So Mark Jones wants to know if his kids can sing “Jesus loves me.” I thought he was a Presbyterian; don’t they have better hymns than that?
In all seriousness, though, Jones’ piece, albeit winsome and irenic, demonstrates the collapse of theological method which tends to occur whenever our Presbyterian brothers try to tackle the question of infant baptism. The same folks who give us lengthy, carefully documented tomes on other theological questions often descend into adorable mention of their own kids when this topic comes up. Even so great a mind as Charles Hodge referred to Christ’s “little lambs” being written into the book of life – and then excoriated Baptists for erasing their names.
(Yes, that Charles Hodge! I know it sounds like the sort of argument that might be offered by Beatrice from Esurance, but it’s not. It’s from the Charles Hodge.)
I suppose we’re meant to share an “Awww!” moment and agree to love our kids better and to stop locking them out of heaven. Sensitive Inquisitive Baptists, however, have a few questions to ask about the manner in which the discipline of theology is practiced, because it seems that there are some problems here – of an exegetical, systematic, and practical nature.
Jones opens his piece with a genuinely interesting account of the debates held among the Westminster Divines over the meaning of I Corinthians 7:14. The Apostle’s statement is this:
For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.
Apparently such lights as Rutherford and Goodwin debated the meaning of “holy” at the conclusion of this verse without ever bothering to read the verse as a whole. This is, in fact, one of the “magic bullet” verses of pedobaptism – one which no Baptist has ever noticed and which will devastatingly turn us toward Presbyterianism.
But let me engage in my own nostalgic reflections. When I was “Tom the Baptist” (the one Baptist student in my class at a Presbyterian school) we had a discussion on Baptism one night in the home of our systematics professor. To put it another way, everyone took turns convincing me to stop being a Baptist. The first exchange of the night was quite memorable. To paraphrase:
Eager Presbyterian Student: I think the entire question is settled by I Corinthians 7:14. Think about it! With just one believing parent a child is holy! He is part of God’s covenant! How could I not baptize him?
Incredulous Baptist Student: So, do you baptize the unbelieving parent also? Since he/she is described as being holy in exactly the same terminology as the child?
Eager Presbyterian Student: (desperate turn to the professor, wordlessly asking for help)
Seasoned Presbyterian Professor: I’m sorry, I never really thought that verse had anything to do with baptism.
And that was that, because of course the verse really doesn’t have anything to do with baptism, with the covenant of grace, or with how Christians view their children. A simple reading of the verse in context reveals that Paul’s concern is whether or not an existing marriage between a believer and an unbeliever is legitimate; he answers in the affirmative. In other words, Goodwin and Rutherford notwithstanding, Paul is writing about neither real nor federal holiness, but about marital legitimacy.
This instance is a microcosm of the Presbyterian problem; there aren’t actually any verses that address infant baptism, and collectively the Presbyterian authors know it. They all have some passages that they like to talk about, but they cannot at all agree on what those passages actually are. Through the corpus of their literature on the subject they all debunk one another’s passages.
This argument has been made by Baptists for ages, but it is often misunderstood. Our Presbyterian friends will respond that theology is not made with proof-texts, and that similarly there is no passage which – taken alone – proves the Trinity. However, we would all agree that there are certain passages – many of them – which address the nature and persons of God. In other words, Trinitarians can agree on which passages form the exegetical basis of our Trinitarianism. Pedobaptists cannot do this with baptism. If there is no internal agreement on which parts of Scripture even address a doctrine, how are we supposed to believe that the doctrine even exists?
Reformed Baptists in particular shake our heads in confusion at this sort of thing. We have become accustomed to exegetical precision from our Presbyterian brethren, but they too often engage in the most extreme eisogetical gymnastics in order to shoe-horn baptism into passages on children, or alternately children into passages on Baptism.
Jones’ article further demonstrates the tendency of Presbyterians to confuse theological categories as soon as they address the question of baptism. He agrees with Goodwin that the children of believers are holy in a federal sense, not a real sense. However, from this he argues that these children are Christians. Which means what, exactly?
In old covenant terms, federal holiness meant being part of the community which was set apart by God as His own and marked as His by circumcision. Both Isaac and Ishmael were marked by circumcision, as were both Jacob and Esau. Is this the federal holiness of which Jones speaks, and if so, does it really say about his children all that he wants to say? Put another way, does federal holiness imply genuine faith? Let’s imagine for a moment that Isaac had written the following questions:
1. When Esau sins and asks for forgiveness from God, can I assure him that his sins are forgiven?
2. When I ask Esau to obey me in the Lord should I get rid of the indicative-imperative model for Christian ethics? On what grounds do I ask him to forgive Jacob? Because it is the nice thing to do? Or because he should forgive in the same way the Messiah has forgiven him?
