The Covenant of Sovereign Grace (3) or the Decisive Influence of the Reformation Gospel upon the Orthodox Doctrine of the Covenant in the Netherlands

Prof. Engelsma is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. Previous article in this series: November 15, 2006, p. 82.


In the two preceding articles I have contended that, despite the vigorous controversy in the Dutch Reformed tradition over the issue, the Reformed churches in the Netherlands settled the issue whether election governs the covenant, very early in their history. In two early, official documents, these churches taught that there is a close relation between the eternal decree and the historical covenant of grace and that this relation is election’s governing the covenant. The two documents are the Reformed “Form for the Administration of Baptism” and the Canons of Dordt.

That the Reformed churches in the Netherlands established this relation of election and the covenant as early as 1574, when the baptism form was first adopted, and 1618/1619, when the churches adopted the Canons of Dordt, should not surprise us. The churches then were living in the conviction of the Reformation gospel of salvation by sovereign, particular grace alone, which gospel is rooted in predestination. The Reformed churches in the Netherlands simply applied the gospel of sovereign grace to the covenant.

The preceding article began a demonstration of the relation of election and the covenant in the Reformed baptism form. It examined the important line in the doctrinal section of the form, “And although our young children do not understand these things, we may not therefore exclude them from baptism, for as they are without their knowledge partakers of the condemnation in Adam, so are they again received unto grace in Christ.”

This article continues the examination of the baptism form, considering the controversial phrase describing the infants who are to be baptized as “sanctified in Christ.”

Infants “Sanctified in Christ”

That the Reformed baptism form views the covenant children of godly parents as the elect among their offspring, and therefore sees the covenant as governed by election, is evident also from the first question in that section of the form that is an admonition to the parents.

Whether you acknowledge that, although our children are conceived and born in sin and, therefore, are subject to all miseries, yea, to condemnation itself; yet that they are sanctified in Christ and, therefore, as members of His church ought to be baptized?

Regardless of the age-old controversy that has raged over the phrase “sanctified in Christ,” the meaning of the baptism form is clear. “Our children” are cleansed from the pollution of sin by their union with Christ through His sanctifying Spirit in them. By this sanctifying work of the Spirit of Christ in them, they are living members of the church, the body of Christ, made up of all the elect who are gathered out of the world by the Son of God (Heid. Cat., Q. 54). This internal cleansing is based on Christ’s shedding of His blood for them on the cross. And this cleansing of “our children,” which unites them to Christ’s body, the church, is a reality already before they are baptized, since it is the reason why they ought to be baptized: “and, therefore, as members of His church ought to be baptized.”

Obviously, it is not true that all of the physical offspring of believing parents are “sanctified in Christ.” The experience of godly parents teaches otherwise. Scripture also teaches otherwise, both in its history and in its doctrine. There are Cains, Esaus, Joels and Abiahs, Absaloms, and Manassehs. There are those young people who, having been baptized, having been reared in the truth, and having made public confession of faith, tread the Son of God under their feet, count the blood of the covenant with which they were sanctified an unholy thing, and insult the Spirit of grace (Heb. 10:29). It is evident, therefore, that the form refers to the elect infants of believing parents and that the form considers the elect infants to be the children of believers.

It is also the plain teaching of the form that the Spirit of Christ as a rule regenerates the elect children of believers in their infancy, already before their baptism. They ought to be baptized, not because someday they will be sanctified, but because they already are sanctified.

Since the form, including the admonition to the parents, was adopted by the Reformed churches in the Netherlands as early as 1574, this was the doctrinal position of the Reformed churches from the beginning of their history.

Inasmuch as the baptism form is an official document of those Reformed churches that stand in the Dutch Reformed tradition, the form binds all these churches to this doctrinal position concerning the covenant and the baptized children of believers.

Nevertheless, many of these churches repudiate the doctrine of covenant children clearly taught by the first question to parents in their own baptism form. In every case, the reasons for this repudiation are doctrinal in nature. These churches reject the doctrine taught by the first question. They are determined to hold a doctrine of covenant children that differs from that taught by the first question. The reason for their repudiation of the doctrine taught by the first question is not that the language of the first question is unclear, or that the language permits the contrary doctrine held by these churches.

