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Question and Answer

Covenant Theology and Childrearing

Question:

I honestly don’t know where to begin. I am married and have three beautiful children. Currently, we are going to a Reformed Baptist church and have been for about 7 years. My marriage has been going through a lot. As I was reading 1 Corinthians 7 for marital guidance, I came to the Scriptures about the unbelieving spouse being holy and the children being counted as holy. We are in need of counseling, no doubt, but those Scriptures were too interesting to pass up. I began to realize there is a lot more to Presbyterians baptizing their children than I thought.

I began studying more and more about the subject. It eventually led me to 1689 Federalism, which inadvertently led me to Covenant Theology proper. My marriage and the Scriptures that instruct us about the issue led me to a deeper understanding of God’s promises thoughout the ages.

All in all, my wife and I would like some help in marriage and understanding what God had commanded and provided in his Word. Thank you.

Answer:

Thank you for your question, as you suggest, if there are marital issues, those are best handled by your pastor or a Christian counselor. As you can well imagine, an email is an inadequate way of dealing with questions and differences between husband and wife. But theology/doctrine guides life, and truth guides our thinking, so here goes with some of your concerns.

Covenant theology is throughout Scripture, but it took the Reformation and beyond to think through how it works out. And it is so rich that we can scarcely make a beginning. There are many good books on covenant theology. You probably have seen some, but Palmer Robertson’s The Christ of the Covenants is a helpful one. A more heavy duty one is Geerhardus Vos’ Biblical Theology, which is an education in itself. But maybe I can summarize a few things and apply them to your questions.

The covenant is initiated by God and has as its essence “I will be your God and you shall be my people.” Hence, it is God taking us to be his own, rather than us trying to make ourselves his people. This is the dividing point with Arminianism, which gives man an equal part in the choosing. God does this choosing freely and sovereignly, not based on our worthiness, in order to show that the purposes are God’s, not man’s, and the glory of grace is all God’s and none of ours (Eph. 1–2, Rom. 9–10). But as we see the covenant worked out in history we see that God makes discriminating choices (“not all Israel is Israel,” Rom. 9:6–7). God’s promises stand, but we see that those promises are sometimes worked out as some members of the church fall away while others stand firm. You see it in Baptist churches as well as in Presbyterian churches. Those we thought were “in Christ” prove to abandon the faith. This is God’s discriminating work. He keeps his people until the end. He enables us to endure, and we give him glory for holding onto us, while those who are not truly part of Christ’s body fall away (Matt. 7:21–23).

I have been reading 1 and 2 Kings and am seeing this worked out. God will be faithful to himself and his Word (the promises he made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and to David), and that means that he will act, even if it is in rebuke and judgment (as with the northern kingdom, Israel’s permanent exile, and Judah’s exile and the restoration of a remnant).

When Paul writes that “the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy” (1 Cor. 7:14). He is showing much of the same truth. The children are “holy,” that is, set aside for the covenant promises, when one spouse is a believer. And the unbelieving spouse is in a privileged position of seeing the gospel lived out in front of him or her. The covenant begins with promises to a people, and that means that there are households/families living under the covenant promises, but whether they embrace the promises themselves depends solely on grace—those whom God chooses and calls to be his own. Parents are driven to pleading the promises made in the baptism of the child, that “this child may be found in Christ as you have promised, Lord.”

God first of all commands us to believe his Word. Without faith it is both impossible to please him (Heb. 11:6) or to know how to live, for we live/obey by faith. And we know that faith itself is a gift of God (Eph. 2:8–9), so God is crowning his own work in the believer in the giving of faith and then sustaining the believer through the trials of life. This is especially applicable in our marriages and parenting. We marry and live in marriage by faith that the Lord is going to enable us to love this other person in sickness and health, in plenty and in want, till death us do part. We need to know this because marriage is often hard, and loving another person, whose flaws are so plainly visible to us as marriage makes them, requires faith that this is what God intended, as he supplies the grace and love we need to live together. The same goes for parenting. We parent by faith that God is claiming our children (though we cannot predict absolutely that they will believe) and gives his Holy Spirit to work in them so that the seed of the gospel grows into a faith they claim as their own.

Going back to the essence of the covenant (“I will be your God and you shall be my people”), the Presbyterian understanding is that baptism is appropriate for infants because God is the initiator of the covenant and the only one who can fulfill its promises. The New Testament is full of reminders that God works in households (for further information see here and here). God delights to work his grace through lines of generations. It is not presumption but faith that commits our children to God’s working, however and whenever he chooses to work. They are “set apart,” being exposed to the gospel in the home as parents continually come to Christ for grace, wisdom, and strength to love and train our children. It is a powerful thing for a child to see that his/her mom or dad is trusting in Christ for forgiveness and eternal life. And we don’t merely discipline for some act of disobedience but get to their heart and have them see that they can’t love their sister or brother without the grace that is found in Jesus Christ; from their earliest ages we point them to their need for a Savior. This is parenting by faith.

There is much more that could be said. I’ve only hinted at some of the richness of the idea of the covenant, but maybe this gives you enough to chew on for a while. If I need to clarify anything, let me know.


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"Questions and Answers" is a weekly feature of the OPC website. The answers come from individual ministers in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church expressing their own convictions and do not necessarily represent an "official" position of the Church, especially in areas where the Standards of the Church (the Scriptures and the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms) are silent.

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