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“Sanctified in Christ”—Real or Not?

An interesting and very significant subject is treated by the Rev. J. Overduin in the organ of the Free Reformed Church of North America, The Messenger (November, 1981, pp. 1, 2) under the title “Foederal Holiness.” At the beginning of the article the writer quotes the second part of I Corinthians 7:14, which I here quote in full: “For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy.” The Rev. Overduin then writes as follows:

According to our Form for the administration of baptism “infants are to be baptized as heirs of the kingdom of God, and of His covenant.” In the same Form it is also stated that these children “are sanctified in Christ, and therefore, as members of His Church ought to be baptized.” This is what the parents acknowledge. In a footnote reference is made to Ezekiel 16:21, where the Lord calls the sons and daughters of the Israelites “My children”, and to I Cor. 7:14 as quoted above. 

In I Corinthians 7:14 Paul gives comfort, hope, and instruction to Christians who find themselves under the burden of being married to an unbeliever. Evidently, there were such in Corinth who, because of this “yoke” felt a great disadvantage as compared with others and that because of a presumed difference in the status of their children. But the apostle said, “The unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy”. (See: The Westminster Confession of Faith, by G.I. Williamson, Page 212.) 

The apostle Paul clearly recognized a distinction between the children of believers and the children of unbelievers. The children of believing parents are holy. 

What kind of sanctification or holiness is meant here? It cannot mean: holy in Christ before God, because that kind of holiness cannot be predicated of an unbeliever (cf. I Cor. 1:2; I Cor. 3:16, 17). Paul uses “sanctified” here as in I Tim. 45, i.e., more liturgically than ethically (F.W. Grosheide, Commentary on I Corinthians). 

John Flavel calls this kind of holiness “foederal holiness”. The Latin word foedus means: covenant. In Volume 6 of The Works of John Flavel the writer refers to I Cor. 7:14 and also to Acts 2:39.

As long as those scriptures stand in our Bibles, he says, “we cannot think but the foederal holiness of children results from the immediate parent’s faith, or covenant interest, as well as from the remoter progenitors; else we cannot understand how the Corinthians’ children should be holy, or how the promise should belong to the children of them that are afar off, vix. the Gentiles, who could derive no such thing to their children by a lineal descent from Abraham, but only as they became ingrafted branches by faith; and so suck the fatness of the olive to themselves, and to their buds, or children, as the natural branches did” (page 371). 

How great, therefore, is the privilege of the children of the covenant! 

Does this mean that all baptized children are “automatically” saved? Must we suppose that infants are regenerated and therefore ought to be baptized? 

No, for although there can be no doubt that the children of believers are within the circle of the covenant, they are not all in the same sense within the covenant. There must be a two-fold relation to God within the covenant,—one relation wherein those stand who have believed in Christ and surrendered heart and hand to God, and another relation wherein those stand who are still unconverted, but have been born of parents to whom the Lord has said: “I am thy God and the God of thy children.” 

But no child of the covenant that has come to the years of discretion ought to be content to remain apart from God and His salvation, none should rest till they know they have entered into a living fellowship with Jesus Christ and are enjoying the full benefits of His salvation. We must all become so-called full members of the church, but this position will be of no advantage if we are not members of the spiritual body of Christ. (See: “Exposition of Reformed Doctrine,” by M.J. Bosma, pp. 125-131).

After the above explanation, the writer tries to show that this is also the thinking of the Puritans and of the Scottish Reformation by quoting a section from John Macleod’s Scottish Theology which sets forth the same view. 

I called this an interesting and significant subject. It is that, in the first place, because it involves a question of the interpretation of Scripture, specifically (though not exclusively) the frequently discussed words of I Corinthians 7:14. And it is that, in the second place, because the whole subject of infant baptism and its significance is involved, and along with that, of course, the language of our Heidelberg Catechism (Q. & A. 74) and of our Form for Baptism. 

