©Equipping Pastors International, Inc. Dr. Jack L. Arnold
1 Corinthians 7:14
What is the first concern of every spiritually minded Christian parent? Is it not that the children should be saved? Why? Because God has given this desire based on the covenant family concept. A covenant family is a family with at least one Christian parent. The ideal covenant family is where the father, who is the head of the family, and the mother are both Christians, directing and training their children in spiritual matters concerning Christ and salvation.
Most Christians have never heard of the covenant family because they have little or no concept of covenant theology, however, many Christians are living in a practical way to direct and train their children in Christ’s salvation. Most people have a practice that far exceeds their theology, but when they do get exposed to the biblical basis for the salvation of children, it strengthens, solidifies and comforts parents in their desire to see their children saved and serving Christ.
COVENANT FAMILIES PRIOR TO ABRAHAM
The covenant family concept can be traced back to God’s covenant with Abraham, although the concept of the father being the priest over the family goes back to the beginning of mankind.
Job was the head of his family and made sacrifices for his children. “Early in the morning he would sacrifice a burnt offering for each of them, thinking, ‘Perhaps my children have sinned and cursed God in their hearts.’ This was Job’s regular custom” (Job 1:5). God gave Job the right and the authority to act on behalf of his children.
The example of Job teaches us that God has set apart a believing family (covenant family), and that parents are to plead with God for conversion and sanctification of their children.
Noah and his family were delivered from the flood because of Noah’s faith. “The LORD then said to Noah, ‘Go into the ark, you and your whole family, because I have found you righteous in this generation.” “By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.” (Gen. 7:1; Heb. 11:7). Noah acted as a representative for the whole family.
Noah is an example to future ages that the faith of a believing, righteous parent obtains a blessing not for himself alone, but for the children as well. One of Noah’s son Ham, who had a shady character, was delivered from physical judgment for his father’s sake and by his father’s faith.
What we see in the lives of both Job and Noah is God’s dealings with the family as the basic unit. God regards the family as an organic unity with the father as its head and representative priest. This is the basic nucleus of a covenant family; therefore, we conclude that covenant families were in existence prior to the Abrahamic Covenant, although we are not specifically told this in the Bible.
According to the Book of Genesis, God appeared to Abraham thousands of years ago and made a covenant with him. In this covenant (which is called the Abrahamic Covenant), God promised Abraham material blessings (the land of Palestine forever, and a great physical or natural seed, the physical Jews), and spiritual blessings (the Jew would be a great blessing to the world, and Messiah would come through Abraham’s physical seed).
The Abrahamic Covenant promised salvation by grace through faith in Messiah. The salvation aspect of the Abrahamic Covenant has been theologically called the Covenant of Grace. In the Covenant of Grace, God promises to save all of His elect on the basis of faith in Messiah. No physical Jew was born saved; he could not be a recipient of the spiritual aspects of the covenant made to Abraham apart from believing in Jehovah God that He would send Messiah. “Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6).
The Abrahamic Covenant also included blessings to children. God made a covenant and promised to be the God of Abraham and the God of Abraham’ s children. “I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you” (Gen. 17:7). Notice carefully that God entered into covenant with Abraham’s seed, his children, his descendants, his posterity, so in God’s mind the seed of Abraham are rightful heirs of the Abrahamic Covenant generally and the Covenant of Grace in particular.
Obviously, this is not a promise to save all the physical seed of Abraham, for history shows that all Jews were not saved. This means the physical seed of Abraham had a special place of blessing because they had God-fearing parents as was Abraham. Certainly, children of true believers have spiritual advantages not possessed by children of unbelievers.
God entered into covenant with Abraham and his children and they in turn had the responsibility to keep the covenant by faith and obedience. “Then God said to Abraham, ‘As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised” (Gen. 17:9-10). The external sign of the covenant in the Old Testament was circumcision. On the eighth day every Jewish father had his male son circumcised to show his personal belief that God would keep His covenant. The circumcision meant nothing to the child, and certainly the child could not believe and repent; nevertheless, the child was circumcised as a sign and seal of the covenant (Rom. 4:10-12). This act of circumcision symbolized the father’s faith, and was a recognition that the child was under the covenant and would be spiritually placed in the covenant when he believed for himself.
