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Author:Dr. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary (CRTS)
 Hamilton, Ontario
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
Title:God's Promise for Covenant Children
Text:LD 27 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:God's Covenant faithfulness

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 18:1,9                                                                                           

Hy 6:1,2  [after Apostles’ Creed]

Reading – 2 Samuel 12:13-23; Matthew 19:13-15; Canons of Dort 1:17

Ps 139:7,8,9,10

Sermon – Lord’s Day 27

Ps 105:1,2,3

Hy 56:1,2,3,4

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved in Christ Jesus, we all know that the covenant is an important thing. On a regular basis we hear this word: covenant. We hear it in sermons and in prayers and in readings from Scripture, when a child is baptized, and even during the Lord’s Supper. We know that it’s important—but like with other Scriptural words and concepts, we might be unclear on what exactly it means. Sometimes there’s a word that gets repeated so often, we assume we know what it’s all about. But if someone asked us to explain it, we would struggle. We might ask for a second to Google it.

Today then, we’d like to focus on the covenant. And we do so because we’ve arrived at Lord’s Day 27. Out of the 129 Questions & Answers in the Catechism, the covenant is probably most prominent here, under the question, “Should infants, too, be baptized?” In Lord’s Day 26 we learned what baptism signifies: the washing of our souls with the blood and the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Now the Catechism wants to explain who such a baptism is for.

And today we’ll look at what the Catechism says alongside Canons of Dort 1:17. It’s not often that we read from the Canons of Dort, but today we’re going to see that these two parts of the Reformed confessions are closely linked.

The title of Article 17 warns us that this is going to be a difficult topic: “Children of believers who die in infancy.” When we talk about an infant dying, or a child passing away, emotions can be stirred up, powerfully and painfully. The bond of parents to their children is among the most close and tender of relationships. So we know that this doctrine touches those among us who have lost children, whether it was recently, or many years ago.

But be clear, it affects all of us. This doctrine isn’t just for those who have gone through the heartache of losing a child. It’s important to every one of God’s people, very old and very young, those with children and those without children, those who are married and single and widowed. For the key issue is the covenant that God has with us. When God promises something, does He mean it? Can we know that God holds to what He has said? We study the teaching of Scripture as summarized in Lord’s Day 27 and the Canons of Dort 1:17,

Children belong to God’s covenant and congregation:

  1. a particular denial of this truth
  2. the Scriptural basis for this truth
  3. the rich comfort in this truth


1. a particular denial of this truth: Later on this evening, or maybe this week sometime, you should read through the first chapter of the Canons of Dort. And when you do, see if you’re surprised when you arrive at Article 17. In a way, this article seems to come out of nowhere. Up to this point, the Canons have been talking about all sorts of matters related to the doctrine of election. It has explained how mankind should be condemned by God for its sin, but how God has made salvation possible for sinners, and how this gospel of redemption is received with faith by some and with unbelief by others. The Canons then give that long definition of election in article 7. In short, election means that God has eternally chosen out of his grace a certain number of specific persons to be saved through Jesus Christ.

Then, right near the end of this first chapter, comes Article 17. The Canons use only two sentences to declare the Reformed teaching on this topic. As sentence #2 puts it: “God-fearing parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom God calls out of this life in their infancy.”

Surprising, isn’t it? Where’d this come from? Up to this point in the Canons of Dort, infants and children haven’t been mentioned even once. Other specific moments of human life haven’t really been described. On the contrary, this chapter has spoken almost entirely in broad and sweeping terms, talking about “big” things like humanity, salvation and judgment, election and reprobation. It’s looked at all this territory from a bird’s-eye view—until suddenly we zoom in, and we’re brought down to earth. With this article we are brought down to ponder a sad situation, one that has been very real for many Christian parents: when children die.

Let’s first take a moment to see this statement in its proper setting. It’s in the Canons of Dort, which we said is all about the doctrine of election. Election was one of the many Scriptural teachings that were “rediscovered” in the period of the Reformation. This was a time of going back to the Bible to relearn God’s truth, a time of blowing off the dust from Scriptural treasure that had long been neglected.

