A Cry for the Cry-Room

crying-baby

Over the past several years, I have heard some funny names used for the cry-room in our church building, names such as, “the penalty box,” “romper room,” and “the torture chamber.” My favorite, however, is “purgatory.” Like the Roman Catholic teaching of purgatory, the cry-room is a place where souls suffer until they are ready to enter into God’s presence and the assembly of the saints! Although purgatory does not exist, the potential suffering of those using the cry-room does. Any parent who has spent numerous Sunday mornings worshiping in the cry-room with their infant or toddler can tell you about the challenges. It can be noisy. It can be crazy. It can feel like purgatory…without the flames.

I sympathize, therefore, with parents who, at times, may feel discouraged and perhaps frustrated with life in the cry-room. As a pastor of souls, I do not want my parishioners to feel disheartened about attending the means of grace. For this reason, I hope to encourage parents who, with their little ones, make their way to the cry-room each Lord’s Day. I also want to encourage everyone in our congregation to be supportive of those with young children in our covenant community.

 A Place for Training

 While we typically call it a “cry” room, it may be more appropriate to describe it as a training room. As parents, we have the responsibility to train our children, to “bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6.4). This includes teaching our children the meaning and importance of the worship service. As baptized members of the covenant of grace, our children belong in the worship service with us. They are to grow up learning and singing the songs of Zion, confessing the creeds of Christ’s church, and praying the Lord’s Prayer. Most importantly, they are to grow up hearing God speak to his people through the preaching of the Gospel. In the worship service each Lord’s Day, God condescends to us to announce his promises and renew his covenant. It is in this divine act, which is unlike anything else we experience in this life, that God ushers us into his heavenly presence so that we might receive from his open hand (Heb 12.18-29)…and he ushers our children with us.

While the cry-room might seem inconvenient to us at times, we must realize that theology, not convenience, informs our worship. One of the central tenets of our theology is the covenant of grace. God makes his covenant not only with those adults who can make a credible profession of faith in Jesus as their only comfort in life and in death, but also with the children of believers, who cannot yet make such a profession. Throughout redemptive history, God has included the children of believers into his visible covenant community. Baptized children, therefore, are entitled to the worship service as much as their parents are. That is where they belong!

The cry-room, then, provides a place of training for our little ones. It is far more in line with our theology than a nursery-room. In a nursery-room, baptized children are, in most cases, dropped off by their parents and completely removed from the assembly of God’s people. When this happens, these precious heirs of the covenant are denied exposure to and training in the vital act of corporate worship. In a nursery-room, infants and toddlers are deprived of the opportunity of hearing mommy or daddy confess their sins, sing the doxology, confess the creed, pray the Lord’s prayer, and partake of communion. As inconvenient as the cry-room may feel at times, it nevertheless provides a setting more conducive to parental training than a nursery-room. In the cry-room, parents are preparing their children to become active participants in the worship service.

 A Place for Transition

The goal of our training and preparation is to graduate our children to the main auditorium (i.e. “sanctuary”). The cry-room, therefore is a place of transition. As our infants grow into toddlers, parents can begin making excursions into the service with their children. Explain to your little one ahead of time what you plan to do. Proactive preparation is the key here. Explain to them on Saturday night, and again on Sunday morning on the way to worship, that they have the opportunity to sit with the congregation for the first part of the service.

I have found that many children become excited about this. Estimate how much of the service you think your little one can handle, have a plan, and give it a shot. If they begin to squeal and shriek, you can always take them back to the cry-room. At first, they may only be able to sit still until the first hymn. In time, it may be up to the song of preparation before the sermon. Eventually, with a lot of training and perseverance, children will make the transition into worshipers.

This is transition does not end once our little ones are sitting through the whole service quietly. The goal is not merely for our children to sit still and be quiet. The goal is for them to become mature worshipers, to become active listeners who eagerly receive from God in Word and sacrament, and respond to God in song, prayer, and giving. This, of course, is a lifelong process.

Yes, it requires work. There is no plenary indulgence offered to families so that they can spring a suffering soul from the purgatory of the cry-room! Rather, it takes a lot of planning, effort, and perseverance to make the transition. But the transition can be made; it is not impossible. And the cry-room helps to that end.

A Place that is Temporary

The Word of God endures forever, but the cry-room does not. It is only for a season. There is light at the end of the tunnel. Of course, for a family with several small children, that light might seem rather dim at times; when one child finally graduates to the main auditorium, another is born. With the joy of a child’s birth can come the potentially gloomy prospect of spending more years in the cry-room. Nevertheless, the cry-room is not forever. Like all parental responsibilities, training our children in the cry-room is only for a season. Eventually, this too shall pass.

In the meantime, some parents may find it helpful to trade off services with their spouse. If mom trains the baby in the morning service, then perhaps dad can do the same in the evening service, allowing mom to be freed up to receive the means of grace without distraction. This is yet another good reason for having two services on the Lord’s Day.

 It is only for a short period that we have the opportunity to train our children in the instruction and discipline of the Lord. May we be faithful stewards and wisely use the time we have been given. And may we encourage one another in our congregation as we see parents engaging in the hard and sometimes frustrating work of training and preparing these little heirs of the covenant. May we be patient with one another and pray for each other, asking the Lord of the covenant to bear much fruit in these children of the promise.

