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Posts Tagged ‘baptism

Calvin and covenant, again

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I previously mentioned Peter Lillback’s book, The Binding of God, on Calvin’s understanding of and contribution to covenant theology. Calvin’s covenant theology was also the subject of Lillback’s Ph.D. thesis, as well as an article he wrote in 1982 showing how Calvin linked covenant theology and infant baptism. This article was previously available online only in scanned form with many OCR errors. I have corrected these and, with Lillback’s permission, the article is available here: “Calvin’s Covenantal Response to the Anabaptist View of Baptism”.

Whatever your view of infant baptism, this article is a helpful overview of Calvin’s covenant theology. Lillback spends time on continuity and discontinuity between the old and new covenants, including distinctions between law and gospel, letter and spirit, and general and special election. He also discusses covenant breaking, although he doesn’t directly address whether and in what sense God’s covenants are conditional and mutual, or the nature of covenant keeping; nor does he cover topics such as adoption and the Lord’s supper.

Written by Scott Moonen

July 25, 2010 at 7:46 pm


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Or, as Asher says, “bathtized.”

I was sprinkled as a baby and dunked at the age of 14. I expected that to be a pretty powerful spiritual experience but ended up feeling unchanged. Partly because of that, and partly because I kept coming to a better understanding of the good news, I often wished I had waited longer to be baptized. Several years ago I read something from John Piper that changed my thinking:

Many of us came to faith and were baptized at a point when we did not know very much. This is good. It is expected that baptism happens early in the Christian walk when you do not know very much. So it is also expected that you will learn later more and more of what it means. Don’t think, “Oh, I must go back and get baptized again. I didn’t know it had all this meaning.” No. No. That would mean you would be getting re-baptized with every new course you take in Biblical theology. Rather, rejoice that you expressed your simple faith in obedience to Jesus and now are learning more and more of what it all meant.

This is very comforting: God accepts us in our immaturity, and maturity is not at all what will secure our salvation. But why didn’t baptism seem to change anything? Perhaps it did, in a different way than I was expecting? What is baptism and what does it do?

I married Lisa ten years ago this month. I expected it to change me and I was not disappointed. Sandy Young pronounced us man and wife, and we became man and wife! What did that pronouncement do?

Linguists call something a performative utterance if its accomplishment is wrapped up in the declaration of that accomplishment. If I say “I promise I will pay you,” my speaking is my promise. If Queen Elizabeth declares someone to be a knight, so they are! Declaring is part of a performative utterance, but so is authority: you cannot promise anyone my money; and no one but Queen Elizabeth can dub a British knight.

This is what happens in a pronouncement of marriage: a minister of God’s church, under God’s authority declares a couple man and wife, and this declaration itself accomplishes the marriage. Neither the declaration nor the exchanging of rings or vows actually causes the marriage, but altogether they do accomplish it. This, too, is what happens in baptism: a minister of God’s church, under God’s authority declares a person to belong to God and to be part of God’s family. Baptism doesn’t cause anything; we have a risen Savior and King who does that! But baptism is normally part of how God visibly accomplishes joining us to Christ.

In one sense, baptism is something we do — part of submitting ourselves to Christ. But baptism is much more God’s declaring and doing than our declaring and doing. Consider:

  • Baptism takes place in the Triune name; it is done under authority.
  • Baptism is done to someone. The one being baptized is not the subject but the object.
  • Baptism is spoken of as accomplishing something or bringing us somewhere, in terms that seem very bold to us: it kills us, buries us, washes us, puts on, unites us, saves us. We are baptized into Christ, into his church.
  • Finally, if baptism unites us to Christ (Romans 6), and if God declared over Christ that “you are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased” — at his baptism, no less — then our own baptism is certainly God’s declaration of his acceptance of and pleasure in us, in Christ.

Surely a dip in the water cannot cause all this! No, but it accomplishes it, since God has ordained to use baptism to speak and do through his church.

Are you baptized? God wants you to remember and believe and live in this truth: God loves you as his child and is pleased with you. Our Father has finalized our adoption by publicly announcing it. That is a powerful experience!

