Realizing God’s Covenant for Children

chd-inside.jpgIn a training session with children’s ministry leaders, a somewhat inclusive question came to us regarding infant baptism, election, covenant and evangelism. Volumes have been written on each of these, but we can only make a short response here. If you read through the PCA Book of Church Order, especially those parts listed below, you will find infant baptism, election, covenant and evangelism are all connected.

The Presbyterian Church in America Book of Church Order has the following to say about the church:

  1. “The members of this visible Church catholic (universal) are all those persons in every nation, together with their children, who make profession of their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and promise submission to His laws” (1:1-3).

  2. “The Visible Church before the law, under the law, and now under the Gospel, is one and the same and consists of all those who make profession of their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, together with their children” (2:2-1).
  3. “A particular church consists of a number of professing Christians, with their children…” (4:4-1).
  4. “The children of believers are, through the covenant and by right of birth, non-communing members of the church. Hence they are entitled to Baptism, and to the pastoral oversight, instruction and government of the church, with a view to their embracing Christ and thus possessing personally all the benefits of the covenant” (6:6-1).
  5. “The church Session is charged with maintaining the spiritual government of the church, for which purpose it has power: a. To inquire into the knowledge, principles and Christian conduct of the church members under its care; to censure those found delinquent; to see that parents do not neglect to present their children for Baptism; to receive members into the communion of the Church; to remove them for just cause; to grant letters of dismissal to other churches, which when given to parents, shall always include the names of their non-communing baptized children” (12-5-a).
  6. “Every Session shall keep an accurate record of baptisms, of communing members, of non-communing members, and of the deaths and dismiss ions of church members” (12:12-8).
  7. “Before baptism, the minister is to use some words of instruction, touching the institution, nature, use, and ends of this sacrament, showing: a. That the promise is made to believers and their children; and that the children of believers have an interest in the covenant, and right to the seal of it, and to the outward privileges of the church, under the Gospel, no less than the children of Abraham in the time of the Old Testament; the Covenant of Grace, for substance, being the same; and the grace of God, and the consolation of believers, more plentiful than before; (56:4-e). b. That the Son of God admitted little children into His presence, embracing and blessing them, saying, “For of such is the kingdom of God. (56:4-f) c. 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…(56:56-g). d. That they are federally holy before Baptism, and therefore are to be baptized (56:56-h). e. By virtue of being children of believing parents they are, because of God’s covenant ordinance, made members of the church, but this is not sufficient to make them continue members of the Church. Whey they have reached the age of discretion, they become subject to obligations of the covenant: faith, repentance and obedience. They then make public confession of their faith in Christ, or become covenant breakers, and subject to the discipline of the Church.” (56:56-j).
  8. “Do you acknowledge your child’s need of the cleansing blood of Jesus Christ, and the renewing grace of the Holy Spirit?” (56: 5-1).
  9. “Do you claim God’s covenant promises in (his) behalf, and do you look in faith to the Lord Jesus Christ for (his) salvation, as you do for your own?” (56:5-2).
  10. “Do you now unreservedly dedicate your child to God, and promise, in humble reliance upon divine grace, that you will endeavor to set before (him) a godly example, that you will pray with and for (him), that you will teach (him) the doctrines of our holy religion, and that you will strive, by all the means of God’s appointment, to bring (him) up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord?” (56:5-3).
  11. “Do you as a congregation undertake the responsibility of assisting the parents in the Christian nurture of this child?” (56:5-5).

In the above statements, it is clear that our theology of children is connected with our ecclesiology and certainly our understanding of the covenant. But in chapter 63, entitled “Christian Life in the Home,” in reference to Christian education, we read in 63-6, “in the supreme task of religious education, parents should cooperate with the church by setting their children an example in….” Several itemized things follow to underscore the cooperative role of the home and church in raising covenant children.

