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Calvin & the Efficacy of Infant Baptism

By Rich Lusk

copyright © 2003

It is standard in paedobaptist circles to argue for the baptism of infants out of the Old Covenant system. Because there is no explicit command in the New Testament, we are left to the broader principles and patterns of Scripture. In the Old Covenant, we continually find that the children of covenant members are themselves brought into the covenant on the basis of God’s transgenerational promise, and therefore participate in the sacramental life of the people of God. Paedobaptists allow for an eschatological intensification in the power of the sacraments, but the basic structure of sacramental administration carries over from Old Covenant to New.

Paedobaptists are often quick to point out the benefits received by parents when their children are brought for baptism. They are assured that God loves their children and has adopted them into covenant relation with himself [1]. This much is usually not disputed. The more pressing question, of course, is what can infants themselves benefit from receiving covenant signs and seals?

Some have argued that the benefit of baptism is delayed altogether; that is, infants are baptized into future blessings they will probably receive later in life if and when they repent and believe [2]. Covenant children are regarded as outsiders, for the most part, until they can make a mature profession. Occasionally credobaptists and even some paedobaptists will argue infants are constitutionally incapable of being regenerated. This is simply not the traditional Reformed view.

Calvin’s position reveals some of the complexities involved. At times, Calvin speaks as though covenant children already belong to God from the moment of conception; their baptism, then, simply ratifies their pre-existing membership in God’s covenant [3]. At other times, he ties regeneration and justification to the moment of baptism. Infants receive an age appropriate portion of that grace that will later be theirs in a fuller fashion [4]. In still other places, he speaks of baptizing infants into “future repentance and faith” (even though he acknowledges the seed of both is already present in the infant due to the Spirit’s secret work [5]). In this context, Calvin puts the emphasis on baptism’s prospective efficacy, looking ahead to the child’s spiritual maturity. There is an element of truth in each of these positions, though Calvin never quite showed how his various statements fit together into a total package. Perhaps we can do so for him.

This seems to be the full picture: The covenant child from the moment of conception is not without a promise from God even though the covenantal blessings have not yet been bestowed upon him, properly speaking. We might say the unbaptized child of the covenant is betrothed to the Lord from conception onwards. But the marriage — that is, the actual covenant bonding — takes place at baptism. Or, to put it in more theological terms, God is already in the process of drawing the child to himself from the moment of conception. The examples of David (Ps. 22:9-10 [6]) and John the Baptist (Lk.1:41) show God’s in utero, pre-sacramental work. But this work isn’t complete until the child receives the sign of initiation. The child remains in a liminal, transitional state until then. The threshold into union with Christ, new life in the Spirit, and covenant membership in the family of God is actually crossed when the child is baptized [7]. From baptism forwards, the child is expected to grow in faith and repentance unto maturity as he is nurtured in the church and in the home.

This organic model allows us to do full justice to biblical teaching on baptismal efficacy, but also keeps us from saying that baptism is absolutely necessary for salvation in each and every case. It is ordinarily necessary, but there are exceptions, such as when a child of the covenant dies before baptism was possible [8].

copyright © 2003


[1] See, e.g., Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.16.9, 4.16.32.

[2] See, e.g., R. C. Sproul’s discussion of infant baptism in Essential Truths of the Christian Faith, (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1992), 227ff. Some interpret the Westminster Confession in this fashion since 28.6 states, “The efficacy of baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered.” Some argue this means one may be baptized as an infant, but not receive baptism’s benefits until later in life. But such an interpretation, while possible, is unlikely given the historical background of the Confession’s writing. In light of the Reformational debate over postbaptismal sin and penance, as well as the consistent teaching of earlier Reformed Confessions and theologians, it seems more likely the Confession is teaching baptism’s efficacy is not limited to the moment of administration. The point, then, would not be that one’s baptism may not take effect until long after the time of administration; rather, the sense would be that baptism’s efficacy, beginning at the moment of administration, extends through the whole of one’s life. The Reformers argued that the additional sacrament of penance was not necessary to deal with postbaptismal sin, since baptism already cleansed us once and for all. The Belgic Confession (34) states, “Neither does this Baptism only avail us at the time when the water is poured upon us and received by us, but also through the whole course of our life.” Likewise, the Scots Confession (21) says, “For baptism once received continues for all of life, and is a perpetual sealing of our adoption.” The French Confession (35) teaches the same: “[A]lthough we are baptized only once, yet the gain that it symbolizes to us reaches over our whole lives and to our death, so that we have a lasting witness that Jesus Christ will always be our justification and sanctification.” Finally, Cornelius Burges, in The Baptismal Regeneration of Elect Infants: “There is no ordinance set up by Christ in his church, more useful and comfortable unto a Christian, throughout the whole course of his militant condition, than sacred baptism, the laver of regeneration and of the renewing of the Holy Ghost . . . I deny not future actual efficacy of baptism after the act of administration, but I only plead for some efficacy when it is administered” (1, 112). Burges claimed Calvin for support of this view (cf. 159, 169). All emphases in above quotations mine.