 ~ Pastor Brown

 

 

 

 

Why We Baptize the Children of Believers

Baptism

Why We Baptize the Children of Believers

 Rev. Michael G. Brown Pastor, Christ URC

 Copyright Michael G. Brown, 2006. All rights reserved.

“Why does your church baptize infants?” This is a question that is often asked by visitors to Reformed and Presbyterian churches. Since the historic practice of baptizing the children of believers is largely a foreign concept to the vast majority of evangelicals today, accepting this doctrine can be a difficult hurdle for a family that wishes to join a confessional, Reformed church. Christians who are interested in Reformed theology and sincerely desire membership in Christ’s church are often shocked to find out that the Reformed church they want to join teaches and practices infant baptism.

So, why do we baptize the children of believers? The answer is simple: We baptize the children of believers because they belong to the covenant and people of God. While this answer is simple, it is one that nevertheless requires some explanation. Often times, an evangelical may come to Calvinistic convictions with regard to the doctrines of grace (i.e. the so-called “Five Points of Calvinism,” or “TULIP”), yet be completely unaware of basic covenant theology. Hence, the doctrine of infant baptism seems strange and exotic to him. Accustomed to looking for “proof-texts” in the Bible, he searches the Scriptures for a verse that explicitly prescribes the practice of infant baptism. Finding none, he is resistant to the practice, suspecting that Reformed and Presbyterian churches baptize the children of believers more so out of tradition and sentiment than from any serious biblical conviction. What he has yet to understand, however, is that our practice of baptism (both for the adult believer and his children) naturally flows from our theology of the church. This involves an understanding of the covenant that God has made with his people. Consequently, the question, “Why does your church baptize infants?” entails a more complex answer than many people are prepared to receive.

Where should we then begin? Scores of helpful books and articles have been written on the subject of infant baptism that the person struggling with this doctrine should consult (see the back of this article for a list of recommendations). Probably the most concise answer, however, is found in the Heidelberg Catechism. After its five questions and answers that deal with the sacrament of baptism in general (qq.69-73), it includes one question and answer on infant baptism in particular. Question and Answer 74  (hereafter HC 74) states:

Q: Are infants also to be baptized?

A: Yes. For since they, as well as their parents, belong to the covenant and people of God, and both redemption from sin and the Holy Spirit, who works faith, are through the blood of Christ promised to them no less than to their parents; they are also by baptism, as a sign of the covenant, to be ingrafted into the Christian Church, and distinguished from the children of unbelievers, as was done in the Old Covenant by circumcision, in place of which in the New Covenant baptism is appointed.

Because this is not only a clear and simple explanation of infant baptism but also a confessional explanation of the doctrine, HC 74 functions as a ready and easy-to-remember template of the case for infant baptism, which can be unpacked and explained further in the following points: (1) there is one covenant and people of God; (2) in the old covenant, God included children into his church; (3) in the new covenant, God still includes children into his church; (4) there is a promise made in baptism that must be believed.

(1) There is one covenant and people of God

This is where we must begin. HC 74 makes the claim that the children of believers, “as well as their parents, belong to the covenant and people of God.” We should ask, however, to what covenant is the catechism referring? Furthermore, what is a covenant in the first place? Michael Horton has summarized covenant very well when he says:

[A] covenant is a relationship of ‘oaths and bonds’ and involves mutual, though not necessarily equal commitments…some biblical covenants are unilaterally imposed commands and promises; others are entered into jointly. Some are conditional and others are unconditional.[1]

The concept of covenant is important for Christians to grasp because it is the organizing framework of the Scriptures. The whole Bible, ultimately, is about one thing: God redeeming a people for himself through Jesus Christ. And that message unfolds as a covenantal drama throughout redemptive history. While there are many different covenants of various natures and purposes recorded in the Bible, there is ultimately only one covenant in which the benefits of redemption are communicated to God’s people, a covenant we rightly call the “Covenant of Grace.”

The Covenant of Grace is first promised in Genesis 3.15, after Adam and Eve were expelled from the holy Garden and cursed for sinning against God. Adam broke that previous covenant in which God had placed him (i.e. the Covenant of Works) failing to meet its requirements of obedience and thus inheriting the curses of that covenant (spiritual and physical death), rather than its blessings (eternal and glorified life). Adam did not, however, bring these covenant curses upon himself alone. Rather, he brought them upon the whole human race, as he was our federal head and representative in the Garden. Because Adam broke this covenant, the way to the tree of life was barred from sinful man, guarded by mighty cherubim and a flaming sword. Mankind, therefore, needs another covenant federal-head, a Second Adam, one who will open up the way and lead us to the tree of life so that we can enjoy fellowship with God our Creator and the glory of the eternal Sabbath for which we were created. This is the context in which the Covenant of Grace is first promised. God puts enmity between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman, promising that the coming seed will bruise the head of the serpent (Gen 3.15).