Recently, I was reading from an excellent book by Dr.Peter A. Lillback, a PCA teaching elder and newly elected president of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. The book is entitled The Binding of God, Calvin’s Role in the Development of Covenant Theology. I was tracing the development of the Reformation and particularly its understanding of the above topics. It was quite interesting to review the evolution and formulation of the doctrine of infant baptism. Lillback quoted some involved in the Anabaptists movement saying, “infant baptism is a silly and blasphemous outrage, contrary to Scripture…that only believers should be baptized, no children.” Then he reference December 16, 1524, a day in which Zwingli finally rejected the Anabaptist position in favor of infant baptism (page 89). I mention this because, as Lillback pointed out, Zwingli, at first, did not base his conclusion in favor of infant baptism on the covenant nor appeal to it as the reason for doing so. He simply maintained that since baptism replaced the Old Testament circumcision, infants were circumcised and therefore should be baptized. He also referred to the household baptisms including children. However, soon those Reformers, including Zwingli, began to include the covenant promises in their doctrine of infant baptism. They began to emphasize the continuity between the promises to Abraham in the Old Testament, the Covenant of Grace, with the New Testament continuation of that promise; therefore the accompanying signs of the covenant.

Balthasar Hubmaier was a staunch believer in believer’s baptism, or as he said, “I have not otherwise known or understood all scriptures which speak of water-baptism that that one should first preach, after that believe, and thirdly be baptized…but now Master Ulrich Zwingli has made known to me the covenant of God made with Abraham and his seed, also circumcision as a covenant sign, which I could not disapprove.” (ibid page 96). From their he went on to embrace infant baptism based on his understanding of the Covenant. Lillback goes on to talk about Zwingli’s connecting the doctrine of the covenant with the doctrine of election.

Obviously, we stand in the tradition of the reformers and as recipients of God’s gracious covenant promises. The Bible teaches that God has chosen or elected some from all the nations of the world to be saved, including their children. He has promised to save his elect by his active and passive obedience in Christ, specifically his death on the cross. Election refers to his choice of those for whom Christ died, which was made from before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4-6). He has worked out the mechanics of that election by means of a covenant.

God said to Abraham, “For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:39). “And, I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you” (Gen 17:7). “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:31).

We must presume on the basis of the covenant promises that our children and all children of believing parents, or even one parent, are among the elect. They are children of the covenant. They are sinners in need of saving grace. They will need to repent and believe at some point in their lives but in infant baptism God allows and even instructs parents in the covenant to presume that they are his and treat them accordingly. The Book of Church Order follows that line of reasoning. Our covenant children are to be identified as such and received into the church and connected to a particular church through the covenant sign of baptism. They are to be presumed to be the elect unless, at some point, they demonstrate otherwise.

Our role as parents, church teachers, and other Christian adults is to assist in the process of enabling our children, through “religious education,” to know who they are – children of the covenant. Teaching them the things of the Lord and their need to demonstrate repentance of sins, faith in Christ, and obedience to his Word is our privilege and responsibility. We make that commitment publicly at the time of baptism.

This makes a significant difference in how we see our covenant children. For example, some believe children are lost and cannot be discipled until they are saved, baptized and then taught. On the other hand, we believe our children are covenant children and need to be identified as such, taught what covenant means, and as they are taught, they will learn the necessity of their own faith, repentance, and obedience. Our BOCO states “that by virtue of being children of believing parents they are, because of God’s covenant ordinance, made members of the church, but this is not sufficient to make them continue members of the Church. Whey they have reached the age of discretion, they become subject to obligations of the covenant: faith, repentance and obedience. They then make public confession of their faith in Christ, or become covenant breakers, and subject to the discipline of the Church” (56:56-j).

Only God knows with certainty whom he has chosen. Therefore as with adults, so with children, we presume upon his electing grace and that we are members of his covenant family and this family relationship brings with it certain privileges and responsibilities, which we vow to learn ourselves and teach to our children. This is evangelism, part of the discipleship process and not some prelude to it as though it were a separate part. The ideal is that there will never be a time when our covenant children do not know Christ as their Savior and Lord. It leads me to say that discipleship is teaching covenant children and adults the meaning and significance of their baptism in Christ.

As a young Christian and seminary student I was greatly helped to see how these things fit together reading Charles Hodge’s Systematic Theology and R. B. Kiuper’s God Centered Evangelism. I recommend both to you if you are interested in pursuing these topics. (Both are available from the CEP Bookstore.)

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Charles Dunahoo pastored churches in Georgia and Alabama before being called to his present position as Coordinator for the PCA of Christian Education and Publications (CEP).

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