To begin with the last question, it may be observed that there certainly can be no doubt whether there is indeed a certain influence of God’s covenant upon the children of the kingdom who are cast out. All Scripture reveals this very clearly. Already in the figure of the vine and the branches, used by the Lord Himself (John 15), there is the idea that also the branches which are cast out, which are cut out, nevertheless stood in a certain connection with the vine and also drew their life-sap out of that vine. Plainly, the distinction between the branches which abide in the vine and those other branches which are cut out is not the same as the difference between. living and dead branches. The branches which are cut out are not dead branches, which stand in no living connection with the vine whatsoever. No, the distinction is between branches which do bear fruit and other branches which do not bear fruit. Also those non-fruit bearing branches are in the vine. The Lord Jesus states it as follows: “Every branch in me that beareth not fruit . . .” There is, therefore, a certain being in God’s covenant in Christ without bringing forth fruits of faith and conversion. There is indeed an influence of the vine upon those unfruitful branches. So also there is an influence of God’s covenant upon those who are in it without ever coming to repentance. This is also clear from the previously cited figure of the vineyard, described by Isaiah. Everything that could be done has been to that vine yard. But under all that labor wild grapes are brought forth. This same idea is probably pictured most strongly in Hebrews 6:4-8: “For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, And have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, If they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame. For the earth which drinketh in the rain that cometh oft upon it, and bringeth forth herbs meet for them by whom it is dressed, receiveth blessing from God: But that which beareth thorns and briers is rejected, and is nigh unto cursing; whose end is to be burned.”
This last passage of Holy Writ casts considerable light upon the question under consideration.
In the first place, it is plain that the text here speaks of children of the kingdom in the outward sense of the word, of the ungodly in God’s covenant, who never actually come to repentance. As might be expected, this passage is often quoted by those who hold to the possibility of a falling away of the saints. Superficially considered, one might be inclined to draw this conclusion from the text. After all, Scripture here describes men who were once enlightened, who have tasted of the heavenly gift, and who were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, who have tasted the good Word of God, and the powers of the world to come. It speaks of men who so much resemble true children of God that it is well-nigh impossible to distinguish them from the latter. But the doctrine of a falling away of the saints lies wholly in the line of Arminianism and militates so flagrantly against the whole of Holy Scripture that we may immediately rule out the very possibility that the text would teach such a falling away. Those whom God has predestinated unto salvation will also surely be glorified. The unchangeable love of God, the blood of Christ, the intercession of our great High Priest in the heavens, the powerful preservation of the grace of God—all these are the sure guarantee that nothing shall be able to separate them from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Regeneration and conversion and the entire work of God in His elect is begun by God, and He will never forsake that which His hand has once begun. This is absolutely sure. And if this is established, then it follows that in this passage we are dealing with men who live very close to the stream of grace, so close that they understand and taste something—or sometimes even much—of it, but always with a natural understanding and an impenitent heart.
Now this can only take place and does only take place in the sphere of God’s covenant as it is revealed in the world. What is here stated could not be said of men of the world who perhaps come into contact with the gospel of Jesus Christ only once or possibly a few times. The text therefore teaches us nothing else than the influence which proceeds from this living in the sphere of that covenant of God upon those who remain ungodly. It is true that we may undoubtedly add here that this strong language is not applicable in all its force to all the reprobate in the sphere of the covenant. It even requires a certain class of ungodly children of the kingdom to stand as high as those who are here described without being partakers of grace. Not all attain to this status. They are perhaps to be sought among those who stand foremost in the church. But this, after all, concerns only a question of degree. In principle this may undoubtedly be said of all the ungodly in the sphere of God’s covenant. Of all of them it may be said that in that sphere they receive something whereby they are distinguished from those who stand entirely outside, that by their being in that covenant—be it then, that this is only in the outward sense of the word—they are spiritually influenced. But the question remains yet: what is it, really, that they receive?
