Baptism - Parents and Children
"Teach us what we shall do unto the child" (Judges 13:8). This is the desire of Christians when the Lord gives them a child. The God-appointed sign and the covenant status it implies are part of God's answer to the question. The baptism of our children must have meaning. Too often that meaning has been spoken of merely in terms of "special relationship" and "privileged position". This is inadequate.
As a sinful parent speaking to other sinful parents, I don't want to appear to give smart answers to those who are perhaps struggling with concern and perhaps even heartache over their children, perhaps older children, as if providing a "how to do it" or "how you should have done it" blueprint for Christian fathers that claims to solve everything. Not a day passes when we do not fall short as parents. It is in this attitude that I invite you to explore the Scriptures to get closer to an understanding of the biblical teaching concerning our children and the meaning of their baptism.
The Status of Our Children
a. Baptism is Never Merely a Sign of Outward Privilege
As with circumcision so also baptism always signifies the heart of the covenant relation. Some who receive the sign may, indeed, have no more than outward privilege, but such outward privilege is not the meaning of the sign, but the bond of the covenant union itself is.
The spiritual condition of an infant is unknowable. When an adult professes faith we can make a fallible assessment as to their true spiritual state. Such profession does not tell us that they are undoubtedly regenerate but, when credible, it gives us the necessary scriptural warrant for including them in the visible church. With infants, not even such fallible assessment is possible.
It is good to be reminded of what we do not know so that we know our place before God. We do know that God can regenerate a sinner at any point between conception and death. We know some covenant infants are regenerated in infancy, some later in life, some never at all. But in the case of a given infant we can determine nothing by observation. To know what status to attach to that infant, whether to treat him as inside or outside the Church of God, we are entirely dependent upon divine revelation in Scripture.
b. Baptism Defines the Boundaries of the Church as Visible
Abraham was given the sign of circumcision for himself and his offspring, and a man and his family had to be circumcised to be received into the fellowship of Israel and before he could partake of Passover (Exodus 12:43-51). From Genesis 17 onwards, this sign defined the boundaries of the congregation of Jehovah. Israel is addressed by the Lord as "my people". Israel actually was the church, a mixed church but the church nonetheless. Israel in the Old Testament is the olive tree which was later to be pruned and into which the Gentile branches were grafted (Romans 11). Israel was the congregation of the Lord, not the congregation of the Lord plus their children. The children were part of that congregation whereas the uncircumcised were outside the congregation and treated as the enemies of the Lord.
Baptism rightly administered defines the boundaries of the visible Church of God. The visible expression of the one body is marked out by the "one baptism" (Ephesians 4:4-5). Water baptism is the outward sign of those to be treated as "baptised by one Spirit into one body" (1 Corinthians 12:13).
John Murray cautions against thinking of two churches, the visible and the invisible. We must think of two aspects of one church (Collected Writings, Volume 1, pp. 231-236). And the church in its visible aspect is made up of those who are to be regarded as the Church of Christ.
c. Presumptive Unregeneration must be Rejected
I have to disagree with two Disruption worthies, James Bannerman and William Cunningham, although I take a little comfort in knowing that John Murray does the same. The following quote from Bannerman indicates their opinion: "In the case of the infant, it is a prospective seal in connection with the faith which he has not at the moment, but which he may have afterwards" (The Church of Christ, Volume 2, p. 116). Baptism, however, is not simply a sign of faith, but of union with the Lord and cleansing from sin. An infant can be united to Christ. He can be regenerated (and therefore in principle sanctified) and he can be justified through Christ's merits. From observation we cannot tell if this is so. It is not for us to assume it is not so. What shall we do? The covenant administration resolves this for us. Concerning the treatment of the children of believers, God has spoken.
d. Our Children must be Treated as Included in the Visible Expression of those United to Christ
It is not possible to say on the one hand, with our Westminster Standards, that the children of believing parents are members of the visible church and then treat them in terms exactly opposite to the basic biblical descriptions of the church, of which the visible church is the outward expression. Remember, there are not two churches.
We cannot say that we will treat them as unregenerate, unsanctified, uncalled, ungodly and not united to Christ and then include them in the visible expression of those who are "sanctified in Christ Jesus". We should not do so with adults and we should not do so with infants. Cunningham may speak of "receiving infants into the fellowship of the Church" (Historical Theology, Volume 2, p. 149) but this appears somewhat hollow if presumptive unregeneration is to be our starting point. What does this "fellowship" mean?
On a practical level, it is not in the interests of the children to expect them to suffer affliction with the people of God (as they must by virtue of their connection with their parents) and at the same time deny them the status of the people of God. Only if we treat them as part of the professing church will the unity and significance of baptism (adult or infant) be maintained. That there is one meaning and one status of all the subjects of baptism is assumed in such passages as Galatians 3:27 and Romans 6:2.
