Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Q&A on Baptism

This past Sunday, at our church, I taught through chapter five in On Being Presbyterian and tried to make a strong case for infant baptism. In response, one of our most thoughtful ladies asked a great question that centered on the value of the promises signed and sealed in baptism that don't seem effectual for many, many people. While I tried to make a distinction between "promises" and "guarantees" in my answer, the more I've reflected on the question, the more I wish I could press the rewind button and try again.

Thankfully, another of our most thoughtful ladies emailed me some further questions and reflections on the whole issue. Having another crack at the essential existential question and thinking that my reply might prove useful to others--either who were in that class or who wrestle with this question--I thought I'd post it here.

Hi, ____:

I really appreciate your thoughtful interaction with ____'s comment and my response. As I think I said, this is where the existential issues really come for us; we trust God, we plead his promises for our children, and we wait for him in faith.

As I’ve thought about all this, I wonder if the distinction I tried to make between promises and guarantees is really all that helpful. Perhaps a better way to get at all this is to say: the promise in which the sacrament of baptism confirms our interest is that whoever believes in Jesus shall be saved. Further, parents have warrant to bring their children to be baptized because God promises us that he will be a God to us and our children. Those two promises are related but somewhat different. Let me try to unpack this.

First, baptism confirms our children’s interest in the promise that whoever believes in Jesus shall be saved (Acts 16:31). This is the same promise that is held out to them in the preaching of the Word. And that promise will be held out to them until they die (that was what I was talking about when I said, dv, our children will out-live us and so we don’t know the end of their stories). The value of baptism to the child (among other things) is that, if they were to doubt whether this promise was for them, they (and we) can say, “Yes, that promise is for you—God directed us to have you baptized so that you would have a seal of authentication that the promise is true and for you; your baptism serves as a sign to point you to faith in Jesus, to point you to the Gospel itself.”

Second, we baptize our children because God promises us that he will be a God to us and our children. This may mean that God is a God of grace to our children; he grants them his Spirit and draws them to himself. They are granted faith and they trust in the Savior who promised them in their baptism that whoever believes in Jesus will be saved. But it may be that God will be a God of judgment to our children. Even though he has granted them great mercy by allowing them to grow up among the visible people of God, to know the preaching of his Word, to experience the communion of the saints, they may turn from him, reject his promises, leave the church and never return. Either way, God is a God to our children; he keeps his promises to us, but in different ways.

Perhaps a good parallel to this is in our prayer life. We have precious promises from God that encourage us to pray and to ask him for deliverance from trials and sufferings. And yet, there are times, even when we plead God’s promises faithfully in prayer, that God answers by allowing us to suffer pain and heartbreak. Was God unfaithful to his promises? No—rather, he keeps his promises to us in different ways: in this instance, by leading us into the valley of the shadow of death so that we might be comforted by his rod and staff (an example of this might be 2 Corinthians 12:7-10).

Circling back around, I would say that when we trust God to keep his promises for our children, we pray that God will be a God to them and that God will be a God of mercy and salvation for them. We pray for them, just as we would pray for others who need Jesus, that God would open their eyes of faith, turn their hearts to him, and grant them grace to follow him all the days of their lives. We pray that God would allow them to truly “improve their baptisms,” to cling to the promise of salvation signed and sealed in their baptisms. And we parent in such a way that keeps God’s Word and promises of salvation to those who believe in front of them. Still, at the end of the day, we must live by faith, trusting the God of grace to do what is right for us and our children. And perhaps God might have other purposes in mind; he is still a God to our children, but shows himself to them and us as a God of judgment.

I’ve attached to this email a short baptismal homily I gave when our Benjamin was baptized in 2004. In particular, I was trying to answer the questions, on what basis do we baptize? And what do we expect to happen in this baptism? It might prove useful in answering some of practical, existential questions with which you are wrestling.

Thanks again for your thoughtful questions—I love the opportunity to explain and clarify things I say, so don’t hesitate to ask! Hope you all have a good time away…



Anonymous said...

I don't understand your answer. God promises to be there God either in saving them or damning them. How is this different than someone who isn't baptized? Doesn't really sound like much of a promise to me. What am I missing?


Wayne said...

Hi Sean,

I am inclined to see Matt's point above. This is the 1st time I've heard that particular caveat with regard to Covenant Baptism. I would be interested in knowing if there are others who embrace the same explanation and if so, who?