In answer to this question we wish to remark, first of all, that also in that covenant as they belong to it in an outward sense they receive no grace. In some circles they like to speak of a general covenant grace, a certain grace of which all covenant members, all those: who are baptized, become partakers. According to this view, taught for many years at Calvin College and Seminary by Prof. W. Heyns—the view on which we, reflected earlier in this treatise—all those who are baptized receive a certain subjective grace by which they are put in a position to accept or to reject God’s covenant. Of course, this is pure and Simple Pelagianism applied to the area of God’s covenant in the world. This presentation is very dangerous, but it has nevertheless found wide acceptance in the Christian Reformed Churches. According to it, the covenant is merely a promise to all. Those who are baptized must consent to that covenant, they must accept that promise, if they are to be truly members of God’s covenant. And God bestows upon every covenant member sufficient grace either to accept or to reject that promise. Others do not go so far, but speak nevertheless of a certain general covenant grace in the same sense in which some also speak of a general, well-meant offer of salvation in the preaching of the gospel. That they are baptized, that they bear the sign and seal of the covenant on their forehead—the sign and seal in which the Lord God signifies and seals the benefits of the covenant,—that they may enjoy a covenant upbringing and may be under the good Word of God from earliest childhood, that, some of them may even sit at the table of the covenant, in a word that with the church they may enjoy all the .means of grace—this, then, is grace for all who live and grow up under the covenant. And in all this they may see the grace of God, God’s well-meant offer of His covenant.
Now let it be remarked, in the first place, over against this view that also in the seals of the covenant there is nothing common. There is neither in baptism nor in holy communion a general offer of grace. It is simply not true that God in holy baptism promises and seals something to all who are baptized. No more than this is the case with His Word, with the gospel of salvation, no more is it true with respect to the seals of God?, covenant. In holy baptism the Lord God, in final analysis, seals something to no one else than to those who believe. For it is the righteousness which is of faith which is sealed and confirmed both in baptism and in the Lord’s supper. The Lord does not lie—not even when the reprobate and ungodly receive the seal of the covenant! When the Lord affixes His seal upon this truth that He reckons faith for righteousness, then it is surely plain that such a seal is particular in its content and that no unbeliever can ever appeal to it.
But, in the second place, such a presentation is exactly rejected and refuted by the passage in Hebrews 6. For the holy writer exactly demonstrates by the example which he uses that such an ungodly man, though he may receive much, receives precisely no grace and no blessing from God. He cites the example of “the earth which drinketh in the rain which cometh oft upon it.” Now if in that earth the good seed lies hidden, and if under the influence of that rain that earth brings forth good fruits, then in that rain that earth receives blessing from God. But also, if there lie hidden in that earth the seeds of thorns and thistles, and those seeds of thorns and thistles sprout forth through that gentle rain, then in that very same rain that earth receives the curse and becomes ripe for rejection and destruction. By means of that rain, then, it exactly comes to manifestation what the real character of that earth is and what kind of seed lies hidden in it. Now the Scripture brings this in connection with those who indeed live under the covenant but who nevertheless are and remain ungodly. The rain falls in the sphere of that covenant many times. They do not dwell in the desert, where all remains dry and barren. No, the rain of baptism and of the Lord’s supper, of instruction and preaching, of the operations of the Spirit in the church, of the powers of the world to come—that rain falls, plentifully or less abundantly, in the sphere of God’s covenant on earth. And if, now, there is hidden in any heart the grace of God, the seed of regeneration, then through the means of that gentle rain that good seed sprouts forth and reveals itself presently in the good fruits of repentance and sorrow, in knowledge of sin, in faith and conversion, in the knowledge of the Savior, in the fruits of sanctification and of the battle for God’s covenant in the midst of the world. In that instance everything is grace and blessing. But when there is hidden in a heart the evil seed of ungodliness, and nothing more, then also that comes to manifestation exactly through that same rain. The heart in that case remains entirely without. Then it may very well be that someone is enlightened by the good Word of God according to his natural understanding, even to such an extent that in a powerful manner he can speak of the mysteries of God’s kingdom, while he nevertheless in the deepest sense of the word stands at enmity against it all, It may be, then, that he even obtains a certain taste of the things of God’s covenant. They taste the good Word of God. They acknowledge that it is good. They taste something of the powers of the world to come. They can even see in a certain sense the beauty of heaven, and speak of it. They cannot even entirely escape the vibrations of the Holy Spirit as these operate and reveal themselves in the church. But with all this, they remain but natural men. Their own heart does not only remain outside all these things, but even stands spiritually at enmity against them.
