Rev. VanOverloop is pastor of Georgetown Protestant Reformed Church in Bauer, Michigan.
Children and young people must expect it. Parents and consistories must insist on it.
Instruction and discipline by parents and by the church must follow the administration of the sacrament of baptism to the infant children of professing believers. Instruction and discipline are a necessary part of the concept of infant baptism.
The infant children of believers also must be baptized because God graciously promises to gather in generations (Gen. 17:7; Acts 2:39). But a charge has been brought against paedobaptism. It is the charge that baptizing infants results in a church full of hypocrites or a membership roll that far exceeds attendance at worship services.
Sadly it must be admitted that this charge seems to be true when we look at some churches of the past and of today. But I contend that whenever this charge seems to be true it is because parental instruction and church instruction and discipline have been neglected. The practice of baptism has become a habit or custom in such a church. Parents bring their recently born babies to the church of which they are members and have them baptized, desiring this for their children because they think there is some security for eternity in mere church membership. They do not know the biblical reasons for infant baptism except in some vague way. They still desire it, but only because the church is the one in which they, their parents, and grandparents were baptized.
We say sadly, and we add, erroneously. Such is not the correct, the biblical, setting in which the sacrament of baptism is to be administered. What is to be the correct and biblical setting?
First, the Scriptures are clear that not all infants are to be baptized.
We can learn this from the incident in the life of Jesus when He blessed the children. First, notice that the parents were bringing “infants” to Jesus (Luke 18:15). Second, notice that it was the desire of these parents that Jesus “touch” them, i.e., “bless” them (Mark 10:13, 16). Third, it is noteworthy that the original text emphasizes that in order to reach Jesus these parents made repeated efforts to get past the rebuking disciples. We conclude that these parents were very zealous to have Jesus bless their children. Not all parents in Jesus’ day wanted Jesus to bless their children. Today, too, not all parents want Jesus’ blessing upon their children. Most parents desire that many other things influence their children, but they care little about the blessing of the Son of God. But the parents in Mark 10, notwithstanding the criticisms of the religious leaders and the rebukes of the disciples, were persistent in fulfilling their desire to have the Savior bless their children. They wanted salvation for their children. Notice, in the fourth place, that the Lord’s response to the disciples’ rebuking of the parents was that “He was much displeased” (Mark 10:14). Any effort to prevent from reaching the Savior those who desire the Lord’s blessing makes one worthy of the Lord’s great displeasure. Finally, notice that Christ explains His displeasure to the disciples by declaring that the kingdom of God is “of such” (Mark 10:14), i.e., of those whose parents earnestly desire the Savior’s blessing on them. Jesus did not say this of all infants, but only of the infant children of this kind of parents.
The church which seeks to be faithful to the Word of God does not baptize all the infants they can find on the streets. First, such a church would baptize only the children of members of their congregation. Second, they would not automatically baptize all the infant children of those who are members. Rather they would exercise care to baptize the children of members who are in good standing and who are willing to make a vow.
First the parents must be members in good standing, i.e., faithful to their confession of faith. To put it negatively, good standing means that they have said or done nothing which contradicts the faith and godliness required by Scripture. Second, they must vow to accept the responsibility of rearing their children in the truth of God’s Word. The faithful church demands of the parents a vow that they will seek the Savior’s blessing upon their child in the way of their prayerfully instructing that child to the utmost of their power in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.
The demand for this vow and the demands of the vow show that there is a great responsibility implied in infant baptism.
The concept of infant baptism would be destroyed if we would not include this responsibility. It is always the case that God’s grace gives responsibility (cf. Gen. 17:1). When God graciously establishes His covenant with us and our children, He says, “Therefore, show them the fear of the Lord, instructing them in God’s law and demanding they conform to that law.” Children must be shown that their baptism places upon them the responsibility to walk in godliness. The form for baptism used in the Protestant Reformed Churches clearly shows this responsibility: We are “by God admonished of and obliged unto new obedience, namely, that we cleave to this one God…; that we trust in Him and love Him with all our hearts, with all our souls, with all our mind, and with all our strength; that we forsake the world, crucify our old nature, and walk in a new and holy life.”
It is the responsibility of the parents and of the church to keep this obligation always before the consciousness of these children. Parents vow to bring up their children, to the utmost of their power, in the doctrines taught in that church. Baptism implies the responsibility to rear our children in the truth in order to bring them to conscious faith. Their conscious faith consists in daily repentance and conversion and a walk of obedience. The parents accept the primary responsibility of rearing their children. The church also has a duty toward the child, but it is the parents which make the church’s instruction effective.
