November 25, 2020

I See Dead People: Some Thoughts On A Challies.com Post

kids.jpgThere’s a good bit of blogosphere discussion about a post from Challies.com dealing with unregenerate children. It is a good example of why the majority of young Calvinists with children will be eventually drawn to paedobaptism. If the article itself isn’t enough to get your juices flowing, read the comments. Actually, read them anyway. Just for the “children of wrath” comment. Here’s an excerpt:

I assume my children are dead. They say they love God and, to some extent at least, I’m sure they do. They love to hear stories from the Bible and love to learn the truths that lie beneath those stories. They even love to pray and to sing to God. And yet in so many ways they look dead. None of them has claimed thus far to have been given new life. It has been my prayer, since before any of them were born, that God would grant them this new life. I am confident He will do so, but only when the time is right. While some children turn to Him at a very young age, so many wait until they are a little bit older. So my wife and I continue to pray and continue to teach the children. We continue to trust that the obvious signs of death will begin to fade and that new life will course through their veins; through their souls.

I guess that’s what the Christian life is all about. It is about being delivered from this body of death. It is about relying upon and yet working with with the Spirit to make what we know to be true positionally become true practically. It is about preaching the gospel to all men, but first and always, to ourselves. For if we are to be men and women that claim to be alive, we must look alive.

I’m a convinced credobaptist, and I believe that paedobaptism is a compassionate, Biblically-sourced teaching without an explicit command or example in the New Testament. At the same time, I join my paedobaptist friends in feeling the dilemma with the Challies’ post. Seeing children who love Jesus and express faith in him deemed as “dead” because they don’t finish breakfast is the kind of full-strength reformed Baptist Calvinism that makes many who identify with reformation theology very uncomfortable. I’ve been in these circles, and I know that those espousing this belief are endeavoring to be Biblical and evangelistic. We shouldn’t criticize evangelistic Calvinists too severely, as they are apparently a rare breed these days.

I won’t write a full response, but I would like to make a few observations.

1. I remember listening to hundreds of sermon tapes by Al Martin, the preaching elder at Trinity Baptist Church in New Jersey and a very influential reformed Baptist pastor. Martin consistently followed the belief of reformed Baptists that children were to be treated as completely unregenerate and outside of the bounds of the church until they gave a visible and viable profession of faith. So in many of Martin’s sermons, he thundered- and I mean that- directly at the children of his church members. He preached to them their sinfulness and wickedness. He described hell to them. He pleaded with them to come to Christ. He plainly stated that they were lost. (Many of Martin’s messages are available here.)

No one could listen to this kind of preaching, be aware of the divisions within reformed Christianity over the inclusion of children, and not be drawn on some level to the comforts of paedobaptism. I grew up in the same kind of atmosphere. After being taught about Jesus as a child- a presentation that majored on God’s love for me as well as my duty to obey and serve Him- I became the subject of many of the highly emotional evangelistic pleadings of our pastor and other preachers. Preaching to children in specific and emotional ways was common.

I discovered, however, that not all reformed Baptists took the “hot seat” approach of Martin. In the Founder’s Conference, I found an approach to children that balanced the Biblical emphasis on the purity of the church and the blessed status of children in a Christian home.

During my seminary years and, later, as a youth minister, I was highly influenced by theories of “faith development” that caused me to question the hard core approach to the evangelism of children. While theologically believing that children were included in lost humanity, I did not believe the approach to the nurture of mature faith was best done in a confrontational, highly pressured environment. I began to see the value of structured Christian education, catechises and a “confirmation-type” approach to children joining the church. Rather that seeking tears, “proofs of saving grace,” and aisle-walking, I sought for young people to be included in the visible church on a level that did not compromise the message of the gospel, but also clearly called them, as sinners, to personal faith in Christ. A profession of that faith could be made, I believe, in a context that is not based on exclusion and fear within the family of God itself.

Much needs to be explored and discussed in this matter. Today I minister with hundreds of teenagers in a school environment where there is no visible church or consistent family interaction with the students. I am constantly confronted with students saying they are Christians, but failing the most basic evidences of that faith. How I approach evangelism and Christian nurture in this context is a challenge. I find the answer in the Gospel itself, that addresses all of us “simul justus et peccator,” i.e. as both sinners and persons declared right with God.

2. At the same time, the paedobaptist contention that all those who are children of Christian parents are always to be treated as members of the covenant people has serious problems of its own. Many of the people Jesus and the apostles are talking to about the need for a personal faith in the gospel are people who are within the visible covenant family of Israel. God addresses his people as both believers and unbelievers. A strong covenant theology needs to include unbelieving visible covenant adherents.