This is the position of the Westminster Standards in general and indeed the alternative view leaves the term "visible church" empty of real meaning. The Directory of Public Worship is particularly explicit:
...that the Son of God admitted little children into his presence, embracing and blessing them, saying "For of such is the kingdom of God"; that children by baptism are solemnly received into the bosom of the visible church, distinguished from the world, and them that are without, and united with believers; and that all who are baptised into the name of Christ do renounce, and by their baptism are bound to fight against the devil, the world and the flesh; that they are Christians, and federally holy before baptism, and therefore are they baptised. The Administration of the Sacraments, 3
They do not become church members when admitted to the Lord's Supper: they are recognised as members at baptism. So the children are addressed among the "saints" at Ephesus and Colosse (Ephesians 1:1 and 6:1; Colossians 1:1 and 3:20).
e. Covenant Children have a God-given Status rather than Being the Subjects of a Human Presumption
The term "presumptive regeneration" is to be rejected as misleading. There is no distinctive presumption made of the children that is not common to all the members of the professing church. We simply ask: "Who does God say are to be treated as the church of God?" The answer is those adults who give credible profession of faith and their children. We must then ask how members of the visible church are to be treated. The answer is they are to be treated according to their profession but allowing that within the visible church there are those who are genuinely united to Christ and others who have only an outward church membership. This governs our treatment of covenant children in the following ways:
Firstly, they are not to be taught merely with a view to future application. It may be that truth taught may not be applied to the heart till later in life, but we are not to assume this will be so. We are to teach the covenant child prayerfully looking for the reception of truth now.
Secondly, they are to be exposed to all that Scripture addresses to the professing church. Instruction is not to be restricted to certain basic elements of gospel truth. Motives of love to Christ are to be brought to bear with a view to godly conduct. The Apostle exhorts them to obedience "in the Lord" (Ephesians 6:1). He has in view genuine devotion to Christ when he says of obedience to parents, "for this is well-pleasing to the Lord" (Colossians 3:20). We are not to assume that their responses to truth are but the constrained outward responses of an unregenerate heart.
Charles Hodge warns: In other words, we put them outside of the kingdom by our treatment while we hold them to be in according to our theory. We constantly assume that their first actions and emotions of a moral nature will be evil and only evil.The Mode and Subjects of Baptism
He goes on to say we should endeavour to "call out, from the commencement of moral action, the emotions and exercises of a renewed heart". This policy may seem madness and it would be if it were not God-appointed, but as we in faith follow the Lord's prescribed course of action we can look expectantly for the effect of his Spirit's work in the little lambs of the flock.
Thirdly, the practice of paedo-communion is not required. The difference between the passiveness with which the initiatory sacrament is received and the active participation involved in the other (repeatable) sacrament indicates that the latter is intended for maturer years. Infants could be circumcised and can be baptised. They could not have partaken of Passover and may not partake of the Lord's Supper. Physically this is not possible and the active nature of the participation indicates responsibility.
But the reason the infants are not admitted to Communion is not because a question mark hangs over their status, nor because they do not have an essential title to the ordinance, but because some of the privileges of church membership are reserved for the member who has "come to years" (Hebrews 11:24). At the point at which the covenant child's continued membership of the church no longer rests for warrant on his parent's profession of faith but on his own mature profession, at that time he is to be admitted to the active ordinance of the Lord's Supper as well as other adult privileges of church membership. Nevertheless, if one of the little ones talks of trusting the Good Shepherd and asks if he can take the Lord's Supper, the gist of the answer is not "No, because we don't believe a word you say", but, "No, because the Lord has given some things for later on".
Fourthly, they are to be exhorted to self-examination. The gospel is to be preached to the church in the New Testament as it was in the Old (Hebrews 4:2). The whole professing church is subject to the exhortation: "Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith." Our starting point, however, is not: "We know you aren't a Christian and you must be converted", but "You have the outward status of a Christian, but are you really so? If not, then you need to be converted". More on this later.
The Covenant Promises
There are two aspects to these promises.
a. God Promises to Gather an Elect Seed Out of the Seed of Believers
This is for our encouragement. In teaching us to give our children the sign of covenant union and cleansing, God is indicating that the family ordinance is a primary means by which he builds up his church. These two things together — the status of the covenant child and the promise of the Spirit's efficacious work in establishing the covenant with the elect among the covenant seed — remove the seeming contradiction between the procreative mandate "Be fruitful and multiply" (Genesis 1:28) and the command to do all to the glory of God (2 Corinthians 10:31). When Christians marry and seek to beget children we are not to see this as building up Satan's kingdom and introducing division into the Christian household, but as serving the interests of the kingdom of God. The covenant provides for the whole of life, including the begetting and rearing of children, to be entered into as "unto the Lord".
b. God Makes a Conditional Promise to all the Covenant Seed
The question arises: does God in the covenant only promise effectually to establish the covenant with the elect seed or is there a conditional promise to all the seed, as an instrumental means of fulfilling this sovereign purpose? Does every baptism have a positive meaning for every covenant child?
For the views of the Westminster Standards and John Calvin see separate box.
