It is the assumption of Scripture that infants are genuine members of the covenant. That is the reason why in the text before us this morning parents are commanded to nurture their children in terms of Christian covenantal thinking.
There is no debate on that point when we consider the Old Testament. All concede that Circumcision was the sign and seal that indicated membership in the Covenant. It is only in the New Testament where we begin to find widespread and sometimes heated disagreement that NT infants, just as their OT counterparts, are to be branded with a brand that indicates that they are genuine members of the covenant. In the NT, so the reasoning goes of those who go their own way on this matter, infants are not members upon birth, of the covenant.
Of course, if those who demur with us on this point are correct this means that one of the purposes of Jesus death and resurrection was to the end that infants of covenant parents would be expelled from a covenant in which they had previously been a party too before the death and resurrection of our Lord Christ. This is an odd way to think about a “New and Better” covenant.
Covenant succession merely holds that God’s general way of collecting the Church is via His gathering into the Church the children of His children.
Causes of the decline of Covenant succession
1.) Social Contract theory as applied to the Church
According to this understanding of social order theory long established in the Enlightenment West, each person is by nature an independent locale of sovereign self-authority, having full legal capacity to act on their own behalf and so not subject to the authority of another. In this theory, each atomized individual is absolutely equal to every other atomized individual and so by sovereign “right” authorized to act upon his own determination.
With this theory, man’s natural liberty was held as being the privilege to do whatever he wanted to do. In this theory man himself determines what shall be given up in order to live in civil society. Man, as the individual sovereign is everywhere supreme.
Well, you can see how this social contract theory, when adopted by the Church would lead to the idea that it is the individual man himself who does or does not consent to belong to this community of faith.
Whether as pertaining to a broader social order or as pertaining to the Church an objection must be raised to this theory that we believe has had such a baleful influence upon both the social orders of men and upon the Church of Jesus Christ. Men have never existed as sovereign atomized individuals using their own sovereign free will to determine whether they will or will not be a party to a social contract or to being claimed by God in Baptism. Instead, men are born as members of peoples, as well as Churches as ordained by Him. So, just as men do not choose their own civic obligation but are born to it so men who are born to believing parents do not choose their belonging to the Church but are ordained by God to that end.
2.) Revivalistic Assumptions vs. Scriptural Assumptions
With the first great awakening as followed by the 2nd great awakening, the emphasis as it relates to speaking about conversion moved from the covenantal nurture of children in the covenant to having a dramatic personal emotional experiential encounter with Jesus.
Louis Bevins Schenk in his book on “The Presbyterian Doctrine of Covenant Succession writes,
“The presumption of regeneration in the case of children of the covenant, based upon the covenant promises, was largely displaced by the Church’s practice of recognizing as Christians only those who gave ‘credible evidence,” satisfactory to themselves of regeneration.”
This is the conversion mindset in which most of our churches think today. From evangelism programs like “Romans Road,” “Evangelism Explosion,” or the “Four Spiritual laws,” this is the contemporary Church’s understanding of how conversion occurs. Before this time the whole idea of “altar calls” that have become famous with Charles Finney, D. L. Moody, Billy Sunday, and Billy Graham would have been a curious phenomenon.
However, while never denying that God deals with some people like this — particularly those who come to Christ as adults — this isn’t the model that we find emphasized in Scripture as it pertains to covenant children. In Scripture, the parents are to lay hold of God’s promises that God will be God to us and to our children for a thousand generations and then are to train their children up in the faith in light of God’s promises. In this model, the whole idea of a dramatic conversion experience slips away in favor of covenantal nurture.
3.) Datable Conversionism vs. Covenant Succession Conversionism
Consistent with what was just mentioned the whole ascendancy of a datable conversion became the be all end all for much of the Church. The idea is that “every Christian knows the day they were ‘born again.'” This stands in contrast to the idea of covenantal succession where God
4.) The failure of Covenantal Nurture
6 And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart:
7 And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.
Too often the cash value of baptism to many who are party to the contemporary Church is that they have kept their religious responsibility to their children. They have had them Baptized.
This is why the form distinctly says, in the charge we just read that parents
“must, therefore, use the sacrament for the purpose that God intended and not out of custom or superstition.”
While we are of the persuasion that in Baptism God has placed His claim upon us we are not of the persuasion that Baptism entered into apart from covenantal nurturing laid upon us as parents guarantee our child is right with God.
Listen to the 19th century Southern Theologian R. L. Dabney on this point,
The instrumentalities of the family are chosen and ordained of God as the most efficient of all means of grace—more truly and efficaciously means of saving grace than all the other ordinances of the church. To family piety are given the best promises of the gospel,.. How, then, should a wise God do otherwise than consecrate the Christian family, and ordain that the believing parents shall sanctify the children? Hence, the very foundation of all parental fidelity to children’s souls is to be laid in the conscientious, solemn, and hearty adoption of the very duties and promises which God seals in the covenant of infant baptism. It is pleasing to think that many Christians who refuse the sacrament do, with a happy inconsistency, embrace the duties and seek the blessing. But God gives all his people the truths and promises, along with the edifying seal. Let us hold fast to both.
