Prof. Dykstra is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
God’s covenant is established with believers and their children. This truth is not only the heart of Reformed doctrine and a great comfort to believing parents, it is also the basis of Reformed, Christian education.
That God establishes His covenant with believers and their seed means that children are in God’s covenant. Reformed believers confess with the Heidelberg Catechism in Lord’s Day 27 that infants, “as well as the adult, are included in the covenant and church of God.”
This promise of God profoundly affects the view that a believing father and mother have of the children God has given them. They do not consider their children to be as unbelieving pagans. Nor do they see them as unbelievers, albeit unbelievers having a better chance of being saved because they are given some knowledge of God. No, they are covenant children. It necessarily follows that the Christian schoolteacher must have the same view of the students in the classroom—their students are covenant children.
This presents the Reformed believer with a problem of sorts. On the one hand, the Reformed faith confesses the doctrine of sovereign, free, double predestination as set forth in the Canons of Dordt. God sovereignly chooses His people unto everlasting life. He sovereignly reprobates the rest unto their damnation. This sovereign determination of God cuts through families of believers. God chose Isaac; He rejected Ishmael. God chose Jacob; He rejected Esau. (Cf. Rom. 9.)
At the same time, God promised Abraham and believing parents everywhere, “I will establish my covenant between thee and thy seed after thee for an everlasting covenant” (Gen. 17:7). And the Holy Spirit moved Peter to say to the believers on Pentecost, “For the promise is unto you and to your children…” (Acts 2:39). On the basis of such promises of God, believing parents baptize their children—all their children.
The problem is obvious. Since God is not obligated to save all children of believers—in fact, often He does not—how can believing parents confidently affirm at baptism, “This child must have the sign and seal of the covenant”? How can a Christian schoolteacher look over his classroom and maintain, “These are covenant children”? Must they simply confess these two seemingly contradictory doctrines (predestination and the covenant) and conclude helplessly, this is a mystery? They need not. They may confidently hold to both sovereign, free, double predestination and the covenant of grace with believers and their seed. Parents, with the teachers who stand in their place, must view their children as covenant children.
Thus far, almost all Reformed parents would agree. But then, there stands that conflict which must be resolved, and the theological explanation is not agreed upon by all. Nor are the differences insignificant.
One solution is known as “presupposed regeneration.” Propounded by Abraham Kuyper, it is the teaching that believing parents baptize on the basis of a presumed regeneration of the child. Kuyper recognized that not all children of believers were necessarily regenerated, nor were they even necessarily elect. Yet his particular view of the sacrament of baptism made him insist that baptism could be a sacrament only if the recipient had already received regenerating grace. Since children of believers are not all necessarily elect and regenerated, parents must simply presuppose it of each child, and proceed to baptism.
However, presupposed regeneration is neither biblical nor confessional. Parents must not simply assume that all their children are believers, on the basis that they presuppose that all baptized children are regenerated. They recognize that God makes no promise to save all their children. Both Scripture and their experience testify that the lines of election and reprobation cut through the families of believers. They understand from Romans 9 that not all children of the flesh are the “seed” with whom God continues His covenant. They may not presuppose what God has clearly revealed in Scripture to be false.
Another solution proffered is that all children of believers are members of the covenant objectively by reason of the covenant promise given to each child of believers at baptism. This view entails a conditional view of the covenant. According to this, God comes to each child at baptism with the personal promise of salvation. The promise may be likened to a check made out to the individual child and signed by God. The check promises salvation from sin and eternal life—if the child endorses the check. If he only frames it, it is worth nothing. If he tears it up, he perishes as a covenant breaker.
According to this covenant doctrine, the baptism promise of God is not that the child is saved and has eternal life. Rather it is that God wants to save and wants to give eternal life. On the basis of this promise, all children of believers are considered covenant children. This conditional covenant was promoted by William Heyns and by Klaas Schilder, although they had differences in their covenant views.
The conditional covenant, far from solving the problem, rather creates more problems. First of all, because this view teaches that the child must believe in order to receive the benefits of the promise (endorse the check), it leaves the impression that faith is a condition that the child must fulfill in order to get saved. Even if it is maintained, as it often is, that God fulfills the condition, this still leaves salvation in the hands of the sinful (dead in sin) child. It also separates faith from the work of salvation, as a condition unto salvation.
Thirdly, such a conditional covenant logically demands that the atonement of Christ on the cross be for all children of believers. If God promises salvation and eternal life to each child, salvation and eternal life must be available. But that would mean that Christ atoned for the sins of some (the covenant breakers, for example) who ultimately perish. This is contrary to the Reformed (and thus biblical and confessional) doctrine of the atonement. Christ’s atonement is effectual. He died for the elect, and the elect only, not all the children of believers.
