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Author:Rev. Stephen 't Hart
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Baldivis
 Baldivis, Western Australia
Title:Covenant baptism
Text:LD 27 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Liturgy from 1984 Book of Praise

Psalm 111:1,3

Hymn 5:1,2

Psalm 105:1,2,3

Psalm 105:4

Psalm 111:5

Read:  Galatians 3; Hebrews 10:19-39

Text:  Lord’s Day 27

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Stephen 't Hart, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ.

In this church we make a point of having both adults and children attending the Sunday services.  That is because in this church we insist that both believers and their children belong to God’s covenant and congregation.  We do not treat our children as unconverted heathens, nor as unbelievers:  rather we treat them as covenant children of God.  And so we take them to church, we tell them about God and we teach them to pray.  For they are sanctified in Christ, set apart to belong to Him.  And so as members of the church, they are also baptized.

Understanding the children of believers to be a part of God’s covenant and congregation and also having them baptized has been the norm in the Christian church since the beginning.  The Church Father Irenaeus, who was born before the apostle John died, acknowledged the practice of infant baptism, as did Justin Martyr (born 138 A.D), Tertullian (born 160 A.D), Cyprian (born 253 A.D), and Augustine (born 354 A.D).

In the days when the Heidelberg Catechism was written, the Roman Catholics, the Lutherans and the Reformed all practiced infant baptism (although they did not all explain the meaning of baptism in the same way).  The only ones who denied infant baptism were the Anabaptists, who belonged to the so-called “Radical Reformation” and were indeed radically different to the Reformed faith.

But today the doctrine of Infant Baptism is challenged.  Today many Christians, even many people who call themselves Reformed Christians, do not practice infant baptism, but insist that only believers may be baptised.   And that has caused many people to question whether or not we are right to baptise infants.  It has also caused many to ask whether or not the debate over the baptism of infants is all that important. 

Many people agree that we can learn a lot from preachers and teachers such as John Piper, a man whom many would call a champion of the Reformed faith (but a Baptist), and we seem to have more in common with people such as John Piper (or Stuart Ollyot) than with many people who practice infant baptism, including some liberal theologians of the Reformed churches that we came out of.  And so today reformed people who practice infant baptism and those who don’t, seem to be seeking each other out more than ever before.

One of the results of that is that this has caused a cooling down in how many people talk about the importance of infant baptism today.  On the side of the Baptists, John Piper will strongly defend what he calls “Believer Baptism” but also tempers his words by saying “I do not elevate the time or mode of baptism as a primary doctrine.”[1]  In other words, John Piper does not want the doctrine of baptism to divide Reformed believers since, to quote him again, “we share essential, deep, and wonderful truths with Presbyterian/Reformed brothers and sisters.”  And very similar words are echoed from the side of those “Presbyterian/Reformed brothers and sisters.”

But our confessions speak somewhat differently and do treat the baptism of infants as something of great importance, a matter that we can not and may not gloss over.  Lord’s Day 27 answers the question of whether or not infants should be baptised with a resounding “Yes, they must be baptized.”  And article 29 of our Belgic Confession lists the right administration of the sacraments as a mark of the True Church.  (And article 34 of the Belgic Confession teaches that the right administration of baptism necessarily includes the baptism of infants.)

This afternoon I wish to explain to you why we as church confess that infants must be baptized and why this is an important doctrine to believe and to confess.  I preach to you the Word of the LORD as the church has summarized it in Lord’s Day 27 under the following theme:

The promise of covenantal baptism is for believers and their children.

1.    The biblical foundation for the baptism of the children of believers.

2.    The biblical promise given in the baptism of the children of believers.

1. The biblical foundation for the baptism of the children of believers.

Sometimes it is helpful to know what others believe in order to have our own beliefs and convictions sharpened.  So allow me to briefly explain why some people reject infant baptism.  Those who say that infants should not be baptized will regularly point out the following:

1.     The New Testament closely ties faith and baptism together.  Mark 16:16 says, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved”.  And Acts 2:38 says, “Repent and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins.”  So from texts such as these the Baptists conclude that first comes repentance and faith, and then comes baptism.

2.     Baptists point out that no single Bible Text in the New Testament commands that infants must be baptized.  And they also argue that where households were baptized, this does not necessarily include infants or those who did not believe. 

3.     In his response to question 74 of the Heidelberg Catechism, John Piper agreed that baptism has replaced circumcision, but that those who are to be baptized today are the spiritual sons of Abraham – and Galatians 3:7 says “Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham.”  And therefore, says John Piper, only those of faith, only believers are members of the covenant, and only believers may be baptized.[2]

But we confess that the promise of covenantal baptism is not just for believers, but also for their children.  We also confess that there is a biblical foundation for the baptism of children.  Allow me to explain why this is so.

