Raising Children Well: Baptism as an Expression of Love

Editor's note: this is part 2 of Raising (Covenant) Children Well.  You can read it here. Enjoy and be challenged.

Children of believers are to be baptized because they are covenant members, heirs of the promise that God made to be their God. Fellowship with Christ and his body technically occur before baptism. Accordingly, if our children do not possess fellowship with Christ and the church, they are therefore pagans, without Christ and without hope, and should not be baptized. Herman Witsius says there is no “middle condition,” since those who are not “in Christ” must therefore belong to Satan (Eph. 2:1–10). To put this more starkly: we either view and treat our children as children of God or as children of the devil. There is no tertium quid.

Many, if not most, Reformed divines spoke of the “root” or “seed” of faith being present in elect infants. The Leiden Synopsis (44.29) says, “but in all to be baptized, we, along with the Scripture, pre-require faith and repentance, only according to the judgment of charity: and this both in covenant children, in whom we do contend that, from the virtue of divine blessing and the evangelical covenant, the seed and Spirit of faith and repentance should be stated to be…”

Thomas Manton argued that elect infants “in general have jus ad rem, a right to heaven; but there is no jus in re, no actual right, but by faith…As they are called rational before they had use of reason, so we have found that infants may, must, have a principle of faith, from when they may be said to be believers.” Contrary to what you may have heard, many of the Reformed held to “believer’s baptism,” and thus goals of the New Covenant were embraced by these paedobaptists. Not having infallible knowledge of God’s decree, we are to judge the children of believers as Christians until proven otherwise by apostasy.

Manton explains how this is possible. In his view, they do not have actual faith as we would see in adults, which “begins in knowledge and ends in affiance.” Nonetheless, “It remains therefore that they have the seed of faith, or some principle of grace conveyed into their souls by the hidden operation of the Spirit of God, which gives them an interest in Christ.” He notes how different expressions are used by the orthodox: the habit of faith, principle of faith, inclination of faith, etc. Because salvation is of the Lord, infants are enabled by “passive reception” (so William Ames) to be united to Christ, which means the habit of faith is “not altogether without act, though it be such an act as is proper to their age.” This is the judgment of charity, according to the promise, we are to have, even if in the particulars one may prove later to be an unbeliever.

Some speak of baptism as a symbol of the believer’s faith. However, Reformed theologians have typically understood baptism as representing Christ (Galatians 3:27), in whom our faith must rest. That is why we don’t re–baptize people who have had previous crises of faith. In the same way, circumcision was not a sign of Abraham’s faith; it was a sign to his faith (Romans 4:11). Thus, it was not a sign of Isaac’s faith (as an infant), either. Rather, for both Abraham and Isaac, circumcision was a sign of God’s covenant righteousness. It was a sign they had to look to and embrace by faith.

In baptism, God takes the initiative with our children. He speaks favor to them in baptism (“You are my child, whom I love”) and they are to respond in faith to his “wooing” all the days of their life. Baptism is a naming ceremony: our child is given a “family” name in public (Matthew 28:19). Being baptized into (or, “in”) the name of Jesus (Acts 2:38; 8:16; 10:48; 19:5) means our children are now identified with the name of Jesus rather than the devil.

Rejecting a gracious sign from God is a form of ingratitude. The name given in baptism is all gift: God bestows an identity on us, but when we wrongly reject that identity, we are repeating the sin of Adam: “I will determine my own identity.” Christian families are bound together not merely by their common last name (e.g., “Smith”), but by the name of our triune God. This is a glorious but also solemn truth since a failure to embrace the God who identifies with us will lead to greater condemnation.

God’s placing his name upon his people has always been a significant blessing. In Numbers 6:22–27, God commands Aaron, via Moses, to bless the people of Israel in the following way:

            [24] The LORD bless you and keep you;

            [25] the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;

            [26] the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.

And while we often hear this Aaronic benediction in church as the minister blesses God’s people, few are aware of the words of verse 27,

            “So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.”

When God shows his love to his people, he does so by personally identifying with them, naming them. This is no small thing, but rather symbolic of God’s great acts of love towards his people. Indeed, in Isaiah we are told of God’s restoration of his people where he will bring his sons “from afar” and his “daughters from the end of the earth” (Isaiah 43:6), “everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory…” (Isaiah 43:7).

