The Covenant of God and the Children of Believers
Prof. David J. Engelsma
The covenant of God is not a relatively minor and
secondary aspect of God's truth, much less a passing theological fad.
Rather, it is one of the most prominent, most important doctrines of
Holy Scripture, if not that grand reality which is the very heart of the
whole biblical revelation.
This is how Reformed theologians have always viewed
the truth of the covenant. The German theologian of the 19th century,
Heinrich Heppe, who summarized the Reformed tradition from Calvin to his
day, wrote, "The doctrine of God's covenant with man is thus the inmost
heart and soul of the whole of revealed truth" (Reformed Dogmatics
[London, 1950], p. 281). He quotes the 17th century Reformed theologian,
J. H. Heidegger: "... the marrow and as it were the sort of center of
the whole of Holy Scripture is the ... covenant of God, to which ...
everything in Scripture must be referred" (p. 281).
Herman Bavinck agreed:
The doctrine of the covenant is of the greatest
significance both for dogmatics and for the practice of the Christian
life. The Reformed church and theology has understood this, more than
the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches and theologies. On the basis
of Holy Scripture, the Reformed have conceived the true religion of
the Old and New Testaments always as a covenant between God and man (Gereformeerde
Dogmatiek, vol. 3 [Kampen, 1918], p. 220).
And in his work on the place of children in the
covenant, Herman Hoeksema has written:
The Jachin and Boaz in the temple of the truth of
God [the reference is to the two pillars in Solomon's temple mentioned
I Kings 7:21] are the truth of God's sovereign grace and the truth
of God's covenant ... This doctrine [of the covenant] is really more
characteristically Reformed than the doctrine of election (Believers
and Their Seed [Grand Rapids, 1971], pp. 9, 11).
Scripture itself points out the centrality of the
covenant. The history of Israel in the Old Testament is a history of
God's covenant with Abraham and Abraham's seed. The goal of that history
is Jesus the Christ (Luke
1:72-73). Jesus appears as Mediator of the new covenant (Heb.
8:6; 12:24). The work of Christ, therefore, is the establishment,
realization, and perfection of the new covenant (Heb.
For this reason, the Bible itself has the names that
it does: its two main divisions are called "Old Testament" and "New
Testament." Since "testament" is really "covenant," we rightly refer to
the Bible as the book about the old and new covenant.
I readily acknowledge at the outset that the covenant
doctrine that I present here is that which has been developed by the
Protestant Reformed Churches and that is confessed by the PRC. It is
important that the reader know this. In some Reformed circles there is
ignorance of, and confusion about, the truth of the covenant. This is
one of the reasons why members can defect to Baptist churches (whether
"Calvinistic" or free willist makes no difference), which deny the
covenant in one of its essential elements, namely, the inclusion of
children in the covenant. In view of the importance of the doctrine of
the covenant both in Scripture and in the Reformed tradition, this is
intolerable. The PRC have a definite conception of the covenant. We know
what we believe about the covenant. If anyone is ignorant or confused,
we ask that he give us a hearing.
Besides, there is difference, even sharp difference,
among Reformed churches regarding the understanding of the biblical and
creedal teaching on the covenant. In view of the importance of the
covenant, these differences are not insignificant. Because the truth of
the covenant lies at the centre of all the teachings of Scripture, error
in the doctrine of the covenant will certainly affect other biblical
teachings as well, specifically the doctrine of sovereign grace, or "the
five points of Calvinism." If some hold a different view than that
presented here, we ask only that they give us a good hearing, attempting
to learn what the PRC believe, and why, in order then, of course, to
compare our view not only with their own but also with Scripture, the
only rule of faith.
I must also make clear that my emphasis falls on the
place of children in the covenant and on the conversion of the covenant
children. This is the area in which some of the sharpest disagreement
surfaces. Not only is this the area in which the Reformed part company
with all Baptists, but it is also the arena of division within the
Because my emphasis is the place of children in the
covenant, I will be very brief in setting forth what the covenant itself
is, according to the revelation of the covenant in Scripture. Yet the
nature of the covenant must be pointed out, both because this is basic
to a consideration of the place of children in the covenant and because
there is widespread ignorance, confusion, and error among Reformed
people as to what the covenant essentially is.
God's Covenant of Grace
What is the covenant of God?
What is that covenant that was established with
Abraham and his seed; that has been fulfilled in Jesus Christ; that now
is made with believers and their children; and that will be perfected
with the church gathered out of all nations from the beginning to the
end of the world at the coming of our Lord?
The covenant is the relationship of friendship
between the triune God and His chosen people in Jesus Christ.
