In the Concordia issue of March 15, 1951, the undersigned addressed the following question to the Rev. Petter, and I quote; “Is baptism the sign and seal of a conditional promise, of a promise which will presently be held before them with its accompanying command and threat? or, is baptism the sign and seal of the promise which is theirs because of divine election, particular atonement, and the Spirit of regeneration? I can restate my questions as follows: Do we baptize our children because the promise will be presented conditionally to them, so that the sacrament of baptism merely looks forward to the time that the child grows to self-consciousness and faith? or, Do we baptize our children because the Father has adopted them eternally as His heirs, because Christ washed their sins and presented them righteous before God, and because God has promised that they, also as children, shall receive the promised Spirit of regeneration, the author of faith?”
Rev. Petter answered my questions in the Concordia issues of March 15 and 29. I wish to thank the brother for his time and effort which he spent in answering my letter.
I do not feel, however, that he has answered my questions clearly and concisely. This may also be due to the letter which I wrote him and the questions which I submitted. I will grant that my letter may have been somewhat vague. It is also for this reason that I wish to answer brother Petter’s reply and attempt to state the issue clearly and concisely.
I trust that our readers will bear with me. We should bear in mind that the issue is fundamental and tremendously important. It is simply a fact that the reformed position is most clearly expressed in connection with the baptism of our children. Here we deal, to be sure, with the truth as it constitutes the very heart and core of our Protestant Reformed Churches. That truth we are called to proclaim in all its blessed fullness and distinctiveness. And it is exactly on this point that the theology of the Liberated and that of our churches stand sharply over against each other. Let us therefore be clear and concise. This prompts me in the writing of this article.
Two Widely Divergent Views
According to the one conception the baptism of our children is based upon the fact of salvation, proceeds from the truth that our children are partakers of the salvation and the promise of God (as realized for them and in them). This conception is rooted in God’s sovereign election, in Christ’s particular atonement, in the promise as God’s infallible and unconditional oath of salvation. According to the other view we baptize our children on the basis of a conditional promise, a promise which is given equally to all the children, and which will be realized in them if they believe and therefore upon the condition of faith. This conception does not proceed from the truth that the children are partakers of the salvation of God but that they may become such in the future.
Let us first attend to the first of these two conceptions. In this connection I would urge all our readers to read carefully and thoughtfully the articles of the Rev. Hoeksema in the Standard Bearer, beginning with the Standard Bearer of Feb. 15, 1951. We, then, baptize our children, as. the Baptism Form states it so beautifully, because they are included in the covenant of grace (not merely the regulation of friendship but God’s eternal friendship) which God has established with them eternally; because God has adopted them to be His children and heirs; and because God, the Son, has washed them in His blood and has presented them righteous before God. Mind you, this must not be understood merely as an objective bequest or bestowal, as merely constituting the content of the promise which is equally bestowed upon and extended to all, but as a statement of the fact of salvation. We baptize our children because God loves them eternally and Christ has suffered and died for them. But this is not all. We also baptize them because God promises them (and also of this promise baptism is a divine seal) that His Spirit will dwell in them and sanctify them until one day they shall be presented before Him as an assembly of the elect in life eternal. In this sense it is certainly true that the sacrament of baptism also looks to the future, assures the child of what God will grant him all the days of his life. But we must notice that this work of the Spirit in our hearts and lives all the days of our life must not be divorced from that of the Father and the Son but as based upon it. The Holy Spirit will work and dwell in us because God has loved us and adopted us as His children and heirs eternally and the Son has washed us and presented us righteous before God. This means that the promise of the Spirit is not for all, is not conditional and given to all, but only for those whom the Father has loved eternally and the Son has redeemed by His blood. And this also implies that the paragraph in our Baptism Form which preceded that which specifically refers to the infants and which speaks of the two parts in the covenant of God must not be viewed as a condition with which we must comply before the Spirit will work and dwell in us, but as the fruit of the work of God which is presented in the preceding paragraph This lies in the very nature of the case. How can this “second part” of the covenant of God with us be a condition for the “first part” when that first part includes everything? Does not this first part bring us into everlasting glory, concluding with the words that we shall be presented as an assembly of the elect in life eternal? Hence, we are admonished unto a new and godly walk, to put off the old man and to put on the new man, because that is the fruit of the grace of God and therefore our calling as saved moral-rational beings. To this must be added that the work of regeneration generally occurs in the lives of the children of God during their infancy, be it before or during or immediately after the administration of the sacrament of baptism. This conception of infant baptism is the reformed position (see also on this point the articles of Rev. Hoeksema). And this has surely been our position as Protestant Reformed Churches. Hence, even as an American soldier must wear the American uniform because he is an American soldier, so also our children must receive the sacrament of baptism as their ensign and banner (according to our reformed confessions) because they are children of the living God, eternally, through the redeeming blood of the cross, and spiritually through the regenerating Spirit of Christ.