The Bible teaches election, so it was also explained in the Reformed creeds from those first decades of the Reformation. For instance, you can find it mentioned in Lord’s Day 21 of the Heidelberg Catechism, and outlined in Article 16 of the Belgic Confession. To be sure, these statements were fairly brief and to the point. At the time, there was no need to emphasize this particular doctrine—it was all pretty straightforward.

But then, some sixty or seventy years later, there were troubles brewing in the Reformed churches of the Netherlands. It was the early 17th century, and some people were getting uncomfortable with the whole idea of election. It just didn’t seem right that God would choose some people (and not others) to be saved, and that this was based only on his free and sovereign will. For years, Jacob Arminius, a professor of theology, undermined this doctrine when teaching his students. He said that God elected, yes—but only those whom He knew would later come to faith. He chose people that already had something going for them.

Different views of election were quietly developing, until it all came into the open at a meeting of some forty Dutch ministers—the original “Arminians,” you could say. They got together to put their objections down on paper. And at this meeting, the issue at hand was raised for the first time.

These ministers denied the Reformed teaching of election, and one reason was that it meant God might condemn some of the children of believers. For didn’t the Reformed people say that children are totally sinful, even from the time of conception and birth? Yes. And didn’t the Reformed also say that not everyone is elect? Yes. It follows then, that even some of those covenant children are bound for everlasting fire.

In this way, the Arminians were accusing the Reformed of being very harsh toward children. They were trying to sway public opinion against them, so they portrayed the Reformed side as nasty and cruel, like they were ready to put children on a bus to hell. Yes, it was an emotional argument, and it was an argument that touched on a very sensitive topic.

For there is great sorrow for parents in this situation, when a child dies while still very young. And at the time the Canons of Dort were written, this was a sorrow far more parents had to endure than today. For example, in 17th century France almost twenty percent of children died between the ages of one and five! Or consider a typical snapshot from the time: according to church records in England, there was a woman, married in 1634, who received six children. Two of her children died in infancy, another when aged four, another at age eight. Only two of her six children lived to reach adulthood. Such tragic family histories were nothing uncommon. This didn’t even change a lot until relatively recent times. Even in western nations in the early twentieth century, one in every ten children died in the first year of life.

In an age where almost every parent knew the grief of losing a child, this argument was sure to carry some weight. Sure, the Arminians were wrong about other things, but were they right about the children? More merciful than the Reformed people, who said that even children of believers could be condemned?

So the first reason to include this topic was to clear up the doubt being sown in the hearts of grieving parents. The Reformed reacted to this uncertainty, not just in Article 17, but also in the Conclusion to the Canons. You can find it after the very last chapter, on pages 587-588 of the Book of Praise.

There’s a summary of the various charges that the Arminians were making against the Reformed. Bottom of the main paragraph on page 587: “Some have acted very improperly and against all truth, fairness, and love in wishing to persuade the public of the following…” And then, as the last point on the next page: “[that] many innocent children of believers are torn from their mothers’ breasts and tyrannically thrown into hell, so that neither the blood of Christ nor their baptism nor the prayers of the church at their baptism can be of any help to them.”

Such a teaching, we go on to read, “The Reformed churches not only do not confess but even detest wholeheartedly” (p. 588). That was one reason for this article: it was time to set the record straight on what the Bible says about the salvation of covenant children.

There was a second reason too, for including Article 17. They needed to correct the Arminian view. For their view was that all children are saved: yes, all of them, regardless of whether they’re in the covenant. The Arminians taught that there’s no election or reprobation when it comes to children. Which for them was a logical conclusion. The Arminians said that God’s election of a person is based on foreseen faith, and his reprobation on foreseen unbelief—in other words, it’s based on something in the person. Since infants can neither believe nor disbelieve, election just isn’t an issue. All the children are saved!

This meant that the Reformed churches had to make a statement. It would be a pastoral statement, for comforting those many grieving parents. But it’d also be a confessional statement, for summarizing the clear teaching of Scripture.


2. the Scriptural basis for this truth: So what does the Bible say about children? That’s really the heart of the matter: What is a child’s position before the LORD? And a first thing that Scripture affirms is that yes, all children are conceived and born in sin. Think of Romans 5, where God says every human being, no matter age or race or gender, shares in the guilt of Adam’s transgression: “Through one man’s offense judgment came to all men” (v 18).

