wrong wrong wrong

I wasn’t going to say anything about this, because I can’t quite explain why I remain on the mailing list of an organisation that is so wrong about such a fundamental point, but every few weeks, a leaflet arrives on my doormat containing this kind of thing:

“the elect children of believing parents ordinarily are regenerated and saved, and thus become members of the covenant, in infancy or even at conception. They have been saved by the time they are baptized.”

That’s what it says in this month’s offering, and it simply is not true. It is not what scripture leads us to expect, and it is not the ordinary experience of children born to believing parents.

The children of believing parents are as ungodly and ineligible for salvation as any ignorant heathen adult out there. The work of regeneration in the case of a child born into the church is every bit as miraculous and unexpected as it is in the case of the greatest possible injurious persecuting blasphemer that ever lived.

The children of believing parents are (by virtue of being born to believing parents) members of the visible church. They are on that account to be baptised. Their baptism is a sign and seal not of their salvation but of the merely external, formal, connection they have to the Church Visible through their parents. The baptism of infants says nothing about whether or not they have any inner, vital, saving union with Christ. It is a sign and seal of the union with Christ which is available to them in the gospel, and offered to them in the preached Word which they hear in the bosom of the Visible Church to which they belong, and modelled for them by their parents and the Christians in their parents’ congregation. It makes absolutely no guarantee that they themselves enjoy that union at or by the time of their baptism, or that they will enjoy it at any future time in their lives.

The experience of children born to believing parents bears this out. Your parents subscribe the Westminster Confession, they’re members in good standing, they teach you to memorise Psalm 23 before you can barely walk, you learn the Shorter Catechism inside out and back to front by the time you know your times tables, you grow up to spot a heresy at twenty paces, you never do anything spectacularly rebellious in all your life, you regularly attend all the Lord’s Day services, the weekly prayer meeting and all the extra communion services, for they are many, and you can defend the truth so well that even Hari Krishnas get fed up and walk off on you — and inside, you remain an utter stranger to grace and to God.

It’s called original sin, and that, you see, is why it is not actually remotely oxymoronic to say that “a child of the covenant, not in open rebellion, but attending the means of grace and trying to trust the Lord in family devotions and private prayer, and still submitting to godly parents, needs to convert.”

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PS – how do you like the new font?

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25 thoughts on “wrong wrong wrong

  1. Hear, hear! Very well said. There seems to be some confusion, even in Reformed circles, on this subject. But, as you say, the Bible’s teaching is clear: neither baptismal regeneration nor presumptive regeneration is biblical.

    The font is fine – even for my 58-year-old eyes!

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    • Thanks, Richard! In my zeal and crossness I didn’t notice the time and date of posting, so just as well nobody seems to have thought it was an unfunny April Fool.

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  2. I was shocked, I tell you, shocked.

    Some degree of caution about “conversion” is undoubtedly necessary for children brought up within the church – you don’t expect particularly dramatic external changes in a person’s lifestyle/behaviour when their outward life has been conformed to biblical patterns from their earliest years.

    There’s also no reason to expect a conscious awareness of any specific turning point (at 3:24pm on Wednesday the 17th May 1992 I became a Christian). Many people just don’t know when they were converted, far less how.

    But conversion itself is essential. That’s conversion in John Murray’s sense – “simply another name for repentance and faith conjoined” – the inseparable effect of regeneration. Except a man be born again, be he never so attentive on the means of grace and submissive to godly parents, he cannot see the kingdom of God.

    It could be as gentle and undramatic as Lydia getting her heart opened, or as sensational and electrifying as the gaoler in Philippi, or something in between, but however it happens, happen it must.

    There can’t be many ways more surely guaranteed to foster legalism and formality in the church than to assume that all external members of the church visible, observing the ordained routines, have no need of being converted.

    (I’ve ordered your book, wincing only slightly at the pricetag.)