Over against this conception of infant baptism stands the Heynsian conception of the sacrament with which also the Liberated conception of the sacrament fundamentally agrees. It does not proceed from the truth of immediate regeneration and that the children are sanctified in Christ in the spiritual sense of the word. It does not proceed from what the children are but from what they may become. It places the significance of the sacrament in the future. We need not enter into a detailed discussion at this time of this Heynsian conception of the sacrament against which our people must ever remain on the alert. Heynsianism identifies the covenant with the promise and conceives of the promise as an offer of salvation. It declares that the sacrament seals and confirms this promise of God to every child that is baptized. It informs us that the Spirit will dwell and work in the children if they believe and accept the offered salvation. It maintains, of course, that regeneration is mediate. This, we understand, involves them in a difficulty as far as the children are concerned who die in their infancy. They cannot accept the gospel and cannot consciously exercise the activity of faith. They, therefore, attempt to extricate themselves out of the difficulty by asserting that these children who die in their infancy constitute an exception in the divine arrangement and dispensation of salvation. They are saved in a different way than that which normally occurs. The normal way is that the promise is equally bestowed upon all, that baptism seals this general promise, and that they will obtain the promise of the Lord if they believe.
Now we should bear these two widely divergent views of the baptism of our children in mind. Fundamentally, they are the only two possible interpretations of the sacrament. The one proceeds from the truth that baptism rests upon the promise of the Lord as an unconditional and infallible oath of salvation only to the elect. The other assumes that the promise is general and conditional. The latter is Heynsianism and the former is Reformed and has always been Protestant Reformed. Incidentally, we are not discussing, in this correspondence with Rev. Petter, the question relative the baptism of the reprobate children. Never is the sacrament of baptism grace for them, either from the viewpoint of the child or from the viewpoint of the purpose and intention of the Lord. We are now discussing the positive significance of the sacrament. This must be preached. To be sure, the reprobate children will reveal the wickedness of their heart. And this hardening is surely the divine purpose of the administration of the sacrament upon him.
Rev. Fetter’s Article in Concordia of Feb. 1
I ask our readers to look up the Concordia’s of Feb. 1, March 15 and 29, and follow these articles with me as I call attention to them.