That the covenant must be conceived by us as a relationship,
as a bond of communion, between God and His people is proved
from the following biblical teachings. First, when God
establishes His covenant with father Abraham in
Genesis 17:7, God Himself describes the covenant this
way: "to be a God unto thee ..." The covenant is this:
Jehovah's being Abraham's God and Abraham's being Jehovah's
man. It is the relationship the special, close, loving
relationship between them. This description of the covenant
is repeated, again and again, in the Old Testament
(Covenant) when the covenant is made or confirmed with
Israel. It appears in the significant prophecy of the new
Jeremiah 31:3l-34: "I will make a new covenant with the
house of Israel and with the house of Judah," Jehovah says;
and then He adds, in virtual definition of the covenant,
"and will be their God and they shall be my people."
Second, the fundamental earthly analogies to, or
symbols of, the covenant are relationships—relationships of the most
intimate friendships known to humans. If a person had any doubt whether
the covenant is a relationship, these biblical analogies should settle
the matter. The Bible requires us to think of the covenant as a marriage
and as a father-child relationship. In
Ezekiel 16, the prophet describes the Lord's covenant with Jerusalem
as a marriage: "Now when I passed by thee, and looked upon thee, behold,
thy time was the time of love: and I spread My skirt over thee, and
covered thy nakedness: yea, I sware unto thee, and entered into a
covenant with thee, saith the LORD God, and thou becamest Mine" (v. 8).
Judah is Jehovah's wife in the covenant.
At the very beginning of Israel's history as a
nation, God made plain that the covenant between Himself and Israel, on
account of which He would redeem them from the slavery of Egypt, was
nothing other than a Father-child relationship. For Moses must say to
Pharaoh, "Thus saith Jehovah, Israel is my son, even my firstborn" (Ex.
Marriage and the parent-child connection are
relationships of love and communion. They are simply special forms of
friendship. And the covenant is the real marriage and the real
Third, there is the figurative explanation of the
covenant as God's tabernacling with His people. In
Revelation 21 the vision of the new world and of the perfected
church is immediately explained by a great voice that says, "Behold, the
tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them ... " (v.
3a). The reference is to that building at the centre of Israel in the
Old Testament (Covenant): the tabernacle. That holy building was the
place where God lived with Israel and Israel lived with God in sweet
communion. Heaven will be the real, and gigantic, tabernacle inasmuch as
the bliss of heaven will be the life of the covenant: dwelling with God.
John immediately applies to this tabernacle-life in the coming world the
words that we have seen to be descriptive of the nature of the covenant:
"... and they shall be his people, and God Himself shall be with them,
and be their God" (v. 3b).
In this light the church must view the greatest, and
central, wonder of salvation, namely, the incarnation of the eternal Son
of God. The meaning of it, John gives in
John 1:14: "And the Word was made flesh, and tabernacled [such is
the literal translation; the KJV has 'dwelt'] among us ..." In Jesus,
the triune God comes close to us for friendship, so close that He
becomes one of us. When the Spirit of the crucified and risen Son of God
unites us to Jesus Christ by faith, we come close to God, so close that
we are God's bride and God's children.
The covenant is not a contract consisting of the
mutual obligation—of God and the believer. Although earthly marriage
includes the mutual duties of husband and wife, these duties do not
define the marriage. Marriage is not the duties, but the one-flesh
union. The covenant is not a treaty (much less a treaty modelled after
the profane Canaanite treaties), any more than the relation between a
believing father and his children is a treaty. Nor is the covenant a
promise, although God establishes the covenant with His people by
Ezekiel 16:8 clearly distinguishes between the promise by which the
covenant is made and sealed and the covenant into which God enters by
way of the promise: "yea, I sware unto thee, and entered into a covenant
with thee, saith the Lord God, and thou becamest mine." Although the
bridegroom takes his bride by means of a vow—a solemn oath and
promise—this vow is not the marriage. The marriage is the life together
of the two.
This understanding of the covenant makes clear what
the true covenant members ought to expect from God and what we are
required to give to God. We expect, and ought to enjoy, God's wondrous
love, God's delightful friendship, and God's comforting assurance, "I am
your God, and you are My dear friends." With this, of course, we expect
His care and blessing as regards both this life and the life to come:
salvation! Think of the husband's nourishing and cherishing of his wife
and of the parents' nurture and protection of their children.
In the covenant, God calls us to give Him our love,
our friendship, and our exclusive, wholehearted service: thankfulness!
Think of the devoted help that the husband desires from his wife and of
the honour that parents look for from their children.
Since the friendship of God is enjoyed only through
His Word, the covenant people will be marked by reverence for Scripture,
for the preaching of the gospel, and for sound teaching. Since we
express our friendship in prayer and in obedience to the law, the
covenant people will be characterized by prayer and obedience.
At their very heart, Christian experience and
Christian life are friendship with God in Jesus Christ. "Henceforth I
call you not servants ... but I have called you friends ..." (John
15:15). This is the Reformed answer to the view of the Christian
life as a "personal relationship with God." This guards the Reformed
Christian against the dread error of conceiving the life of the
Christian as a cold, formal, outward observance of prescribed rules and
accepted customs. And this determines the lives of Reformed Christians
with each other: Marriage is friendship; family life is friendship; life
in the congregation is friendship.