But even aside from the theological conflicts, as was pointed out earlier, the conditional covenant does not truly reconcile the view of all children being covenant children with the reality that God reprobates some children of believers. The unavoidable implication of a covenant that is conditional is that some of those with whom God establishes His covenant are in fact reprobate. Call it only a covenant objectively—it does not change the fact that God established His covenant with reprobate children who later spend an eternity in hell.
This might not appear to be so bad, if the covenant be only a promise to save on the condition of faith. But this neither defines nor describes God’s covenant. The covenant is a relationship of friendship that God establishes with man. Yes, the covenant is based on God’s promises. The covenant contains promises from God. But the covenant does not consist merely of this: God promises salvation and eternal life on fulfillment of the condition of faith. This makes the covenant to be merely the means to the end—salvation. The covenant is in effect for this earth and disposed of after Christ returns. That all by itself ought to give the believer pause. Surely the covenant is more important to God than that.
Since the covenant is so crucial for Christian education, it is not surprising that a right conception of the covenant is crucial for the right view of covenant children. It is worth our while, therefore, briefly to set forth the true nature of God’s covenant.
God’s covenant is a relationship of friendship. This is the teaching of Scripture taken in its entirety. The very creation of man indicates this—man was created above all creatures in order to know God (having true knowledge, a requisite for fellowship) and live with Him (being righteous and holy). Fellowship began immediately in Eden. The very trees in the midst of the garden pointed to this—fellowship with God was only possible through antithetical obedience—every day saying “Yes” to God by partaking of the Tree of Life, and by rejecting the forbidden fruit. There God came to speak with Adam. It is evident from Genesis 3:8 that God had done this before the Fall, and Adam had not hid from God.
After the Fall, God promised to put enmity between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. How would this be done? Subsequent history demonstrates that God puts hatred between the two seeds by making the seed of the woman to be His friend-servants, and immediately the wicked hate the godly seed because they are friends of God.
God describes His relationship to His people in terms of friendship. Enoch walked with God, as did Noah. This is what friends do.
Besides that, Abraham, to whom God spoke such beautiful covenant promises, is called the friend of God (James 2:23).
Israel is God’s covenant people in the Old Testament. God saved them from the bondage of Egypt, not by means of the covenant, but for the sake of His covenant! He established them as His covenant people at Sinai, and commanded them to make Him a “sanctuary, that [He] might dwell among them” (Ex. 25:8). The tabernacle and later the temple symbolized God dwelling with and fellowshipping with His people in one house.
Psalm 25:14 teaches the nature of the covenant when it proclaims: “The secret of the Lord is with them that fear him; and he will show them his covenant.” To whom do you tell your secrets but to your closest friends? To His friends, Jehovah speaks His secrets of salvation and love, as He shows them His covenant.
The Scriptures reveal this covenant relationship through the pictures of friendship, as well as a family—Israel was His son (Ex. 4:22); we are adopted sons (Gal. 4:4-5).
The ultimate picture of God’s covenant is that of marriage. In the Old Testament, Jehovah betrothed Himself to Israel. In the New Testament, the bridegroom came—Christ, the Mediator of the covenant. He came to redeem His bride and establish the covenant, which He did on the cross. He must be gone for some time, but He promised to comfort His bride in His absence with His Spirit, by whom He dwells in her. When He returns physically He will lead His bride into the wedding feast, the marriage (covenant) will be consummated, and the eternal relationship of love and fellowship will be the perfect possession of the church.
God’s goal is fellowship with His covenant people, as Revelation 21:3-4 demonstrates. “And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.”
The resplendent and delightful covenant of God is a relationship of intimate, glorious friendship between God and His people in Christ. Once that is established, it determines everything about the covenant people.
Then the question must be faced: How, indeed, could God establish a relationship of friendship with any reprobate? It is impossible, and even a flat contradiction of Scripture. God never had a covenant relationship of friendship with Esau, nor did He promise one. The testimony of the unchangeable Jehovah concerning him is that He hated him (Rom. 9).
It is not right, therefore, to call all baptized children “covenant children” on the basis of a conditional promise that God ostensibly gives to each child at baptism.
Thus, when considering their children, believing parents are to avoid the error of denying that their children are covenant children by considering all to be unbelievers until they show signs of faith. At the same time they must not call all children of believers “covenant children” for the wrong reasons—presupposed regeneration on the one hand, or a conditional covenant with every baptized child on the other.
Is there any position left that would allow the believer to maintain the doctrines of sovereign grace consistently (including the total depravity of man, the particular and effectual atonement of Christ, and sovereign, double predestination), and yet maintain that children of believers are indeed covenant children? There certainly is. It is the organic view of the covenant seed. To this we turn next.