Monday, March 18, 2013

Baptism: Whose Children?

A debate exists among Presbyterians as to whether baptism or not ought only to administered to the children of parents who are communicant members. The debate rests upon some very crucial points such as the nature of the visible church and its membership and the nature of the profession that qualifies a person for membership in the visible church. The issue matters not just in its practical outworking but because it affects our view of the visible Church, its membership and the nature of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

The visible church and its membership
Separatism of the Independent and Congregational variety has tended to view the visible Church as solely made up of regenerated persons who are received into a gathered congregation (which is often the only kind of visible church they tend to recognise) as regenerated persons who have given some evidences of their experience to indicate that this is the case. Those who believed in the baptism of children were not always sure about what to do with them but regarded them as part of the visible church in a secondary sense or else did not regard them as in any sense within the visible church. The difficulty of applying baptism only to the children of the regenerate is that, apart from not knowing categorically who are and who are not regenerate, we cannot assume that the children of the regenerate are themselves regenerate. To say that children belong to the church but not in the same sense as their regenerated parents is to create two visible churches in effect. We will come back to this (DV) in a separate post at another time.

Scottish Presbyterianism, with the Westminster Standards, has distinguished between the church as viewed in its visible aspect and as viewed in its invisible aspect. There are not two churches but the same universal church can be viewed in these two aspects. They were careful in this regard because they could see that Scripture uses the word for church in a flexible way that may refer to the Visible Church or to the Invisible Church, or to both (although one of them is usually foremost). The context in which the word is found makes the interpretation clear. As James Durham notes, it is common to find references to both together, as “when an epistle is written to a Church, some things are said of it, and to it, as visible, some things again are peculiarly applicable to believers, who are members of the Invisible Church in it”. According to the Westminster Confession, the Invisible Church is the “the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fulness of Him that filleth all in all”—a number which no man can number and whose members are only ultimately known by God.

It is a fundamental mistake therefore to confuse the two together and require invisible evidences for a visible profession required for visible membership in a visible Church. We cannot look into men’s hearts. Thomas M’Crie summarises matters well in stating that “all who make a profession of the faith compose the Church considered as visible, while those among them who are endued with true faith constitute the Church considered as invisible. The former includes the latter; and it is sometimes spoken in Scripture under the one and sometimes under the other view”. The Lord Jesus Christ makes it clear that “many are called (visible Church) but few are chosen (Invisible Church).”

The order and government of the Church, as appointed in Scripture have nothing to do with the Invisible Church but rather concern the Visible Church. The Visible Church, according to the Westminster Confession of Faith, “consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God”. Christ has entrusted it with “the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world” (25:3-4). The Scottish Presbyterian view was a vision of covenanted and discipled nations made up of parishes where the truth was taught and the ordinances administered rather than a gathered church.

The difference between the Congregationalist and Presbyterian views of the visible church and its membership are easily seen by contrasting the definition from the Westminster Confession with that of the Savoy Confession. The latter reads: “The whole body of men throughout the world, professing the faith of the gospel and obedience unto God by Christ according to it, not destroying their own profession by any errors everting the foundation, or unholiness of conversation, are, and may be called the visible catholic church of Christ; although as such it is not entrusted with the administration of any ordinances, or have any officers to rule or govern in, or over the whole body”. That is to say that the visible Church is simply the membership of particular congregations aggregated together without mutual government or any other mutual relationship. The London Confession of 1689 adapted this language but refused to speak of the catholic visible Church.

The Visible Church involves visible office-bearers administering the visible ordinances appointed by Christ to those who have a visible profession of the true religion as distinguished from the rest of the world. It is the means used to gather the Invisible Church. The Visible Church is a great house containing vessels of honour and dishonour (2 Tim. 2:20). It is Christ's vineyard (Is. 5:1), sheepfold (John 10:1-16), barn floor (Matt. 3:12), and dragnet (Matt 13:47). The Visible Church is also “the light of the world”. It is "the city of truth" and "the righteous nation that keepeth the truth" (Zech. 8:3; Is. 26:2). A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid” (Matt.5:14).

One may, however, belong to the visible Church but not to the invisible Church and vice versa. This mirrors the covenant of grace which has an outward administration and membership but also a real, inward, efficacious administration and membership by God’s grace and Spirit. There is therefore a right to church privileges in the eyes of the Church and a right to church privileges in the eyes of God

The nature of profession needed for initiation
The Confession speaks of those who profess the true religion as opposed to those who profess the false religion or indeed have no formal religion at all. It does not speak of those who truly profess the true religion but simply of those who make profession of it. It doesn’t say those who make a profession that they are regenerated but those who profess the true religion. This is an objective matter and something that can be tested. The language of the Confession echoes and reflects Scripture itself in passages such as 1 Cor 5:12 where the assumption is that ordinary hearers of the word (those hearing the letter read) were within not, without the visible Church. Those without were pagans not professing the true religion who could not be judged because they did not come under the word in any sense at all.

