Previous article in this series: April 1, 2007, p. 292.
The conditional covenant maintains that the promises of the covenant are for all baptized children without exception. According to this conception of the covenant, in the sacrament of baptism God promises to every baptized child that He makes an everlasting covenant of grace with the child. God, through the minister, calls the child by name and promises redemption from sin though the blood of Christ. God promises that He will dwell in that child by His Spirit. All this is dependent, is conditioned, on the child believing the promises.
However, by insisting that each baptized child has these promises pronounced to him personally, conditional covenant proponents have left the solid ground of Scripture and the Reformed confessions and entered dangerous theological territory. According to their theology, promises of salvation are signed and sealed to each child at baptism. How do they guard against the obvious implication that each baptized child actually is saved, for they know that not all are saved? In the past, the solution often given was that each child has these promises objectively, but not subjectively. Faith is the prerequisite condition to receiving these benefits subjectively.
The problem is, however, that this man-made distinction does not do justice to the covenant. The covenant is not merely an arrangement (as it is sometimes described). Even conditional covenant theologians have come to see that the covenant is a relationship of love and friendship. God promised Abraham, “I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed…to be a God unto thee and to thy seed after thee” (Gen. 17:7). He spoke the same promise to Israel, “And I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God: and ye shall know that I am the LORD your God” (Ex. 6:7). Thus, if God’s covenant with His people is real, if it be more than a paper contract, then the members of that covenant must really and truly possess the blessings that belong to the covenant. God is their saving, covenant-keeping God.
Another teaching of the conditional covenant is that God establishes the covenant unilaterally, but that the maintenance of the covenant is bilateral. According to that idea, God establishes His covenant with every baptized child. Each of these children is a member of the covenant, a member of the church, and a part of the body of Christ. Whether or not any individual child retains this position depends on whether the child believes. Or, to speak of it in terms of John 15 (which is being done today), it depends on whether or not the branch produces fruit. The fruit is faith and the obedience of faith.
It is out of this fertile soil of the conditional covenant that the bold new heresies known as the Federal Vision are springing up. As is true of all heresies, this one also contains some truth, otherwise it would not be deceptive. A main theme of this error is the truth that the covenant is real; God means what He says. However, that truth mingled with the error of the conditional covenant, leads to the abominable position that every baptized child truly possess all the blessings of the covenant.
The cementing together of baptism and the blessings of the covenant is cleverly done. Doug Wilson is a vocal proponent of the “Federal Vision.” His manner of uniting the two is an apt illustration.¹
First, Wilson writes as though to reject the doctrine of “baptismal regeneration,” that is, that regeneration occurs through the very act of baptism. Historically this has been described by the Latin expression used by Rome,ex opere operato. Wilson claims to reject that idea of baptism, for “the blessings of the covenant are appropriated by faith, not by water” (242).
However, he does not discard the phrase ex opere operato, but claims that it describes baptism’s power to bind a child to the covenant. He writes, “Baptism in water does establish, ex opere operato, a binding relation to the covenant and the Lord of the covenant” (242). He explains.
So water baptism is covenantally efficacious. It brings every person baptized into some kind of an objective and living covenant relationship with Christ, whether the baptized person is elect or reprobate. Baptism is always to be taken by the one baptized as a sign and seal of his engrafting into Christ. If the person is reprobate, he will refuse to do so, and will be cut out of the vine. If he is elect, he cannot be cut out. An unbelieving covenant member incurs all the curses of the covenant, while the believer appropriates all its blessings by faith alone (242).
This is a common theme among theologians of this ilk. Steve Wilkins, having affirmed the biblical truth that “all the blessings and benefits of salvation…are found ‘in Christ’,” applies this to baptism as follows:
The Bible teaches us that baptism unites us to Christ and His body by the power of the Holy Spirit,
Baptism is an act of God (through His ministers) which signifies and seals our initiation into the Triune communion (we are “baptized into the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”). At baptism we are clothed with Christ, united to Him and to His Church which is His body,
Astounding assertions! Where does he get such notions? From the fact that the covenant is a real relationship, as he points out.
In fact, covenant is a real relationship, consisting of real communion with the triune God through union with Christ. The covenant is not some thing that exists apart from Christ or in addition to Him (another means of grace)—rather, the covenant is union with Christ. Thus, being in covenant gives all the blessings of being united to Christ. There is no salvation apart from covenant simply because there is no salvation apart from union with Christ (262, his emphasis).
But what of those that eventually reject God and His covenant and perish in unbelief? Did they also have these blessings that result from union with Christ? Oh, yes, affirms Wilkins.
The apostate doesn’t forfeit “apparent blessings” that were never his in reality, but real blessings that were his in covenant with God (264, his emphasis.)
All this is based squarely on a conditional covenant. God establishes it with every baptized child. Every child has “the objective, real nature of union with Christ” (265). Wilkins writes:
Covenant, therefore, is a gracious relationship, not a potentially gracious relationship. To be in covenant is to have the treasures of God’s mercy and grace and the love which He has for His own Son given to you. But the covenant is not unconditional. It requires persevering faithfulness (255-256, his emphasis).