There are two main objections to the doctrine taught by the first question among churches in the Dutch Reformed tradition. Both offer a different explanation of the language of the first question than that given above, an explanation that legitimizes their doctrine of the covenant, of covenant children, of the salvation of covenant children, and of the significance of infant baptism. Although these two objections differ from each other, they have this is common: both insist that the children of believers referred to in the phrase, “they are sanctified in Christ,” are all the physical offspring of believers without exception. Both objections deny that the reference is to the elect infants.

All Are Merely Set Apart Outwardly

One objection is raised by those churches maintaining the doctrinal position that infants of believers are merely outwardly and formally set apart from children of unbelievers. Because the infants of believers have this privileged position in a Christian home and in a Christian church, some of them are more likely to be converted when they grow up than are other children. This is all that “sanctified in Christ” means. This is all that the covenant promise to the children of believers means. This is all that infant baptism means. “Sanctified in Christ” in the first question of the baptism form has nothing whatever to do with any inward, spiritual cleansing of the infants from sin and nothing to do with any union of the infants with Jesus Christ by the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts.

In fact, according to this position, all the infants of believers, with the exception of the elect among them who may die in infancy, are and remain spiritually dead, spiritually separated from Christ, and spiritually in Adam, until some of them may be converted in later life. Their spiritual condition is and remains the same as that of the children of unbelievers.

Not only does this baptistic doctrine govern the interpretation of the phrase “sanctified in Christ” in the baptism form, but it also governs the view that the churches who hold this doctrine take of the covenant itself and of the covenant promise. God’s covenant promise to be the God of the children of believers does not mean that He will be the God of our infant children when they are infants. But it merely means that He will be the God of our children when they grow up, become teenagers, or even young adults, and are converted. That is, God will be the God of our children when they are no longer children.

Likewise, the covenant of God with believers and their infant children does not mean that infant children are actually included in the covenant as small friends of God, or in the kingdom as little subjects of Christ the king. All of them are, in spiritual reality, strangers from the covenant of promise and foreigners regarding the kingdom. That is, they are all outside of Christ.

Infant baptism does not signify infant salvation, that is, the translation of the infants of believers from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of God’s dear Son, by the regenerating work of the Spirit uniting the infants to Christ. Not at all! It merely signifies that the infants of believers, who are and remain outside of Christ, are set apart outwardly for evangelistic work by church and parents in the hope that some of them someday may be converted as adults.

This is the doctrine, and corresponding explanation of the phrase, “sanctified in Christ,” of the Netherlands Reformed Congregations, the Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregations, the Free Reformed Churches in North America, and, as the recent bookThe Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism (P&R, 2003) shows, many other Reformed and Presbyterian churches as well.

Merely Outward “Holiness” in Light of the Form

It is not my purpose in this article to criticize this essentially Baptist doctrine. I have done this in my book The Covenant of God and the Children of Believers: Sovereign Grace in the Covenant (RFPA, 2005). My purpose here is to demonstrate that the explanation this doctrinal position gives of the phrase “sanctified in Christ” in the Reformed baptism form is false.

First, to explain “sanctified in Christ” as a mere outward and formal setting apart of the infants unto Christ does not harmonize with the description of the infants in the first part of the first question of the baptism form. In the first part, parents are asked to acknowledge that “our children are conceived and born in sin, and therefore are subject to all miseries, yea to condemnation itself.” Only then follow the words, “yet that they are sanctified in Christ.” The natural condition of our infants as conceived and born in sin and subject to all miseries, including condemnation, is not merely outward and formal. It is real, actual depravity and guilt. It is real, spiritual union with Adam. So, likewise, is their sanctification in Christ, which is contrasted with their depravity and guilt, a real, actual spiritual cleansing of them by virtue of their new union with Christ.

If their sanctification in Christ is merely outward and formal, their corruption and guilt are, likewise, merely outward and formal.

