A Covenant of Grace

Sunday is a a big and precious day for our family. At church we are not only becoming members at Trinitas Presbyterian Church but we're also baptizing our kids, Roger (just turned 4) and Juliet (2 1/2 in a few weeks). Neither professes faith.

My people <3

Had you told me even 18 months ago that I would become a Presbyterian or baptize my kids? Yah, no. Three, five, ten years ago? I would not have believed you. Go back 15 years and I would likely be sad that, if it were a future I could not alter in any way, you were telling me I was going to grow up and fall away.

Yet here we are. It's been such a beautiful journey. Our biggest resistance to attending Trinitas when we were in the process of planning our departure of Mars Hill this time last year was paedobaptism, or baptizing unprofessing infants and children. Or, basically, not someone who is openly able to say they believe Jesus died for their sins. Many conversations went something like, "Well, ok. Sure. It sounds like a really gracious community with a pastor pastor, a guy who genuinely shepherds his people. So say we do end up there, can we really join if we don't agree with sprinkling our kids? Or attend in good conscience if we disagree on such a big issue?" [Note: Paedobaptism does not necessarily involve sprinkling - in our church baptism is performed on both children and adults with sizeable handfuls of water being dumped on the head.]

Welp, we've come along. But this is why: we stopped trying to figure out how to make disproving credo, or professing believer's; by "creed"of confession, baptism the point. We quit trying to determine if we were wrong or if our beliefs hold up. Instead, we studied what paedobaptists believe and why, studied scripture after scripture on the subject, and it just wrecked our previously held beliefs.

See, we were taught that you get baptized as an adult / "old enough" person because you have to "believe in your heart and confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and you will be saved" (the profession part; the ESV is slightly different than what I memorized as a teen). Once you are saved, you get baptized after because you are telling the world, "I'm different. I belong to Jesus now."

That was exactly why I was baptized. And it was this huge thing, coming from a non-Christian family, because the reason God saved me, everyone said, was because that was what he needed to do to save the rest of my family. So there was all this pressure to perform, to prove to my family that I was different and better now, and they could be, too. And I will tell you right now that the SINGLE biggest cause of damage in my family relationships was me having all these new Christian rules that my family could never keep. And I just had this air of "I'm better than you, but you could come join me and not be so disgusting to God." I mean, I didn't see it that way, but I know that's how it felt to them. And I just put so much pressure on them to be like me--come to church! Come see me baptized, so my profession of faith will change you! I'm not that same 16-18 year old girl, but man alive, I regret so much about her in that regard.

Everything is changed now. Because after reading a lot of scripture, and a lot of books, the Lord revealed the most beautiful thing to us: baptism is God saying, "This one is mine." See, we had never heard of covenant theology. Not in a meaningful way, not in a New-Testament-gloriously-connected-to-the-Old-Testament way.

See, in the Old Testament, God chose his people. He chose Abraham by nothing of Abraham's doing, and the primary way to be in the covenanted people of Israel was to be born into it. It was to circumcise the sons and to raise them and daughters alike to know and love their God. The thing is, none of these kids did anything but be raised by Hebrew parents. And when new people, say Rahab, joined in, it seems like her choice but she didn't seek out God. The two spies found her and she, by grace, was able to see these people represented the one true God and she helped save their people, now her people.

In this covenant vein, to be in the people of Israel, by birth or grafting in, wasn't salvific. People could rebel and turn away. It could become clear that what seemed like a lifelong thing, or a parental hope that children will remain in the Lord, might not end up that way. Though sometimes people seem to be gone and then come home. Either way, the covenant is about the character of God wooing his people to himself.  Circumcision did not guarantee salvation; it was simply a sign of God declaring a people as his own.

Likewise, then, we see baptism as thus in the NT. Christian parents, brought into the New Covenant with Jesus, are acting on faith that because the Lord has called us and made us his own he will also do the same in our children. It is not guaranteed that they'll remain in the faith, but it is our hope. The Old Covenant is mirrored in the new, and as circumcision mirrors baptism then we have no reason to believe that the image shifts to, "But only when that child is old enough to receive it by professing their faith." Every covenant God ever made with his people included children, and nowhere does Scripture deviate from this pattern.