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  3. But baptism heals the rift caused by original sin! The effects of original sin are still there, alas, but the absence of grace caused by the loss of our first parents is healed, is filled up with grace.

    I’m sure Aelianus could word this better than I.

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  4. This is a response to the post by ‘Seraphic.’ It is taken from Bishop J.C. Ryle’s book ‘Knots Untied’ and in particular from his chapter on baptism. He puts the matter well and I for one think Cath and ‘the Bish’ are in accord. I trust it will be helpful to some.

    “I wish to urge on many of my fellow Churchmen the dangerous tendency of extravagantly high views of the efficacy of baptism. I have no wish to conceal my meaning. I refer to those Churchmen who maintain that grace invariably accompanies baptism, and that all baptized infants are in baptism born again.

    I ask such persons, in all courtesy and brotherly kindness, to consider seriously the dangerous tendency of their views, and the consequences which logically result from them. They seem to me, and to many others, to degrade a holy ordinance appointed by Christ into a mere charm, which is to act mechanically, like a medicine acting on the body, without any movement of a man s heart or soul. Surely this is dangerous!

    They encourage the notion that it matters nothing in what manner of spirit people bring their children to be baptized. It signifies nothing whether they come with faith, and prayer, and solemn feelings, or whether they come careless, prayerless, godless, and ignorant as heathens! The effect, we are told, is always the same in all cases!

    In all cases, we are told, the infant is born again the moment it is baptized, although it has no right to baptism at all, except as the child of Christian parents. Surely this is dangerous! They help forward the perilous and soul-ruining delusion that a man may have grace in his heart, while it cannot be seen in his life. Multitudes of our worshippers have not a spark of religious life or grace about them.

    And yet we are told that they must all be addressed as regenerate, or possessors of grace, because they have been baptized! Surely this is dangerous! When no grace can be seen in a man s life, we have no right to say that he is regenerate and received grace in baptism.”

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    • Thanks, Seceder. Ryle would have been writing to the forefathers of today’s Anglo-Catholics I suppose (or those I suppose on John Henry Newman’s trajectory?).

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  5. While I don’t dare to step into the theological discussion (though I agree with Seraphic), I only wanted to report that the font, though a nice one, gets terribly blurred, like a bad PDF file, on my desctop.

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    • Boo :-( :-( That’s v annoying. Was the previous one better? I want it to be sans serif but WP doesn’t seem to let you change the font in a theme except by going through a convoluted process with Typekit. Maybe I should change back to my original theme. Will need to consult the aesthetics manager.

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      • Sorry, I’m not sure I saw the last one. Immediately when you switched to this – I have to say, lovely – theme, you had another font that produced the same blurry effect on my computer. However, it’s not as if one couldn’t read it, so if you want to keep it, that’s also O.K. Only you asked.

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        • Ok, thanks. Back to the original theme and tried-and-tested Verdana. Did like the Typekit fonts to look at but they really weren’t as readable as they promised.

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  6. Like the font. Disagree with both the views you put forward in the post, (being a Baptist) but of course infinitely prefer the one you espouse. Presumptive regeneration is a terrible curse which can kill churches within a generation or two.

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  7. Yes, and rightly to be feared. Even the term “covenant child” strikes me as an un-British thing – I don’t think it’s a term you really hear over here (?)

    Children’s “covenant” status brings them a host of advantages and privileges – in their family God is known, they have the scriptures, they hear the gospel preached, they see the reality of godliness (hopefully) in their parents.

    But all these are just opportunities, possibilities, potential. Nobody is saved without a personal, inward change: regeneration and its inseparable effects, faith and repentance.

    The problem for people who slight inward experience is that if you’ve been brought up with all the right external forms, you NEED to examine internal evidence in order to establish whether or not regeneration has in fact taken place.

    For people who arrive at Reformed doctrine and practice only after travelling on a long journey, it may seem inconceivable that anyone could regularly attend the Lord’s Day services and go through all the motions *without* faith-and-repentance.

