When I was a young mother, there were many times I feared for my children in regard to their salvation. I often wondered, “What would happen to my child if she died in infancy or passed away before she was old enough to understand what it meant to confess faith in Jesus Christ?” My prayers for my children were passionate with many pleas to God to save them from a disconcerting, uncertain demise.
How I wish I had known then what I know now!
This question is an honest one. We live in fear because we do not understand. Life is often taxing with babies and preschoolers in the home, not to mention the wear and tear that a teenager brings into the mix. Wearied parents sometimes fail to place “knowing what you believe and why you believe it” on the top shelf of their to-do list. We’ve all been there……
I grew up in Dispensational evangelicalism (where most evangelicals reside today). Even though I was one of those tired young mothers at the time, I remember being bold enough to ask a couple of our Southern Baptist pastors about this important question. I also remember that not one of them gave me a well-reasoned answer. Though now I understand I had no reason to fear for my young children, I can still remember how my fear escalated with each arrival of that next child’s birthday.
Our human tendency towards the popular is almost predictable. Growing up in the popular world of Dispensationalism assured that I would be exposed to an established set of popular theological assumptions. Believer’s baptism is the standard rule of a Dispensational framework. Baptism was something done in obedience after expressing faith in Christ. It was something we had to “do” after we “did” something. Wrong on both accounts.
It’s hard to let go of those things which are dictated by familial or cultural traditions — those things which are comfortable to us. It was not until we began to attend a Reformed church regularly that we began to develop the tools necessary to interpret scripture well; all the more reason to understand the means that God uses in real discipleship.
Biblical interpretation is one place where popularity shouldn’t be the motivating force. Thankfully, the Holy Spirit is faithful to illuminate his beloved people, those whom he has called to himself, but that does not absolve our conscience from spending extended amounts of time in deep study about things that really matter. Theology matters. Further, it is critical to place your hearts and minds under the shepherding of a faithful, well-educated pastor who not only teaches well, but submits himself to a Church Council of men qualified to serve with him.
With these things solidly in place, we finally realized that the hermeneutic lens of Covenant Theology is a superior lens to the more common, popular Dispensational one. Dr. Kim Riddlebarger, in his audio lecture Covenant Theology and Eschatology (from his excellent Amillennialism 101 series), speaks about the implications of choosing a hermeneutic lens through which to interpret scripture. The lens chosen not only affects your eschatology, but it will affect many other doctrinal topics, including our understanding of infant baptism. Dr. Riddlebarger says:
“This (i.e., understanding covenant theology) virtually changes how you interpret all of the Bible……..
(In regard to Covenant Theology) We are bound to the terms of the covenant……The two overarching covenants are going to enable us to see the continuity between the individual covenants we find throughout the Old Testament. I can tell you, flat out, as a Reformed minister, the reason I baptize infants is because of my understanding of the relationship of the Old Covenant to the New…..the relationship to what God promised to Abraham and what God promised people in the New Covenant. It’s related to continuity between the covenants. If you are a Baptist, it’s because you see discontinuity between the promise made to Abraham and the New Covenant. You see them as two separate covenants. It’s a hermeneutical matter. If these two things are contiguous you are going to baptize a baby. If there is discontinuity you are going to be a Baptist.
Dr. Riddlebarger goes on to say that when we view the continuity of the Covenants in this way, it helps us to see the connection between Law and Gospel rather than separating Law and Gospel from each other. In other words, it prevents us from seeing the Old Testament as essentially Law and the New Testament as essentially Gospel, which disrupts the continuity of scripture. Should this occur, he continues, the Old Testament would end up representing an angry God who makes a lot of mean rules, while the New Testament would possess quite an opposite God; one with a Jesus who is nice to everybody. Law and Gospel exist in both Testaments. The Trinitarian God of the Old Testament is the same Trinitarian God of the New Testament. Continuity.