~ R.L. Dabney
So, if we are to return to a time where covenantal succession is again the norm in our families and in our churches and among our people we must once again practice covenantal nurture. We must teach our children the Scriptures. We must catechize our children. We must anticipate and answer their objections before they have those objections that we know will arise. As we are teaching our children God’s judgments, statutes, and laws we must point out to them how the culture and too often the visible Church wars against those judgments, statutes, and laws. We must introduce our children to systematic thinking because there is nothing non-systemic and non-systematic in the thinking of God. We must dip and saturate our children in a Christian Worldview that they will see non-Christian worldviews as strange, exotic and ugly. As parents, we must love them, and not provoke them. We must live out before them the majesty of God’s grace that has redeemed us for the sake of the finished work of Christ alone.
Some areas to keep an eye on in order to practice covenantal nurture,
a.) Protect your children from the culture,
The media is a messaging machine and that messaging is seldom based on a Christian world and life view. As such children need not be exposed to Media until they are far far older and have the ability, as coming from covenantal nurturing, to identify and sniff out the false theology behind the false messaging.
Neil Postman in his now classic work warning against the danger of modern Media wrote,
“But it is much later in the game now, and ignorance of the score is inexcusable. To be unaware that a technology comes equipped with a program for social change, to maintain that technology is neutral, to make the assumption that technology is always a friend to culture is, at this late hour, stupidity plain and simple.”
If we are going to practice covenantal nurture in hope of covenantal succession we must understand that technology is, as a rule, no friend of Covenantal succession.
“I am afraid that the schools will prove the very gates of hell unless they diligently labor in explaining the Holy Scriptures and engraving them in the heart of the youth.” ― Martin Luther
I am as sure as I am of the fact of Christ’s reign that a comprehensive and centralized system of national education separated from religion, as is now commonly proposed, will prove the most appalling enginery for the propagation of anti-Christian and atheistic unbelief, and of anti-social, nihilistic 4. ethics, individual, social, and political, which this sin-rent world has ever seen.
Dr. A.A. Hodge
b.) Protect your children from unexamined friendships
From the youngest of ages, it is your role to be the portal that all must pass through in order to get to your children. You must be aware that other children of other families may not share the same Christian confession that you own. This means you must be sharp to watch out that friendships are not cemented with those who will, perhaps quite apart from malicious intent, challenge the truths that you are seeking to instill within your children from Scripture. You are seeking to nurture and disciple your children in the Christian faith. If you allow your children large swaths of “playtime” with other children — even other children from Christian homes of a different confessional stripe — you are courting a bad result in your efforts of covenantal nurture.
The Message of Covenantal nurturing
The message to our children that we must start with in terms of covenantal nurturing is that God provided Christ as the one who would fulfill all the law’s obligations as laid upon the sinful children of Adam and who would give to those same children the righteousness of Jesus Christ to those who would in faith rest in Christ’s righteousness alone as their acceptability to God.
The covenantal nurturing message to our children is that God is at war with unbelieving man and has reconciled Himself to unbelieving man by the finished work of Jesus Christ. It is only by the reconciling work of Jesus Christ in His work on the Cross whereby we and they can have peace and blessing with and from God.
We must nurture our children in the way of a faith that rests in Christ’s work alone in Justification but then also teaches them that in Sanctification their faith is to work as they turn to the law and to the testimonies for God’s word on how they shall live as Christians.
We must remind our baptized children that God’s claim is upon them and so they are to grow in the Christian faith. Our challenge is not that they might decide to become Christian but that they would know God’s eternal claim upon them and become what they have already been freely declared to be in Baptism.
We must nurture them to learning of God’s character. His Sovereignty, His Justice, His Wisdom, His Holiness, His Goodness, His Mercy, and His Grace.
We must nurture them to trust in God’s Word and God’s promises as opposed to their experiences, emotions, and mystical revelations. We must nurture them what it means to be a kind and caring people while at the same time warning them against the dangers of a suicidal altruism.
We must nurture them in the ways of taking godly dominion to every area the sovereign God calls them and of the great truth of our postmillennial hope.
We must nurture them in the truth that repentance is a life long project. But then that even our repentance needs repenting over. We must model before them a humility that seeks to shed every ounce of that ugly sin of self-righteousness. We must demonstrate to them what it means to not think more highly of ourselves than we ought and to consider not only our needs but the needs of others. We must pray that they will see us on our knees praying for Wisdom and that they will hear us honestly attest ourselves to as being not yet wise.
God grants us His grace for what parent could possibly think themselves sufficient unto such a calling?
But God is Faithful and being faithful we anticipate that even in all our failures with our children He will be to our seed and their seed the God who calls them to Himself.