Volume 13, Issue 2: Verbatim
Quotations on Covenant Succession
[P]arents can be sure that their children will be saved and go to heaven. Their assurance is based on Godís faithfulness to perform the promises He has made to believing parents and their families. It also grows from their determination to do their part as they depend on His grace. These promises of God, then, are conditional—parents do have an important part to play in their fulfillment. Yet every fulfillment of a divine promise is itself a product of Godís grace.
I strongly suspect that more is done, in the age previous to language, to affect the character of children than in all the instruction and discipline of the minority afterwards; for, in this first age . . . there goes out in the whole manner of the parent—the look, the voice, the handling—an expression of feeling, and that feeling expressed streams directly into the soul.
Recovering our Presbyterian inheritance and inscribing the doctrine of covenant succession upon the heart of family and church must have a wonderfully solemnizing and galvanizing effect. It will set Christian parents seriously to work on the spiritual nurture of their children, equipping them and requiring them to live the life of covenant faith and duty to which their God and Savior called them at the headwaters of life, . . . lest the Lord on the Great Day should say to them: "You took your sons and daughters whom you bore to me and sacrificed them to idols."
Wherever thou goest thou wilt hear men crying out of bad children—whereas indeed the source must be sought a little higher, ítis bad parents—that make bad children—and we cannot blame so much their untowardness as our own negligence in their education. . . . The Devil hath a great spite at the Kingdom of Christ, and he knoweth no such compendious way to crush it in the egg as by the perversion of youth and supplanting family duties. Religion was first hatched in families, and there the Devil seeketh to crush it.
Preface to the WestminsterConfession of Faith, 1658
[There is] an intimate and divinely established connection between the faith of parents and the salvation of their children; [it] authorizes them to plead Godís promises and to expect with confidence that through his blessing on their faithful efforts, their children will grow up children of God.
Covenant Succession Affirmations and Denials
1. It is affirmed: In the covenant God promises himself and his salvation both to those who trust in him and to their children. That is, there is a real promise of saving grace for the children of believing (or a believing) parents in the covenant. The promise of covenant succession is, in biblical and church history, the principle means by which God enlarges the church and summons his elect to new life. It is denied: There is no promise of saving grace for the children (Reformed Baptist) or the promise of salvation is made solely to elect infants (Hoeksema and the Hyper-Calvinists).
2. It is affirmed: The promise of that covenant made to believers and their seed is the promise of eternal life (the knowledge of God, the forgiveness of sins, the Holy Spirit, righteousness). It is denied: The promise is only that of a position of privilege in the community of faith and of being subject to the influences of the means of grace.
3. It is affirmed: The promise made to believers and their seed is suspended upon conditions to be fulfilled first by parents (ministers and churches) and then by the child himself. The demand that the covenant summons be answered as a condition of the fulfillment of its promises creates genuine contingency: if.... then.... It is denied: The promise is unconditional, either because it is made only to the elect covenant child or because a true embrace of the sovereignty of divine grace renders real conditions null and void.
4. It is affirmed: The conditions attached to the fulfillment of the promises of the covenant are, as are all gospel conditions (faith, repentance, holiness, perseverance), the instrumentalities of divine grace—however much the free exercise of the human will—and do not in any sense undermine sola gratia. It is denied: To suspend the fulfillment of covenant promises on the fulfillment of conditions is to reintroduce salvation by works through the back door.
5. It is affirmed: God stands above the conditions. He may well choose to save a child unfaithfully raised. That is a violation of no promise that God has made in the covenant. In the covenant he does promise to save covenant children who have been given a "blameless" nurture. This is a matter of Godís faithfulness to his own Word. It is denied: Contingency in the covenant would impair the freedom of divine grace.
6. It is affirmed: Nurture is the paradigm for child-rearing in a Christian home. The children of Christian parents are to be considered Christians, members of the church, and are to be discipled as Christians until and unless they prove the contrary. Their situation, in other words, is the same as any other church member. It is denied: Covenant children are to be evangelized like every other lost sinner.
7. It is affirmed: In the covenant there is an expectation that covenant children will grow up in faith, the "seed of faith" having been planted in them very early in life. That is the norm. This is not to say that Scripture teaches a uniformity of spiritual experience among covenant children. Clearly there are exceptions and some children of the covenant come to faith later than others. It is denied: The spiritual history of covenant children will be marked by an experience of conversion and, in terms of their own self-consciousness, will not notably differ from that of children from unbelieving families who are converted in their youth.
8. It is affirmed: The children of believers are to be known and treated as Christians on the strength of the promise of the covenant and their membership in the covenant community. It is not necessary nor perhaps helpful to speak in terms of their presumptive regeneration, though that terminology is susceptible to a biblical interpretation. It is denied: Christian children, before reaching an age at which they are able to make a profession of faith, can, at best, only be considered as "Christians to be." In general they are to be regarded as unsaved until they show evidence of true faith in Christ. [Alexander, Thornwell, Dabney, etc.]
9. It is affirmed: A blameless nurture is a real thing, not an impossible or merely theoretical ideal. It is not a sinless nurture. It is nurture such as vast multitudes of Christian children have received in godly homes through the ages. It is denied: There is no such thing as a blameless nurture, all Christian parents being profoundly sinful.
10. It is affirmed: Devout, even very godly folk can be disobedient and unfaithful parents whose unfaithfulness forfeits the covenant blessing for their children. Isaac, Eli, David, and Hezekiah are biblical examples. It is denied: That the godly parentage of some covenant rebels disproves the connection between parental faithfulness and the spiritual outcome of the lives of covenant children.
11. It is affirmed: That the lineaments of the doctrine of covenant succession are comprehensively, emphatically, repeatedly, and specifically taught in Holy Scripture. It is denied: The doctrine of covenant succession, except perhaps in vague outline, must be extrapolated from principles.
12. It is affirmed: The doctrine of covenant succession is taught and godly nurture of covenant children is illustrated in the Proverbs without in any way making the doctrine as a whole simply "proverbially" true. It is denied: The proverbial presentation of the doctrine destroys any theological, and therefore certain, connection between parental nurture and spiritual outcome.
13. It is affirmed: Christian parents whose children rebel and die in unbelief cannot be exculpated, however much greater may be the responsibility of the rebel himself (and ministers and churches in many cases). It is denied: The Bible does not teach us to connect the rebellion of covenant children necessarily with a failure of covenantal nurture.
14. It is affirmed: The assignment of blame in the case of covenant rebels who die in unbelief must be as complex a task and as impossible for mere men as the judgment of life itself. There are too many factors that God alone can weigh. It is denied: The claim that parents (or ministers) are to be made responsible for the spiritual death of their children, while certainly fair in some cases, is, as a general rule, cruel and unhelpful and, in any case, cannot be proved.
15. It is affirmed: The promise of covenant succession is one of the glorious features of the gospel and ought to be shouted from the rooftops. Children of the covenant should be taught the immensity of their privilege and the great goodness God has shown them in meeting them with his grace at the headwaters of life. Parents and churches, in turn, should be taught to appreciate the sacred nature of the stewardship entrusted to them in the matter of Godís children. It is denied: The teaching of covenant succession is likely to produce nominalism and a crippling self-confidence.
Those who pride themselves on being orthodox are really the unorthodox. The Presbyterian Church has a glorious doctrine received through the medium of John Calvin and the Westminster Standards. Yet the church as a whole does not know it. The historic doctrine of the church concerning children in the covenant and the significance of infant baptism has been to a large extent secretly undermined.
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