Administration of the Covenant of Grace

By Edited by R. Scott Clark

John Calvin (1509-64). It is not difficult now to infer what we ought to think of vows in general. 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. But this is the form, or at least a summary, of the vow: that, renouncing Satan, we yield ourselves to God’s service to obey his holy commandments but not to follow the wicked desires of our flesh. It is not to be doubted that this vow, since it is attested by Scripture and indeed is required of all children of God, is holy and salutary. 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. (Institutes, 4.13.6)

John Calvin.
At the same time, as he works not effectually in all, but only where the Spirit, the inward Teacher, illuminates the heart, he subjoins, To every one who believeth. The gospel is indeed offered to all for their salvation, but the power of it appears not everywhere: and that it is the savor of death to the ungodly, does not proceed from what it is, but from their own wickedness. By setting forth but one Salvation he cuts off every other trust. When men withdraw themselves from this one salvation, they find in the gospel a sure proof of their own ruin. Since then the gospel invites all to partake of salvation without any difference, it is rightly called the doctrine of salvation: for Christ is there offered, whose peculiar office is to save that which was lost; and those who refuse to be saved by him, shall find him a Judge. But everywhere in Scripture the word salvation is simply set in opposition to the word destruction: and hence we must observe, when it is mentioned, what the subject of the discourse is. Since then the gospel delivers from ruin and the curse of endless death, its salvation is eternal life (Commentary on Romans 1.16).

John Calvin. And that this is the case, is proved without difficulty; for the promise by which the Lord had adopted them all as children, was common to all: and in that promise, it cannot be denied, that eternal salvation was offered to all. What, therefore, can be the meaning of Paul, when he denies that certain persons have any right to be reckoned among children, except that he is no longer reasoning about the externally offered grace, but about that of which only the elect effectually partake? Here, then, a twofold class of sons presents itself to us, in the Church; for since the whole body of the people is gathered together into the fold of God, by one and the same voice, all without exception, are in this respects accounted children; the name of the Church is applicable in common to them all: but in the innermost sanctuary of God, none others are reckoned the sons of God, than they in whom the promise is ratified by faith. And although this difference flows from the fountain of gratuitous election, whence also faith itself springs; yet, since the counsel of God is in itself hidden from us, we therefore distinguish the true from the spurious children, by the respective marks of faith and of unbelief (Commentary on Genesis 17:7).

John Calvin
(1509-64): But that all doubt may be better cleared away, this principle should ever be kept in mind, that baptism is not conferred on children in order that they may become sons and heirs of God, but, because they are already considered by God as occupying that place and rank, the grace of adoption is sealed in their flesh by the rite of baptism. Otherwise the Anabaptists are in the right in excluding them from baptism. For unless the thing signified by the external sign can be predicated of them, it will be a mere profanation to call them to a participation of the sign itself. But if any one were inclined to refuse them baptism, we have a ready answer; they are already of the flock of Christ, of the family of God, since the covenant of salvation which God enters into with believers is common also to their children. As the words import, I will be thy God and the God of thy seed after thee. Unless this promise had preceded, certainly it would have been wrong to confer on them baptism. Now I ask whether the word of God is sufficient by its intrinsic virtue for our salvation, or whether some aid must be borrowed elsewhere to supply its defect, or help its infirmity? If this promise is not believed to be efficacious in itself, not only the virtue of God, but also his grace and truth will be attached to the external sign. Thus those men, while they strive to honor baptism, cast serious ignominy on God. Now what will become of so many passages in which Christ is represented as satisfied with faith alone? They will deny that faith is separated from baptism. I admit it, where an opportunity of receiving it is afforded. But if a sudden death carry off any one who shall have embraced the gospel of Christ, will they therefore doom him to destruction, because he has been deprived of the outward washing with water? Do not ancient histories furnish us with some examples of martyrs, who were dragged away by tyrants to execution before they had presented themselves for baptism? And for this want of water, will the blood of Christ be of no avail to the holy martyr, who does not hesitate to shed his own blood for the faith of the gospel in which is placed the common salvation of all? Assuredly the Papists were more moderate, who, at least in this case of necessity, substitute for the washing of water the baptism of blood. In one word, unless we choose to overturn all the principles of religion, we shall be obliged to confess that the salvation of an infant does not depend on, but is only sealed by its baptism. Whence it follows that it is not rigorously nor absolutely necessary. And should we even grant what they perversely demand, viz., that when the danger of death is imminent, infants ought to be baptized, still it should be administered according to the institution and command of Christ (Letter 438, To John Clauberger in Selected Works of John Calvin, Letters 1554-1558, Vol. 6, pp. 278-279).