So here is the thing: I was always taught that, oh, no, baptism isn't salvific. A baptized person is no more guaranteed inscription of their name into the Book of Life than is an unbaptized one. Yet it was only for the assuredly saved, those who can answer the questions right. But even many adults profess Christianity and get baptized but seem to fall away.

Likewise, if we can be really real, how many four or five or seven or nine year olds are going to say, "This thing my parents teach me, that this perfect Jesus forgives me of every bad thing I ever did so I don't painfully burn for eternity? Nah, I utterly reject that." But how realistic is it that they absolutely understand what they are doing so much that it's now on them to withstand the test of time of their confession? You see some people in credobaptist tradition, getting baptized as a child or teenager, who go on to detest all things Christian. Some return, and people say, "See! It was real!" Others run and never come back. So then the pressure is on what that 6 year old kid believed. It's on how well the adults in the child's life interpreted the child's understanding to determine if they "should" have been baptized. And then you get adults baptized as "believing" children who experienced life and sin and constantly question if they need to be re-baptized because they know they really believe it now.

Goodness. What a lot of pressure. There isn't a single thing I thought as a child nor teen by which I would want you to judge my existence. But see, the "No, it's not salvific!" breaks down, because the idea is that you can only be baptized if you are saved or at least think you are. And the proof of that is on the decision making and understanding of the child.

My husband wrote this in his notes (it's not entirely structured prose, just connected thoughts) that he prepared as he was laying out his convictions from reading a bunch of books and chapters of books, and such:

"Just as covenant breakers could be ultimately excluded from the old covenant, so goes the new one. And at the end of the day, we don’t know who is truly saved, we just go with what we see, and God never commands us to do it any differently. In fact, he specifically commands us NOT to intentionally seek out false brothers (Matt. 13:24-30). Visible v. Invisible church distinction. Mode of baptism doesn’t get us out of this tension: recipients of believers baptism can fall away just as easy as someone baptized as an infant could."

Don't you love that? I do! The Bible pretty clearly warns us that God knows who is actually his or not, and we aren't meant to go around focusing on everyone else and who is real or not. It's one baptism, one time of God's declaration of, "This one is mine," with no need to baptize and rebaptize (Note: even most paedobaptist churches distinguish the branches of Catholic and some protestant denominations who believe that sprinkling an infant literally obliges God to take that child to heaven no matter what. This type of paedobaptism does not represent covenant theology, because the focus is on the "work" of the human and not the work of the Lord). And baptizing of babies doesn't mean anything other than, as I said, "God has claimed us and we are trusting the Lord for his claim on our children right now, done through his claim on us, to ultimately result in them finishing life with the gracious gift of faith in Christ." But we're to presume that those who claim the Lord are actually his, as opposed to taking everyone who says they love the Lord and then just sifting them apart to figure out if it's real.

Goodness. Couldn't the church use a dose of that? I mean, really. Trusting in the sovereign grace of God to sustain broken sinners, instead of everyone trying to keep it together and earn their way to stay in? With the subsequent result of nitpicking everyone around them apart? No, no, no, no, no. NOTHING to do with our Lord, who bled and died for us so we could rest in his life lived on our behalf.

Now I'm not saying you have to share our newfound views on baptism to actually be in a culture of grace. No! I'm simply saying that we don't get to write off paedobaptists as sinfully rebelling against God's word. In fact, in one book exploring different views on baptism, a theologian we generally respect said, in sum, "Though I respect many of my Christian brothers who understand baptism differently, I believe that based on my understanding of the Great Commission [go baptize people who believe on Christ as Lord] paedobaptists are walking in disobedience to the Lord." Ouch. This is the exact attitude we do NOT have about our credobaptist friends and family. But there are very solid Biblical accounts for understanding the scriptural basis for paedobaptism, and we share a few helpful books at the end of this post.

We are not here to say that this is what every true believer needs to do. It's simply how the Lord has convicted us in his word, and we can graciously agree to disagree with friends who think it's not Biblical. We would simply ask that you know about what you're arguing; we don't believe this makes our kids saved. We just believe that when they do profess faith later it's the fulfillment of this sign. It's that God chose to bless our kids with the Gospel through us, which led to their belief. Again, not because of us or their baptism, but God's grace of claiming them being acted out in faith by us in choosing baptism and then God working it out in leading us by the grace-gift of faith. This faith plays out in how we raise them, teaching them about the Lord, his character, and how willingly he gives himself to them and how desperate they actually are for him.