Two vital truths about the covenant must be noted
before we go on to the matter of the place of children in the covenant.
First, the covenant is God's. Deliberately, we frame our subject as we
do: "The Covenant of God ..." The covenant is God's because He
conceives it, He promises it, He establishes it, He maintains it, and He
perfects it. He alone does all this. He does this without the help of
Abraham, of Israel, or of the church. Again and again, God says, "I will
establish my covenant." When Jerusalem has broken the covenant with her
abominable idolatries so that no other judgment can be expected than
that God solemnly declares the covenant null and void, God amazingly
says, "Nevertheless I will remember my covenant with thee ... and I will
establish unto thee an everlasting covenant" (Eze.
16:60). Never does God say, "Let you and Me make our covenant."
Never does Scripture teach that the covenant depends for its fulfilment
upon sinful man.
The covenant is a covenant of grace. Never is this
more clearly evident than in the incarnation of the Son of God. In sheer
mercy and awesome power, God did the impossible thing: He established
the new covenant. We had nothing to do with it, except that our dreadful
guilt, total depravity, and utter helplessness and misery made the
incarnation and death of the Son of God necessary for the establishing
of the covenant.
To err here is no minor matter, for all of salvation
flows from the covenant. If the covenant depends upon man, so also does
salvation depend upon man. A doctrine of the covenant that denies the
graciousness of the covenant necessarily undermines also the "five
points of Calvinism."
But the covenant is God's in a yet deeper sense. It
is the revelation to us and the sharing with us of God's own, inner,
Trinitarian life. God's own life is friendship. The life of God is
friendship. The Father loves the Son whom He has begotten and the
Son loves the Father whose image He is; and they are friends in the Holy
Spirit who proceeds from them both and in whom they embrace.
A mystery? Granted, if you mean that there are depths
here that surpass our understanding. Nevertheless, this is revealed. The
life of God is covenant life—life of the nature of Father-Son. And this
life, God "lets us in on," in Christ, so that the relationship between
us and God is Father-son or Father-daughter. How are we to pray? "Our
This leads to the second truth about the covenant
that is vital. The covenant of God with us is all-embracing and
all-dominating: The entire life of the believer—body and soul, physical
and spiritual, temporal and eternal, God-ward and man-ward—is taken up
into this covenant and is controlled, arranged, and structured by the
covenant. As a believer, my whole life is covenant life. God is my God,
not alone on the Sabbath, but also through the week; not alone in my
worship, but also in my work; not alone in my devotions, but also in my
marriage and family; not alone as regards my church life, but also as
regards my behaviour to the State, to my employer, and to my neighbour.
The friendship of God lays claim to everything, controls all, and shows
itself everywhere. It makes a radical difference in the believer's
experience and behaviour. On the one hand, he now possesses joy,
contentment, and hope. On the other hand, he walks in holiness.
This all-embracing character of the covenant is
implied in the biblical figures of marriage and of the parent-child
relationship. The whole life of the young woman is affected by marriage
and is claimed by her husband. The relationship in which my three year
old daughter stands to her mother and me controls her entire life. She
behaves as she does, she speaks as she does, she thinks as she does, she
is who she is, because she is our daughter. The relationship with her
parents moulds her (a thought that makes God-fearing parents tremble,
One important aspect of lives that are embraced by
the covenant is the family of believers. For the children of believers
are included in the covenant.
The Inclusion of the Children of Believers in the
The children of believers are included in the
covenant as children, that is, already at conception and birth.
They receive forgiveness of sins through the blood of Jesus, the Holy
Spirit of sanctification, and church membership—as children. They are
called to love, fear, and obey God—as children. For they have God as
their God, and are His people—as children. Therefore, they have full
right to baptism. Parents must present them for baptism. And the church
that would maintain the pure administration of the sacraments as
instituted by Christ must see to it.
This is an important feature of the central doctrine
of the covenant. It is important to the children. Are they God's
children or the devil's? It is important to the parents. We love our
children and regard our rearing of our children as one of the most
important tasks in our lives. May we regard them as children of God? Or
are we compelled to regard them as Satan's "little vipers," as must all
those who deny that children are included in the covenant and as did
certain Calvinistic theologians, e.g., Jonathan Edwards. Inclusion of
the children in the covenant is important to the church. The church
asks, "Are they members of the church or do they stand outside?" Does
the church have a calling to them too, to feed and protect them as lambs
of the flock of Christ, or are they nothing but heathens, little
heathens to be sure, but heathens nevertheless, like all other ungodly
people, whom the church at the most should evangelise?
But above all, the place of the children in the
covenant is important to God. He said at the beginning of the history of
the covenant with Abraham, "I will establish my covenant between me and
thee and thy seed after thee in their generations ... to be a God unto
thee, and to thy seed after thee" (Gen.
