Prof. Engelsma is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. Previous article in this series: December 15, 2006, p. 131.
There is another objection to the interpretation of the phrase “sanctified in Christ” in the Reformed baptism form, that explains the phrase as describing God’s regeneration of the elect children of believers in their infancy. This objection too arises from a distinct doctrinal position regarding the covenant promise to the children of believers and regarding the covenant itself. This doctrinal position abominates the truth that God governs His covenant by His eternal decree of election. Particularly, it rejects the truth that God’s covenant promise to be the God of the children of believers refers to the elect children.
All the Children Sanctified Conditionally
This covenant doctrine vehemently denies that “sanctified in Christ” in the Reformed baptism form describes the elect infants of believers. Rather, the phrase refers to all the children without exception. But the explanation of the phrase by this covenant doctrine differs from that of those who refuse to see anything more in it than an outward and formal “holiness.” This covenant doctrine recognizes that the first question of the baptism form speaks of a saving work of God in Christ with regard to infants who are, after all, the objects of the promise of the covenant. The covenant promise has the cross of Christ as its basis, the Spirit of Christ as its power, the spiritual blessings of salvation as its content, and eternal life as its goal. Its sign and seal is infant baptism—the sacrament of the atoning blood of Christ applied to the infant children of believers.
Accordingly, this covenant doctrine teaches that “sanctified in Christ” refers to a gracious covenantal attitude of God towards the infants and to a gracious covenantal work of God with regard to them. This attitude and work are saving in nature, even as the covenant has to do with salvation. This covenant doctrine does not like to speak of an inward, “subjective,” saving work of the Spirit in the infants. Infant regeneration is anathema to it, in spite of the fact that the opening lines of the baptism form teach that our infant children are “born again.” But this doctrine of the covenant prefers to speak of an “objective” covenantal act of God with regard to the children of believers: He justifies all the offspring of believers and adopts them as His children.
In keeping with its determined opposition to the truth that election governs the covenant, this covenant doctrine applies its understanding of “sanctified in Christ” to all the children without exception. The first question of the baptism form is explained as teaching that all the children without exception are sanctified in Christ in the sense that all alike are covenantally justified and covenantally adopted by God. All alike are covenantally “in Christ.”
But all are alike “sanctified in Christ” conditionally.
The covenant with the children isconditional. Whether the children remain in the covenant and are saved depends upon a work the children must perform, namely, faith. If a child refuses to believe, as many children of believers do refuse, he perishes outside of Christ, regardless that once he was “in Christ.” He is condemned, regardless that once God justified him. He becomes a child of the devil, regardless that once God adopted him.
This is the covenant doctrine and corresponding explanation of the phrase “sanctified in Christ,” of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (“liberated”) and of the Canadian and American Reformed Churches.
This covenant doctrine too I have examined and criticized in my book The Covenant of God and the Children of Believers, so that I can be brief here. As little as the explanation of an outward and formal “holiness” does this explanation do justice to the phrase “sanctified in Christ.” As I have already demonstrated, “sanctified in Christ” describes an inner work of the Spirit within infants who are united to Christ by the bond of a true faith. This work makes them living members of the one, holy, catholic, apostolic church of Christ.
It is impossible that an infant (or anyone else) who has been sanctified in Christ and made a member of the body of Christ shall ever perish. The mighty grace of God that began the work of salvation in the infant will maintain and perfect the work. “God is faithful, who, having conferred grace, mercifully confirms and powerfully preserves them [all those whom He has regenerated] therein, even to the end” (Canons of Dordt, V/3). The Canons explicitly deny that anyone can lose his adoption and justification, something the covenant doctrine we are presently examining affirms by its explanation of the phrase “sanctified in Christ.” According to this covenant doctrine, all the children of believers without exception are justified and adopted by God. This is supposed to be the meaning of “sanctified in Christ.” However, since these covenant works of God are conditional, many of the children eventually lose this justification and adoption. But the Canons deny that God ever permits any of His people “to lose the grace of adoption and forfeit the state of justification” (V/6).
The explanation of “sanctified in Christ” that applies the phrase to all the offspring of believers alike, while acknowledging that the phrase refers to a work of God’s grace in the covenant, is a denial of the sovereignty of grace and, therefore, of the gospel of grace itself. Regardless that God’s gracious work in the covenant is described as “objective,” taking form in a justification and adoption of the children, rather than in a “subjective” regeneration of the children, the covenant work of God that consists of sanctifying children in Christ is not effectual. It does not assure the salvation of any. It is resisted by many, who then perish forever outside of Christ.
Denial of the sovereignty of grace is always, necessarily, the affirmation of the dependency of grace on the work of the sinner. God’s covenant work of sanctifying all the offspring of believers, according to the explanation of “sanctified in Christ” by the “liberated” Reformed, fails in the case of many children, because His covenant work is conditional. It depends on the work of the children. The clear and necessary implication is that the reason why some continue in the covenant and are finally saved is their performing of the condition.
It is this conditional covenant doctrine regarding baptized children that the men of the federal vision are now developing into a bold attack on every one of the doctrines of grace confessed in the Canons of Dordt.
