Baptismal Efficacy: The Offer/Reception Model as Antidote to the Federal Vision

Bill Evans head shot

Once again the Federal Vision movement is in the news.  Overtures regarding the handling by two Presbyteries of allegations against the Rev. Jeff Meyers and the Rev. Peter Leithart will be presented to this year’s PCA General Assembly.   I should make it clear at the outset that this post is not directed against either of these men, as I have not examined their writings on the subject of baptismal efficacy in any depth (I will add that I really like Leithart’s recent Baker Academic volume on Athanasius).

The Federal Vision movement, which emerged in the 1990s, can be understood as a post-theonomic impulse (as is often noted, some of the figures in it have clear connections to the earlier Christian Reconstructionist movement).  Here a parallel to the earlier Puritan movement seems to hold—having failed to reform society in accordance with divine law, the Puritans turned to the reform of family and parish life, and something similar seems to have happened to theonomists in the wake of the political failures of the religious right.

As I suggested in a 2010 WTJ article, the Federal Vision is characterized by an insistent stress on covenant conditionality and sacramental efficacy (see my “Déjà Vu All Over Again?: The Contemporary Reformed Soteriological Controversy in Historical Perspective,” Westminster Theological Journal 72/1 (2010): 135-151).  Understood as a corrective, these emphases are not surprising—FV proponents rightly sense that contemporary Evangelicalism is at least implicitly antinomian and ecclesiologically challenged!

For at least some FV proponents, these concerns have issued in a view of baptismal efficacy that may be described under four points.  First, the grace of baptism is fully and objectively efficacious at the time of administration.  Those baptized are regenerated and united with Christ.  Second, this baptismal grace is well nigh universal—all baptized (at least all covenant children baptized as infants) receive the saving efficacy of the sacrament.  Third, while the grace of baptism is bestowed in the administration of the sacrament, this grace is conditional in that it can be lost by those who fail to persevere in faith and obedience.  Finally, because the grace of baptism is received even by those who later fail to persevere, it is not conditioned by God’s decree of election (for a more detailed discussion of this, see my “‘Really Exhibited and Conferred . . . in His Appointed Time’: Baptism and the New Reformed Sacramentalism,” Presbyterion: Covenant Seminary Review 31/2 (Fall 2005): 72-88).

While I have some significant disagreements with the Federal Vision position regarding baptism, its proponents are to be commended for putting the issue of baptismal efficacy on the front burner.  Scripture does speak of baptism as doing something decisive of a salvific nature (e.g., Acts 2:38; 22:16; Romans 6:3-4; 1 Corinthians 12:13; Titus 3:5; 1 Peter 3:21), and this theme of baptismal efficacy is prominent in Reformed confessional documents.  But despite this witness, the prevailing model more recently in Evangelical and Reformed circles has been Zwinglian in that any efficacy attributed to baptism is at most merely psychological.  Today it seems that even many Reformed ministers are more concerned to explain what baptism doesn’t do than what it does!

Nevertheless, there is a well-codified though largely forgotten alternative to the rather mechanical sacramentalist FV view of baptismal efficacy on the one hand, with its similarities to the Roman Catholic ex opere operato view, and Zwinglian sacramentarianism on the other.  Here I am referring to what I have termed the “offer/reception model” of sacramental efficacy as it is found in the writings of John Calvin and in Reformed confessional materials such as the Westminster Confession of Faith.

John Calvin sought to present a doctrine of the sacraments that ascribed neither too much (as he thought the ex opere operato of Roman Catholicism did) or too little (as he contended the Anabaptists did) to the sacraments (see Institutes IV.14.14, 17).  To this end he consistently argued that in the sacraments we receive Christ himself as their “substance,” but that this “happens when we receive in true faith what is offered there” (Institutes, IV.14.16).  Regarding baptism in particular, Calvin declared that “from this sacrament . . . we obtain only as much as we receive in faith” (Institutes, IV.15.15).   Especially important for this issue is Calvin’s forceful comment on Ezekiel 20:20.

We must hold, therefore, that there is a mutual relation between faith and the sacraments, and hence, that the sacraments are effective through faith. Man’s unworthiness does not detract anything from them, for they always retain their nature. Baptism is the laver of regeneration, although the whole world should be incredulous: (Tit. iii.5) the Supper of Christ is the communication of his body and blood, (I Cor. x.16) although there were not a spark of faith in the world: but we do not perceive the grace which is offered to us; and although spiritual things always remain the same, yet we do not obtain their effect, nor perceive their value, unless we are cautious that our want of faith should not profane what God has consecrated to our salvation.

