Prof. Engelsma is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. Previous article in this series: October 15, 2006, p. 26.
Although there has been controversy over the relation of the covenant and election in the Dutch Reformed churches from the time of Dordt to the present, the issue was settled already in the earliest period of the Reformation in the Netherlands. It was settled officially. It was settled in such a way that Reformed Christianity, particularly Reformed Christianity in the Dutch Reformed tradition, is bound to a doctrine of the covenant that confesses that election governs the covenant.
The fundamental issue concerning the covenant, namely that the covenant is governed by election, was established especially by two official, binding documents, the “Form for the Administration of Baptism” and the Canons of Dordt.
The Reformed Baptism Form
The Reformed “Form for the Administration of Baptism” is a very early document in the Dutch Reformed tradition. It dates from before 1574. In 1574, the Dutch provincial synod of Dordrecht approved the form for use in the Dutch churches. This form, as slightly revised by the Synod of Dordt, 1618/1619, is the baptism form used by the Protestant Reformed Churches in common with most, if not all, the Reformed churches in the tradition of the Reformation in the Netherlands. The charge that an enemy of the covenant doctrine of the Protestant Reformed Churches made a few years ago in a Reformed periodical, that the Protestant Reformed Churches had changed the form to accommodate their doctrine, was either foolishness or slander. He had reference to the prayer that follows the baptism of the infants. The author of the false charge recognized that the prayer flatly contradicts the notion that the phrase “sanctified in Christ” in the form refers to all the offspring of believers without exception.
The original Dutch text of the form can be found in Dr. B. Wielenga’s helpful commentary on the baptism form, Ons Doopsformulier, 2nd rev. ed. (Kok, 1920, pp. 17-24). In this and following articles I quote the form as it appears in the Psalter used by the Protestant Reformed Churches (Eerdmans, 1988, pp. 85-87), after comparing the English translation with the Dutch original.
This form establishes that election governs the covenant with respect to something that is crucially important both to the covenant itself and to the controversy concerning the covenant within the Reformed churches. Election determines the salvation of the children of believing parents. Indeed, election determines who the covenant children of believers are. The salvation of the children of believers is obviously an important aspect of God’s covenant. Always the covenant promise is that He will be the God of believers and their children. And the controversy within the Reformed churches over the relation of covenant and election has always centered on the question whether God’s covenant grace is for all the children without exception or for the elect children only.
The Reformed baptism form teaches that election governs the covenant with regard to the covenant children and their salvation when, in the doctrinal part, it states:
And although our young children do not understand these things, we may not therefore exclude them from baptism, for as they are without their knowledge partakers of the condemnation in Adam, so are they again received unto grace in Christ.
Elect Infants Received unto Grace in Christ
According to this part of the baptism form, infant baptism is based on, and signifies, the work of God in the covenant of receiving our young children again unto grace in Christ. Their reception unto grace in Christ is the salvation of our infants. To be received unto grace in Christ is salvation. As is implied by the contrast with their natural state of being “partakers of the condemnation in Adam,” their being again received unto grace in Christ is our infants’ justification. It is also their sanctification, that is, the regenerating work of the Spirit of Christ in their infant hearts, just as their natural condemnation in Adam also involves their total depravity. No one is ever received unto grace in Christ by being freed only from the guilt of sin, without also being cleansed from sin’s pollution.
The Reformed baptism form affirms that God bestows this salvation upon our infants in their infancy. The thought of the form is unquestionably this: As our infants at the baptism font are “without their knowledge” partakers of the condemnation in Adam, so are these infants at the baptism font without their knowledge again received unto grace in Christ. Just as they are, in their tenderest infancy, naturally exposed to the wrath of God by virtue of their connection with Adam, so are they, in their tenderest infancy, the objects of the saving grace of God by virtue of their relation to Jesus Christ in the new covenant.
Thus the form makes plain that election governs the covenant with regard to the salvation of the children of believers. For one thing, to nothing else but God’s gracious election can the salvation of infants be ascribed. Infants are not only incapable of performing any act upon which their salvation might depend (they are completely oblivious to what is happening in the administration of the holy sacrament), but they are also by nature guilty and totally depraved. God saves our infants according to His covenant promise, which is founded exclusively upon His eternal election.
