Some Practical Consequences Of Reformed Covenant Theology (3)

In this series we have considered briefly the importance of the church as the Christ-confessing covenant community and the importance of Abraham in the Bible’s own account of the covenant of grace. In this installment we are to consider some of the ways that the Reformed account of the covenant of grace (including the continuity between the New Covenant and the Abrahamic promises) are distinct from the ways that most modern evangelicals, including some of the so-called “New Calvinists” talk about the covenant of grace, the church, and the children of believers.

What God Said Versus What I Guess

The question that the Reformed ask when we think about the children of believers is: What has God said? This is the question we are commanded to ask in Deuteronomy 29:29, which says:

The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law (Deut 29:29; ESV).

We mere mortals do not and cannot know, apart from special revelation, what God has decided from all eternity. There is no verse that tells me that I, Scott Clark, am elect but we do not ask, “Am I elect?” We always ask, “Do I believe?” These are very different questions with different outcomes. To ask the question, “Am I elect?” is to send the believer on the hunt for answers he cannot find. This is why Calvin urged us not to put the question that way. We cannot climb up into heaven, as it were, to enquire of God. We always ask the question, “Do I believe?” because we understand that only the elect are ever given new life and true faith. If one believes it is an evidence that one is elect. We know God’s grace and our election after the fact.

It is not that we do not pay attention to what we see but it is that we do not begin with what we see. We begin where Scripture wants us to begin, with the Word and with God’s promises to believers and to their children. It is significant that the phrase, “and to your children” occurs in this context. This is an echo of the Abrahamic promise: “I will be a God to you and to your children.”

It is in the nature of faith to trust what God has said over against what I can or cannot see with my eyes (Heb 11:1). Abraham was called to go to a land he had not seen (Heb 11:8). The Old Testament believers looked for a Messiah whom they could not see with their eyes (Heb 11:38). We, who have not seen Jesus and yet believe, are blessed (John 20:29). Faith always begins with God’s Word.

Promises Not Presumption

The promises of the covenant of grace are for believers and their children. There have been modern Reformed writers (but no churches or confessions) that have held the doctrine of “presumptive regeneration.” Abraham Kuyper (1827–1920) and some of his followers taught the doctrine of presumptive regeneration, i.e., that we baptize our children on the basis of their presumed regeneration. This was a controversial doctrine and the Dutch Reformed Synod Utrecht in 1905 declared:

that according to the Confession of our churches the seed o the covenant, by virtue of the promise of God, must be held to be regenerated and sanctified in Christ, until upon growing up they should manifest the contrary in their way of life or doctrine;

that it is, however, less correct to say that baptism is administered to the children of believers on the ground of their presumed regeneration, since the ground of baptism is found in the command and promise of God;

The distinction that Synod articulated is this: there is a difference between regarding or treating our children as regenerated and presuming that they are regenerate. There is a difference between baptizing the children of believers on the basis of the promise and baptizing them on the basis of a presumption.

To be sure, there were some Reformed writers in the 16th and 17th centuries who, following Luther, theorized about “infant faith” as the basis for infant baptism. Those fathers may be excused since they were scrambling to defend a belief and practice that had not been challenged for 1500 years. The churches, however, never confessed any such doctrine of infant faith and most of the theologians abandoned those theories. Instead, the churches confess that we baptize our children and recognize their external membership in the covenant of grace and the covenant community on the basis of the divine promise: “I will be a God to you and to your children” and the divine command to administer the sign of admission to believers and their children. That promise and that command is still in force.

What We Dare Not Say

It has been the pattern of (mostly Baptist-influenced) Modern evangelical theology, piety, and practice to exclude children from the promises until they make profession of faith. That this is the right approach is an unquestioned dogma among many evangelicals. The corollary to this assumption is another assumption: that our children are probably not yet regenerate. E.g., a leading Baptist figure “ in the “New Calvinist” movement wrote:

It seems that people were surprised to learn, in an article I wrote last week, that I presume my children to be unsaved. The article, What’s Dead Looks Dead, expressed my belief that my children (ages 6, 3, and 3 months) are, at this time, likely unsaved and are thus spiritually dead.