The fact that baptism retains its character and that the grace of baptism can subsequently be received by faith implies what R. S. Wallace has helpfully termed a doctrine of “latent efficacy” (Calvin’s Doctrine of Word and Sacrament, 185).  Apparently speaking of his own experience, Calvin wrote (Institutes, IV.15.17):

Now our opponents ask us what faith came to us during some years after our baptism . . . . We therefore confess that for that time baptism benefited us not at all, inasmuch as the promise offered us in it—without which baptism is nothing—lay neglected . . . . But we believe that the promise itself did not vanish. Rather, we consider that God through baptism promises us forgiveness of sins, and he will doubtless fulfill his promise for all believers. This promise was offered to us in baptism; therefore, let us embrace it by faith. Indeed, on account of our unfaithfulness it lay long buried from us; now, therefore, let us receive it through faith.

With regard to the salvation of infants, Calvin recognizes that while God can bring elect infants to salvation (Institutes, IV.16.21), this is exceptional rather than how God “usually deals . . . with infants” (Institutes, IV.16.17).  Rather, the preaching of the word is the “ordinary arrangement” by which God calls his people to himself and to “the beginning of faith” (Institutes, IV.16.19).  In all this we see not only the doctrine of “latent efficacy” but also Calvin’s conviction that the efficacy of baptism is conditioned by the divine decree of election.

Given the pervasiveness of this offer/reception language in Calvin, we are not terribly surprised to find this way of thinking present in the Westminster Confession’s treatment of baptismal efficacy.  In WCF 28.6 we read:

The efficacy of Baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, not withstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God’s own will, in His appointed time.

At least one FV figure has argued that this confessional section speaks of baptism as immediately efficacious at its administration and of that efficacy extending to a person’s entire life.  But this interpretation ignores the rather clear conceptual roots of this section in Calvin, and, most importantly, it can only be sustained at the cost of ignoring the latter part of the sentence in question.

In his study of the Westminster Assembly on baptism (David Wright, “Baptism at the Westminster Assembly,” in Calvin Studies VIII: The Westminster Confession in Current Thought (Davidson, N.C.: Davidson College, 1997), 80.), historian David F. Wright rightly concluded that the “Confession teaches baptismal regeneration,” but he also noted that this language was carefully qualified: “What then about the efficacy of baptism according to the Westminster Confession? Its central affirmation seems clear: ‘the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited and conferred by the Holy Ghost’ (28:6). It is true that a variety of qualifications to this assertion are entered in the chapter on baptism: efficacy is not tied to the moment of administration (ibid.), grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed to baptism that no person can be regenerated or saved without it (28:5) or that all the baptized are undoubtedly regenerated (ibid.).”

The benefits of this offer/reception model are substantial.  At very least, it offers an example of the careful balancing of sacramental objectivity and subjectivity that is characteristic of the Reformed tradition at its best.  It provides a meaningful integration of divine sovereignty and sacramental efficacy—something that has historically been rather elusive.  Finally, it maintains the unity of salvation in Christ—it rightly affirms that all of salvation, including perseverance, is ours in Christ Jesus, and that in him we truly have eternal life.

I have long thought that the FV is asking some important and even crucial questions but coming up with some unfortunate answers—answers that move it, as it were, beyond the Reformed confessional reservation.  While the offer/reception model of sacramental efficacy as found in Calvin and the Westminster Confession does not answer all the questions we may have on this issue, it is a good start in the direction of a theology of the sacraments that is biblically rooted, confessionally responsible, and ecclesially robust.

For further reading on the topic:

William B. Evans, “‘Really Exhibited and Conferred . . . in His Appointed Time’: Baptism and the New Reformed Sacramentalism,” Presbyterion: Covenant Seminary Review 31/2 (Fall 2005): 72-88.

__________, “Calvin, Baptism, and Latent Efficacy Again: A Reply to Rich Lusk,” Presbyterion: Covenant Seminary Review 32/1 (Spring 2006): 38-45.

Hughes Oliphant Old, The Shaping of the Reformed Baptismal Rite in the Sixteenth Century (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992).

R. S. Wallace, Calvin’s Doctrine of Word and Sacrament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957), 133-253.

David Wright, “Baptism at the Westminster Assembly,” in Calvin Studies VIII: The Westminster Confession in Current Thought (Davidson, N.C.: Davidson College, 1997), 76–90.

For a valiant but, in my judgment, ultimately unsuccessful attempt to defend a FV reading of Calvin and the WCF on baptismal efficacy, see Rich Lusk, “Baptismal Efficacy and Baptismal Latency: A Sacramental Dialogue,” Presbyterion: Covenant Seminary Review 32/1 (Spring 2006): 18-37.