The bottom line is that if you don’t understand the foundational tenets of Covenant Theology, the chances are that you won’t understand Infant Baptism either. Covenant Theology focuses on the continuity of the Covenant of Grace, first revealed in Genesis 3:15, re-emphasized with Abraham in Genesis 17, and finally confirmed in Acts 2. (These are not the only references but form a foundation upon which to expand.) Dispensationalism focuses on a discontinuity between Old and New Testaments.
Today, I have complete assurance that my little grandchildren are safely sheltered by God’s covenantal promise, even though they have not been baptized up to this point. Why? It is because of God’s faithfulness, not our own. I am reassured that they, like their believing parents before them, are possessed by God as His very own covenant children, descendants of his holy seed. It is a comfort to the believer to know with certainty that it is God alone who supplies both repentance and faith for his beloved, something his people were unable to do on their own in the Covenant of Works.
Too often, people unfamiliar with the Reformed faith make the incorrect accusation that our view of Infant Baptism is the same position held by Roman Catholics. Though our children are baptized as infants, our children must still confess a saving faith at an age where they more clearly understand what they are confessing.
This is accomplished by the steady, ongoing catechesis by the church minister, elders and parents who faithfully teach sound doctrine to both children and adults in the church. It is a true discipleship model. The model I observed in my former evangelical days was a children’s church model full of fun but less-than-instructive activities — the purpose of which was to keep children occupied while their parents attended the worship service. Don’t our children deserve the benefits of attending worship with their covenant family? Remember when Jesus reminded us to ‘let the little children come to me?’ After all, the promise is for you and for your children.
As a Reformed community, we understand that Baptism, a Holy Sacrament, is the sign and seal of Covenant of Grace – a promise given to Abraham’s descendants — to forgive their sin and remember it no more. God would give his people a heart to know that he alone is God (Jeremiah 24:7). He promised to send a covenant mediator, Jesus Christ, to perfectly obey the Law which we were unable to obey.
“Baptism is an initiation into the covenant community of God. It doesn’t regenerate or save anyone. It brings them to the place (God’s Church) where God promises to meet with them. It is the mark of a holy and called out people and separating them from the world. The promise is for you and your children.”
(Rev. Charles Tedrick from his sermon on Holy Baptism)
There is also a place for believer’s baptism in the Reformed faith. Much more than an act of obedience, non-believing adults who confess faith in Christ may also enter into the covenant community through believer’s baptism. Scripture tells of us of sojourners who entered into the covenant through marriage, servitude and other circumstances; people like Ruth.
As a former Dispensationalist, this aspect of baptism feels familiar and comfortable. Now I marvel that God has not forgotten our children, but has lovingly and mercifully, provided for them in the Covenant of Grace. And even before the Covenant of Grace was mercifully given to mankind, our Trinitarian God had provided for his beloved covenant people in the Covenant of Redemption, a covenant made between the members of the Trinity from before the foundation of the world. (See Ephesians 1.)
As such, our children are his holy seed, as are generations of covenant children before them. Through the Sacrament of Infant Baptism, our children receive his promise, a sign and seal of the Covenant of Grace, welcoming them into the covenant community.
For those unfamiliar with Reformed Theology or Covenant Theology, there is a learning curve that must occur to properly understand this topic (and many others.) Don’t be afraid to stretch in regard to what feels uncomfortable at first. The rewards are great. To start you on your journey, here are some resources on this topic.
- Why We Baptize Infants (Rev. Michael Brown)
- A Contemporary Reformed Defense of Infant Baptism by Dr. R. Scott Clark
- Infant Baptism: How My Mind Was Changed by Dr. Dennis Johnson
- Redemption Planned: Holy Seed by Rev. Charles Tedrick. This sermon is based on the Canons of Dort. (Note that the topic isn’t discussed until 13:00 but some set-up occupies the first thirteen minutes).
- Holy Baptism by Rev. Charles Tedrick (From the Belgic Confession)
- The Sacraments: God’s Means of Grace by Rev. Charles Tedrick (a follow-up to the previous audio.)