Circumcision did not place the child under the covenant but physical birth did and this made him a potential heir of the covenant, placing the child within the visible people of God, the covenanted community. The child was heir by birthright. Circumcision while an important act of obedience by the parents was only an external, outward sign.
My aim in this message is not to argue over whether the sign in the Old Testament of circumcision was replaced by the sign of water baptism in the New Testament, or whether the sign would be placed on infants of Christians or only on those who believe in Christ. These are valid theological issues and Baptists and Presbyterians have been battling these issues for almost 500 years. My personal convictions are that the sign and seal of water baptism should be placed on infants of believing parents, and that is one of the reasons I’m a Presbyterian. The truth that both must agree upon is that children are part of the covenant by promise and have certain privileges and benefits that no child born into an unbelieving family has. The devil would get us fighting over the sign that is merely a symbol so as to make us forget the truth that our children are part of the covenant and potential heirs to salvation.
As we leaf through the Old Testament, we see how at the Exodus, when the children of Israel left Egypt, the blood of the Passover Lamb not only covered children able to believe but also infants. No first born male child was touched by the death angel, and whole families left Egypt. Male children who could not believe were covered by the faith of believing parents in a covenant family. Also, when Israel was getting ready to enter the land of Canaan, Moses mentioned the covenant and this included “the little ones”. (Deut. 29:11). Joshua also believed in the God of the covenant and not only pledged himself but his family to a faithful keeping of the covenant, for he said, “As for me and my house, we shall serve the LORD” (Joshua 24:15).
Galatians 3:16, 29
The New Testament makes it clear that the spiritual blessings of the Abrahamic Covenant belong to the Church of Christ because the Church has a relationship to Abraham as his spiritual seed. “Understand this, that those who believe are children of Abraham;” “So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the men of faith;” “He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit;” “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:7, 9, 14, 29). The church is spiritual seed because of Abraham whether Jews or Gentiles because they believe in Messiah who is the ultimate fulfillment of the covenant. “The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. The scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ” (Gal. 3:16).
On the Day of Pentecost, the Apostle Peter told the adult physical Jews and Jewish proselytes present that they were “to repent and be baptized” for the forgiveness of sins. Upon their reception of Christ, they would receive the Holy Spirit. “Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’” (Acts 2:38). This promise, however, was not just to adults but also to their children. “The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:39). The promise is that of salvation which included the Holy Spirit and this promise is an integral part of the Abrahamic Covenant.
Acts 2:39 tells us that God’s covenant people can claim all the blessing of the Abrahamic Covenant for themselves and their children in the Church age.
Note carefully that all the children of believing parents were potential, rightful heirs to the covenant but the covenant is only effective to those who are sovereignly called to salvation; that is, those who believe in Messiah (Christ) and the covenant.
The Messiah and the Christian message first went to the Jews and for the first seven years there were no Gentiles in the Church. The Jews always understood the covenant to include their “little ones” (Deut. 29: 10-12). Therefore, these Jews to whom the Apostle preached knew they were spiritual seed of Abraham when they believed and were partakers of the covenant (Acts 3:25). They also understood their children were under the covenant and potential heirs to the covenant if they too would believe in Christ. A Jew would have repudiated Christianity if he thought there were no promises for the salvation and blessing of his children. Thousands of Jews became Christians. How quickly the Pharisees and other enemies of the gospel among the Jews would have seized upon the fact of children being left out of the covenant promises had such a defect appeared in the Christian religion. But no objections were ever raised, for the children were not excluded.
1 Corinthians 7:14
“For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, an unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.”
