Prof. Engelsma is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism, ed. Gregg Strawbridge. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R, 2003. 330 pages. $16.99 (paper). A number of prominent Reformed and Presbyterian theologians, representing almost (but not quite) all the reputedly conservative churches, argue for infant baptism on the basis of the covenant.
A Ceremony of (Outward) Dedication
The majority report, again representing almost (but not quite) all the conservative churches, is that infant baptism signifies nothing more than formally setting apart the offspring of believing parents for God. It is merely a ceremony of dedication. It signifies nothing as to God’s salvation of the infants in their infancy. Most of the Reformed and Presbyterian ministers who write this book regard the baptized children as unregenerated members of the church. The significance of infant baptism is that it puts the children in a privileged position in the visible church. Through the evangelistic work of their parents and others, they are more likely to fulfill the conditions upon which their salvation is said to depend: repentance and faith.
[Baptized children] are different from children who are not from believing parents. They are covenant members, and as such are more privileged (in view of their life inside the covenant), but they are not automatically saved by their covenant membership (p. 107).
The baptism of a covenant child is the parents’ declaration that their child belongs to God: “When a child is baptized, his parents declare that their child belongs to God” (p. 40).
A Universal, Conditional Promise of Grace
As for any Word of God in infant baptism, His Word is a conditional promise to every child that is baptized. God promises that He will save the child on the condition that the child one day will repent and believe.
The seal [of circumcision in the Old Testament and of baptism in the New Testament] was simply the visible pledge of God that when the conditions of his covenant were met, the blessings he promised would apply (p. 15; the emphasis is the author’s).
Describing the Word of God in infant baptism as a conditional promise of salvation enforces the view of the children as unregenerated. Salvation cannot be expected for them until they are sufficiently mature to be able to fulfill the conditions of covenant salvation. At baptism, God “assures us that when such children as this one express faith in Christ, all the promises of his covenant of grace will apply to them” (p. 28).
This now is the unhappy life of the covenant in a Reformed or Presbyterian home: Godly parents are thrust into closest contact, day and night, with spiritually dead children and young people. The parents can neither worship with the children, nor rear them in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Worship and nurture require spiritual life. All the parents can do is evangelize the little unregenerates, pleading with them to fulfill the conditions of salvation.
Since the authors of this study profess Reformed Christianity, the reader may be excused for asking what has become of the gospel of sovereign, particular grace in all this exposition of the covenant as it applies to the children of believers. Does the truth set forth in the Canons of Dordt not apply to the salvation worked in the covenant? Do professing Reformed theologians, all of whom advertise impressive credentials of Reformed academic training and achievements in the Reformed community, really suppose it satisfactory to explain infant baptism as a universal gracious promise dependent for its fulfillment on the performance of conditions by unregenerated children?
A Case for the Baptist Position
The case in The Case is not, in fact, a case for Reformed covenantal infant baptism at all, but a case for the Baptist rejection of infant baptism, and an Arminian Baptist rejection at that. It is Baptist doctrine that all infants are, and must be viewed as, unregenerated. It is Baptist doctrine that salvation is exclusively a matter of a “conversion experience.” It is Baptist doctrine that the sacrament (or ordinance as the Baptist calls it) signifies a decision and act of man, rather than a decision and act of God. And it is Arminian Baptist doctrine that makes the salvation promised in the gospel and the sacraments dependent on conditions that the sinner must fulfill.
If God does not save the infants of godly parents, in their infancy, and if the sprinkling with water merely means that the parents declare that they dedicate the child to God, and if God’s involvement is nothing more than a gracious promise to every child that He will one day save the child on the condition that that child believes and obeys, the Baptists are right. Let us have a human ceremony of dedication for our babies, set about to evangelize them, and, when they one day make plain that they fulfill the conditions, baptize them as believers. The basis of baptism, in this case (and Case), is not the covenant of God, but the faith and obedience of the baptized.
