Opening Statement for my Debate With James White

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Resolved: Paedocommunion Consistently Expresses Christ’s Purposes in Giving Us the Sacraments

Thank you all for coming. It is great to be with you all. Thanks to NSA for the opportunity to discuss a topic that is more important than it appears. And special thanks to my friend James White for his willingness to maintain our friendship across the water that divides. While the issues being debated here are important, they are less important than the truths that we have the great privilege of defending together, shoulder to shoulder.

From the first time we met . . .

The topic of debate before us—resolved: that paedocommunion consistently expresses Christ’s purposes in giving us the sacraments—quite naturally reduces to the question of “what were Christ’s purposes in giving the sacraments anyway?” And that gives way to the question “what is a sacrament?”

With that acknowledged at the front end, I trust that we will be able to prevent this from turning into a debate about infant baptism simpliciter. We should be able to stay on topic.

The London Baptist Confession defines sacraments as “ordinances of positive and sovereign institution,” ordinances “appointed by the Lord Jesus” and to be continually observed to “the end of the world” (LBC 28.1).

But presumably a sacrament has more things to do than to just be observed. The Supper of the Lord is for a perpetual remembrance, showing the whole world the Lord’s sacrificial death, confirming the faith of believers, nourishing them spiritually, engaging them in their duties to the Lord, and serving as a bond and pledge of their communion with Him and with one another (LBC 30.1).

So far so good. The intent of this language overlaps a great deal with the language of the Westminster, which is of course a generation closer to the inspired autographs, but regardless, there is a great deal of substantive agreement.

The one place where the differences are manifest is where the WCF defines the sacraments as “holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace” (WCF 27.1). This could be taken as being pretty close to the LBC’s “bond and pledge,” but I believe there are other factors that exclude this. So, signs and seals.

And although this is not the subject of the debate, I do need to mention one thing near to the front end lest I provoke the bloodhounds of truth into treeing that federal vision racoon again.

“The grace which is exhibited in or by the sacraments, rightly used, is not conferred by any power in them; neither doth the efficacy of a sacrament depend upon the piety or intention of him that doth administer it, but upon the work of the Spirit, and the word of institution, which contains, together with a precept authorizing the use thereof, a promise of benefit to worthy receivers”

WCF 27.3

One hundred amens to that. And worthy receivers are those who hear the words of the gospel rightly, and who receive that message by faith alone.

So then, what is a sacrament? For Presbyterians, a sacrament is a sign, and it is a sign that seals what it signifies. The sacraments of the Christian religion are therefore those which signify and seal the covenant of grace. But because we are dealing with water and bread and wine, we then have to ask whether this covenant of grace has any concrete reality, any visible aspect, out in the material world—or is it simply a theological category synonymous with “the elect”?

Put another way, is the visible church in covenant with God?

Or how about this? Is there a visible administration of the covenant of grace? All faithful Westminster men are going to answer yes to this. And unless I am misunderstanding things badly, I don’t see how a Baptist could consistently answer the same way.

So in all these debates, in one way or another we are talking about the objectivity of the covenant. And by objectivity, I am talking about objectivity in the material, historical and visible world. If the invisible church is the only true church, then in this life no one can ever be sure whether or not he has ever even been to church.

But if the visible church is actually in covenant with God, then what is the name of that covenant? For Westminster Presbyterians, the visible church is an administration of the covenant of grace.

“This covenant of grace is frequently set forth in the scripture by the name of a Testament, in reference tothe death of Jesus Christ the testator, and to the everlasting inheritance, with all things belonging to it, therein bequeathed.”

WCF 7.4

But in the very next paragraph, while still speaking of this same covenant of grace, we are told that this covenant of grace has been administered in different ways throughout redemptive history.

This covenant was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the gospel.”

WCF 7.5

This covenant of grace, in other words, operates in this world.

In the Old Testament, the covenant of grace was visibly administered by visible sacrifices, visible festivals, visible circumcision, and so on. And in the time of the New Testament, this same covenant of grace has visible sacraments attending it, those sacraments being baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

“The sacraments of the old testament, in regard of the spiritual things thereby signified and exhibited, were, for substance, the same with those of the new.”

WCF 27.5

So the New Testament era did not usher in new sacramental realities—the people of God have always had the sacramental realities of initiation and nurture. What changed was the presentation of these visible signs, not the constant reality of the things signified by means of visible signs. According to the historic Reformed position, the glorious reality of the covenant of grace has always had a visible and historical administration. You can actually see the covenant of grace. Moreover, you can take pictures of it. You can’t see it entirely, or perfectly, but you can see it.

