Preaching and Covenant Children
One of my concerns with Protestant Reformed preaching relates to how the children of believers are treated in the preaching and this ultimately respects how the issue of the covenant is treated in the PRC.
Now my understanding of children of believers and the covenant is that developed by Hoeksema and Kersten in their writings on the subject.
I, in agreement with the official PR position, wholeheartedly reject the notion of presupposed regeneration as a basis for infant baptism. As Hoeksema states in his Reformed Dogmatics Volume II:
- “With this idea of presumptive regeneration as a basis for infant baptism, we cannot agree. We do not deny that infants can be regenerated or that it is possible for them to have the faculty or power of faith. We even believe that it is the usual mode of God’s working in the church of Christ to regenerate little children from their infancy. But this does not mean that we can presume that all the children born under the dispensation of the covenant are regenerated, nor can we baptize infants on the basis of a presupposition or a resumption of their regeneration. We cannot state as a fact that all the children of believing parents are regenerated, for Scripture plainly teaches the very opposite. Not all are Israel that are of Israel. Only the children of the promise are counted for the seed (Rom. 9:8). There is chaff among the wheat, and many carnal children are among those born of believing parents. Therefore, we certainly cannot and may not presuppose that which is so evidently contrary to Scripture and to all reality.” (375 – 376)
I bring up the issue of presupposed regeneration here because often times it is the contention of people outside the PRC that the PRC holds to presupposed regeneration. Obviously, that is not the case as shown above. Although this misunderstanding does beg the question: why do people think that the PRC holds to this position? Is there perhaps too strong an emphasis in PR preaching and practice that children of believing parents are saved? Is perhaps the fact that not all children are saved, not preached enough? Are there not enough calls for children to repent and be converted in the PRC?
This confusion over the issue of presupposed regeneration could also be due to the difficult rendering of the Reformed Baptism Form. If I did not have knowledge of the history and interpretation of this form, I would be inclined to say that it sounds like it supports presupposed regeneration. How much more then, children growing up and never being taught the correct meaning of the form? How much more young people growing up in the PRC, hearing the form say this baptism after baptism? How much more the young people, who never study the issue of the covenant?
The section I am obviously referring to here in the Baptism Form is the first question that the parents are asked:
- “Whether you acknowledge that although our children are conceived and born in sin, and therefore are subject to all miseries, yea to condemnation itself, yet that they are sanctified in Christ, and therefore, as members of His church, ought to be baptized?” [Emphasis Mine]
Even Bastiaan Wielenga seems to think that this wording is misleading, though he quite clearly argues that it does not teach presupposed regeneration in his commentary on the form: The Reformed Baptism Form. (For more discussion on this point see Wielenga, The Reformed Baptism Form, 321 – 325).
Back to the issue of baptism. I hold to infant baptism because I firmly believe that God establishes His covenant in the line of continued generations. This is good, old-fashioned, Biblical, Reformed and Presbyterian church growth.
As the Heidelberg Catechism states in Question and Answer 74:
- Are infants also to be baptized?
- Yes; for 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; they must therefore by baptism, as a sign of the covenant, be also admitted into the Christian church, and be distinguished from the children of unbelievers as was done in the
old covenant or testament by circumcision, instead of which baptism is instituted in the new covenant. [Emphasis mine]
This does not mean that all the children of believing parents are of the invisible church: the elect of God. As Hoeksema again states in his Reformed Dogmatics Volume II:
- “The church in the world is the gathering of confessing believers and their children. They form one people . . . . They are called after his name. All who outwardly belong to them are subject to the same dealings. According to the will of God, all are baptized in the name of God triune. To all the word is preached. And all – unless they violate the covenant of God before they ever come to confession of faith in the church – celebrate the death of the Lord Jesus Christ at the communion table . . . . Always in the line of the generations of the people of God there are the true spiritual seed; but always there exist also the carnal seed, who live in close proximity and outward fellowship with the spiritual seed, dwell in the same house with them, and are subject to the same influences, but who are not children of the promise and receive not the grace of God in their hearts.
- The significance of the presence of this carnal seed with the generations of the people of God is very clear both from Scripture and from actual experience. Because of the perpetual presence of that carnal element in the church of Christ in the world, the church must fight her hardest battle in her own house, for by this carnal element the measure of iniquity is filled.” [Emphasis Mine] (380 – 381)
The last statement of that quotation brings up some important questions: Is the PRC fighting its hardest battle in her own house, or with other denominations and their doctrinal errors? Is the PRC directing its hardest preaching towards itself and its own members, or to others?
I believe the fact that not all the children of believers are saved is sometimes forgotten in the preaching in the PRC. Too often it is assumed that everybody in a particular congregation is saved and that comes out in the preaching. Too often there is the tendency to just preach as though the entire congregation is elect. Too often the command of the gospel to “Repent! Believe!” is forgotten.
I am not alone in this concern. Prof. David Engelsma also agrees with me that the church has to be on guard about this and that the call for conversion is neglected in the preaching. He states in his pamphlet “The Covenant of God and the Children of Believers”:
- 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.
That quote by Engelsma raises an important issue: should baptized children be treated as the object of evangelism?
I would argue no, not as though they were outside of the visible church. The children of believers are in a special covenantal position. They are weekly under the means of grace in the preaching, prayer, instruction, worship, etc. I would argue then, (keeping in mind that God always saves through the means of grace) that the church has a duty to preach to them to repent of their specific sins and look to Jesus Christ. The church must also pray continually for their conversion; they must pray for their salvation. The church should not lull them to sleep and false assurance by reminding them that they are part of a true church. The church should not just preach the gospel to them, as though they are already saved. But the church, while taking comfort in the fact that God establishes His covenant in the line of continued generations, should always remember that God saves through the means of grace. God saves by means of the harsh preaching of the law and the comforting preaching of Jesus Christ.
As Engelsma states in the same pamphlet:
- “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.”
There are always two dangers when preaching to covenant children, as Hoeksema points out in his book, Believers and Their Seed:
- God forms His covenant people in the line of believers and their seed. As such they manifest the figure of such an organic whole. He, then, who would refuse to call that people by the name of the people of God, he who would refuse to address them as God’s people, he who would refuse to assure them as God’s people of the riches of God’s promises in Christ, he who would refuse to point them as God’s people to their calling as those who are of the party of the living God in the midst of the world, but who would rather treat them as a mixed multitude, without any spiritual character or stamp – that man would surely err sorely. Yet, on the other hand, he who would think that he may presuppose that there are absolutely no unregenerate and reprobate individuals among that people, and who therefore would refuse to proclaim woe as well as weal to them if they do not walk in the paths of God covenant, – that man would err just as sorely. No, that entire people must be addressed, treated, comforted, and admonished as the Israel of God. And yet, at the same time, you may never forget that not all is Israel that is called Israel. There are branches which never bear fruit, which bring forth wild fruit, and which are presently cut off.” (115)
I am concerned that the PRC often forgets this or reacts too harshly in response to those who think the children of believers should be treated just like the wicked outside the church. That is one reason I left the Protestant Reformed Churches.