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Sunday, September 09, 2012

Wet Dedications In Presbyterian Churches

“Timmy is joining the church this Sunday.” How often have we heard such a sentiment? A better question is “Why do we hear such a sentiment?” I am fully persuaded that the reason we hear such things is because evangelicalism is overtaking the church – even the Reformed church. In the minds of most Timmy is not joining the church upon baptism let alone birth but upon his confirmation of faith.

The Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s “Directory for the Public Worship of God” [DPWG] most clearly and decisively opposes evangelicalism in Chapter 4, Section B, Paragraph 2 where it instructs that “…Although our young children do not yet understand these things, they are nevertheless to be baptized. For the promise of the covenant is made to believers and to their seed, as God declared unto Abraham: ‘And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee and to thy seed after thee.’ In the new dispensation no less than in the old, the seed of the faithful, born within the church, have, by virtue of their birth, interest in the covenant and right to the seal of it and to the outward privileges of the church… So the children of the covenant are by baptism distinguished from the world and solemnly received into the visible church.”

Before we proceed it should be noted that the official position of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church is that the “covenant of grace was made with Christ as the second Adam, and in him with all the elect as his seed.” (Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC), Q&A 31) The denomination also affirms that all within the visible church are not necessarily elect; therefore, there exists within the visible church those with whom God has not established His covenant of grace yet are to receive the outward administration of it. Assuming the denomination does not contradict itself in its doctrine, we may safely conclude that when the standards teach that children of professing believers are to be baptized – because the covenant is made with them – it is treating such children as elect in Christ. Accordingly, such children are to be “distinguished from the world and solemnly received into the visible church.” But what is it to be “distinguished form the world and solemnly received into the visible church”? According to the [Westminster] standards of the denomination, to be received into the visible church includes entering “into an open and professed engagement to be wholly and only the Lord’s,” which compliments how the denomination’s catechism instructs its members to regard “strangers from the covenant of promise” who are not to receive baptism until “they profess their faith in Christ…” Infants born of professing believers are not only to be treated among those with whom God has established his covenant; they are also to be regarded as already disciples in Christ, which is why they are to be baptized, as opposed to targets for evangelistic conversion. New Testament baptism, among other things, is a call to discipleship and fidelity, not conversion. It is a call to improve upon one's baptism in exercising the seed of faith by believing all Scripture teaches, and primarily in full reliance upon the grace of God trusting and resting solely in him as he is offered in the gospel.

The DPWG goes on to state in paragraph 4 of the same section “that, although our children are conceived and born in sin and therefore are subject to condemnation, they are holy in Christ, and as members of his church ought to be baptized…” [Emphasis mine] Parenthetically we can note that the official position of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church is that baptism does not make someone a member of the church but rather it is to be administered to those who are already "members of his church." The DPWG, possibly borrowing from 1 Corinthians 7:14, regards covenant children as “holy in Christ” and, therefore, among those who ought to be baptized. Moreover, paragraph 4, borrowing from Ephesians 6:4, instructs professing parents of children “to endeavor by all the means of God’s appointment to bring [children] up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” Just prior to the Apostle Paul’s instruction to parents he instructs the children in Ephesus to obey their parents “in the Lord.” These children without qualification are included in the number of all hearers in Ephesus who by the apostle are called “saints”, “faithful in Christ Jesus”, “blessed”, “chosen”, “accepted in the beloved”, “sealed with the Holy Spirit of Promise”, “quickened”, “saved”, “his workmanship created in Christ Jesus”, “fellowcitizens with the saints”, “of the household of God”, “partakers of his promise in Christ”, “forgiven”, “beloved children” and “children of light”. Does the average evangelical Protestant regard his children as the Apostle Paul would have us? Or do evangelicals, Reformed or not, regard their covenant offspring as those who must “join the church” after making a credible profession of faith? Does the Reformed Christian who embraces limited atonement tell his children that Jesus died for them? The Apostle Paul tells his hearers, even at Corinth where professions of faith were less credible, that Jesus died for their sins. (1Corinthians 15:3) Covenant children were not only regarded as being among the elect for whom Christ died; they, as part of the church, were regarded as already partaking of the purchased redemption, having been "sanctified in Christ Jesus, [and] called to be saints." (1Corinthians 1:2) The baptized were treated according to what the sign of baptism signified, namely union with Christ.

