In that part of the Form for the Administration of Baptism to Infants of Believers in which a word of admonition is directed to the parents who present their children for baptism in the midst of the congregation it is said that “baptism is an ordinance of God, to seal unto us and to our seed His covenant.” Moreover, it is emphasized that baptism “must be used for that end, and not out of custom or superstition.”
It lies in the nature of the case, therefore,’ that if the congregation of Jesus Christ is to live out of that faith when she receives Holy Baptism for herself and her seed, then it is and remains a prime requisite that she should understand the truth concerning that covenant of the Lord her God. The doctrine of the covenant is a basic truth of our Reformed faith. According as God’s people better understand His covenant, in its essence and its historical development in the generations of believers, so they will stand more firmly in the truth, and so the danger will be lessened that they will be carried about by every wind of doctrine. Especially in our country and in our day there are many currents which would carry us away from the truth of God if we are not founded in the truth of God’s covenant. Many errors, among which not the least dangerous is that of Premillennialism, are exactly characterized by the fact that they either do not understand or do not take into account or reject God’s covenant, and thereby arrive at a conception of Israel and the Church as separate entities, at a separation of the old and the new dispensations, a view which blinds the eyes of God’s people for the riches of Scripture in connection with the organic development of things. Hence, it is important that our people indeed do not use baptism out of custom or superstition, but out of a clear and firm faith in the eternal covenant of God.
The following pages intend to serve the purpose of instruction in the doctrine of the covenant. The contents of this little book were offered earlier to our people in the form of aseries of articles in theStandard Bearer. No changes have been made in the original articles. May the Lord bless this publication unto the establishment of the readers in the truth of His faithful covenant.
THE COVENANT PROBLEM
Questions arise repeatedly in connection with the place which our children, the children of believers, occupy in God’s covenant. It is true indeed that various questioners view the matter about which they desire more light from various viewpoints. One inquires about infant baptism and desires a clear demonstration of its Biblical ground. Another is concerned about the question of the salvation of children who die in infancy. Still another seeks an explanation of the well-known word of David spoken at the occasion of the death of his little child. And a fourth questioner earnestly desires more light on the meaning of God’s covenant in general. However, it is easy to see that basically all these questions may be reduced to this: what is the place of the seed of believers in God’s covenant?
Now for a Reformed man the question concerning God’s covenant with us and our children is very important. If from this viewpoint we would speak of a Jachin and Boaz in the temple of the truth of God, then we certainly should not speak, as did Prof. Van Andel somewhere, of the doctrine of Common Grace and the doctrine of Particular Grace; but we should indeed speak of the truth of God’s Sovereign Grace, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, of the truth of God’s Covenant. This is not to say that among our people the question concerning believers and their seed in the covenant of God is always raised because of its doctrinal importance. This is precisely not the case. Much rather is this question for them a decidedly practical one. An answer is sought especially to the question of the salvation of children of the covenant who die in infancy. Are the children of believing parents who die in their infancy, whom the Lord takes away before they arrive at the years of discretion, to be accounted as saved, yes or no? Much of what has been written and spoken about this question in the past arose out of this practical question concerning the salvation of the children of believers. There are even those who insist very strongly on having a positive answer to this question. For them the doctrine of God’s covenant depends on the answer to this question. They go along with you when you develop the doctrine of the covenant, even as to the details. But when you reach the question concerning the salvation of the children of believers,—and you come to that question inevitably,—and should you be inclined to give a hesitant or even a negative answer, should you want to say that from the truth of God’s covenant in the line of generations it does not necessarily follow that all the fleshly children of believing parents are saved,—then they do as the Friesian king of whom the story is told that he was standing with one foot in the water of baptism when he suddenly asked the missionary whether his parents were saved and had entered heaven: upon receiving a negative answer to his question, he withdrew his foot from the water and refused to be baptized. Now all this is quite understandable. The question concerning the salvation of children who die in infancy is naturally a deeply moving question. It is a matter of common knowledge and of every day experience that there is a very large number of children who are taken away by the Lord in their childhood, especially in their early childhood. And the salvation of those children is a matter close to the heart of their parents. This undoubtedly explains why the question of God’s covenant always and again arises from the viewpoint of this question. Nevertheless this is regrettable. Oftentimes in this manner the discussion of God’s covenant has degenerated into a discussion concerning the seed of the covenant and then has turned especially upon that question of their salvation. A question of relatively little dogmatical worth was thus changed into the chief question. The result has been that the truth of God’s covenant has also been impoverished and adulterated through this exclusive focusing upon that one point.
This does not change the fact that the covenant idea is indeed very really one of the most important doctrines in the confession of the Reformed churches, and rightly so. This doctrine is really more characteristically Reformed than the doctrine of election. Departure from the Reformed truth usually also takes place with respect to either or both of these doctrines. One begins to do violence to the doctrine of God’s Sovereign Grace and departs in the direction of Arminianism; or one no longer understands God’s covenant with His people, and he begins to depart toward a Baptistic position. The latter is, of course, easier according as the church is less thoroughly under girded in the truth of God. People decline in the knowledge of God’s Word. They do not really understand their own confession any longer. For a time they live from habit and custom. They still present their children for baptism, and they listen mechanically to the Baptism Form. But with earnest minded souls things cannot long continue thus. They must give account of the truth. Suddenly, in one way or another, they come to face the serious question of infant baptism. And to their own dismay they come to the realization that they have really never given account to themselves of the meaning and the ground for the baptism of infants in the church of God. And if then there comes no light, the so sorely desired light,—light that can truly be called light, light from the Scriptures,—then the only result is that such earnest minded souls, rather than do violence to their own consciences, affiliate with one or another Baptistic denomination. They are lost for the Reformed truth, and they have forfeited one of the most precious truths of the confession. That this is indeed no abstract portrayal but concrete reality is the lesson of history and of every day experience. 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. It is therefore of the greatest importance that also in regard to this point we again understand our confession, and that we comprehend and develop the Scriptural idea with respect to believers and their seed in God’s covenant. Why are the children of believers in God’s covenant? In what sense are they in that covenant? Must we also in the sphere of God’s covenant still distinguish between a two fold seed? Or are all the children, head for head, to be mentioned in one breath as covenant children? What is really God’s covenant, and what is the significance of it for our seed? To these and other, related questions we must be prepared to give an answer which rests upon God’s Word and which is therefore able to satisfy. And therefore we wish to devote a few chapters to this subject.