17:7). He inspired the apostle, on the very day that the covenant
became new, to proclaim as gospel, "the promise is unto you, and to your
children ... even as many as the Lord our God shall call" (Acts
2:39). Rebuking His unfaithful wife, Judah, in
Ezekiel 16:20-21, God exclaims, like an aggrieved Husband and
Father, "Is this of thy whoredoms a small matter, that thou hast slain
my children ...?" In
Malachi 2:15,God condemns the divorcing that was prevalent in Judah,
because divorce jeopardizes the "godly seed." (And still today the
unchangeable God hates divorce in the covenant community because it is
destructive of the children who, as covenant children, are His
How important our children's inclusion in the
covenant is to God is shown in the New Testament (Covenant) by Christ's
command, "Suffer little children [i.e., infants] to come unto me ... for
of such [i.e., infants of believers] is the kingdom of God [made up]" (Luke
18:15ff.). It is shown also by the careful provision God makes for
the children, as members of the congregation, in
Ephesians 6:1-4: "Children, obey your parents in the Lord ... and,
ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the
nurture and admonition of the Lord."
Here the Reformed faith—Calvinism—parts company with
all Baptists. Every Baptist seriously errs regarding a vital truth of
the central covenant-doctrine in Scripture. Every Baptist holds that the
children of believers are lost heathens outside the church, no different
from the children of unbelievers. The advertisement that a local Baptist
church placed in the paper concerning the superior holiness of the
children in their congregation - their obedience to authority and their
freedom from drunkenness and fornication, etc. was deceptive
advertising. There are no children in that church. Every Baptist church
denies membership to all children. Only sheep belong to the Baptist
fold, no lambs. Entrance into the church is restricted to those who are
grown up and are able to make confession of their faith. Whatever youth
do join the Baptist church do so not as children of believers but as
mature individuals. The Baptist church will not suffer the little
children to come to Christ, but forbids them.
Among other implications of this grim teaching and
practice is that there is no ground for any hope of the election and
salvation of the children of believers who die in infancy or in early
childhood. Indeed, there is every reason to believe that they perish.
They are, according to the Baptists themselves, outside the church and
covenant of God; and outside the church and covenant of God is no
In light of our confession of the inclusion of the
children of believers in the covenant (about which fact there is
no dispute among Reformed people or churches), we must now answer the
question, what exactly do Scripture and the Reformed confessions mean
when they say that our children are included in the covenant.
The Reformed creeds are clear and emphatic about
children's being included in the covenant of God. The Heidelberg
Catechism teaches that infants must be baptized "since they as well
as the adult are included in the covenant and church of God; and since
redemption from sin by the blood of Christ, and the Holy Ghost, the
author of faith, is promised to them no less than to the adult ..." (Q.
& A. 74).
The Reformed Form for the Administration of
Baptism assures the believing parents and the congregation
that "our young children ... are again received unto grace
in Christ ..." It insists, with powerful, decisive appeal to
the unity of the covenant in both old and new dispensations,
that "infants are to be baptized as heirs of the kingdom of
God and of His covenant." And in the prayer of thanksgiving
it puts on Reformed lips the words of praise, joy, and
comfort, "Thou has forgiven us, and our children, all our
sins, through the blood of Thy beloved Son Jesus Christ, and
received us through Thy Holy Spirit as members of Thine only
begotten ...." In the vow at baptism, the parents confess
that they believe that, "although our children are conceived
and born in sin, and are therefore subject to all miseries,
yea, condemnation itself; yet that they are sanctified in
Christ, and therefore, as members of His church, ought to be
Our question, what this means,
is occasioned by the incontestable fact that not all of the
children of believers are saved. Both parents and church
experience the hard, painful fact that some of our children
grow up ungodly, unbelieving, and disobedient, and perish.
God is not their God; and they are not His people. Scripture
prepares us for this bitterest of all parental and
ecclesiastical sorrows. Abraham had a grandson, Esau, who
was a profane reprobate (cf.
Deuteronomy 21:18-21 prescribed the procedure by which
Israelite parents of gluttonous, drunken, rebellious, and
stubborn sons were to bring these children to the elders to
be excommunicated and stoned.
Hebrews 10:29 speaks of the baptized son of believers in
the time of the new covenant who treads under foot the Son
of God, counts the blood of the covenant, with which he was
sanctified, an unholy thing, and insults the Spirit of
We cannot presume that all our children are
regenerate and elect. To presume this is contrary to Scripture and
experience. Nor may we parents be bitter about this. For it is pure
mercy that any of our children is saved.
But what then does the Reformed faith mean by the
inclusion of the children of believers in the covenant of God?
There are three possible explanations of the
inclusion of children in the covenant. All are proposed by various
The first explanation is that because of their
privileged position in a Christian home and in the environment of the
church these children are more likely to be converted than the children
of unbelievers. In fact, the children are unsaved, and must be regarded
as unsaved until such time as they give evidence of faith, but they are
in a better position to be saved than other children. This was the view
of some Puritans and of Jonathan Edwards. It is the view of certain
Reformed churches today, including the Free Reformed Church of North
America and the Netherlands Reformed Congregations of the United States
This viewpoint must be rejected. First, it does not
do justice to the language of the Bible or of the Reformed creeds. God
does not merely put the children of believers in a more advantageous
position, so as to make it likelier that they will be saved; but He
establishes His covenant with them, so as to be their God. God gives to
the children the promise of the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ.