So this may be obvious by this point, but as I am seeking to address the question posed by our debate topic, I am wanting to emphasize this element of visibility. I am going to be pointing to what the Westminster says when it tells us that sacraments are given to us in order to “put a visible difference between those that belong unto the church, and the rest of the world” (WCF 27.1). This is why I believe that paedocommunion consistently expresses one of the reasons why we have the sacraments.

Now this passage from Westminster certainly tells us what the Presbyterians want, but the topic of debate this afternoon concerns what Christ wants. Right? After all, does not the debate topic (that James so foolishly agreed to) say “Christ’s purposes in giving us . . .” ?

So let’s go there now. Christ’s marching orders for the church include His intentions for the sacraments.

“Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.”

Matthew 28:19–20 (KJV)

Christ here says that all the ethnoi of the world are to be discipled. We do this by baptizing them, which is the first sacrament, and then by teaching obedience to everything Christ taught and instituted, which would include the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, which is the other sacrament.

Now in my previous interactions with Baptists, I have been most happy to grant that we should never pay any attention to “babies-of-the-Philippian-jailer” arguments. We don’t know whether there were any babies there, which means that when that particular household was baptized, we cannot say whether or not any babies at all were involved in it. We also don’t know whether or not the youngest child there was a fourteen-year-old girl.

But the situation is quite different when it comes to tribes or nations. A tribe is not a sexless sect, like the Shakers, but is an organic entity which is replenishing its ranks constantly by means of babies. The Philippian jailer may have been childless, but nations aren’t. Tribes are not. I cannot baptize the Zulu without involving babies, or the Navajo either for that matter.

But let us not get too distracted. If one of the purposes of a sacrament is to put a visible difference between the church and the world, then it would follow that when a tribe is baptized, then it is being visibly marked out as one of the tribes that is being taught Christian obedience, and which is submitting to that instruction.

Now when a nation or a tribe comes to Christ, the children come also. They are brought along. When a visible difference is placed between the now Christian Jutes and still heathen Frisians, it is a visible difference that includes the children. And I want to argue that it includes the children of necessity.

And when Christ comes to a nation or a tribe, to flip the image, He comes to the children as well as to their parents. We were told to disciple the whole tribe, to baptize the whole tribe, and to teach obedience to the whole tribe. Moreover, we were then told to move on to the next tribe until we got through all of them.

Please note that we were not told to go into every tribe and to extract enough people from it to keep a meeting house going. We are to plant churches, sure enough, but here is where we are getting down to the root issue. What is a church?

Is a church simply a religious club, a staging area for our imminent departures to Heaven? Is it a processing center for those who have decided to become émigrés out of their earthly tribe? If so, then our debates about the sacraments become debates over how most effectively to check the IDs of those who want to be processed out of here. We are clerks at the airport, checking passports.

But an alternative view is that each church is a different sort of staging area. Each church is a beachhead in enemy territory. The Great Commission tells us to disciple all the nations, but does not expect that this will be done instantaneously. There will be a gradual process, and individual churches planted in unbelieving cultures are the first stages of that process.

Moreover each church is to model for the larger society what things should look like when we get to the place Jesus instructed us to go. The marks of the sacraments place “a visible difference” between the members of this church and the world outside. When the world outside is brought to faith, the marks of the sacraments will place “a visible difference” between this tribe and the next tribe over.

One of the great failures of North American evangelicalism is this. We have not communicated a scriptural and covenantal identity to our children and grandchildren. We have not learned how to function as a people. There are millions of us, but we have all the structural solidity of a heap of sand.

So the sacramental markers ought not to be markers that set up the border signs between a fertile and fecund world and a childless and barren church. The church is not childless—she is the mother of us all (Gal. 4:26). The church is therefore modeling for the unconverted people what it looks like to be the people of God. The Philippian jailer may have been childless, but a people (laos) are not.

“And they sung a new song, saying, Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation.”

Rev. 5:9 (KJV)

“Which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God: which had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy.”

1 Pet. 2:10 (KJV)

“For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people.”

Heb. 8:10 (KJV)

And with this last citation, the book of Hebrews is quoting the prophet Jeremiah and his promise of a new covenant. As he does so, he is assuming that there really will be a visible difference between those who are in covenant with God and those who are not. And in this, he is quite explicit about who is included in all of this grace. All kinds are included, and we know this because of that glorious phrase—from the least to the greatest (Jer. 31:34).

That phrase, incidentally, from the least to the greatest, occurs five other times in Jeremiah, and a good argument could be made that infants are numbered among “the least” in all five instances (Jer. 6:13; 8:10; 42:1; 42:8; 44:12).

So who has a visible difference placed on him? Who is a beneficiary of this sacramental grace? The very least.