Rev. Woudenberg is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Kalamazoo, Michigan.

For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar 08, even as many as the Lord our God shall call. 

Acts 2:39

At the heart of the controversy over the covenant which took place in the Netherlands fifty years ago was the question of what happens to a child at the moment of his baptism. Between the two sides, the Synodicals (those who agreed with the decision of the synod on this matter) and the Liberated (those who considered themselves liberated from the tyranny of that synod), there was one point of agreement: both maintained that something real must happen to the child that is baptized. Where they differed was over the question of what, and whether it was to all of them or not.

The synod took the position that, presuming the child is regenerated (which, in their view, all elect covenant children are), he receives through the administration of baptism a special covenantal grace which will make him receptive to the Word of God in a special way. This grace may not evidence itself immediately (it may, in fact, lay dormant for many years); but in the end it will work effectually to bring that child to Christ; and thus those who live within the covenant should ever be looking within themselves for evidence of this grace being there.

To this the Liberated took strong exception because, in the first place, it is based on a presumption which is not necessarily true, with the result that baptism is real and effective only for some of the children (those which are elect) and not for all. This, as they see it, is contrary to the terms of the promise, impugning the very veracity of God. In turn, it leaves those who are baptized in confusion and uncertainty as to whether it is personally for them or not, and encourages them to rely on subjective introspection rather than on the objective promise of God, a spiritually unhealthy and unreliable practice at best.

Thus the Liberated presentation regarding this matter seeks to be different. It claims that every child that is baptized receives the benefits of baptism equally; and what they receive is a firm assurance from God that they belong to Him: and that He bestows salvation upon them together with all of its benefits—although with a distinct reservation. This promise comes with demands and warnings, conditions which must be fulfilled, lest by the failure to do so one become a covenant-breaker and fall under the condemnation of God.

To those involved in this debate, these distinctions seemed clear and important; although one looking on from the outside may wonder whether the difference is all that real. Both views speak very positively of a real bestowal upon the baptized child, only then to draw back and, each in its own way, limit the final result to only some. The difference may well be more one of rhetoric than substance; and it is a question whether either in the end escapes arousing within many growing children a sense of lethargic presumption rather than a true spiritual reliance upon God.

In order to understand this matter, therefore, we should proceed carefully. To begin with, it is important to recognize one basic fact, namely, that God can, and at times does, regenerate children in early infancy. This does not mean that it happens at the time of baptism, or to every child; but it can take place early in life, as early as birth itself, and even before. This must be recognized, both because it is clearly taught in the Bible, and because it is basic to the principle of infant baptism as historically held in the Christian church.

Among the most dramatic instances of this is undoubtedly that of John the Baptist, while he was still in the womb. We are told that, at the approach of Jesus (also still in the womb), John leaped for joy, with the result that Elisabeth was moved, under the inspiration of the Spirit, to exclaim, Luke 14, “Lo, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy.” Although there was certainly an element of the miraculous involved—we can hardly assume that children in the womb are normally conscious of what is happening around them, or able to respond to it—this was without question an act of real faith and of joy on the part of John, as surely as the Scriptures are true.

Actually, we have a rather similar instance with David, as he, also under the inspiration of the Spirit, reflected concerning his own early life, Psalm 22:9, 10, “But thou art he that took me out of the womb: thou didst make me hope when I was upon my mother’s breasts. I was cast upon thee from the womb: thou art my God from my mother’s belly.” As far as he was concerned, faith had been real for him from the very moment he was born, if not before.

And we have the same kind of thing indicated, even if somewhat less clearly, with others, such as Isaiah (49:1, 5), Jeremiah (1:5), and Timothy (II Tim. 1:5II Tim. 3:16), each of whom is recorded as having experienced spiritual activity in the very early stages of his life, and even from birth. These instances, in turn, may well give greater meaning to such passages as Psalm 8:2Matthew 18:2, 3; and Mark 10:14, which speak of the spiritual response of children, leading to the possible conclusion that they too may have been younger than we might otherwise be inclined to think. Clearly the thought runs through the Scriptures that spiritual activity may begin while a child is still an infant; and, if this was true in Bible times, there is no reason to assume it is not so still.

The question is, when this takes place, how does it work?

What this does not mean is that, when a child is brought to the baptismal font, some kind of a conscious response takes place, as though he were in some way aware of what is happening to him. Nor does it mean that through that act of baptism the child thereby receives some special and mystical imputation of grace. The sprinkling with water is, after all, only an outward sign pointing to an internal baptism by the Spirit which only Christ can impart, as John stated in Luke 3:16, “I indeed baptize you with water; but one mightier than I cometh . . . he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire.” It is that internal baptism which is the essential element for salvation, as Jesus said, John 3:3-8, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God…. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.” This is the essence of baptism, that which must take place for anyone, child or adult, to become a true participant in a living, covenant relationship with God. The Holy Spirit must give him life; and in response to the Word the child will live.