This seed-promise unfolds through redemptive history as the Bible traces the lineage of God’s redeemed people from Seth to Abraham. Once Abraham is brought into the picture, the speed of the story slows down. He is one of the main characters in the redemptive drama as God makes an important covenant with him recorded in Genesis 15 – one of the most important chapters in the Bible. There, we read of God promising Abraham (then Abram) at least two very important blessings: a seed numbered like the stars in the heavens, and a land in which his seed would dwell. God then seals these promises with a solemn covenant ritual involving the killing of animals.  

In Abraham’s day, it was common for two kings or rulers to enter into a covenant with each other in which oaths were taken, conditions were explained, and sanctions (blessing for obedience to the covenant; cursing for disobedience) were promised. The lesser party in the covenant, known as the “vassal,” would then take a blood-oath, such as the one recorded in Genesis 15. Animals would be killed and sometimes cut in two. The vassal-king would take an oath and walk between the pieces of the animals or do some other type of ritual in which they would promise to keep the conditions of the covenant. To pass through the severed carcasses was to walk through the valley of the shadow of death. The person taking the oath was placing himself in service of the greater party, known as the “suzerain,” and promising that if he broke the covenant, he would become like that severed animal.

Abraham completely understood this ritual since this was how covenants were often ratified and made official in his day. But what is so amazing about this particular blood-oath in Genesis 15 is that God himself walked between the severed animals. The suzerain-king, not the vassal, took the blood-oath. God’s presence was manifested in the smoking fire pot and flaming torch that passed between the carcasses. A cloud of smoke that arose from the fire pot and a soaring flame that came from the torch were symbolic forms of the Lord’s presence, similar to the pillar of cloud and pillar of fire he used during the exodus. This covenant was all of grace and promise, a royal-grant from the Suzerian-King. The Lord took a self-maledictory oath and invoked this bloodshed and death upon himself should he fail to fulfill his promise. This whole covenant was God’s royal grant to Abraham and his seed.   

As the Bible unfolds God’s great plan of redeeming a people for himself, we see that the fulfillment of the promises he made to Abraham actually comes on two marvelous levels. On the first level, we witness the fulfillment of these promises (both seed and land) in the nation Israel. God gave to Abraham and Sarah a son, namely, Isaac. And from Isaac came Jacob, and from Jacob came his twelve sons who fathered the twelve tribes of Israel. As the story progresses, we learn how these descendents of Abraham all end up in Egypt where they continue to multiply generation after generation. In fact, the book of Exodus opens by telling us how the people of Israel increased greatly and grew exceedingly strong – so much that the land of Egypt was filled with them, causing Pharaoh a great amount of fear. So massive was Israel’s size that Moses reminded them of God’s fulfilled promise: “The LORD your God has multiplied you, and here you are today, as the stars of heaven in multitude.” (Deut 1.10) God’s promise to give Abraham a seed numbered like the stars was brought to pass.

Likewise, God’s promise with regard to the land was fulfilled when Israel was given Canaan as an inheritance. Under the leadership of Joshua, Israel cleansed the holy promised land by driving out the heathen and took possession of what God had promised. We read in Joshua 21.43-45:

Thus the LORD gave to Israel all the land that he swore to give to their fathers. And they took possession of it, and they settled there. And the LORD gave them rest on every side just as he had sworn to their fathers. Not one of all their enemies had withstood them, for the LORD had given all their enemies into their hands. Not one word of all the good promises that the LORD had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass.

As marvelous as these fulfilled promises were, however, they were only the first level of fulfillment. God’s covenant with Abraham was far more reaching than what took place in the type and foreshadow of the nation Israel. There is a fulfillment revealed on the pages of the New Testament that is far greater and far more wonderful.

In Galatians chapter 3, in the middle of his argument against the Judaizers that salvation is not by works of the law but by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone, Paul is careful to show how it is that one becomes a true descendent of Abraham. In vv.7-9, he says,

Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.

Justification comes in the same way to people of every tongue, nation and tribe, just as it came to Abraham, namely, by faith alone. The promise goes out to all the earth because of what Paul says in v.16: “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ.” Paul uses a play on words to draw an important conclusion: Christ is the offspring of Abraham, through whom all the promises come to us who believe. Even the law that was given through Moses 430 years later could not annul the covenant previously made to Abraham and ratified in blood (see Gal 3.17). That promise is fulfilled in Christ so that as Paul says in v.29: “if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” The message is clear: the great number of offspring promised to Abraham was only foreshadowed in the national Israel. But not all of national Israel is of true Israel. Those who are truly his are those who, like himself, are justified through faith alone.

But what about the promise of a land? How is that fulfilled on a greater level? Again, the New Testament reveals to us a reality that is fuller than the type and shadow of the Old Covenant. Notice what Hebrews 11 tells us:

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose builder and designer is God…These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. (vv.8-10, 13-16)

The promised land of Canaan was temporary, not permanent. What is permanent, however, is the promised land that still awaits us, a land that is infinitely greater than any plot of real estate in this present age. What awaits us is the new heaven and new earth. While the nation Israel received a good land, ultimately it became corrupt, defiled, and it faded away. The greater promised land, however, is an inheritance that Peter says is “incorruptible, undefiled, unfading, kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1.4). And like our father Abraham, we look forward to this inheritance with hope.

