Thus, a person may probably be converted when he is seventy or eighty years of age, although he is regenerated from infancy. With this we cannot agree. At least, we think it is very improbable that the Lord affects His work of regeneration in such a way in the heart of the elect. It may very well be that a seed in nature can continue to live, if it has not contact with the soil whatever, for many years. But it is quite inconceivable that a seed can be implanted in the soil, and be under the influence of rain and sunshine, without sprouting into life and bringing forth fruit. And the same may be said of the seed of regeneration that is implanted in the heart and that comes under the influence of the preaching of the gospel. It will certainly reveal itself in faith and conversion, and that too, without delay. The work of God is throughout characterized by perfect wisdom. It would be foolish to suppose that the seed of regeneration could lie dormant and inactive for many years, without ever showing any signs of life. And therefore, when we make a distinction between regeneration in the narrower sense and in the wider sense of the word, it must be understood that the distinction is a logical distinction, and not a distinction in time. The distinction may never mean a separation between regeneration and the Word of God, or the preaching of the Word.
Finally, a word must be said in this connection about the regeneration of infants. Those who insist that regeneration is always effected through the preaching of the Word do not really have any explanation of the salvation of little children. According to some, they are not regenerated: for regeneration presupposes conscious faith, and conscious faith presupposes the hearing of the preaching of the gospel, and therefore it cannot be present in little infants. They claim that they must be saved in some other, inexplicable, way. Some even suggest that after death they are no more infants, and, are regenerated in glory. Others, however, who also hold that regeneration is mediate, that is, always taking place through the preaching of the gospel only, allow an exception in the case of infants. These are, according to them, regenerated immediately. However, let us note that either this is true only with those infants that die in early infancy, or the seed of regeneration is implanted in all the children that are reborn in early childhood; In. the former case, it would seem rather strange that God would make an exception only in respect to those children that are taken away in infancy. What possible reason can there be, if God is able to regenerate some children, why He should wait in the case of others until they can understand the preaching of the Word, to implant in them the seed of regeneration? But if, on the other hand, it is maintained that the seed of regeneration is implanted in all the children that are reborn in infancy, it may well be regarded as an established rule that infants in the line of the covenant are regenerated before they are able to hear the preaching of the Word. And in that case, there is very little room left for mediate regeneration. We understand, of course, that when we speak of regeneration of infants, we refer not to all infants, but onIy to those that are chosen by God from before the foundation of the world.
This is indeed the Reformed view of the matter. In the line of the covenant the seed of regeneration is implanted in the heart of the elect children of the covenant in early infancy. This does not mean that we base our view of immediate regeneration on the presupposition that children are regenerated. On .the contrary, the conception that regeneration is an immediate work of the Holy Spirit, independent of the preaching of the Word of God, is founded on Scripture. But just because Scripture teaches this truth, and presents it as the true view of the rebirth of God’s people in the narrowest sense of the word, that is, in the sense of the implanting of the seed of regeneration as an immediate work by the Holy Spirit, therefore it ought to be evident that also the littlest infants can receive the grace of regeneration. And again, because we believe, on the basis of Scripture, that regeneration must be conceived as an immediate work of the Spirit, and because for that very reason the regeneration of infants is possible, therefore we regard it as a common rule that in the line of the covenant the elect children are reborn from infancy.
Then we can also understand the real significance and operation of the preaching of the Word in the sphere of the church and in the line of the covenant, as a means of grace. Means require conscious action. They presuppose life. They are elements which God uses, but which we also use. Bread is used by God to nourish our bodies, and we eat it. Thus the Holy Spirit uses the preaching of the Word to work faith and to strengthen it; but we also use it, and are even responsible for the use of the Word of God. Now, it is only the living that can possibly use means. The dead can neither eat nor drink. And the spiritually dead do indeed react upon the preaching of the Word, but only to reject it. They never come to repentance and faith. To them it is a savor of death unto death. But just as the physically living are able to use the means which God provides for the sustenance of their earthly life, so the spiritually living are capable to use the means which the Holy Spirit provides for the working of faith and the development and upbuilding of that faith, And therefore we maintain that regeneration is before all the work of grace, and that it is immediate. Life is first. And in regeneration the Holy Spirit implants the principle of life, and with that principle of life also the power, or the faculty, of faith, so that potentially the regenerated is a believer even before he comes to conscious activity of faith. It is exactly in order that in the line and in the sphere of the covenant and of the church little infants may as early as possible have contact with the preaching of the gospel in all its forms, that the Lord God in His wisdom implants the seed of regeneration in the hearts of the elect children, and also gives them eyes to see and ears to hear, notentially, by the powerful, efficacious, and ever-living and abiding Word of God—in other words, that God immediately regenerates them from infancy.
It is in the sphere of the covenant that conscious faith and repentance are wrought gradually in small children through the influence of the preaching of the Word.
