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Bennetts End Reformed Baptist Church in Hemel Hempstead | The Holy Bible and The TV Guide
Bennetts Baptist Church
 

The 'Covenant' Argument of J.G. Vos

by TE Watson


Extracted from the book "Should Babies be Baptised?"

by TE Watson, Grace Publications,1995)
 


A representative statement of a Reformed 'proof' of infant/baby baptism is to be found in the 1959 January-March issue of Blue Banner Faith and Life.* In an article written by the editor. Dr. J. G. Vos, who has kindly consented to quotations being taken there from. We shall quote Dr Vos at length in order that he might be allowed to speak for himself.
 

Dr. Vos begins:

Infant baptism is a Scriptural practice which does not depend upon isolated proof-texts'. It follows logically from other truths of the Scriptures; the proof may be stated, essentially, in the following form:

(a) Baptism is a sign and seal of the Covenant of Grace.

(b) The children of believers are included in the Covenant of Grace.

(c) Therefore the children of believers are entitled to baptism which is a sign and seal of the Covenant of Grace.'

The illogicality of this argument is easily demonstrated. In proposition (a) replace 'baptism' by 'the Lord's Supper', which, according to reformed teaching, is also a sign and seal of the Covenant of Grace. Inference (c) now reads: Therefore the children of believers are entitled to the Lord's Supper. In other words, this very argument justifies the practice of baby communion. But this Dr. Vos will not allow. So again it is a case of 'that argument which proves too much destroys itself.'

Let us examine propositions (a) and (b) and inference (c).

(a) Baptism is a sign and seal of the Covenant of Grace. Like the word Church, the term Covenant of Grace is capable of more than one meaning, and consequently requires precise definition. For, as Bishop Ryle remarks, 'the absence of accurate definition is the very life of religious controversy.'

Dr. Vos defines the Covenant of Grace as follows:

'Back in eternity God the Father entered into the Covenant of Grace with His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, the second Adam, as the representative of all the people whom God had elected to eternal life. John 17:2'

Two things are to be noted: the Covenant of Grace was made with the Son; the parties interested or concerned in the Covenant of Grace are the elect.

Baptism as a sign

What is meant by calling baptism a sign of the Covenant of Grace? There are two possible answers. First, baptism is a sign that God has made a covenant with his Son to save all the elect. Accordingly, baptism is the sign of an objective promise, and has no reference at all to the character and condition of the person baptised. If an objective promise is all that baptism signifies, it would seem very desirable to baptise indiscriminately with a view to proclaiming to all, that God has promised to save all the elect, i.e. all who believe in His Son.

The other meaning is that baptism is a sign that the person baptised is one of those in the Covenant of Grace, i.e. one of the elect unto salvation. This is to say that baptism is the sign of a subjective state. In this case, it follows that the sign is to be given to those who give reasonable evidence of having the thing signified, i.e. to those who give evidence of being elect. As William Cunningham writes:

'Signifying and sealing naturally suggests the idea, that the things signified and sealed not only exist, but are actually possessed by those to whom they are signified and sealed.' (The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation, p. 278.)

Hence, it must be shown from Scripture that the children of believers are in the Covenant of Grace, i.e. elect unto salvation, before baptism can be administered properly to them - assuming that baptism is a sign of the Covenant of Grace, which assertion requires proof.

Whether or not baptism is a sign of the Covenant of Grace, objectively or subjectively, it cannot be denied that baptism, in the words of Calvin, is 'partly an outward sign of faith'. But this is not the case when baptism is administered to babies, even to elect babies. In short, baptism loses part of its significance even if it is administered to babies as a sign of the Covenant of Grace.

Baptism as a seal

What is meant by calling baptism a seal of the Covenant of Grace? This likewise has two possible answers. First, baptism is a seal of the promise that God made with his Son to save all the elect. According to this view, baptism is a seal in general but not in particular; it vouches for God's promise of grace at large, but does not attest the personal salvation of the party baptised.

The other view is that baptism pledges, or guarantees that the person baptised is in the Covenant of Grace, i.e. is elect. This latter meaning obviously needs qualification which Dr. Vos quickly makes:
 

Dr. Vos says:


""Where baptism is rightly used, with faith in Christ, it serves as a 'seal' or divinely-given certificate of the benefits of Christ's redemption."

