My son, a junior in college, will turn 20 this year. It’s hard to believe that I once held him in one hand. He came into the world a month early by emergency C-section, and for a time I thought I may lose both him and my wife. Bringing him home caused another wave of emotion as the responsibility of fatherhood hit home. Not only would I never be able to provide adequate protection, I doubted my ability to raise him “in the fear and admonition of the Lord.” I was helpless, and I knew it. In that moment I found hope and comfort in knowing that God had graciously provided prayer, Word, and sacrament as means of grace for the parenting adventure that lay ahead. In particular, I have found comfort knowing that my son is a covenant child, specifically through his baptism.
Unfortunately the centuries-old baptism debate has caused some to minimize this sacrament. When this occurs the “benefits of the covenant of grace” are ignored, and many believers miss the comfort that can be found in this precious gift given by our loving heavenly Father. This gift was first given to Abraham when God made a covenant with him (Genesis 15 and 17). The blessing in this covenant would go far beyond Abraham and be more extensive than he ever imagined. Quantitatively, the covenant would extend incalculably. Chronologically, it was a covenant with no end — “everlasting.” The promise was “to be your God and the God of your descendants after you” (Genesis 17:7).
As part of this covenant, God required Abraham and every male in the household to be circumcised. This bloody and painful procedure was a “sign” that would serve as a reminder of God’s faithfulness to His covenant promises. It also set God’s people apart and was a prerequisite for rights in the community and fellowship with God (Exodus 12:48). Membership had its privileges as God blessed His people with provision, protection, and the promise of deliverance. The ultimate deliverance would come through the finished work of Jesus Christ. Abraham believed in that promise, “and it was counted to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:3). It was not circumcision that delivered Abraham from the penalty of his sins but faith in the One who was to come (Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:11). Indeed, the greatest blessing of the covenant was the offer of free grace through Jesus Christ — Abraham’s “very great reward” (Genesis 15:1).
Circumcision is no longer necessary, as Jesus was “cut off” and His blood shed to pay the penalty for sin. In Christ, we who were once “cut off” from God have been circumcised once and for all through Christ (Colossians 2:11). We have also been raised with Christ and “His blood and His Spirit wash away our [my] soul’s impurity, in other words all our [my] sins” (Heidelberg Catechism question 69). Because of this new reality we have been given a new sign of the covenant that points to washing. Just as circumcision looked forward to Christ, we are reminded that the promises of the Gospel are true. Like circumcision, baptism is the sign and seal that mark God’s people as a prized possession. It also separates them and serves as a prerequisite for rights in the community (church membership).
This truth should give parents hope. When children are born, they enter a dangerous world. Upon their first breath, they inhale germs their bodies have never encountered. The potential for sickness and physical harm is immense. Despite parents’ best efforts, there is very little they can do to ensure the physical safety or protection of a child. Beyond the physical dangers, children face a world that can destroy them spiritually and scar them emotionally and psychologically. Despite their diligence, parents cannot make every decision for their child nor control all the negative influences they will face. The threats are real, and all of us know of children whose lives have been destroyed by bad decisions and harmful influences. If it were not for the grace of God, there would be no hope for our children.
As we give our children in baptism, we receive a powerful gift of hope that He will be our child’s God, that “He who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (Psalm 121:4) and will care for the child He loves … ”
Therefore, as we give our children in baptism, we are receiving a powerful gift of hope that He will be our child’s God, that “He who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (Psalm 121:4) and will care for the child He loves more than any parent possibly could: “(T)he Lord is faithful. He will establish them [you] and guard them [you] against the evil one” (2 Thessalonians 3:3). Though baptism is a time when parents dedicate or offer our children to the Lord, even more significant is the reality that this is when He pours out the blessing of His covenant promises on that child.