There was no question among the early Christians that two believing parents and their children enjoyed covenant privileges, blessings and benefits which children of non-Christian homes did not enjoy. Difficulty arose over the fact that there were instances, especially among the Gentiles who were saved, where only one parent was a believer. Furthermore, in same cases the believing parent was not the father but the mother. They wanted to know whether their children were accepted with the believing parent or cast off with the unbelieving parent. The words “sanctified” and “holy” come from the Greek word root that means “to set apart.” Paul says the unbelieving children were set apart to God because of the believing’ parent, and this regardless whether the believing parent was the father or mother.
This does not say the children are saved. Yet “to set apart” implies certain spiritual privileges. One believing parent sets apart the whole marriage and the children are regarded as children of the covenant to whom the promises rightfully belong.
What is the inheritance these heirs are promised to receive? Is it salvation? No. They do not inherit salvation, for salvation is not hereditary. Children inherit the promises of God. They inherit the assurance that God’s favor is directed towards them because they are children of believers. They inherit the fellowship and protection of the church.
They inherit the privilege of sitting under the gospel, and understanding who Christ is and what He came to do. Covenant children have a great source of encouragement. Yet, they are also put under great obligation to come to Christ in an act of personal faith.
Parents have definite responsibilities in a covenant family. While the Covenant of Grace to parents includes a provision for their children, it is not an automatic thing. Parents have duties and responsibilities to their children as covenant parents.
Louis Berkhof in the book Foundations For Christian Education said, “It may be said that when Christian parents make such a promise they promise more than they can accomplish, for they cannot guarantee spiritual renewal; nor does God expect or require it of them. They make their promise entirely on the strength of the promises of God. If they promise to intercede for their children, to educate them in the fear of the Lord, and to set them an example of true Christian piety, they simply promise to utilize the means which God has ordained for the realization of the covenant life in their children. And they have the blessed assurance that God will enable them to meet these covenant requirements.”
Parents are to love their children and the children are to sense that their parents love is due to the love of Christ within them. Children will basically learn to love God by the love they see in their parents. To love our children means we spend time with them, cultivate them and provide for them. Often we make major decisions based on our covenant love for our children.
Many years ago when are children were young, Carol and I were trying to get our priorities in life straight. We asked ourselves what our number one priority was. We concluded it was to see our children saved and to be with them in heaven. Based on that priority, we have made many decisions.
Parents must balance love with discipline of children. “For what son is not disciplined by his father? . . . More over, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it . . . Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they though best.” Children who learn to obey parents are more likely to obey God, for the rebellious spirit is weakened. Children also learn to fear God through their parents, especially the father.
My oldest son Mark said in his younger days he did not fear God but feared his Dad. Today he fears God and not his Dad.
Parents are given the responsibility of training their children in spiritual things. “Train a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not turn from it” (Prov. 22:6). “These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the door frames of your houses and on your gates” (Deut. 6:6-9).
To train is not only to teach hard, cold facts about the Bible but to influence that child in a positive manner towards Christ. Christian parents are training their children to accept the parents’ God through their own personal faith.
This is why some Christian parents send their children to a Christian school or home-school, they want the home, the church and the school to be consistent in the training of their children under the covenant.
The parent is to live by example before the children. In early life, children are copying their parents for both good and bad. Impressions are communicated to children and make a permanent impact on the life of a child. It is not so much what a parent says as what he does that impresses a child. The parent’s life is the single greatest witness to children. Quite often I speak to adult Christians who strayed away from the church in their teens and early twenties and then came to Christ late in life. They tell me it was the life of their Christian parents that they could not shake from their thinking. They could rationalize scripture but could not deny their parents knew God. When our first son Mark was going through such a rebellious period, denying Christ and all of his Christian heritage, Carol and I decided to get off his back and to rededicate ourselves to Christ, and God graciously answered our prayer, giving us a son with a heart for Jesus. Christian parents need to stop pressuring their children about spiritual things and instead live a positive, dynamic life for Christ before their kids. We can drive our children away by making them do Christian things when they are not Christians, and this is especially true in the teenage years. Christian parents need to instruct their children when they are young and as long as they want instruction. Yet, there comes a time when children in a Christian home do not listen much. Then the Christian parents need to walk very close to God and to pray, pray, and pray!
