It is a tragic fact that many Presbyterian Christians live their lives and raise their children with little, if any reference to God’s gracious covenant. This is not surprising, however, when we see how little Presbyterian churches today teach the grace and responsibilities of God’s covenant. Why is that? Let me suggest at least three reasons:
First, it is my own conviction that the Church in general has been so infected by the rampant individualism of post-enlightenment, and now post modern, culture, that we no longer think instinctively, as our forebears thought instinctively, in corporate and covenantal terms. We are infected with a spiritual disease that attacks the saving purposes of God for his people - and we are unaware of it. B.B.Warfield wrote, “the family...is the New Testament basis of the Church of God...(God) does, indeed, require individual faith for salvation; but He organises the people in families first; and then into churches, recognising in their very warp and woof the family constitution. His promises are all the more precious that they are to us and our children. And though this may not fit in with the growing individualism of the day (he was writing at the end of the nineteenth century!), it is God’s ordinance” (Polemics of Infant Baptism, ix.405-6). Has it ever struck you that when the Lord Jesus concludes his saving encounter with Zacchaeus he said, “Today salvation has come to this house...” (Lk.19:9 - not just to Zacchaeus).
Secondly, we have become conditioned to think of conversion, salvation and spiritual experience in the light of what happened in revivals. Listen to Charles Hodge writing about revival: “It may be highly useful, or even necessary, just as violent remedies are often the only means of saving life. But such remedies are not the ordinary and proper means of sustaining and promoting health...No one can fail to remark that this too exclusive dependence on revivals tends to produce a false or unscriptural form of religion...The ordinary means of grace become insipid or distasteful...Perhaps however the most deplorable result of the mistake we are now considering is, the neglect which it necessarily induces of the divinely appointed means of careful Christian nurture...Family training of children, and pastoral instruction of the young, are almost entirely lost sight of. We have long felt and often expressed the conviction that this is one of the most serious evils in the present state of our churches” (Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review, Vol.xxix No.1 (Jan.1857), pp.13-15)
Thirdly, we have come to read the Scriptures atomistically rather than organically. It may seem trite to say so, but God’s Word is not a haphazard collected of texts or books. It is an organic whole with the Lord Jesus Christ as the substance and ultimate referent, and covenant as the organising principle. This doesn’t mean you need to be a scholar to understand the Scriptures - God’s Word was written for God’s people in all their ordinariness.
Let me say in a few words what the heart of the Bible’s teaching on the covenants says to us regarding the children of believers cf.Gen.17:7; 9; Ex.19:4-5; 20:4-6; Deut.7:9-11; Ps.103:17-18. Much more could be said, but notice two fundamental features of God’s covenant arrangement (“a covenant of love”, Deut.7:9):
1. God is pleased, graciously and sovereignly, to include the infant seed of believers within his “covenant of love”. Helpless, undeserving, judgement deserving, “shapen in iniquity” sinful babies, are embraced by God within his gracious saving purpose! Why? Because it pleased him so to do! Richard Sibbes saiys, “God, intending a comfortable enlargement of the covenant to Abraham extends it to his seed: ‘I will be the God of thy seed’. It is a great blessing for God to be the God of our seed” (Works 6.22). This is why God commanded that the sign of circumcision be administered to the infant seed of his people - not as a sign of racial or national identity, but as a “seal of the righteousness” of faith (cf.Roms.4:11). This is the truth that alone explains what we read in Mark 10:13-16.
2. Covenant blessing brings covenant responsibility! God sovereignly and unilaterally inaugurates his covenant. It is not a bi-lateral agreement! God says “I will establish my covenant...between me and you and your descendents after you.” And yet, God lays on Abraham, and all who are of the faith of Abraham, the great responsibility to “keep my covenant” (v9); what this means is spelled out in some detail especially in Deuteronomy (eg. 6:6-9; 7:9-11). God’s promised covenant blessings are not given irrespective of the covenant faithfulness of parents. We can never be reminded too often of the condemningly subtle sin of covenantal presumption.
What then has this to say to “the next generation”?
