Zwingli's "Of Baptism": A Brief Analysis
Updated: Oct 31, 2020
Ulrich Zwingli combatted the radical Anabaptist assertion that the sacrament of baptism belonged only to those who could and do live without sin by developing the Reformed distinction between the external sign of washing with water and the internal washing away of sins. The two go hand in hand, yet they are never identical. He asserted that the Anabaptist expectation of perfectionism as a prerequisite to baptism was not only faulty, it was outright impossible. Zwingli’s understanding of baptism as a covenant sign was then adopted by other Reformed theologians and is the standard position for Reformed churches today, as seen in the Reformed Confessions.
 For the relevant sections of Zwingli’s Of Baptism, see appendix.
In 1525, the Swiss Anabaptist movement made a clear break from the rest of Protestantism. Many of these men, such as Conrad Grebel, were former students of Zwingli. When the Zurich magistrates ordered that “all those therefore who have hitherto allowed their children to remain unbaptized, must have them baptized within the next week: and whosoever will not do this, must with wife and child, goods and chattels, leave our city, jurisdiction, and dominion: or await what will be done with him…”, the Anabaptists responded “by marching through the streets of Zurich in loud protests. Rather than baptising their infants, they baptised each other by pouring or immersion…” This was the tension that was already boiling months before Zwingli wrote Of Baptism. About a year later, the Zurich council ordered that “no one in our town country, or domains, whether man, woman, or girl, shall baptize another and if any one hereafter shall baptize another, he will be seized by our Lord: and, according to the decree now set forth, will be drowned without mercy…”
 Steven J. Lawson, Pillars of Grace, Accordance electronic ed. (Lake Mary: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2011), 433.  B. J. Kidd, Documents Illustrative of the Continental Reformation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1911), 455.
The Anabaptist Error: Perfectionism as a Prerequisite to Baptism
The Anabaptist error in view was not simply the teaching that baptism should only be administered to those who make a credible profession of faith. Indeed, this in itself was controversial. But, although Zwingli eventually and unequivocally rejects this view, he was once friendly to the teaching:
For some time I myself was deceived by the error [of the Anabaptists] and I thought it better not to baptize children until they came to years of discretion. But I was not so dogmatically of this opinion as to take the course of many today, who although they are far too young and inexperienced in the matter argue and asset rashly that infant baptism derives from the papacy or the devil or something equally non-sensical (139).
The alleged error which Zwingli dealt with was much graver than this. According to him, “[T]he Anabaptists claim that only those who know that they can live without sin ought to receive the sign of baptism.” Supposedly, the Anabaptists were not simply looking for a profession of faith, but some kind of sinless perfectionism as a prerequisite to baptism. This practice flowed out of the Anabaptist conviction, as Berkhof asserts, that regeneration was “a complete or perfect change of the whole nature of man, or of any part of it, so that it is no more capable of sin…” Apparently, this to them was true salvation, and therefore, only those who showed this sinless perfection should be baptised. Although modern Anabaptists and Mennonites claim that this is a caricature of their view, Zwingli was convinced from what he had read from them that “they are committed absolutely to the view that they can and do live without sin.”
 Ulrich Zwingli and Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Zwingli and Bullinger (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1953), 139-41.
 B. J. Kidd, Documents Illustrative of the Continental Reformation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1911), 139.
 Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2018), 241.
 Cornelius J. Dyck, The Mennonite Encyclopedia (Mennonite Brethren Publ. House, 1959), 1115.
 Kidd, Continental Reformation, 139-41.
Zwingli’s Response: Distinction Between the Sign and the Thing Signified
Zwingli asserted that the expectation of perfectionism as a prerequisite to baptism was literally impossible, “for if that be the case baptism was instituted in vain, for not one of us can claim to do that before God.” He viewed baptism as a covenant sign signifying that those who receive it should amend their lives and follow Christ. Zwingli then made the important Reformed distinction between the external sign and the internal reality. “It is not the pouring of water which washes away sin,” as many have previously taught. It may wash the body, but it cannot take away sin, for sin is washed away only when we have a clear conscience before God. “The word which saves the soul is not the word outwardly spoken, but the word inwardly understood and believed.” Therefore, baptism was only an outward ceremony which was devoid of any true spiritual benefit if divorced from a pledge to live for and follow Jesus. Ultimately, “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creature, the living of a new life…” It should be noted as well that perhaps Zwingli’s greatest frustration was not the Anabaptist’s view of Baptism, but the fact that “the Anabaptists will not recognize any Christians except themselves or any Church except their own.”
 Kidd, Continental Reformation, 140.  Kidd, Continental Reformation, 153.  Kidd, Continental Reformation, 154.  Kidd, Continental Reformation, 156.  Kidd, Continental Reformation, 157.