What is the parents’ responsibility of rearing their children?
It is not to save them. First, only God can save by opening a heart. And second, godly parents know experientially that if their children’s salvation depended on them, then none would be saved. The comfort of the covenant promise is that God saves our children, and that His grace is the only hope.
Reformed believing parents accept the duty of teaching the Word of God (Ps. 78:4; Eph. 6:4). We teach our children with the prayer that God will work faith in their hearts. We constantly pray that God will use our instruction in His Word to make faith in them. Under the constant presentation of the truth and demands of God’s Word, faith and a walk of faith develop by the grace of the Spirit.
God created the family as the most powerful agent for the instruction of children. Therefore, we must live as a family so this instruction can take place: Be with the children. Have a home life. Use the various situations that arise in the home as God-given opportunities to instruct. Speak of God’s judgment and of Christ’s coming in tragic news events. Allay their fears by speaking of their safety in Jesus. Parents must teach about all of life in the light of the Bible: work, play, marriage, government, church, modest clothing, true beauty, and real strength.
This teaching of children by believing parents must be done constantly, always. This shows the tremendous importance of our example, for we are always teaching, whether we intend to be doing so or not. If we are worldly in our homes, seeking personal pleasures, then our children will likely be worldly. If we constantly criticize or gossip, then we are teaching our children to be slanderers. If we show contempt for those in authority, then we are teaching our children to be rebels.
The purpose of all parental instruction is that our children learn how to live godly in this world.
All of the instruction of godly parents has the nature of commanding, not giving options (Gen. 18:19). Children must see that as God’s children they are required to keep His ways. The purpose of this instruction is to order and direct their whole life, i.e., to be disciplined or to live a self-disciplined life.
One of the effects of this kind of instruction is that some of our children grow up and show themselves to be unrepentant and ungodly. Then we must not despair. If they are rebellious and unrepentant when they are chastised, we must go to the elders (cf. Deut. 21:18-21). The elders will then work with them; and if they are still unrepentant, then the whole church must excommunicate them.
The church also has a responsibility toward the child to which it administers the sacrament of baptism. That responsibility is primarily that of the elders of the church. They accept that child also into their care. This is a spiritual care, a care for the soul, the spiritual life of the child. In Hebrews 13:17 we read that there are those who “have the rule over you, … for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account.” This states clearly that the elders have to give an answer to God for how they watched over and ruled that soul.
The “watch” the elders perform is not mere observation, but is an active “watch.” This watch is the exercise of “keys of the kingdom.” Jesus gave those keys to His apostles (Matt. 16:18, 19; 18:17-20). The keys are the preaching of the Word (particularly catechism instruction) and Christian discipline. This is discipline in the general sense, that which comes through preaching and teaching. For years in catechism classes (beginning in the child’s life as soon as possible) the church instructs the children it baptizes in Bible history and doctrine with the goal of teaching the church to be disciplined, i.e., to be obedient, in what they believe and in how they live, to the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Parental demands and Christian discipline must accompany and follow baptism. This is an answer to those who object that infant baptism corrupts the church. Discipline causes the church to be preserved, because all the members see and hear, and fear. In this way the children and young people get the message that membership in the church is not for every physical child of believing parents, but for believers and their spiritual seed. Then they see the calling to believe or perish, for baptism and faith are inseparably connected.
Parental instruction and the church’s exercise of the keys of the kingdom go hand in hand. Faithful parental instruction must be accompanied by faithful exercise of the key of pure preaching and proper discipline by the church. The preaching of the gospel and Christian discipline open the kingdom to believers and shut it to unbelievers. As difficult as the latter may be, it must be done. God requires it of the watchmen He places on the walls of Zion.
The kingdom of heaven is shut and opened by the key of Christian discipline. This occurs upon those who, having the name Christian, maintain doctrines or practices inconsistent with what the Bible describes as Christian. These people are often admonished in a brotherly manner, but refuse to renounce their errors and wicked practices. First the church must forbid them the use of the sacraments, and finally the church excludes them from their membership. This also is the answer to the charge that infant baptism corrupts the church.
Infant baptism is properly administered in the church where parents are constantly reminded of Scriptures’ demands to teach their baptized children God’s Word and to show their children the responsibility to repent and believe, and where the elders lovingly administer Christian discipline. May God give us such churches!
Parents must instruct their children. Churches must truly disciple their children.