We have now reached the point at which we can fruitfully discuss the question how we ought to view the seed of believers. Or, to put the question in another form: are, then, all children who are born in the generations of the covenant also essentially in God’s covenant? Are all elect? We have seen that God establishes His covenant in the line of continued generations. This is perfectly clear from the entire history of that covenant as it is portrayed for us in Holy Writ. And besides, this truth is clear from many pronouncements of Holy Scripture. We have also seen that therefore it is God’s will that the children of believers receive the sign of His covenant, even as it is plain that this sign in the new dispensation is the sign of baptism, which has come in the place of circumcision. About this there can be no doubt. But now the question is in order how, then, we are to view that baptized seed of believers; whether, then, all who are baptized, being born of godly parents, must also be considered as spiritual seed; and, if not, how we are to harmonize this with our covenant conception. This is the question which also repeatedly arises with respect to children who die in infancy. It is the question with which this treatise began. And only after we have dealt with the subject of God’s covenant and its revelation in history can we fruitfully deal with this question.
When it comes to this question, various answers are given. And it is at this point that the real character of the various views of God’s covenant which are held in Reformed circles first comes to light. Naturally, all are quite in agreement about the fact that not all who receive the sign of baptism are also saved. To hold such a view would be contrary not only to the plain experience of God’s Word, but also contrary to all experience. Great is the multitude of those who are baptized in the Christian world but who trample God’s covenant under foot and who certainly are not saved. But when, in the light of this fact the question of God’s covenant is pondered, the result is all kinds of covenant views. And frequently the end of the matter is the admission that the whole problem is really impossible of solution; and especially the very clear and strong language of the Baptism Form then becomes the target of objections. That language is indeed very strong, and it is so clear that it is really not capable of a two-fold explanation.
We read there:
“Secondly. 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.”
In the above paragraph it is stated in the clearest language that in baptism God assures us of His covenant and of all the benefits of the covenant. Thus it is also in the following passage from our Baptism Form:
“And if we sometimes through weakness fall into sin, we must not therefore despair of God’s mercy, nor continue in sin, since baptism is a seal and undoubted testimony, that we have an eternal covenant of grace with God.”
In the Form all of this is applied to infants of believers. For, thus the Form has it, infants are to be baptized “as heirs of the kingdom of God, and of his covenant.” Further, in the first question addressed to the parents they are asked: “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?” And in the Thanksgiving after baptism the same idea is set forth in the following language: “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.” It is plain, therefore, that we and our children possess the benefits of that covenant, sealed by the Triune Covenant God; that we and our children therefore also are not to doubt the grace of God, that our children are sanctified in Christ and are members of His church, heirs of the kingdom of God; and that we and our children may bow our knees before the God of the covenant, thanking Him that He has forgiven our sins and adopted us as His children and heirs,—all of this according to the language of our Baptism Form.
Men have tried in every way possible to escape the force of this language.
Some have proposed that it is satisfactorily explained if it is only understood in the sense of a presupposition. What the Baptism Form says of our children must be presupposed concerning them. But one senses immediately that this is not the case. One does not confess and vow and pray and give thanks on the ground of a presupposition. The Baptism Form speaks the language of faith, positive language; and it speaks with certainty. Others, therefore, have held that what the Baptism Form says must be understood in a purely objective sense. Baptism signifies and seals all this, indeed; objectively, holy baptism indeed has such a rich significance. But whether now all this shall also be applicable to us depends upon our consent to and acceptance of God’s covenant. To be sure, following this course one comes into Arminian waters, as we have already pointed out earlier. But it should also be noted that such an explanation is not in harmony with the language of the Baptism Form. According to the latter, our children are sanctified in Christ, and therefore are members of His church. They are very really in God’s covenant and are heirs of the kingdom of God. The church gives thanks that they have forgiveness and that they are ingrafted into Christ, that they are children .and heirs. And so, finally, it is no wonder that still others did not know what to do with the Baptism Form, and at last refused to use it.
Hence, it is certainly of importance that we place ourselves before the question how the church can maintain that Form, and how it can repeatedly pray and give thanks and utter its confession and speak its vows before the face of the Lord in the language of that Form. In what sense can the church speak of its children as the Form speaks? Does it mean all the children, head for head? Are all who are presented for baptism sanctified in Christ? Are the sins of all forgiven? Are all ingrafted into Christ? And if that is not the case, would it then not have been better and more Scriptural if the Form had immediately informed us that it distinguishes between spiritual and carnal seed? All of this must again be understood if we are to appropriate the language of the Baptism Form as our own, not out of custom or superstition, but in glad and hearty faith.