The Federal Visionists have suggested that the answer to this is in a recovery of church discipline that treats covenant-breaking, unbelieving children as exactly that: covenant breakers rather than those outside of the covenant entirely. I think there is much Biblical help down that path. Clearly, this is Biblically superior to the position of treating our own children as Philistines.

When Jesus or the apostles are calling a Nicodemus to faith in Jesus Christ, I assume that the goal was professed faith and baptism, even though Nicodemus was already a “believer” within the covenant family of Israel. This is extremely helpful to me in understanding how we approach children.

Romans 9:1-8 I am speaking the truth; I belong to Christ and I do not lie. My conscience, ruled by the Holy Spirit, also assures me that I am not lying (2) when I say how great is my sorrow, how endless the pain in my heart (3) for my people, my own flesh and blood! For their sake I could wish that I myself were under God’s curse and separated from Christ. (4) They are God’s people; he made them his children and revealed his glory to them; he made his covenants with them and gave them the Law; they have the true worship; they have received God’s promises; (5) they are descended from the famous Hebrew ancestors; and Christ, as a human being, belongs to their race. May God, who rules over all, be praised forever! Amen. (6) I am not saying that the promise of God has failed; for not all the people of Israel are the people of God. (7) Nor are all of Abraham’s descendants the children of God. God said to Abraham, “It is through Isaac that you will have the descendants I promised you.” (8) This means that the children born in the usual way are not the children of God; instead, the children born as a result of God’s promise are regarded as the true descendants.

It would seem obvious that, in New Covenant terms, this explains why Paul can say the children of believers are “holy,” but at the same time call upon those same children to repent, profess their faith in Christ, be baptized and become members of the church in the fullest sense. The term “holy” is applied to pots and pans in the Old covenant, and is not a term that describes response as much as status from the covenantal inclusive point of view. If Paul says that the “unbelieving” husband is made “holy,” are we to place him into the membership of the church? Baptize him as a sign of covenant promise? He’s an unbeliever! So are the children, but they have an advantage that they are within the outward bounds- by marriage and birth- of a covenant people, who are “holy” by the action of God in making a people for Himself.

I believe we do accept our children as “covenant” children, with an understanding of the limits of any visible, external covenant relationship. This is not an “either/or” approach, but a “both/and” approach. There are covenant blessing and advantages to those born into believing families. It is not, in my view, taught in scripture that baptism must be given to infants to signify that covenantal inclusion. In that sense, there may be more to be said for “infant dedication” services than we have often said, especially if the liturgy reflects the “both/and” of covenant advantage and covenant responsibility.

3. Treating our children as “dead” until they put forth evidence of conversion seems an incomplete approach fraught with the possibilities of misuse. A child who has never heard of Jesus may eat all the plum and say “Thank you daddy.” A child with a genuine faith in Jesus may, on occasion, eat none of the plum, throw it, and question daddy’s authority in matters pertaining to breakfast. I have imitated this behavior myself, and I believe some of you have, as well.

Looking for sufficient evidence of regeneration has driven generations of Puritan-influenced Calvinists a bit crazy. (Jonathan Edwards my have induced such despair in some of his congregants that one may have committed suicide.) As one who works with many Christian families with wayward children, I’m aware of the kinds of thinking that goes on among Christians of all denominations who think that God has a deal going to shortcut the depravity and sinfulness of their kids and get right to the “little princess of the youth group” phase.

Challies is right to say that lost persons are dead, and that sinners are rebels. He’s entirely right to help his children see that. I shudder to think there are any Christian parents who would neglect to tell their children that aspect of the Christian story, and to make it as personal as possible in the context of the entire Gospel story. (My problem with the Al Martin version is that, by going in “steps”, it is possible to dwell on only the condemnation and wrath of God for years. Too much Bunyan. Needs to read more Spurgeon, who was perfect on this.)

What I would suggest to any Christian parent is caution is drawing too much of a conclusion from your selected evidentiary scorecard. Obedience to parents is usually a big item, but sin is a complex matter and exists on many diverse levels. Identifying regeneration with changes in the behavior on my score card is dangerous. In fact, stamped “regenerated” on a child is a risky business. Credobaptists would do well to emphasize the work of the Holy Spirit in preparation for Baptism, but to stress that this work of the Spirit is a sovereign freedom of God conforming his children to the image of Christ, not a list of things I now start doing as a result of being a “real” Christian.