A Mortal Dread of Election
The reason for these Reformed men’s defending the Baptist view of infants and of dealing with infants is their mortal dread of divine election. The word may be mentioned occasionally, but election must not determine the covenant promise and salvation or enter decisively, if at all, into the explanation of the baptism of the children of believers (as, of course, it does in Paul’s explanation of circumcision, the covenant promise, and covenant salvation in Romans 9).
After forty-odd years of studying the treatment of the covenant by Reformed theologians, I am convinced that nothing so frightens most Reformed theologians as election. To scare little children, especially in the dark, one says “Boo!” loudly. If one wanted to terrify most Reformed and Presbyterian theologians, especially at a conference on the covenant, he would utter a moderately voiced “Election.”
Refusal to acknowledge sovereign, particular grace in the covenant of God with the infants of believers results in outrageous twisting of Scripture. One writer in The Case is sorely troubled by Jeremiah 31:31-34, as well he might be. The writer holds that all baptized children alike are in the covenant. God at baptism makes His covenant with all of them alike by His covenant promise to all. But the covenant with all of them is conditional: God’s act of saving them depends on their act of obeying Him. Therefore, the covenant is eminently breakable, not in the sense that some who are in the sphere of the covenant despise and transgress the covenant, but in the sense that God breaks, or allows men to break, the covenant that He very really established with them, as much as He established it with those who persevere.
Jeremiah 31:31-34 contradicts this doctrine of the covenant at every point. The covenant is unbreakable. Every one of those with whom God makes the new covenant is saved in it and by it. So far is it from being true that the covenant is dependent upon some act or other of those to whom the covenant is promised that the covenant itself consists of God’s putting His law in the inward parts and writing His law in the hearts of the members of the covenant. That is, the new covenant in Christ, for this is the grand subject of Jeremiah 31, is not established by a divine promise conditioned on human obedience. But it is established by a divine promise of human obedience. God does not promise to save the members of the new covenant on the condition that they obey Him. But He promises them—all of them—that He will make them obedient. “This shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jer. 31:33).
Jeremiah 31 poses a huge problem for our writer. He admits his problem. How he views his problem is significant: Jeremiah 31 seems to rule out infant baptism. Since, on the covenant doctrine of the writer, infant baptism means that God establishes the covenant with all the infants conditionally, that some children fail to fulfill the conditions, and therefore that the covenant is broken with many, Jeremiah 31 seems to rule out infant baptism. Of course, on this thinking it rules out adult baptism as well, for also many baptized as adults prove unfaithful, and perish.
Apparently, it never crosses the writer’s mind thatJeremiah 31 teaches that God makes the new covenant with Jesus Christ as head of the covenant of grace and with the elect in Him, including the elect infants. Jeremiah 31 does not rule out infant baptism. Jeremiah 31 rules out the writer’s false doctrine of the covenant.
Ignoring election and committed to his doctrine of a conditional, breakable covenant, the writer goes to exegetical work on Jeremiah 31:31-34. When he has finished, the passage teaches the exact opposite of that inspired by the Holy Spirit and written by the prophet. The new covenant is made with many more than those who are saved in it, is in large part only external, is conditional, and is breakable. “The new covenant … continue(s) to include people who become covenant breakers, who benefit only from the external aspects of the new covenant, and who have never been regenerated” (pp. 173, 174). Only in heaven will the new covenant be what Jeremiah prophesied. Until then the covenant is as described by the writer’s exegesis of Jeremiah, that is, completely different from what it will be in heaven. Fatal to the writer’s explanation is the teaching of Hebrews 8-10 that the new covenant prophesied by Jeremiah is a reality now.
An Equal but Opposite Error
As though to balance one grievous error with another, opposite error, the next-to-the-last chapter, “Baptism and Children: Their Place in the Old and New Testaments,” is written by an independent who proclaims that all baptized children alike are united to Christ. All share in the salvation of the covenant. The implication is that many fall away from Christ, the covenant, and salvation. A volume advertising itself as a Presbyterian and Reformed defense of the covenant, particularly as regards the inclusion of covenant children, denies the preservation of saints.