It lies in the very nature of the case that also in our search for an answer to these questions Holy Scripture alone may be our guide. And then our attention is immediately drawn to what the apostle Paul says in Romans 9. In that chapter these very matters are discussed. The subject there is not merely election and reprobation in general, but these truths with reference to the church as it exists organically in the world. The chapter speaks of the people “to whom pertaineth . . . the covenants, and the giving of the law, . . . and of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came. It speaks about Israel and Israel, about Jacob and Esau, about Isaac and Ishmael. The apostle proceeds from an historical fact in this chapter. The situation was thus, that many of Israel had fell away. In whatever way you might want to explain this, that fact as such remains and is not changed by your explanation. There were many who fell away already at Horeb, when for the first the covenant of God was established with Israel as a people. Again, thousands upon thousands fell in the terrible wilderness, even so that in the majority of them who were under the cloud and who were baptized into Moses the Lord was not well pleased. When, presently, Israel has entered into the Promised Land, it becomes evident throughout their history that many are the objects of God’s wrath. The ten tribes are sent into captivity in order never to return. Presently also Judah goes to Babylon, and only a remnant according to the election of grace returns. And at the moment when the apostle penned that ninth chapter of Romans, Israel as a nation had even been rejected. The glory and the covenants were theirs no longer. Also if the new dispensation only a remnant is saved when they are again ingrafted into their own olive tree. And it was also a fact that those who fell away belonged to the people whose were the covenants. To that people the Word was given, “I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee.”
The question arises, therefore: how do you explain all this? You answer that those who fell away rejected God’s covenant and trampled it under foot, and that therefore the Lord their God rejected them? This is, of course, true in itself. The ground of their condemnation certainly lies in their own sin. Scripture never detracts from this a jot or a tittle. God is righteous when He judges. But you cannot stop at this point: for this does not finish the matter. God had given His promise to and established His covenant with Abraham’s seed. Yet many of that seed perished. There were children of the kingdom who were cast out. Is, then, the promise of God of none effect? Is the Word of God fallen out? Did then the fulfillment of the promise and the realization of God’s covenant depend upon the choice of man’s will? Did the matter stand thus, then, that some by a free choice chose against God’s covenant, while others with equal freedom and sovereignty had chosen for the Lord God? But then you maintain the sovereignty of man! And then you lose your God! Then God is dependent upon a sovereign man; and then the realization of His covenant is dependent upon an insignificant creature. Then God’s counsel is frustrated by the choice of the sinful creature. No, says the apostle, thus you may not speak. Whatever may betide, God’s counsel stands, and He does all His good pleasure. Neither do I say this, therefore,—thus Paul—as though the Word of God were fallen out, but only to call attention to the fact that they are not all Israel who are of Israel. The Word of God’s promise did not pertain to all, head for head; and not one of those for whom that Word was meant fell away.
Now this fact, that the Word of God has not fallen out, not even when many of the children according to the flesh perished, but that God accomplishes His good pleasure, according to the counsel of His sovereign election and reprobation, the apostle proves from the Old Testament Scriptures. He points, first of all, to Isaac, who was chosen as the child of the promise. Although Abraham had more sons, the Word of God’s promise was, “In Isaac shall thy seed be called.” It was plain that not the children of the flesh, but the children of the promise were counted for the seed. No man is able of himself to beget children of the promise, spiritual children of the covenant. For we are by nature children of wrath. We lie in the midst of death and are impure and corrupt. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and remains flesh. And who shall ever bring forth a clean thing out of an unclean? Also Abraham could not beget spiritual children of God. In himself he only begat children of the flesh. Only the grace of God could regenerate those children of the flesh and call them to become children of God. And therefore also the Lord God chose His own children out of those fleshly children of Abraham. He formed them and called them to be living children of God. And now the Word of promise did not pertain to all the children of Abraham, but only to the seed of election. The Lord maintained His sovereign good pleasure also within the sphere of the seed of Abraham according to the flesh. “In Isaac shall thy seed be called,” (vss. 7-9).