Thus, baptism is not a seal where there is no faith in Christ. Hence baptism is not a seal to a person baptised as a baby, but becomes so when the person believes. This means that baptism is not a seal in and of itself.

The fact that Dr. Vos has to make his qualification 'with faith in Christ' shows that baptism is not really a seal at all.

To illustrate our point, in Revelation 7:3 we read of 144,000 servants of God sealed in their foreheads. The seal was a mark by which they were distinguished from others (Revelation 9:4). Now does baptism infallibly distinguish Christians from others? Certainly not.

Therefore baptism is not a seal. If it be asked, 'What is the seal of the Covenant of Grace?' the answer is found by asking 'What is it that distinguishes Christians from others?' And what is that? The Holy Spirit (Romans 8:9) and hence the Holy Spirit is called a seal. See Ephesians 1:13; 4:30 also compare John 6:27.

It is not water but the Spirit which is the seal of the Covenant of Grace. If baptism were a seal of the Covenant of Grace in the subjective sense, then all who were baptised would be marked out as servants of God and would consequently be saved.

But, it will be said, "is not circumcision called a seal in Romans 4:11?" Indeed it is, but what did circumcision seal? Did it seal or guarantee that everyone circumcised was in the Covenant of Grace, i.e. elect unto salvation? Not at all, as the history of the Jews too clearly shows. Circumcision is called 'a seal of the righteousness of the faith' of Abraham, on which Professor John Murray comments:

'The seal is that which God himself appended to assure Abraham that the faith he exercised to God's promise was accepted by God.' (The Epistle to the Romans, vol.1, p.138.)

Circumcision was a seal to Abraham, it assured Abraham; it was not a seal to Abraham's posterity in the sense that it assured them that they personally had the righteousness of faith.

Circumcision did not guarantee the person circumcised that he was justified in the sight of God, though many of the Jews mistakenly believed this. And so we cannot agree with Dr. Vos that 'circumcision was a sign and seal of partaking of the benefits of the Covenant of Grace, under the Old Testament' (p.38).

However, we are willing to call circumcision a seal of the righteousness of faith, in the sense that circumcision guaranteed to all - women as well as men, Gentiles as well as Jews that God justifies those who believe his promises.

To call the covenant of circumcision (Acts 7:8) the Covenant of Grace is to confound and confuse things that differ.

The differences between the covenant of grace and the covenant of circumcision are as follows:


1. The covenant of grace was made with Christ, whereas the covenant of circumcision was made with Abraham;

2. The covenant of grace promised spiritual blessings to all believers, whereas the covenant of circumcision, whilst promising the blessing of justification by faith in the seed of Abraham, also promised certain material blessings to those descended from Abraham after the flesh, which blessings are not promised to all persons in the Covenant of Grace.

It is to be regretted that the practice of calling baptism a seal still continues, notwithstanding the confusion it has occasioned among great theologians and the delusion it has brought to multitudes of simple believers. The reason the practice continues is suggested by William Cunningham:

'The sacraments are not seals of spiritual blessings in any such sense as implies~. that they are attestations to the personal character or spiritual condition of those who receive them, or, that the mere reception of the sacraments is to be held as of itself furnishing a proof, or even a presumption, that those receiving them are true believers, and may be assured that they have reached a condition of safety. This is a point about which much ignorance and confusion prevail, and which it may be proper to explain somewhat fully.

It is the almost universal practice of divines to apply the word "seal" to the sacraments, and to call them "sealing ordinances". But what they usually mean by the application of this term to the sacraments, it is not easy to determine. Indeed, we can scarcely resist the impression, that many divines, in professing to explain the function or influence of the sacraments as seals, have recourse to what is a little better than an intentional ambiguity of language, as if they were anxious to insinuate, that there is something very important and mysterious in this sealing, while yet they carefully avoid giving any clear and definite explanation of what it means, as if from a lurking apprehension that the attempt to do so would make the whole mystery "evaporate in their hands." (British and Foreign Evangelical Review, 1860, p.932.)

Let us now examine Dr. Vos' second proposition:

(b) The children of believers are included in the Covenant of Grace.
 

This statement deserves the closest attention because, in the words of Dr. Vos,

"The real proof of infant baptism depends on the truth that the children of believers are included in the Covenant of Grace."

