I recently had the opportunity to discuss a delicate subject with a relative of mine, namely, the status of children of parents who are confessing Christians. My relative is a baptist and devotee of John MacArthur, whose views are neither mainstream baptist, nor reformed baptist; are in some ways Calvinistic in soteriology, but with some important divergences. For example, MacArthur, and my relative, would argue that God has unconditionally elected from eternity all those who will be saved, and yet also argue that God loves all men and offers them salvation. Another oddity is the "age of accountability," which several well-respected theologians have affirmed, including MacArthur, and nineteenth century presbyterian theologian, A.A. Hodge. The "age of accountability" is what my relative advanced in a discussion on the topic of children's status in God's covenant.
My relative asked me what I believed concerning my children's salvation, and I told him that I believed they were saved and possessed full entitlements to the benefits and responsibilities of the covenant according to their age and maturity. He was, being a baptist, hung up on this because he did not believe that children could possess saving faith. Why not? Because he believes that saving faith requires cognitive abilities that children lack. I asked him about invalids and other mentally handicapped people, and he agreed that such could possess saving faith, though he said the elders often had to make a judgment call on whether to admit such into membership and the Table of the Lord's Supper. I assume that he would consider those incapable of understanding to fall into a similar category as children under the supposed, "age of accountability." When I mentioned that I thought my six year old might have a better understanding of the gospel than a recent convert who had lived a life of complete paganism prior to conversion, he said that with such new converts (who had a credible profession) might be asked to demonstrate their profession through the bearing of fruit before being admitted into membership. When I pointed out that this contradicted the principle of a credible profession being all that is required for membership into the covenant, he admitted as much, though it went no further.
We had our conversation cut short, but it has been on my mind ever since. There is a great confusion, it seems to me, among baptists and many presbyterians of our day, as to just what are the varieties of faith, and what is actually required as the Biblical standard for regarding anyone as a member of the Covenant. What follows is my attempt to lay out that standard, and demonstrate why all professing Christians have good reason to consider their children as members and heirs with Christ.
First in order are a few definitions, to which I think MacArthur baptists would agree with historic Calvinism upon.
1. Saving faith is a gift of God not arising from within the individual by his own merit or ability, but wholly supplied by the Holy Spirit in regeneration (Eph. 2:8, WCF 14.1).
2. The exercise of faith requires understanding and assent, which result in trust in the object of faith.
If any objection is to be raised with the above definitions, it would be in the second, where one might quibble that exercise of faith should really be faith itself as well as its exercise. However, I would disagree that faith itself, rather than its exercise, requires understanding, assent, and trust. Why? For faith is something that one may possess without cognitive awareness or exercise of the understanding or will. For example, when one is sleeping, one is not required to understand and assent to propositions concerning Christ in order to maintain his status in the Covenant. Thus, the exercise of faith (which we may call, believing) is distinguished from faith itself as a quality one may possess.
It is this distinction that I believe is the bane of much current theological understanding of faith. By failing to make a distinction between faith and its exercise, one confuses the two to the detriment of both. Chapter 14 of the Westminster Confession of Faith makes this distinction clear, saying, "The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts. . ." The grace of faith provided by the Holy Spirit of Christ is that which enables the elect to believe, but is not itself a belief. It is a condition or quality--in Biblical language it is a new heart, a new creation, a new man.
When we consider faith as the condition or quality that enables the elect to believe, we begin to understand why it is that children and invalids can possess saving faith without necessarily possessing the ability to articulate it verbally, or demonstrate it to the same degree as a normally functioning adult, but rather, according to the measure of faith given to them by God (Rom. 12:3).
Let us consider a common scenario. An infant, which we will assume lacks the ability to exercise understanding, assent, and trust in the Word of God according to the testimony of the Holy Spirit could nonetheless be given a new nature with all the capacity for the exercise of faith when that nature had been grown up into the maturity whereby such understanding, assent, and trust could be exercised. Baptists and some Presbyterians makes the categorical error of equating action with nature, or at least of reversing the proper order and making the action prior to the nature required for such action. Everyone who is not an existentialist recognizes that a dog barks because it is his nature to do so, and they do not think that the dog becomes "that which barks" only when the dog first exhibits the sound of barking. Likewise, those who possess saving faith possess it by the Spirit's gift of a new nature and not by the exhibition of those actions consistent with that nature.