My impression of the promise is that for most born to Christian parents "Salvation" but for some they would just receive the "general protection and blessings" of the Covenant Community. In the end you would be correct that God's judgment would be severe to those who had the benefits but rejected them, however, I'm not sure if we can link both the God of grace and the God of judgment to the Promise itself. But of course I'm open to being convinced.


Sean Michael Lucas said...

Hi, Matt and Wayne:

A few things here. 1) This was an emailed letter that assumed a prior discussion of 1 Corinthians 7:14. As such, I agree with Wayne that there are covenant blessings that come to the children, regardless of whether they embrace the Gospel promise signed and sealed in baptism.

2) here I am talking about the promise with reference to the household head--the promise, "I will be a God to you and your children," is addressed to household heads, not children per se.

3) Unlike Matt, I actually think this is an important promise for household heads. Unlike those in Romans 1:18-32, whom God gives over to the depravity and from whom God turns away, God promises to continue in covenantal dealings with our children to death, dealing with them, wooing them, presenting the Gospel to them.

I guess I'm not sure how what I wrote here was particularly unusual or how it represents a "caveat" concerning covenant baptism. Any help? sml

Wayne said...

Actually that helped clarify it for me Sean as I was misappropriating the Promise to the Children rather than the Head of Household. Thank You for the clarification!

Kyle said...

Hi Sean,

Question of clarification.

I understand your point about the promise with reference to the household head, and yes, that does seem to be important. But are there any promises that are given to the Children of which their Baptism is a sign and seal?

When you say,

'baptism confirms our children’s interest in the promise that whoever believes in Jesus shall be saved (Acts 16:31)';

you seem to be speaking about our children's interest in the promise that Jesus saves anyone and everyone who has faith in him.' I have also heard it said that it confirms their interest in the promise that those who 'repent' and are 'baptized in the name of Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins', that those people are promised that they 'will receive the gift of the HS' (Acts 2:38-39). Grammatically, it is hard for me to read the referent of 'the promise' as anything other than the gift of the HS.

I guess the thing i don't understand,and have struggled with is that those promises are universal . They are for all who are far off (diaspora Jews?) 'for everyone the Lord our God calls to himself.'

I would think that if anyone doubts 'whether this promise was for them, they (and we) can say, “Yes, that promise is for you' and that we wouldn't need baptism to confirm this. God promises it to us in his word and he can't lie!

Perhaps, you wouldn't be one that points to Acts 2:38-39. Even still, the promise that anyone who believes in the Lord will be saved is surely universal. So why do we need baptism to 'confirm our children’s interest' in that promise? Or let's take it a different way: if the promise to which baptism points is universal, then why don't we baptize anyone who will let us?

I probably have somehow misunderstood you and am still confusing the promise to the head of household with the promise to the child. But if so, i could really benefit from someone laying out precisely how i am doing so.

Thanks ahead of time,


Sean Michael Lucas said...

Hi, Kyle:

Well, I would want to say that the sacraments don't hold out anything different than what the preaching of the Word does. And so, yes, the promise is the same promise that is freely offered to all (the baptized and the non-baptized) in the preaching of the word. That's what sacraments do--they confirm and assure our hearts by pointing to the promises contained in the Gospel Word.

I think the advantage to our covenant children in having received baptism is that God has granted them a sign and seal that serves to confirm and assure their hearts that the Gospel promises declared to them in the preaching of the Word of God is for them--and so, baptism is a sign that points them to Jesus and a seal to authenticate the promises of Jesus for them.

And that is why we are encouraged to improve our baptisms by clinging to the promises of the Gospel through a serious and thankful consideration of our baptism; being humbled for our sins; growing up to assurance of pardon of sin and other blessings; drawing strength from the death and resurrection of Jesus; and endeavoring to live by faith (LC167). Of course, all of these things also come through our being attentive to the preached Word. But God accomodates himself to our weakness by granting us this sacrament to assure our hearts concerning his gracious promises in his Word.

Acts 2 clearly fits in here--the Gospel promise that God will grant the Holy Spirit to those who repent and believe is signed and sealed in baptism to our children. It is one of the many benefits promised to our children receive when they trust in Jesus.

Hope that helps, sml

Charles Barrett said...

Thanks, this is a beautiful statement on the sacrament of baptism.