The following is part two of a series featuring OPC Licentiate Robert Mossotti’s August 31, 2014 Sunday School Lesson on Why Presbyterians Baptize Children of Believers, taught at Mid-Cities Presbyterian Church in Bedford, Texas. Read Part 1. Subscribe to Robert’s podcast at SermonAudio.
“And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him… Then Abraham took Ishmael his son and all those born in his house or bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s house, and he circumcised the flesh of their foreskins that very day, as God had said to him” (Genesis 17:18-19, 23).
In this passage, we see that Ishmael is commanded to be given the sign of the covenant, even though Abraham knows God’s covenant is actually with Isaac, and not with Ishmael. In other words, Ishmael is admitted into the visible church even though Abraham knows he’s not a member of the invisible church. He knows it—he’s told it by God. God’s covenant is really and truly with Isaac. But since Ishmael is in Abraham’s household, and under Abraham in God’s eyes, he, too is to receive the covenant sign. In other words, if the household principle that we see in Genesis 17 dictates that even definite reprobates like Ishmael are to receive the sign and be admitted into the visible church, then the household principle means that possible reprobates should be given the sign and admitted to the visible church. The greater includes the lesser, if you follow my meaning.
We don’t give children the sign of the covenant because we believe they are elect; we give them the sign of the covenant because that’s what we’re supposed to do, even when it is the case that, even by divine revelation God has told the parent, “My covenant is not with this boy. My covenant is with the boy that Sarah is actually going to have. Now give Ishmael the sign of the covenant.” Abraham knew that Ishmael would not be a member of the invisible church–he was not God’s chosen—Isaac was going to enjoy that position. God told him to circumcise Ishmael, and that’s because of this household principle: the believer is in charge of the household, the parent is a Christian, the parent is in the visible church, and the child is to be admitted into the visible church.
In Genesis 17, in verse 7, we see that the covenant of grace is established on these terms. It is between God and Abraham, and God and his seed after him for an everlasting covenant to be his God, and the God of his offspring. Now in verse 9 of Genesis 17, we can see that Abraham and his offspring are to keep this covenant. Think of Galatians 3:29 here: if we are in Christ, then we are Abraham’s offspring.
Now let’s look at verses 12 and 13 of this chapter.
He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant.
These verses reveal that the sign and seal of the covenant of grace was not contemplated by God as being only based on the principle of fleshly descent from Abraham, but on a different principle. It was not only the physical descendants of Abraham who were to receive the sign, it was his whole household. Abraham’s household had slaves and servants numbering in the hundreds (I direct you to Genesis 14:14 to see that). Because Abraham, the head of the household, was a believer, every member of Abraham’s household was to come into the visible church. In the covenant of grace, then, those who are under the authority of the believing head of a household are likewise to receive the sign and seal of the one covenant of grace, and verse 14 of this chapter says that if you don’t, then that person is to be cut off. The uncircumcised child is to be cut off from my people. He is a covenant breaker.
This is all established by divine appointment, so we maintain that only by divine appointment it may be altered, according to Galatians 3:15-17, which we read at the beginning. Nothing has changed with respect to this principle in the New Testament church, which is why the whole household was granted the sign and seal of the one covenant of grace during the days of the apostles. We see this same principle of household admission to the visible church. It is still in effect in the New Covenant administration of the one covenant of grace. The New Testament, therefore, does not need to be careful to point out that children are being baptized in order for us to baptize children. We must only be careful to point out that households are being taken into the New Testament church, which, indeed, the New Testament is careful to do in many instances. So the household principle of Genesis 17 is carried over into the New Covenant, and because it is, we believe it is appropriate to baptize the children of believers.
