A Lesson in History: the Baptism of '44 (2)
C Bouwman - published in Una Sancta Volume 50, Number 11, 5 April 2003
The war in which our parents and grandparents were embroiled 60 years ago, we learned last time, placed specific and sensitive questions on their table. As their little ones fell victim to the ravages of war, could our parents and grandparents be sure of their salvation? Were these little ones truly God's children or not? Synod's answer gave but cold comfort.
Teaching of Scripture
So our fathers turned to Scripture to glean from there its comforting teaching. They read Genesis 17, where God spoke to Abraham of His decision to establish His covenant with the man Abraham and with His offspring. Vs 7: "And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations..., to be God to you and your descendants after you." Our fathers noticed: God mentions no assumptions here, no maybes or ifs. God's covenant is established not with some descendants but with all. And it's not different kinds of covenants that God makes with different children of Abraham; rather, "I establish My covenant (there is only one) between Me and you and your descendants (all of them, not some only)..., to be God to you and (all) your descendants after you." That text already gave the lie to the comfortless teaching of the Synod of 1943.
But our grandparents knew of more texts in Scripture. Peter on the day of Pentecost reminded the people of Israel of the promise of the covenant mentioned in Gen 17. Said Peter: "For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off..." (Acts 2:39). Here too, our parents noticed, are no assumptions, no maybes. The promise of the covenant belongs not just to some children of believers, but to all. They read also what Paul wrote to the Corinthians, that church of Greeks where many families had but one believing parent (for the other had not (yet) come to faith). Despite the tension that may result in marriage from one person becoming a believer, Paul was insistent that the Christian partner should not move out or divorce the unbelieving partner. For, says Paul: "...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" (I Cor 7:14). You hear that: "Now they are holy." Paul does not say that the children of a believing parent are assumed to be holy; rather, the apostle is moved by God's Holy Spirit to be categorical: the children of a believing parent are holy. And what does it mean to be holy? To be holy means that there is a relation to God, that one is claimed by God to be His .
Teaching of the Church
These texts on which the fathers built their opposition to the teaching of the Synod: what did it all come down to? To say it with the words of the Catechism: "infants as well as adults belong to God's covenant and congregation" (Lord's Day 27). They belong, for God's covenant is fully for adults and for children, for believers and for their seed. So: "through Christ's blood the redemption from sin and the Holy Spirit ... are promised to [infants] no less than to adults." Whatever comfort there is in the fact that we adults are baptized into the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is as real and true for our children also. Children are part of God's covenant, fully and truly, with all the rights and privileges attached thereto, are part of that covenant without assumptions, and they should be baptized not on the assumption that they belong, not on the assumption that God is their Father who cares for them and that the Son has washed their sins away and that the Holy Spirit lives in their hearts, but baptized rather because they do belong, they have a Father, Christ is their Saviour, the Holy Spirit is their Renewer. It's what the Form for the Baptism of Infants says, pg 585:
"Although our children do not understand all this, we may not therefore exclude them from baptism. Just as they share without their knowledge in the condemnation of Adam, so are they, without their knowledge, received into grace in Christ. For the Lord spoke to Abraham, the father of all believers, and thus also speaks to us and our children, saying, I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you. Peter also testifies to this when he says, For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far of, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to Him.
Therefore in the old dispensation God commanded that infants be circumcised. This circumcision was a seal of the covenant and of the righteousness of faith. Christ also took them in His arms and blessed them, laying His hands upon them. In the new dispensation baptism has replaced circumcision. Therefore, infants must be baptized as heirs of the kingdom of God and of His covenant; and as they grow up, their parents have the duty to instruct them in these things."
Notice: here is no doubt, no assumptions, no mention of an internal and an external covenant; here is only certainty "they are, without their knowledge, received into grace in Christ"; infants are "heirs of the kingdom of God and of His covenant." That is the glorious teaching of Scripture about the children God gives to believing parents!
And exactly because their children belonged, exactly because God had claimed our grandparents' children to be His children, did our grandparents not have to be concerned about whether God cared for their little ones in the course of the years of the war, nor about where their little ones went when God took them from this life. As God's children, their little ones were safe with God the Father, safe both in this life and in the life to come. And this wealth which our grandparents recovered again from Scripture was not something new; it was exactly what their fathers' generations before them had confessed. I think of the Canons of Dort, I.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. Therefore, God-fearing parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom God calls out of this life in their infancy."
The Problem at Synod
It makes one query: if the material of Scripture and confession is so clear and is so rich, why could the brothers of that Synod in 1943 not see the point? That blindness was due to the fact that they did not dare to take God's Word at face value. Though that statement may sound bold, that is nevertheless where things were at. These fathers of the Synod had learned to look within oneself to find certainty about whether or not one was a child of God; they'd grown up with that . So when the issue of the place of children in the covenant came to a head during the war, these fathers at the Synod taught parents to find proof that their children belonged to God not in God's Word but rather in the child itself: was there faith in the child? And because the parents couldn't find evidence of faith until their child was mature, they had to assume faith was there, assume their child belonged to God....
But that, dear reader, is the key point: what is the proof that one's child belongs to God? Does the proof lie in your child or in God? Of course, the proof lies in the God who claimed your child for Himself. . How do you know He claimed your child? Because He said in His word -we looked at the texts already- that He establishes His covenant with believers and their seed. And you are a believer, is it not? That is: you take God's Word at face value, do you not?
Think back to Abraham. When God said to Abraham that He made His covenant with all Abraham's descendants, was Abraham to take that promise as it stood? Or was he to doubt it until confirmation arose in the course of years when his offspring showed they were believers - and only then conclude that God had spoken the truth, yes, these descendants turned out to be children of God after all? That's the fine point of it all: can you take God's Word at face value? Our parents, by the grace of God, in the concrete circumstances in which they found themselves in the Second World War, answered that question positively; they said Yes, you can take God's Word at face value, and therefore we believe that our little children belong to God, are safe in Father's mighty hands even as the war rages outside, that our little children have their sins washed away, have the assurance of God's Holy Spirit that He dwells in them. They took God's word at face value, and so embraced God's promises gladly and were comforted in their distresses and refused to let the Synod take this comfort from them. So, when the Synod nevertheless tried to rob them of the comfort that belongs to taking God's word at face value and insisted that all parents had to confess that their infants were only assumed to be sanctified in Christ, our fathers liberated themselves from the errors of the synod and its lordship. Behold there the Liberation of 1944. And see there too the reason why we call ourselves the "Free Reformed Churches".
cf Kamphuis, pg 91, where Kamphuis quotes an exegesis offered by Prof Greijdanus when he discussed Ephesians in class.
cf Kamphuis, 27ff.