Taking the Bubble Wrap off True Faith

I am going to file this one under Auburn Avenue Stuff, even though it is part of my paedocommunion discussion with Lane. This is because in the second half I am going to address a few things that came up in the comments over at Green Baggins.

But first let me address Lane’s questions about paedocommunion. I think that Lane is right — there is a goodish bit of common ground here, more than we are used to. Lane is right that covenantal representation is big when it comes to the question of baptism. You could even say that this is one of the differences between presbies and baptists — all Christians of course believe in “covenant baptism,” but for the baptists the relationship is between the individual being baptized and the covenant itself, Christ Himself — that’s what makes it a covenant baptism. But for the presbie, other people are involved.

If I am going to baptize a baby who cannot speak for himself, then I have to have some sort of warrant to do so. There is no way to say that I am authorized to baptize this baby (but not that one) without appealing to the covenantal reality of that family’s place within the new covenant. So Lane and I agree there. But how could the covenant of the family be so essential in the administration of one sacrament, and non-existent in the other?

One commenter said that this kind of representational thinking in the Lord’s Supper amounted to Judaizing, which I cannot see. Might not be right, but if it isn’t, I don’t think it is that kind of error. If a small child is admitted to the Table, then he needs to be brought. And those who bring him need to have the authority to do so, being the same ones who brought him to his baptism. And those who receive him need to receive him on the basis of that authority. Appealing to that child’s baptism as the sole basis for admission to the Table just pushes the problem back a step, and by this time all our baptist friends are hooting and throwing popcorn. So what I am saying is that the organic structure of the biblical family is a new covenant reality. It is not the only reality, and I am not urging a patriarchy that trumps the new family that God has created in the Church. But it is very clear that the family household is not a new covenant nullity either.

Now this means that if a church existed where the small children were not coming to the Table, but everybody (including them) knew and understood that they were participating through the representation of their father, I would disagree with this, but would not believe that this practice would create the same “assurance of salvation” pathologies that are routinely created when children are excluded and not partakers of the Table at all, and they are excluded because the spiritual authorities are not yet adequately assured of their individual regeneration.

Lane says a couple of other things that I should comment on. “Nevertheless, we still have to stress repentance and faith for each person. What is required for being present at the Lord’s Table?” Well, first you have to be a nobody. The kids qualify — just like the rest of us! But that wasn’t Lane’s point. He wanted to know if I believe “faith is necessary for proper partaking of the Supper.” Absolutely. Anyone who comes to the Table without true faith is dishonoring it, and harming his own soul. The question here though is a little more subtle than that. Granted that true faith is necessary, how does this faith arrive? If it is genuine faith, how does it get here? One view says that it is shipped, and it arrives in a box. You open the box, take the bubble wrap off, and hold it up so the elders can see if it is the same kind they got. The other view of faith is that it grows. Timothy had the same faith that his mother and grandmother had (2 Tim. 1:5). Now, if true faith can grow from a seed, those guarding the Table must know what it looks like at every point along the continuum — first the blade, then the ear, then the full head. My toddler grandchildren coming to the Table have true faith — but it is blade faith. We’re not anywhere near done.

If you read down through the comments at Lane’s blog, you will see that the discussion got off on what “sign and seal” means. One commenter posted an outstanding quote from Bob Godfrey that I would like to begin with. Godfrey said this at a conference in 1997, back in the times when it was still possible for Reformed theologians to mention their Reformed theology in public.

“I am more and more convinced as the years go by that the genius of Reformed theology is the way in which it balances the issues related to regeneration with issues related to covenant—and that the danger that Reformed theology faces is that it can put to much stress on regeneration and undervalue to covenant, or, put to much stress upon the covenant and undervalue regeneration. And in a revivalist world that’s worried about formalism, Reformed theology, I think, tended to get skewed into thinking a great deal about regeneration and saying over and over again, ‘Our children are not automatically regenerated. We have to worry about the spiritual state of our children. We have to get them converted.’

Now let me be clear, our children need to be regenerated. And there is some legitimate concern that Christian parents should have about their children. . . those concerns need to be maintained. But I think they go too far when we conclude because we’re not sure that our children are regenerated, we must treat them as unregenerate, and strangers to the covenants of grace, until we’re sure they are regenerated. And I’ve known some very consistent Baptists, thankfully not many of them, who won’t let their children pray, who won’t let their children sing ‘Jesus loves me, this I know,’ not because they’re exclusive Psalm-singers, but because they don’t want their children involved in formalistic exercises that may not truly reflect the state of their heart.

Now the danger on the other side has sometimes been manifested in a hyper-covenantalism, occasionally occurring amongst the Dutch, but amongst Presbyterians too, where parents just blithely assume that because they’re their children they’ll be fine, they’ll grow up to be good Christians, and if they run amuck as teenagers, well, boys will be boys. That’s a very dangerous attitude. That’s a kind of hyper-covenantalism.

. . . But then, how are we to think about children? How are we to relate to children? And there, I think, baptism stands at the very heart and center of what the Lord is saying to us and how we ought to think. . . because baptism says, ‘I will be a God to you and to your children. You are in covenant with Me. I have made promises to you. . . and you don’t need to have any doubts about that.'”

You can’t hear me, because this is just an ordinary web site, but just imagine me singing a three-fold amen. I believe in the objective value of baptism, but hold that it is only a means of grace for those with true, living, evangelical faith — that being the only kind that God gives His elect. I reject the kind of ex opere operato efficacy that many of my adversaries reject, and I do so for the same reasons. No hyper-covenantalism for me. But I also reject the teaching of the wet dedication baptists. According to Westminster, baptism is a “sign and seal” not “sign or seal.” Signs signify. Seals do more than that. When we say that baptism is a sign and seal of the covenant, we are saying more than that baptism is a “sign and another kind of sign.” Of course, this sealing is for worthy receivers only, those who have lively, evangelical faith. Those who have the reality that is signified, and only those, also have that reality sealed. But it is sealed, according to Westminster, by the water of their baptism. The grace signified (sign) by their baptism is really exhibited and conferred (sealed) at God’s appointed time, in the power of the Spirit. This is not a place where I have to take an exception to Westminster. I would be happy to do so, and have taken an exception to the Westminster Confession at other places. But I don’t have to do so here. Their position is mine.

Is there an objective reality to baptism if we are talking about someone who is reprobate? Well, yes, it means something, and it obligates him to the kind of repentance and faith he is failing to exhibit. But this objective reality is not, at the final day, a gracious reality at all. The common operations of the Spirit within the covenant are like a ramped up common grace. Real gifts are given in the present, but because they are spurned, they grow into greater judgment.

The quote from Bob Godfrey above was posted in the comments section at Green Baggins by Jack Bradley. You could head over there now to hear him denounced for his “heresy,” but you will be disappointed. The only thing you will hear when you get there is crickets.

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