    But others of us have known nothing other than sound doctrine and the stated means of grace all our lives, and empty formality, dead orthodoxy, is a familiar and dreadful reality.

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    • And it works the other way as well: For those who arrive at evangelical pietism, it may seem inconceivable that anyone could go through all the motions of rehearsing inward experience *without* faith-and-repentance. But there really is such a thing as the empty formality of informality, inwardism and dead exuberance.

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      • Oh, undoubtedly. We’re all dour Scots over here, don’t forget. We’re the ones who invented introvert.

        Scene: sermon in tiny church in the Highlands on a Scottish Sabbath.
        Minister: Let us begin the public worship of God by reading in order to sing from Psalm 18.
        Tourist, prolly American: Aymen! Praise the Lord!
        Congregant in pew in front: Sshh. We don’t praise the Lord in here.

        But still trying to work out where you’re coming from, the objection to emotions, “conversion,” revivalism vaguely makes sense if you’re critiquing at the whole of contemporary evangelicalism. But in the context of people who subscribe the Confession and conform to the ordained means, to flatly say that there’s nothing to be converted from if you’ve been brought up in the church is incredibly reckless. Once you’ve ticked all the boxes for right doctrine and right practice, the journey has only just begun.

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        • Cath, I think that’s fair enough. But at the same time, much of the pushback, I think, has to do with saying being brought up in the covenant doesn’t count for much. That’s what seems suggested by the “journey” remark. I mean, what is a child’s baptism if not the beginning of things? But if a credible profession of faith is the real beginning then this seems to have the danger of making baptism mere ceremonialism, which seems ironic.

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          • Hmmmm. A child’s baptism is the beginning of the official recognition of their membership of the visible church. Ie, they already belonged to the visible church prior to their baptism (by virtue of being born to parents within the visible church) and their baptism is the church’s recognition of that prior fact.

            Regeneration is the real beginning. A credible profession [or, the church’s acceptance thereof] is to regeneration what baptism is to belonging to the visible church. I suppose.

            Although, granted, we could/should make more of baptism. After all, the members of the visible church have the special privileges of being under God’s care and government, of enjoying the ordinary means of salvation, and offers of grace by Christ in the ministry of the gospel, among other things – LC63. Ie it’s not a mere ceremony – it does bestow real privileges – but these are kind of the external framework for the Christian life, the scaffolding or the handrails or something, not the life of faith itself.

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  8. Quite a lot of ground covered on this topic and a great relief from ‘invented’ events of yesterday. In many societies, rituals for infants, children and teens are old as the hills, and I would certainly agree with remarks on Newman and Anglo-Catholocism, with its heavy liturgical and ritualised baptism. It is supposed to be a mark of special ‘honour’ to be baptised at Easter and by a bishop. I hate to mention Dawkins in this context, but he must surely be right when he says it is wrong to describe an infant or child as being a Christian, Muslim etc child. There must be some element of conversion, otherwise the sacrament of infant baptism can be likened to a tweet on twitter rather than reading the book.

    As for your fonts, they appear fine and I would strongly advise that you avoid white on black as it strains my aged eyes. If I can be excused a brief piece of levity, liturgical’ designers for church fonts refer to them as ‘bird baths’. I trust this brings a smile to your faces (do the Scots still have a tradition of hanseling at christenings? and what happened to the ‘poor-oot’ at weddings? I suppose this has gone the way of the app these days – as have some religions?)

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  9. If a child is born to someone belonging to the visible church, I’m fine with calling them a Christian child.

    They do need to be converted though. Possibly they might have been converted prior to baptism. Poooossssibly they might be converted at the time of their baptism, though obv not for any virtue in the sacrament, or in him that doth administer it. More ordinarily they are converted later in life, when the Holy Spirit makes the reading, but especially the preaching, of the Word an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners.

    Haven’t a clue, I’m afraid, about these barbaric sounding Lowland traditions :-) In the civilised Highlands, I guess things must be different.

