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

[p. 185]

CALVIN’S COVENANTAL RESPONSE
TO THE ANABAPTIST VIEW OF BAPTISM

Peter A. Lillback

Introduction

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.[1] It is considered one of the unfortunate carryovers of Romish doctrine in the Reformers’ thought.[2] 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.[3] Calvinistic Baptists believe that no great injustice is done to Calvin’s [p. 187] system by discarding this one doctrine.[4] 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)[5]

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.[6] 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.[7] 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.[8] 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)[9]

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)[10]

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.[11] 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.[12]

. . . 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.[13] 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.[14] 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.[15] 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?[16]

[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.[17] 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.[18] 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.[19] 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).[20] 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.[21] 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?[22] 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,[23] 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.[24]

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.[25] 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![26]

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.[27]

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 tak