What does all of this show us? It shows us that there is one plan of salvation for the one people of God, whom the Bible describes as the seed or offspring of Abraham (Gal 3.29). There is no other way to be a child of God then to be included into Abraham’s covenant. Thus, when Reformed people speak of “the covenant,” we are speaking of the one covenant of grace that runs from its seed-promise in Genesis 3.15, was expanded in detail to Abraham in Genesis 15, fulfilled in Christ, and continues throughout time until the consummation. Anyone who has or ever will be saved – in any period of human history – is a member of this one covenant of grace. Salvation is always the same: by grace alone, through faith alone because of the one Mediator of the covenant alone, the Lord Jesus Christ.

(2) In the Abrahamic Covenant, God included children into his visible church

 Having looked briefly at the covenant of grace in redemptive history, we must now ask the question, if believers participate in the covenant and people of God, what is the status of their children? The Old Testament reveals that God not only allowed the children of believers to be brought into his covenant and visible people, but that he commanded them to be so. In Genesis 17 we read of God reminding Abraham of the promises he made in his covenant, which extended to his offspring:

I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God. (vv.6-8)

God then commanded that a covenant-sign be given to Abraham and his descendents. That covenant-sign was circumcision. In vv.9-14, we read:

And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, both he who is born in your house or bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”

Circumcision was a “sign of the covenant.” The bloody ritual of cutting the flesh in the male reproductive organ signified the covenant that God made with Abraham and his descendents when he walked between the bloody animal halves. This was no mere formality; to be circumcised meant to receive a sign of the deepest spiritual significance. It was a sign carved in flesh as a constant reminder of God’s promises to Abraham and his descendents.

But this sign also functioned as the official act of consecration that set an individual apart as a member of the covenant community. Every male in Abraham’s household – whether sons or servants, as well as every male in the covenant community thereafter – was to receive this sign in his flesh if he was to be identified with God’s covenant people. Conversely, anyone who rejected the sign of the covenant was to be cut off from the covenant community. To reject the sign of the covenant was to reject God’s promises in the covenant. Ultimately, it was to reject fellowship with the God who walked between the severed animal halves and made an oath to his people.

 (3) In the New Covenant, God still includes children into his visible church

Note that HC 74 says that the children of believers are “by baptism, as a sign of the covenant, to be ingrafted into the Christian Church, and distinguished from the children of unbelievers, as was done in the Old Covenant by circumcision, in place of which in the New Covenant baptism is appointed.” The covenantal sign that is administered upon initiation into the visible church is no longer circumcision, but baptism (Col 2.11-12). Like circumcision, baptism is a one-time, initiatory sign and seal of God’s covenant promise, which marks out an individual as belonging to God’s covenant people. Like circumcision, baptism is for the believer and his children.

Of course, the Baptist often argues that children of believers should not be baptized until making a credible profession of faith because the New Testament never gives an explicit command or example of infant baptism. To this we must ask, however, where in the New Testament do we find an example or command to exclude the children of believers from the visible church? Defending the doctrine of infant baptism in his day, the great Princeton theologian B.B. Warfield put it in the most straightforward of terms when he said:

The argument [of infant baptism] in a nutshell is simply this: God established his church in the days of Abraham and put children into it. They must remain there until he puts them out. He has nowhere put them out. They are still then members of his church and as such entitled to its ordinances.[2]

Clearly, no such command to remove the children of believers from his covenant exists. On the contrary, we find Jesus saying, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 19.14).

More importantly, however, is the obvious trend in the New Testament of including people who once were excluded from the church. The greatest example of this, of course, is the gospel going out to the Gentiles. People who were not of the physical family of Abraham and were “separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph 2.12) are “no longer strangers and aliens, but…are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph 2.19). We also see this in the case of the initiatory covenant sign of baptism being applied to females as well as males (Acts 8:12), in contrast to circumcision, which was only for males. Thus, Paul says, “there is neither Jew nor Greek…there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3.28). While there is still a distinction between men and women with regard to their assigned roles in the family and the church, baptism shows that men and women are the same in terms of personal value and worth to God because both are created in His image (Gen 1:26-28). Christian women, therefore, are not to worship in a separate courtyard as in the Jerusalem temple, but in the congregation alongside men.

Considering these things, are we really to think that while God includes Gentiles into his covenant people and includes women more fully by extending to them the covenant sign in the same way as males, that he also takes an opposite position with regard to the children of believers? While God extends his grace more abundantly in the New Covenant by including those who once were excluded, why would he then exclude children who once were included? Indeed, first-century Hebrew parents that converted to Christianity would have been horrified at the suggestion that their children were now outside of the Covenant of Grace. As Robert Strimple has ably argued, had the apostles ever made such a suggestion, the response of Hebrew parents clearly would have been, “I thought you were bringing me good news!”

