S. Joel Garver

Turretin defines baptism in the following way:

the first sacrament of the Christian church, by which upon the covenanted, having been received into the family of God by the external sprinkling of water in the name of the Trinity, remission of sins and regeneration by the blood of Christ and the Holy Spirit are bestowed and sealed. (Institutes 19.11.9)An awkward sentence structure, but an interesting definition.

Earlier in his sacramental discussion, Turretin asserts that sacraments "work grace...morally and hyperphysically, inasmuch as they are signs and seals which in their lawful use hold forth and seal grace to believers." This is because, for believers "God by the power of the Holy Spirit" acts in the sacraments "truly performing and fulfilling in [the recipient] whatever he promises and figures by the signs" (19.8.5).

Turretin, moreover, is clear that this sacramental efficacy is, for him, not merely the occasion for grace (God working internally in the believer alongside and with the external sacrament), but truly an "instrument" for grace (God working in and through the sacrament).

A difficulty, however, seems to present itself with regard to the grace of regeneration as something granted by baptism, since Turretin tends to think of regeneration largely in terms of an initial, punctiliar work of grace, by the Holy Spirit, through the instrument of the Word, so that ordinarily regeneration precedes baptism in adult converts (cf. 15.4) and thus "baptism is posterior to regeneration" (19.19.24). If this is so, then how can Turretin define baptism as a sacrament in which "regeneration" is "bestowed and sealed"?

Two aspects of an answer present themselves. First, while there is a difference between the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments, Turretin does not regard them as external or extrinsic to one another, since the sacraments themselves are an administration of the Word.

He writes, "God does not trifle by instituting bare and empty signs; but as by the vocal word he really performs what he promises, so in the sacrament (which is a palpable and visible word) he gives by the thing itself that which the signs represent" (19.1.12). In the sacramental Word, the sacrament is both instituted and promises are made. It is in the "perspicuity and truth" of the sacramental promise that the efficicacy of sacraments lies (19.1.15). Thus, as the Word of promise in the Gospel may be savingly believed upon in preaching, so also may it be savingly believed upon the sacraments.

Although Turretin goes on to distinguish between the preached Word and the sacraments, suggesting that while preaching "produces faith," sacraments merely "confirm faith" (19.2.6), his prior comments seem to deconstruct any kind of absolute opposition between the two. Turretin's own exposition, therefore, seems to suggest that the call of the Gospel received through the preaching of the Word comes ordinarily to fruition through an exercise of faith in receiving the sacraments, in which the Gospel is believed upon and which, at the same time, confirms and strengthens that faith. Still, this believing upon Christ in baptism is not typically initial belief and is not temporally coordinate with regeneration, but is an effect of it and posterior to it.

Nonetheless, when Turretin speaks of baptism bestowing regeneration, we might understand him to say that ordinarily we should objectively regard the calling that occurs through the preached Word as regenerating the person in baptism unto saving faith, so that Christ is believed upon in baptism and that same faith is confirmed by the Spirit. There will be, of course--subjectively speaking--all kinds of variations with regard to those who, for instance, die in faith while prevented from receiving baptism or who receive baptism hypocritically. But objectively speaking, Turretin does speak of baptism as bestowing regeneration.

Second, it is also important to note that Turretin can use the term "regeneration" in both narrower and broader senses. The narrow sense refers to what we have been discussing: the initial work of the Spirit by which a person is enabled to savingly believe upon Christ as he is presented in the Gospel. But more broadly, Turretin says that the "Holy Spirit is repeatedly promised and given also to believers" and that this is "the progress and increase of regenerating grace" by which the Spirit acts "to promote and perfect the good work which began in them" (15.5.20). Thus believers experience the ongoing "actual mortification of the old and vivification of the new man" as part and parcel of regeneration itself (15.5.21).

In this broader sense as well then, baptism can be said to bestow regeneration. For baptism is not efficacious only when the water is upon us, but "through the whole course of life even up to death" (19.20.25) and into eternity where God acts "to abolish sin altogether in man...and to clothe him with perfect righteousness and immortality" (19.19.24).

And so, Turretin writes, "by baptism is sealed to us the remission not only of past and present, but also future sins" (19.20.12) so that the "promises of cleansing and blotting out sins" received in baptism are also "referred to sanctification," which occurs "gradually and successively" (19.20.26). The "death to sin" received in baptism is with regard both to justification in which sin "is perfectly remitted and in no way imputed" and to sanctification in which "sin dies or rather is mortified by degrees" (19.20.25). In both these ways then, "we are said...to die with Christ in baptism" so that through baptism sins "are wholly removed as to guilt and gradually as to stain" (19.20.25, 27).

In these ways then, Turretin rightly can speak of baptism "bestowing regeneration."

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