At our church we believe that children of believers are “covenant children.” As such, these children are entitled to the sign and seal of baptism. But if you are like me, having our children baptized leads naturally to other questions. For starters, what exactly does it mean that my child is a “covenant child?” How are they different from other children? Other important questions follow: Should I assume my child is an unbeliever until a profession of faith is made? Or should I assume he/she is regenerate until a profession of unbelief? Do they need to have a profound “conversion experience?” Do they need to be converted at all? What does it mean to train them in the fear and nurture of the Lord? How do I do it? If you have ever found yourself wresting with any of the above questions, than I encourage you to pick up Joel Beeke’s short booklet: Bringing the Gospel to Covenant Children. A part of his Family Guidance Series, Beeke focuses on three major concerns that relate to evangelizing our covenant children: (1) Understanding the need, (2) Teaching the proper content, and (3) Using the proper means. This blog will summarize the first part, properly understanding the need to evangelize our covenant children. The second and third parts will be treated in a later post.
Understanding the Need
Beeke defines a covenant child as “a child born to at least one confessing Christian parent, who is baptized, and is growing up in the community of the church with all of the riches and privileges which that entails.” His concern in this section is to help Christian parents avoid the twin mistakes of overestimating or underestimating the covenant relationship their children have to God.
Parents who overestimate the covenant do so by assuming their child is regenerate until they prove they are not (presumptive regeneration). These parents come close to identifying covenant membership with the regeneration and conversion of their children. This view leads to tragic consequences, as parents may see no need to tell their children they must be born again and come to faith and repentance. The necessity of the new birth, a personal relationship with God, and self-examination by the Scriptures are all minimized. On the other hand, many parents underestimate the covenant relationship. Many of these parents believe that under the new covenant the children of believers no longer have promises extended to them and thus have lost their special place in God’s covenant - a conclusion contrary to the Biblical testimony. Many reformed churches underestimate the covenant relationship, not by refusing to baptize the children, but by “reducing the sacrament to mere form and custom without insisting on what it should mean for the lives both of the parents and their baptized children.” Such a church “has no eye for the promises of God in baptism, no heart for pleading those promises in prayer, and no clear understanding of how God earnestly calls covenant children to a lifestyle consecrated to Himself and separated from the world.”
What then is the significance of a child’s covenant relationship to God? Beeke gives six points to help parents properly estimate the covenant while avoiding the extremes which treat the covenant either as a substitute for regeneration or as a matter of indifference.
First, baptized children must be born again. Baptism affirms the covenant privileges and responsibilities of the child, but it does not make them partakers of Christ. Grace is not automatically conveyed through baptism and faithful child-rearing. Second, our children must be directed to Christ as the only way of salvation. Third, our children must be taught that their baptism (as well as ours) demands heartfelt obedience to God. They must be taught that being outwardly good and obedient falls short of their covenantal obligation to God. Fourth, Baptism requires parents to instruct their children in the Christian faith. Fifth, God has a claim on our children even in their unregenerate state, “just as he had a claim upon all the children of Israel, calling them His even when many were not truly born again.” Sixth, God ordinarily works savingly among his covenant seed. We do not presume regeneration, but we can have confidence that “among his covenant people, His saving grace is the norm.” God is not obligated to save our children, but “Scripture affirms that the Holy Spirit richly blesses the evangelizing and nurturing of covenant children in knowledge, faith, love, and obedience (Prov 22:6). Faithful parenting, by the Spirit’s blessing, frequently issues in regeneration and a life of covenantal faithfulness (Psalm 78:1-8).”
Beeke concludes by emphasizing that the covenant relationship of our children should urge us to diligent effort in raising our children and not lead us to complacency. “…The covenant of Grace offers parents a great deal of hope outside of ourselves in a sovereign, covenant-keeping God, who will not forsake the works of His own hands. Covenant theology should encourage us to evangelize our children as we daily, prayerfully, and expectantly depend upon the triune God for his blessing upon our efforts.”