And now, the consequence of all this is that such ungodly men become hardened to the most hopeless degree, and either already in this life or in the day of judgment become revealed in all the dreadfulness of their wickedness. Far and away the majority of them fall away already in this life. Sooner or later, under the influence of various circumstances, they are compelled to reveal how they really have an inner loathing of the truth of God and of His covenant. And it is precisely from among these that first the apostate church and presently the power of the Antichrist is born. And so the reprobate shell in the sphere of God’s covenant never receives anything else than cursing and wrath. In nature the chaff, under the influence of rain and sunshine, grows up luxuriantly, along with the grain. But it nevertheless never becomes anything else but chaff. In the field the grain and the weeds both sprout forth under the same influences; but those weeds never become grain. In the vine, in a certain sense of the word, the fruitful branches stand under the same influence as the unfruitful branches. In fact, the latter can frequently manifest themselves much more luxuriantly than the former. But the unfruitful branches nevertheless only become ripe to be burned. And it is no different in the sphere of God’s covenant. Israel dwells alone. Also ungodly Israel on earth dwells alone. It becomes, under the influence of God’s covenant, much more ungodly than the heathen round about Israel. Israel shall even dwell alone yet in hell. For the children of the kingdom who are cast out shall certainly be beaten with double stripes, precisely because they despised and trampled upon that which they once tasted.
At the same time, here also lies the answer to the question: what is God’s purpose with all of this? In the first place, we answer that it is exactly God’s purpose as far as such ungodly members of the covenant themselves are concerned, that sin shall come to complete manifestation as sin. God must be justified when presently He judges. The first root-sin of Adam in Paradise must bear its fruits to the full. The man of sin must come fully to revelation. Now this takes place not in the world of the heathen where men do not live in the sphere of God’s covenant. This does not even take place fully when in that world of the heathen the gospel is preached and some receive it while others reject it. But this takes place indeed in the sphere of God’s covenant. It is also, then, in that sphere that the power of the Antichrist is born. There sin comes to its most dreadful manifestation as sin. If Esau had not once possessed the right of the firstborn, he would never have become the fornicator; and he would never have been able to reveal himself in his Esau’s nature. But now this is different. He becomes Esau to the full, the ungodly man, who prefers a mess of pottage above the glory of God’s covenant. And God is justified when He judges Esau. And thus it is with all the ungodly. Presently they shall be punished with everlasting punishment in body and soul in the unspeakable anguish of hell. The equity of this judgment of God in proportion to the wickedness of sin must be seen, in order that God may appear to be justified when He judges. Therefore the terrible character of sin must also become revealed to the full. And this comes to manifestation in the sphere of God’s covenant, where the ungodly count the blood of the New Testament an unholy thing.
In the second place, it is exactly through this divine arrangement that the antithesis comes to manifestation and the battle for the cause of God’s covenant in the world is fought. The believers do not have their fiercest battle with those who are outside, but with those who in the external sense of the word are within. These are always inspired in principle, and presently manifestly, with the spirit of the Antichrist. It is through them that the church on earth suffers and battles and wrestles for the sake of God’s covenant. The spiritual seed is persecuted and harassed by the carnal seed. The latter kills the prophets and nails the Lord of glory to the accursed tree and causes the blood of the servants of God to flow upon the earth. But in all this it nevertheless serves to make God’s elect people ripe, through suffering and battle, for the final glory. For that people has the victory, through their King, Who is given to them by Israel’s God, and according to His eternal good pleasure.
Covenant Children Who Die In Infancy
The last question which we wish to discuss in connection with our subject is that concerning the salvation of children of believers who die in infancy.
