On Infant Election: CoD and WCF

In our last installment of “Compare & Confess,” Ruberad argued that the Heidelberg Catechism is stronger than Westminster on the imputation of the active obedience of Christ. That was very generous. Today I want to return the favor.

There is a history of confusing covenant with election in some three-forms confessing churches and denominations. Some actually believe that covenant = election. This may be due in part to the Canons of Dordt 1.17:

1.17: The Salvation of the Infants of Believers

Since we must make judgments about God’s will from his Word, which testifies that the children of believers are holy, not by nature but by virtue of the gracious covenant in which they together with their parents are included, godly parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom God calls out of this life in infancy.

Even those who don’t believe covenant = election still appeal to this article to maintain that all children of believers who die in infancy are elect without question. But notice that the article says, “ought not to doubt.” It does not presume to guarantee that infants of godly parents are automatically elect. But still, the language of the article leaves room for dispute.

The Westminster Confession leaves no room for dispute:

X.III. Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated, and saved by Christ, through the Spirit, who works when, and where, and how He pleases: so also are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word.

Some say this might have been a deliberate non-statement in order to avoid controversy. I say it’s brilliant. It doesn’t tell us that all infants of believers are elect; it tells us elect infants are regenerated. Your thoughts?

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13 Responses to On Infant Election: CoD and WCF

  1. Zrim says:

    Good point, Rick.

    I have always found the three forms somehow more pastoral, and maybe this only shows how words can lead persons too far in the desire to comfort?

    But I read the former form in the spirit of the latter. Nice catch, you Presbies.

    zrim

  2. Hi,

    Read in context, I think the point is that *believing* parents should have confidence about covenant children dying in infancy. The basis is the objective promise: I will be your God and your children’s God. The Synod simply applied this promise covenantally to *believing* parents and their children. There’s some work on this here:
    http://www.cpjournal.com/articles/r-scott-clark-baptism-and-the-benefits-of-christ/

    Cornel Venema has a slightly different take that he has published in the Mid-America Journal of Theology.

    Cheers,

    rsc

  3. RubeRad says:

    I am sensitive to this issue, as I take fire both from PREF for “baptismal regeneration”, and from NPP/FV/AA on the other side, for being a “practical baptist” — treating my children as unregenerate pagans by virtue of not admitting them to the Lord’s Supper.

    …parents should have confidence about covenant children dying in infancy. The basis is the objective promise…

    Now this language sounds very similar to what I hear from the FV (not making any accusations here, btw thanks for dropping by Dr. Clark!), who push hard on the objective promise for covenant children, dead or alive. So the question is, is there baptismal regeneration for elect infants that die, but other elect children ordinarily grow to the age where they can understand the preaching of the Word before the Spirit applies their effective call?

    Maybe where the FV go off the tracks is in their (almost ex opere operato?) view of baptismal efficacy. After all, neither of these statements on elect infants even mentions baptism.

    Would the following be a proper statement:?

    “We baptize individuals (initiate them into the visible covenant community) when we have sufficient evidence (when we “ought not to doubt”) that they are partakers of the invisible covenant — which evidence can take two forms; either a credible profession of faith, or birth to parents who have a credible profession of faith”

  4. Rick says:

    Dr. Clark,

    I really don’t have a problem with the language of the CoD I.17, I think it’s clear. The problem is with how some interpret it – and this article has been plenty misinterpreted. I just pointed out that the WCF is not subject to this misinterpretation.

    Some have taken “ought not to doubt” to mean it’s a 100% guarantee. Where they get this I don’t know.

    Having confidence because of covenant promises is one thing, thinking your child is automatically elect because of the covenant is another.

  5. Danny Hyde says:

    Hi all,

    On this issue, everyone needs to buy and read the 2006 issue of the Mid-America Journal of Theology, in which Mark Beach translated a treatise of Witsius on the efficacy of baptism. Basically Witsius shows that in the Reformed camp there are those who believe regeneration occurs prior to baptism (Witsius’ view), during baptism, or after baptism.

    Very interesting to see how our fathers spoke.

  6. RubeRad says:

    Witsius shows that in the Reformed camp there are those who believe regeneration occurs prior to baptism (Witsius’ view), during baptism, or after baptism.

    ?? Are you saying that typically historical views would hold that, across the board, everybody is the same? I thought WCF 28.6

    The efficacy of baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God’s own will, in his appointed time.

    meant that there are ordinary cases in which grace is conferred in any relationship to the event of baptism. Actually, it seems to me that ordinarily, regeneration will be before baptism (adult converts), or after baptism (infant), but almost never exactly coincident with baptism. Does that mean I have too low view of the sacrament?

  7. Echo_ohcE says:

    Rube,

    I could be wrong, but I think the answer to your question as you phrased it in the post a couple posts up is this: we don’t baptize infants because we believe they are likely to be elect.

    We cannot and should not think that we have any way to judge whether or not someone is elect.

    We have to restrict ourselves to baptizing adults with a credible profession of faith, which brings them into the covenant community, the visible church, not the invisible church. A profession of faith brings you, in the judgment of the elders, into membership of the visible church. It may be that someone with a credible profession of faith is not elect. We baptize them anyway because we cannot know if someone is elect. We can only know if they’ve made a credible profession of faith.