This was one problem with the Arminian view. They denied that original sin affected us so deeply and powerfully. They also said that God judges us only for those sins that we consciously commit, like when we blaspheme God’s Name in an argument, or when we steal money out of Dad’s wallet. Since infant children don’t commit actual sins (the reasoning goes), they won’t be condemned.

You can understand why the Arminians were trying to get every child into heaven—it’s what anyone would want. But to do it, they had to ignore what the Bible said about the extent of sin, and the seriousness of sin. From that first day in our mother’s womb each of us is guilty, and deserves condemnation. Scripture is clear on that. And the Arminians were getting something else wrong too. They were missing a central pillar in the house of salvation, for they were missing the covenant.

Scripture says that all people—children included—have fallen short of the glory of God. But it also says that the children of believers are “distinguished from the children of unbelievers” (Q&A 74). There’s a difference! For the children of believers, we confess, “belong to God’s covenant and congregation.” That’s a vital point. Out of God’s grace, we are included with Him in a living relationship, a fellowship, a communion of love. And this relationship doesn’t begin at a certain age, or maybe once we profess our faith. No, infants and children are members of Christ’s congregation all along, just as much as believing adults are.

Think of what the Lord Jesus said to his disciples, “Let the little children come to me, and do not forbid them, for of such is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 19:14). The kingdom of heaven isn’t closed to the little ones. There’s no sign outside the door saying, “You must be this tall to enter.” No, the kingdom is also theirs!

Notice how in Matthew 19 Christ calls these children over, invites them to himself, and places his hands on them. He blesses and prays for them. Our Saviour ministers to them, because these children are the very ones given a place in God’s Kingdom! This is what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 7:14, that the children of believers are “holy,” or sanctified in Christ. Even if just one parent is a believer, his or her children are the special possession of the Lord.

That’s the Scriptural truth being echoed in Lord’s Day 27, and also in Article 17: “We must judge concerning the will of God from his Word, which declares that the children of believers are holy, not by nature, but in virtue of the covenant of grace, in which they are included with their parents.” There’s nothing inherent about the children of believers that sets them apart for God’s grace. They might be really cute. For a time, they might even be innocent (in one sense of the word). But it’s not “by nature” that they have that beautiful position. It’s only because of the covenant of grace.

God enters a living relationship with believers and their children. And He shows that by extending his promises. “Through Christ’s blood the redemption from sin and the Holy Spirit… are promised to them no less than to adults” (Q&A 74). As Father, Son and Holy Spirit, He promises that He will be our God, and we will be his people. If the Father has claimed you from the beginning of your life, you’re holy. If Christ has reached out to you and blesses you, you are holy. If the Spirit promises to dwell in you, like He lived in the glorious temple long ago, then you’re set apart for Him. Brothers and sisters, boys and girls, you are his—really and truly his!

Heavenly promises are entrusted to you, the very moment your life began. And there is an obligation too: you are called to love God, to trust God, to obey God in all things. As a child grows and matures, he grows into that obligation. This is why parents get busy instructing children, and it’s why we need to stay constant in praying for our children. And then (by God’s grace), children begin accepting these promises as their own.

Sometimes children who are only very young can express a simple faith in the Lord. They pray to God with great determination. They have this unquestioning confidence in his Word, where because God said it, it must be true. They join in worship with enthusiasm, when you can hear their singing voices above everyone else’s. As Scripture says, “From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise” (Ps 8:2). Christ also spoke of “these little ones who believe in me” (Matt 18:6). God the Holy Spirit can work in any heart, at any age.

So what about that difficult situation mentioned in Article 17? What if God takes a child before he has accepted the LORD’s promise? What if He takes a child before she’s been able to express a love for God? What comes of him or her? Such a child is saved through God’s promise. The child belongs to the congregation of Christ. God’s covenant promise still stands—God’s claim on that child remains in force.

