Presumptive Regeneration

Here is a re-post of a wonderful article from the PCA website by Charles Dunahoo on the topic of “presumptive regeneration” and infant baptism.

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Why Baptize Infants?

By Charles Dunahoo

People often ask the important question of why Presbyterians baptize infants. Recently, a pastor asked if there was a way to ordain a person to the office of ruling elder who was reformed in everyway except he could not commit to “infant baptism.” I faced it as a pastor on one occasion and have responded to that question often as coordinator of CEP.

What makes the practice of infant baptism, also called covenant baptism, so difficult is that we equate baptism with one’s salvation. Once we do that we are not far from a position the Protestant reformers tried to correct— namely the doctrine of sacerdotalism. That means the sacraments are more than means of grace. They convey saving grace on the recipients. So to be saved, one has to have faith in Christ and be baptized.

Some are also confused about baptism in general and specifically infant baptism because the doctrine of the covenant is not understood. Baptism is a sign of the covenant of grace whereby we are saved. Who are to be the recipients of baptism? Believers and their children! In the book of Acts we read of certain adults being converted to Christ, being baptized, and their households with them, which obviously included children. God promises in the covenant of grace that he will be our God and the God of our children. Baptism is a sign of that covenant promise.

In the previous “In Case You’re Asked,” I dealt with teachings in the PCA’s Book of Church Order relating to the baptism of covenant children. Without repeating those references, I will expand on the covenant promise and the doctrine of children in the covenant.

Recently, I took part in a discussion that grew out of a series of questions:

How do we become children of God? What do we have to do to become a child of God? Are covenant children presumed elect and regenerate until they give us a reason to believe differently or are we to presume that they are unregenerate until we see signs of being born again? People have debated these questions through the years. But what difference does it make which way we go with this? After all, people on both sides agree that salvation is by grace through faith and there is no other name given under heaven whereby we must be saved.

The truth is that we baptize infants, neither to make them children of God nor to pronounce their salvation. They are already children of God and therefore heirs of the covenant promises. Baptism is not an empty sign. It is filled with deep theological meaning. It declares that the recipients belong to God, to a believing family, and therefore to the church of Jesus Christ. They are entitled to all the benefits of the covenant.

Several months ago I was sent a copy of a reprinted classic written sixty-three years ago. The book, The Presbyterian Doctrine Of Children in the Covenant, A Historical Study of the Significance of Infant Baptism in the Presbyterian Church, is by Lewis Bevens Schenck, a professor at Davidson College, North Carolina for more than forty years. Schenck focuses on the argument between Charles Hodge and James Thronwell, two outstanding Presbyterian theologians and churchmen. Thronwell and Robert Dabney believed that “baptism makes the child a child of the covenant” while Hodge advocated that children were baptized because they were children of the covenant. Schneck maintains that because God’s promise to Abraham included children, they were to be identified. Therefore, the covenant sign of circumcision, the Old Testament version of New Testament baptism, publicly marked the children.

The children of the promise are sealed through baptism because “they are presumed to be partakers of the regeneration signified in baptism.” Frank James, professor at Reformed Theological Seminary, wrote in the introduction of this volume, “Schneck especially appreciates and follows Calvin’s broad understanding of regeneration which is understood to mean not only the beginning of spiritual life but progressive sanctification as well,” page xii. (We refer to “progressive sanctification” in the book Life of Faith by A. W. Pink in the review section.)

In America since the second great awakening and the beginnings of the revival movement, there has been a steady de-emphasis on the covenant and its meaning among Christians. The revivalistic view posits there has to be some big event in a person’s life leading to his or her conversion. (See the book review Live to Tell in this issue.) That doctrine takes the heart out of God’s covenant promises. There has been the tendency to view even our covenant children as outside the parameters of the covenant until they repent and believe. Hence, we must evangelize our covenant children. It is true we must disciple our covenant children by teaching them who they are and the significance of their baptism from the very beginning. But we must also help them understand the necessity of believing in Christ and repenting of their sins. That means that believing parents disciple their children by treating them as covenant children, rather than assuming that they are not until a particular time.

Bob Palmer reminds us in the lead article of God’s great displeasure over his people’s neglect of the covenant and its signs. Schneck goes to great lengths to point out that neglecting to baptize our covenant children is tantamount to ingratitude toward God and neglect of our children’s spiritual well being. Frank James says this about believing families who presume their children to be unregenerate, “This was intolerable and detrimental to the child, not to mention the fact that it betrays the covenantal structure of God’s relationship with his people,” page xv.

In the discussion mentioned above, someone asked me what real difference it makes whether we presume covenant children are elect or are in the process of being regenerated. I responded, “It makes great difference both in how we view covenant children and how we train and instruct them.” We disciple covenant children on the presumption that they are children of God and are to be baptized and taught all things whatsoever Christ has commanded. We do not presume that they are children of the darkness; that would cut across everything that the covenant promise represents.

Baptism is a sign and seal with great biblical and theological implications. And just as we did not establish the covenant, neither did we determine the sign of the covenant. Those were God’s gracious and loving acts. God is the signifier and signified in baptism whether it be for a covenant child or a covenant adult. I like to remind the people during a covenant baptismal service, especially of an infant, that this event marks the beginning of teaching this precious covenant child who he or she is in Christ and what this sign of baptism signifies. It is not merely a ritual. Certainly it contains mystery but God reveals his truth to us in order that we might understand and obey him. When we participate in baptism, by faith we will see the very hand of God working through his promises to us and to our children.

To conclude, Schneck writes, “The covenant idea of education had been extensively supplanted in the popular mind and ‘well nigh lost’ to the world. The principle of the Reformed faith, that the child brought up under Christ influence should never know a time when love to God was not an active principle in its life,” (page 153).

I would use Schneck’s book in a seminary Christian education course or among the local church leadership. I do not believe that it is possible to read this book without it profoundly affecting your participation in the sacrament of baptism as a church member. So in case you’re asked why we baptize infants, be prepared to respond with grateful and gracious assurance, “Because they are children of the covenant. They belong to the King and his sign and seal are to identify them as his.”