Long-Term Historical Impact
This relationship between the external sign of baptism and the internal washing of sins in regeneration was eventually affirmed by the Reformed churches, as seen in Calvin. In Zwingli’s words, we see a solid denial of baptismal regeneration and the distinctive view of baptism as a covenant sign, a visible word, and God's pledge to the party baptised that they might walk in newness of life. This is precisely the theology we find in the high watermark of Reformed orthodoxy, the Westminster Confession of Faith, in chapter 28:
Baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible Church; but also to be unto him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in the newness of life. Which sacrament is, by Christ’s own appointment, to be continued in His Church until the end of the world.
Interestingly enough, it is partly this view of baptism which leads 17th century Particular Baptists to assert that the sacrament of baptism belongs only to those who are able to attest of their faith in Christ, remission of sins, and walk in newness of life. Although they are a far cry from the Anabaptists, it is indeed fascinating to observe Zwingli’s sacramentology being used to defend credobaptism. Needless to say, Zwingli’s contributions to the church’s understanding of baptism proved useful even to those outside his own camp.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge; Accordance electronic ed. (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1845), paragraph 2924.
 The Westminster Confession of Faith, Creeds, Confessions and Catechisms; ed. David Lang (Altamonte Springs: OakTree Software, Inc., 2006), paragraph 2988.
Zwingli’s Of Baptism (7 March 1526)
[T]he Anabaptists claim that only those who know that they can live without sin ought to receive the sign of baptism. In so doing they make God a liar and bring back the hypocrisy of legal righteousness....[I]s not that the height of presumption? As long as we are in the flesh, we are never without sin...But the Anabaptists do hold that they live without sin. This is proved by what they and some others write and teach concerning the...perseverance of saints. In this they are committed absolutely to the view that they can and do live without sin. How far that claim is borne out by their envy, lying clamour, evil-speaking. And blasphemy I leave on one side.....Clearly, then, baptism cannot bind us in such a way that we must not accept it unless we know that we can live without sin: for if that be the case baptism was instituted in vain, for not one of us can claim to do that before God. Therefore we will turn to the Word of God and learn there both what baptism is and when it was instituted. As regards the first question, baptism is a covenant sign which indicates that all those who receive it are willing to amend their lives and to follow Christ. In short, it is an initiation to new life. Baptism is therefore an initiatory sign...[I]t is not the pouring of water which washes away sin. And that was what we once believed, although without any authority in the Word of God. The Radical Reformations also believed that the water of baptism cleanses children from a sin which they never had, and that without it they would be damned. All these beliefs were erroneous,...Water-baptism cannot contribute in any way to the washing away of sin...[A]lthough baptism may wash the body — and that is all that water-baptism can do — it cannot take away sin. Sin is taken away only when we have a good conscience before God. But no material thing can purge the conscience,...[T]he sacrament can never cleanse the soul, for it is only an external thing. The word which saves the soul is not the word outwardly spoken, but the word inwardly understood and believed. And it is to that water that Christ is here referring,...But that water can be none other than Christ himself...Hence water-baptism is nothing but an external ceremony, that is, an outward sign that we are incorporated and engrafted into the Lord Jesus Christ and pledged to live to him and to follow him. And as in Jesus Christ neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creature, the living of a new life (Gal. 6), so it is not baptism which saves us, but a new life...The root of the trouble is that the Anabaptists will not recognize any Christians except themselves or any Church except their own. And that is always the way with sectarians who separate themselves on their own authority...For if every blockhead who had a novel or strange opinion were allowed to gather a sect around him, divisions and sects would become so numerous that the Christian body which we now build up with such difficulty would be broken to pieces in every individual congregation. Therefore no innovations ought to be made except with the common consent of the churches, and not merely of a single church. For the judgment of Scripture is not mine or yours, but the churches...
 B. J. Kidd, Documents Illustrative of the Continental Reformation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1911), 139-41, 153-4, 156-8.
Berkhof, Louis. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2018.
Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge; Accordance electronic ed. Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1845.
Dyck, Cornelius J. The Mennonite Encyclopedia. Mennonite Brethren Publ. House, 1959.
Kidd, B. J. Documents Illustrative of the Continental Reformation. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1911.
Lawson, Steven J. Pillars of Grace, Accordance electronic ed. Lake Mary: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2011.
The Westminster Confession of Faith, Creeds, Confessions and Catechisms; ed. David Lang. Altamonte Springs: OakTree Software, Inc., 2006.
Zwingli, Ulrich and Bromiley, Geoffrey W. Zwingli and Bullinger. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1953.