This approach is the obverse side of the coin of presumptive regeneration. This is the doctrine of presumptive non-regeneration. He not only concluded that his children were unregenerate, i.e., that the Spirit had not awakened them from death to life, but also that they were “unsaved.” That implies that one can know for whom Jesus died and that Jesus had not died for his children. We may fairly doubt that he was speculating that way but it is certainly an unhappy way to speak. The more remarkable thing is that he believes that he knew what our Lord said cannot be known, namely when and where the mysterious Holy Spirit has granted new life. Jesus says:

The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit (John 3:8; ESV).

“You do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” Our dialogue partner, for the purposes of this discussion, cannot know what he claims to know, that the Spirit has not operated in the hearts and minds of his children. According to our Lord Jesus, in John 3, we cannot know when or where the Spirit has operated.

The Reformed approach is not to try to guess whether our children are elect or whether they are regenerated by the mysterious work of the Spirit. We treat our children the way Abraham treated his children: as heirs of the promise. We regard our children the way God told the Israelites to regard their children (e.g., Deut 29:29). We regard our children the way the Apostle Peter regarded them, “the promise is to you and to your children” (Acts 2:39). According to our “New Calvinist” friend, the promise is apparently not for believers and their children.

In the Reformed Churches we practice Abrahamic baptism and nurture of the children of believers. We treat them as heirs of the promises and members of the visible church. We put the sign upon them of inclusion into the visible church and we include them in our worship services. We pray with and for them. We instruct them and as important as anything else we never, ever announce to the entire English-speaking world that we think that they are unregenerate, especially before they have been baptized, nurtured, instructed, and given opportunity to make a credible profession of faith.

Should the child of a believer refuse to make profession of faith or should he, in some other way, give clear evidence of unbelief, only then do we begin to regard him as alienated from Christ and proceed accordingly.

There are exceptions to this presumption of non-regeneration. There is a blessed inconsistency among some Baptistic evangelicals who hold baby dedications in their services. These are dry baptisms of a sort. They reflect the lingering consciousness of Genesis 17 (even if they are not aware of it) and the impulse to present our children to the Lord and to include them visibly into the covenant community. The Reformed rightly wish that these were wet baptisms and perhaps they will be but at least these families and congregations are not excluding their children from the visible people of God.

Much In Every Way

To exclude one’s children thus is akin to a farmer refusing to water one’s crops and then expecting a harvest. This is not the process that the Lord has ordained. According to Reformed covenant theology, the Lord has willed to use the humble means of baptism, of prayer, of inclusion of children in the worship service, of nurture and instruction to bring his elect, who are in the midst of the Christ-confessing covenant community, to new life and to true faith. Our sovereign Lord, who elects unconditionally, uses means. This is Paul’s point in Romans 3:1 when he asks the rhetorical question, “What advantage has the Jew?” and the answer: “Much in every way!” That “much” is the external administration of the covenant of grace. That is a great advantage because it is what God uses to accomplish his purposes.

Synod Utrecht was right. We do not presume one way or the other. In Reformed covenant theology we operate on the basis of God’s promises and commands. Baptism is not magic—it is not as if the application of baptismal waters necessarily produces new life. That is sacerdotalism, which confuses the thing promised (new life) with the sign (baptism). Yet, distinguishing sign and thing promised does not make signs worthless. At every baptism we point our children forward (because they are in the service to see the baptism) and we say, “You also received that sign. You have been included into the people of God. The promises are yours. Receive them by faith.”

Parents, include your children into the visible covenant community, pray for them that they will receive by true faith all that is offered to them in baptism but do not exclude them from the means he uses. Expect God to answer your prayer according to his purposes. Trust him. Believer, treat your children as the heirs of the covenant promises they are.

These are some great practical consequences of Reformed covenant theology.

R. Scott Clark

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11 comments

  1. My earnest apologies to all and especially Dr. Clark for coming across rudely on here. I greatly appreciate your help Dr. Clark on this and many other matters. I also highly value the others who contribute in the comments. Please accept my apologies. I meant no ill will. Thank you.

  2. My apologies if it came across that way. It wasn’t my intention at all. Anyhow, though they have many privileges in the external covenant of grace I do think it best to presume they have not yet been born again until there is a profession of faith and evidence of such faith. Thanks again and sorry for any misunderstandings I unintentionally caused.

  3. “You also received that sign. You have been included into the people of God. The promises are yours. Receive them by faith.”
    How is this different from presumed regeneration to tell them they are included into the people of God? That sounds like you’re saying they’re saved. I’m confused. I understand the difference between admin and substance. Are you just telling them they’re in the admin?