Written by Scott Moonen

June 11, 2010 at 3:23 pm

Posted in Essays, Union with Christ

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Covenant and Adoption

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J. I. Packer’s book Knowing God is best known for its chapter on adoption, “Sons of God.” The chapter is outstanding, both as a stirring picture of what a wonderful gift adoption is, but also in how he links our adoption to all of the blessings, privileges and responsibilities we have in Christ. Nothing else is quite as precious or as energizing as our adoption. On p. 201 Packer quotes an article he had written earlier:

You sum up the whole of New Testament teaching in a single phrase, if you speak of it as a revelation of the Fatherhood of the holy Creator. In the same way, you sum up the whole of New Testament religion if you describe it as the knowledge of God as one’s holy Father. If you want to judge how well a person understands Christianity, find out how much he makes of the thought of being God’s child, and having God as his Father. If this is not the thought that prompts and controls his worship and prayers and his whole outlook on life, it means that he does not understand Christianity very well at all. For everything that Christ taught, everything that makes the New Testament new, and better than the Old, everything that is distinctively Christian as opposed to merely Jewish, is summed up in the knowledge of the Fatherhood of God. “Father” is the Christian name for God.

Peter Lillback, in his book The Binding of God, assembles a picture of John Calvin’s understanding of God’s covenants with man. Throughout the book what I am most struck by is how often Calvin links covenant theology with the doctrine of adoption in order to either make careful and helpful distinctions, or else to illustrate how God’s covenanting with us ought to be a real engine for responsive affections and actions on our part. Probably half of my dog-ears are for adoption-related passages.

So, we see Calvin summarizing the covenant as an adoption (pp. 137-138):

For if God only demanded his due, we should still be required to cling to him and to confine ourselves to his commandments. Moreover, when it pleases him by his infinite goodness to enter into a common treaty, and when he mutually binds himself to us without having to do so, when he enumerates that treaty article by article, when he chooses to be our father and Savior, when he receives us as his flock and his inheritance, let us abide under his protection, filled with its eternal life for us. When all of these things are done, is it proper that our hearts become mollified even if they were at one time stone? When creatures see that the living God humbles himself to that extent, that he wills to enter into covenant that he might say: “Let us consider our situation. It is true that there is an infinite distance between you and me and that I should be able to command of you whatever seems good to me without having anything in common with you, for you are not worthy to approach me and have any dealings with whoever can command of you what he wills, with no further declarations to you except: ‘That is what I will and conceive.’ But behold, I set aside my right. I come here to present myself to you as your guide and savior. I want to govern you. You are like my little family. And if you are satisfied with my Word, I will be your King. Furthermore, do not think that the covenant which I made with your fathers was intended to take anything from you. For I have no need, nor am I indigent in anything. And what could you do for me anyway? But I procure your well-being and your salvation. Therefore on my part, I am prepared to enter into covenant, article by article, and to pledge myself to you.”

And again Calvin summarizes even the old covenant as a gracious act of adoption (p. 140):

The Psalmist addresses himself by name to his own countrymen, whom, as has been stated, God had bound to himself by a special adoption. It was a bond of union still more sacred, that by the mere good pleasure of God they were preferred to all other nations. . . . He expressly states both these truths, first, that before they were born children of Abraham, they were already heirs of the covenant, because they derived their origin from the holy fathers; and, secondly, that the fathers themselves had not acquired this prerogative by their own merit or worth, but had been freely chosen; for this is the reason why Jacob is called God’s chosen.

Lillback moves on to explore several facets of God’s covenants in Calvin’s understanding. We have already seen above that, perhaps unlike Packer, Calvin considers adoption to be a blessing common to both the old and new covenants. First, Lillback explores Calvin’s complex understanding of mutuality and conditionality. Calvin carefully balances an understanding of God’s sovereign working in our salvation with how we as God’s creatures see, understand, receive and respond to his working in time and history. Adoption is a perfect picture of this because it is an undeserved gift that God undertook wholly on his own initiative, but which makes us God’s children and wholly obligates us to him. Lillback quotes Calvin on p. 172:

[Hosea] says that they had acted perfidiously with God, for they had violated his covenant. We must bear in mind what I have said before of the mutual faith which God stipulates with us, when he binds himself to us. God then covenants with us on this condition, that he will be our Father and Husband; but he requires from us such obedience as a son ought to render to his father; he requires from us that chastity which a wife owes to her husband. The Prophet now charges the people with unfaithfulness, because they had despised the true God, and prostituted themselves to idols.

