Daddy, am I really forgiven?

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If you are a Christian parent with young children, do you consider your children to be Christians? 

There were some lively debates at the Westminster Assembly. One took place over the precise meaning of 1 Corinthians 7:14, where children are described as "holy" (see Chad van Dixhoorn's work, volume 3:206-09). 

Thomas Goodwin believed that the holiness spoken of in 1 Cor. 7:14 "is such a holiness as if they die they should be saved." Goodwin's comments elicited some frank responses from his colleagues. Goodwin acknowledges that whether the children have the holiness of election of regeneration is something unknown to him, but he assumes they "have the Holy Ghost."

Lazarus Seaman - a staunch Presbyterian - believed Goodwin's position destroys the ground for baptizing infants. Goodwin attempted to clarify his point in his response. He does not affirm that infants of believing parents are actually saved, "but we are to judge them so." This last point of Goodwin's is crucial, I believe.

Another Presbyterian, Stephen Marshall, rejected the view that the holiness of 1 Cor. 7:14 is the type of holiness that would save those who die in infancy. Marshall takes the position that the judgment of charity extends only so far, namely, that the "Infants of believing parents are federally holy."

Rutherford, a different type of Presbyterian, with ecclesiological affinities with several of the "Dissenting Brethren" (i.e., Congregationalists), entered the debate and re-affirmed the distinction between real and federal holiness. He comments: "The Lord hath election and reprobation amongst Infants no less than those of age, as Augustine of Jacob and Esau."

But this point fails to adequately refute Goodwin's position. Goodwin affirms election and reprobation. But that revelation in Romans 9 is a matter of God's decree, which we are not privy to. In Goodwin's view, "the question is not of the reality in the events, but what I am to judge of them. If you take it of all that they are holy and saved, my judgment knows the contrary, but when you come to particulars, I judge so of this child and that child. It is an indefinite proposition, 'I am thy God and the God of thy seed,' not a universal proposition. That which you call federal holiness and that which I call real, do both coincide in this."

Marshall responds by saying that we are not to judge whether they possess a real holiness, but to believe that they are holy with the holiness spoken of; that is, a federal holiness. Goodwin responds: "To me the holiness in 1 Cor. 7:14 is the same with that 'I will be thy God and the God of thy seed.' If you make it any other holiness, then baptism is a seal of some other holiness than the holiness of salvation." Further, he argues that our judgment is not an infallible judgment, but it is a judgment that answers the promise. We are judging according to the terms of the covenant.

Readers can decide for themselves what to make of this debate (Goodwin's view has a strong Reformed pedigree), but you might wish to know that the Westminster Public Directory for Worship refers to covenant children as "Christians." Baptism is, of course, a naming ceremony; and our children are given a new identity (for more on this topic, see here).

So what about the practical aspect of raising covenant children?

Well, I have two three-year olds, one six-year old, and an eight-year old. And it occurred to me that I wouldn't actually know how to raise them if I were not a Presbyterian. And let me just take this opportunity to inform sensitive (Baptist?) readers that I know many Baptist families that raise their children remarkably well, even many in my own church. Many of my closest friends - I wrote this before Carl spoke about his "best Anglican friends" - and favourite preachers are Baptists. And yet...

1. When my children sin and ask for forgiveness from God, can I assure them that their sins are forgiven? 

2. When I ask my children to obey me in the Lord should I get rid of the indicative-imperative model for Christian ethics? On what grounds do I ask my three-year old son to forgive his twin brother? Because it is the nice thing to do? Or because we should forgive in the same way Christ has forgiven us? 

3. Can my children sing "Jesus loves me, this I know" and enjoy all of the benefits spoken of in that song? ("To him belong...He will wash away my sin")

4. When my children pray during family worship to their heavenly Father, what are the grounds for them praying such a prayer? Do they have any right to call God their "heavenly Father"? Do non-Christians cry "Abba, Father" (Rom. 8:15)?

5. Should I desire that my children have a "boring" testimony? (Though a testimony to God's covenant promises can never be boring, of course). Is it not enough for them to simply say each day that they trust in Christ alone for their salvation?

You see, in my household, my children sin. They are very much like their parents, except I am more sophisticated at hiding it (unless I'm blogging or watching the World Cup). But after we sin, we aim to repent - "repentance is a saving grace" - and ask for forgiveness not only from each other, but also from God. And when my children are in the room praying to God for forgiveness, sometimes without my prodding, I assure them that their sins are indeed forgiven. And I exhort them to depend upon and pray for the Holy Spirit for present and future obedience.

This all makes sense to me as a Presbyterian. But, I confess, if my children were not Baptized, and were not part of the church, and did not bear the name Christian, I'm not sure what grounds I would have for worshipping with them, praying with (not just for) them, and rejoicing with them when they ask for forgiveness for the sins they commit. Far from leading to a lazy form of "presumptive regeneration" (where children are not daily exhorted to repent), I believe that we must in fact hold our covenant children to higher standards by urging them to live a life of faith and repentance in Jesus Christ, their Saviour and Lord. Their baptism, whereby God speaks favour to his children ("You are my child. With you I am well pleased"), demands such a life. 

The indicative comes before the imperative, even for our children (Eph. 6:1). Otherwise, I do not see how asking them to obey becomes a form of moralism if there is no indicative present (see Eph. 1-5). 

Coming back to Goodwin's point: it may be true, according to God's decree, that one or more of my children are not elect (may it not be), but "the question is not of the reality in the events, but what I am to judge of them." On the judgment of charity, I call my children Christians, and therefore believe that they may sing "Jesus loves me" with an emphasis on each word, including the last!

Pastor Mark Jones believes that all baptisms are paedobaptisms, for unless one becomes like a little child he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 
Posted June 24, 2014 @ 7:10 PM by Mark Jones


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