Accordingly, the church does not and may not regard them as heathens
with an edge over other heathens. Rather, the Reformed church regards
them, and must regard them, as those "sanctified in Christ." Second, it
is not true that our children, considered now strictly from the point of
view of their natural condition, are in any better position than the
heathens of the world. Our children are by nature dead in sin. A dead
person in a Christian home and in the sphere of the church has no
advantage over a dead person outside a Christian home and the church.
The second possible explanation of the place of children in
the covenant can be more persuasively argued. All the
children of believers without exception are in the covenant
in this sense, that God promises them all salvation and
extends to them all His covenant grace in Christ. However,
the actual fulfilment of the promise, the actual reception
of covenant grace, and the actual realization of the
covenant with them personally depend upon their believing in
Christ and thus taking hold of the covenant when they grow
up. The covenant consists of promise and demand, which
demand is a condition that the children must fulfil. The
promise from God is for all without exception. But if the
child should not fulfil the demand that he believe, he
forfeits the promise. This is the view of the Reformed
Churches in the Netherlands ("Liberated"), of the Canadian
Reformed Churches, and of the American Reformed Churches.
The appeal of this view is that it puts all our
children without exception in the covenant. This is naturally pleasing
to the parents (although the implication of this view is that not only
some but also all of the children can fall out of the covenant, which is
not so pleasing). Also, it seems to do justice to the language of
Scripture and of the creeds. God said to Abraham, "... and to your
seed," not, "... and to some of your seed." The Heidelberg
Catechism says that the infants are included in the covenant, not
of the infants. In the form for baptism, we confess that our
children are sanctified in Christ, not some of them.
Are not all the children of believers baptized? Are
not all the children required to be baptized?
Nevertheless, this view conflicts with cardinal doctrines of
the Word of God, doctrines which are precious to every
Reformed man and woman. For one thing, the promise and
covenant grace of God now depend upon the work and will of
the sinful child. The covenant and its salvation are
conditional, dependent upon the faith of the child. But this
stands in diametrical opposition to the teaching of
Scripture, with specific reference to this very matter of
the salvation of the children of believers: "So then it is
not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God
that sheweth mercy" (Rom.
9:16). Also, the Reformed faith has creedally rejected
the notion that faith is a condition unto salvation: In
1:9-10 the Canons of Dordt deny that faith is a
"prerequisite, cause or condition" upon which election and
salvation depend, asserting rather that "men are chosen to
faith" (cf. also I:R:3; III/IV:14; III/IV:R:6).
For another thing, this explanation of the inclusion
of the children in the covenant definitely implies that Christ's death
for some persons fails to secure their redemption. At baptism God
promises to all the children that He will give them His covenant and its
blessings on the basis that Christ washed them all in His blood.
But the fact is that some of these children perish. Thus is denied the
doctrine of limited, efficacious atonement, at least within the sphere
of the covenant. As regards the children of believers, there is
Yet another objectionable element in this view is its
teaching that the promise of God fails in many cases. God promises
salvation to every baptized child of believing parents, but many of them
do not receive salvation. The word and promise of God have failed in all
these cases. They have failed because the children have refused to
fulfil the condition of faith; but the fact remains that they have
The basic objection to this covenant-view—and it is a
deadly serious objection—is that it conflicts with the Reformed gospel
of salvation by sovereign grace.
The third explanation, we believe to be that of
Scripture itself. Although all our children are in the sphere of the
covenant and therefore receive the sign of the covenant and are reared
as covenant members, the covenant of God, the relationship of friendship
in Jesus Christ, is established with the elect children only. The
promise of the covenant is for the elect children only. The promise does
not depend upon the faith of the child, but the promise itself works the
faith by which the child receives the grace of the covenant in every
child to whom God makes the promise. It is the elect children among our
physical offspring who constitute our true children, even as the seed of
Abraham was not all his physical descendants, but only Christ and those
who are Christ's according to election (cf.
Gal. 3:7,16, 29).
Our grounds for this explanation of the inclusion of
children in the covenant are the following. First, only this view
harmonizes with the rule of faith in Scripture. God's saving, covenant
mercy is particular, i.e., for the elect alone (Rom.
9:15). Predestination makes distinction not only between
visible church and world but also within the visible church itself (Rom.
9:10-13). God's salvation never depends upon the will or action of
the sinner (Rom.
9:16). Christ's death is efficacious (Rom.
5:6-11).The promise of God is sure to all the seed (Rom.