    • Michial,

      I’m arguing against presumptive regeneration and against presumptive non-regeneration.

      I’m saying that we don’t know.

      I’m talking about how we speak to our children.

      Yes, we are celebrating and reminding our children of the great privilege of participating in the external administration of the covenant of grace, as Paul does in Rom 3 & 9. Contra our Baptist friends participation in the administration of the means of grace means something.

    • Thanks for clarifying. While I agree with the external administration and internal substance of the covenant of grace, I find it confusing at best to say children of believers are somehow in a different ontological state than non-believers. In my understanding, which is flawed no doubt, sees only two categories, in Adam and in Christ. When one professes Christ we charitably believe they are in Christ. But unless that is so it seems best to take the language of Jesus when he spoke to the once covenant child Nicodemus telling him he must be born again. Though a child of Abraham Jesus’ emphasis to the covenant people was you must be born again sola gratia sola fide. I’ve heard many prominent Reformed teachers say we don’t need to tell our kids that. They say they are the Lords in some special way. Well that can be very misleading and not for their eternal benefit. I think Jesus was right in how he addressed the covenant people. You must be born again. That’s what we told our covenant kids.

    • Michial,

      Who said anything about a “different ontological state”?

      Who is denying the necessity of being born again?

      Not I?

      Do this: take a breath. Relax and re-read the essay and my response.

      I’m not a Lutheran, a sacerdotalist, or a Federal Visionist. This is plain, old Heidelberg Catechism/Belgic Confession/Canons of Dort Reformed theology.

      Here is what I’m saying:

      We believe and confess that Jesus Christ, in whom the law is fulfilled, has by his shed blood put an end to every other shedding of blood, which anyone might do or wish to do in order to atone or satisfy for sins.

      Having abolished circumcision, which was done with blood, he established in its place the sacrament of baptism. By it we are received into God’s church and set apart from all other people and alien religions, that we may be dedicated entirely to him, bearing his mark and sign. It also witnesses to us that he will be our God forever, since he is our gracious Father. Therefore he has commanded that all those who belong to him be baptized with pure water in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

      In this way he signifies to us that just as water washes away the dirt of the body when it is poured on us and also is seen on the body of the baptized when it is sprinkled on him, so too the blood of Christ does the same thing internally, in the soul, by the Holy Spirit. It washes and cleanses it from its sins and transforms us from being the children of wrath into the children of God.

      This does not happen by the physical water but by the sprinkling of the precious blood of the Son of God, who is our Red Sea, through which we must pass to escape the tyranny of Pharaoh, who is the devil, and to enter the spiritual land of Canaan.

      So ministers, as far as their work is concerned, give us the sacrament and what is visible, but our Lord gives what the sacrament signifies—namely the invisible gifts and graces; washing, purifying, and cleansing our souls of all filth and unrighteousness; renewing our hearts and filling them with all comfort; giving us true assurance of his fatherly goodness; clothing us with the “new man” and stripping off the “old,” with all its works.

      For this reason we believe that anyone who aspires to reach eternal life ought to be baptized only once without ever repeating it—for we cannot be born twice. Yet this baptism is profitable not only when the water is on us and when we receive it but throughout our entire lives.

      For that reason we detest the error of the Anabaptists who are not content with a single baptism once received and also condemn the baptism of the children of believers. We believe our children ought to be baptized and sealed with the sign of the covenant, as little children were circumcised in Israel on the basis of the same promises made to our children.
      And truly, Christ has shed his blood no less for washing the little children of believers than he did for adults. Therefore they ought to receive the sign and sacrament of what Christ has done for them, just as the Lord commanded in the law that by offering a lamb for them the sacrament of the suffering and death of Christ would be granted them shortly after their birth. This was the sacrament of Jesus Christ.

      Furthermore, baptism does for our children what circumcision did for the Jewish people. That is why Paul calls baptism the “circumcision of Christ.” (Belgic Conf. art. 343

    • I wasn’t accusing you of saying those things. I don’t think I need to be told to take a breath and relax. I’ve read and heard from many Reformed theologians(not you) saying covenant children belong to the Lord and are distinct from unbelievers and have no need of evangelism. I agree they are in the visible church sense but sometimes they are spoken of as they they are already children of God. It can confuse many people to think they are already saved. Even the Directory of Publick Worship in the 17th century called covenant children Christians.
      Thanks for your blog and replies.

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