We are rightly progressing in our understanding of the faith when we acknowledge that the sign placed upon our children is from a God who loves that his name placed upon his covenant community. Just as we are to say in faith, “I am with Christ,” we have an impoverished understanding of baptism if we fail to see that God has first said, “I am with them” (Jeremiah 31:33). Baptism is thus an expression of God’s love for his people, for families, which was always his design and intention since Adam and Eve.

Improving Our Baptism

The Westminster divines, in the Directory for Public Worship, call the children of believers “Christians.” The baptism of our covenant children means that we really have no other choice but to call our children Christians, according to both the judgment of charity and our faith in God’s promises (Acts 2:39). There may be a carnal confidence of some in the church who have been baptized. But we should not forget that looking to our baptism is a wonderful thing if, by faith, we embrace the promises expressed in it. Christians should constantly remember their baptism, as if it happened to them each day. For, in a manner of speaking, we are each day “baptized” insofar as the promises of our sins being washed away are daily realities. Looking to our baptism by faith is the same thing as looking to Christ.

Yet we are to improve on our baptism. The Westminster Larger Catechism asks, “How is our baptism to be improved by us?” (q. 167). The presumptuous person does not consider how he may improve on his baptism. He is concerned with the past event of the baptism (i.e., it happened) rather than the spiritual reality of the baptism (i.e., what it means for him). The true Christian should be considering not only the benefits offered to us in baptism but also what it means for us: we are sinners in need of a Savior. To the degree that we constantly embrace the promises of baptism, we can rightly place our hope in the waters of baptism.

In the answer to WLC (q. 167), the divines acknowledged that many Christians neglect to improve upon their baptism. Nonetheless, once baptized, we are engaged to God in a life–long process of improving upon our baptism, especially in times of temptation, by reminding ourselves of “the privileges and benefits conferred and sealed” in baptism, in which we draw “strength from the death and resurrection of Christ, into whom we are baptized, for the mortifying of sin, and quickening of grace; and by endeavoring to life by faith…” Improving upon our baptism is also a community activity whereby we “walk in brotherly love, as being baptized by the same Spirit into one body.”

Applying Baptism to Everyday Life

As a Presbyterian, I believe the only proper context for applying gospel truths to our children is in the context of baptism. If our children are not covenant children and thus not to be baptized, we are also faced with several difficult questions:

1. When my children sin and ask for forgiveness from God, can I assure them that their sins are forgiven? In other words, are our children allowed to have Christian assurance? Can an unbaptized child in the church, who is viewed as a member of Satan’s kingdom, receive assurance of forgiveness from God when they ask for forgiveness? If yes, why cannot they be baptized and receive the outward sign of the invisible reality?

2. When we ask our children to obey us in the Lord should we get rid of the indicative–imperative model for Christian ethics? On what grounds does one ask their four–year old son to forgive his brother? Because it is the nice thing to do? Or because we should forgive in the same way Christ has forgiven us (Ephesians 4:32)?

3. Can little children in family worship sing Psalm 23 (esp. v. 6) or “Jesus loves me, this I know” (“…little ones to him belong…”)?

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” (Romans 8:15)?

For those who refuse to baptize their children, they must ask whether their practise is consistent with their theology. Some of my Baptist friends have led wonderful family worship with their own children acting like Christians throughout – e.g., praying to their Father in heaven – but still remaining unbaptized until the verdict can be surer!

Taking baptism seriously means taking all the realities associated with baptism seriously. Thus, the question is not whether our children will sin, but what is both our response and theirs to sin? If our children are repenting or singing in Jesus’s name, they are improving upon their baptism in the context of the covenant community. Their baptism is “working”.

This all makes sense to me as a father with baptized children. 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 exhorted to repent and believe), 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.

In one respect, the most fundamental thing our children need to know is who they are. Because baptism is the visible sign of incorporation into Christ, whereby the church formally marks out those who belong to Christ, the kingdom of God is a kingdom where children are in fact present according to the gracious judgment of the church (Matthew 19:14). We cannot raise our children well if they do not know who they are in God’s sight based upon his covenantal promises. If there is an identity crisis among young children today, the church should be the place where children know who they are according to God’s promises and love.

Mark Jones (Ph.D., Leiden) has been the minister at Faith Vancouver Presbyterian Church (PCA), Canada since 2007.