We read together from Galatians 3.  In this chapter, the apostle Paul was opposing the Judaizers who were threatening the very foundation of the Church.  The Judaizers taught that to become a true child of God, you had to become a Jew and follow the Old Testament laws.  They taught that baptism in Christ was not enough; in order to become a full member of God’s covenant and congregation, and in order to be saved, you had to be circumcised, you had to become a Jew.  That was the way to become a child of Abraham, and that was the way to become an heir to the promises of the covenant.  But the apostle Paul taught that this was not true!  You are not saved by keeping the Old Testament law, by being circumcised and so forth, but you are saved through faith in Christ.  And then Paul explained that really this was not something new: even in the Old Testament, one was saved by grace through faith.  Abraham was circumcised in Genesis 17, at the age of 99 years.  But well before that, in Genesis 15, we read in verse 6,

“And [Abram] believed in the LORD, and He accounted it to him for righteousness.”

It was following that expression of Abram’s faith, that the LORD made a covenant with him, and it was years later that God gave Him the sign and seal of His covenant, circumcision.  Circumcision, therefore, was [to quote the words of our form for baptism] “a seal of the covenant and of the righteousness of faith.”  And now the way to become one of Abraham’s children is to share the same faith that Abraham had.  Just as Abraham believed God’s promises and was declared righteous, so we also are called to believe God’s promises and in that way enjoy the full blessings of those promises.

So in Galatians 3 the question was, “How do you become a child of Abraham, how do you become a child of the covenant?”  The Judaizers said, “You become a child of Abraham through the law, through circumcision.  To become a child of Abraham you have to become a Jew.”  But Paul said, “No.  Whether you are a Jew or a Greek is not the point.  The covenant promises are not just for those who are physical descendants of Abraham;  rather, because Christ, the True Seed of Abraham has come, the promise of the covenant is extended to everyone who shares in the faith of Abraham.  And then Paul concluded this by saying in Galatians 3:26-29,

“For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.  For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

But now what about the children of believers?  Are the children of believers also a part of God’s covenant and congregation?  Yes they are.  When God establishes His covenant with believers, He also extends His covenant promises to the children of believers.  We clearly see this with Abraham.  In Genesis 15, it was Abraham who believed God and was therefore declared righteous.  And so in Genesis 15 the LORD made His covenant with Abraham.  But included in that covenant were all those who were in Abraham’s household.  This becomes very clear in Genesis 17:7 which says,

“And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you.”

Notice that this clearly says that God established His everlasting covenant not just with the believer Abraham, but also with his family.  Abraham was the one who believed, but the covenant the LORD established with him also extended to his children.  In fact, even those children who did not believe and would later reject the covenant promises, were also incorporated into the covenant, receiving its sign.  Ishmael was thirteen years old when he was circumcised and Esau was eight days old.  Neither Ishmael nor Esau fully received all that was promised in the covenant since they rejected the covenant promises.  But they were both eligible to receive the sign and seal of the covenant, circumcision, because they too belonged to God’s covenant and congregation.  In the Old Testament, therefore, the covenant was not restricted to those who themselves believed but was also extended to the children of those who believed.  These covenant children were special, a chosen generation, who received unique privileges and responsibilities.  If they trusted in God and walked in His ways, then they would inherit the blessings of the covenant; if they rejected God’s promises, they would fall under the covenant curse.

And that was the pattern for the rest of the Old Testament:  God established His covenant not just with adult believers, but also with their children.  As Psalm 103:17,18 expresses it,

“But the mercy of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear Him, and His righteousness to children’s children, to such as keep His covenant, and to those who remember His commandments to do them.”

In the Old Testament, the children of Israel were clearly a part of God’s covenant and congregation.  The promises of the covenant were not just for the Fathers but also for their descendants.  And this principle remains the same in the New Testament.  Already in Luke 1:50, the song of Mary says,

“And His mercy is on those who fear Him from generation to generation.”

And at Pentecost, when Peter told the people to repent, he told them who the promise was for:

“For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.”  (Acts 2:39)

Just as in the Old Testament, so also in the New Testament, children who remain under the authority of a believing parent are included in the Covenant of Grace.  And that is why 1 Corinthians 7:14 calls the children of believers holy:

“For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy.”

And that is also why in Ephesians 6:1-3 children can be called to obey their parents in the Lord (for they belong to Him).  And that is also why the promise of the fifth commandment, “that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth” was repeated in Ephesians 6:3, for it is a covenantal promise for the children of believers also in the New Testament. 

And that is why when the head of a household became a Christian and was baptized, his whole household was baptized with him.  For when the head of the household believed, his entire house was placed in covenant with God.  This is clear, for example, with the conversion and baptism of the Philippian Jailer in Acts 16.  An accurate translation of Acts 16:34 states that the Jailer, along with his entire household rejoiced that he, the jailer, had believed in God.  As was also the case with Zacchaeus in Luke 19, salvation came not just to him but to his house.

And so we see that the Old Testament principle of the LORD extending His covenant promises to believers and their children did not change in the New Testament.  The covenant God established with Abraham, which was an everlasting covenant and continues into the New Testament, was for believing parents and their children.  To receive what was promised in the covenant, these children would, in time, need to accept those promises in faith.  But the children of believers are blessed to receive the promises of the covenant, and they are holy, separated from the children of unbelievers. 