Second, the first question significantly describes the sanctification of the infants of believers as a sanctifying of them “in Christ.” This is decisive for the issue whether the sanctifying of them is an inner, saving work of the Spirit, or merely a certain formal act by the church. Those who insist that the phrase in the first question refers merely to an outward and formal setting apart of the children, and not to a saving work of the Spirit in infants, find the biblical source of the phrase in I Corinthians 7:14, where the apostle assures believers married to unbelievers that “your children … are … holy.” The defenders of a merely external and formal “holiness” then argue that the holiness of the children in I Corinthians 7:14 must be a merely formal, “positional” holiness, since the passage teaches that also the unbelieving husband or wife is “sanctified” by the believer.

Even if it be granted that the holiness of the children of a believer married to an unbeliever spoken of in I Corinthians 7:14 is merely an outward position, rather than inward cleansing (which is not the case), nothing has been decided concerning the phrase “sanctified in Christ” in the baptism form. For the phrase in the baptism form adds two words that are not found in I Corinthians 7:14: “in Christ.” The source of the phrase, “sanctified in Christ,” is not I Corinthians 7:14, at least not I Corinthians 7:14 exclusively. This is why it was a mistake in the edition of the Psalter used by the Protestant Reformed Churches that someone inserted a footnote giving I Corinthians 7:14 as the biblical basis of the phrase “sanctified in Christ.”

The source of the teaching of a holiness “in Christ” is such passages as I Corinthians 1:2: “Unto the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called saints.” Regarding the sanctifying of the children of believers, the source is such passages as Ephesians 6:4: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord [Jesus Christ].”

“In Christ” describes the sanctifying of the infants as taking place in the union the infants have with Christ. This is a real, spiritual union. This is the living communion of covenant fellowship with Christ. Although the infants of believers are by nature in Adam, by virtue of God’s gracious covenant promise to them they are in Christ. In that covenantal union with Christ, they are sanctified—really, inwardly, spiritually cleansed from sin and delivered from condemnation. It is only by virtue of this spiritual union with Christ the Lord, as Ephesians 6:4 teaches, that they can and do obey their parents, from their earliest childhood. For children who are merely outwardly set apart unto Christ, obedience to the fifth commandment is an utter impossibility.

A third evidence that the explanation of the phrase “sanctified in Christ” as meaning merely outward and formal “holiness” is false is the fact that every other mention of holiness, or sanctifying, in the baptism form refers to inner, spiritual cleansing from sin. The reader may verify this for himself.

Fourth, explaining “sanctified in Christ” as merely outward and formal runs stuck on the important words that immediately follow in the first question. The first question does not only say about the infants of believers that they are sanctified in Christ. It also says that they are “members of His church.” They are members of His church before they are baptized, for membership in His church is the reason why they ought to be baptized. And they are members of His church by virtue of being sanctified in Christ.

The baptism form cannot mean that the infants are members of the instituted church. They become members of an instituted church by virtue of their baptism. But the form says that they are members of Christ’s church already before they are baptized. Membership in Christ’s church is the reason why they ought to be baptized. The form teaches that the infants are living members of the universal body of Christ, made up of all the elect. They became members of the body of Christ when they were “sanctified in Christ.” Sanctification in Christ, which alone baptizes one into the body of Christ (I Cor. 12:13), is the inner, regenerating work of the Spirit in these infants. It is the work in our children that the baptism form joyfully announced in its opening line: “The principal parts of the doctrine of holy baptism are these three: First, that we with our children are conceived and born in sin, and therefore are children of wrath, in so much that we cannot enter into the kingdom of God except we are born again” (emphasis added).

The language of the baptism form is clear and conclusive: “sanctified in Christ” is the saving work of the Spirit of Christ in the hearts of the infants of believers, already in their infancy, in accordance with the covenant promise that God will be the God of our infants, and in accordance with the obvious significance of infant baptism. But this is true only of the elect children of believers. The form regards the elect children of believers as the true (spiritual) children of the covenant