We must remember that the influence of this preaching and its sphere is, of course, not limited to the official ministry in the church on Sunday and on the mission field. On the contrary, it includes many different spheres of labor. Thus, for instance, there is the work of the seminary, the theological school, where young men are trained for the ministry of the Word, where they are taught to exegete Holy Writ and to understand the doctrine of the church, and where the truth is developed and maintained and defended over against all errors. This, of course, is an extremely important work, and must never be neglected, even though a church be ever so small, and even though there be very few students in the theological school. There is also the work of preserving and translating, as well as of interpreting the Scriptures. This is a labor that shows its fruits not only in interpreting the Bible, but also in hundreds of commentaries. Besides, there is the calling of the church to establish and formulate the truth of the Word of God in her confessions, not only to defend it over against the opi ponents and gainsayers, as is done, for instance, in the Canons of Dordrecht, but also to preserve it in generations. Of all these labors the church, which is the pillar and ground of the truth, and to which the Word of God has been entrusted, is the subject. And of them all, the preaching of the Word as a means of grace is the very heart.
Now it is in the sphere of the church that God in His infinite wisdom and mercy causes the covenant child to be born. Under the influence of the preaching of the Word in this widest sense the child is placed from very infancy.
This begins already in the administration of baptism. Of infant baptism we must speak later. Here I only wish to state that in baptism the church exercises the influence of the preaching of the Word by exacting from the parent that present their children to baptism the promise that they will bring up their children “in the aforesaid doctrine, or help or cause them to be instructed therein, to the utmost of their power.” Of this doctrine in which the children must be instructed the parents are asked to acknowledge that it “is contained in the Old and New Testament, and in the articles of the Christian faith, and which is taught here in this Christian church, to be the true and perfect doctrine of salvation.” In harmony with this pledge of the parents, it is in the covenant home that the influence of the Word of God is exercised upon the child, first of all. This continues in the Christian school and the Sunday School, and presently also in the catechism classes, and centrally also in the midst of the congregation through the preaching of the Word of God. Besides, the influence of the preaching of the Word in the sphere of the church is felt in many other ways, as, for instance, the reading of the Bible in the home, the conversation of the saints among one another, and the study of Scripture in the various societies that are organized within the church. And once more, it must be emphasized that the very heart of this sphere and influence is the preaching of the Word as a means of grace, together with the administration of the sacraments.
No one can say at how early an age the Holy Spirit and the living and abiding Word of God can and do quicken the seed of regeneration and thus bring .the faculty of faith to a more or less conscious activity. Worldly educators realize rather clearly that from earliest infancy the whole outside world streams in upon the consciousness of the child and makes its impression upon that consciousness. Modern educators stress the importance of surrounding the child, even in its cradle, with objects, sounds, shapes, and colors and smells that are all calculated to make the most favorable impression upon the little infant. Why, then, cannot the Holy Spirit, in connection with the living Word of God; impress the little child with all the influences of a truly covenant home, the singing of psalms or hymns, the playing of sacred music, the simple prayer uttered by the parents at the cradle, the folding of the little hands of the infant in prayer at the table in the high-chair, and many other influences of the Christian home, to bring the faculty of faith to some sort of conscious activity? We know very little, of course, of the life of the infant. But it is certain that long before what is usually considered the age of discretion, there can be and is a decided influence of the Word of God upon the covenant child.
It is especially for this reason that, according to our conviction, the children of the covenant are regenerated from earliest infancy, even at birth or even before birth. Why should God according to the rule of the covenant bring little children under the influence of the preaching of the Word from their earliest infancy if they were not regenerated? The dead certainly cannot use means; and there is no proper reaction upon the preaching of the Word by those that are spiritually dead. Only those that are living are capable of using the means which the Holy Spirit provides for the working of faith and for the development and upbuilding of that faith. Hence, we believe that as a rule the children of the covenant that are elect are also regenerated from earliest infancy. As the child grows up in the sphere of the covenant, he gradually comes to conscious faith, receives the promise, and assumes his part of the covenant, which, according to our Baptism Form, consists in this, that we are “admonished and obliged unto new obedience, namely, that we cleave to this one God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, that we trust in him and love him with all our hearts, with all our souls, with all our mind, and with all our strength; that we forsake the world, crucify our old nature, and walk in a new and holy life.”
Now when the child of the covenant reaches the age of discretion and has always walked in the way of the covenant, he is not and cannot be expected to be conscious of any sudden or remarkable change, or conversion, in his life. To be sure, the change which we call conversion must surely take place. The covenant child must be able to give account of himself and must be conscious of true conversion, which consists of the mortification of the old and the quickening of the new man. He must be conscious of a sincere sorrow of heart that he has provoked God by his sins. He must be cognizant of a desire to hate and flee from sin. He must be conscious of a sincere joy of heart in God through Christ, and of a sincere delight to live according to the will of God in all good works. But in the way of the covenant this conversion is not sudden, or marked, but a gradual conversion. The question is not when and where the covenant child was converted, or how that change was effected in him, but whether he knows that he is converted and reveals his conversion by a walk in the way of continued conversion in the midst of the church and in the world. This entire change is wrought through the preaching of the Word.
The preaching of the Word in the sphere of the covenant must, of course, be both distinctive and upbuilding.