To better understand God’s blessing, I will illustrate it with three umbrellas representing the specificity of God’s grace. The largest umbrella of God’s common grace is given to all people. Because of this grace, the sin that is in all people is restrained and not allowed to reach its full potential. This allows order to be maintained and at least some level of civil justice. If God did not graciously restrain evil, the entire world would fall into ruin. Through this common grace God blesses all of humanity in ways He sees fit. The effects of common grace include the deferral of God’s just penalty for sin. Simply put, God doesn’t give anyone what they deserve during their time on earth. Through common grace people still have a sense of what is true, good, and beautiful, and at some level maintain a desire for truth and morality.
God also actively curtails evil, making the world safer. Which means the world is not as bad as it could be. It also means that God works through people who deny His existence to accomplish things that benefit all humanity, both the believer and the unbeliever.
The smaller umbrella that falls under the common-grace umbrella is inaugurated at baptism. All who are underneath this umbrella of covenant grace receive the unique blessings and privilege of God’s favor.
We might compare this umbrella to Noah’s ark. Because Noah “found favor in the eyes of the Lord” (Genesis 6:8), his whole family was commanded to go aboard and therefore received the Lord’s gracious protection and provision. Being on the ark saved Noah and his family from the present and physical threat of drowning in the flood. However, based on what Scripture tells us, we’re certain that only Noah was granted the faith to believe.
When we baptize our children, we are placing them on the ark or under this umbrella, trusting God for His provision, protection, and at some point deliverance from both the penalty and power of sin. Though baptism itself will not and cannot save them, we are trusting that God will do what we could not do for ourselves and clearly cannot do for our children — that is, change their hearts and give them saving grace (the third umbrella). We rest in God’s covenant promises to call our children to Himself and wash their hearts. Baptism reminds us that God can do what we cannot, and is a declaration of God’s power and faithfulness. The water we place on children is a physical sign that this covenant is real and is an official seal certifying that God will honor His covenant promise.
Because recipients of the blessing are a people of faith rather than a physical nation, our threats are different from those that Abraham and the nation of Israel faced. They confronted the persistent threat of conquest. Because of God’s covenant faithfulness, He was their protector and fought their battles. When they went to fight in their own strength, they were often defeated.
Just as Abraham was on his way to receive a promised kingdom, we also are “receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken” (Hebrews 12:28). In this pilgrimage we face many struggles, yet because of His covenant with Abraham we are promised that He will be the protector, provider, and deliverer — for us and our children. Though the water in baptism evaporates and dries, the sign and seal continue to be real. In those moments when we are overwhelmed with concern for our children, we can recall that baptism. And, though burdened, we can know that our covenant-keeping God has put His mark on our child and will not forsake His promise. Our memory of that moment is the means God uses to graciously give hope to our anxious hearts. We can rest in the fact that God is guarding our child.
Another important part of this blessing is God’s discipline. Throughout the Old Testament we see how God disciplines His people to draw them back to Himself. In the same manner we must be careful not to think that this covenant of grace will make our children’s lives easy or that they will not face hardships. However, we can rest in the truth that regardless of the hardships they face, God is working in and through those events to work out His plan. Even when a child rebels and makes decisions that are destructive and cause great heartache, the Lord is there.
The ongoing reality that God’s name is written on our children — an official sign that they are under God’s covenant of grace — is significant in another way: It proves His ownership. Though clothing hid the sign of circumcision, it was nevertheless true that whoever bore that sign had the mark of God, and that any who sought to harm them would face God’s wrath. Simply put, you could not “mess with” God’s people without “messing” with God. In the same way, as our children step into a world of cosmic spiritual warfare, we can rest in knowing they have the sign of God clearly marking to whom they belong.
If you are awaiting the birth of your first child or are anxious about your child’s first day of school, you can find rest in God’s covenant promises. If you are watching your teenager drive away solo for the first time or are up late awaiting his return, God’s covenant promises are true.
I am far from the end of this parenting journey and know that as long as I have breath, I will need to continually rest in God’s covenant promises. Nevertheless, 20 years into this, I have seen God faithfully protect my son. I have seen Him faithfully provide through each stage of his life, and most important, I have seen God grant him faith to believe and favor to “grow in the grace and the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).
Robert H. Orner is the dean of students and a guest lecturer of practical theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Fla. He is also an ordained minister in the PCA.