Among believers there is a great measure of interest shown in this question. When the question of the salvation of little children who die in infancy is broached, often the thoughts of the heart come to manifestation and the emotions are stirred. There is, of course, good reason for this. In the first place, the entire covenant is frequently considered as nothing else than a way of salvation; and then, of course, the great advantage of that covenant people lies in the fact that also their children are .saved. If the subject of the covenant comes under discussion, many think not so much of a relation between God and His people as of a relation between believers and their seed. And if the question of being saved is then presented as the chief idea of the covenant, it follows that the question of the salvation of infants automatically is placed on the foreground. In the second place, this is a question which cuts very deeply into our natural life. For it is a fact that there are very many who are taken away by death in their childhood. Dr. Abraham Kuyper, Sr., writes about this as follows (E Vote Dordraceno, III, pp. 6, 7; we translate): “Of every generation that is born at least half die before they have developed to a full and clear consciousness. Before his twentieth year one is seldom full-grown. Our civil law first grants the right of self-determination to one who has reached the age of 23 years. Now statistics show that of every 100 persons buried in our land in 1886, 7 ¾% were dead at birth, 28% in their first year, 12 1/2% from their first to their fifth year, 4% from their fifth to their fourteenth year, and almost 2% in their fifteenth to twentieth years. From the ages of 1 to 20 years, therefore, approximately 56% of those who died. And even if one assumes that children from their seventh or eighth year on know some difference between good and evil, then the number of those who die between the ages of 1 and 7 years old is still approximately 45 out of 100. He who is a serious Christian, therefore, must not say that the question of children who die in infancy is an incidental one. That it certainly is not. Already when we limit the question to those who attain an age of 7 or 8 years old, this question concerns almost half of those born; and if one goes a bit farther, it concerns a generous half.” Now the latter conclusion of Dr. Kuyper is certainly not entirely true. For the basis of the statistics given by Dr. Kuyper above was not the number of those born in 1886, but the number of those who died. And it may be assumed that in all likelihood the latter figure was considerably smaller than the former. One cannot assume, therefore, that if he divides the number of deaths on a percentage basis according to their various age-groups, that this percentage remains the same when he figures on the basis of the number of births. The latter percentage would be considerably smaller. But that does not take away the fact that the great majority of those who die are children—if, at least, one reckons childhood up to the twentieth year. The subject under discussion, therefore, is one of vital concern. Add to this the fact that here one of the tenderest relationships of natural life is involved—for the bond between a parent and his dead infant is a very tender one—then it is quite under standable that at the grave of a little one, of a darling taken away by the Lord, the question arises in the heart of the parents whether that little one whose tiny body is laid away in the grave at that same moment rejoices in glory before the throne of God and of the Lamb. It is also readily to be understood that as often as this question comes under discussion, much interest is shown in it, especially by the many parents who themselves have had to bring their children to the grave.
Thus it is also to be explained, perhaps, that an article concerning this question was included in the Canons of Dordrecht (I, A, 17). Especially when, in connection with this, we take into consideration the fact that the Arminians delighted in depicting the presentation of our Reformed fathers as monstrous, and berated them that they took pleasure in the idea of a hell full of innocent little children, it is understandable that the Synod of 1618-’19 undertook to make of this matter a point of confession. We read there: “Since we are to judge of the will of God from his Word, which testifies that the children of believers are holy, not by nature, but in virtue of the covenant of grace, in which they, together with the parents, are comprehended, godly parents have no reason to doubt of the election and salvation of their children, whom it pleaseth God to call out of this life in their infancy.”