COVENANT THEOLOGY (The Foundation)
- Encountering Christ in the Covenants: An Introduction to Covenant Theology by Daniel McManigal
- Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored by Michael G. Brown and Zach Keele
- God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology by Dr. Michael Horton. Dr. Horton has another set of four books that expand this topic, but they are not for the faint of heart!
- The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way by Dr. Michael Horton. (Though a book on Systematic Theology, this topic is covered.)
A word of caution: part of the learning curve required to understand the Reformed faith includes an understanding of the doctrinal standards used in Reformed congregations. At first, I questioned the importance of our Christian Creeds and Confessions. However today, they are a great comfort to me, for many reasons I will state below.
The URCNA, the federation to which I belong, uses the Three Forms of Unity as their Confessional standard. Presbyterian Churches use the Westminster Standards. Both represent the tenets of Reformed theology well.
The benefit of attending a Confessional church is huge. No longer do I have to worry about a conglomeration of personal theologies infiltrating the pulpit by well-meaning, self-proclaimed pastors who, in their passion, have a tendency to promote error by a lack of accountability. The historical Confessions of our churches protect us from theological error. They teach. They admonish. They affirm all that is in Scripture in such a way that the average congregant can easily understand the basics of a sound theological framework. They keep abnormal and heretical ideologies from infiltrating the church.
For instance, in regard to the topic of Infant Baptism, the First Head, Section 17 of the Canons of Dort gives us complete assurance and confidence that our children live beneath the stipulations of the Covenant of Grace. This section reminds us that if our children die while under this covenant, they will be with the Lord. Thank you, Lord!
“Since we are to judge of the will of God from His Word, which testifies that the children of believers are holy, not by nature, but in virtue of the covenant of grace, in which they together with the parents are comprehended, godly parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom it pleases God to call out of this life in their infancy.”
The children of believers are holy, not by nature, but in light of the Covenant of Grace. Thus, we, as believers, ought not to doubt the salvation of our children if God should call them home at an early age.
So here’s the Cliff Note version of why we baptize infants. (Don’t settle for this! Know what you believe and why you believe it!) The purpose of this article is not to completely explain this topic but to encourage you to study so that you may have the same assurance I now possess in regard to my children and grandchildren.
Genesis 17:15-21 is one of the first places we see this the Covenant of Grace revealed. The sign and seal of the covenant God made with Abraham and future generations was circumcision. In the New Testament, baptism was instituted as the sign and seal of the very same Covenant of Grace, expanded now to include men and women, those near and far off, and everyone whom the Lord calls to himself. (Acts 2:39) Continuity.
Side note: Not all who are under the covenant will embrace the faith promised in the covenant. As an example, Ishmael, though circumcised and a member of the covenant community, would later reject the faith promised to him in his circumcision. Isaac would embrace the faith given to him in his circumcision.
In Acts 2:37-41, we see a similar event occur in the New Testament. Peter presented the gospel message to the crowd gathered at Pentecost. Thousands repented, believed and were baptized. Tucked into this passage is the phrase, “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.” The very same Covenant of Grace — the very same promise given to Abraham is seen in the New Testament. The very same language used in both Old and New Testaments. The Covenant was the same but the actual sign and seal had changed. Both the old covenantal sign of circumcision and the new covenantal sign of baptism point to the same reality, showing their unity in Christ. Continuity.
In his article, A Contemporary Reformed Defense on Infant Baptism, Dr. R. Scott Clark says:
Covenant signs were given to strengthen our trust in Christ. Baptism and the Lord’s supper have no more or less power than the written Word of God.57 In the Scriptures baptism and the Lord’s Supper are considered to be signs and seals of the covenant of grace between God and his people. As signs, the covenant signs are visible reminders of the great act of redemption which God has accomplished. As seals, they are God’s way of separating his people from those in the world, and they give to us God’s promise that, in example, as surely as we are washed by the water we are by faith washed by the blood of Christ. Just as in the preaching of the Word, the Holy Spirit strengthens our faith by the use of these covenant signs and seals.
