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