In the second place, the apostle points us to the example of Rebecca and her two sons, Jacob and Esau. Rebecca conceived by Isaac, the son of the promise. And there was something that was strange to her; she did not understand herself. There seemed to be a struggle taking place in her womb. And she went to the Lord and laid her condition before Him. And the Word of the Lord explained to her the struggle which she experienced within herself. Presently she would bring forth twins. Both were out of Abraham according to the flesh. Both were under the promise. But only one of those children was chosen. And although, then, according to the rule of the flesh, it would be thus, that the second would serve the first, also here the divine good pleasure intervened; and in this instance the greater according to the flesh would serve the lesser. Thus it was that there was a struggle in her womb between the greater according to the flesh and the greater according to the Spirit. And the purpose of God according to election, which must stand eternally, made separation between flesh and Spirit and produced strife, as it is written, “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.” Here, too, it appeared, therefore, that not all the children of the flesh are also children of the promise, but that the Lord God executes His sovereign good pleasure also within the sphere of the historical’ manifestation of His covenant in the world.
Finally, the apostle also points to a Word of God which He spoke to His servant Moses and which has reference to all Israel as it already had been delivered and had gone up out of Egypt. “For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” This is a word from Exodus 33:19. And to understand it in its full significance we must recall the setting for a moment. The people of Israel had sinned greatly at Mt. Sinai. Almost at the very moment when God established His covenant with that people and announced His law from the mount, the people had broken that covenant and trampled it under foot. In the golden calf they had chosen to themselves their own gods, in order to worship and glorify them. The honor and glory which were due Jehovah alone and which He had so remarkably shown when with a mighty arm He delivered the people out of the house of the bondage of sin they had ascribed to another god. And the Lord had broken forth in wrath, as had also His servant Moses, the mediator of the old covenant. Upon Moses’ word the avengers had passed through the camp of Israel, and that day three thousand had fallen. But all this grieved Moses and made him downcast. He did not understand things. Was not Israel then the chosen people whom the Lord has separated to Himself out of all the peoples of the world, in order to redeem them and presently to bless them as His own peculiar people in the land flowing with milk and honey? Did not all this, then, stand fast? Were not God’s promises Yea and Amen? Could the Word of God, then, also fall- out? Could God’s covenant also fail? And did it actually depend upon the free will of the perverse and stiff-necked people? Would it then actually be possible that this people, who had been led out by the hand of Moses and Aaron, presently would perish in the terrible wilderness? All this made the man of God very despondent, as is plain from what he says to the Lord. Especially does it weigh heavily upon his soul when the Lord also says that He will send an angel before the people, but that He Himself will not go up in their midst, lest He consume them in the way.
Was then all this possible? Could God also consume His people? Would the terrible history of Horeb presently repeat itself, then, until under the wrath of God the nation was consumed in the wilderness? No, the man of God feels that thus he cannot go up from. Horeb. The Lord Himself must go with them. The presence of the Lord must lead them. “Wherein,” thus he asks, “shall it be known here that I and thy people have found grace in thy sight? is it not in that thou goest with us? so shall, we be separated, I and thy people, from all the people that are upon the face of the earth,” (Exodus 33:16). And the Lord hears this prayer and promises him that His presence shall go with them.
But even thus the man of God is not satisfied. Had not the Lord spoken of it that He would indeed consume them in the way? Could not that presence of the Lord also be a presence of consuming anger? Also that, therefore, would not yet give him the assurance and the courage to go up. No, the presence of the Lord must accompany them in the glory of His grace and mercy. Then only is there the expectation of blessing and glory. Then only is there the certainty that God’s covenant shall stand firm and that the people will be partakers of the promises of God. Therefore the man of God desires to see that face and that glory of the Lord. He prays for this. “I beseech thee, shew me thy glory,” thus he prays. And also that prayer will be heard. The Lord will make all His goodness pass before Moses’ face, and he shall see His mercy (vs. 19). The Lord will proclaim His name in the ears of Moses. But when the man of God presently learns to know that presence of the Lord, full of grace and mercy, then he must understand at the same time that thus that face is not for all, also not for all of Israel as it lies there in the wilderness. Surely, out of that people God will certainly save and glorify the people of His mercy. His face shall shine upon that people in everlasting mercy. The man of God can therefore rest assured that God’s covenant shall stand fast forever. But he must not labor under the illusion that there is not among that people also a reprobate element, that there are no branches which shall be cut off. He must not expect that the presence of the Lord which shall go up with that historical Israel can never be a presence of great indignation. No, also in the future that presence shall reveal itself in wrath for many among Israel. For God will be gracious to whom He will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom He will show mercy. Also here, therefore, Scripture again teaches the very same truth. God’s sovereign good pleasure makes separation also in the historical people of God’s covenant in the world; and among them also He executes the counsel of His election and reprobation.