    Likewise with infants. By being born to believers, they are born into the church, the visible church. We do not suppose that they either are or are not in the invisible church. Only God knows that.

    However, since the makeup of the invisible church is epistemically inaccessible to us, we treat the members of the visible church as if they ARE members of the INvisible church.

    So if someone makes a credible profession of faith, I have no reason to be SURE of their election. But likewise, I have no grounds for doubting it either. I cannot say either way.

    Interestingly, we cannot doubt the election of those outside the church either. Who knows but they may repent tomorrow and come to Christ and be healed!

    But perhaps there are counter-examples. Don’t we think that horrible people like Osama Bin Ladin are NOT elect? Wouldn’t most of us assume that? This seems like a counter-example.

    But it’s not. The Apostle Paul put Christians in prison and in put them to death in some cases (or at least approved of the execution of Stephen, right?) If we observed someone murdering a Christian because of their faith, wouldn’t we say, “Oh, they can’t possibly be elect, look what they’re doing!” Most of us would. But we cannot say that. Paul is the counter-example.

    Since this is true, and since it is also true that a credible profession of faith is no guarantee of election either, what can we say except that this is why we call it the invisible church? We have no epistemic access to the membership roles of that church.

    But in the visible church, we treat the members as if they are members of the invisible church. This is why the pastor can say to them, from the pulpit, with God’s authority, “Your sins are forgiven in Christ.” Some even go so far as to say, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I absolve you of your sin.”

    There is nothing wrong with this. Yet, we might object, saying, “But wait! We don’t know for sure if everyone in the room’s sins ARE forgiven! Aren’t you giving hypocrites false assurance?”

    Well, yeah, in a sense. But consider this:

    Heb. 6:9 Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation.

    This comes, ironically, right on the heels of the well known passage about apostasy. The writer undoubtedly terrified them with his warning against hypocrisy, but then, to the very same people, he assured them, saying that in THEIR case, he felt sure of better things.

    Does this mean that everyone in his audience was elect? No. Did God in his providence ensure that only the elect were present that day when this letter was first read to the church? No. If the intended audience was only the elect, why would he give the warning about apostasy? Apostates are NOT elect.

    We have no reason to doubt the salvation of a member in good standing in the visible church.

    When your pastor preaches, does he say that your sins are only forgiven if you are elect? Such a thing would be very distressing, I should think, to the hearers, who would immediately begin to try to discover if they were elect or not.

    Jesus said to his disciples, “Already you are clean because of the Word I have spoken to you.” John 15:3.

    Do you want to know if your sins are forgiven? The Bible says that they are. True, they are only forgiven if you believe what the Bible says, but if I say that you should look to the Word for assurance of salvation, then of course I am telling you to believe it.

    In the same way, on what grounds do we say that we should not doubt the salvation of an infant child of believers who dies in infancy? On the grounds that the child was that of believers, and thus a member of the visible church. Is it possible that the child is in hell? Yeah, it is. But we don’t have ANY REASON to think that this particular baby IS in fact in hell, and every reason to think that the baby IS in heaven. We are therefore FORCED to conclude and obligated to believe that the baby is in heaven. We take this on faith, because Peter tells us that the promise is for us AND our children.

    Is Peter guaranteeing that our children will inherit that which is promised? No. He is saying that the promise is held out to them, just as it is to us, namely if you have faith in Christ, you will be saved. The promise is conditioned on faith. This same promise is what is said to us. This promise belongs to us because it is spoken to us. It belongs to those of the visible church.

    Baptism is a visible representation of that promise. But it is a conditioned promise, conditioned on faith. God himself provides this faith, so we must not think that we do anything but receive that which is promised passively. What happens after is active, but the receipt of that which is promised is passive. Nonetheless it is conditional.

    So then, the holding out of this promise in the preaching of the Word may either bring life to those who believe, or harden the hearts of those who don’t. That is what it is designed to do.

    Presbyterian though I am, I prefer the wording of the COD, because more pastoral. But I have no real complaint about the words of the WCF.

    E

  8. RubeRad says:

    Jesus said to his disciples, “Already you are clean because of the Word I have spoken to you.” John 15:3.

    And I assume Judas Iscariot was present?

  9. Rube,

    In your quotation of my post you omitted the crucial qualifier: “believing.” The promise is to “believing” parents, or, to use the language of the CoD, “pious” parents. It is they should not doubt. Believers should never doubt a divine promise. “I will be your children’s God” is a promise. It ought not be doubted.

    What the FV folk do is to substitute “professing” for “believing” and thus they fundamentally change the equation.

    Best,

    rsc

  10. Echo_ohcE says:

    Rube,

    No. Judas took off in chapter 13.

    That wasn’t my point. My point was that it is the Word of God that is effectual.

    That is to say, it is not something in us that saves us, it is Christ, the Word become flesh. He is our salvation.

  11. John says:

    “elect infants” isn’t this a tautology? If so, it is meaningless.

    Is there a passage in scripture that speaks specifically of an infant having died and being in hell? David said that he would see his child again. Is there a passage that speaks of a child dying and being in hell with the same specficity?

    Just curious.

  12. RubeRad says:

    Not that I know of. You might also check over here. In particular, you can find an argument from Deut 1:39 that those “without knowledge of good and evil” are exempted from judgment. Of course, some understanding of original sin has to be worked in there too.

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