But the apostles did bring good news to covenant parents! Preaching on the day of Pentecost, Peter proclaimed the gospel to a large audience of Jews and Gentiles and told them to repent and be baptized in Jesus’ name. “For the promise” said Peter, “is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2.39). Those who are “far off” are the Gentiles, now included into God’s covenant. But notice that Peter specifically points out that the promise is also “for your children.” Children of believers are not excluded from membership in God’s covenant community, but included, just as they were since the beginning.

For this reason, Paul addresses the children of believers as members of the Covenant of Grace: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord” (Eph 6.1). He even reminds them of the Fifth Commandment in the very next verse, showing that New Covenant children have the same responsibilities and privileges as Old Covenant children. They are to be raised as disciples of Christ: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6.4; cf. Deut 6.4-9). Clearly, these children are considered members of the visible church no less than they were in the Old Covenant. As such, they should receive the sign of the covenant and be baptized.

(4) There is a promise made in baptism that must be believed

The promise to which Peter referred in his Pentecost sermon is mentioned in HC74: “both redemption from sin and the Holy Spirit, who works faith, are through the blood of Christ promised to [the children of believers] no less than to their parents.” The Baptist, however, hears language like this and often assumes that Reformed churches believe that every baptized child is guaranteed to be one of the elect. “If this true,” concludes the Baptist, “then what are we to say about those cases in which a baptized child did not persevere in the faith? If God made a promise to the child in baptism, but the child apostatizes as an adult, what does that say about God’s promise? Did his promise fail?”

Unfortunately, there are some Reformed circles that have contributed to this misconception by speaking of every baptized person in the church - “head for head”  - as being truly elect and inwardly united to Christ.[3] But it must be understood that membership in God’s visible covenant community does not guarantee membership in God’s elect people. This is Paul’s point in Romans 9 when he defends the fidelity of God’s promise to Abraham: “But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (Rom 9.6). In other words, not all in the visible church belong to the invisible church. This is why the Bible often speaks of another circumcision, a circumcision of the heart (Deut 10.16; 30.6; Jer 4.4; 9.25-26; Acts 7.51; Rom 2.28-29). Although he was consecrated to the Lord as a member of the covenant people of God, the Israelite male was still responsible to believe the promises signified in his circumcision, for the sign (circumcision) never became the thing signified (the promises of God).

While the visible church is no longer identified with a national, geo-political Israel, it still contains a mixture of both Jacobs and Esaus, that is to say, true believers and hypocrites. Like Esau, it is still possible for one to be in the covenant externally but not actually united to Christ through faith. This is why the writer to the Hebrews includes many warnings in his letter about the necessity of true faith; he doesn’t want his readers to rely solely upon their membership in the visible church. In 3.7-4.11, he reminds them of the Israelites who fell dead in the wilderness; although they belonged to the visible covenant community and heard the gospel, they did not respond to it in true faith. Consequently, they did not enter the Promised Land. The writer deliberately uses this as a warning to the New Testament heirs of the same covenant of grace: “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.” (3.12) Just as being circumcised was necessary for entrance into the visible church in the Old Covenant, so too is baptism necessary for entrance into the visible church in the New Covenant. But every baptized member still has the responsibility of embracing with true faith the promise made to him in his baptism, apart from which he will not enter the eternal Sabbath rest.

For this reason, parents must take great care to catechize, pray for and bring their children up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. It is why we are required to take vows at the baptismal font, promising to the utmost of our power to teach our children and have them taught the doctrine of salvation. Baptized children must not only grow up with the understanding that they have been “ingrafted into the Christian Church and distinguished from the children of unbelievers” (HC74), but must – in light of their baptism – be asked the question: do you believe the gospel? Do you trust that Christ’s blood alone washes away your sins as certainly as you see water washing away dirt from the body? Do you believe what is signified in your baptism?

If he rejects the gospel, then the waters of baptism are not a sign of blessing, but a sign of judgment. Like the unbelieving Israelite whose circumcision symbolized the cursing of being “cut off” from the favor of God, the New Covenant child who rejects what is signified in his baptism will become like those unbelievers who perished in the floodwaters of God’s judgment while Noah and his family were brought safely through (1 Pet 3.20-22).

On the other hand, the covenant child who believes the gospel with true faith is able to see in his baptism God’s pledge and token that gives us assurance that “we are as really washed from our sins spiritually, as our bodies are washed with water” (HC73).


[1] Michael Horton, God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), p.10. This book is an excellent treatment of the vast subject of covenant theology and should be a useful tool for study in the hands of elders.

[2] Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, “The Polemics of Infant Baptism,” in Studies in Theology (1932; reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981), 9.408

[3] The notorious “Federal Vision,” which has infiltrated some Reformed and Presbyterian churches in recent years, is one example of this.

The only "youth program" your kids need: some thoughts on family worship and catechesis

Family

When my wife and I were introduced to Reformed Christianity, one of the things that stood out vividly to us was the practice of family prayer or "family worship." In the revivalist, evangelical church in which I grew up, this practice was never emphasized. To be sure, the church in which I was raised encouraged important devotional acts such as praying and reading one's Bible, but I can't ever remember a pastor emphasizing the necessity and importance of regular family worship during the week. Instead, there was a full array of programs and small groups offered, each tailor-made to every member of the family: Jr.High group, high school group, college-and-career, men's group, ladies' group, young marrieds, married-with-children, empty-nesters, etc., etc. Not that everything in all of these groups was always bad. It's just that there seemed to be an emphasis upon separating the family as a unit during the week in order to "minister" to each person's needs. Oddly enough, Sunday worship wasn't much different. My family would arrive at church only to split up into our segregated groups for worship: I, a "youth pastor," would go to the high school "worship service," while my wife went into the main service with the adults, and my daughters went to "children's' church" with the toddlers. The first time we worshiped together as a family was the first Sunday we visited a confessional, Reformed church (!). 