Now this is where it gets deeply personal for us, where this journey to paedobaptism isn't one we chose, yet it's been such beautiful revealed grace to us. Our beautiful babies have autism. Children and people with developmental disabilities are this weird exception in the credobaptist world, especially those with Arminian, or free will to independently choose God, leanings. I remember conversations about things like an "age of accountability" at which if a child too young to believe dies, do they go to heaven? When they never had the chance to choose God? And there was general consensus that developmentally disabled people kind of get a pass. Like, if God gives a child so severe a cognitive disability that they can't choose to believe in him then he kind of owes it to them to give them a free pass into heaven; their sin nature is null and void.

We are reformed. We believe God is sovereign, and he chooses who belongs to him and who doesn't. All people who do believe in Jesus? Absolute grace, absolutely the work of God alone. It can be summed up in this phrase: God does not help bad people become good; God makes dead people alive. Dead people choose nothing, earn nothing, avail themselves the opportunity to nothing. It's all on the one doing the resurrecting, thus the newly alive person recognizes the gracious salvation they had nothing with which to do.

Regarding whether God is a gentleman who doesn't force himself on us or whether God only and always does all of the "work" in a person, I'm not here to argue about that. I'm simply stating for you our Biblical conviction on the matter. But, for us, what incredible grace that our children get to join in with our Christian family and partake in Christian life and sacraments like Communion [note: our church welcomes to the communion table all baptized children ages four and up, primarily because the Bible does warn against carelessly taking communion and age four-ish one in which most babes can start to recognize it's not just a random snack] without the pressure to prove they believe something.

Yesterday, at the Seattle Aquarium with Roger's preschool class.
When we got home, Jas asked how the aquarium was, and
Rog gave a blank stare. But he had the most amazing time!
On the bus ride there, he kept saying, "Go to aquarium! Go to aquarium!"

It goes even deeper. While Juliet's autism is less severe and she has made great strides in verbal communication, Roger has extreme difficulty with expression. He does chat some, has probably 500-750 words, but only uses about 150 with any depth of meaning. Many of these are repeated phrases, and nearly everything he says is preceded with, "Do you want ____?" when he's actually trying to say, "I want." He's repeating what we have said to him, understands that, "Do you want to go bye-bye," means that when we ask him this he gets to go with the parent putting their shoes on. But if you ask him his name, or how old he is, he stares at you blankly. This is with a lot of work on, "What's your name? Now you say, 'My name is Roger.'" But in any room he'll point at any burned out light and say, "The light is bro-ken! The light is bro-ken!"

This is where I lean on my husband's words again, because I just love how he puts it:
"What if our autistic son never professes faith? Not because he doesn’t have it, but because he literally cannot? Shouldn’t the Gospel we profess have something to say to that? Is there evidence that the God of the Bible would exclude such children from his covenant?"
Still wrecks me. What glorious grace, that my sweet baby boy isn't put on the outside looking in on his parents's faith and his church family, because of something he may never be able to articulate. Because, as Jason and I talk about constantly, Christianity isn't about the life of the Christian; it's about the life of Jesus lived and relinquished on our behalf.

So, yes. We are baptizing Roger and Juliet on Sunday. Because our God is a god of grace, and we believe he's led us to see this in his word and partake in this beautiful sacrament with joy.

I want to leave you with this video that has had much emotional impact on Jason and me. We were there in person for this, at Liberate, and just keep talking about how beautiful this analogy is for the grace of God, how we don't earn it, we can never spend it all, and it's his joy to keep seeing us enjoy it more and more. That is our God, friends! You just read this whole thing! You have ten more minutes to let your heart be made lighter.

Books on paedobaptism that helped in our decision:

The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism, Gregg Strawbridge (ed.)
The Covenant Baptism of Infants, Jim West (If you only check out one book, check out this one. It's only 37 pages. This book could be retitled A Book You'll Actually Read on Covenantal Infant Baptism)
Baptism: Three Views, Wright; Ferguson; Ware; Lane

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