Regarding whether the New Testament explicitly mentions the baptism of infants, I would direct you to sermon Pastor Troutman preached on Joshua chapter 5. The grown men of the children of Israel who invaded Canaan all had to be circumcised as adults. That’s because their parents in the 40 years in the wilderness never circumcised them like they were supposed to. If we just looked at Joshua 5 and we did not look at prior revelation—Genesis 17—one would mistakenly assume that only adult males were to be circumcised because there is no explicit mention of children being circumcised in Joshua chapter 5. But one must look at the Abrahamic administration of the one covenant of grace to understand that children are to receive the sign, too. That’s why, as a matter of literary inclusion, if you will, the writers of the New Testament didn’t go out of their way to say that infants are being baptized as well because the explicit household principle comes into play and the rest is assumed. Because people who are coming into the church as the apostles preached the gospel are all adults, that’s what gets explicit mention in the same way that the adults that went into Canaan got explicit mention that they were receiving the sign of the covenant, and you would have to go prior to that, into earlier revelation, like we’re trying to do now, to establish that it’s children as well as adult males.
We’ve covered a lot of territory about the distinction between the visible and invisible church. We know from John 15 that even branches that are fruitless are for a time united to Christ externally only to be broken off later and cast into the fire, Jesus says, like the thorny and rocky ground in the parable of the sower, or like the bad fish in the parable of the dragnet, many reprobates are, in fact, in the visible church by profession, and, as we know from the Scriptures, by birth as well, and we have the explicit example of Ishmael and Esau. That’s important to keep in mind: baptism is not an assertion that this person is elect, it’s a rite of admission into the visible church, not the invisible church.
I recommend Christian parents listen to this week’s episode of The Mortification of Spin podcast entitled “The Duggar Dilemma.” It is an informal discussion, and not a commercial for the latest trend in controlling the process of matching young men and ladies in the godliest of godly fashions. Rather, it takes a more realistic approach which I find to be more compatible with Christian liberty. Mortify the commandments of men with Todd “Meatloaf” Pruitt, Aimee “Housewife Theologian” Byrd, and Dr. Carl “Just have sons” Trueman as they explore the contours of the contemporary world of teenage relationships from the perspective of Christians parents, specifically the Christian parents of teenage daughters, which largely leaves Carl out of the discussion. But if you’d like to hear more from Dr. Carl Trueman, then register today for the first annual OPC DFW Reformation Conference at MId-Cities Presbyterian Church in Bedford, Texas on October 10-11 where the good Dr. Trueman will be mortifying contemporary Evangelical spin regarding the need and benefit of creeds, and how those of the Protestant Reformation are particularly beneficial, indeed.
Robert Mossotti, our summer intern at Mid-Cities Presbyterian Church in Bedford, Texas taught a Sunday School series on Ecclesiology. All of the lessons are available online here. They’re also available on Robert’s SermonAudio page here. My favorite lesson in the series was the following on the biblical case for infant baptism and the Reformed inclusion of the infant and unbelieving children of believers into church membership. The following is a transcript of his remarks, lightly edited at some points. I hope you find it as helpful and enlightening as we have. You can listen to this particular lesson online here. We begin with his introductory remarks regarding principles that govern our interpretation on this issue, and an exposition of Paul’s words regarding covenants from Galatians 3. The rest will follow in the coming days and weeks.
Why do Presbyterians baptize babies and count them as members of the visible church?
Let’s restate some principles first, before we get into some passages.
The visible covenant community is the visible church—Old Testament and New Testament—and what makes it visible are the sacraments. These place a mark on the church to identify it as belonging to the Lord. The sacraments mark God’s people off from the world. Another principle we have to keep in mind is that there is only one covenant of grace in Scripture. The covenant by which Abraham and the Old Testament church were saved is our covenant, too. By God’s grace, in the Scriptures we are all called children of Abraham through faith. There is no essential difference between the Old Covenant church and the New Covenant church. There are differences, but no essential differences. No differences as to substance, just form. The church is one across all the ages, because the covenant of grace is one. To embrace the one idea is to embrace the other. If you accept that there is one covenant of grace throughout Scripture by which we are all saved, then you have to accept that the church is one across both Old and New Testaments. We affirm this over against dispensationalism, which maintains an essential difference between Israel and the church. So the Abrahamic Covenant, the Mosaic Covenant (the one at Mount Sinai mediated through Moses), and the New Covenant are all different administrations of the one covenant of grace. In section 5 of chapter 7 of the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Mosaic Covenant is called an administration of the covenant of grace. Alright, now that those principles have been stated, let’s go to Galatians 3.