Summarizing all this now, we come to the following conclusion. God has a people in this world which is called Israel, which bears the name of the children of God. That people exists organically and develops in the line of the generations of believers. It must be called by the name of God’s people. They with their children are called the church, the congregation of Jesus Christ, God’s covenant people, Israel. They are called saints in Christ Jesus, beloved in the Lord. As such they must also be treated, according to the will of the Lord. They must be circumcised in the old dispensation, baptized in the new covenant. As the people of the covenant they must be treated in preaching and in instruction. Such is the teaching of Scripture. Thus God Himself always addresses the people of Israel. Thus the apostles write to the congregation of the New Testament day; No one has the right, therefore, to call that people as it exists visibly by another name, or to treat them differently. That people may not be called by the name of the branches which are broken off; neither may it be treated as a mixed multitude. You do not act thus in nature. If you have a vine, then there are in that vine also branches which never bear fruit, which are pruned out of the vine and presently burned. Thus you find it with many plants. But no one would even think of calling the organism of such a plant by the name of such unfruitful branches. No, the whole of the vineyard is called by the name of the vine. Thus the whole of the congregation of Israel is also called. They are called saints in Christ Jesus. But now let no one draw the conclusion from this that all who are in the sphere of this church as it exists historically are also actually spiritual children of the promise. There .is an Israel according to the flesh and an Israel according to the Spirit. And they are not all Israel who are of Israel. There is an elect kernel, and there is a reprobate shell. And God will be merciful to whom He will be merciful also within the sphere of the historical covenant in the world.
Understood in this sense, we do not object in the least to speak of an external and an internal covenant of grace. If only the organic idea is maintained, and if only it is maintained that the whole of God’s church upon earth, the church of the believers and their seed, may not be named and may not be treated according to the nature of the reprobate shell, but must be called by the name of Israel. And they also seriously err, therefore, who are not willing to address the church as beloved in the Lord Jesus Christ and who think that the congregation must be treated as a mixed multitude because the promises of God are not for all, head for head. But they also err who hold that we may presuppose of all that they are regenerated children of the covenant. No more than a husbandman may presuppose of all the branches which grow on a vine that they are fruitful branches, no more may anyone presuppose of all who are baptized that they are spiritual children of the covenant. But let it be emphasized once more that it is according to Holy Scripture to call the whole of the organism of the congregation according to the name of the elect kernel, the remnant according to the election of grace. And since then it is also a certainty for the church on earth that some branches will never bear fruit, therefore the pruning-knife of discipline must be used in order to cut out such branches.
Apply this now to the Baptism Form, and every difficulty simply falls away. The Baptism Form is one of the most beautiful documents transmitted to us by our fathers. Only, keep in mind that in this Form the congregation is conceived of organically, and that the whole is called by the name of the elect kernel. This is the reason why that Form is so definite and so clear. This is the reason why the believing congregation, if she again understands that Form correctly, can so heartily confess her faith, speak her vows, and send up her thanksgiving to the throne of grace according to the language of that Form for the Administration of Baptism. Also our fathers understood very well that there is always in the congregation an elect kernel and a reprobate shell, and that not all is Israel which is of Israel. But they understood also, O so well, that therefore the congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ may not be called according to the name of that reprobate shell, but must, bear the name of the elect kernel. Therefore they did not hesitate to lay it upon the lips of the congregation that God establishes an eternal covenant of grace with us And our children, and that He seals and confirms the same unto us by holy baptism. Therefore they did not hesitate to require of godly parents the confession that although our children are conceived and born in sin, yet that they are sanctified in Christ. Therefore they did not doubt but that the believing congregation ought to give thanks to the God of the covenant that He has forgiven us and our children all our sins and has ingrafted us into Christ and adopted us as children and heirs. And therefore they also laid upon the lips of that same, congregation the confession that we are now also bound to cleave unto that covenant God with all our heart and will all our strength, and bound to fight the good fight of faith even unto the end, as the covenant people. Always according to the Scriptural rule that the whole of the organic existence of God’s church in the world must be names and treated in harmony with the character of the elect kernel. And he who does differently does injustice to the church and does not act according to the Word of God.
(to be continued)