Calvin On Acts 2:39: Against The [Ana] Baptists

And we must note these three degrees, that the promise was first made to the Jews, and then to their children, and last of all, that it is also to be imparted to the Gentiles. We know the reason why the Jews are preferred before other people; for they are, as it were, the first begotten in God’s family, yea, they were then separated from other people by a singular privilege. Therefore Peter observeth a good order, when he giveth the Jews the pre-eminence. Whereas he adjoineth their children unto them, it dependeth upon the words of the promise: I will be thy God, and the God of thy seed after thee, (Gen. 17:7,) where God doth reckon the children with the fathers in the grace of adoption.

This place, therefore, doth abundantly refute the manifest error of the Anabaptists, which will not have infants, which are the children of the faithful, to be baptized, as if they were not members of the Church. They espy a starting hole in the allegorical sense, and they expound it thus, that by children are meant those which are spiritually begotten. But this gross impudency doth nothing help them. It is plain and evident that Peter spake thus because God did adopt one nation peculiarly. And circumcision did declare that the right of adoption was common even unto infants. Therefore, even as God made his covenant with Isaac, being as yet unborn, because he was the seed of Abraham, so Peter teacheth, that all the children of the Jews are contained in the same covenant, because this promise is always in force, I will be the God of your seed.

—John Calvin, Commentary upon the Acts of the Apostles, trans. Henry Beveridge (repr. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 1,122–23.

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  1. I wonder how you would relate this to the context in which “the promise” is the promise of the Holy Spirit (v. 29) who is given to those who repent and are baptized. In what sense can the promise of the Spirit be given to infants who have not repented?

    It seems more reaosn that the children there are the future generations that will also receive the Holy Spirit upon repentance and baptism. The promise is not limited just to Jews who are there on that day. This is supported by the (1) the requirement to repent which infants cannot do, and (2) the idea that the covenant with Abraham that Calvin appeals to is not with Abraham and his infant child(ren), but rather with his descendants (i.e., the generations to come), which is the very reason that Peter can appeal to it two thousand years later.

    Which is why I wonder on what you basis Calvin (and you) apply a promise given to those who repent (cf. v. 38) to those who have not yet repented. Can you help me understand your thinking here?


    • How do you miss the children in Gen.17? There’s only one covenant with Abraham. It is given in pure, promissory form in Gen.12; a ceremonial oath is made in Gen.15; and a sign is added in Gen.17. But the outline never changes; and in Gen.22 the covenant is promoted to the elect seed through a crisis moment, with the promise renewed.

      The promise is the remission of sins, and baptism is the NewCovenant sign and seal of that promise. The sign (baptism) and the thing signified (Holy Spirit) are intended to meet together in a person.

      The same promise is to Abraham too, Rom.4:7,11; only the seal he is given, circumcision, is suited to the proleptic age obtaining before the Seed’s arrival. Again, the sign and the thing signified were intended to meet together in a person.

      The timing of God’s act, if and as he pleases, was/is not so strictly tied to the moment of the administration of the sign. The effect of the sign is manifest only, but always, unto faith that believes the promise. The promise is attached to a sign not of necessity, but because faith is encouraged and strengthened by means calibrated to human weakness. Reformed folk don’t think of covenant-signs as “validation” of their claim to belong to Christ, a witness to some repentance past; but as a token exciting present faith in the promise: “I will forgive the sin of one who has faith in Christ.”

      Objecting to baptism, simply because an infant cannot yet make an intelligent assent to the meaning of the sign, would be equally objectionable against the sign of circumcision. And yet, that objection is completely undercut by the obvious assignment of the sign to infants 8-days old.

      So, what we frequently find is that the meaning: “promise of sin forgiven by the coming of the Seed/Christ” for the sign of circumcision is (by anti-paedobaptists) simply denied. If circumcision can be severed from this hope (never mind what Paul said), then circumcision can be reduced to an outward ritual with no spiritual significance–literally, a bare sign (and, apparently on that reasoning, fit for dumb kids).

    • Larry,

      This is a re-statement of the Abrahamic promise. The problem is that the original Abrahamic promise is misunderstood or undervalued such that it is taken to be merely external. The prophets and the NT contradict such a view repeatedly. The Abrahamic promise was a [Holy] Spiritual promise, behind which, as Paul says in Romans 9, lies election. Nothing, in that sense has really changed.

      Abraham is the key:


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