- Circumcision: “Putting off the flesh” = death (vs. 11); By Christ= life (vs. 13)
- Baptism: “Buried with him” = death (vs. 12); Raised with him = life (vs. 12)
Zach goes on to say,
“Both circumcision and baptism point to the same realities of our death and resurrection in Christ. Baptism was not added because something different was being proclaimed in the new covenant; both signs signified and sealed the same truth.” (pg. 128) Further, he states that, “For centuries, the covenant sign was given to both adults and their male sons, most of whom received the sign of the covenant in infancy. (Gen. 21:4 & Acts 7:8). For those who insist on a sharp separation between Jews and Gentiles, please take note that the sign of the covenant was not just for the Jews; it was for the Gentiles, as well: “whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with money, shall be circumcised.” Circumcision was a visible sign and seal that declared the promises of God, and it was given to Ishmael even though he would never claim those promises by faith. God refused to establish his covenant with Ishmael, and yet he was still a member of the visible community of faith……This is the biblical principle that compels us to apply the covenant sign of baptism to our infants. Do we believe that it will save them? Of course not, only faith in the Lord Jesus Christ will save them. But we give them the sign (of baptism) because we stand in a line of continuity with the Old Testament saints and father Abraham.”
Perhaps this is not enough to give you the confidence that your children are safe under God’s covenantal promise. Looking further to 1 Corinthians 7:12-16 might shed some light. Paul explains that an unbelieving spouse is made holy by the believing spouse. This does not mean that an unbelieving spouse is automatically a believer. Care must be taken with the passage, i.e., there are several definitions of “made holy.” (Listen to the sermon Holy Seed by Rev. Charles Tedrick for a more thorough explanation — see above reference.)
It does mean that an unbelieving spouse who is associated with one of God’s beloved covenant members, by simple association, has an opportunity for the means of grace to work within their heart. The promise is for you, your children and your entire household. (Acts 16:31 and 11:14 are only a couple of references.)
One of the most interesting passages that supports Infant Baptism, as well as the assurance it brings in regard to infants who die at an early age, is found in 2 Samuel 12. King David had illegitimately conceived a child with Uriah’s wife. Uriah was a Hittite. The passage says that God afflicted the child and the child became ill.
It appears that David did everything possible, including prayer and fasting, to ask God to heal the child; but God had other plans. After seven days, David was informed that his child had died. At this point in the story you might have expected that David would have torn off his clothes in mourning and shouted horrid accusations against God. David did something we would not expect. He went straight to the House of God and worshiped God.
If we were to stand in David’s shoes, we might more easily see that the Covenant of Grace found in Genesis 3, the same one sustained in the house of Abraham (Genesis 17), was the same Covenant of Grace promised to the House of David in 2 Samuel. David knew, with confidence, that his dead son, God’s covenant child, was with the Lord. The House of the Lord was the one place where David could go to be closer to his son, where He also worshiped his sovereign, faithful God. Continuity. (The sermon above entitled Holy Seed by Rev. Charles Tedrick presents a great exegesis of this passage.)
If, after you dig in and research this topic, you, as a believer, become convinced of the Holy Sacrament of Infant Baptism, you need to know that it an act of disobedience not to baptize your young children. However, God is gracious. Until we understand the principles behind Infant Baptism, God continues to forgive our fallen hearts. He is faithful even when we are not. The Holy Spirit continues to sanctify and instruct. He alone opens our eyes and our hearts.
It is my prayer that through your own study of this topic, you will discover that it is by his faithfulness alone that the children of believers are safe and secure for a time. Why? Because our children are born under his covenantal promise, given to his covenant people for eternity. The promise was extended to all of those living within the same household, to those near and far off and to those who will call upon the Lord.
If you are a believer, you need not struggle in regard to the eternal care of your children when they are young. They are safe and secure in the arms of a loving Father. Take the time to learn why — and then rejoice in this great comfort, given to the believer by a faithful and merciful Father, secured by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, and administered through the power of the Holy Spirit.