This is of course the nature of profession in the Old Testament Church. They avouched the Lord to be their God and entered into covenant with him (Ex. 19:5-6; Deut 26:17-19; Deut 27:9-10). Mostly this was done en masse (Deut 29:10-13; 2 Chron 15:9-12). All were received as disciples to be taught “they sat down at thy feet; every one shall receive of thy words” (Deut 33:3). Gentile proselytes were admitted into the Old Testament Church upon making a serious profession of the true religion and expressing willingness to subject themselves to the institutions commanded by God.

Circumcision was for all who were born within the visible Church and whose parents had not been cut off from God’s people. In Joshua 5 we read of circumcision being administered to all of the children of the generation who perished in the wilderness.  They were circumcised as in covenant with God because born within the visible Church and part of the covenant community even though their parents ultimately gave no evidences of real grace or true faith.  The Lord speaks of the children of the visible church as having been born unto him Ezekiel 16:20, even though they were the children of rebellious parents, this did not cancel that external relationship. Esau was circumcised, even though we read that he was hated by God.

It is expressly commanded in Genesis 17:10 that every man child shall be circumcised. There was some restriction on this, certain conditions and tribes were restricted from coming into the congregation for several generations. It was, however, a default position that unless there were necessary restrictions the children of all within the visible Church making a serious profession should be circumcised. We would ask: where is the command and warrant now to restrict the breadth of this command under the New Testament? The tendency of the New Testament administration of the Covenant of Grace is to widen privileges, not restrict. Women and Gentiles are now brought onto the same footing in terms of formal admission into the visible Church and receiving the seal.

Sometimes the observation is made that circumcision automatically qualified someone for the Passover with the implication that the same standard ought to be equivalent for baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  Children were not automatically qualified for the Passover meal, however. There were conditions, moreover, under which the circumcised were restricted from partaking of the Passover. This might be defilement or being prevented by some matter such as being on a journey. (They were not debarred from circumcision for their children by this).

The equivalent to this in relation to the Lord’s Supper is worthy partaking, discerning the Lord’s body and self-examination (see Larger Catechism Q171). Something more than what is required for baptism is in view here. Someone may be eligible for baptism but not for the Lord’s Supper. If we compare Larger Catechism Q166 and Q171 we will surely see that this can in fact be the case. Indeed we never find in the New Testament that those who are given baptism are to examine and try themselves regarding their inward state and condition as is necessary for the Lord’s Supper; this is because the qualifications for both ordinances are different. The Supper is a seal of nourishment and growth in Christ not of initial engagement to be Christ’s.

The Reformed understanding of the sacraments following Calvin has generally distinguished between baptism as the sign and seal of entrance into the visible Church and the Supper as the sign of confirmation and growth. The Larger Catechism distinguished clearly in answer to the question 177 “Wherein do the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's supper differ?” “A. The sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper differ, in that Baptism is to be administered but once, with water, to be a sign and seal of our regeneration and ingrafting into Christ, and that even to infants; whereas the Lord's Supper is to be administered often, in the elements of bread and wine, to represent and exhibit Christ as spiritual nourishment to the soul, and to confirm our continuance and growth in him, and that only to such as are of years and ability to examine themselves”.

The tendency to view the two sacraments as almost mutually convertible will have a seriously detrimental impact upon the preciousness of the Lord’s Supper as a means of grace. One sacrament deals with our state in an objective sense, the other deals with our condition in a more subjective sense. This is why there are situations where even those that are regenerated cannot rightly and worthily partake of the Lord’s Supper, due preparation is required, it is not an automatic assumption that they must partake of that sacrament in whatever condition they may be found.

Baptism was instituted by Christ for discipleship; the commission was to disciple the nations. “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matt. 28:19).That Commission can be rendered “Go, make all nations disciples”. As David Dickson notes, “those are made disciples whosoever are given up to Christ, to be taught and governed by him, whether by themselves or being brought be others who have power of them, as parents and masters are dedicated and consecrated to Christ, who has said of children elsewhere: “Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not’. All those may and should be taken charge of, admitted into the Church as disciples, and baptized, for he says ‘Go, make disciples of all nations and baptize them’”. This was to be done by teaching and baptizing. It is evident that no one but God can make someone a disciple if we restricted the meaning of the word to those who are regenerated. It is clear also that nations as nations are to be taught and made disciples. Baptism was for the initiate disciples whether older or infants. What were they to teach? The gospel and the fundamentals of Christ and the Trinity but also the commandments of Christ to which disciples are to subject themselves willingly.