Second, Scripture itself gives exactly this
explanation of the precise matter under discussion. It does
Romans 9:1ff. The concern of Paul is that so many
physical children of Abraham perish in light of God's
promise to Abraham to establish His covenant with Abraham's
seed (vv. 1-5). The chief difficulty of the apostle is not
that dear relatives perish (although he could wish himself
accursed for these brothers, v. 3), but that it might seem
that "the word of God hath taken none effect," that is, that
the promise of God has failed to establish the covenant with
many to whom the promise was given (v. 6). But it is not the
case that the promise has proved to be a powerless failure
in even one instance. Why not? Because the seed of Abraham,
to whom the promise was given, never was all the physical
children of Abraham. "For they are not all Israel, which are
of Israel: neither, because they are the seed of Abraham,
are they all children: but, "In Isaac shall thy seed be
called. That is, They which are the children of the flesh,
these are not the children of God: but the children of the
promise are counted for the seed" (vv. 6b-8). There is a
distinction between two kinds of children of believing
Abraham: children of the flesh and children of the promise.
And this distinction is determined by election and
reprobation, illustrated plainly by the history of Jacob and
Esau (vv. 11-13).
Paul's difficulty is exactly our problem. By promise,
God includes our children in His covenant of salvation; but not all of
our children are saved.
Scripture's solution of the apostle's difficulty
solves our problem as well. The children of believers to whom God
graciously promises membership in the covenant are not all the physical
offspring of believers. They are rather the "children of God" among our
offspring. And the children of God are those who are chosen in Christ.
These are the ones whom God counts for the seed when he says, "I will be
the God of your seed." These, and these only, are "the children of the
promise." To them, and to them only, is the promise given. In every one
of them is the promise effectual to work faith in Jesus Christ.
Third, this understanding of the place of children in
the covenant is found in the Reformed tradition. Distilling the essence
of the Reformed tradition from the outstanding Reformed theologians,
Heppe quotes J. H. Heidegger as expressing the Reformed view:
As for the adults, outward baptism does not seal
inward grace for all of them, but for those alone who bear in their
hearts a faith the reverse of feigned and confess it in words. Nor yet
for the children of believing parents one and all, but only for the
elect is baptism the sign of regeneration and universal spiritual
grace. Although it is right and godly in the case of individual
children of the kind to have good hopes of the judgment in love, in
the case of them all it is not so (Reformed Dogmatics
[London, 1950], pp. 622-623).
This has been a prominent view in Dutch Reformed
theology since the Afscheiding (Secession) of 1834. In his book,
Prediking en uitverkiezing (Preaching and Election) (Kampen,
1959), Professor C. Veenhof, himself an advocate of the position that
all children of believers are in the covenant by conditional promise,
acknowledges that the position that referred the phrase in the baptism
form, "our children ... are sanctified in Christ," to the elect children
was perhaps the dominant position in the churches of the Secession. This
was the doctrine of Simon Van Velzen, the outstanding theologian in the
churches of the Secession (cf. Veenhof, Prediking, pp.
Fourth, only this covenant view is in harmony with
the Reformed confessions. The Westminster Confession holds the
promise of the covenant of grace to be particular and unconditional:
"... promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto life His
Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe" (7:3). In the
chapter on baptism this Presbyterian creed teaches that the grace
promised in baptism is strictly controlled by God's eternal
... the grace promised is not only offered, but
really exhibited and conferred by the Holy Ghost, to such [whether of
age or infants] as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel
of God's own will, in His appointed time (28:6)
The Canons of Dordt restrict the promise of
the gospel and the sacraments to believers (III/IV:8). Since faith is
the gift of God to the elect (III/IV:14; 1:9), the promise is for the
elect. It cannot, therefore, fail (V:8).
On no other
reading can the teaching of the Heidelberg Catechism
in Q. & A. 74 or the statements in the form of baptism, that
our children are "heirs of the kingdom of God and of His
covenant" and that they are "sanctified in Christ," be true.
If the reference is to every one of the children of
believers, not to the elect among them, it simply is not
true that "redemption from sin by the blood of Christ, and
the Holy Ghost, the author of faith, is promised to them" (Heidelberg
Catechism, A. 74) or that they are "sanctified in
Christ" (baptism form).
God realizes His covenant in the line of generations.
He gathers His church from age to age from the children of believers. As
the Puritans were fond of saying, "God casts the line of election in the
loins of godly parents." For the sake of the elect children, all are
It is the covenantal election of God that determines
the viewpoint that believing parents and church take toward the children
and that governs the approach in rearing them. We do not view them as
unsaved heathens ("little vipers"), though there may well be vipers
among them, any more than we view the congregation as a gathering of
unbelievers because of the presence of unbelievers among the saints. But
we view them as children of God.
This matter of the parents' and church's view of the
children is of great importance practically. Jonathan Edwards' view of
the children as "little vipers," coupled with a tendency to base the
assurance of being children of God upon subjective, doubtful experience,
may well have been one of the main causes of the covenant's running out
in New England, including Edwards' own church. The children learned
their lesson well from the great teacher: The little vipers grew up to
be big vipers. There was a judgment of God in this. To call that common
which God has cleansed is forbidden (Acts
11:9). Although, like their believing parents, they retain a
viperish nature, covenant children are not vipers, that is, children of
the devil, but Jehovah's children (Eze.
