Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Conversion experiences?

A reader wrote the following question to me:
In your blog post about "The Presbyterian Doctrine of Covenant Children," you said that the traditional Reformed view of children of believers is that they are already in covenant with God and should be raised and nurtured so that they grow up not knowing a time when they did not love God, have sorrow for sin, faith in Christ, etc. I've noticed that in modern evangelicalism there is a tendency to put a great deal of emphasis on the necessity of "personal conversion" and "making a decision." There is somewhat of the same thing in Reformed circles (especially Reformed Baptist circles), where children of believers are encouraged to "seek salvation" and get under conviction of sin, and may not be converted until some point in their teen years--in keeping with Edwards views about seeking salvation. How do you view this emphasis on having a personal conversion experience in light of the Reformed view of covenant children?

Good question. The short answer is that I am against the emphasis on children of believers having to have a conversion experience.
Christian parents who believe their children must have a conversion experience must necessarily treat their children as outsiders until they have that experience. It follows that not only must such children then be excluded from baptism and the Lord’s supper (contrary to the practice of the early church and the Eastern church to this day which was always to include children in the holy Eucharist) but the parents must relate to their children like they would relate to an unbeliever.
The idea that children of believers have to have a conversion experience is objectionable to me, because it sets the children up for a lifetime of doubt. Of course, they’re going to struggle with doubting their salvation if during the formative years of their life their parents have addressed them as unbelievers, essentially saying, “The verdict is still out on you until you are old enough to decide for yourself.” I have witnessed this in Baptist families and sometimes teenagers feel they need to continually repeat their salvation experience because it wasn’t good enough. Is it really surprising that they doubt their salvation throughout the rest of their life when their parents doubted their salvation for the first 5 or 6 years of their life?
The promises God has given to Christian parents should provide us with a confidence that our children are part of the visible covenant (the church and all of its blessings) and are presumptively part of the invisible covenant (saved). For example, after articulating the glories of the new covenant in his wonderful sermon in Acts 3, Peter ends by declaring, “The promise is to you and to your children.” (Acts 3:39) Children are not outside God’s covenantal promises because they are part of the visible covenant community. In 1 Corinthians 7:14 Paul makes the point that if even one of the parents is a believer then the children are sanctified otherwise they would be unclean (unclean like those children outside the covenant who do not have a believing parent). Speaking of small children Jesus Himself declares that “of such is the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:16). Then there are all the wonderful promises given to the descendents of Abraham which are addressed “to you and your children” and these can be applied to Gentiles because Gentile believers have now been grafted in to God’s covenant family by faith (Rom. 11:17). The result of Gentiles coming into the covenant is that they are heirs of the covenantal laws and promises of the Old Covenant, including the Abrahamic blessing which always included the children born into covenant families. Paul seems to assume this by quoting promises from the Sinai law and applying them to Gentile children in his letter to the Ephesians (6:1-3). And then, finally, there are the great promises of the Psalms that faithful covenantal parenting will result in faithful children. See Psalm 128, for example, where we are told that he who fears the Lord and walks in His ways will be blessed and that this blessing will extend to his children.

Of course these verses do not guarantee that the children of believers won't fall away, just as the promises of salvation given to individuals do not guarantee that an individual will not fall away. Rather, these promises assume that one is taking and applying these promises by faith, which in this case means faithful covenantal parenting, just as the promises of salvation assume that one is applying and appropriating scripture’s promises by faith which means faithful living. Of course, believing parents can fail to pass on the covenantal blessings, like the generation that followed Joshua (Judges 2:10), and they can raise their children to worship idols (Ezekiel 16:20), but the normal pattern that scripture assumes is that believing parents will be faithful in parenting, which is why Paul makes faithful children a qualification for church leadership (1 Timothy 3:4-5).
Baptising our infants is a way of claiming these covenantal promises for our children. Baptism  says “You have been bought with a price! Your baptism is proof that you are a covenant child. Now walk in the faith you've been given.” Baptism must then be followed by faithful parenting because God’s normal instrumental means for bringing children to himself is faithful parenting, which is why it is so unhelpful to expect children of believers to have a conversion experience which is essentially to take a conversion model which applies to those who are not God’s people and apply it to those who are. A baby from a Christian home belongs to God from the moment he or she is born, and if the parents raise the child faithfully (rather than sending them off to the state schools to be educated by Amorites and Moabites), that child will never be able to look back and remember a time when they didn’t know the Lord.

As far as resources on this question, I would suggest Lewis Bevens Schenck’s book The Presbyterian Doctrine of Children in the Covenant not just for what he personally has to say on this subject but because of all the other Christian writers he quotes. You have already mentioned my review of the book, but for the sake of other readers it can be found HERE. Also Doug Wilson deals with this subject in chapter 5 of his book Standing on the Promises. He writes
“The assurance of parents, and then later, the assurance of the child, should not be based upon a distinct conversion event in the life of the child. A man does not need to know what time the sun rose in the morning in orde to know that it is up. In a similar way, the father and mother do not need to tell exactly when the sun rose in their child’s life in order to see the evidences of grace. The fruit of the Spirit is as obvious as sunshine. If love, joy and peace are in that child’s life and they have grown up in it, they may not be able to pinpoint the day or the hour they were born again. This may be frustrating to some, but we should remember that those brought up apart from Christ commonly wish that they had had a biblical upbringing. Assurance of salvation for the child rests upon the same ground as it does with any other believer – and this is not the assurance that comes from a human action or decision. Assurance comes from believing Christ, and gratefully noting the promised results of believing Christ.”
I hope that helps a little bit.

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Unknown said...

I agree with you 100 percent. But if this is the typical Presbyterian view, then why was Douglas Wilson excommunicated from the Presbyterian church for saying things like you are writing¿

Unknown said...

Was he formally excommunicated? I don't know anything about that other than that Presbyterians like to find things to fight about.

Wayne said...

Not all Baptists believe that parents should seek an experience of conversion at the moment of some "decision." Indeed, parents should teach their children "so that they grow up not knowing a time when they did not love God, have sorrow for sin, faith in Christ, etc." But for different reasons than those given. Parenting isn't about giving your children choices concerning metaphysic realities, and hoping they make the right decision. God-fearing parents are to teach their children Truth, live before them as though they believed it, and hold them to that same standard. This does not imply, however, that those children are regenerate, however, nor that they are already part of the Covenant. In fact, what separates participants in the New Covt. from the Old is God's work of regeneration. In the Old Covenant, children entered by physical birth, even if they were never regenerate. So, while I will teach my children that there is only one truth, I am still dependent upon God for Him to do the work of regeneration in my children. And that time of conversion may never be a something any of us can identify. But that's OK. What matters is that the change has been made in their hearts, and that they know and love the Lord.

Unknown said...

Thank you for that clarification Wayne. I was interacting with the views of baptists I had had experience with in the past. It is always good to avoid steriotyping so I appreciate your feedback.

Wayne said...

I agree that the stereotype generally describes Baptists. I just don't think it does so necessarily.

Ken G said...

Douglas Wilson has never been a member of a Presbyterian denomination, much less excommunicated from one - though his church has Presbyterian polity at the local level, the CREC is a confederation not a true Presbyterian denomination.

But Patrick is probably referring to the Presbyterian Church in America's findings that Federal Vision is a dangerous idea or something like that.

They didn't excommunicate anybody.

And everybody knows the PCA is just a bunch of Baptists anyway. :-)

LessonsByGrace said...

Hi. There is no Acts 3:39. I agree with what you have said and read it a couple of times. Thanks for taking the time to write the article.

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