Baptism: Sign of God’s Unconditional Covenant

Rev. Laning is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Walker, Michigan. Previous article in this series: September 15, 2006, p. 493.

God’s everlasting covenant is a covenant of irresistible, particular grace. Therefore baptism, the sign of the covenant, must be a sign and seal of this irresistible grace. Many, however, reject this truth, and instead teach a conditional covenant of resistible, common grace. Whether this is said to be a condition to get into the covenant or to stay in the covenant, either way it amounts to teaching that God’s grace is resistible, and that the salvation of God’s people depends on something that they must do.

Different views on the covenant manifest themselves in different views on the sacrament of baptism. Wrong views on the doctrine of the covenant will result in wrong views on the meaning, the recipients, and the significance of this sacrament. Those who teach that a person must fulfill a condition to get into the covenant will view the infant children of believers to be outside the covenant. This stands to reason, seeing as it is impossible for an infant to fulfill any condition. The most common example of those who hold to this view is the Baptists. They view the infant children of believers as being outside the covenant, and this is why they do not give them the sign of the covenant. We begin by considering the truth concerning baptism over against this error of the Baptists. 

Children of Believers: Members of the Church 

Baptists deny a fundamental truth of the Reformed faith—the truth that children of believers are in the covenant and church of God. God’s church, according to the Baptists, consists only of confessing believers. They adamantly deny that children of believers are included in the church of Jesus Christ.

Some Baptists might be quick to point out that they do have children, even some young children, as members in their churches. But if they do have children as members, these children are members not because they are children of believers, but because they have made confession of faith. This is an important difference. We maintain that our children, even our little infants, are members of God’s church as children of believers. Since God establishes His covenant with believers and with their children, these children are included as members of God’s church. The Baptists, however, deny this and insist that one must first fulfill the condition of making a conscious confession of faith before they are included in the covenant and church of God.

Scripture, however, teaches that when God establishes His covenant with some, He establishes it also with their children. This was clearly the case in the days of the Old Testament. When God established His covenant with Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David, for example, He established it also with their children.

Noah: “And God spake unto Noah, and to his sons with him, saying, And I, behold, I establish my covenant with you, and with your seed after you.” Gen. 9:8, 9

Abraham: “And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee.” Gen. 17:7

Isaac: “And God said, Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him.” Gen. 17:19

Jacob: “And give thee the blessing of Abraham, to thee, and to thy seed with thee; that thou mayest inherit the land wherein thou art a stranger, which God gave unto Abraham.” Gen. 28:4

David: “My mercy will I keep for him for evermore, and my covenant shall stand fast with him. His seed also will I make to endure for ever, and his throne as the days of heaven.” Ps. 89:28, 29

This is also the case in the days of the New Testament. When Christ poured out His Spirit on the day of Pentecost, His disciples began to speak in tongues. This event made known that the time had come for the church to be gathered out of all nations through the preaching of the Word. It was on this occasion that Peter preached the gospel and said to the people,

Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call. Acts 2:38, 39

There are other passages in which it is clear that the promise to Gentile believers in the days of the New Testament is a promise not only to them, but also to their children. When the Philippian jailor asked Paul what he had to do to be saved, Paul and Silas responded with the following command and promise:

Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house. Acts 16:31

Paul and Silas were obviously not Baptists. They did not hesitate to tell a Gentile, which this Philippian certainly was, that if he believed, he and his housewould be saved. They did not need to inquire first about whether the jailor had children and how old they were. These men simply proclaimed the same truth that believers had known and confessed for centuries— the truth that when God saves a person, He saves his children as well, although not head for head.

In both dispensations the promise of the gospel has been for believers and their seed. When God establishes His covenant with a person, He establishes it also with that person’s children. When our Savior brings an individual into His church, his children also become members. Such was the case in the old dispensation. Such is still the case today.

God establishes His covenant with the children of believers. Thus they are members of His church as children of believers, before they mature spiritually and are able to make a conscious confession of their faith. And since they are in God’s covenant, and are members of God’s church, they must receive the sign of the covenant, namely, holy baptism. 

Infant Baptism: A Believer’s Baptism 

If infant children of believers are in the covenant and church of God, then these young children must actually be believers. Only believers are members of God’s church. All unbelievers are excluded. So these children must have the beginnings of faith, even though they are not aware of it. And as believing members of God’s church, they must receive the sacrament to which they have the right in Jesus Christ.

The sacraments are for believers, not unbelievers. This is true not only of the Lord’s Supper, but also of baptism. Baptists argue that by baptizing infants we are guilty of giving to unbelievers that which is only for believers. This, however, is not the case. When we baptize the infants of believers, we are indeed baptizing believers.

This is what Reformed parents confess when they bring their children to be baptized. Before their child is baptized, believing parents must publicly confess that they believe the following:

…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.

When Reformed parents answer “yes” to this, they are publicly confessing that infant children of believers are genuine believers. To say that they are sanctified in Christ and members of Christ’s church is to say that they are believers. Only believers are sanctified in Christ, and only believers are members of Christ’s church. Our infants do have genuine faith. They do not yet have conscious faith, which is a faith that one is aware that he has. But the bond of faith has already been breathed into their hearts. They are believers. They are just not aware of it yet.

Jesus showed this when He blessed the infant children of believers, and declared that such children were in the kingdom of God.

And they brought unto him also infants, that he would touch them: but when his disciples saw it, they rebuked them. But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God. Luke 18:15, 16

These children that Jesus blessed were infants, and blessings can be received only through the bond of faith, which these children must have had. Jesus declared that the kingdom of God consists of such children, that is, of such children of believers. And if these children are in God’s kingdom, then they are in God’s church, for the instituted church is the manifestation of the kingdom of God on this earth.

Some Baptists have tried to get around this by teaching that infant children of believers are heirs of the kingdom while not yet being in the kingdom itself. The kingdom belongs to such children, they may say, but they are not actually in it. But this is not what Jesus teaches here. When He says the kingdom is “of such children,” He is saying that the kingdom consists of children such as these. Such children are already citizens of the kingdom; they are members of the church. In addition, the blessings Christ gives are the blessings of His kingdom. Only those who are truly in the kingdom can receive them.

A well-known and beautiful illustration of this is John the Baptist’s leaping for joy in his mother’s womb. John was filled with the Holy Spirit even before he was born, and actually leaped for joy when the voice of Mary was heard by his mother, Elisabeth. How could this be if he did not have faith? It is only through the bond of faith that a person is engrafted into Christ and receives the blessings of the Spirit from Him (Eph. 3:17).

Only in Christ are blessings found. So to receive any blessings one must be joined to Christ by means of faith. This faith our children receive, and they can receive it even while they are being formed in the womb. And those who have faith, and who receive the blessings of the Spirit through faith, cannot be denied the sacrament of baptism.

All this serves to emphasize the truth that baptism is a sign of God’s unconditional covenant. John the Baptist received the blessings of the covenant before he was even born. What condition could he have fulfilled? The salvation he received, and the salvation that children of believers today receive, is all of God’s grace. This is the comforting promise that baptism signifies and seals. Only this promise can give genuine comfort, strengthening the faith of us and our children.