This article leaves much to be desired as far as clarity and sharpness of definition are concerned; and it cannot be denied that in the form in which the matter is here cast it really cannot be considered an item for a confession. In a confession the church expresses what it believes concerning the truth of God revealed in the Scriptures. And it can hardly be said that the church here does that. If the Synod of 1618-’19 had really wanted to express a definite view concerning the salvation of children who die in infancy, then there would have had to be something entirely different in this article of the Canons of Dordrecht. Then it would have had to say very definitely: “We believe that since we are to judge of the will of God from his Word, which testifies that the children of believers are holy, not by nature, but in virtue of the covenant of grace, in which they, together with their parents, are comprehended, that all children of believers whom God takes away in their infancy are saved according to their election.” Then the church would at least have expressed something definite, something about, the meaning of which there would have to be no doubt. But this the article does not do. There are indeed very many who understand the matter thus. There are not a few who do not hesitate to say that every baptized child who, is taken away by the Lord in infancy is saved. Parents who bring their young children to the grave often say without .hesitation that they were, covenant children, and that for that reason those children are certainly saved. And many preachers follow this example and in their funeral sermons comfort the parents by giving them to understand that all covenant children who die in infancy are saved. They even tend to stretch more and more the, age-limit of those who die in childhood; and it even occurs that in such funeral sermons comfort is extended on this same basis when the dead have reached the age of 14 to 18 years old and, besides, have not seldom given reason to fear by a life in and according to the world that they actually went lost. The difference is on the surface. The fathers do not express an objective item of faith and confession in the article quoted above. They only said, “. . . godly parents must not doubt. . . .” But many, especially if they proceed from the idea of a pre-supposed regeneration as the basis for infant baptism, express it as a matter of faith: all baptized children who die in infancy are saved.
Meanwhile, we would remark, in the first place, that even if one declares that all covenant children who die in infancy are saved, he still does not have anything definite whatsoever. For the question remains: who are to be counted as belonging to such children who die in infancy? There will be wide divergence of opinion about this question. The matter is rather elastic. As we have already remarked, there are at the one extreme those who would extend the life-span of those who must be classified as children who die in infancy to the age of 20. Others will condemn this as being extreme; they would rather put this age-limit back to the fourteenth year. But even thus the problem is not solved. He who observes children will have to concede that the difference between those who fear the Lord and those who will have nothing of God’s covenant frequently is noticeable already long before their fourteenth year. There are, indeed, children about whom, judging by their entire life’s manifestation over against the things of God’s covenant in the church, in the catechism class, on the street, or in their homes, one fears the worst long before they have reached the age of fourteen. And, on the other hand, there are children who at that same age have already long revealed that it is their desire to fear the Lord and to walk in the ways of His covenant. Even if you would want to fix the age-limit in your confession as extending not farther than the tenth year, you would still not by any means gain agreement on the part of all believers. For one who has stood at the death-bed of children who have not even reached the age of ten it is perfectly clear that the grace of God in Christ can come to manifestation very wonderfully on such death-beds of little children. A dying child of six or eight years old can speak of his confidence that he is going to Jesus, can exhort those who stand about that death-bed not to weep over him, and can presently depart this life singing, while at other death-beds any such manifestation is totally absent. And although the latter certainly cannot be regarded as proof that such little ones therefore went lost, nevertheless many will point you to the fact that the ear-marks of grace can come to manifestation very early in life. We have even more than once met people who maintained that their children already at the age of two years old gave very plain indications of respect and reverence for the things of God’s covenant, while others manifested the very opposite attitude already at that same age. Probably you will remark that this is going to the opposite extreme. But this does not change the fact that from all these divergent opinions it is sufficiently evident that you express very little if you affirm that all children of the covenant who die in infancy are also saved. And it is indeed certain that you would not be able to confess this concerning all the children of the 45% mentioned by Dr. Kuyper.
From this point of view it certainly would not have been any great loss if Article 17 of Canons, I-A, had never been included. But, in the second place, it ought to be plain that it will not do to say: a child is baptized and comprehended in the covenant, and therefore it is saved if it dies in infancy. The question is not now whether children can be regenerated already in early childhood, and therefore can inherit salvation if they die before they arrive at years of discretion. That this is true, surely, no one will doubt. But the question is rather whether on the ground of their being in the covenant in the historical sense of the word it may be said of all baptized children who are taken away in infancy that they are saved. The latter is not possible. It would indeed be possible if it could also be maintained that all children born in the covenant are also really regenerated and saved. But it has exactly become clear to us that this is not true. If there is anything which is clearly taught in Holy Scripture, then it is this, that not all is Israel that is called Israel. Not all the children who are born of believing parents are therefore also elect and saved. There are reprobate; there are even—to judge from the history of Israel—very many reprobate in God’s covenant in this outward sense of the word. From their being in God’s covenant by reason of birth from believing parents the salvation of infants does not simply follow as a necessary conclusion.
(to be continued)