Following the description of and Scriptural arguments for the doctrine of infant baptism, we come upon the statement in the Baptism Form, “And parents are in duty bound, further to instruct their children herein, when they shall arrive to years of discretion.” Then follows an intercessory prayer. The expressed purpose of this prayer is that the sacrament may be administered “to God’s glory, to our comfort, and to the edification of His church.” The real implication here is the confession that we are unworthy of the sacrament, unable to meet its obligations and that our sufficiency in all these things is God alone. His grace is, therefore, to be implored. But the consideration of the content of this baptismal prayer we will pass by for the present and discuss it later in connection with the prayer of thanksgiving.
After the prayer of intercession, the parents of the child or children to be baptized are addressed with the following important exhortation:
“Beloved in the Lord Jesus Christ, you have heard that baptism is an ordinance of God, to seal unto us and to our seed His covenant; therefore it must be used for that end, and not out of custom or superstition. That it may then be manifest, that you are thus minded, you are to answer sincerely to these questions.”
In answering the questions put to them, the parents, in the presence of the church and before the face of God Himself, speak the baptismal vow. Also this is not done out of custom or tradition but in all sincerity and truth. The solemnity of the occasion must be deeply impressed not only upon those making the vows but upon the whole congregation that witnesses them. Promises are made to God. Confession of the truth is expressed and convictions of the truth, based on the Word, concerning the incorporation of the seed of the covenant into the body of Christ through sovereign grace are heard by God and His church. Matters these are that may not be trifled with and neither are they things that we must concern ourselves with only at the moment of baptism. These vows and their many implications are of force throughout our entire life, and our attention must be focused on them constantly. Our concern for the material, temporal things of life must be secondary, while we may never forget our promises to God. The importance of this we will point out from the Word of God presently.
Vows of various kinds are found in almost all religious traditions. It is common, for example, in Buddhism for laymen to take upon themselves some of the extra practices of monks, such- as eating no solid food after midday and avoiding worldly entertainment for a day, week, or month. Then there is also the long-term or even lifetime vow, particularly among special religious sects or orders. Among the Old Testament Hebrews the Nazarites vowed not to cut their hair nor drink wine, sometimes for life (Num. 6). A Roman Catholic priest vows himself to chastity; and yaws of chastity, poverty and obedience are taken in Roman Catholic religious orders and congregations. A Hindu sadhu (holy man) may vow never to lie down to sleep. A Buddhist monk gives up all personal possessions except a few living necessities, begs his food, and devotes himself to meditation and study. These are organized patterns of religious living; yet persons enter them voluntarily and live in them a life of effort or self-denial, much beyond the standard required of ordinary believers. Hence such a life may be called a life of vow-fulfillment.
Without passing a judgment upon the validity or even advisability of these special religious vows, we point out one basic difference between them and the baptismal vows which are our present concern. As has been stated, the former are entered into voluntarily. In a sense this is true when we present our children in baptism also. That is, it is true in the sense that we are not compelled by force or law to do so. However, the baptizing of our children and the taking up of the vows in this connection is, strictly speaking, not a voluntary thing. It is a binding, ethical duty which God imposes upon every believer. Although there are occasions in our life when it is optional whether we shall make a vow (Deut. 23:22), this is not the case with respect to the duty to present our children in baptism. The church is remiss that fails to discipline parents who willfully neglect this sacrament and thereby refuse to take these vows upon their lips. And the reasoning is completely fallacious that contends that one is free from the obligation when he refrains from making the vow of baptism. The responsibility remains to confess the truth and to instruct the children God entrusts to our care in it. From this we can never be free, and futile is every attempt to circumvent the institutions of God so as to release us from this responsibility.
Scripture itself does not speak explicitly of the baptism vow. It does, however, speak of vows on different occasions. Jacob, on the way to Padanaram, vows a tithe to the Lord, “if God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace” (Gen. 28:20). Jepthah utters a rash vow, pledging the sacrifice of that which first meets, him on his return from battle (Judges 11:30). Hannah, in the bitterness of her soul, prayed to God and vowed a vow concerning a child she sought from the Lord (I Sam. 1:11). Although the New Testament is more silent on this subject, Paul took a vow to show his Jewish brethren that he is willing to keep the forms of Jewish piety so long as they do not clash with his Christian conscience (Acts 21:23, 24). And Jesus Himself did not condemn the vow although He does severely condemn the abuse of the vow (Matt. 15:4-6).