Particularly three elements in Rev. Petter’s article of Feb. 1 struck my attention. The reader will notice that the brother is referring to that which the Declaration asserts with respect to the last question and answer of Lord’s Day 27 of our Heidelberg Catechism. The Declaration asserts that the Catechism here emphasizes the truth that the promise is unconditional and only for the elect. This brings me to the first element of the brother’s article to which I would call attention. Notice please what Rev. Petter writes here and I quote: “The defect in this argument is that it does not distinguish between infants that die in infancy and infants that grow up. Yet this distinction must be carefully observed. . . . And so it is also with the question of little children and conditions. The Liberated freely admit that dying infants are saved without meeting conditions. For the Liberated acknowledge that little children do not fall under the general rules. They are not confronted with the command and threat of the Gospel. We do not know what exists or takes place in infants, spiritually. It is sometimes suggested that little children are baptized on the supposition that they have a “potential faith” or “inclination to faith”, (as according to Ursinus—H.V.). We cannot say with any certainty that they have such faith. It is possible that the consciousness of salvation and of life is first given to dying infants when, redeemed by the cross, they enter into the broad daylight of the heavenly world of fellowship with God. But for the adult the consciousness and enjoyment comes in this world, in this altogether different way. It comes gradually or by steps. It comes by the pedagogy of sanctification, and that in the confrontations of tensions and discipline that also involve the stimulations and provocations of conditionality. The very fact that infant and adult experience the entrance into salvation in two different ways, shows that God has two wholly different purposes with these differing ways and processes. The one awakes in glory. The other goes through a trying, training, ethical crisis of command, with promise and threat.”—end of quote. Rev. Petter states here that we must distinguish between infants that die in their infancy and infants that grow up, that this distinction must be carefully observed, that the Lord has two wholly different purposes with these differing ways and processes. In this connection I would certainly like to ask the following questions. Does it necessarily follow from the fact that infants do not exercise conscious faith as do adults that the Lord therefore saves them in two wholly different ways? Are not both saved through regeneration and faith in Christ? Does Rev. Petter have any right, in Lord’s Day 27, to distinguish as he does between children that die in their infancy and those that grow up? Of course, we understand that if the promise of God is already realized in His people during their infancy then it must necessarily be unconditional. Now it may be possible that I misunderstand the brother, although I think it would be more correct to say that I do not understand him. But it seems to me that Rev. Petter makes distinction here between infants that die in their infancy and those that grow up, and that God pursues two wholly different ways of salvation with respect to them. This receives added significance when, in his article in Concordia of March 29, the brother expresses doubt as to the working of regeneration in the life of an infant. Is he here advocating the Heynsian conception as outlined above relative the distinction between infants that die in their infancy and those that grow up?
The second element in Rev. Petter’s article to which I would call attention is contained in the same passage which I quoted in the preceding paragraph. Notice once more the paragraph which begins with the words: “And so it is also with the question of little children and conditions,” and the following paragraph, ending with the words: “provocations of conditionality.” Is the brother advocating here that little children do not have potential faith or the inclination to faith? I will have more to say about this in connection with the brother’s article in Concordia of March 29. But, if this is the meaning of the brother, is he then not deviating from our Protestant Reformed position (which is also the Reformed position) that regeneration generally occurs in the people of God during their infancy? He writes that it is difficult for him to conceive of this. If this be true, then it follows, does it not, that he does not teach or preach it.
The third element in Rev. Petter’s article is expressed in the following, and once more I quote: “And it is exactly to this conscious faith-process that also infant baptism looks. It does not seal a righteousness that the infant has. Baptism cannot be separated from faith. It looks forward to the time that the child grows to self-consciousness and faith and sees its own baptism as the seal of its own faith-righteousness. And in this conscious faith-justification, which baptism looks to and seals, the tensions of promise and threat and conditionality also enter in.”—end of quote. Here we read that “it is exactly to this conscious faith-process that also infant baptism looks.” And: “It does not seal a righteousness that the infant has.” And again: “It looks forward to the time that the child grows to self-consciousness and faith and sees its own baptism as the seal of its own faith-righteousness.” Here Rev. Petter, it seems to me, advocates the theory that infant baptism does not seal something which the child has but which it may receive. Had the brother written that infant baptism seals the righteousness which the child has, seals the fact that God loves it and that Christ dies for it, and that therefore, because of this seal of God, the Holy Spirit will dwell and work in it and lead it in the conscious way or process of sanctification, etc., I would not question him. But now we are told that infant baptism does not seal a righteousness which the infant has (the emphasis upon “has” is of the Rev. Petter), merely looks forward to the future and to this conscious faith-process. Is all this Protestant Reformed language?