So then how would we respond to those who say that only believers may be baptized?  The Bible does indeed say “He who believes and is baptized will be saved” and “Repent and be baptized.”  But in this the New Testament does not exclude infants from being baptized.  Rather, when God brings adults into His covenant by faith, He also brings their children along with them into the covenant.  That’s why Peter said in Acts 2 that the promise of the forgiveness of sin and the Holy Spirit was not just for those who repented and believed but also for their children.  And although there is no one Bible verse that says that the children of believers must be baptized, the New Testament does make it clear that the covenant promises God made to Abraham also apply to the New Testament sons of Abraham, to all those who are in Christ Jesus.  And those promises extend not just to the one who believes, but also to the children who live in his house.

But there is still a strong connection between baptism and faith in the New Testament – just as there was a strong connection between circumcision and faith in the Old Testament.  We do not baptize all infants, but only the children of believers.  And that is why when parents bring their children to church to be baptized we ask if they confess that the doctrine of the Old and New Testament, summarized in the confessions and taught here in this Christian church, is the complete doctrine of salvation.  And that is also why the parents must promise to instruct their child and have him instructed in the truth of God’s Word.  For the promise given to the child in his or her baptism must be received in faith.  As the child grows up, he is called to confess his faith and say Yes to the promises given to him at his baptism.

2. The biblical promise given in the baptism of the children of believers.

When a child is baptised, we are not saying that this child is born again or regenerated:  we make no presumptions in one way of the other about this.  But what the child does receive is the promise of the gospel.  And this is the promise: 

“that God graciously grants us forgiveness of sins and everlasting life because of the one sacrifice of Christ accomplished on the cross.”  (HC answer 66)

This promise is sealed to us and our children in our baptism.  The watermark of holy Baptism is God’s confirmation to us that the promise is for us, that we can trust God for His forgiveness and the Holy Spirit.

 Through baptism, the Lord declares that our children are the special objects of His grace, that He has set them apart to be nurtured in the gospel.  The child is incorporated into the Christian church and is in a privileged position to both hear and understand the promise of the Gospel.

And because our children are legitimate members of God’s covenant and congregation, we treat them as such, believing that they have a rightful place in the house of the Lord.  And so we take them to church, we teach them to pray and address God as “Our Father”, we teach them to sing “I love the Lord, the fount of life and grace”.  And we have the joy of treating them as children loved by God, set apart to be trained in the fear of the Lord and called to respond in faith.

And in this manner, when our children are instructed in the covenant promises and obligations, it regularly happens that a child naturally grows into a deep love for God and a living faith in His Word.  In this environment it regularly happens that the child will not even be able to say what day or moment he or she first believed.  And that is good; that is a blessing of growing up in God’s covenant and congregation.

It is true that there are many exceptions to this.  Not all those who are born into the covenant come to Christ in the same way, and not all those who are born into the covenant accept by faith the promises of the covenant.  Also for covenant children, regeneration and true faith are a supernatural gift, and something that neither the children nor parents can take for granted.  But even when our children turn their back on the LORD and His covenant promises, they can not remove the mark of holy baptism, and their baptism remains a constant call to them to return to the LORD and to seek His face.  And we may be convinced that if they do turn to the Lord in repentance, the Lord will not forget the promises He made to them, but He will truly cleanse them with the blood and Sprit of Christ.

But baptism is also an urgent call to all of you who have received its sign.  Those of you who are baptized have been sanctified by the blood of the covenant, to use the words of Hebrews 10:29.  Young people and all of you who have been baptized, the promise of the forgiveness of sins was given to you, and you are blessed to brought up in the congregation of God.  But this privilege carries with it an urgent responsibility.  The call to each and every covenant child is to respond in faith to the covenant promises and to live in holiness before the Lord.  But those who do not take in faith the covenant promises will be subject to the covenant curse.  For such a person tramples underfoot the Son of God, counts the blood of the covenant a common thing, and insults the Spirit of grace.  Hebrews 10:26,27 says,

“If we sin wilfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries.”

And therefore let us hold fast to the doctrine of the covenant of grace, receiving in faith the promise of the gospel with joy and thanksgiving.

“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful.”  (Hebrews 10:23)

Should infants too be baptized?  Yes.  The promises of the covenant are given to them no less than to adults.  Therefore by baptism they must be grafted into the Christian church and distinguished from the children of unbelievers.  The biblical doctrine of covenantal baptism is an important doctrine, with great consequences for the church and for our children.  The children of believers are sanctified in Christ, set apart from the children of unbelievers, and heirs of the promise.  They have an awesome privilege, a high calling and a great responsibility.  And they have the sure sign and seal that the redemption from sin through the blood of Christ and the Holy Spirit are promised to them no less than to adults. 

The LORD established His everlasting covenant with Abraham, declaring that He would be God to Abraham and His descendants forever.  And firm stands His word to Abraham spoken.  The promises of His everlasting covenant are still given to us and our children today.  Let us receive those promises in faith and live out of them to the praise of His glorious grace.  Amen.

[1] John Piper in Brothers, we are not professionals, p128.

[2] John Piper, p133f.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Stephen 't Hart, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2011, Rev. Stephen 't Hart

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