The apostle Paul is going to give us in this passage a principle of covenant theology. A principle of Interpretation of Covenants, of Application of Covenants, the Nature of Covenants. Paul says not only biblical covenants, but all covenants. Let’s go to Galatians 3:15.
“To give a human example, brothers: even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified. Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void” (Galatians 3:15-17 ESV).
In verse 15, this idea of “ratified” in the ESV comes from the Greek word kuro’o, and Bauer-Danker, the premier Greek lexicon or dictionary defines it as “to confirm, to ratify, to validate or to make legally binding.” Although the covenant of grace goes all the way back to Eden, note that Paul is saying here that it was not ratified until Abraham. Now note that in verse 15, Paul begins with a general principle of covenants. Then, as he moves down through verses 16 and 17 he applies that general principle of covenants to the particular case of the Mosaic administration of the one covenant of grace—that’s what he means by the Law coming in. Paul says that once the covenant of grace was ratified at the time of Abraham, no modifications may be introduced even by later administrations of the covenant of grace, including the Mosaic administration.
So, it is because there is only one covenant of grace throughout Scripture that we Presbyterians apply the sign of admission into the visible church to the children of believers, for we are not free to change the way the covenant is administered. It is not because the Reformers didn’t sufficiently push off from Rome that we baptize babies, it is because of our covenant theology which we receive, we believe, from the Scriptures. It is also because the covenant of grace is one across the various administrations that we need not seek for proof of continuity between the Abrahamic administration and the New Covenant administration of the one covenant of grace. In fact, because of the underlying unity of the one covenant of grace across the ages, which cannot be altered once ratified, says Paul, that we actually would need to find evidence in the New Testament that God intends to change who it is who receives the rite of admission to the covenant community. Because of the underlying continuity of the one covenant of grace, it is discontinuities, and not continuities, between the Old Covenant and New Testament administrations, that need positive proofs from the New Testament. We don’t have to go to the New Testament and ask if there are specific cases where it says in explicit terms that babies were baptized. Because of the underlying unity of the one covenant of grace, you have to look for a command to no longer give the sign of the covenant of grace to the children of believers. The underlying unity drives the belief that we assume continuity unless there is evidence in the New Testament of discontinuity.
So the absence of explicit revelation in the New Testament on whether children are to be included in the visible church actually works in favor, not against, the inclusion of children in the visible church. Because of this principle of covenant administration, the default setting, says Paul, is covenantal continuity. But, in fact, we can find more evidence than just these principles of covenant theology that the children of believers are to be included in the visible church as members.
You are invited to attend my church’s first annual OPC DFW Reformation Conference, Friday-Saturday, October 10-11, 2014. Dr. Carl Trueman will be the featured speaker. His subject will be the role of creeds in the Protestant Reformation.
Seating is limited, but free. You may register for the conference here.
The location of Mid-Cities Presbyterian Church is:
1810 Brown Trail
Bedford, TX 76021
I hope you can make it!
In this day when America is, for better or worse, trying to wind down its war against radical Islamist jihadists, Skidmore College Professor and Director of Religious Studies, Mary Zeiss Stange, opines in a USA Today piece that we don’t think enough today about how religion can be a source of evil as well as good. Just let that sink in for a moment. But Stange’s focus is not on radical strains of Islam. Hers is on the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. You know, that “hyperconservative offshoot of the mainstream Presbyterian Church USA” which she calls “Calvinism on steroids” because it “sees the world in stark either/or terms” in which you are either “saved and bound for heaven. Or you are a sinner, treading a one-way path to the fiery pit of hell.” She characterizes the struggle to discern one’s eternal destiny as “making extraordinary demands on a sensitive young person’s conscience and conduct.” Having painted this dramatic portrait of my denomination with such colorful brush strokes, broad as they may be, she then proposes the possible diagnosis for the “chaotic mood swings” which lead to Bowe Bergdahl’s “transformation from gung-ho warrior to pacifistic deserter”: “The Orthodox Presbyterian Church compels followers to feel the inner spark of absolute certainty of one’s own God-given righteousness.” This is what we hyperconservative Calvinists on steroids call “assurance of salvation.” But Stange’s description of this teaching is overly simplistic, and with the use of the phrase “absolute certainty,” she is associating the OPC with that predominant flaws of the fundamentalist movement. In the doctrinal standard of the OPC, the Westminster Confession of Faith, we find a little more nuance in what we confess about the Bible’s teaching on assurance. Chapter 14, “Of Saving Faith,” section 3, reads,
This faith is different in degrees, weak or strong; may be often and many ways assailed, and weakened, but gets the victory: growing up in many to the attainment of a full assurance, through Christ, who is both the author and finisher of our faith.
