Prof. Dykstra is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
That the Lord establishes His covenant with believers and their children means that believers’ children are covenant children. They are to be viewed as such by believing parents and their teachers in the Christian school.
Most Reformed people would agree with the above, even though different explanations are offered as bases. The conundrum for many is reconciling this confession with the truth of sovereign, double predestination, and with the fact that there are many Esaus in the church, Esaus born into covenant families. One theological explanation offered is that believers presume that all their children are regenerated before they are baptized. This, however, is contrary to Scripture and the experience of the church, and simply cannot be maintained.
A second proffered solution is that God establishes a covenant objectively with each baptized child. This covenant is conditional, and is either ratified by the child when he believes, or broken when he rejects it. This must be rejected for many reasons, especially that God would establish a covenant with the reprobate seed, knowing them to be children whom He eternally rejects.
A conditional covenant must necessarily be rejected if the covenant is a bond of friendship. It is the assertion of the Protestant Reformed Churches, and, we believe, the truth of the Bible, that the covenant is a bond or relationship of friendship that God sovereignly establishes with His people in Christ. Thus, the covenant is with Christ and with all those who are in Him, namely, the elect. It is also true that parents in the Protestant Reformed Churches view their children as covenant children.
Does it follow, then, that these parents presume regeneration for each of these children? No—though they do believe that the elect seed are generally regenerated at a very young age, most probably before birth.
Do these parents then try to distinguish among their children, which are elect and which are not? No.
Do they treat them all as potential reprobates? They emphatically do not.
Are all their children in the covenant by virtue of their birth and or baptism? No, the true spiritual seed only are in a relationship of friendship with God.
Yet one may object, How can you view your children as covenant children when you cannot be sure that all of them are elect? The answer to that question is that parents view the children organically. Parents and teachers are to consider all children of believers to be covenant children because of the organic connection each child has as a child in a covenant home. This child was born to believers. These believers have the promise of God, “I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations” (Gen. 17:7). How else can they view their child, but as a covenant child?
To put it another way, believing parents view all their children as covenant children for the same reason that a preacher calls the congregation “beloved in the Lord” and Paul calls the members of the church in Philippi “saints.” One can object that not all in the church of Philippi were “saints,” and not all members of a given congregation are in fact “beloved of the Lord.” However, the inspired apostle, and the minister today, views the congregations organically. Because Christ died for His church and redeemed her, the congregation is addressed, “Beloved in the Lord.” The individual member we are to regard as a believer using the judgment of love (Canons III, IV, 15). The presence of unbelievers in the midst does not change the organic view one must have of the congregation and the individual members.
This idea of an organism is a concept that is crucially important for a right understanding of the covenant. It is also found throughout the Bible.
Notice, for example, that God both views and deals with all men organically. God viewed the race of mankind as organically connected to Adam. Adam is the head of the race. When Adam fell, the race became guilty before God exactly because of that relationship.
God also deals with His people thus. Israel was the people of God. When Achan sinned at Jericho, taking of the accursed thing, God was angry with Israel! “Israel hath sinned,” He told Joshua. How so? Achan was a part of the organism of Israel.
Not only that, God views His world as an organism. This is expressed in the well-known John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son; that whosoever believeth on him should not perish but have everlasting life.” God loves His world (the cosmos). However, He does not love every member of the human race. He hates the reprobate, as He states in Romans 9 concerning Esau. John 3:16 and Romans 9 can only be “reconciled” by the truth that God loves the organism—the cosmos—and eventually cuts off the members whom He rejects.
The organic concept found in John 3:16 is illustrated by the activity of an orchard owner. The grower may well love the apple tree that stands before him. It is valuable, and he will care for it. That does not mean that he loves every part of the tree. He cuts off all the dead branches. He cuts away the suckers. He also prunes the tree, cutting off living branches that an inexperienced observer might think ought to remain. The orchard man, however, knows what he is doing. He is making the tree that he wants, the tree that will produce the most fruit.
God knows what He is doing with the “tree”—His world. He cuts away the dead branches. He prunes all the unwanted branches, that is to say, the members of the race whom He has eternally rejected, even those of whom we cannot see why God rejects them. He will conclude His work when He has the organism, the living tree that He wants. It will produce the most fruit that the organism can produce.
These scriptural examples demonstrate that the concept of an organism is biblical. The same organic conception is used with reference to believers and their seed. God calls children of believers “the heritage of Jehovah”—God’s chosen inheritance (Ps. 127:3). If the Bible did not say that, who would dare to maintain it? It is also why God calls Israel’s babies “my children” (Eze. 16:20). Again, we ask, Is it because all these children are His inheritance? Does God love them all? No, there are Esaus among the covenant seed. God knows this full well and does not love them. Rather it is because He speaks of the seed of Israel organically, as part of the plant.
Likewise, believing parents rightfully call their children “covenant children,” “the heritage of Jehovah,” and “children of God” because of the covenant of God with believers and their children. They do not insist that all their children are elect. However, they know that the Bible calls their children “the seed of believers,” and thus, “covenant children.” When they deal with any one of their children individually, parents also use the same judgment of love that is required in the church. Unless and until a child shows himself to be a reprobate, he will be treated as a covenant child.
This is the organic view. It is not an easy concept, to be sure. But it is very surely biblical.
Consider then what this means for the parents who are entrusted with the care and nurture of children whom God calls “my children.” What a fearful thing it is! What careful attention is given to the nurture and rearing of these covenant children! Believing parents know they have but a few years to train up these children in the way they must go. Fervent prayers arise to their heavenly Father for wisdom to teach their children aright. For the sake of these children, parents do give their all. Personal desires (including entertainment, recreation, and vacations) are subordinated to the goal of giving good instruction to covenant youth. No amount of care and expense is too great for this high calling—to rear God’s children properly in the fear of the Lord. Understanding this, one comes to appreciate the zeal for the covenant Christian school found among Reformed believers.
All of this profoundly affects the attitude of the covenant teacher. The teacher in the Christian school classroom views the students as covenant children. Oh, sinful children they are, to be sure. They are after all from the organism of the fallen human race. Nonetheless, the elect covenant children have a new heart. They have been grafted into Christ and have His life in them. The Spirit of Christ lives within them, for they are covenant children, and God so dwells within them in covenant fellowship.
The Christian teacher works accordingly. He disciplines as needed, with reproof from the Bible, being fully confident that the Spirit will apply it to the heart and life of every elect child. The teacher instructs, basing all instruction on the Scriptures. Christian education is Christian nurturing. The Spirit uses this kind of instruction to mold the child, to shape his thinking, his attitudes, and his heart.
And what of those children so instructed who are, in fact and unknown to the teacher, reprobate? What happens to the proper nurturing, the godly correction, the Christ-centered instruction? It has the same effect that the preaching has on the reprobate in the church: it hardens, drives out, and—terrifying to think about—stands to their eternal condemnation. This thought will cause the teacher to tremble as he looks over his students. The same is true for the parent and grandparent, considering the possibility that his little boy, or his little granddaughter, may be a reprobate. But unless and until that becomes manifest, all these children will be taught, disciplined, and prayed for as covenant children with the perfect confidence that God will use it all for the nurture of His chosen children.
Truly, the covenant of grace motivates all proper Christian instruction.