The Rev. Overduin rules out the possibility that the reference in I Corinthians 7:14 is to a real and actual holiness, holiness in Christ before God, on the ground that such a holiness cannot be predicated of allchildren of believers: it cannot be predicated of an unbeliever, according to him. And so he turns to the view that Paul speaks here of those who are sanctified “more liturgically than ethically.” This is equated with John Flavel’s “foederal (covenantal) holiness.” The Rev. Overduin then refers to this as the great privilege of the children of the covenant. And yet, having presented this liturgical, or foederal, holiness as including all children of believing parents, he nevertheless wants to assert that the children of the covenant “are not all in the same sense within the covenant.” However, he describes this differentiation not in terms of what they are as infants, i.e., at the time of baptism, but in terms of what they become when they grow up—believing and converted or unbelieving and still unconverted. 

For more than one reason, it seems to me, this is an untenable position. 

In the first place, the Scripture passage in question will not tolerate this interpretation. For one thing, it is at least doubtful whether in the New Testament Scripture ever speaks of such an outward sanctification or holiness. In the Old Testament this is possible, due to the fact that it was the age of types and shadows; and there was then such a thing as ceremonial cleanness and holiness. But this is not the case in the New Testament. In the second place, even the Rev. Overduin concedes that distinction must still be made between the believer and the unbeliever (I prefer to say: between elect and reprobate children, or between regenerate and unregenerate children of believers.) Only the Rev. Overduin wants to project that distinction into the future, when the children grow up. Does he not recognize that the distinction is already present when they are infants? Thirdly, the Rev. Overduin should take into account that he faces the same difficulty with regard to adults. Take note, for example, how the apostle Paul addresses the church at Rome: “To all that be in Rome, beloved of God, called (to be) saints (i.e. holy ones).” Romans 1:7. Or think of how he addresses this very church of Corinth: “Unto the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints. . . .” (I Cor. 1:2). Now certainly this was not an outward, or liturgical, or foederal holiness. And yet it could not be stated of all the members of the church of Corinth, head for head and soul for soul. So the problem is not merely one concerning infants. But, in the fourth place, the chief reason why this cannot be termed an outward or liturgical holiness is twofold: first, such an outward holiness is not real; it is not holiness at all. But secondly, in the text the term holy stands as the opposite of “unclean.” In other words, the children here described are “clean,” i.e., washed from the guilt and corruption of sin. 

In the second place, our Catechism and the Form for Baptism are very clear on this question. The Heidelberg Catechism, Q. & A. 74, speaks of the fact that infants “as well as the adult, are included in the covenant and church of God” and of the fact that “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.” Let no one say that this is a general, conditional promise, and that the condition is faith. How can the Holy Ghost, the author of faith, be promised on condition of faith? Nor, by the way, does the Catechism speak of a presupposition. It speaks of facts and realities—admittedly of facts and realities which cannot be stated of all infants of believers, head for head and soul for soul, but nevertheless of facts. The language of the Baptism Form is even clearer. Consider what the second paragraph of the didactic section of this Form states concerning the meaning of baptism:

Holy baptism witnesseth and sealeth unto us the washing away of our sins through Jesus Christ. Therefore we are baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. For when we are baptized in the name of the Father, God the Father witnesseth and sealeth unto us, that He doth make an eternal covenant of grace with us, and adopts us for His children and heirs, and therefore will provide us with every good thing, and avert all evil or turn it to our profit. And when we are baptized in the name of the Son, the Son sealeth unto us, that He doth wash us in His blood from all our sins, incorporating us into the fellowship of His death and resurrection, so that we are freed from all our sins, and accounted righteous before God. In like manner, when we are baptized in the name of the Holy Ghost, the Holy Ghost assures us, by this holy sacrament, that He will dwell in us, and sanctify us to be members of Christ, applying unto us that which we have in Christ, namely, the washing away of our sins, and the daily renewing of our lives, till we shall finally be presented without spot or wrinkle among the assembly of the elect in life eternal.

Again: facts and realities, divinely witnessed and sealed! 