If you don’t believe that anyone can be judged an unbeliever on small evidence, start reading Apprising Ministries blog.

4. We also ought to emphasize and assume the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of our children. That is why the story is not just about being “dead,” but also about Christ Jesus raising the dead, and the Spirit awakening the deadness in us to faith, hope and love in Jesus. I believe Christian parents pray that their children will turn from sin and trust in Christ. I believe they rely on the Spirit to do this, and when participating in the external aspects of the covenant, they do not neglect to point out ALL of the Christian gospel, and to say that we believe, and experience, all of it.

Saying “THIS is regeneration” is dangerous. The evidence of regeneration is for the eyes of God. What we want to see is an increasing growth in grace. The implicit revivalism in the “sudden conversion” approach to child evangelism backfires most of the time, bringing Christian young people to a place where they have no assurance and look in all the wrong places for that assurance. I want my children, wherever and whenever they hear the Gospel to say, of all of it, “That’s me.” And then to live and respond accordingly.

People who keep a scorecard of “real Christians” and “children of wrath” in their household are going far beyond what scripture asks of us as parents. We are to raise them in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. We are not asked to judge them. It is the visible church that accepts a profession of faith, and it is God who knows the actual state of the heart.

Our eyes should be on Jesus. We should help our children to stand at the cross, see their sin, see their savior, see his love for them and see the way we are called to live in the world for Jesus’ sake. Our eyes should not be on “distinguishing characteristics of a real Christian.” The Puritans went overboard on this, and their heirs tend to as well.

Comments

  1. Excellent post, Michael. You’ve summed up my own thoughts on this issue perfectly. It’s a hard thing to watch parents tell their children that their prayers and attempts at worship are suspicious and likely insincere.

  2. We also should remember how God created us to mature in predictable stages as body-mind-spirit creatures from the cradle to the grave–some behaviors small children exhibit are normal testing of boundaries and learning about cause and effect relationships. I read the Challie post and the comments and got a big knot in nmy stomach because these little children are being viewed by their parents in such a dark light–and are expected to behave as mature Christians when they are immature as individuals.

  3. Surely some of the problem with the approach towards children in Christian families you described earlier is that it’s a poor model of evangelism, which should generally be gentle, humble and not relyig on short-term emotional manipulation.

  4. Part of my response to this is that I think evangelism generally should be less confrontational and “angry” than it often is. The message of the Gospel is challenging on its own, without adding the challenge of obnoxious personality to it!

    Similarly, I’d feel reluctant to say either “this is regeneration” or “this isn’t regeneration” definitively about anyone, regardless of age. That’s God’s place, not mine. Instead, I accept someone’s claim to either be or not be a believer until I see marked evidence to the contrary, all the while reminding myself and everyone around me what the gospel is and that we are compelled to follow through.

    But hey, I’m one of those Calvinists that ended up a paedobaptist over precisely this issue. 🙂

    Great, great essay, Michael.

  5. Phil Walker says

    A good response, Michael. I’d note that I’m a young Calvinist without children, but that sort of logic pushed me towards paedobaptism — by no means the only issue, but one of the big ones. Goodness alone knows what it feels like to godly parents, to be told that, for all their faults, they have to think of their children in the way described. So although I may disagree at points, I think it no bad thing that you explain to fellow baptists what our side see which is wrong, and how they ought to be articulating their (rightful) concern to see their children saved.

  6. As a Paedo I obviously have some strong opinions on this matter but will keep my keyboard shut for more important things.

    One of the most important points you address is the issue of assurance – that is, the evidence of salvation in our lives.

    The problem with using good works as evidence is that it becomes quite arbitrary: What level of good works is required to assure oneself of one’s own (or another person’s) salvation?

    The issue of whether you can judge another person to be saved or not is sort of moot anyway. While I think it is right to assume unbelief in the case of major sins there is always the possibility (however remote) that they may be believers. Nevertheless it would still be the responsibility of the church to, say, refuse membership or communion to a person who claims to be a Christian but who is indulging in sin (adultery, homosexual practices, voting for Democrats… no, strike that last one!).

    The real problem, however, concerns one’s own assurance. Is it right to look at works as THE basis for assurance?

    I think that works are a good indicator, but they are just an indicator of something rather than an indicator of salvation.

