A Lesson in History: the Baptism of '44
A Lesson in History: the Baptism of ’44 - 1
It’s standard fair amongst us: God claims for Himself the children He gives to believers. That statement leaves no doubt about the identity of your children and mine: in as much as we are believers, our children belong to God, are His possessions. So our children have a Father in heaven who cares for them even in infancy, have a God who forgives their childish sins, a God who renews them. Even death cannot take them from their Father’s hands; if it should happen that the Lord would take one of our children out of this life, we as parents would have no reason to doubt our children’s destination. Yes, this is comfort.
There was a time not so long ago, though, when precisely this comfort was denied to parents. Some 65 years ago the Second World War was ravaging Europe, including the Netherlands where so many of our parents and grandparents then lived. As wars go, our grandparents’ saw their families threatened by shrapnel and sniper fire and bombs and famine. Particularly the famine affected the vulnerable, including the children, with as result that our ancestors brought infants to the baptism font in church, only to bury numerous of them within a year or two.1 That made the question very real to our parents and grandparents: were these children God’s children or not, and hence saved or not?
We would say today: of course those children belong to God; after all, God claims for Himself those children whom He sovereignly gives to believers. The thing was, though, that in the decades before the War broke out, there was quite some discussion in the Dutch churches about the identity of the children of believers. There were those who insisted that Yes, children of believers belong to God; when they die they go to heaven.2 Others were equally insistent that No, children of believers do not all necessarily belong to God, do not all necessarily go to heaven when they die.3 The opposition came largely from the disciples of Abraham Kuyper, who contrasted covenant with election.
Internal & External
The discussions came to a head when the churches met in Synod. In 1943, just as the war was most difficult, the Synod ruled on the place of children in the covenant, and stated that all children of believers were not necessarily truly God’s children. That statement of the Synod put our grandparents in limbo; could they then not believe that their youngsters, if they should die in the war, would go to heaven? So it was that our forbears had specific reason to weigh up carefully what the synod said.
What it was that the Synod said? The learned brethren at that Synod divided the covenant into two parts, said at bottom that there were two covenants. They spoke, then, of an internal covenant and an external covenant. What they meant by these phrases was this: the covenant (that’s God’s bond of love with sinners), said they, could truly be made with you, and if that was the case then you were in the covenant, internal. It could also happen that the covenant was not truly made with you, that it only looked like the real thing, and in that case you were out of the covenant, external.
Now, where did this distinction come from? It must be said first that throughout the centuries of church history this distinction of internal and external covenant had been made more often4; the brothers of the Synod of 1943 did not think that they presented anything new. But then again, there isn’t anything new under the sun, not in heresies either, and so one is bound to look at Scripture: what has God revealed, what has God told His people to believe?
The brothers of that Synod considered that they had Scriptural bases for their teaching. They read in the Bible, for example, that God had made His covenant with Abraham and his seed, including, therefore, both Jacob and Esau. They knew further from Scriptures that Jacob later in life believed the gospel and went to heaven when he died, while Esau later in life did not believe the gospel and upon death went to hell. And does Paul not say in Romans 9 that “they are not all Israel who are of Israel”? (vs 6). So the brothers at this Synod concluded: Esau was not truly of the covenant, God had never truly made His covenant with this grandson of Abraham, never really established with him His bond of love. O true, Synod went on to say: while Jacob and Esau were babies, toddlers, youngsters, you could not notice that one was not really in the covenant while the other was. That didn’t become apparent until later in life, when faith was obviously present with Jacob and absent with Esau. Well, they said, there you have it: internal covenant and external covenant, complete with Scriptural grounds.
Then the brothers of this Synod went a step further. For: if you can’t know until later in life whether your child belongs to the internal covenant or to the external covenant, if you can’t really know whether your new-born baby truly belongs to God or not, why in the world should you bother with baptism?? The answer Synod gave was this: you should assume that your new baby is truly a child of God, you should assume that your baby belongs to the internal covenant, that God loves your child. Then they worked out a whole theory surrounding regeneration, about how you as parents should presume that God has already planted the seed of faith in your child’s heart so that in fact your baby is already regenerated and that seed of faith will later in life grow into living faith so that your child actually believes the gospel. And on the basis of this assumption – the assumption that the seed of faith is already in your child’s heart, the assumption that your child is a Jacob and not an Esau, the assumption that your child belongs to God and not to Satan – on the basis of those assumptions, said the Synod, you should bring your child to the baptism font to receive the sign and seal of the covenant. This teaching came to be known as “presumptive regeneration”.