Again, it’s not because of the good character of the child, nor the faithful character of the parents. It’s because of God’s promise! To that child God has made a vow. God has given his Word. He has said, “I will be your God. To you I will be a Father.” And beloved, what is more sure than a word from God? What is more dependable than something He has said? “The grass withers and its flower falls away, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” God is ever faithful to his promise!

See how this truth brought comfort to King David when his child passed away. This was the child born to him and Bathsheba. As the child lay ill, David spent seven days of fasting and weeping. But then, when the child does die, David undergoes a change. He washes, changes his clothes, eats again, goes to God’s house for worship. It’s like a heavy weight has been lifted, and he’s ready to start anew. To David’s servants this was a puzzle, and they asked the king about it.

“While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept,” David says; for “who can tell whether the LORD will be gracious to me, that the child may live? But now he is dead; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again?” (2 Sam 12:22-23). David knew this was God’s good will. He’d continue to grieve this most painful of losses—you don’t just shake off this kind of sadness in a moment. Yet in sorrow, David clings to that precious hope: “I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me” (v 23).

“I shall go to him.” Can you hear David’s hope, a hope beyond the grave? As he mourns the loss of his week-old son, he’s comforted. Even on that dark day, he knows where his son is: God has taken him home! As a believer, David knows that’s where he is going too: “I will go to him. I too, will go to that place of glory in the presence of God.” David didn’t doubt his child’s salvation, because he didn’t doubt God’s promise.

This same comfort is offered to all Christian parents who grieve. For there can be miscarriages. There can be childhood illnesses and accidents and death. Yet in the words of our confession, “Parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children.” Here is the answer to sorrow and sadness: the answer is the unshakeable firmness of God’s Word. His Word to his people is true. We know whom we have believed, and we are confident in Him!


3. the rich comfort in this truth: Scripture speaks to the parents who have lost young children. The children of believers are holy. They are part of God’s covenant and congregation. The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these. In the radiant warmth of God’s promises, the doubt and sorrow of parents can melt away.

This truth is for grieving parents. But let’s extend that, and think of the great value that it has for all of us. It’s the truth that God’s Word is sure! For instance, it speaks to those many parents who are busy right now with the task of raising covenant children. This is not an easy job. Just when you thought you almost had it figured out, there’s another stage of life, a new attitude and new challenge. We are faced with the frailties and weaknesses of our children. And as parents, we are faced with our own weaknesses and failings. There’s so much we could do better, where we could be more consistent, more godly in our words, more devoted.

But be encouraged as you seek to shape your children according the Lord’s Word. Be encouraged to persevere in this difficult task. Because you can know: this is something important to God! He’s got a deep interest in your task, for He delights in the praise of his covenant children, young and old. He wants to be honoured and confessed as God, by you and by them. And that means He’s going to help you in this work. It means you can depend on him for strength, and for direction. If you feel like your patience is wearing thin, ask Him to restore it, and He will. If you feel like you’re at a loss, ask Him for wisdom, and He will give it. Count on his help in what you’re doing, for his Word is sure!

This same truth is a comfort when covenant children leave the right path and they choose a life of sin. Even then, God is faithful, and his promises dependable. I’m not saying that none will ever fall away--they do, and it brings great heartache and sadness. But there are none who fall beyond his reach, none who wander so far that they’re past his view. The Good Shepherd sees all his sheep, and He knows each of them by name. God has given his Word to them, and if they will accept it, his Word will yet save them. In their life too, his Word can yet have such a great power.

Beloved, let’s apply this rich truth to each one of us, for it’s what can give confidence to everyone: God’s unfailing promise. If God has spoken something, count on it! He has promised to provide for you in body, and in soul. He has promised you a way out of the devil’s temptation—He won’t leave you in the devil’s clutches, not if you ask for God’s help. God has promised you comfort in your trouble, and strength in your trial. He has promised you his Holy Spirit. He has promised that his grace is sufficient. He has promised that all things work for the good of those who love him. He has promised everlasting glory.

These are the promises of God. And believers “ought not to doubt” their truth and reality. They are all true in Christ Jesus. So hold onto God’s words in faith. Learn to plead on his promises in your prayers. Build your life upon the LORD's Word, as upon a firm foundation!  Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
The source for this sermon was:

(c) Copyright 2017, Dr. Reuben Bredenhof

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