3. Can Esau sing “Messiah loves me, this I know” and enjoy all of the benefits spoken of in that song? (“To him belong…He will wash away my sin”)
4. When Esau prays during family worship to his heavenly Father, what are the grounds for him praying such a prayer? Does he have any right to call God his “heavenly Father”? Do non-believers cry “Abba, Father”?
5. Should I desire that Esau have a “boring” testimony? (Though a testimony to God’s covenant promises can never be boring, of course). Is it not enough for him to simply say each day that he trusts in the coming Messiah alone for their salvation?
You see, what Jones is attempting to do in this section is to jump from federal holiness to regeneration, which are two very distinct and different categories. It is for exactly this reason that Rutherford and Goodwin had their debate over the nature of a covenant child’s holiness: the category of New Covenant child doesn’t exist in the Bible, and the category of Old Covenant child is distinctly unsatisfying.
In fact, we might observe that the holiness offered in the Covenant of Grace is in fact very different from the holiness conferred upon Ishmael and Esau. It is both federal and real, in that what the gracious covenant offers is the righteousness of Christ. That righteousness is genuinely holy, but it is federally conferred – how? The answer of Romans is “by faith.”
Jones concedes near the end of his piece that perhaps one of his children might be non-elect, but what exactly does that mean if federal holiness means being a Christian? It is distressing to hear a New Covenant believer speaking of his children – or anyone – as being in that covenant, enjoying the benefits of that covenant, and yet still possibly being non-elect. The benefit of the Covenant of Grace is Christ. If Jones’ children have that benefit (and I hope that they do) then they received it by faith and they will never lose it! This has nothing whatsoever to do with their baptism, or with their parentage, or for that matter with the federal holiness of the Old Covenant. It is instead the promise, the free gift, the inheritance of all who believe.
Jones speaks – in keeping with the Goodwinian tradition – of considering or judging his children to be Christians, but again, we must ask why? Is it because, as his narrative suggests, they express their faith in Christ through prayer, or is it for some other reason? Is this not arguably one of the greatest questions of all systematic theology? Do the just live by faith, or by the presumption of their baptismal proxies?
Many of Jones’ best friends and favorite preachers are Baptists; I wonder if he has ever asked any of them the sort of questions he poses in this post. I wonder because it seems to me they are rather the sort of rhetorical questions Pedobaptists love to bat about between themselves without ever asking them of any actual, real-world Baptists. As a father of children in the same age-range as Jones’, allow me to posit my own answer.
How do I deal with my children when they ask questions about their salvation? With this answer: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved.” I’m sure Jones knows this answer; in fact, he’s probably preached it.
Let me ask a few questions in return, and perhaps it will make our position somewhat clearer.
If a woman comes to Jones and tells him she is struggling with assurance, that she has sinned greatly and prayed about it, but that she doesn’t know whether or not God hears her prayers, will he point her to federal holiness, or to Jesus?
If Jones is counseling a drug-addict who wandered into church, and if he wants to avoid moralism, does he adopt the indicative-imperative model of Christian ethics and say, “Christ died for you, you are saved, therefore obey”? Or, given the obvious questions about the man’s spiritual state, does he call him to faith in Christ?
If Jones has urged an unbeliever to call upon the Lord, and that unbeliever kneels and says, “Oh Father…” does Jones interrupt and say, “Please don’t call God ‘Father’ until after you’ve had forgiveness for your sins and been baptized”? (Honestly, at one point did we imagine that the “Spirit of Adoption” has anything to do with permissions?)
You see, these questions are silly; it does no good to ask them of Jones about his congregation, nor to ask them of Baptists about our children. Our answer is simple and biblical. When my children ask me, “Are my sins forgiven?” I respond, “Do you believe in Jesus? Because God forgives the sins of everyone who believes.” Note that I do not ask them for a profound conversion story, but only if they believe. As a Baptist minister, I have baptized some teenagers with very “boring” testimonies – they believed in Jesus as long as they can remember, and I rejoice in those testimonies.
Presbyterians have talked a lot lately about an “indicative-imperative” model. Reformed Baptists agree. We tell our people (and our children) that obedience apart from Christ’s accomplished work is impossible, and that strivings toward obedience without Christ are both moralistic and offensive to God. Having said this, we call adults and children to faith in Christ.
Too often of late our Presbyterian brothers present the indicative-imperative model as something like this: “Jesus died for you; therefore you should live for Him.” The problem is that, absent any call to faith, this amounts to saying something they do not know, or to reaching a judgment on no basis whatsoever. Moreover, it sounds a lot like the universalistic preaching one hears from Arminian Baptists.
It is my honest belief that most Presbyterian parents do call their children to faith. I worry, though – I honestly worry about the effect which anti-Baptist rhetoric may have on some Presbyterian apologists. If they talk too much in Old Covenant terms about things like federal holiness, will they forget that the principle of New Covenant life is faith? Will they forget to call their children to believe?
I hope not, but the questions they ask us sometimes make me worry that they might.