On this last point Scripture is very emphatic. A vow is as binding as an oath and it is therefore made to be kept. Caution is repeated that once made it must be kept, and the one making it must devote all diligence to its execution. Our Baptism Form stresses this point with the insertion of the phrase, “to the utmost of your power.” And Scripture makes clear the severe penalty which God inflicts upon the vow breaker.
In Deuteronomy 23:21 the Lord says, “When thou shalt vow a vow unto the Lord thy God, thou shalt not slack to pay it: for the Lord thy God will surely require it of thee; and it would be sin in thee.” And again in verse 23, “That which is gone out of thy lips thou shalt keep and perform; even a freewill offering, according as thou hast vowed unto the Lord thy God, which thou hast promised with thy mouth.”
Ecclesiastes 5:4 is very explicit on this matter. There we read: “When thou vowest a vow unto God, defer not to pay it; for he hath no pleasure in fools; pay that which thou hast vowed. Better it is that thou shouldest not vow, than that thou shouldest vow and not pay.”
We might add to this yet the instruction of Leviticus 5:4where the vow breaker is declared to be “guilty in one of these.” The principle of these passages applies to us today as much as it did to Israel of old. Our vows must be spoken intelligently and sincerely and followed by a manifest ardor to fulfill them lest the punishment of God comes upon us. Now we know that also this law is fulfilled in Christ for us and that apart from Him we are not able to realize our vows, but this fact does not abrogate our duty. It only accentuates the cry of the believer in Christ imploring day by day that measure of indispensable grace that enables us to keep the precepts of our God even as we vow. The severity of the punishment upon this offense is cited, therefore, not to instill fear and apprehension into our souls but to excite in us a greater diligence in seeking the Lord and His grace, in walking with our children in His ways, so that we may in faithfulness to that which we have vowed to Him show forth His praise in all our works.
The matter of punishment brings before us another matter. This is the question of the ethics of our vows. Oh, there is no question about the ethical rightness of the baptismal vow: for that, as we have stated, is required of us by God. But we consider many other vows which we often make carelessly, promises we utter without fully realizing their implications, and consequently which are frequently broken. We must exercise due caution before we speak such vows and be certain that our intentions are serious and sincere when they are uttered. A certain J. Kostlin expressed an opinion on this matter in the following quote:
“It must be remembered that all action is conditioned by a variety of subjective and objective circumstances which may alter from time to time. What seems now a positive duty may some day be superseded by a more pressing one, and man must then be free to follow the higher call. There may be cases in which a vow to remain unmarried should be taken by an evangelical Christian; but if he is to make it unconditionally, he must be absolutely sure that he will never be placed in a position in which it would be better for him to be married. An unconditional vow of the sort may amount to tempting God, with no promise of blessing in return; and the same may be said of the pledge by total abstinence societies. If the formal expression of the resolve becomes a burden on the conscience, it exposes the soul to an additional danger; in that case such special and formal vows will be required only seldom and under extraordinary circumstances in the life of evangelical Christians. In most cases their place will better be taken by an earnest laying before God of the impulses of devotion, with a prayer to be kept firm in purpose.”
The apostle James instructs us on this point when he tells us, “Whereas ye know not what shall be on, the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away, For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that.” That small but significant “D.V.” is too often absent in our thinking, planning, vowing of this or that with respect to things that are not in our control. I may promise to work for a man for so much a week, and a condition of employment may be that I pledge to remain in the job for which the employer trains me for a minimum of five years. But if the Lord incapacitates me, or I die, I cannot fulfill my pledge. We are simply unable to make absolute promises, for we are not sovereign. That is also why God’s promises to us are always unconditional and sure. He is our sovereign Lord.
But our concern now is primarily with the vow of baptism. Connected with this are two other major vows which God requires of us and which are made in the course of our earthly life. This triad constitutes the expression of Christian living that affects every phase and sphere of our existence each day we live in the world. We mention these three with the intention of discussing them more fully in subsequent articles. They are: (1) The vow the Christian makes in his public profession of faith, in which one consciously assumes the responsibilities of baptism and vows to live in accordance with the Word. (2) The vow the Christian makes upon entering the holy state of marriage and in which one vows in that relation to reflect the beautiful union of Christ and His Church. (3) The vow which believing parents make in presenting the gifts of God, their children, before Him in baptism, pledging to instruct and bring them up in the truth to the utmost of their power.