Hence My Questions
Our readers will now understand why I submitted to Rev. Petter my questions relative the significance of the baptism of our children. The issue is of the utmost significance to me. And it should be to all our readers.
Indeed, I realize that the sacrament of baptism also points to the future. This none among us has ever denied. And this may possibly have caused the vagueness of my questions in the Feb. 1 issue of Concordia. But it is surely strange language among us that the distinction between infants that die in their infancy and those that grow up must be carefully observed, that the Lord has two wholly different purposes with these children, that a child may not have potential faith, and that infant baptism does not seal a righteousness which the child possesses. It is for this reason that I asked the question whether we baptize our children upon the basis of a conditional promise to be fulfilled in the future on the condition of faith, or whether we baptize them upon the basis of an unconditional promise which has been fulfilled for them, eternally and upon the cross, which is fulfilled in them exactly as infants, and therefore will be realized in them even forever. It is either-or, one or the other. In the one we hear the language of our Protestant Reformed Churches; in the other we listen to the language of Heynsianism and Liberated theology.
Rev. Petter’s Answer
First, we can be brief as far as Rev. Petter’s answer in Concordia of March 15 is concerned. My questions did not refer to the relation between the sacrament of baptism and the consciousness of the believing church. My questions concerned the baptism of our children. I have, of course, no objection whatever to the fact that the “awful language of baptism is that we only have salvation through the blood of Christ, and as surely as we embrace this blood of Christ by faith, so surely we are safe in Him.”—see page 3 of March 15 Concordia. This we have never failed to preach. Neither do I object to what Rev. Petter calls the “faith-unto-righteousness linkage.” Hence, we all subscribe to the texts which are quoted in the March 15 answer of Rev. Petter. Justification and faith are inseparably connected. The one without the other is impossible. I do not hesitate to say that God, AS GOD, cannot give us the one without the other. This is simply due to the relative significance of righteousness and faith. Our justification is wholly a work of God. This is taught throughout Scripture and particularly in the epistle to the Romans. Hence, God gives us the assurance of this righteousness only through faith because faith is the bond uniting us with Christ, and through faith all we do is receive. This receives also the emphasis in the passages which are quoted by the Rev. Petter. Throughout Scripture faith stands opposed to works, to that which is of man, and emphasizes the divine aspect of salvation. And inasmuch as baptism speaks of our hopelessness of sin, and of the blood of Christ, it therefore emphasizes the truth that our cleansing from sin is possible only through the blood of Christ, and that therefore we can receive this only from Christ and by faith. But, I reiterate: there is certainly no problem here. I must know why we baptize our infants.
Secondly, I wish to direct our readers to various elements in Rev. Petter’s reply in Concordia of March 29. On the one hand, we must bear in mind what the brother wrote in his Feb. 1 article which occasioned my questions. These matters, to which I have already called attention, certainly need elucidation. Secondly, in his article of March 29 he speaks of the church and her elect children, that they have ‘These things” in Christ, but that they are applied progressively through the whole span of life until we are perfected in glory. We also read that God will give to them (the church with her elect children) progressively these very things, this conscious participation of all that baptism implies. Here the Rev. Petter emphasizes the doctrine of election, tells us that God will give all that baptism implies unto them. I completely fail to see how this can be harmonized with “conditional promise.” This is Protestant Reformed language, and when the brother writes these things we immediately understand him and rejoice. And in the third complete paragraph of the middle column, page 4, mention is made of Question 74 of our Heidelberg Catechism, and I understand that this must also apply only to the elect children who are received unto grace in Christ and adopted as children and heirs of God. Hence, to them only is the promise made. This must certainly imply that the promise is particular and therefore wholly unconditional. And this, I would say, is the language of our Declaration of Principles. Thirdly, Rev. Petter certainly maintains in his article that the sacrament of baptism emphasizes, not what the infant possesses, but what it shall receive in the future. Question 74 of the