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    • Rarely do I find someone in the blogosphere with whom I agree so much.

      I’m with you. How can anyone think that anyone does not need conversion when Jesus said, “Ye must be born again”?

      Many people operate under the idea that it improves the kid’s chance of becoming a Christian to be born in a Christian family, but that is because the child is the subject of many prayers (parents’ and congregation’s), Bible teaching and exhortations. There’s nothing genetic or inherited (if you will).

      God can raise up sons out of stones if He so desires.

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      • Thanks Eliza!

        I’ve found John Murray to be extremely helpful on ‘conversion’ in his book, Redemption: Accomplished and Applied. He says that conversion is “simply another name for repentance and faith conjoined,” where repentance/faith are the acts of the regenerate soul.

        Apologies for the delay in replying – just been away from the computer for a few days and now disappearing again for another few days!

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  10. As Cath has stated, those children born into the most priviledged of Christian circumstances need to be converted.

    Ishmael and Esau were born to the patriarchs Abraham and Isaac respectively, both had the sign of the covenant upon them externally.

    It told them that they needed the faith of father Abraham and that righteousness that had been imputed to him upon believing.

    They needed that friendship that he had with God, that interior religion that he was possessed of having had his heart circumcised.

    Alas, neither improved their priviledge, they did not take advantage of their lot.

    One became a mocker and the other a despiser of Divine things and it would appear that both lost their souls.

    In writing his father’s biography, JC Philpot’s son wrote these words,……….

    For by early influence and example you can train up a child to be . . .
    a little patriot,
    a little Catholic,
    a little Calvinist, or
    a little Bolshevist.

    But no power on earth can make him a child of God.

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  11. Someone has kindly emailed me something that John Murray said on baptism:

    “in the operations of saving grace God fulfils His purposes in accordance with covenant provisions. One of these gracious provisions is that God is not only a God to the believer but also to his seed after him. It is in the faith of this institution, in the embrace of its promises, and in the discharge of its obligations that believing parents present their infant seed for baptism as the sign and seal of the covenant of grace. They commit them not only to God’s care but also to His covenant faithfulness. The efficacy of infant baptism principally consists in this that it is to us the certification or seal that God works in accordance with this covenant provision and fulfils His covenant promises. It is, after all, the Lord’s own nurture which infant baptism signifies and seals.”

    If I interpret this right, it functions perhaps as a softening of some of my more absolutist statements in the original post (like, baptism makes no guarantee that baptisees will enjoy the thing signified, and regeneration is equally unexpected in a baptised child as a haethen adult).
    So let me expand by saying – in the sense that God works though means, and blesses means which are used according to his own appointment, then it is legitimate to expect that, in general, it is more likely for children in the church to be saved than people outside the church. Outside the church there is no ordinary possibility of salvation, as we know.
    But from the perspective of any individual baptised child, they are not warranted to assume that because they have been baptised, their salvation is simply a matter of course. Their baptism acts as a constant reminder that salvation is available for them, and an extra prompt to provoke them to seek their own salvation, but not in a way that allows them to sit back and wait for the inevitable.

    Ie: if the question is, what makes me eligible for salvation? the answer is nothing, not even my baptism, my unregenerate heart is as antagonistic to the gospel as anyone else’s, but I must submit to the free sovereign will of God in regenerating who he chooses, and when and where and how.
    But if the question is, what evidence do I have that God is a Saviour who might show mercy to me? then I have not only the plain testimony of the Word of God proclaiming salvation to any sinner indiscriminately, but also the huge advantage of the sacrament of baptism, which so vividly preaches union with Christ to me myself who was baptised.

    Incidentally, the email further comments that John Murray would have baptised only infants of parents who were in full communion (accepted for membership to sit at the Lord’s Table), rather than infants of parents who were baptised but not participating in the Lord’s Supper. Yet another fraught issue.

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