[3] Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.15.20: “God pronounces that he adopts our infants as his children, before they are born, when he promises that he will be a God to us, and to our seed after us. This promise includes their salvation.”

[4] Ibid., 4.16.9, 4.16.19:

[T]he children receive some benefit from their baptism . . . I ask, what the danger is if infants be said to receive now some part of that grace which in a little while they shall enjoy to the full? For if fullness of life consists in the perfect knowledge of God, when some of them, whom death snatches away in their very first infancy, pass over into eternal life, they are surely received to the contemplation of God in his very presence. Therefore, if it please him, why may the Lord not shine with a tiny spark at the present time on those whom he will illumine in the future with the full splendor of his light?

See also my essays “Baptismal Efficacy and the Reformed Tradition: Past, Present, and Future” and “Calvin on Baptism, Penance, and Absolution,” available at http://new.hornes.org/theologia/.

[5] Ibid., 4.16.20.

[6] Note that David’s prenatal experience is embedded in Israel’s hymnbook. Every Israelite would’ve sung these words in a corporate setting. David’s experience of trust in God before birth was not unusual but normative for the covenant community.

[7] The status of pre-baptized and baptized children of the covenant was hotly debated from Calvin’s day onwards. It continued to be a divisive issue in the Reformed chuches of the Puritan era. The Westminster divines wisely left the issue ambiguous, affirming that children of the promise are in the covenant in one respect prior to baptism, and put in the covenant in another respect at baptism (WLC 166). In one sense, covenant children are “natural branches”; in another sense they must be “grafted in” (cf. Rom. 11).

[8] The ordinary necessity of baptism for salvation is simply the teaching of the Westminster standards. See Shorter Catechism 85: “diligent use of all the outward means” is necessary to “escape God’s wrath and curse due to us for sin.” The Confession teaches that there is no ordinary possibility of salvation outside the visible church and baptism is the mode of entrance.


  1. where does Calvin tie regeneration and justification occurring AT BAPTISM?

    Comment by Byron Pemberton — November 19, 2010 @ 9:48 am

  2. It would seem if Jesus meant what he stated as his last words before he gave up the ghost, to wit: “It is finished”, that the sacrifice for sin was eternally paid for. As a result especially concerning Jeremiah 31:31, it would also seem that a child is ‘born saved and as long as he did not commit the blasphemy of the Holy Ghost, he remained inside the family of the lord. Or are we calling the wrong person by that name Jesus?

    Comment by George — February 27, 2011 @ 9:07 am

  3. Hi Rich,

    The Reformers WERE papists for a very long time! They were steeped in it! They did NOT make a clean break from Romanism! If the popes had agreed to Reform, many if not all would have stayed with her! My Christianity starts & finishes with the Word of God! After the Council Nicea it was down hill all the way, that’s not to say the rot was not already there in the Church. All we have to do is go back an read Acts 20:17-38 & the Epistles to see what was going to happen when the Apostles were gone. The FIRST POPE was not Peter but Diotrephes (3 John 9-10)& so the rest is history. I find a Roman spirit in Reformed people. There is an arrogance, which I despise& reject! I grew up in a Roman Catholic family, City & Country for the first 20 years of my life & then I spent the next 20 or so in Protestantism. I use a crude example to explain my journey:

    “It was difficult enough to extradite myself from the Tomb of Romanism, only to find myself in the Sh-t House of Protestantism”!

    Boy! Did that get up their nose! Oh they could call Rome the Whore of Babylon, which she is not! She is a Daughter of the Whore! Jerusalem has ALWAYS been & STILL is the Great Whore! The Marranos & that group in Acts 15 took over the church in Rome, as they did ALL the other churches.

    They ALL ignored the warning of Jesus, “Beware the leaven of the Pharisees” aka The Tradition of the Elders & published in 35 tractates today as the Babylonian Talmud. There is so much more I could add, but these little comment boxes constrain me!

    Comment by Pip Power — January 14, 2012 @ 8:23 pm

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