Child Evangelism or Covenant Theology?

The Reformed Church has failed to teach its members the implications of covenant theology for their children

Parents do indeed expect with joyful anticipation to see their children love the Lord Jesus as much as they do.  Presbyterian parents look forward to the day when their children will be admitted to the Lord’s Supper by the Session of the Church. It is a joyful expectation.  It is an attitude that begins at the birth of their children.  Generally, this living faith in the hearts of their children will appear over time, probably over a period of years.  They don’t expect dramatic experiences.  They don’t expect a “come to Jesus moment.

 

It has been surprising to me how little most Presbyterians understand about the covenant. We name nearly everything using the word covenant (from Covenant Day School to Covenant College).   However, when I ask most Presbyterians what the covenant is, and how it applies to their children, you should see the blank look on their faces.  The Presbyterian Church has failed to teach covenant theology.

In dealing with the salvation of their children, most Presbyterians resort to typical evangelical and non-covenantal methodology.  Some use the age of accountability model.  Somehow, all children are saved until they reach a certain age of accountability, and then they become lost — and we need to get them saved.  Tell them about Hell and get them to raise their hands for Jesus.  Others treat their children the same way they would unbelievers. They need to be evangelized, and they need to put them under the influence of a youth pastor or send them off to church camp. Maybe their children will make a decision for Jesus.

The more Reformed (the Neo- Puritan strain) resort to the doctrines of election and regeneration as a model in dealing with children.  There is not much they can do themselves, but they hope that God will regenerate their children at some point.  They can pray for this but there are no guarantees. There is a covenant promise, but election and regeneration trump the promises.  Then, on the other hand, at the other end of the spectrum, there is the extreme view of baptismal regeneration (currently associated with Federal Vision).

The covenant is a bond in blood sovereignly administered by God with signs (baptism) attached that promises salvation to us and to our children. As parents take seriously their covenantal responsibilities with regard to their children, the covenant gives them a hope that God will work that same faith in their children that is in them.  This was what Paul saw in Timothy.  “For I am mindful of the sincere faith within you, which first dwelt in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice, and I am sure that it is in you as well” (2 Tim 1:5).

So, how do covenant parents treat their children?  They tell their children that they have a special place before God by being in the covenant.  They are holy (1 Cor. 7:14).  They are not sinless (every parent knows this well), but they have been set apart by God as special.  Then they follow what I call a three-pronged approach.

First, they pray for their children.  They plead with God to be faithful to his covenant promises.  Salvation is indeed all of grace.  Secondly, they model the Christian faith in their own lives. Children love to imitate their parents.  Don’t sell this short.  When children see the love of Jesus Christ permeating the lives of their parents, we should expect to find that same experience of love for Christ in the children.  Thirdly, covenant parents are always pressing upon their children the claims of the covenant, as they teach them the doctrines of our holy religion and pray with them and for them.  The covenant does not give children the option of following Christ. The covenantal approach does not come in the form of a plea, but in the form of a command to believe in Christ as Lord and Savior.   Affirm the covenant or perish!  So was the witness to Israel under the Old Covenant.  So it is under the New Covenant.

Parents do indeed expect with joyful anticipation to see their children love the Lord Jesus as much as they do.  Presbyterian parents look forward to the day when their children will be admitted to the Lord’s Supper by the Session of the Church. It is a joyful expectation.  It is an attitude that begins at the birth of their children.  Generally, this living faith in the hearts of their children will appear over time, probably over a period of years.  They don’t expect dramatic experiences.  They don’t expect a “come to Jesus moment.”

After over forty years ministering in churches that understood the implications of the covenant, with very few exceptions, I saw the reality of the covenant working in Christian families.  It was always a delight to meet the children of covenant families, especially the children of elders. I found that PKs (preacher’s kids) as adults often exhibited the most evidence of the grace of God in their lives.  Having seen covenant children grow into Christian adulthood, I realize now why covenant families had ecstatic celebrations when their children were baptized as infants. They understood the implications of the covenant.

Larry E. Ball is a Honorably Retired Minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is working as a CPA. He lives in Kingsport, Tennessee.