    I think the best way to determine one’s own assurance is to ask yourself “Do I trust in Jesus as my Saviour? Do I have faith?”. If the person recognises that it is the presence of faith, rather than the amount, then they can know they are a Christian. The reason is that the presence of faith is something that the Spirit gives to people (ie monergism) and that it is impossible to have faith without being unregenerate.

    In the practical case here of children, it is always going to be a worrisome time for parents who wonder about the faith of their children. Their level of obedience or disobedience is not the issue, but whether they profess faith in Christ. And this faith is a simple faith – it is not the ability to explain the Trinity or justification or the atonement – but rather a childlike trust (after all, they ARE children) in Christ.

    And let me return to being a Paedo as I conclude. If a child is a Christian, why deny them baptism?

  7. yes, excellent post. I was just scratching the surface of this same topic in my Father’s Day post.

  8. Something I’ve been pondering as a speculative argument: Is it possible to believe that children of believers really are ‘covenant children’ as paedobaptists posit and yet not have that impact your understanding of baptism? Is it possible to continue to believe in believer’s-only baptism and yet accept that your children are covenant children, accept a generational covenant promise? The answer would, of course, depend on your definition of covenant and baptism. The real question would have to be: Is Baptism really a ‘sign’ of the covenant? (The only thing explicitly spoken of as a sign of the covenant in the NT is the Lord’s Supper.) If Baptism is not a sign of the covenant, what is it a sign of?

    As it is, I agree that it is easy to go out of balance with our children either way. Speaking as a Baptist, we need to make sure that we have a thoroughgoing theology of children. Clearly, God is in some sense a respecter of families. There is both an added blessing and obligation to growing up in the church under believing parents, where by God’s grace the Gospel should be lived out and modeled day by day. We trust that this gospel consistency is a powerful force, that the prayers of the righteous avail much and God blesses the hopes of the faithful. But as Baptists we need to articulate this clearer.

    One thing to keep in mind: fear of hell never really saved anyone. Fear of hell doesn’t really transform; by itself, it only feeds selfishness. It is the love of Christ alone which transforms – ‘apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ.’ I’m still trying to figure out how to apply this to my children. I want my children ultimately to obey not because they’re afraid of what will happen if they don’t, but because they want to obey. I want my children to want a relationship with God, to be drawn to Christ, to find him beautiful. To do this, they need both Law and Gospel at the same time. ‘Law-work before Evangelism’ is a false dichotomy. They need to see both Law and Gospel to truly understand and be drawn to his love. “Praise the grace whose threats alarmed thee, roused thee from thy fatal ease / Praise the grace whose promise warmed thee; praise the grace that whispered peace.”

  9. By the way, Michael, thanks for the opportunity to comment freely here, as it seems that more and more blogs are disabling comments these days.

  10. mforeman…

    Paedobaptists like myself would respond by saying that Colossians 2.11-12 is the link between circumcision and baptism.

    The logic of Covenant theology in regards to the sacraments goes like this:

    1) Food that is imbibed to remember God rescuing his people. Food is imbibed on a regular basis by members of the covenant.
    OT: Passover
    NT: Lord’s Supepr

    2) Sign of entry into the people of God is a once-off event that is given to all adult non-members as they join and to the children of covenant members.
    OT: Circumcision
    NT: Baptism

  11. The video of a small boy being swept away by the Tsunami has haunted me for the past two and a half years. Shortly after seeing it, I heard R.C. Sproul sum up the Truly Reformed version of what happens to children when they die.

    According to RC, only children who have Christian parents receive salvation, so the little boy who was surely killed in the Tsunami, most likely was damned to Hell.

    With this kind of doctrine, it’s no wonder so many evangelicals are exploring Catholicism and Orthodoxy.

  12. mforeman,

    And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. (Acts 2.40)

    Essentially your argument is that warning people of the consequence of their actions is not going to change their behaviour. The OT prophets seem to have got that one wrong, big time.

  13. I want to echo Phillip Winn’s thanks for keeping your comments open. It doesn’t take long before I stop reading those blogs that close comments completely (BHT would be the exception to that.) I realized that I find myself rolling my eyes at the mindset that those close-comments blogs seem to have–that what they have to say is so important, they can’t possibly take the time to listen or to engage with anyone else. So thank you for keeping the conversation flowing. I like that.

  14. One of the best movies dealing with these themes combines the insights of TULIP calvinism with a background in the porn industry to re-tell the parable of the Prodigal Son. Waching George C. Scott’s Hard Core profoundly influenced our childrearing practices. The protagonist in this tale did everything right, only to discover that he could not save his daughter by micromanaging her.