16:20-21). They are not sinful flesh, spiritually like the devil;
but they are holy (I
Cor. 7:14). Quite unlike the children of disobedience, who are ruled
by the prince of the power of the air so that they have their
conversation in the lusts of their flesh (Eph.
2:1-3), the baptized children of believers are in the Lord Jesus so
that they honour their parents (Eph.
The same result of the error of viewing the children
of believers as unsaved heathens appears in the churches that maintain
this view today. As a rule, these churches are filled with young people
who cannot be assured that they are genuine believers and saved children
of God. Indeed, they grow old and die without ever enjoying the comfort
of the covenant with God or being able to sit down with their covenant
Friend at the covenant meal, although oddly enough they are permitted to
make public confession of faith and to be members of the congregation
(cf. C. Steenblock, Rondom Verbond, Roeping en Doop, Gouda
[The Netherlands, 1979], pp. 44-45; cf. also C. Hegeman, Explanation
of the Reformed Doctrine [Stickney, SD, 1965], p. 70). And the few
who do arrive at the assurance of salvation derive this assurance, not
from the promise of the covenant and baptism, but from some mystical
Viewing their children as God's covenant children,
believers must approach them as elect children in their teaching and
discipline, even though there may indeed be reprobate and unregenerated
children among them. Election determines the approach. All the children
must receive the instruction that the regenerated must have and will
profit from. By means of this rearing in the nurture and admonition of
the Lord, the covenant promise will work the fruit of conversion in the
The Call to Believers' Children to be Converted
We face, finally, the question, what place does
conversion have in the life of the covenant child? Does conversion have
a place, or is it now unnecessary for him? If conversion has a place in
the life of the child of the covenant, is this place an important place,
even a necessary place, or is the place of conversion somewhat
These are important questions for the believing
parent and for the Reformed church. What is their attitude towards the
conversion of their children? After all, if conversion is necessary,
they must be the instruments in the hand of God for such conversion.
Should they earnestly pray for their children's conversion? Should they
urgently call the children to conversion?
The question about conversion is vital for the
covenant child herself. Ought she to look for this reality and
experience in her own life? If so, how must she expect to experience it?
May she consider herself a proper candidate for public confession of
faith and a worthy partaker of the Lord's Supper without conversion? May
she have the certainty of salvation apart from conversion, simply
because she is the child of believing parents and has been baptized?
Let us admit that there is a danger that the
important place of conversion in the life of the covenant child is
neglected both by Reformed parents and by the Reformed church, and
therefore also by the child. It is possible that this neglect is due to
a misunderstanding, as though mention of conversion of the covenant
child threatens either the truth that the salvation of the child is the
fruit of the covenant or the truth that in the covenant it is God alone
Who saves the child. In part, the hesitation of Reformed Christians to
speak of, much less to emphasize, the conversion of the children of the
covenant is due to their reaction against the sin against God's covenant
that becomes more and more popular today in Reformed circles, namely,
that covenant, baptized, Reformed young people are made the objects of
an "evangelism" that treats them as unsaved sinners who must be saved by
accepting Christ. If this is what is meant by the conversion of the
child, Reformed parents and the Reformed church reject it in the name of
the covenant of God sealed to their children in infancy.
But these misunderstandings and errors may not be
decisive for the answer to the question about the conversion of the
children of the covenant. Scripture alone is decisive.
First, conversion is always the work of the Holy
Spirit in free, sovereign grace. This is true on the mission field, but
this is also true in the covenant. Conversion is never a work of the
sinner, earning or obtaining the grace of God. Our converting ourselves
is not a prerequisite to entering the kingdom of heaven. Although we are
active in conversion we believe, we repent, and we turn to God—our
activity is caused by the Holy Spirit.
Second, conversion has a place in the life of the
covenant children; and this place is that conversion is necessary.
Christ's word in
Matthew 18:3 applies to the children of believers, "Except ye be
converted ... ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven." Covenant
children must receive the gift of repentance. They must have faith
conferred, breathed, and infused into them. They must be turned to God
as to their heavenly Father in Whose will they delight.
Third, conversion is itself the fruit of the
covenant: It is the effect and benefit of the covenant promise. God's
promise to the elect children, signified and sealed at baptism, works
conversion in them. The friendship of God, experienced by them in the
Holy Spirit, causes them to turn away from sin and to God. Because God
includes them in the covenant, by gracious promise, their conversion is
Fourth, parents and church not only may but are also
solemnly required by God to call their children to conversion. They must
do this with regard to specific sins, as well as with regard to the
entire life of the children. They do this, not only by saying,
"Believe!" "Repent!" but also by thorough, careful instruction in the
entire gospel of Scripture; by discipline; and by godly example. God
works conversion by His Word. Therefore, church and parents teach the
children the Bible. He works it also in answer to prayers. Therefore,
church and parents are to pray for the conversion of the children.
