“ Wherefore, there is no difference in the internal meaning, from which the whole power and peculiar nature of the sacrament is to be estimated. The only difference which remains is in the external ceremony, which is the least part of it, the chief part consisting in the promise and the thing signified. Hence we may conclude, that everything applicable to circumcision applies also to baptism, excepting always the difference in the visible ceremony…”—Institutes, Bk4, Ch16
In the fourth book of his Institutes, Calvin begins a discussion on the church. Calvin puts forth two marks of the church “the preaching of the word and the observance of the sacraments,” and included in the sacraments is the institution of baptism.
One of the objections which had been raised against Calvin’s was that paedobaptism is not found explicit in Scripture and is therefore not valid, that it is something devised by men rather than by God.
The above quote is the heart of Calvin’s rebuttal.
Calvin bases his defense on an appeal to circumcision in the Old Testament, stating that “prior to the institution of baptism, the people of God had circumcision in its stead.” He analyzes what the two sacraments are meant to represent, what it is that is at their essence. He concludes that they have the same internal meaning, namely, that it points to the forgiveness of sin and to the mortification of the flesh; that is, they both have their foundation in the promise of regeneration.
Once it is established that the two sacraments symbolize the same inner truths, Calvin notes that the only thing then differing is the external ceremony – that is, how those truths are applied in each case. In light of this Calvin concludes that everything which pertains to circumcision should therefore also apply to baptism.
In regards to the debate concerning paedobaptism this forms the backbone of the argument for the baptism of infants. The key point is that throughout the Old Testament circumcision was used by the people of God as a sign of their first entrance into the church, professing their allegiance to God, and most importantly that the people applied this sign to not only themselves, but also to all of their children (to include infants). Hence Genesis 17:10, “This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised.”
If it is objected that baptism is a sign of penitence and faith, Calvin points out that the same was true of circumcision.
Calvin’s argument goes, then, that since circumcision and baptism convey the same notions – and perform the same office – concerning the individual’s relationship with God, what applies to one applies to the other. Since circumcision applied to infants in the Old Testament, baptism must therefore include infants in the New Testament; “since the Lord, immediately after the covenant was made with Abraham, ordered it to be sealed in infants by an outward sacrament, how can it be said that Christians are not to attest it in the present day, and seal it in their children?”
Although infant baptism is not explicitly illustrated in the New Testament Calvin points out that it is implied when the Biblical writers speak of families being baptized (Acts 16:15, for instance).
This, of course, does not rule out the baptism of those who convert to the faith, for just as those who were brought into the nation of Israel in the Old Testament were circumcised upon entry, so those who enter into the new covenant of Christ are baptized upon entry (what would be popularly termed the ‘believer’s baptism‘).
He thus concludes: “Wherefore, if we would not maliciously obscure the kindness of God, let us present to him our infants, to whom he has assigned a place among his friends and family, that is, the members of the Church.”