On p. 192 we see how Calvin both distinguishes and weaves together faith and works. The language of sonship and union with Christ serves as a subtle backdrop, underscoring that obedience does not somehow perversely purchase our freedom from slavery and adoption into God’s love (as if it were possible!), but that pleasing our Father is nevertheless a wonderful combination of duty and delight:

When, therefore, we say that the faithful are esteemed just even in their deeds, this is not stated as a cause of their salvation, and we must diligently notice that the cause of salvation is excluded from this doctrine; for, when we discuss the cause, we must look nowhere else but to the mercy of God, and there we must stop. But although works tend in no way to the cause of justification, yet, when the elect sons of God were justified freely by faith, at the same time their works are esteemed righteous by the same gratuitous liberality. Thus it still remains true, that faith without works justifies, although this needs prudence and a sound interpretation; for this proposition, that faith without works justifies is true and yet false, according to the different senses which it bears. The proposition, that faith without works justifies by itself, is false, because faith without works is void. But if the clause “without works” is joined with the word “justifies,” the proposition will be true, since faith cannot justify when it is without works, because it is dead, and a mere fiction. He who is born of God is just, as John says. (I John V. 18) Thus faith can be no more separated from works than the sun from his heat: yet faith justifies without works, because works form no reason for our justification; but faith alone reconciles us to God, and causes him to love us, not in ourselves, but in his only-begotten Son.

Thus good works are not only possible but acceptable to God because, in Lillback’s words, “in the covenant, God ceases to be a strict judge and becomes a father” (p. 196). Quoting Calvin on the same page:

Moreover, we do not deny that for believers uprightness, albeit partial and imperfect, is a step toward immortality. But what is its source except that the Lord does not examine for merits the works of those whom he has received into the covenant of grace but embraces them with fatherly affection?

But this is the peculiar blessing of the new covenant, that the Law is written on men’s hearts, and engraven on their inward parts; whilst that severe requirement is relaxed so that the vices under which believers still labour are no obstacle to their partial and imperfect obedience being pleasant to God.

It is therefore necessary, even when we strive our utmost to serve God, to confess that without his forgiveness whatever we bring deserves rejection rather than his favour. Hence the Prophet says, that when God is reconciled to us, there is no reason to fear that he will reject us, because we are not perfect; for though our works be sprinkled with many spots, they will be acceptable to him, and though we labour under many defects, we shall yet be approved by him. How so? Because he will spare us; for a father is indulgent to his children, and though he may see a blemish in the body of his son, he will not yet cast him out of his house; nay, though he may have a son lame, or squint-eyed, or singular for any other defect, he will yet pity him, and will not cease to love him: so also is the case with respect to God, who, when he adopts us as his children, will forgive our sins. And as a father is pleased with every small attention when he sees his son submissive, and does not require from him what he requires from a servant; so God acts; he repudiates not our obedience, however defective it may be.

This wonderful result is because of our union with Christ the firstborn Son. Quoting Calvin on p. 209:

Yet notwithstanding, the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works are also accepted in him, not as though they were in this life wholly unblamable and unreprovable in God’s sight; but that he, looking upon them in his Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections.

Nevertheless, there are those who apostatize or break covenant. Calvin depicts this too using familial language: those who break covenant are rebellious children who are disowned, ones who “degenerate from legitimate children to bastards” (Calvin, p. 217). Yet as God’s children we have great assurance of our perseverance, and encouragement to persevere, because our Father who dwells in our midst has pledged himself to us (Calvin, pp. 270-271):

But the inspired writer, calling to remembrance the promises by which God had declared that he would make the Church the object of his special care, and particularly that remarkable article of the covenant, “I will dwell in the midst of you” (Exodus xxv. 8), and, trusting to that sacred and indissoluble bond, has no hesitation in representing all the godly languishing, though they were in a state of suffering and wretchedness, as partakers of this celestial glory in which God dwells. . . . What advantage would we derive from this eternity and immutability of God’s being, unless we had in our hearts the knowledge of him, which, produced by his gracious covenant, begets in us the confidence arising from a mutual relationship between him and us? The meaning then is, “We are like withered grass, we are decaying every moment, we are not far from death, yea rather, we are, as it were, already dwelling in the grave; but since thou, O God! hast made a covenant with us, by which thou hast promised to protect and defend thine own people, and hast brought thyself into a gracious relation to us, giving us the fullest assurance that thou wilt always dwell in the midst of us, instead of desponding, we must be of good courage; and although we may see only ground for despair if we depend upon ourselves, we ought nevertheless to lift up our minds to the heavenly throne, from which thou wilt at length stretch forth thy hand to help us.” . . . . As God continues unchangeably the same — “without variableness or shadow of turning” — nothing can hinder him from aiding us; and this he will do, because we have his word, by which he has laid himself under obligation to us, and because he has deposited with us his own memorial, which contains in it a sacred and indissoluble bond of fellowship.