Coming to Reformed Christianity, my wife and I not only learned the sobering truth about the means of grace and what actually happens during the Divine Service on the Lord's Day, we also learned about the vital importance of regular family worship throughout the week. Clearly, this was a practice far more biblical (and historical) than the compartmentalized, hustle-bustle of a busy week at church. The ancient paths God carved out for families to walk in long ago were new to us. We learned how he designed the family to be a worshiping unit, an entity that would engage in prayer, praise and instruction in the course of ordinary, daily life. We learned how Christian parents have the covenantal responsibility—both toward God and their children—of bringing up their little ones as disciples in the historic Christian faith. Suddenly, all those passages about training up your children began to come into color:

Deut 6.4-9: Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Eph 6.4: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord”

Passages such as these, however, cannot be reduced to mere proof-texts for sending our children to Christian schools or buying Christian home-school curriculum. They require of us something far more vital than that. In the first place, they require the indispensable practice of the “family pew,” that is, a commitment of bringing our children to corporate worship every week. In worship, our children - no less than us - are summoned by God to receive his good gifts, confess their sins, and bring him praise and honor as the Creator and Redeemer of his people.

But these commands also require a commitment to daily catechesis so that our children will know what they believe and why they believe it. This is precisely why the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformers, as well as the seventeenth-century Puritans who followed them, wrote rich catechisms and strongly advocated the practice of family worship. They understood each family to be a ‘little church,’ in which the father was called to be priest and spiritual head of his home under Christ.

It is for this reason that the Westminster Confession of Faith teaches that worship is to be conducted “in private families daily” (21.6). This was taken so seriously by our fathers in the faith, that the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland not only included in its editions of the Westminster Standards a "Directory for Family Worship," but even mandated disciplinary action against heads of households who neglected “this necessary duty"!

Hughes Oliphant Old describes the rhythm of family worship in Puritan life:

What the liturgy of the hours was for monks of the Middle Ages, the discipline of family prayer was for the Puritans. The typical Puritan home of seventeenth-century England may not have looked much like the splendid cloisters of Cluny, but there was something in common. The daily life of both Catholic monk and Puritan family man was ordered by a rhythm of prayer and praise. With Cistercian solemnity, the Puritan household would gather around the dinner table, father, mother, children, a maiden aunt, perhaps servants or an apprentice. A metrical psalm was sung. Then the head of the house would open up a great leather bound family Bible and read a chapter. This finished, the father would lead in prayer. The Puritans, whether on the Connecticut frontier or in the heart of London, whether they were Cambridge scholars or Shropshire cotters, gave great importance to maintaining a daily discipline of family prayer.

So what happened in the church that we have lost this vital practice? Why have we forgotten the wisdom of these ancient paths? As with most questions in historical theology, there is not one easy answer. There are several contributing factors that led to the corrosion of this practice. One of them, however, must certainly be the rise of American pragmatism.

As Americans, we have an unquenchable thirst for knowing the cash value of something. It may seem to many American Christians that investing in the rigorous daily duty of family worship is too costly. After all, getting a family in 2008 to meet together regularly around a table and take out thirty minutes of the day may seem almost impossible. It would require reordering and restructuring our daily lives. It would require slowing down a little bit. It would require turning off the television a little more (gasp!).

The fact of the matter is, family worship is a great investment. In fact, it is a no-brainer. It pays such high dividends that it is - to use the modern vernacular - like stealing money. In fact, I cannot think of many things in life that pay greater dividends than the ordinary practice of daily family worship. Let me quote Presbyterian minister Terry Johnson to give you an idea of what I mean:

If your children are in your home for 18 years, you have [over 5,600] occasions (figuring a 6 day week) for family worship. If you learn a new Psalm or hymn each month, they will be exposed to 216 in those 18 years. If you read a chapter a day, you will complete the Bible 4.5 times in 18 years. Every day they will affirm a creed or recite the law. Every day they will confess their sins and plead for mercy. Every day they will intercede on behalf of others. Think in terms of the long view. What is the cumulative impact of just 15 minutes of this each day, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, for 18 years? At the rate of 6 days a week (excluding Sunday), one spends an hour and a half a week in family worship (about the length of a home Bible study), 78 hours a year (about the length of two weekend retreats), and 1,404 hours over the course of 18 years (about the length of eight week-long summer camps). When you establish your priorities, think in terms of the cumulative effect of this upon your children. Think of the cumulative effect of this upon you, after 40 or 60 or 80 years of daily family worship. All this without having to drive anywhere.