Election governs the covenant in this important respect, that election determines and accomplishes God’s reception of the infant children of believers unto grace in Christ, that is, the salvation of these infant children, in their infancy.
It is certainly nothing in the children themselves that determines their salvation in the covenant, for they are “partakers of the condemnation in Adam.”
It is certainly no condition performed by the children that determines their salvation in the covenant, for when they are received by God again into grace in Christ they are infants. The oldest edition of the baptism form had the words “onze kinderkens,” that is, “our infants” (Wielenga, p. 19). This is the meaning of the translation, “young children,” in the Psalter. Our infant children are objects of the saving grace of God in Christ, “without their knowledge,” at an age when they are not even capable of performing a work, or fulfilling a condition.
Election Determines Covenant Children
But there is another indication in these words of the baptism form that election governs the covenant regarding the salvation of the covenant children. Election determines who “our young children” are, that is, who the children of believers are to whom God makes, and then fulfills, the covenant promise, “I will be the God of you and ofyour children.” Natural birth does not make covenant children. But election produces covenant children from the physical offspring of believers.
The baptism form, in the doctrinal section quoted above, speaks of “our young children.” As is evident from the quotations of Genesis 17:7 and Acts 2:39 that immediately follow, the form refers to the “seed,” or “children,” who are the objects of God’s covenant promise. “Our young children,” in the baptism form, are those children of believing parents whom God had in mind when He said to Abraham, “I will establish my covenant between me and thee, and thy seed after thee, in their generations” (Gen. 17:7), and whom the apostle Peter had in mind when he declared, “For the promise is unto you and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call” (Acts 2:39).
The form identifies these young children as all those, but only those, who “are again received unto grace in Christ”: “our young children … are … again received unto grace in Christ.” “Our young children,” with whom God establishes His covenant according to Genesis 7:17and unto whom is the covenant promise of salvation according to Acts 2:39, are not all our physical offspring, for all our physical children are not received unto grace in Christ. Only some of the physical offspring of believers are received unto grace in Christ. They are the true, spiritual children of believers. The others, who wickedly refuse to believe in Christ and who transgress the covenant by impenitent holiness of life, are illegitimate children, even as there are spiritual “bastards” within the visible family of God, the church (Heb. 12:8). Which of the physical children of believing parents are “our young children,” whom God again receives unto grace in Christ, is determined by election.
The simple truth underlying these words of the baptism form is that the Reformed faith in its earliest period understood the covenant promise to refer to the elect children of believing parents. Election governs the covenant with regard to the important matter of the salvation of the children of believers. Indeed, election determines who the children of believers are, just as election determines who the believers are. Already in 1574, the Reformed churches in the Netherlands incorporated this understanding of the covenant promise and this view of the relation between election and the covenant in their baptism form. Inasmuch as the baptism form is an authoritative document, a “minor creed,” to say nothing of its prominence in the life of the Reformed churches, its understanding of the covenant promise and its view of the relation between election and covenant are binding upon Reformed churches and theologians.
All objections to this plain teaching of the baptism form are doctrinal in nature. They are not due to a right reading of the clear language of the form, but to a doctrine of the covenant that differs from that of the form. They are not explanations of the form, but contrary views foisted on the form.
One such view holds that the form merely teaches that all the physical children of believers are formally and outwardly set apart from the world at baptism. Election, therefore, does not enter in. This is supposed to be the explanation of the statement that the infants are “again received unto grace in Christ.”
That reception unto grace in Christ is salvation does not need to be proved to any student of Scripture, but only declared. Besides, if the reception of our infants unto grace in Christ is merely outward and formal, having nothing to do with salvation, so also, according to the contrast in the baptism form, is their condemnation in Adam merely outward and formal, having nothing to do with being lost.
To be condemned in Adam is real lostness!
To be received unto grace in Christ is real salvation!
Another view likes to read the form as though it said, “so shall they again be received unto grace in Christ, if they fulfill a condition, or if they have a conversion experience, or if they believe.” But the form does not say this. It is not speaking of a possible future salvation of the baptized infants, when they are no longer infants, but grown men and women. Rather, the form teaches an actual, present salvation of the infants, in their infancy: “so are they again received unto grace in Christ.” It speaks of an actual, present salvation of the infants “without their knowledge.” Therefore, to introduce the notion of conditions, or conversion experiences, into the form is absurdity.
