As it happens, Justin Taylor just posted on a similar topic. You can read his careful treatment here.
Yesterday, I compared the promises of God concerning our children to His promises to answer our prayers. I did not want to say that they are exactly parallel in every respect, but simply to illustrate how we can understand what appears to be a universal promise with non-universal fulfillment. My point there was that, whatever it is, it is not God’s problem.
One correspondent asks how my understanding of this comports with certain sub-promises of the covenant that are clearly general, and not universal. For example, God gave many promises concerning barrenness, poverty, and disease, and yet there were faithful covenant members (of whom the world was not worthy) who did not individually enjoy the blessings of those promises being fulfilled. So why do I take the promises concerning our children as head-for-head promises, and not as statistically relevant generalizations?
In the course of an infant baptism, why do I say “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”? Why do I not look at the hapless parents and say, “Good luck to you two. 23 Black it is.”? The second question I ask them is “Do you trust in God’s covenant promises in his/her behalf, and do you look in faith to the Lord Jesus Christ for his/her salvation, as you do for your own”? If I do not have warrant to ask them that question, and they do not have warrant to answer it affirmatively, then I most certainly do not have warrant to baptize anybody.
So why do I believe that these promises are set forth for Christian parents in such a way as to invite all Christian parents (as we say in logic, distributively) to believe the promises concerning their children? Before giving the reasons, let me distance myself from a robust liturgical faith in the promises and an anemic real-world timidity concerning them. That’s called outrunning your own headlights. If you’re doing that, you are driving way too fast, and you’re now in the dark.
Here are three basic reasons for linking a child’s salvation with his upbringing. But please remember, I am referring to an evangelical upbringing, full of grace and peace, one that places all parental labor on the foundation of faith and faith alone. I am perfectly aware that I am about to quote some verses from Proverbs that are applied by some in a manner that is every bit as wooden as the rod they are using. I am making no claims on behalf of angry and bitter disciplinarians who apply the rod rigorously to their children, but who defy the scourging that God applies to them (Heb. 12:5). In Proverbs, the rod can bring do two things. First, it can bring wisdom, and second, it can just clobber a fool. In family situations, when it is clobbering a fool, when it is simply a beat-down for a fool, this is generally because an older fool is wielding that rod.
So then, first, the Bible links a child’s upbringing with a child’s destination. “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6). “Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell” (Prov. 23:13-14). Even if it pointed out that the word for hell here is Sheol, the place of death, I would reply that it is still the soul that is delivered. Bottoms and souls and connected.
Second, when a child rebels or lapses into folly, the Bible acknowledges the reality of the responsibility that parents feel. The problem is not simply resolved into the secret decrees of God (Dt. 29:29). If poverty comes upon someone like an armed thug, we are not over-reaching if we think that hand-folding, sleeping and slumbering perhaps had something to do with it. In the same way, when a child grows up to be rebellious, the shame of it extends more broadly than his individual choices.
“The rod and reproof give wisdom: but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame” (Prov. 29:15).
If this kind of thing is simply the outworking of inscrutable election, then I can see why parents would feel sorrow. But the Bible says that the parents feel shame. Why?
“He that wasteth his father, and chaseth away his mother, is a son that causeth shame, and bringeth reproach” (Prov. 19:26).
When this happens, the task of pastoral counsel is not to eradicate that shame (which will be there), but to direct it away from false causes and toward the real ones, in order to receive the forgiveness of Christ. The fact that this is not the unforgiveable sin does not make it an ephemeral sin. Nothing is gained by piling on parents already grieving. Of course not. But nothing is gained by healing the wound lightly either. Real shame is there for a real reason, and we are not grappling with real world issues unless we meet it head on.
And third, the lives of ministers and elders are set before the people of God as an example (Heb. 13:7, 17). The saints are supposed to watch how things turn out, and one of the things they are supposed to watch is how the upbringing of the children turns out (1 Tim. 3:4-5; Tit. 1:6). We are taught that how the household is managed is a key indicator of how the church will be managed.
“Faithful children” in Titus 1:6 can be rendered that way, or also as “believing children.” I am content to see it rendered either way, because either way it amounts to the same thing. “Believing children” refers to the children explicitly coming to faith in Christ, which assumes that fathers have something to do with it. And “faithful children” refers to children who obey their father. But why would a faithful father not require his children to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ? If he does not, then why not? “But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD” (Josh. 24:15). And if he does, then how could “faithful children” disobey him at that point? To think that would put us in the odd position of saying that his children were faithful to him, except at those places where it was really, really important.
So, in conclusion, I am arguing for nothing more than what I say every time I baptize an infant. I am revealing nothing beyond the fact that when I administer those vows, I really mean it.