In support of his proposition he quotes Genesis 17:7-10; Acts 2:39; Malachi 2:15; 1 Corinthians 7:14. Now it will be seen that if these verses imply that some of the children of believers are in the Covenant of Grace, they imply that all are, without exception. In others words, all the children of believers are elect and will be saved. But this is contrary to experience, as Dr Vos acknowledges:

"It must be admitted that the fact that the children of believers are included in the Covenant of Grace does not imply that all children of believers, without exception, are elect persons who shall receive eternal life"

Thus, experience contradicts the supposed implications of the verses quoted. Furthermore, if the fact that children of believers are included in the Covenant of Grace does not imply that all children of believers are elect persons, it does not imply that any of them are.

Dr. Vos continues:

"All are born in the covenant but some turn out to be covenant-breakers and are eternally lost"

In other words, the Covenant of Grace is breakable. To us this sounds more like a Covenant of Works.

Dr. Vos is aware of this difficulty and proposes a further refinement or adjustment:

'There are two phases of the Covenant of Grace, (a) a legal or external phase, and (b) a vital or spiritual phase. We may think of these two phases as two circles, one within the other - an outer and an inner circle. Every child born of believing parents is in the outer circle, the legal or external sphere of the Covenant of Grace. But only those truly born again are in the inner circle, the vital or spiritual sphere of the Covenant of Grace. Some people born in the external sphere the outer circle, are non-elect persons and never come to Christ Everyone that is of the elect will, at some time in his life come into the inner circle, the vital or spiritual sphere

Outer circle, inner circle, vital sphere, external sphere. We are beginning to get dizzy. Moreover we are not sure if we are in two dimensions or three. If we find this so hard to follow, we pity the new convert from paganism.

The next thing for us to understand is, What is meant by saying that "the children of believers are included in the Covenant of Grace"

Dr. Vos writes 

'It means:-

(a) That all children of believers are born in the external sphere of the Covenant of Grace

(b) That the covenant privileges belong to them by birth

(c) That the covenant obligations rest upon them from infancy

(d) That it must be assumed that they are elect and regenerate (in the absence of evidence which would lead to the contrary conclusion)
 


As to (a), these words do not provide much light, for what is this external sphere? The concept of the external sphere of the Covenant of Grace is practically the same as that of sacramental regeneration, concerning which Bishop Ryle writes:

'A regeneration which only means admission into a state of ecclesiastical privilege may be ancient and primitive for anything I know. But something more than this is needed. A few plain texts of Scripture are needed; and these have yet to be found. Such a notion of regeneration ... renders it necessary to invent the awkward theory that there are two regenerations, and is thus eminently calculated to confuse the minds of unlearned people, and introduce false doctrine.' (Knots Untied, p.116.)

The corresponding theory that there are two spheres of the Covenant of Grace is equally unscriptural, awkward, and calculated to confuse.

As to (b), what are these covenant privileges? Obviously the children of Christians have many advantages over children born in a non-Christian home. These advantages could be called privileges, but not in the sense that they are the special and exclusive possession of the children of believers. Children with Christian foster parents (though the children of unbelievers), children in Christian orphanages, and even children from pagan homes who attend Sunday School, and Weeknight Youth Meetings (assuming these are spiritual), share these privileges to some extent.

As to (c), what are these covenant obligations? Are they not repentance and faith? And are they not binding on all who hear the Gospel, not just the children of the covenant?

As to (d), what ground have we for assuming our children are elect? Which Scripture supports such an assumption? The texts quoted above prove, according to Dr. Vos' interpretation, that all the children of believers are in the Covenant of Grace. If these texts mean, as Dr. Vos thinks, that all children of believers are in the external sphere of the covenant, which texts promise that all, or indeed any, of them will necessarily pass into the inner sphere'? There are cases - it is true, they are exceptional - where none of the children come into the inner sphere. What of the covenant in these cases? Besides assuming them to be elect, Dr. Vos tells us to assume they are regenerate. Can someone be regenerate and not show it? Not according to Professor John Murray. (See Redemption Accomplished and Applied, p. 103f. or 127f.)

Not according to J. C Ryle: 'Many divines maintain that we may call people regenerate' in whom none of the marks just described are seen, or even were seen since they were born. They tell us, in short, that people may possess the gift of the Spirit, and the grace of Regeneration when neither the gift nor the grace can be seen. Such a doctrine appears to me dangerous in the highest degree.' ("Knots Untied", p.132.)

