Heidelberg 74: We Are Abraham’s Children

Open Quote 5 lines74. Are infants also to be baptized?

Yes, for since they belong to the covenant and people of God as well as their parents, and since redemption from sin through the blood of Christ, and the Holy Spirit who works faith, are promised to them no less than to their parents, they are also by Baptism, as the sign of the Covenant, to be ingrafted into the Christian Church, and distinguished from the children of unbelievers, as was done in the Old Testament by Circumcision, in place of which in the New Testament Baptism is instituted (Heidelberg Catechism).

Christians who confess the Reformed faith in North America do so in a context that is largely dominated by two great religious groups: Baptistic evangelicals and Roman Catholics. The vast majority of the 60 million evangelicals in North America hold some version of the Baptist understanding of the continuity between Abraham and the new covenant. Many of them may not attend congregations that self-identify as “Baptist” but they make Baptistic assumptions and have a Baptistic hermeneutic (way of reading Scripture). These assumptions are so pervasive and influential that many evangelicals have never met another Bible-believing Christian who does not share their assumptions and convictions. Many of the so-called “Young, Restless, and Reformed” evangelicals, who identify with aspects of the Reformed theology and piety reject the Reformed covenant theology, the Reformed and Presbyterian doctrine of the church, and the Reformed and Presbyterian practice of the holy sacraments. As a consequence, for many, the adjective “Reformed” has come to be re-defined and reduced to stand for the doctrine of predestination. This is done so frequently now that, in some quarters, it is considered impolite to remind people that the new definition is a radical revision of the original and historic understanding of the adjective Reformed. As late as the 1950s it was universally understood that the adjective Reformed stood for an entire body of doctrine, a piety (a way of relating to God), and a set of practices one of which is infant baptism (paedobaptism). That there could live under the Reformed banner antithetical understandings of the practice of the sacraments was unknown even to Baptists through the middle of the 20th century. In short, the nomenclature “Reformed Baptist” and the associated redefinition of the adjective Reformed  is a very recent phenomenon. On this see Recovering the Reformed Confession.

There are about 75 million Roman Catholics in the United States and a growing number of those are from Central America, where the principal Christian alternative to Rome is Pentecostalism. Thus, statistically, as evangelicals think about infant baptism it is most likely that they think of Roman Catholic doctrine and practice. In my experience it can be difficult both for evangelicals and Roman Christians to imagine infant baptism in any other way. Thus, many evangelicals suspect that the Reformed practice of infant baptism is simply a remnant of Romanist practice and theology of which Reformed and Presbyterian Christians have been unable to shed themselves. This suspicion dates to the charge made by the Anabaptists against the Reformed in the 16th century and has persisted for centuries. Unfortunately, the way ostensibly Reformed folk (e.g., the self-described Federal Vision movement)  have sometimes explained baptism has given some ground for such suspicion. The confession of the Reformed and Presbyterian Churches, i.e., their official interpretation of Scripture,  however, is quite clear. We do not baptize the children of believers because we believe that it necessarily confers new life (baptismal regeneration) or because it works automatically (ex opere operato). We baptize the children of believers for the same reason that Abraham circumcised the children of believers: because God commanded and attached promises to the outward administration of the covenant of grace.

“Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. 5 No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham,for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. 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….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 (Genesis 17:5–10).

Since the 2nd century (e.g., Barnabas, Justin, and Irenaeus) Christian theologians and churches have repeatedly argued that, though the Mosaic covenant was temporary and illustrative of future realities, i.e., typological) the Abrahamic covenant was permanent in a way that the Mosaic (old) covenant was never intended to be. The Reformed inherited this understanding of redemptive history. Abraham is not Moses. That distinction between the role that Abraham played in the history of redemption and the special, temporary role that Moses played, is often overlooked and especially as it touches baptism. God established a covenant of grace with Adam and renewed it with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David and administered it under types (illustrations of future realities) and shadows (anticipations of future realities) throughout redemptive history. Nevertheless, there were differences. The way that God administered the covenant of grace under Moses and David was different because the administration was attached to a temporary national people and to a sacrificial system. When, through the prophet Jeremiah (Jer 31), the Lord promised a new covenant. It is often assumed that the new covenant is in contrast to Abraham but that is not how the New Testament speaks nor is it the way Jeremiah spoke. The new covenant is contrasted with Moses not with Abraham, who is repeatedly cast as the father of all believers in the New Covenant (e.g., Rom 4; Gal 3; Gal 4; Heb 11).

The Apostle Peter assumed a fundamental continuity of the administration of the covenant of grace when he told the Jewish men, heads of households, at Pentecost: “For the promise 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). This was a re-statement of the promise of the covenant of grace made to Abraham and re-stated in the prophets. What Peter assumed and what the Christian church assumed until the rise of the Anabaptist movement (1520s) and what Reformed Christians confess is that there is a distinction between the substance of the covenant of grace and its administration. The question of whether infants are to be baptized is answered by that distinction. Whether one receives the substance of the covenant of grace is, ultimately, down to God’s unconditional, eternal election in Christ. Whether children of believers are to be initiated visibly into the Christ-confessing covenant community is not determined by anything other than the divine command to initiate children into the covenant community and the his promise to be a God to believers and to their children.

Is this a guarantee that all the children of believers will come to faith? No but it was never any such promise. The first person to receive infant initiation into the visible covenant community was Ishmael. Esau was initiated and we know from Romans 9 that he was reprobate. We are not rationalists. We do not attempt to seek the divine decree behind the promise and the administration. We believe the promise. We administer it as he as commanded. We trust him to work out his decree according to his good pleasure. We pray for our covenant children, we catechize them, and we call them to a personal saving faith in Jesus the Savior. Baptism does not confer salvation upon them any more than circumcision conferred it upon Ishmael and Esau. Nevertheless, they were initiated. God also saved some of those who were initiated, e.g., Isaac.

I understand that infant baptism (and especially on these grounds) may be unfamiliar. If you are just landing on the HB for the first time, please take a look at the prior posts in this series on the sacraments and baptism. If it is your first time here, and if you have not read the several articles linked in this post, please do that before asking questions because the first question I will ask is whether you have read the linked articles. To be sure, some of the links are to groups (categories) of posts. If you follow those you will find a lot of resources that may help you to work through these questions and to see how the confessional Reformed and Presbyterian churches understand infant baptism.


All the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!