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.
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…