The family is essentially a discipleship group. In praying and reading the Bible together (and maybe singing too), the whole family is being spiritually nurtured as the truths of the historic Christian faith are pressed before them each day. Parents are humbled as they are constrained to assume the role of priest for their family. They are driven to their knees in a sense of inadequacy of such a task. They are forced to adjust their lifestyle in order to carry out the responsibility of raising their children in the Lord. And they are confronted with the reality of appearing either consistent or inconsistent in the eyes of their little ones.

In the meantime, children are growing up watching their parents humble themselves before the Lord. They are learning of Christ’s claim and Lordship on their lives. They are absorbing Scripture and realizing its authority. They are provided with a medium for reinforcing memorization of Scripture, catechism questions, creeds, the Lord’s Prayer, etc. And they are seeing how they are different than the world in that God has set them apart as his own special people. All of this has a great effect on covenant children: it is part of the means God uses to bring them to faith.

But as you read this, you may be thinking, “Fine. I agree. Consistent family worship seems indispensable. But where do I begin? How do I do family worship?” Let me offer a few recommendations:

First, FIND A TIME that works well for your family. For many, this will be the dinner table. Believe it or not, it is actually very simple to transition from eating a meal together (an invaluable and neglected practice in itself) to having family worship without ever leaving the table. On the other hand, maybe bedtime will be more conducive for your family. Whatever the case, just find a time in which everyone in the family is together for at least 15-20 minutes a day. If no such time exists for your family, then you desperately need to make one! Settle on a time that will become as fixed a routine for your family as getting dressed or brushing teeth. Settle on it and guard it! When the phone rings, let the answering machine pick it up. Instead of being enslaved to technology, let it serve you!

Second, KEEP IT SIMPLE. There is no reason to make family worship long or complex. You can keep it as simple as these three elements: Scripture reading, catechism and prayer.

With regard to Scripture reading, try reading a chapter a day, working your way through particular books of the Bible. Perhaps on certain days, read the passage that was preached in worship the previous Lord’s Day. This will help your family to review what you heard and hopefully develop a practice of meditating on it during the week.

For catechism, work on memory with your children. Teach them to memorize the Lord’s Prayer, Ten Commandments and the Apostles’ Creed. Then move on to Heidelberg Catechism Q.1, breaking it down in to parts until they have the whole thing mastered. Move on from there to these essential questions: ##2-5, 21, 27, 60, 65, 69, 75, 86, 116. It will take a while (maybe years), but despite what you might think, they can do it. Be patient. Think long term. Don’t give up.

With regard to prayer, teach your children how to pray by modeling it for them. Conclude family worship with the simple acrostic A-C-T-S: adoration of God, confession of sins, thanksgiving for all he has done and given, and supplications for those in need. This is a great opportunity to pull out the bulletin and look at the particular prayer needs in the congregation, teaching our little ones to intercede for others in the household of God.

You may also consider singing a Psalm or hymn together before reading Scripture. But whatever the case, family worship should only take about 15 or 20 minutes. Seriously. There is no reason to turn this into a massive ordeal. In fact, fathers, resist the temptation to do that! Once in a while, you may find your family engaged in an extended discussion over a particular doctrine or theological question. It is a beautiful thing when this happens spontaneously and naturally. But don't force it. Ask a few questions, keep it simple, and conclude. If your family comes to expect a forty-five to sixty minute Bible study from dad, they may begin to dread the exercise.

Third, GET STARTED! To borrow an old slogan from Nike, “Just do it!” Don’t procrastinate and put it off. Each day your children get a little older. Redeem the time given to you.

Fourth, BE CONSISTENT. When you miss a day (or two or three!), don’t throw in the towel. Get back on track and go. Too much is at stake to give up.

Finally, Dad, Mom, BE SUPPORTIVE OF ONE ANOTHER. Satan is against you in this, so be prepared. He wants nothing more than for you to pick at one another during family worship, become frustrated and quit. He wants you to leave the Bible and catechism book on the shelf and reach for the remote at the time you have designated for family worship. He wants wives to be resistant and husbands to be lazy. So, encourage, support and be respectful of one another as you engage in this daily practice.

Family worship is a joy, but it takes work. It usually requires some rearranging of our priorities in daily life. And if you are getting a late start with your kids, it will probably be met with some resistance. Pray for one another with regard to your duties in this simple, but awesome practice.

A Few More Thoughts on the Family Pew

empty-pews

As a pastor of a Reformed church that maintains the historic practice of parents worshiping with their children, I have sometimes heard parents voice objections to this tradition. For some, there are simply too many hurdles to overcome. As a parent of four covenant children myself, I sympathize with many of the concerns I hear from parents. Quite honestly, the practice of the family pew can be exhausting. But no matter how much we may feel frazzled, frustrated, and overwhelmedat having our children with us in worship, it never warrants throwing in the towel. There are good answers to the objections of the modern (and sometimes frustrated) parent. What follows are responses to some of the more common objections I have heard:

“My children are so young; they don’t understand everything in the sermon.”