Belgic Confession
(1561). Article 33: The Sacraments. We believe that our good God, mindful of our crudeness and weakness, has ordained sacraments for us to seal his promises in us, to pledge his good will and grace toward us, and also to nourish and sustain our faith. He has added these to the Word of the gospel to represent better to our external senses both what he enables us to understand by his Word and what he does inwardly in our hearts, confirming in us the salvation he imparts to us.

Heidelberg Catechism
(1563). Q. 74. Are infants also to be baptized? A: Yes, for since they belong to the covenant and people of God as well as their parents, and since redemption from sin through the blood of Christ, and the Holy Spirit who works faith, are promised to them no less than to their parents, they are also by Baptism, as the sign of the Covenant, to be ingrafted into the Christian Church, and distinguished from the children of unbelievers, as was done in the Old Testament by Circumcision, in place of which in the New Testament Baptism is instituted.

Heidelberg Catechism
(1563). Q. 82. Are they then also to be admitted to this Supper who show themselves by their confession and life to be unbelieving and ungodly? A: No, for thereby the covenant of God is profaned and His wrath provoked against the whole congregation;1 wherefore the Christian Church is bound, according to the order of Christ and His Apostles, to exclude such persons by the Office of the Keys until they amend their life.

Zacharias Ursinus
(1534-83). Q. 291. Are infants, since they have no faith, properly baptized? Yes, faith and the confession of faith are required of adults, since they can in no other way be included into the covenant. For infants it suffices that they are sanctified by the Spirit of Christ in a manner appropriate to their age (Summa theologiae, 1561).

Caspar Olevian
(1536-87). Therefore one has in the preaching of the Word an offer of the promise of grace and a summons to embrace it; both are directed in this way to the elect as well as to the reprobate. But only in the elect does God work what he commands. In order that out of that entire multitude a church might appear, united by God himself in Christ, God begins that solemn negotiation, as in a marriage compact, not with a sealing of grace offered, in general (for many reject it openly so that it cannot be sealed to them; and moreover the Lord does not desire to enter into covenant with the hypocrites, who secretly harden themselves, as would be the case if he himself were the first to affix the seal). Rather in the foundation by visible signs, he begins with what was last in the offer of grace, namely, so that we may subject ourselves with our seed and not harden our hearts to the divine command by which he summons us to receive the offered grace. Then follows the sealing of the grace first offered in the gospel and also the special bond of God (De substantia, 1585; 2.54).

Theodore Beza
(1534-1605). The situation of children who are born of believing parents is a special one. They do not have in themselves that quality of faith which is in the adult believer. Yet it cannot be the case that those who have been sanctified by birth and have been separated from the children of unbelievers, do not have the seed and germ of faith. The promise, accepted by the parents, in faith, also includes their children to a thousand generations.... If it is objected that not all of them who are born of believing parents are elect, seeing that God did not choose all the children of Abraham and Isaac, we do not lack an answer. Though we do not deny that this is the case, still we say that this hidden judgment must be left to God and that normally, by virtue of the promise, all who have been born of believing parents, or if one of the parents believes, are sanctified (Confession of the Christian Faith, 4.48).

Jerome Zanchi
(1516-1590). Some infants, as well as some adults, are given the Spirit of faith, by which they are united to Christ, receive the forgiveness of sins and are regenerated before baptism; this is not the case with others, to whom these gifts are given in baptism (Commentarius ad Ephesios, Cap. 5; De baptismo, 3.31).

Amandus Polanus
(1561-1610). The covenant common to all believers is made with every believer in baptism....God made both covenants (old and new) only with the elect (Syntagma, 6.33).

Franciscus Junius
(1545-1602). We call it false to argue that infants are completely incapable of faith; if they have faith in the principle of the habitus, they have the Spirit of faith...Regeneration is viewed from two aspects, as it is in its foundation, in Christ, in principle, and as it is active in us. The former (which can also be called transplanting from the first to the second Adam) is the root, from which the latter arises as its fruit. By the former elect infants are born again, when they are incorporated into Christ, and its sealing occurs in baptism (Theses theologicae, 51.7).

Canons of Dort
(1619). Second Head: Article 5. Moreover, the promise of the gospel is that whosoever believes in Christ crucified shall not perish, but have eternal life. This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be declared and published to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction, to whom God out of His good pleasure sends the gospel.

