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New Horizons

The Breadth of Grace and Infant Baptism

Shane Lems

One of the many gifts we find in Herman Bavinck's four-volume Reformed Dogmatics is his strong emphasis on infant baptism. For Bavinck, there is "no other, deeper, or more solid ground" upon which to base infant baptism than the covenant of grace (RD, 4:525). (Bavinck agreed with the Westminster standards that the covenant of works and the covenant of grace stand and fall with each other [RD, 3:103].)

Bavinck writes that baptism depends upon the covenant of grace, which embraces both believers and their descendants. We baptize infants and adults, not for subjective reasons, but for objective ones. "Not regeneration, faith, or repentance, much less our assumptions pertaining to them, but only the covenant of grace gave people, both adults and children, the right to baptism" (RD, 4:525).

The gracious covenant that God made with Abraham and his household in the Old Testament was signed and sealed by circumcision, and the promise made in Abraham's day has continued ever since: God will save his people through the sacrifice of his Son. After Christ's work, baptism replaced circumcision as the sign and seal of the covenant of grace. As we see in Abraham's day and in the whole Old Testament witness, "the covenant of grace does not leap from individual to individual," but passes from generation to generation (RD, 3:231). There is an historical, organic progress in the covenant of grace: we speak of a people, not a person here and a person there.

Further Reasons to Baptize Infants

Bavinck includes several other weighty reasons, in addition to the foundation of the covenant of grace, why we are compelled to baptize the children of believers. First, infants are to be baptized because of the "wideness" of grace. Second, the argument based on the certainty of faith in adults does not work against infant baptism. Third, infants must be baptized because of the judgment of charity. Of course, all these stand together and find their basis in the covenant of grace.

The Wideness of Grace

Those who refuse to baptize infants limit and restrain God's grace (see RD, 4:530). By saying that a child must not be baptized, one is saying that God's grace is restricted, that the grace of regeneration and renewal does not come upon young children. Bavinck disagrees: "Grace, however, knows no such boundaries" (RD, 4:530). Grace is wider: even the children of one believing parent are distinguished from unbelievers and are under the umbrella of the covenant of grace (cf. 1 Cor. 7:14; RD, 4:529).

Bavinck notes how grace was somewhat limited in the Old Testament to Israel and a few select others. For example, circumcision was only for males and had to take place on the eighth day. After Christ's work, grace has a new "wideness": males and females receive the sacrament and have a right to baptism from the moment they are born (RD, 4:527). Now "all boundaries of people and country, of sex and age, have been completely erased" (RD, 4:530). The Spirit of God and his grace have access to any heart, and are not hindered by age or race. In simpler terms, Christ did not die only for those who are "of age"; the Holy Spirit can work and has worked in infants. The promise of salvation is not limited by age any more than it is limited by nationality.

The Matter of Certainty

Bavinck turns the baptistic position on its head: "Those who want absolute certainty [concerning election and faith] can never dispense any sacrament" (RD, 4:526). When an adult makes a profession of faith, the pastor or elders cannot be absolutely certain that the person has genuine faith. "We can no more judge the hearts of senior members of the church than we can the hearts of infants" (RD, 4:530). The church has no right to judge a person's heart if he professes faith and his lifestyle is consistent with his profession.

Again, the main reasons for baptizing infants are not subjective (a profession of faith), but objective (the promises of the covenant of grace). When we baptize an infant, we are not absolutely certain that the child is elect, but we are just as certain that the child belongs in the covenant of grace as we are that his parents belong there. "We do not need and may not demand another or stronger kind of certainty" (RD, 4:526). For Bavinck, "certainty" has everything to do with the judgment of charity.

The Judgment of Charity

The validity of infant baptism depends upon how Scripture judges the children of believers and how it wants us to consider them. If Scripture speaks about children in the same way as their believing parents, "the right and hence the duty to practice infant baptism has been established" (RD, 4:525-26). Bavinck derives infant baptism by using an important hermeneutical (interpretive) principle: "That which can be deduced from Scripture by legitimate inference is as binding as that which is expressly stated in it" (RD, 4:526). That is, if children and their believing parents are viewed in the Bible in a similar way, then the church must also administer the sign of the covenant of grace to children.

In a household like that in 1 Corinthians 7:14, the Christian confession sets the tone: the whole family is to be judged by the profession of faith of at least one professing parent. Bavinck notes that children of believers are admonished as "Christian children in the Lord" (RD, 4:529, citing Acts 26:22; Eph. 6:1; Col. 3:20; 2 Tim. 3:15; 1 John 2:13). "Scripture knows nothing of a neutral upbringing that seeks to have the children make a completely free and independent choice at a more advanced age. The children of believers are not pagans or children of the devil É but children of the covenant, for whom the promise is meant as much as for adults" (RD, 4:529-30).

In summary, Bavinck argued for infant baptism on the same grounds as other Reformed teachers: the objectivity and promises of the covenant of grace. Since the Bible treats believers' children positively, as "set apart," we must as well. This includes baptizing them. Infant baptism is based, not on absolute certainty of their election, but on a charitable judgment that accompanies the "wideness" of the covenant of grace.

The author is pastor of the United Reformed Church of Sunnyside, Wash. Reprinted from New Horizons, October 2008.

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