Or consider the language of the first question to which parents give answer at baptism: “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?” It ought to be very evident that in this first question to the parents the reference is to a real sanctification. Without entering into all the details of the meaning of this confession of the parents (they answer “yes” to this question), let me point out the two main reasons why it is true that this question refers to real holiness: 

1)The words “sanctified in Christ” are here the diametrical opposite of “conceived and born in sin, and therefore are subject to all miseries, yea, to condemnation itself.” To substitute here a mere outward or liturgical holiness obviously makes no sense. 2) In this first question our Form speaks specifically of being “Sanctified IN CHRIST.” The infant born in guilt and corruption is “in Christ.” And to be “in Christ” is to be in the sphere of Christ. It means to be implanted into Christ, to be a member of Christ. This phrase therefore can mean nothing else than that true sanctification, regeneration, justification, and all the blessings of salvation in Jesus Christ our Lord are in the possession of “our children.” 

Thirdly, this is all confirmed by the strong and clear language of the Prayer of Thanksgiving, which, again, speaks of present facts and realities: “Almighty God and merciful Father, we thank and praise Thee, that Thou hast forgiven us, and our children, all our sins, through the blood of Thy beloved Son Jesus Christ, and received us through Thy Holy Spirit as members of Thine only begotten Son, and adopted us to be Thy children, and sealed and confirmed the same unto us by holy baptism. . . .” 

With regard to all of the language adopted, it is absolutely impossible to understand it as long as you try to apply it to all the children of believers, head for head and soul for soul. Whether you speak of presupposed regeneration, or whether you speak of a general, conditional promise, or whether you refer to a kind of liturgical or foederal holiness—none of these theories will work. And the underlying reason is, of course, that they fail to take into account the fact that the line of election and reprobation cuts right across the generations of the covenant. 

But as soon as you bear in mind the Scriptural truth set forth in Romans 9:6-8, and understand the organic conception, that God continues His church and His covenant in the line of the succeeding generations of His people, although not everyone in those generations is elect and really belongs to God’s covenant, but only those whom God has chosen, and as soon as you understand that the “we” and the “us” and the “our children” in the Baptism Form is believers and their seed speaking, then all becomes clear. As a river flows in a riverbed, but the bed is not the river, so God causes His covenant—the stream of His covenant—to run in the bed of the external manifestation of the covenant in the generations of His people in the world. But that stream consists always and only of believers and their seed. Thus it is in Romans 9:6-8: “Not as though the word of God hath taken none effect. 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.”

A Significant Little Book

While we are on the subject of infant baptism, let me take the opportunity to call attention to what I consider to be a very significant and instructive little book explaining and defending the truth of infant baptism and its basis. I refer to a recent R.F.P.A. publication of which my friend and colleague, Prof. H. Hanko, is the author, We And Our Children (The Reformed Doctrine of Infant Baptism)

The chapters of this paperback first appeared in ourProtestant Reformed Theological Journal as a series of articles. The occasion of the series was a rather widely hailed defense of the Baptist position by the Reformed Baptist David Kingdon in a little book entitled Children of Abraham. But Prof. Hanko’s book is much more than a polemic against Kingdon. It offers a simple and clear refutation of the Baptist view, but also a simple and clear explanation of our Reformed conception, which we have always referred to as the organic view. Prof. Hanko did not originally write his articles with a view to their appearing in book form. But almost from the outset I urged both him and our Publications Committee that this exposition be published in an attractive paperback. I am very glad, therefore, that this book has seen the light of day. 

It is not my purpose to summarize the contents of this book. I want you to read it for yourselves. There is no excuse for not doing so. Anyone of reasonable intelligence can understand it. The book is simple and clear, and thoroughly Scriptural and Reformed. I am afraid sometimes that there is a danger of infant baptism becoming a mere, empty tradition among us, due to sheer ignorance. God forbid that this should become true! And to prevent its becoming true, we all—and especially our younger people—ought to take advantage of this excellent opportunity to be instructed. Get this book as soon as possible. Read it; digest it. Study it individually and as couples; or study it in the after-recess period of your Mr. and Mrs. Society. It is well worth your while. 

And if you should have a Baptist friend who is open to conviction on these matters and does not have a closed mind, give the book to him. I know it will be helpful. We have had more than one response to the articles in our Journal by Baptists who were converted from their Baptist views through reading this book.