James Ussher
(1581-1656). What must we think of the effect of baptism in those elect infants whom God allows to mature to years of discretion? There is no reason ordinarily to promise them an extraordinary work of God, if God purposes to give them ordinary means. Though God can at times sanctify from the womb, as in the case of Jeremiah and John the Baptist, and at other times in baptism, it is difficult to determine, as some are accustomed to do, that each elect infant ordinarily before or in baptism receives the principle of regeneration and the seed of the faith and grace. If, however, such a principle is infused, it cannot be lost or hidden in such a way that it would not demonstrate itself (Body of Divinity, 417).

Synopsis purioris theologiae,
(1625). WE reject the opinion of the Lutherans who tie the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit to the external water of baptism in such a way that, either it is present in the water itself or at least the principle of regeneration will only work in the administration of baptism. This, however, is opposed to all the places in Scripture, where faith and repentance and hence the beginning and seed of regeneration are antecedently required in the one who is baptized.... Therefore, we do not bind the efficacy of baptism to the moment in which the body is sprinkled with external water; but we require with the Scriptures antecedent faith and repentance in the one who is baptized, at least according to the judgment of charity, both in the infant children of covenant members, and in adults. For we maintain that in infants too the presence of the seed and the Spirit of faith and conversion is to be ascertained on the basis of divine blessing and the evangelical covenant (44.27, 29).

Westminster Confession of Faith
(1647) 7:6. Under the gospel, when Christ the substance was exhibited, the ordinances in which this covenant is dispensed, are the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper; which, though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity and less outward glory, yet in them it is held forth in more fullness, evidence, and spiritual efficacy, to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles; and is called the New Testament. There are not, therefore, two covenants of grace differing in substance, but one and the same under various dispensations.

The Sum of Saving Knowledge
(1647). 3a) The outward means and ordinances, for making men partakers of the covenant of grace, are so wisely dispensed, as that the elect shall be infallibly converted and saved by them; and the reprobate, among whom they are, not to be justly damned....

Johannes Cloppenburg
(1592-1652). We posit that the children of believers are incorporated into Christ by the immediate secret work of the Holy Spirit, until whether in this life or at the moment of death, the period of infancy is completed, so that, whether in the flesh or not, they may confess by faith or sight what God has given them and us together by grace (Excirtationes, 1.1097).

Formula Consensus Helvetica
(1675). Canon XIX: Likewise the external call itself, which is made by the preaching of the Gospel, is on the part of God also, who earnestly and sincerely calls. For in his Word he most earnestly and truly reveals, not, indeed, his secret will respecting the salvation or destruction of each individual, but our responsibility, and what will happen to us if we do or neglect this duty. Clearly it is the will of God who calls, that they who are called come to him and not neglect so great a salvation, and so he earnestly promises eternal life to those who come to him by faith; for, as the Apostle declares, "It is a trustworthy saying: For if we have died with Him, we shall also live with Him; if we disown Him, He will also disown us; if we are faithless, He will remain faithful, for He cannot disown Himself (2 Tim 2:12-13). Neither is this call without result for those who disobey; for God always accomplishes his will, even the demonstration of duty, and following this, either the salvation of the elect who fulfill their responsibility, or the inexcusableness of the rest who neglect the duty set before them. Certainly the spiritual man in no way determined the eternal purpose of God to produce faith along with the externally offered, or written Word of God. Moreover, because God approved every truth which flows from his counsel, it is correctly said to be his will, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have everlasting life (John 6:40). Although these "all" are the elect alone, and God formed no plan of universal salvation without any selection of persons, and Christ therefore died not for everyone but only for the elect who were given to him; yet he intends this in any case to be universally true, which follows from his special and definite purpose. But that, by God's will, the elect alone believe in the external call which is universally offered, while the reprobate are hardened. This proceeds solely from the discriminating grace of God; election by the same grace to those who believe, but their own native wickedness to the reprobate who remain in sin, who after their hardened and impenitent heart build up for themselves wrath for the Day of Judgment, and revelation of the righteous judgment of God

Peter van Mastricht
(1630-1706). Our opponents on the other side argue from this text: 'Now ye not that so many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?' (Romans 6:3). To this I answer, this text means only that all the elect, being true believers, baptized according to institution, have communion and participation in the death of Christ, which is sealed to them by baptism. But it is not said that this communion is effected particularly baptism, much less that this communion is absolutely connected with baptism (A Treatise on Regeneration [Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, repr. 2002], 55-56).

Edited by R. Scott Clark

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