It cannot proceed on the assumption that all the children of the covenant, that is, all those that are born in the sphere of and under the influence of the covenant, are elect and regenerated. The theory of presumptive regeneration, according to which it is presumed that all the children that are born under the covenant and in the church are regenerated, is certainly not Scriptural. All are not Israel that are of Israel. Not the children of the flesh, but the children of the promise are counted for the seed. Nor can it be said that those who are under the covenant and in the church, but who are and remain carnal and never come to saving faith or to true conversion, belong to the exceptions. The history of the Old Testament church teaches quite the opposite. Always it was the carnal seed that abounded in the covenant of the old dispensation; and the remnant according to the election of grace was saved. Nor does this appear different when we look at the church in general of the new dispensation. If we consider baptized Christendom as a whole, it would seem that those that have apostatized from the faith are far more numerous than the faithful believers. Always there is the carnal seed in the church. And the theory of presumptive regeneration, which presumes, or supposes, that all the children born in the covenant are elect, is not only unscriptural, but it is also dangerous. Dangerous it is, not because, as the popular saying goes, it tends to let people go to hell with an imaginary heaven: for that is quite impossible, at least where the truth is preached. But the danger is that because it presumes what is not true according to Scripture, it leaves the carnally-minded in the church; and thus the church of Christ is corrupted. And therefore, the preaching must be directed not only to the elect, but also to the reprobate in the church, not only to the godly, but also to the ungodly. It must be so distinctive that under the influence of the preaching the reprobate and ungodly cannot remain, but will reveal themselves as haters of the truth of God and His Christ. Moreover, even the elect and regenerated are not perfect. Even as regards them, there is much flesh in the church. Daily they have to strive with the desires and lusts of the flesh and with the temptations of the devil and the world, and must be admonished steadfastly to walk in the way of the covenant, to hate sin, and to fight against it and flee from it.
Hence, the preaching in the sphere of the covenant must always be distinctive. This does not necessarily mean that it must divide the church into elect and reprobate, converted and unconverted, and address them separately in the preaching, Rather, it means that the whole church as it organically exists in the world must be brought under the influence of the very same preaching of the Word. The same Word must be directed to all. All must be exhorted to be converted and to convert themselves, to repent in dust and ashes. All must be admonished continually to walk in the way of sanctification and to live antithetically, as being of the party of the living God in the midst of the world. Such preaching will have the result that it is a savor of life unto life for those whom God has chosen unto everlasting salvation, but at the same time a savor of death unto death for the rest. Only under such preaching alone the church will be built up, and believers will be edified.
THE IDEA OF THE SACRAMENTS
The term sacraments is not derived from Scripture, but from the Latin term sacramentum. But although the term sacromentzcm is not Scriptural, it has been used by the church of the new dispensation for many centuries as denoting the signs and seals of the new covenant.
In all of our Reformed confessions the sacraments occupy a very important place.
In the Heidelberg Catechism Q. 66, the sacraments in general are defined as “holy, visible signs and seals, appointed of God for this end, that by the use thereof, he may more fully declare and seal to us the promise of the gospel, namely, that he grants us freely the remission of sin, and life eternal, for the sake of that one sacrifice of Christ, accomplished on the cross.”
Article 33 of the Belgic or Netherland Confession describes and defines the sacraments as follows: “We believe, that our gracious God, on account of our weakness and infirmities hath ordained the sacraments for us, thereby to seal unto us his promises, and to be pledges of the good will and grace of God toward us, and also to nourish and strengthen our faith; which he hath joined to the Word of the gospel, the better to present to our senses, both that which he signifies to us by his Word, and that which he works inwardly in our hearts, thereby assuring and confirming in us the salvation which he imparts to us. For they are visible signs and seals of an inward and invisible thing, by means whereof God worketh in us by the power of the Holy Ghost. Therefore the signs are not in vain or insignificant, so as to deceive us. For Jesus Christ is the true object presented by them, without whom they would be of no moment. Moreover, we are satisfied with the number of sacraments which Christ our Lord hath instituted, which are two only, namely, the sacrament of baptism, and the holy supper of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
In both these descriptions of the sacraments, by the Heidelberger and by the Netherland Confession, we may find the following elements: 1) Sacraments are instituted to strengthen the faith of the believer, and therefore they presuppose faith. 2) They are visible signs and seals of an inward and invisible thing; and God hath joined them to the Word, that is, to the preaching of the gospel, “the better to present to our senses both that which he signifies to us by his Word, and that which he works inwardly in our hearts, thereby assuring and confirming in us the salvation which he imparts to us.” 3) They are ordained and instituted by God, and that too, in the church. There are many signs, and there are many seals; but in order to be sacraments, signs and seals must be definitely and specially ordained and appointed by the God of our salvation. 4) That which the sacraments signify and seal unto us is the promise of the gospel, namely, that He grants us freely the remission of sin and life eternal, for the sake of that one sacrifice of Christ, accomplished on the cross. The new element which is evidently expressed in the article of the Netherland Confession, in distinction from the Heidelberg Catechism, is that the sacraments not only signify and seal the objective promises of God, but also “an invisible thing, by means whereof God worketh in us by the power of the Holy Ghost.” This refers to the grace of God as it is wrought by the Holy Ghost in the hearts of believers.