Likewise, in Chapter 18, “Of the Assurance and Grace of Salvation,” the doctrine is treated more fully. Section 3 again demonstrates our allowance for degrees of assurance which may often fall far short of Stange’s portrayal of “absolute certainty.”
This infallible assurance doth not so belong to the essence of faith, but that a true believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties before he be partaker of it: yet, being enabled by the Spirit to know the things which are freely given him of God, he may, without extraordinary revelation, in the right use of ordinary means, attain thereunto. And therefore it is the duty of everyone to give all diligence to make his calling and election sure, that thereby his heart may be enlarged in peace and joy in the Holy Ghost, in love and thankfulness to God, and in strength and cheerfulness in the duties of obedience, the proper fruits of this assurance; so far is it from inclining men to looseness.
These excerpts indicates that not all will come to “absolute certainty” regarding their assurance of salvation, but this lack of absolute certainty does not necessarily entail the absence of faith. A weak faith, maybe, but a saving faith nonetheless. Since 2012, the congregations of the OPC have been praying that Bowe Bergdahl would come to faith in Christ, if he truly does not believe, or, if he does, that the Lord would strengthen that faith, that he might grow up “to the attainment of a full assurance, through Christ, who is both the author and finisher of [Bowe's] faith.” We are careful to point out that assurance is a goal, yet it is not a constant, unwavering quality of the genuine Christian life. For those who find this assurance of faith elusive, it is our desire to comfort, encourage, and point them again to the imputed righteousness which Christ procured by his humble, sinless life, propitiatory death and glorious resurrection in the Word of God preached, and signified and sealed to them in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Each of these are ordinary means of God’s grace which can develop an assurance that is not contingent upon the strength of one’s faith, or the quality of his works. So it’s not as if those of us who believe in assurance of salvation strive to keep the heat turned up on people to make sure they get some “feeling” of certainty, or else they’re in trouble. That is mischaracterization of the doctrine of the grossest sort on the part of Professor Stange.
Yet it is just such a one-dimensional view of the doctrine of assurance which Professor Stange would have us believe makes my religion a “source of evil.” The idea that moral absolutes and the search for assurance of salvation are bad is consistent with the contemporary religious and philosophical culture in Western civilization, where secularism and relativism are the virtues of our time. I can’t help but see the climactic light saber duel between Obi Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, in which the latter paraphrases Jesus (and George W. Bush) by declaring the ultimate either/or proposition, “if you’re not with me, then you are my enemy,” to which the former replies, “only a Sith deals in absolutes.”
That’s right, dear reader, if you affirm the Ten Commandments, and believe that only through repentance of sin and faith in Christ can one find assurance of salvation from eternal conscious torment, then to liberals like Mary Zeiss Stange, whose kind of view is currently in favor, you have embraced the Dark Side, and your form of religious extremism is what makes people want to kill the innocent and take over the world, and it may even be what stresses our kids out when they can’t “feel” this “absolute certainty” and makes Bowe Bergdahls of them. I never cease to be amazed by the logical leaps which liberals make about orthodox Christianity. It’s positively fundamentalistic.
But Bergdahl’s woes cannot be the sole responsibility of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, because, from what I’ve read, the Bergdahl family were members of two different OPC congregations in the past, neither of which exist today. I’ve heard that it is possible that they may remain under the oversight of their regional presbytery, and Bob and Jani do retain an ongoing relationship with pastor turned missionary Phil Proctor, but the OPC does not seem to be as solely influential in the life of the Bergdahl’s, Bowe least of all, as it may appear.