Such quotations could be multiplied by the hundreds.³ Essentially these men are teaching that baptism forms a real union with Christ because it brings the individual into the (conditional) covenant. But because union with Christ is a living union that makes one to be alive with the life of Christ, they are teaching baptismal regeneration, in spite of their disavowing it.
Now we could present a refutation of baptismal regeneration, but that is quite unnecessary. For nearly the last 500 years the churches of the Reformation have rejected Rome’s teaching of baptismal regeneration and the notion that baptism confers grace on all who are baptized. I refer the reader to John Calvin’s treatment of this in his Institutes(4.14.14-17).
The point that must not be lost is this: These heretical teachings are a natural and necessary consequence of conditional covenant theology.
This is the only conclusion that can be drawn also from a conditional-covenant reading of the Heidelberg Catechism’s instruction on the necessity of infant baptism. We noted last time that the conditional covenant interprets Q. & A. 74 as applying the promises of baptism to every baptized child. Let’s read the Catechism’s answer, and change the pronouns to “all baptized children, head for head.” Then the Catechism reads as follows:
Are infants also to be baptized?
Answer. Yes: for since all baptized children head for head, as well as the adult, are included in the covenant and church of God; and since redemption from sin by the blood of Christ, and the Holy Ghost, the author of faith, is promised to all baptized children head for head no less than to the adult; all baptized children head for head must therefore by baptism, as a sign of the covenant, be also admitted into the Christian church; and be distinguished from the children of unbelievers as was done in the old covenant or testament by circumcision, instead of which baptism is instituted in the new covenant.
Such a reading is untenable because the sovereign God always accomplishes His purposes, as every Reformed believer knows. Since God cannot lie, but fulfills all His promises in Jesus Christ, one can only conclude that God does give to all these baptized children redemption and the Spirit, the author of faith, and makes them all living members of His church. They are grafted into Christ. Any child who rejects God and His covenant has fallen away from grace. But this is a blatant denial of the preservation of the saints.
The right choice is to reject the conditional covenant entirely, and see the beauty of a covenant theology that is governed by election. God’s covenant promise is that He will be the God of believers and their elect children (the seed, which ultimately is Christ and those in Him, Gal. 3:16). God promises to give to believers and their elect seed a place in His church and covenant. God promises to give to believers and their elect children redemption from sin in the blood of Christ, and the Holy Spirit,who will work faith. To the elect children, baptism is a sign and seal that they “are spiritually cleansed from [their] sins as really as [they] are externally washed with water” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. & A. 73). These elect children will come to full assurance that they are elect from the fruits of election (Canons, I, 12).
But one may ask: Why baptize all the children of believers if some may not be elect?
Part of the answer is that believing parents are not given to know (at the birth of their children) God’s determination concerning these children—elect or reprobate. For good, holy, and wise reasons, God has chosen not to reveal this to parents.
But God has revealed His command that parents are to baptize all their children, even as Israel was to circumcise all their boys. The point of the command is not that God promises to save all. Nor is it that baptism gives something of salvation to all, or puts them all in a better position to be saved. The fact is, everything in the sphere of the covenant will work against the reprobate children of believers— their baptism, the godly covenant homes, catechetical instruction, the Christian school—everything will harden, foment rebellion, blind their eyes, make their ears dull and hearts fat (Matt. 13:16).
(Yes, there is a “sphere of the covenant,” in which are found elect children of believers and non-elect children of believers. Why this should be so hard for some to accept is a mystery. Virtually every Reformed believer knows that not every baptized child of believers is truly a member of the body of Christ, even though each of these is a member of the church institute for a time. They are in the sphere of the church. Likewise the covenant. God does not make a covenant with every child born to believing parents and baptized. The reprobate are only in the sphere of the covenant; God makes no covenant with them. However, with the elect, God truly establishes His covenant of grace.)
Believers gladly obey God’s command to baptize all their children because it is a sign and seal that Jehovah does establish His covenant in families and in generations. God sovereignly will gather whom He will from among our children. You and I, as parents, may not object to God’s way of working in the covenant. We may not demand that He give all our children equally the promise of salvation. Believing parents rather rejoice that God is pleased to continue His covenant with them and with their children. They delight in the sovereign fruits of election manifest in the lives of their children. They give thanks that the salvation is not conditioned on anything that they or their children do. God has established a real covenant of love and friendship with them and their seed, that is, their elect children.
When a child does not give evidence of faith and love (God’s gifts) but rebels, then parents grieve, to be sure. They pray fervently that the Lord will turn their child; that the Lord will spare him the dreadful consequences of spurning God, of trampling underfoot all the covenant instruction he received, of crucifying Christ afresh. Nevertheless, these parents do add, must add, Not my will, but Thine be done. Thy sovereign, eternal, good will, of predestination. Thou art God.
¹ “Sacramental Efficacy in the Westminster Standards,” The Auburn Avenue Theology Pro and Cons: Debating the Federal Vision, Calvin Beisner, Ed. Published by Knox Theological Seminary, 2004, pp. 233-253.
² “Covenant, Baptism, and Salvation,” also in The Auburn Avenue Theology, p. 259. (Emphasis his.)
³ Guy Prentiss Waters has gathered many such quotations in his fine book, The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology: A Comparative Analysis (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2006).