Yet another view explains the form as teaching that all the physical children of believers without exception are in some way received unto grace in Christ. Infant baptism signifies and seals covenant grace towards all without exception, or a gracious covenant promise to all without exception, or even a gracious work of God within all. According to those who hold this view, “our young children,” in the baptism form, like the seed of Abraham in Genesis 17:7 and the children of the promise in Acts 2:39, are all the physical offspring of believers without exception. All the physical children of godly parents without exception, therefore, are “again received unto grace in Christ.”
This popular view is the destruction of the Reformed faith at its very heart. It is the denial of the sovereignty and efficacy of the grace of God in Christ. Inasmuch as some of the physical offspring of believers perish, this view teaches the possibility of resisting, losing, and falling away from God’s grace in Christ. Once the child was received by God unto grace in Christ; later the same child was cast away by God from His grace in Christ. It makes absolutely no difference whether this reception unto grace is conceived as God’s favorable attitude towards the child, or as a spiritual power working within the child. In either case, there is a falling away from grace, a falling away from the grace of God in Christ. The grace of God in Christ fails to save some who once received this grace.
Implied also is the failure of the cross of Christ. As the first part of the baptism form teaches, reception unto grace in Christ in the covenant is based on the death of Christ. If all the physical offspring of believers are alike received unto grace in Christ and if this is the significance of infant baptism, Christ must have died for all the physical offspring of believers without exception. Inasmuch as some of them perish in unbelief, the death of Christ did not actually atone for their sins and secure their everlasting salvation.
This raises the question: according to those who teach that all the physical offspring of believers without exception are received unto grace in Christ, what does determine the salvation of children in the covenant? It cannot be the grace of God, for all are the objects of this grace. It can only be the performance, or non-performance, of certain conditions by the children themselves. And this is the teaching of those who contend that all the children alike are objects of God’s covenant grace. All the children alike are received unto grace in Christ at baptism, but whether any will finally be saved depends upon his performance of certain works, his fulfilling of prescribed conditions of covenant salvation.
Determined to separate the covenant, its grace, promise, and salvation from God’s election, this view subjects the covenant and its salvation to the will and works of the covenant child. Not the will of God, but the will of the children governs the covenant.
If this were the doctrine of the Reformed churches in 1574, when the baptism form was adopted by the provincial synod of Dordt, and in 1618/1619, when the form was adopted by the national synod of Dordt, the Reformed churches would never have condemned the Arminian heresy.
The Biblical Basis of the Doctrine of the Form
The baptism form is right in its conviction that election governs the covenant, particularly regarding the children to whom God makes His covenant promise. In support of its declaration that “our young children … are … again received unto grace in Christ,” the baptism form appeals to two passages of Scripture. The first is Genesis 17:7, the covenant promise to Abraham: “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.” In Galatians 3:16, the apostle identifies the “seed” of Abraham as Christ: “Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ.” In verse sixteen of Galatians 3, the apostle adds that the “Christ” who is the covenant seed of Abraham is not only Christ Himself individually, but also all those humans who are Christ’s people: “And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”
The children of Abraham in the Old Testament to whom God extended the covenant promise were not all the physical offspring of the patriarch. They were Christ and those who belonged to Christ by eternal election. The apostle himself applies this truth to the New Testament church: Because you New Testament believers and genuine children of believers are Christ’s, you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. On the other hand, no hypocrite in the visible church or reprobate child of godly parents is Abraham’s seed, or heir according to the promise, regardless that he is baptized, inasmuch as he is not Christ’s.
The second text is similarly clear in identifying the covenant children, to whom God makes the promise of the covenant, as the elect children of believers. The form quotes Acts 2:39, Peter’s reaffirmation of the promise of the covenant on the day of Pentecost to the New Testament Israel: “For the promise is unto you and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call.” As little under the new covenant as under the old is the promise to all the children of believers. Those children of believers in the new dispensation to whom and for whom is the promise of the covenant are all those, and only those, whom God calls: “even as many as the Lord our God shall call.” Romans 8:30 teaches that God calls those whom He has predestinated: “Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called.” The promise of the covenant in the New Testament is to our children, that is, to as many of our physical offspring as God calls according to His eternal decree of election.