This is because there is one thing that does take place at the moment of baptism—and it happens to every baptized child—the child which is baptized, is by the act of baptism, received as a member of the church of Christ as it is manifested in the congregation gathered there, and under whose auspices that child is given baptism, especially inasmuch as 1 the parents there vow “to see these children, when come to the years of discretion . . . instructed and brought up in the aforesaid doctrine; or help or cause them to be instructed, therein, to the utmost of your power” (Reformed Baptismal Form). With that vow it is assured that this child is to be brought up under the ministry of the Word of God as it takes place in that congregation, and as a participant in its congregational life.

If then that child is regenerated in infancy—as we have seen can be true—because he is spiritually “born again,” he will, as Jesus said, “see the kingdom of God,” or, in other words, be responsive to the Word of God which comes to him in his covenant life. And the result will be, as his consciousness develops, spiritual faith and growth, as we are told in Romans 10:17, “faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” He hears the Word of God, and his heart responds in faith.

Nor is it difficult to see just how this actually realizes itself in practical life. When such a child, whose heart the Spirit has prepared, comes to his earliest consciousness of what is happening around him, he will meet firsthand the life of his parents, including their life of faith: their prayers, expressions of dependence upon God, efforts to live pleasing to Him, their attendance at worship in the church, etc., as well as their insistence that he live as a Christian should, and their discipline of him when he does not. All of this becomes for the child his covenant heritage; and, because he is spiritually alive, he will respond to it in faith and follow where it leads. This does not mean that he will do so without sin or struggles of faith. In fact, depending on the nature God has given him, his struggles may be more intense and evident than those of many less spiritually inclined than he—driving his parents to their knees in prayer for him again and again. But he will know, as all through his life he was told, that God is real, he a sinner, and he must seek his redemption through the way of repentance and faith in the blood of Christ. And this faith will have its victory in the end. He will experience what so many mature Christians have testified of through the ages, that he does not remember a time when he did not know himself to be a sinner saved by grace. Already as a child, in his childlike way, he knew that his covenant relationship with God is vital and real. And it may well be precisely that of which David spoke in Psalm 22:10 when he said, “I was cast upon thee from the womb: thou art my God from my mother’s belly.

This does not mean, however, that this happens to every baptized child, or even to all that are elect. All of Scripture warns that such must never be presumed.

When we go through the record of the Bible it is very clear that, while countless children have received the sign of the covenant—circumcision in the Old Testament age and baptism in the New—many of them, and often most, have remained outside of a true relationship with God. Throughout the generations of the church there has always been a continual falling away. Before Christ came, many received the circumcision of the flesh, without that of the heart (Deut. 30:6Jer. 4:4); and, after Him, countless numbers have been baptized by water, without that by the Spirit. But unless there is such internal, regenerating baptism, true covenant fellowship with God cannot be known. Some of these may be elect, but in the wisdom of God left unregenerated. Such may grow up under the Word and remain unmoved by it until God touches their souls, as with the prodigal son (Luke 15:10ff.), at which time what they knew and did not appreciate at the time may come home (Luke 15:17, 18). And then there are those who, like Esau (Rom. 9:10, 13), never do come to know the Spirit of God, even though they may pass through times of tears (Heb. 12:17). It is as Paul said, Romans 9:6, “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.”

The fact is, however, that between one and another of these three kinds of children it is not in our ability to tell the difference; God alone knows the heart. There are children who grow up in the church, often with amiable natures, who take on the life-style of the covenant for no other reason than their desire to please their parents and superiors, or because they find it the most convenient way in which to live, while having at heart no genuine feeling for God and His Word. These may even appear for years as more dedicated and committed than others who pass through honest struggles with sin. But God knows, and He will bring it out in his time. Our place is simply to warn each and every child that grows up in the church that God will never accept pretense or presumption. Only a repentant and believing heart will bring one into covenant fellowship with him.

This we must understand: we and our children are in the hand of God. Our salvation must come from him; as our baptismal prayer implies, “O Almighty and eternal God . . . be pleased of thine infinite mercy, graciously to look upon these children and incorporate them by thy Holy Spirit, into thy Son Jesus Christ….” We may .bring the children to the waters, but only God can cleanse their hearts and bring them into fellowship with him—which is what the covenant is all about.