It is instructive to compare Pentecost with what we have noted of a people covenanting en masse with the Lord together with their children. Baptism was administered en masse on the basis of a sincere profession but we do not imagine that there was opportunity to interview all 3,000 individuals before baptism was administered particularly if their children were also baptised at the time.

Those who received the outward call of the word, professed belief in Christ and were willing to subject themselves to his institutions were baptised, together with their children. Theirs’ was the promise and therefore they received a seal of their right to that promise. “Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call” (Acts 2:38-39).

The profession accepted by the apostles for baptism is a straightforward profession of discipleship, and baptism took place speedily without any delay. The apostolic practice was that those who gladly received the word were baptised (Acts 2:41). As we know, this probably included Ananias and Sapphira who turned out to be other than their profession indicated. Likewise we read that Simon Magus believed the word and was baptised yet was still in the bond of iniquity (Acts 8:13 and 23). In the same chapter we read of the profession made by the Ethiopian Eunuch which was very basic and straightforward. “And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. And he commanded the chariot to stand still: and they went down both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him” (Acts 8:37-38). The Philippian jailor was baptised “straightway” (Acts 16:33). The baptism of Saul of Tarsus may have extraordinary features in the background, particularly the way that Ananias was sent to meet with Saul, but, being administered without delay, it completes the picture in terms of apostolic practice in relation to baptism.
No evidences of grace were required in any of these situations. It is hard to imagine that even some of the most careless of kirk sessions would admit someone to the Lord’s table so quickly, solely upon this type of profession.

Confusion introduced by Subjectivity
Errors in relation to baptism mostly derive from trying to connect the ordinance with regeneration in some way, not just an ex opere operato baptismal regeneration position, but also a presumptive regeneration position, or a view that all elect children are regenerated at the time of baptism. There is also the view that in order for baptism to be real - regeneration must already have taken place prior to the ordinance being administered. This is of course the Anabaptist position. Baptism has its basis, integrity and validity in the subjective response of man rather than the objective promise of God. It is grace offered that is being sealed not grace received; a sign to grace not a sign of grace. It is the promise of God that is the basis for baptism. The integrity of baptism does not depend upon our subjective response.

Calvin anticipates an objection in the Institutes, "Therefore you will ask do the wicked by their ingratitude make the ordinance of God fruitless and void? I answer, that what I have said is not to be understood as if the power and truth of the sacrament depended on the condition or pleasure of him who, receives it, That which God instituted continues firm and retains its nature however men may vary; but since it is one thing to offer and another thing to receive, there is nothing to prevent a symbol, consecrated by the word of the Lord, from being truly what it is said to be and preserving its power, though it may at the same time confer no benefit on the wicked and ungodly".

In 1 Corinthians 7, the apostle Paul addresses a vexed question. The issue there is to do with whether a believer should divorce their pagan unbelieving spouse on the grounds that the marriage is not sanctified. Pagan Gentiles were unclean but Christian Gentiles were not, they had a covenant holiness which extended to their children who were also in the covenant and within the visible Church. If the covenant root is holy, so also are the branches. “For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy” (1 Cor 7:14). Paul is not speaking of a real holiness here but of covenant holiness, dedication and separation to God and his service from the world, and as the word partly signified in the Old Testament, being acceptable for presentation to God in his temple. The language reflects that which is spoken of Israel in the Old Testament, they are a holy nation. It is profession of Christianity as opposed to paganism that is in view here. Baptism puts a visible difference between those within the Church and those that belong to the world. As RL Dabney puts it, we must treat all baptized persons as bona fide members of the visible church unless their membership is legally severed or else accept the Anabaptist theory of the church. We cannot treat them as pagans and heathen.

The need for Objectivity
This is where we return to the visible profession that must be assessed by those admitting to the ordinance of baptism. They must inquire as to the knowledge and profession of the truth made and ask whether or not there is anything that they are aware of and obvious to them that would contradict the reality of a serious visible profession. Rather than disposing of the matter rapidly by the simple test of whether the person is or is not a communicant member a session must take each case on its merits and deal sensitively but thoroughly with the individual using it as an opportunity to counsel and exhort them. We are told of a danger of creating hypocrites if we proceed on this method of administering baptism, we do not believe that to be the case since there is no claim to prior regeneration and on a serious profession there is every hope that the vows will be fulfilled and blessed to the parent themselves. It is surely a sin, however, says Rutherford to break the bruised reed and quench the smoking flax of one who wishes to profess Christ openly and secure a blessing for their children but whose self-examination does not lead them to coming forward to seek acceptance for the Lord’s Supper.