Very well. One may at this point grant the distinction and admit that infants may possess saving faith, even prior to their ability to exercise it. But, what reason does Scripture give us for believing that the children of Christian parents are given the grace of faith in infancy or even in early childhood, prior to their ability to exhibit any discernible fruit?
Admittedly, this brings us to the definition and nature of God's covenant, and where MacArthur baptists are going to have the greatest difficulty, due to their generally dispensationalist convictions. If the New Covenant is radically different from the Old Covenant, there being almost no continuity between the two, then it is difficult to build a Biblical case, since much of the evidence is rejected from the beginning by virtue of its being applicable only to Old Covenant Ethnic Israel. Thankfully, I think an irrefutable argument refuting the Baptist view of the covenant has already been made elsewhere, by my friend Ron DiGiacomo.
Let me just say that, for Christian parents, the Biblical claim is that the children of those who are faithful to God's covenant are themselves heirs of the covenant (Deut. 7:9). A similar claim of covenant fidelity and inheritance is repeated in the New Testament by the Apostle Peter (Acts 2:39). The consistent portrait of salvation from Abraham to Christ has been familial in nature--there is an understanding that households are one unit and function in solidarity. There are exceptions, but this is the generalization that establishes the rule against which the exceptions would otherwise make no sense.
Having defined the terms and advanced reasons for considering children of believing parents as members of the covenant, I want to close by addressing the age of accountability that come up with some Baptists.
The "age of accountability" is problematic for two reasons. First, it fails to grasp the above distinction between faith and its exercise. Second, it contradicts original sin and the federal headship that is required for Christ's atoning work to apply to the elect.
How does the "age of accountability" violate original sin? First, some theologians who accept the doctrine assert that where there is no knowledge of sin, no sin exists. Again, my friend Ron DiGiacomo demonstrates how this argument rests upon a logical blunder in the exegesis of Romans 1. Second, some consider children to be innocent while still possessing original sin. Unfortunately, in order to maintain that God's grace applies to those possessing original sin, one must either accept that God gives them saving faith (something MacArthur denies), or argue that God extends grace differently to this class of individuals than he does to others. In the second case, in good MacArthur fashion, we must ask, where does the text of Scripture provide evidence of such a distinction? MacArthur only points to two places: 1. David's remarks concerning his son by Bathsheba whom God takes as a payment for David's sin, and 2. the Hebrew word "innocent," as applied to children offered to Molech. He argues that because the word often means legally guiltless, therefore it means that when applied to children. Apart from not being able to find where the Bible refers to children offered to Molech as "innocent," it does not prove that this innocence implies guiltlessness from the wrath of God against sin. The same word applies to the poor and to those who are not guilty before certain legal stipulations in the Mosaic law. At most one could argue that children were exempted from guiltiness under the legal code of Moses, but not of original sin.
As for David's thoughts concerning his son, the text gives no indication of what was the exact reason David considered his son would be in heaven. In other words, MacArthur and other baptists commit the fallacy of petitio principii, assuming what must be proven, by saying that David is considering the age of accountability. Indeed, David could be assuming the child's salvation upon the basis of the child's covenant status as a child of believing parents!
The Bible does not provide a distinction between children and adults in terms of their guilt under Adam because none exists, rather, all men are guilty in Adam without distinction, whether they sin in the likeness of Adam or not (Rom. 5:14). Indeed, if children we accounted innocent of the imputed sin of Adam until an age of accountability God's justice would seem to require that their lives be spared, for the wages of sin is death, but those who are not held guilty of sin ought not to receive its penalty, unless that penalty is taken by another (i.e. Christ). But if the children who are held guiltless have their sin debt paid for by Christ, in what sense are they not possessors of a regenerate nature, by virtue of Christ's atoning work!?
In short, the Baptist has no true recourse, and the age of accountability is neither stated in Scripture nor consistent with other explicit statements.
There is both comfort and a hard truth here. The comfort is for Christian parents, for they ought to hope in their children's salvation upon the basis of God's promise to them in Christ, and that hope ought to spur them on to train their children in the truths of Scripture in order that the seed of faith might grow strong and bear much fruit as early as possible. The hard truth is that there is no hope offered for children born into sin, whose parents have not placed their hope in Christ alone for salvation. All the more should Christians proclaim the absolute necessity of Christ's atoning work as the one and only means by which men may be saved from the wrath of God that comes upon all sin.