Heidelberg Catechism is explained in such a way as to refer to the future of the child (column 1, page 4). Art. 34 of the Netherlands Confession is interpreted the same way. This also applies (see column 1 on page 4) to the so-called second part of the covenant according to our Baptism Form. And finally Rev. Petter declares that, although he would not deny the possibility of regeneration in the infant, it is hard for him to conceive what we are saying and meaning when we ascribe regeneration to an infant. And in the following paragraph we are told that we cannot say that the faith and hope and love of which the sacrament speaks is already exercised and experienced by them. And all this is set forth by Rev. Petter as referring to the pedagogic arrangement which the Lord has provided for His people, as therefore referring to the future life of the child after he has come to years of discretion. May I therefore not conclude that the brother wishes to maintain that, although the sacrament of baptism does not speak of that which the infant possesses legally, it does not speak of the promise as already realized in him? In this same connection I would like to ask brother Petter the question whether, when he writes that the infant possesses this legally, he would also add that the infant possesses it objectively in Christ. To possess life legally in Christ signifies that Christ has merited it for us; to possess that life objectively in Christ means that that life which He has merited for us now also exists in Christ; our life is now in Christ and not only merited for us. It is also this latter thought which makes the presentation of a general promise absurd. Fourthly, (and I do not write this because I wish to find fault) why did not Rev. Petter assure our readers that the sacrament of baptism, also as far as his conception is concerned, speaks of the eternal covenant, love of God and of Christ’s particular atonement? It is a fact, is it not, that I specified this very thing in the questions which I submitted to him. Of course, if the sacrament of baptism emphasizes divine election, particular atonement, and the sure work of the Holy Spirit as based upon this eternal love of God and the particular atonement of Christ, then the entire Liberated conception of a general promise necessarily collapses. Mind you, I do not say that Rev. Petter questions these fundamental truths. But I completely fail to understand why they do not receive their proper emphasis when the sacrament of baptism is treated. And, in the fifth place, Rev. Petter, it seems to me, offers us a rather confusing conclusion in his last paragraph. There we read, e.g., of the same promises that are infallibly sure to all the heirs of the promise. These heirs of the promise are the elect, are they not? Hence, this is the language of the Declaration of Principles. But, in this same paragraph, we are also reminded of a divine pedagogy which includes conditional relations and conditional promises. I do not believe that the divine pedagogy includes conditional promises. I can conceive of conditional relations, although, as I have stated before, I heartily endorse the abandoning of the term “condition”. Conditional relations, then, are relations which are necessarily and inseparably connected. Regeneration and conversion, for example, are thus related—our conversion depends upon regeneration. But I maintain that the term: conditional promises, is Arminian. Conditional promises are promises which are dependent upon something for their fulfillment. If the term does not mean this then what does it mean? The promises of God are unconditional for the simple reason that they include everything. Faith is part of the promise. And it is absurd to say that a promise is conditioned by something within itself. Besides, if I recall correctly (and I stand to be corrected), it seems to be that the Rev. Petter himself declared during this controversy in Concordia that he believed the promise of God to be unconditional. Pedagogy signifies that God leads His people progressively on the way of salvation, instructing them concerning their salvation. This divine instruction does not include conditional promises.
Therefore, Rev. Petter, my problem remains, my problem as occasioned by your articles. I am sure that it also remains in the minds of our people. I am concerned only about our Protestant Reformed distinctiveness. And therefore I repeat my question: Does the baptism of our children rest upon a conditional promise the fulfillment whereof lies wholly in the future life of the infant, or do we baptize them because the promise has been fulfilled for them (eternally and upon the cross), is fulfilled in them as infants, and therefore will be completed in them in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ? Do we baptize them upon the basis of future possession or upon the basis of what they now possess and therefore shall receive in its eternal fulfillment?