But think about it now: as hunger lurked at the door of your grandparents’ house, and as shrapnel and sniper fire and bombs and the other horrors of war threatened the home, what comfort did the teachings of the church leaders in the synod of 1943 give? As your grandparents had to bury the infant who fell victim to the ravages of war, what comfort was there in the assumption that this little Johnny was in the internal covenant, in the assumption that this little child belonged to God and not to Satan? We understand: in assumptions there is no comfort.
Small wonder, then, that our parents and grandparents had to look into the Scriptures themselves to see whether this teaching as presented by Synod 1943 was in fact true. And what did they find in Scripture? The Lord willing, we’ll look at that next time.
A Lesson in History: the Baptism of ’44 - 2
The war in which our parents and grandparents were embroiled 60 years ago, we learned last time, placed specific and sensitive questions on their table. As their little ones fell victim to the ravages of war, could our parents and grandparents be sure of their salvation? Were these little ones truly God’s children or not? Synod’s answer gave but cold comfort.
Teaching of Scripture
So our fathers turned to Scripture to glean from there its comforting teaching. They read Genesis 17, where God spoke to Abraham of His decision to establish His covenant with the man Abraham and with His offspring. Vs 7: “And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations..., to be God to you and your descendants after you.” Our fathers noticed: God mentions no assumptions here, no maybes or ifs. God’s covenant is established not with some descendants but with all. And it’s not different kinds of covenants that God makes with different children of Abraham; rather, “I establish My covenant (there is only one) between Me and you and your descendants (all of them, not some only)..., to be God to you and (all) your descendants after you.” That text already gave the lie to the comfortless teaching of the Synod of 1943.
But our grandparents knew of more texts in Scripture. Peter on the day of Pentecost reminded the people of Israel of the promise of the covenant mentioned in Gen 17. Said Peter: “For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off...” (Acts 2:39). Here too, our parents noticed, are no assumptions, no maybes. The promise of the covenant belongs not just to some children of believers, but to all. They read also what Paul wrote to the Corinthians, that church of Greeks where many families had but one believing parent (for the other had not (yet) come to faith). Despite the tension that may result in marriage from one person becoming a believer, Paul was insistent that the Christian partner should not move out or divorce the unbelieving partner. For, says Paul: “...the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy” (I Cor 7:14). You hear that: “Now they are holy.” Paul does not say that the children of a believing parent are assumed to be holy; rather, the apostle is moved by God’s Holy Spirit to be categorical: the children of a believing parent are holy. And what does it mean to be holy? To be holy means that there is a relation to God, that one is claimed by God to be His.5
Teaching of the Church
These texts on which the fathers built their opposition to the teaching of the Synod: what did it all come down to? To say it with the words of the Catechism: “infants as well as adults belong to God’s covenant and congregation” (Lord’s Day 27). They belong, for God’s covenant is fully for adults and for children, for believers and for their seed. So: “through Christ’s blood the redemption from sin and the Holy Spirit ... are promised to [infants] no less than to adults.” Whatever comfort there is in the fact that we adults are baptized into the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is as real and true for our children also. Children are part of God’s covenant, fully and truly, with all the rights and privileges attached thereto, are part of that covenant without assumptions, and they should be baptized not on the assumption that they belong, not on the assumption that God is their Father who cares for them and that the Son has washed their sins away and that the Holy Spirit lives in their hearts, but baptized rather because they do belong, they have a Father, Christ is their Saviour, the Holy Spirit is their Renewer. It’s what the Form for the Baptism of Infants says, pg 585:
“Although our children do not understand all this, we may not therefore exclude them from baptism. Just as they share without their knowledge in the condemnation of Adam, so are they, without their knowledge, received into grace in Christ. For the Lord spoke to Abraham, the father of all believers, and thus also speaks to us and our children, saying, I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you. Peter also testifies to this when he says, For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far of, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to Him. Therefore in the old dispensation God commanded that infants be circumcised. This circumcision was a seal of the covenant and of the righteousness of faith. Christ also took them in His arms and blessed them, laying His hands upon them. In the new dispensation baptism has replaced circumcision. Therefore, infants must be baptized as heirs of the kingdom of God and of His covenant; and as they grow up, their parents have the duty to instruct them in these things.”
