we see our body outwardly cleansed, submerged, and surrounded with water …And he does not feed our eyes with a mere appearance only, but leads us to the present reality and effectively performs what he symbolizes”.
The God-towards-man action of baptism is then unpacked in three dimensions. “The first thing that the Lord sets out for us is that baptism should be a token and proof of our cleansing; or (the better to explain what I mean) it is like a sealed document to confirm to us that all our sins are so abolished, remitted, and effaced that they can never come to his sight, be recalled, or charged against us.” Calvin begins (in a very pastoral way) with baptism as an assuring pledge. All who believe may know they are washed in Christ’s blood just as surely as the waters of baptism have come upon them. As he goes on to explain, the water does not cause salvation by itself; rather “in this sacrament are received the knowledge and certainty of such gifts”.
However, this does make the significance of baptism merely cognitive, as the next two points demonstrate. Baptism’s assuring function does not exhaust its usefulness. For Calvin, baptism means union with Christ: “Baptism also brings another benefit, for it shows us our mortification in Christ, and new life in him… [T]hrough baptism Christ makes us sharers in his death, that we may be engrafted in it”. Calvin then turns to a brief exposition of Romans 6. It is this baptismal union with the crucified and risen Christ that gives the Christian life its basic pattern of mortification and vivification. Calvin, following Paul exhorts the baptized to live out their union with Christ, dead to sin and alive to righteousness. According to Calvin, Christ himself was baptized in order to include us in his work: “For he dedicated and sanctified baptism in his own body [Mt. 3:13] in order that he might have it in common with us as the firmest bond of the union and fellowship which he has deigned to form with us…Thus we see that the fulfillment of baptism is in Christ, whom also for this reason we call the proper object of baptism…For all the gifts proffered in baptism are found in Christ alone. Our baptisms unite us to The Baptized One, Christ himself in whom all blessings are found.”
The third benefit received in baptism is adoption: “Lastly, our faith receives from baptism the advantage of its sure testimony to us that we are not only engrafted into the death and life of Christ, but so united to Christ himself that we become sharers in all his blessings…Hence, Paul proves that we are children of God from the fact that we are put on Christ in baptism [Gal. 3:26-27].” Baptism is not only a kind of marriage, uniting us to Christ, but also an adoption ceremony, placing us in God’s family. As adopted sons, we are co-heirs of God together with Christ,u dedicated and sanctified baptism in his own body [Mt. 3:13] in order that he might have it in common with us as the firmest bond of the union and fellowship which he has deigned to form with us…Thus we see that the fulfillment of baptism is in Christ, whom also for this reason we call the proper object of baptism…For all the gifts proffered in baptism are found in Christ alone”. Our baptisms unite us to The Baptized One, Christ himself in whom all blessings are found. (Taken from “Calvin on Baptism, Penance, and Absolution”by Rich Lusk)
These sources show that those who claim “faith alone” today often misinterpret what Calvin had in mind in their teaching. He believed that we are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-10), but he also taught that our faith is an action in which we put our trust in Christ’s teachings about baptism (Matthew 28:19-20, Mark 16:16), Paul’s teachings about baptism (Romans 6, Colossians 2:9-12), and Peter’s (1 Peter 3:21, Acts 2:38). Most of this research has been new news to me, and is something I think a lot of Calvin’s followers should take to heart.