In seeking to secure our perseverance, God uses both fatherly enticings and fatherly threatenings and discipline. Yet in the end, “the Christian’s life of covenant-keeping, although imperfect before God, is nevertheless a life of encouragement since God is pleased with His adopted children’s faithful efforts” (Lillback, p. 275).

There are some areas of covenant life where Lillback does not quote Calvin in reference to adoption, but where there is a clear link to adoption. One such area is that of “covenant prayer.” The nature of our prayer to God is precisely that of a child appealing to a loving father (Luke 11:1-13).

This is also the case for the sacraments, the covenant signs. Baptism is a pronouncement by God through his church of our adoption and justification. Consider that our baptism is a key beginning of our union with Christ (Romans 6) and Christ’s own baptism was a pronouncement of sonship and acceptance (Matthew 3). (Baptism is of course not the cause of our adoption and justification any more than a minister’s pronouncement of “man and wife” is the cause of a couple’s union.) Similarly, the covenant meal is a family meal. God provides food for us, his children, and we eat before him. This is true of both the Lord’s Supper and also Old Testament meals that priests and often worshippers enjoyed before God after offering sacrifice.

There are, of course, plenty of other ways we can think about God’s covenanting. Adoption showcases the work of God the Father, but we could equally explore the work of Christ or of the Spirit in our salvation. Or we could consider how our children relate to God, explore Calvin’s letter-Spirit distinction over against a Lutheran law-gospel distinction, or consider the many ways in which the old and new covenants are similar yet different.

An advantage of looking at adoption specifically is that it stands up well as a proxy for the kind of questions we want to ask about covenant and sacraments. In particular, it helps us to remember that God’s covenants are not merely legal, but also affective, personal and social. What does it mean to be in covenant with God through Christ and his Spirit? More than anything else, it means to be adopted, named and kept as his own child.

Written by Scott Moonen

February 27, 2010 at 2:40 pm

A gospel catechism

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Our church practices credobaptism, and I’ve assembled this catechism to help ready my children for a pastoral interview. We’re also learning the apostle’s creed, below. Some influences are my pastors Phil Sasser and Daniel Baker, and also Chris Schlect and the Westminster-based catechism for young children. I’d be grateful for suggested improvements.



What is your sin?
Disobeying God’s word (1 John 3:4)
What is the penalty for your sin?
Death (Romans 6:23)


What is the gospel?
Jesus died for our sins, was buried, and was raised from the dead; just as God promised. (1 Cor 15)


Why does God love you?
He made me His child.
How do you know that God loves you?
He gave his son Jesus for me.


Who is Jesus?
He is God’s son, my maker, savior and king. He is my life and my treasure.
How is Jesus your Savior?
Jesus died in my place, so I am forgiven and adopted.
Where is Jesus now?
He rose from the dead and sits at our Father’s right hand.
How is Jesus your King?
He leads, provides, cares for and protects me.

Holy Spirit

Who is the Holy Spirit?
He is my helper.
How does he help you?
He gives me life, peace, comfort, and strength to become more like Jesus.


What is faith?
Resting on Jesus for my salvation (Psalm 62:5-8)
Why do you love God?
He is great and good, and he loves me.
What is repentance?
To be sorry for my sin, to hate it as God does, and to keep turning from it
Why do you obey God?
Because I love him

Church, now and then

Who are God’s people?
They make up his church.
What does his church do?
We display God’s greatness and beauty, and serve and care for one another.
What will become of God’s people?
God will keep us to the end.
What happens at the end?
Jesus will restore his creation and live with his people.


What is baptism?
Baptism is God’s marking out a person as his own.
What does your baptism signify?
I am cleansed from my sin by Jesus’s blood, and united to him in his death and resurrection.
Why do you want to be baptized?
Because I belong to Jesus

Apostles’ creed

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.

And in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven, where he sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Christian church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.

Written by Scott Moonen

October 14, 2009 at 6:05 am