At bottom, the heresy of the federal vision, like the conditional covenant doctrine it is developing, is opposition to the truth that election governs the covenant.
“Sanctified in Christ” in Light of the Prayer of Thanksgiving
What makes it indisputably plain that by “sanctified in Christ” the baptism form means the actual saving work of God upon and within the elect infants of believers is the prayer of thanksgiving immediately following the baptism of the infants. Just moments earlier, the Reformed church had asked the believing parents whether they acknowledge that their children are “sanctified in Christ and, therefore, as members of His church ought to be baptized.” Then the baptism of the infants took place. At once, with the words “sanctified in Christ” still ringing in the ears of the congregation and with the visible word of the sprinkling of the infants with the water of baptism vivid in their minds, the church thanks the God of the covenant in prayer.
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.
The Reformed church thanks God for the actual salvation of the children of believing parents: the forgiveness of their sins through the blood of Christ; the shedding of Christ’s blood for them on the cross; and the uniting of them by the Holy Spirit to Christ by the mystical union of the bond of faith and regeneration, so that they are living members of Christ as adopted children of God.
This actual salvation of the children consists of the (objective) work of Christ forthem on the cross: “through the blood of thy beloved Son Jesus Christ.” It consists as well of the (subjective) work of Christ inthem by His Spirit: “received us through thy Holy Spirit as members of thine only begotten Son.”
The Reformed church thanks God for this actual salvation of the children of believing parentsin the infancy of the children, indeed, already at the time of the baptism of the infants. With regard to the infants who have just been baptized, the prayer thanks God that He “has” forgiven them on the basis of Christ’s death for them and that He “has” received them by His Holy Spirit as members of Christ.
The prayer of thanksgiving makes plain beyond any shadow of doubt what the Reformed form meant by “sanctified in Christ and … members of His [Christ’s] church” a few minutes earlier in the service. “Sanctified in Christ and … members of His church” meant, and means, that God has forgiven the infants all their sins through the blood of His beloved Son Jesus Christ and that God has received the infants through His Holy Spirit as members of His only begotten Son as adopted children.
And this is the meaning of infant baptism, for it is this actual salvation by the blood and Spirit of Christ that is “sealed and confirmed” to believing parents and their children by holy baptism.
As the meaning of infant baptism based on the covenant promise, “I will be the God of your children,” this is also the meaning of the covenant promise. God promises to save the infant children of believers.
By no means does the prayer of thanksgiving after infant baptism describe, or intend to describe, a saving work of God upon and in all the offspring of believers without exception. The prayer refers to the elect infants of believers, because, with the entire form, it understands the elect children to be the true, spiritual “seed” of Abraham and of believing parents.
If the prayer refers to all the offspring of believers without exception, Esau as well as Jacob, it teaches universal, conditional election; a universal, inefficacious atonement; revocable justification; losable adoption; resistible grace; and the falling away of saints, in the sphere of the covenant, regarding the children of believers. Sanctified in Christ by the covenant grace of God, so that one enjoys all the blessings of salvation, today! Outside of Christ, devoid of the blessings of salvation, and under God’s damning wrath, tomorrow! In this case, James Arminius was right, and the men of the federal vision can appeal in support of their grievous heresy to one of the foundational, most prominent, and most precious documents of Reformed Protestantism.
That the Reformed churches in the Netherlands did not teach this heresy and could not have taught this heresy in their baptism form is evident, first, from the fact that they adopted the form in 1574, when they stood firm in the truth of sovereign grace (against which Arminius would soon remonstrate), and again in 1618/1619 at the Synod of Dordt, where they would condemn the teaching of a universal, ineffectual grace.
Second, the prayer of thanksgiving itself shows that it speaks of the saving work of God in Christ with regard to elect infants, not of a saving work of God regarding all the offspring of believers without exception. The rest of the prayer, in which the church beseeches God on behalf of the children, affirms that all of the children who are the objects of the “fatherly goodness and mercy” of God will certainly persevere in righteousness “to the end that they may eternally praise and magnify” God. This is true only of the elect children.
Nowhere in the prayer of thanksgiving is there any mention of a condition that the children must perform in order either to enter the covenant or to remain in the covenant. Every notion of a conditional covenant promise to the children, of a conditional covenant with the children, of a conditional covenant salvation of the children, and of a condition for abiding in the covenant and being saved is decisively ruled out. For the prayer thanks God for the salvation of our childrenin their infancy, when they are utterly incapable of fulfilling any condition. It thanks God for saving them with a salvation that cannot be lost: the forgiveness of their sins through the blood of Jesus Christ and incorporation into Christ by the Holy Spirit. It finds in their baptism a seal and confirmation of this salvation, that is, the divinely appointed ceremony that assures that our children are saved and that this salvation is everlasting. On the basis of this sure salvation of the infants, sealed by baptism, the prayer has the church confidently ask God for the continuing, developing, and perfecting of the salvation of the children.