Notice: here is no doubt, no assumptions, no mention of an internal and an external covenant; here is only certainty: “they are, without their knowledge, received into grace in Christ”; infants are “heirs of the kingdom of God and of His covenant.” That is the glorious teaching of Scripture about the children God gives to believing parents!
And exactly because their children belonged, exactly because God had claimed our grandparents’ children to be His children, did our grandparents not have to be concerned about whether God cared for their little ones in the course of the years of the war, nor about where their little ones went when God took them from this life. As God’s children, their little ones were safe with God the Father, safe both in this life and in the life to come. And this wealth which our grandparents recovered again from Scripture was not something new; it was exactly what their fathers’ generations before them had confessed. I think of the Canons of Dort, I.17:
“We must judge concerning the will of God from His Word, which declares that the children of believers are holy, not by nature but in virtue of the covenant of grace, in which they are included with their parents. Therefore, God-fearing parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom God calls out of this life in their infancy.”
The Problem at Synod
It makes one wonder: if the material of Scripture and confession is so clear and is so rich, why could the brothers of that Synod in 1943 not see the point? That blindness was due to the fact that they did not dare to take God’s Word at face value. Though that statement may sound bold, that is nevertheless where things were at. These fathers of the Synod had learned to look within oneself to find certainty about whether or not one was a child of God; they’d grown up with that.6 So when the issue of the place of children in the covenant came to a head during the war, these fathers at the Synod taught parents to find proof that their children belonged to God not in God’s Word but rather in the child itself: was there faith in the child? And because the parents couldn’t find evidence of faith until their child was mature, they had to assume faith was there, assume their child belonged to God....
But that, dear reader, is the key point: what is the proof that one’s child belongs to God? Does the proof lie in your child or in God? Of course, the proof lies in the God who claimed your child for Himself. How do you know He claimed your child? Because He said in His word – we looked at the texts already – that He establishes His covenant with believers and their seed. And you are a believer, is it not? That is: you take God’s Word at face value, do you not?
Think back to Abraham. When God said to Abraham that He made His covenant with all Abraham’s descendants, was Abraham to take that promise as it stood? Or was he to doubt it until confirmation arose in the course of years when his offspring showed they were believers – and only then conclude that God had spoken the truth, yes, these descendants turned out to be children of God after all? That’s the fine point of it all: can you take God’s Word at face value? Our parents, by the grace of God, in the concrete circumstances in which they found themselves in the Second World War, answered that question positively; they said Yes, you can take God’s Word at face value, and therefore we believe that our little children belong to God, are safe in Father’s mighty hands even as the war rages outside, that our little children have their sins washed away, have the assurance of God’s Holy Spirit that He dwells in them. They took God’s word at face value, and so embraced God’s promises gladly and were comforted in their distresses and refused to let the Synod take this comfort from them. So, when the Synod nevertheless tried to rob them of the comfort that belongs to taking God’s word at face value and insisted that all parents had to confess that their infants were only assumed to be sanctified in Christ, our fathers liberated themselves from the errors of the synod and its lordship. Behold there the Liberation of 1944.
A Lesson in History: the Baptism of ’44 - 3
The fathers during the war had to confront very directly and personally the sensitive question about their children’s identity. Did these little truly belong to God, or not really? While the Synod gave a comfortless answer, the fathers found in Scripture a doctrine of greatest comfort: God claims for Himself the children He entrusts to believing parents.
This glorious teaching of Scripture has a consequence. Though covenant children are rich, much richer than the richest neighbor on the street, they do not automatically know this glorious fact. In the words of the Form for Baptism: “our children do not understand all this.” Hence the obligation God lays on parents: “as [the children] grow up, their parents have the duty to instruct them in these things.”