It certainly is, as every pastor of souls knows. Too many parents presume their children are Christians, treat them as such, and find to their horror, perhaps when they leave home, that they are anything but Christians. It is much safer for parents to assume they are children of the flesh (which they are!) until they are born of the Spirit. Let us account them regenerate when we see them converted.

In the words of William Cunningham:

'"Nothing should ever be regarded as furnishing evidence of regeneration, except the appropriate proofs of an actual renovation of the moral nature, exhibited in each case individually; and that, until these proofs appear, every one, whether baptised or not, should be treated and dealt with in all respects as if he were unregenerate, and still needed to be born again of the word of God through the belief of the truth." (The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation, p.291.)

To return to (b) As far as we can understand, the great covenant privilege supposed to belong to children of believers is that if they die in infancy or before coming to the years of discretion, they are certainly saved.

On this Dr. Vos writes:

'"We should not entertain the slightest doubt that all covenant children which die before reaching years of discretion are of the elect and are saved by the mysterious operation of the Holy Spirit."

His argument to support this is as follows:

'"God's covenant established with Abraham (Genesis 17:1-14) proves that every child of believing parents is born within the Covenant of Grace. It is true that some of the children of believing parents are not of the elect, and turn out to the covenant-breakers. But a baby that dies before reaching the years of discretion cannot be a covenant-breaker; it cannot despise and violate the obligation of the Covenant of Grace. Therefore we have the best reasons for believing that all children of believing parents dying in infancy are not only in the Covenant of Grace, but also of the number of the elect and shall certainly be saved.'

It seems that all this talk about covenant privileges culminates in this comfort, a comfort for the bereaved Christian parents long to have, a comfort, which their pastor longs to give.

But Dr. Vos' comforting words are not derived from his doctrine of the covenant. Experience teaches us that if our children attain the age of accountability, it is possible that one or more of them may not believe unto salvation. Consequently it is natural to wonder if one or more of those children dying in infancy are elect or not. There is nothing in the covenant doctrine to dispel this doubt.

And what of non-covenant children dying in infancy? Are they saved? Most Reformed theologians think so. If so how? Do they pass into the inner sphere without going through the outer sphere? Concerning the salvation of babies we are inclined to say concerning all babies what Dr. Vos confines to non-covenant children:

'Since the Bible says nothing on this subject, nothing can be proved concerning it, one way or the other. We must respect the silences of Scripture. This is a question that may safely be left to the justice and mercy of God.'

We now turn to consider Dr. Vos' inference (c) from the propositions (a) and (b).

(c) Therefore the children of believers are entitled to baptism, which is a sign and seal of the Covenant of Grace. We have already noticed that Dr. Vos denies the parallel inference namely, that the children of believers are entitled to the Lord's Supper.

If for argument's sake we grant propositions (a) and (b) we will now show that inference (c) does not necessarily follow.

Let us consider an example in the Old Testament. It will not be denied that the Jewish females had as great a part and interest in the covenant made with Abraham, as had the males. Here then we have a case of persons in covenant who are yet without the sign of the covenant, circumcision. To answer an obvious objection, it should be remembered that a certain kind of circumcision was given to females by the Egyptians, and a similar practice could easily have prevailed among the Jews. Now the reason the Jewish males were circumcised was not that they were in covenant with God - the females were equally so but because God ordered the males to be circumcised. Had it so pleased him, he need never have given any sign at all, in which case both males and females would have been in covenant with him without having any sign to that effect.

Thus, people may be in covenant who are without the sign of the covenant, and the sole reason for giving all or some the sign of the covenant is the commandment of God. It follows that even if the children of believers were in some special covenant relationship, this of itself does not entitle them to the sign of the Covenant. The sign is to be given just as the Lord commands perhaps to the males only, perhaps to the females, perhaps to both, perhaps to neither. In previous chapters we have seen that the Lord has not commanded that babies should be baptised, whether male or female so that Christians are no more required to baptise their babies than the Jews are required to circumcise their females.

In conclusion, the words of J. C. Ryle concerning the idea of two regenerations are very applicable to the theory of two phases of the Covenant of Grace;

'I say unhesitatingly, that those who hold the view that there are two regenerations, can bring forward no plain text in proof of it. I firmly believe that no plain reader of the Bible only would ever find this view there for himself; and that goes very far to make me suspect it is an idea of man's invention.' (Knots Untied, p.117.)

 

 
     

 

 

 

 

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