Fifth, the children are to be taught to experience
conversion, to find conversion in their lives. This is true
particularly, although not exclusively, at the time of public confession
of faith and celebration of the Lord's Supper. No unconverted person may
come to the table of the Lord. No one who is doubtful of his conversion
is able to come. However, this experience of conversion is not some
mysterious, indescribable, inexplicable feeling. Rather, it is heartfelt
sorrow over sin, true faith in Jesus Christ, and a sincere determination
to love God and the neighbour.
Neither is the conversion of the children of the
covenant as a rule a sudden, dramatic change in teenage years, or even
in later life. The history of the conversion of the penitent thief and
of Saul is not the norm for elect children born and reared in the
covenant. Usually, they are converted from earliest childhood. This is
the implication of the fifth commandment of the law. From earliest
years, the children are converted to God so that they are able to honour
their parents from the motive of the fear of Jehovah God Who has
redeemed them from sin and death through the blood of Jesus Christ. This
is also expressed in
Psalm 71. God is the trust of the covenant child, as the rule, from
his or her youth (v. 5), for God has taught him or her from youth (v.
17). The covenant relationship goes back, in fact, to conception and
birth (v. 6). Although there are times of struggle, doubt, and turning
away from God, there is gradual development in daily, ongoing conversion
deeper sorrow; firmer faith; more ardent love.
The refusal to be converted is the manifestation of
the bastard—the physical child of believers who is not a genuine,
spiritual son or daughter (Heb.
10:29). He too is called to convert himself. Conversion is his duty.
Refusal exposes him to severest punishment. It will be more tolerable in
the day of judgment for Sodom than for him. When he manifests himself as
unspiritual and unbelieving by refusing to make confession of faith, by
neglecting the means of grace, by fornication by drunkenness and drug
use, and by impenitence regarding this wicked course of life, he must be
excommunicated from the church by discipline. As
Deuteronomy 21:18-21 requires, the parents themselves must cooperate
in this work of the church, putting the honour of Christ's Name and the
welfare of the congregation above their natural love for their child.
One of the strongest objections of the Baptists
against infant baptism is that it fills the church with young people,
and finally with adults, who are manifestly unspiritual, worldly, and
immoral. Nor can it be denied that some Reformed churches expose the
truth of the covenant to this charge by their tolerance of the
ungodliness of the young people and by their refusal to discipline even
the most blatant transgressors among them. All are presumed to be
regenerate and saved. The result of this presumption is the death of the
church as the carnal, profane seed come to dominate the church, finally
driving the spiritual children out. These churches do not take election
seriously. Not all the children are included in the covenant and church
of God, but the elect only. The elect manifest themselves by holiness of
life. Those who are unholy must be disciplined both by sharp preaching
and by church censure.
This is a great grief both to parents and church. It
is the full responsibility of the ingrate who crucifies to himself the
Son of God afresh and puts Him to an open shame. But it is not evidence
of the failure of the Word of God. For the great truth in the sphere of
the covenant is this: "I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy ..."
9:15). As in Israel under the old covenant, so in the church under
the new covenant, "the election has obtained it, and the rest were
This is a doctrine of the covenant that is thoroughly
biblical. It is in full accord with the Reformed confessions. It has an
honourable place in the Reformed tradition. It upholds and extols the
sovereign grace of God in salvation. It gives comfort to parents and
children alike. To mention only one aspect of its rich comfort, only
this doctrine of the covenant enables believing parents to bring the
body of their infant child to the grave without doubting of the election
and salvation of the child: "Since ... the children of believers are
holy ... in virtue of the covenant of grace, in which they, together with
the parents, are comprehended, godly parents have no reason to doubt of
the election and salvation of their children, whom it pleaseth God to
call out of this life in their infancy" (Canons I:17).
And it is practical. To refer only to the calling of
believing parents, this doctrine provides the basis for having children;
indicates the positive approach to take in their rearing; lays down the
content of the rearing; and gives encouragement in times of struggle and
Therefore, I witness to this doctrine of God's
covenant boldly. I do so all the more fervently because I myself have
experienced the truth of it: child of believing parents; baptized in
infancy; converted on my mother's lap; guided in the good way of the
Lord by the Spirit of Christ from earliest childhood; knowing God as my
Friend, without terror before Him, under the gospel of unconditional
grace; and, however imperfectly, loving Him from childhood Who, having
looked upon me in my infancy in grace, incorporated me as a baby by His
Spirit into His Son, Jesus, burying me into Jesus' death and raising me
with Him in newness of life.
I and the multitudes of covenant children like me
cannot but testify to the covenant of God. Our testimony is the witness
of irrepressible joy:
When the Lord shall count the nations,
Sons and daughters He shall see,
Born to endless life in Zion,
And their joyful song shall be,
"Blessed Zion, All our fountains are in thee,
Blessed Zion, All our fountains are in thee."