Monday, June 29, 2009

How Do We Treat Covenant Children?

Someone left the following comment on one of my earlier posts, which I want to answer here since my answer is too long to fit in the comments box.

"Robin - enjoy your posts, you do a great job. If the children are believers, then fine. For an unbeliever to celebrate the Lord's death and resurrection would be a bit pointless wouldn't it? If the children don't understand what is going on they shouldn't take communion. I grew up in a church thinking I was a Christian because I had gone through catechism class, and took communion, and it all led me into a false sense of who I was before God. If I remember correctly,the Puritans got into trouble when they instituted the Half-Way covenant which allowed those without a conversion experience to take communion. Blessings to you!"

I’m glad you enjoy my posts. Right now I am sitting in the airport on my way to a funeral, waiting for the next connection and as I have a few hours before my next plane, I will try to address your comments.

You raise some good points. Certainly Greg Bahnsen maintained the child had to be old enough to make a profession of faith, however simple that profession is. However, that is not my position. I would adopt the position of the Eastern church (and the Western church until comparatively recently) in admitting children, however young, to the Lord’s table, provided they have been baptized. I don’t think it matters whether or not they understand what is going on. Being a member of God’s family (which is what communion is all about) doesn’t depend on our own understanding of it but on what God is doing, first in choosing us before the foundation of the world and then in feeding us. The Eucharist is not a disguised sermon so that we can get something out of it for our minds. It is fellowship with the Lord, feeding on the food that He gives us. So just as a starving man is fed by food whether he understands why the food is helping him or not, so a baby is fed by the food that God offers whether he understands about it or not. Communion is something objective that God does. Thus, what Calvin said of baptism I would say of infant-communion: “if the children of believers, without the aid of understanding, are partakers of the covenant, there is no reason why they should be excluded from the sign because they are not capable of expressing their allegiance to the stipulation of the covenant...”
And again, “If it be just for infants to be brought to Christ, why is it not allowable to admit them to [the Lord’s supper], the symbol of our communion and association with Christ? If theirs is the kingdom of Heaven, why shall the sign be denied them by which, as it were, an entrance into the church is opened that, being received into it, they may be enrolled among the heirs of the heavenly kingdom: How unjust shall we be, if we drive away from Christ those whom he invites to him; if we deprive them of the gifts with which he adorns them; if we exclude those whom he graciously admits?”

I don’t see how this can lead to a false sense of who we are before God. Perhaps in your case you thought that your salvation was guaranteed because you took communion and studied the catechism, etc. However, in the classic Protestant understanding, the sacraments do not make us a Christian but are the evidence that we already are members of God’s family, just as circumcision marked out the people who had already been born into God’s covenant family. If this is accompanied by nurture on the part of the parents, the child should grow up with a clear sense of their identity as a member of God’s family. I try to practice this in my own home. Beside my children’s bed I put pictures of their baptisms, and I constantly remind them of their baptism of proof of who they are in Christ. I say things like, “You are a Phillips and that means we belong to each other. But you are also a child of God and your baptism is proof that God chose you to be in His family even before you were born. That means that you belong to God. That is who you are and who you will always be.” I have never ever mentioned to them that when they’re older they will have to choose, or that the verdict is still out on them or that they occupy the status as ‘candidates. When they fall into sin, I remind them again of these truths and say, “Is the way you are behaving the way a child of God behaves?” Dr. J.W. Alexander wrote: “But O how we neglect that ordinance [of infant baptism]! treating children in the Church, just as if they were out of it. Ought we not daily to say (in its spirit) to our children, ‘You are Christian children, you are Christ’s, you ought to think and feel and act as such!”

If – God forbid – I fail in my task to nurture them and so they someday choose to reject the Lord, I will still address them as a child of God, but as a wayward child of God, a covenant breaker, someone who is being unfaithful to his identity. You see, they will never be able to escape from the significant of their baptism whatever they do. They will always have a sense of who they are. We have baptism parties to celebrate our baptisms, and special baptism candles that we light on their baptism anniversaries, and special cups that were given to them at their baptisms that they can drink wine from during our baptism parties.

This, of course, assumes that there is a basic continuity in the structure of the old and new covenants. In both, there are three basic categories: (A) those who are in the covenant and are faithful to it because they are regenerate; (B) those who are in the covenant but are unfaithful to it because they are not regenerate; (C) those who are not in the covenant at all. Interestingly even atheists have an unconscious awareness of this, as evidenced by all the recent ‘de-baptism ceremonies’ in England. But of course, these atheists will never be able to escape the significance of their baptisms, because they will always be covenant breakers rather than just un-baptised individuals. It is not within human power to de-baptize oneself, only to live in a way that is inconsistent with one’s baptism.

Regarding the, so called, Half-Way covenant of the Puritan’s American descendents, that arose only because the reformed understanding of the covenant was neglected. Remember, the magisterial reformers held to infant baptism, not as a means for bringing children into the covenant, but to recognize that children of believers already enjoyed a covenant relation with God and a real vital membership in the church. Such children, the reformers taught, are not mere candidates for salvation, with the verdict still pending until they develop the cognitive apparatus necessary for conscious belief; rather, such children are ‘presumptively regenerate’ in the same way that we presume that a faith-professing adult convert is regenerate. In the case of the latter, the presumption of regeneration (and therefore baptism) is made on the basis of the convert’s profession of faith; in the case of the latter, the presumption of regeneration is made on the basis of the promises God gives to believing parents. Christian parents were entrusted with the awesome responsibility of being God’s means for preserving and sustaining the faith of His children. This was the classic Protestant position until the decline of religion at the beginning of the 18th century. The privileges of church membership, together with the duties incumbent on believing parents, began to be seriously neglected by the Protestant community. All too often, religion continued as a shell with the essential kernel sucked out, with many church members following the external rituals associated with being a Christian without the inner conviction. In order to accommodate the increase of functionally unconverted church members, some Presbyterians began to suggest that it was entirely appropriate for a baptized child to be an external member of the church and still be regarded as unregenerate, thus reversing the reformation presumption of regeneration that was applied to all baptized individuals not under church discipline. A corollary of this was the formulation of new theories on the significance of baptism and the covenant, including the idea of the Half-Way covenant that you referred to.

It was in reaction to that that the Great Awakening began to stress that the children of believers needed to have a conversion experience. Such a view was – in my opinion – very unhelpful. I would disagree with the Great Awakening revivalists that a sudden conversion experience, preceded by a state of alienation from God, is the normal and only method for bringing souls into God’s kingdom. The reason this view was unhelpful is because it implied that children were enemies of God until they too experienced this type of conversion. This fails to appreciate the covenantal standing of baptized children who, thanks to the slow and steady nurture of their Christian parents, might never be able to look back and remember a time when they did not know the love of God or desire to follow in His ways. It also failed to appreciate that Christian nurture over time, and not a sudden conversion experience, is the normal method God uses for propagating his kingdom. As Dr. Van Dyke put it in his Stone Lectures, “Christian Nurture, beginning in infancy, inheriting traditional influences, and surrounded at the first dawn of consciousness by a religious atmosphere, is the normal and divine method for propagating the Church.” J.A. Quarles put it similarly when writing about slow and steady Christian nurture: “this is the Lord’s chosen way to perpetuate and extend his Church. It is the growth from within, like the mustard seed....The regular, normal mode of increase is through the multiplication of Christian families, the blessings descending from generation to generation in an ever growing ratio.”

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