Instruct them in these things. Parents are the means God is pleased to use to teach His children of their royal identity and its wonderful implications. Deuteronomy 6: God tells the parents of Israel to teach His words diligently to the children; you “shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up” (vs 6f). God wanted those children to know that in heaven they had a gracious Father for Christ’s sake who provided them with all good and averted all evil or turned it to their benefit, and parents had to tell them. God wanted those children to know that they had a Savior in God’s Son who washed their sins away and made them righteous before God, and parents had to tell them. God wanted those children to know that the Holy Spirit dwelt in their midst, renewed them and on the last day would perfect them, and parents had to tell them. All the commandments contained in the books of Moses taught Israel that wealth, and this is the treasure the parents were to pass on to their children as they did the dishes and chatted at bedtime. Their identity demanded God-centered training!
Over the years that followed nothing on this point has changed. God still makes His covenant with believers and the children He entrusts to them. God still is pleased to use the parents to instruct His children of their glorious identity. So we today have a wonderful –and at the same time awesome – duty of impressing on our children what their glorious identity really is.
To do that we ourselves need first to believe that our children are God’s children, that our children have a fundamentally different identity than do the children across the street. Let’s face it: if I as a parent do not believe that my children are different, different because they belong not to Satan but to God, why should I bother raising my children differently than the neighbor does? Here, then, we are at heart confronted today with the same question our grandparents faced years ago: do we accept God’s Word at face value or not? He said our children are His; do we believe it or do we not? If we accept that word, we have no choice but to impress on our children that they are different, have another Father than do the other children on the street, and therefore other comfort and purpose in life and ways of living.
We understand: our faith on the point results in concrete action. To embrace what the Lord has told us – and our parents rediscovered – means in practice that we talk with our children at the table and the kitchen sink, on the beach and in the garden about their privileged identity. To embrace in faith what the Lord has revealed means in practice that we ensure that the influences that mold our children’s attitudes and character agree with their identity as God’s children. To embrace God’s revelation means in practice that at home and at school, in extra-curricular activities and through friends we see to it that our children receive different instruction than other children receive, that we pump different values into our children than other children receive, that we expect different responses from them than what other children can get away with. In a word: we impress upon them, through word and deed, that they are different, “distinguished from the children of unbelievers” – as our Catechism has it in Lord’s Day 27.74.
That implication gives us something to think about. We take God’s promises seriously, and so in the home we teach the children God’s revelation in Scripture. More, we send our children to reformed school, to church and to catechism, and so on. And all of that is wonderful and the way it’s supposed to be.
But look around you now. What else do we do? We allow children to talk with the same tone of disrespect to authority as the neighbors’ children, allow our children to go to the same sports events which the world around us idolizes, watch the same programs on TV, play the same computer games, appreciate the same music, dress as the world does….
That is distressing. For when we as parents permit these things, we teach our children that they are different from the world only in degrees, only on the surface or only on Sunday; underneath they can still appreciate the humor of the world, the attitudes of the world, the values of the world, etc, and so still belong to this world. But such a message is not in agreement with God’s declaration at baptism that these children belong to Him. They are different, they are enormously rich in God through Christ, and in no way are we older generation allowed to let the younger generation understand that this difference is only in degrees. Rather, we need to put into radical practice what we learn from Scripture and believe by God’s grace about the special identity of the children God has entrusted to us. By the grace of God we believe God’s promises about our children, and so in His strength we need to treat them as very special, and so distinguish them clearly and completely from the children of unbelievers.
It’s by so doing that we demonstrate that we’ve understood the lesson God taught us in the Liberation of 6 decades ago, and understood too the riches of His promises to us.
1 See J Kamphuis, Een Eeuwig Verbond (Haarlem: Vijlbrief, 1984), pg 95.
2 cf Kamphuis, pg 35ff. He mentions JC Sikkel, SG deGraaf, A Janse, K Schilder, all of who insisted that the congregation must be seen as a covenant people.
3 cf page 43ff.
4 Kamphuis, pg 21ff. Also, and especially, pg 99.
5 cf Kamphuis, pg 91, where Kamphuis quotes an exegesis offered by Prof Greijdanus when he discussed Ephesians in class.
6 cf Kamphuis, 27ff.