This denial of the preservation of saints is startling, but not surprising. The doctrine that all baptized children are united to Christ is essentially the same as the doctrine that all baptized children are the objects of the gracious promise of God. Both doctrines teach that many children fall away from grace. In fact, the current doctrine of the perishing of children once covenantally united to Christ is the logical and inevitable development of the older doctrine that God graciously, though conditionally, promises to save all the children of believers.
In the course of his contribution, the independent is permitted to advocate child-communion. He castigates Reformed churches that reject child-communion for destroying the children. He threatens those who admit children to the Table only in the way of confession of faith with damnation (pp. 298-301).
A Blessed Contrast
One chapter outlines the sound Reformed doctrine of infant baptism. Significantly, this is the chapter on “Infant Baptism in the Reformed Confessions.” On the basis of the creeds, Lyle D. Bierma explains baptism as “God’s speaking to us, not our speaking to him.” He is not afraid to affirm, against Jewett’s challenge to infant baptism, that “the regeneration of elect covenant infants that is signified and sealed in baptism can take place before or after their baptism.” And in blessed contrast to the emphasis on conditions and the avoidance of election elsewhere in the book, Bierma maintains that “the baptism of infants is fully in keeping with this emphasis in the Reformed confessions on the sovereignty of grace in salvation.” He continues:
Divine election, the ultimate ground of our salvation, is unconditional; that is, it is not conditioned upon any merits or acts or claims of human beings. Likewise, it is only at God’s initiative that the covenant community of the saved is called into being and continues to exist. It is fitting, then, that baptism—as a sign and seal of God’s promises of salvation and of his placement of the baptized into the arena where he brings these promises to fruition—be viewed first of all as something that God does. Baptism is primarily God’s speaking to us, not our speaking to him. It is there that he signifies and seals an operation of grace that he performs in the context of a community that he has established. How can this salvation sola gratia (“by grace alone”) be any more graphically demonstrated than in the baptism of a tiny covenant child—helpless, uncomprehending, and wholly incapable of any meritorious work? Infant baptism sets before the church in sacramental shorthand the entire doctrine of God’s sovereignty in the salvation of the elect (pp. 230-245).
To this account of infant baptism, every Reformed heart responds with an amen.
In view of the understanding of infant baptism that prevails in The Case, it is not surprising that Reformed and Presbyterian people increasingly turn Baptist. Herman Hoeksema warned of this some seventy-five years ago in the first chapter of his classic treatise on infant baptism, Believers and Their Seed: Children in the Covenant:
There are many in the Reformed churches who still walk about with the question in their souls: how are we to conceive of God’s covenant with respect to our children? There are many who remain in the Reformed churches but who by conviction are wholly Baptist. And there are not a few also who openly join with the Baptists and break with the Reformed churches (Believers and Their Seed: Children in the Covenant, RFPA, repr. 1997, p. 5).
Reformed people ought to read The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism to learn the thinking on the covenant and covenant children that prevails in the Reformed churches. But they must baptize, receive, and rear their precious children—precious because they are God’s children, already from conception and birth—on the basis of the covenant as explained in Believers and Their Seed. This is demanded by the Reformed “Form for the Administration of Baptism,” particularly, the prayer of thanksgiving after the baptism of infants.
Almighty God and merciful Father, we thank and praise thee, that Thou hast forgiven [“hast forgiven,” not: “perhaps will forgive”] us, and our children [“our children”—our just baptized infant children], all our sins, through the blood of thy beloved Son Jesus Christ, and received us [“received us,” that is, us and our children, not: “will perhaps receive us, if we fulfill conditions”] through thy Holy Spirit [whom the infant children have as well as we their parents] 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; we beseech thee, through the same Son of thy love, that Thou wilt be pleased always to govern these baptized children by thy Holy Spirit [whom they have as well as we their parents], that they may be piously and religiously educated [“educated,” not: evangelized as though they were little unregenerated heathens], increase [“increase,” not: some day by a dramatic “conversion experience” finally make a beginning in spiritual life] and grow up in the Lord Jesus Christ, etc. (The Psalter, Eerdmans, 1977, p. 56).