Samuel Rutherford, one of the strictest Calvinists in the Westminster Assembly, states quite simply that "Faith is the condition of the covenant" (The Trial and Triumph of Faith, p. 87). It is true that some later writers, especially Thomas Boston and the Marrowmen in Scotland, had reservations about the term "condition" being applied to faith. Laying aside the distinction of older writers between the covenant of redemption and the covenant of grace, they took as their starting point, "the covenant of grace was made with Christ as the Second Adam, and in him with all the elect as his seed" (Larger Catechism, Answer 31). They then insisted that Christ had fulfilled the conditions of the covenant on behalf of the elect. Nevertheless, when Boston comes to deal with the "administration of the covenant", the concept of condition is quite clear whatever hesitation he had about the term (A View of the Covenant of Grace, pp. 168 ff.). Boston was concerned to safeguard not only the truth that faith is actually only exercised as a result of a sovereign work of regeneration in the elect, but also that faith is not the meritorious cause of justification but the means of receiving the gift of justification purchased by Jesus Christ the Mediator. All the blessing of the covenant are "in Christ" (Ephesians 1:3). Provided these cautions are kept in mind, however, there should be no objection to the term "condition". If faith is the condition of the covenant when the gospel is preached outside the church, it is the condition in the covenant as far as the covenant child is concerned. For those outside the church, faith is that by which they enter the covenant ("Take hold of my covenant" Isaiah 56:6-7), whereas for the covenant child it is the condition of remaining in the covenant, whereas unbelief makes him a covenant-breaker. "They entered not in because of unbelief" (Hebrews 4:6).
The question naturally arises whether the covenant terminology of God promising to be a "God unto" those whom he calls "my people" is a description of God sovereignly and unconditionally pledging to effectually establish his covenant in the hearts of his elect, or whether it is descriptive of the relationship actually enjoyed by those who (by grace) keep the covenant by faith in Christ Jesus. Is it an unconditional promise about the elect or a conditional promise to all the seed but realised in fact only by God's grace working in the elect?
That it is the latter is indicated, for example, in Psalm 95:7: "For he is our God; and we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand. Today if ye will hear his voice..." There are other passages that appear to favour this view (Leviticus 26:3, 9, 12; Ezekiel 36:25-28; 2 Corinthians 6:16-18; Revelation 21:7). The covenant refrain is used to describe the fellowship that results from covenant-keeping, and so forms a conditional promise to all the covenant seed (see Psalm 25:10, 14; John 15:14-15).
Since baptism signifies all the blessings of the covenant, it signifies those blessings actually bestowed on the elect (regeneration as well as justification and all the other blessings that flow from regeneration) but this necessarily means that baptism also signifies those blessings promised conditionally to all (for example, justification).
The application of all this is as follows:
Firstly, every baptism has a definite meaning for the child baptised even though whether that child is elect or regenerate is unknown. God promises to be his God and to take his sins away provided he does not harden his heart through unbelief and thus break the covenant.
Secondly, it avoids a somewhat complacent attitude towards the real state of the covenant child. The child must be challenged as to his obligation to keep the covenant through faith in Christ Jesus. Face to face remonstration is not incompatible with Biblical and Reformed covenant theology.
Thirdly, it gives assurance concerning the salvation of covenant infants dying in infancy. For those facing this heartache, some offer no definite assurance of their salvation. Should we not rather say that God has promised to be the God of our children after us and that the only way that cannot be the case and God shall say of them "not my people" is if they break the covenant through unbelief? (Hebrews 3:19; 4:6). Since the covenant infant dying in infancy cannot have broken the covenant, we may be sure that God is his God for ever in heaven.
Faith as a "Condition"
The Westminster Standards:
"Man, by his fall, having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the Covenant of Grace; wherein he freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ; requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life his Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe". Westminster Confession VII, 3
The Larger Catechism even uses the term "condition". Answer 32 is as follows.
"The grace of God is manifested in the second covenant, in that he freely provideth and offereth to sinners a Mediator, and life and salvation by him; and requiring faith as the condition to interest them in him, promiseth and giveth his Holy Spirit to all his elect, to work in them that faith."
"For the promise by which the Lord had adopted them all as children, was common to all; and in that promise, it cannot be denied, that eternal salvation was offered to all. What, therefore, can be the meaning of Paul, when he denies that certain persons had any right to be reckoned among children, except that he is no longer reasoning about the externally offered grace, but about that of which only the elect effectually partake? Here, then, a twofold class of sons presents itself to us, in the church; for since the whole body of the people is gathered together into the fold of God, by one and the same voice, all without exception are in this, accounted children; the name of the church is applicable in common to them all; but in the innermost sanctuary of God none others are reckoned the sons of God than they in whom the promise is ratified by faith. And although this difference flows from the fountain of gratuitous election, whence also faith itself springs; yet, since the counsel of God is in itself hidden from us we therefore distinguish the true from the spurious children by the respective marks of faith and unbelief". Commentary on Genesis p.449