Indeed, children must “improve” upon their baptism – as do adults. The Confession draws no significant difference between the two. Question 167 of the WLC asks “How is our Baptism to be improved by us?” Answer: “The needful but much neglected duty of improving our Baptism, is to be performed by us all our life long... by serious and thankful consideration of the nature of it... by being humbled for our sinful defilement, our falling short of, and walking contrary to, the grace of baptism... by growing up to assurance of pardon of sin, and of all other blessings sealed to us in that sacrament; by drawing strength from the death and resurrection of Christ, into whom we are baptized... and by endeavoring to live by faith, to have our conversation in holiness and righteousness, as those that have therein given up their names to Christ; and to walk in brotherly love, as being baptized by the same Spirit into one body.” Both child and adult is to improve upon his baptism.

Note well that the WLC does not exhort those who have been baptized unto conversion. Such baptistic theology is contrary to Scripture. Rather, the Confession instructs that the baptized continue in faithfulness. The doctrine of the Bible, which the Orthodox Presbyterian Church follows in its standards, instructs all within the visible church to grow in the assurance of pardon and in brotherly love, as those who have already been baptized into one body by one Spirit. Even when we find severe warnings in Scripture pertaining to falling away from the faith, we find on the heels of such warnings encouragement in the Lord:
“Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near."

“Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation.”

“But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.” 

It is often said that baptists engage in "dry baptism" in their practice of infant dedication. What I find more true is that Reformed paedobaptists engage in wet-dedication in the sacrament of baptism. For the most part, both deny the covenant status of their offspring. Neither treats his offspring as already alive and engrafted into the risen Christ. Note the wording of the Book of Church Order for the Presbyterian Church In America on the status of children:
“The children of believers are, through the covenant and by right of birth, non-communing members of the church. Hence they are entitled to Baptism, and to the pastoral oversight, instruction and government of the church, with a view to their embracing Christ and thus possessing personally all benefits of the covenant.”
Like her sister denomination, the PCA also recognizes that children are members of the church and, therefore, are to be baptized. In such cases membership precedes baptism. Yet one can find this on a renowned congregation's website within that (my) denomination: 
“A new Christian, or a child of the Covenant, unites with a Presbyterian church by making a profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Those who become members of the church in this way appear before the session and answer satisfactorily five fundamental questions prescribed by the Book of Church Order. If they give evidence of sincerity and earnestness in their faith in Christ, the session votes to admit them to the ordinances of the church and to church membership. They ordinarily then appear before the congregation to repeat their public profession of faith in Christ, usually by answering again the five questions from the Book of Church Order. At that time they also receive Christian baptism, if they have not already been baptized in infancy.”
So, not birth or baptism but a profession of faith makes one a member of the church - contrary to the biblical, Reformed teachings of the denomination.

Not only are professing Christians to regard their children as disciples of Christ - they need not always qualify their biblical terminology with systematic language - another topic for another time. For now we might note that "There is, in every sacrament, a spiritual relation, or sacramental union, between the sign and the thing signified: whence it comes to pass, that the names and effects of the one are attributed to the other." With that in mind, how often will a Christian say that he is saved by the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost? For that matter how often do we hear Christians acknowledge that they are truly eating (munching!) Christ's body and drinking his blood in the sacrament of communion? We hear all too often what the sacraments are not; yet the accent in Scripture falls upon what these sacraments actually confirm, namely interest in Christ. Accordingly, it is not hard to understand that as long as Christians regard their children as outside of Christ, the church will have a hard time reclaiming the sacramental language of Scripture. I say this as one who has no interest in jettisoning systematic theology and as one who has argued strenuously against Romanism and Federal Vision.

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Jeff Krause said...

A wonderful and much needed article. Thank you for addressing this issue.

Reformed Apologist said...

Dear Jeff,

Not sure why you say that but thank you just the same. I love Christ's church, as I'm sure you do, and I grieve for it - even weep at times. Too much to say here.