Thus, the prayer of thanksgiving exposes as erroneous the covenant doctrine, and corresponding explanation of “sanctified in Christ,” that views all the offspring of believers alike as objects of a certain covenantal grace and as taken into covenant union with Christ (“sanctified in Christ“), but as under the demand to perform a condition upon which depends their abiding in the covenant and their eternal salvation.
The prayer of thanksgiving also exposes as false the covenant doctrine that explains “sanctified in Christ” as merely a formal and outward “holiness” of the children of believers. Every time the officiatingminister and congregation that hold this barren covenant doctrine use the Reformed baptism form, the prayer of thanksgiving rises up to condemn them and their doctrine:
Almighty God and merciful Father, we thank and praise Thee, that Thou hast forgiven [not: ‘will forgive the infant children, if someday they have the conversion experience’—DJE] us, and our children [already in their infancy—DJE] all our sins through the blood of thy beloved Son Jesus Christ, and received us [past tense, with reference to believing parents and their infant children—DJE] through Thy Holy Spirit as members of Thine only begotten Son [so that we and our infants are living saints in Christ, not dead sinners—DJE], and adopted us [believing parents and infant children—DJE] to be Thy children [so that it is monstrous to view the infants as “little vipers”—DJE], and sealed and confirmed the same unto us by holy baptism.
The latter part of the prayer is no less conclusive in exposing the notion of a mere formal, external “holiness” of covenant children as erroneous. Those who hold this view of the baptized children make the duty of parents, church, and even Christian school towards the children the evangelizing of them, so that they may be converted. What this means is that the children are regarded as unregenerated, spiritually dead, and outside of Christ. The evangelizing of them is a work of getting these dead sinners saved, long after their infancy, if God pleases.
But the concluding part of the prayer of thanksgiving does not beseech the “merciful Father” of believers and their children, that He will be pleased to govern these baptized children by the external supervision of parents, church, and Christian school, so that they may be zealously evangelized as spiritually dead sinners in Adam and one day perhaps have a conversion experience, which saves them.
Absolutely nothing of the sort!
On the contrary, the prayer beseeches God to “govern these baptized children by Thy Holy Spirit” (which is a work of the Spirit indwelling the just baptized infants), “that they may be piously and religiously educated” (which is not the evangelizing of unregenerated children, but the instruction of little children who are born again and alive in Christ, with the gospel, so that they can and will repent, believe, and obey from their earliest years), “increase and grow up in the Lord Jesus Christ” (which is not a dramatic conversion from death to life in youth or old age, but a gradual maturing in Christ of those who were alive in Christ from infancy: “increase and grow up in the Lord Jesus Christ“), and then “acknowledge thy fatherly goodness and mercy, which Thou hast shown to them” (from their infancy). The children will prove the work of covenant grace in themselves, both to themselves and to others, when they come to years, not by experiencing a dramatic, mystical conversion, but by living “in all righteousness, under [their] only Teacher, King, and High Priest, Jesus Christ.” They will also “manfully fight against and overcome sin, the devil, and his whole dominion.”
The Reformed baptism form teaches that election governs the salvation of the offspring of believers in the covenant of grace. The form regards the elect children of believers as the true, spiritual children of believers, to whom the covenant promise is given, with whom the covenant is made, and in whom God begins the work of salvation as a rule when they are infants. Election determines the covenant children.
There are two ways to evade this doctrine of the baptism form, and both are pursued by Reformed churches and theologians. One is to extend the grace of the covenant to all the physical offspring of believers alike. This involves making covenant grace and salvation conditional, that is, dependent upon the work of the child. This is the denial of the gospel of salvation by sovereign grace, as the men of the federal vision are now demonstrating to the entire community of Reformed and Presbyterian churches.
The other way reduces the covenant work of God with the infants of believers to nothing more than the church’s formally and externally setting the infants and small children apart from the children of unbelievers in the hope of the conversion of some of the children in later life. Also this evasion denies that in the baptism form election determines the covenant children of believers. Specifically, it denies that election determines the infants of believers who are “sanctified in Christ.”
Neither of the evasions does justice to the language of the form.
Inasmuch as the Reformed baptism form is a very early, official document of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands—a “minor creed”—the Reformed churches in the Netherlands early established the truth that election governs the covenant as binding doctrine. For hundreds of years after 1574 and 1618/1619, Reformed theologians and even denominations of churches in the Dutch Reformed tradition opposed this doctrine, arguing strenuously that the covenant is divorced from election, especially regarding the inclusion of children in the covenant, and their salvation. Today, the overwhelming majority of theologians and churches that stand in the Dutch Reformed tradition and that have and use the Reformed baptism form take the position that the covenant is, and ought to be, divorced from election.
But they have no right to take this position.
In all the history of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands, or of the history of Reformed churches standing in that tradition, no one ever had a right to take that position.
The Reformed “Form for the Administration of Baptism” ruled out that position from the very beginning, at least as early as 1574, binding upon all theologians and churches that have the form as their official document that election governs the covenant.
In 1618/1619, the Canons of the Synod of Dordt did the same.
… to be continued.