It is true that when children are very little they won't be able to follow an expository sermon from beginning to end. But that is alright. They should still be in worship anyway. As they grow, they will begin to understand more and more. The first thing they should come to understand is the fact that they have been baptized into the church and belong to a Christian family. They, like their parents, are not their own, but belong body and soul to Christ. Corporate worship, therefore, is part of the warp and woof of growing up as part of the covenant community. It is a huge part of their idenity.

Secondly, covenant children need to witness the importance of corporate worship to their parents. Fathers and mothers: Do your children see your joy and enthusiasm about coming to the means of grace? Do their little eyes see the value you place on receiving from the Lord in Word and Sacrament? Do they understand that this is a priority for you and their family? Do you make an effort for them to understand that being called to worship weekly is not only God’s requirement of his people, but also our joyful privilege? Do you seek to make it a joy for them as well? It is important that we help our children understand (as inconceivable as it may seem to them!) that corporate worship is the highlight of every Christian’s week.

As early as possible get into the regular practice of asking your children what they did understood about the sermon. Without turning it into an interrogation or lecture, gently question them and explain a few basic concepts from the sermon which they might grasp. The regular routine of this practice is priceless. Like most things we do consistently as a family, our children will come to expect this practice and, in all likelihood, begin to listen more carefully and systematically to the sermon. Moreover, you will have countless opportunities to draw upon the text explained by the pastor and teach your children.

Above all, don’t give up. Pray for the graces of their spiritual understanding and your perseverance.

“But I have a squirmer! It is difficult for me to worship and pay attention during the service.”

You are hardly alone. Since the days of Seth, when “people began to call upon the name of the LORD” in worship (Gen 4.26), covenant families have been blessed with squirmy little ankle-biters. This is nothing uncommon. Still, a fidgety, restless child in worship can test the patience of the holiest of moms and dads. But be encouraged. It is only for a season that they are so small. Think long-term. Their spiritual nurture and development (as well as yours!) takes place over a lifetime. In most cases, the wiggly years will pass. As Robbie Castleman put it in her excellent little book, Parenting in the Pew, “It has been said that modern people worship their work, work at their play, and play at their worship. We need to work at our worship. With children, we often have to work harder.” This is especially true with our little ones in the younger years. Prepare ahead of time the best you can. Be creative. Remember that you are part of a worshiping community. Persevere in prayer!

“We are new to the Reformed faith; my kids are accustomed to going to a youth program during the service.”

Many of us were not privileged to grow up in a Reformed church. But, by God’s grace, we have come to discover the riches of Reformed Christianity and therefore cherish the theology and worship for the biblical gold it is. Nevertheless, the adjustments aren’t always easy. If we got a late start and our children are accustomed to being shipped off and entertained during the worship service, we should be prepared to meet resistance from them. A little extra teaching and explanation about the nature of worship will probably be in order. Explain to them that worship is not about entertainment; rather, it is the appointed time and place when God meets with his people and speaks with them. It is called a service because he serves us with Word and sacraments. 

Your children may still hate it, complain that it is “boring,” and discourage you continuously. Explain it to them again, remind them of the fifth commandment, pray for them, love them, and continue to bring them anyway.

“Much of the service feels rote and routine; I am concerned that my children will think worship is lifeless and mechanical.”

Keep in mind that worship is about vertical conversation. The entire service is built around a dialogue between God and his people. He speaks and we respond. If it feels rote and routine, it may be because we are accustomed to entertainment in a worship service. Or, it may be that we have grown up in a Reformed church but never received instruction on what each element means. When we begin to understand these things - what the invocation is, why we read the law and confess our sins, or what the benediction is all about - we begin to see the beauty and depth of Reformed worship. Each element of the service is rooted in Scripture as well as 2,000 years of historic Christian practice. Not only is it biblical, but Reformed worship has a continuity throughout the world and throughout time.

This means that each week, our little ones take their place with the communion of saints as they pray the Lord's Prayer, recite the Creed, and sing the Gloria Patri. Each week, our children participate as worshipers in these important parts of worship, rather than sitting as mere spectators. Each week, parents have opportunity at home to instruct their children on the meaning of the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and every other element of the service.  

I am fine with my teenager sitting in worship with me as long as the church has a good youth group.

There is a tendency for some of us to think that in order for the worship service to be effective in the life of a teenager, it must be supplemented by a youth group. But have you ever stopped to reflect on such a notion? At its heart is the assumption that the worship service and God’s ordained means of grace are inadequate in the life of a teenager; something more is needed, namely, something more “relevant.” But have you ever considered that the Bible never speaks of a ‘youth group’ or the office of ‘youth pastor’? That is not to say that such meetings are wrong or cannot be of benefit, only that they are not essential. If they were, God would have prescribed them in the New Testament.

Sadly, many parents look for a church with a youth group as if it were a sacrament or one of the distinguishing marks of a true church. As popular as ‘youth groups’ may be in our culture, we must be careful not to accept blindly the notion that our young people need a program in order to be properly nurtured in the faith. Like any program, a 'youth group' is merely an extra to what is indispensable and cannot replace the responsibility of the minister on the Lord’s Day and the parents throughout the week.

God has given us all that we need for the spiritual growth and well being of us and our children. Let us diligently use the means he has provided and teach our children the importance of going to worship and not just church.