1. We should first ask, What has this to say to this generation? How, for example, does the church, and do parents, view their children? Thornwell and Dabney took the view that baptised covenant children were to be considered and treated as unsaved until they gave evidence of the new birth: “It is clear”, wrote Thornwell, “that while they are in the church by external union, in the spirit and temper of their minds they belong to the world. Like Esau, they neither understand nor prize their birthright. Of the world and in the Church, this expresses precisely their status, and determines the mode in which the Church should deal with them” (J.H.Thornwell, “The Revised Book Vindicated”, in The Collected Writings of J.H.Thornwell 4.340). Thornwell consequently saw infant baptism as putting children into a position of privilege only. Nothing could be further from the truth, the truth expressed and taught in the Bible, and the truth taught by the Reformers. Listen to B.B.Warfield: covenant theology, as it is taught in the Scriptures sees “the undeniable inclusion within the bounds of (the) Church, in its pre-Christian form, as participants of its privileges...the infant children of the flock, with no subsequent hint to their exclusion” (Polemics of Infant Baptism, 9.390).
How do you think of your children? Do your children know and see and feel that you think of them as “the Lord’s”?
2. We should be vastly encouraged to know that “God orders his election, so as to run in a successive line from godly parents to their children”, but does not thereby “infringe the freedom of election’s grace” (T.Goodwin 9.474). Goodwin continues, “And such is this, that his elect should come out of the loins of his elect by his own ordering, which is a respect that manifests his love in electing the more, both unto the fathers and to the children” (Ibid).
3. Covenant children are members of Christ’s Church: they are not waiting to become members, they are members. It may well be appropriate for our covenant children to wait until they have some measure of understanding before they come to the Lord’s Table; this is not, in my judgment, denying them what should be available to all members of the Church, but simply recognising that they are infants. Just as in our own families there are aspects of family life we restrict until the children are of “an age” (we don’t think they are any less part of the family in so doing), so it is in the family of God, the household of faith.
Just as we look to see new adult members evidence the fruits of grace in their baptised lives, so we do the same for our covenant children.
The children “belong”. Few things are more important for us to convey to our covenant children than that they belong to the covenant fellowship of God’s people - not by sufferance, but by divine good pleasure and grace, cf. Mark 10:14.
This truth will profoundly influence how we think of “children in the church” - they belong! They belong in the services, families worshipping together. Therefore, instead of shaping our worship services to accommodate the ethos of the age and the expectations of the age, we shape them “covenantally”. This may mean minor disruptions, but children learn! It is important for preachers not to convey undue frustration.
4. The biblical paradigm is for covenant children to grow up in the faith from their infancy. This truth is to shape our spiritual expectations for our children. Too often the “wish” gives birth to the fulfilment. The culture we live in expects young people to “sow their wild oats”; it is only “natural”, we are told. There is the fallacy: Christians are not to have their lives shaped by what is thought to be “natural”; God and his Son and his Spirit and his grace are the life-shapers for believers.
5. The truth of God’s covenant impresses upon Christian parents the great privilege and responsibility they have to “train up their children in the nurture and admonition of Christ”. Covenant blessings bring covenant responsibilities, cf. Deut.6:4-9;7:9-11. Parents are the Lord’s principal means, enabled by the Spirit, to care for the souls of their children. It is not a “quid pro quo” - it is God graciously committing himself to the eternal good of his and our “little ones”. Bringing our children for covenant baptism is but the beginning: “raise them up (fondly cherish them)...”
6. God’s covenant of grace guards expansive views of God’s grace: the promise is to us and to our children! To lose sight of the grace of God’s covenant is to reduce the perameters of that grace; it is to say that the grace in the Old Covenant was more expansive than the grace in the New Covenant!
7. Embracing the truth of God’s covenant, and seeking with the Spirit’s help to live up to our covenant responsibilities, will, in God’s mercy, help stop the “haemorrhaging” from the Church. I don’t mean that every covenant child will be saved; nor do I mean that covenant children will never rebel. Some “high Presbyterians” virtually take that view. But if the Lord is the perfect covenant Father, and he complains to his covenant children, “What more could I have done for you?”, then we must guard against Satan filling us with guilt. The Lord knew the pain of rebellious children. If our children rebel, and this is not the biblical expectation for faithful parents, we of course need to examine our hearts and our example and our instruction, and the church should help us in this; but, precisely here the evil one can insinuate himself. None of us are as we should be; we all fail with our children, more times than we would like to admit. But the Lord is kind to sinners, rich in his mercy! And our children are astonishingly forbearing: they see only too clearly our sins and failures; but they can also see that we love them (surely!).