If parents are not faithful to keep their end of the covenant, they cannot expect God to save their children. Faithful parents can have some confidence that God will do a saving work in their children. However, there can be faithful parents who have rebellious children because the children hate Christ. Even a child raised in a Christian home must make a personal decision for Christ. Often Christian parents go on tremendous guilt trips when their children are not converted. They blame themselves for their child’s rebellion. Surely no parent has ever raised children perfectly; most of us make many mistakes, but the child also has some responsibility in the covenant. It is to believe in Christ and the Covenant for himself or herself. Ultimately the Covenant comes down to God’s sovereign grace and the child’s willingness to believe.
Augustine was raised in a Christian home under the supervision of his godly mother, Monica. He was very rebellious to Christ, and when he went off to college, he lived a debauched life, having conceived an illegitimate son when he was only 17. He accepted the philosophy of the world and was far from Christ as any person could be. Monica never stopped praying for the salvation of her son, although one time she almost gave up. Ambrose encouraged Monica by saying, “A child of so many prayers surely will not be lost.” Around the age of 30, Augustine was marvelously saved and became the leading theologian of the late fourth and early fifth centuries.
Although the children of believers are placed under the covenant and its promises at birth, and although they have the possibility of confirming that covenant by faith in later years, not all will truly exercise faith. Not all will inherit the promised blessing. They may reject Christ even though they have been given special advantage and privilege. Children raised in Christian homes are placed under the obligations of the covenant to believe in Christ. If they reject Christ, they are Covenant breakers, and to be a covenant breaker is to be under far greater responsibility before God. God will give grace to covenant children who respond to their godly training, but woe to those covenant children who knowingly despise their covenant heritage.
Covenant children are to accept the covenant they have been taught by their parents. A child raised in a Christian home must come to a point of decision when he decides that the God of his parents is his God. Children in a Christian home have been raised with an understanding of Christ, the gospel and the covenant. When they come to Christ, they do believe but they also do not reject their covenant heritage. If they turn away from Christ, they openly declare their rejection of God and His covenant of salvation in Christ. When a child in a Christian home believes in Christ, he confirms the covenant made with his parents and their children. They come to the point where they say, “Dad and mom’s Christ is now my Christ! I affirm my right to the covenant and believe for myself, accepting the responsibilities and duties of the covenant.”
We raise our children as though they were Christians. We teach them to pray, to memorize scripture and the catechism, to sing “Jesus loves me this I know.” When they come to the point of decision, that decision is not to reject their Christian heritage but to accept Christ and His covenant, and to follow the God of their parents, who is the Trinitarian God of the Bible.
COVENANT FAMILIES’ ADVANTAGES
There are some definite advantages to being part of a covenant family.
Because children are related to the covenant, parents can have positive presumption that their children will one day be saved. Parents know their children are sinful, lost and need Christ to be saved. But parents also know that children have been born into their Christian home with tremendous benefits, blessings and advantages. It is reasonable to assume God would use the home as a major means of bringing the children to Christ. Surely every Christian parent must face the fact that his child nay never be saved, but Christians can claim the promises of God and plead the covenant for the salvation of their children. Knowing God’s promises gives the parents hope and confidence not a negative spirit about the destiny of their children.
John Newton had a pious mother who instructed her son and prayed for him, and this made an impression on him, which sunk deep into his heart. He became very wicked and lived a profligate sailor’s life. Often when he was deep in midnight revelry, he would imagine he felt the soft hand of his mother upon his head, pleading with God to forgive and bless her boy. Newton was finally saved, and later used by God to lead thousands to the Savior. It was John Newton who wrote the words of the famous hymn, “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.”
Children of believing parents, if not saved, at least get many blessings in common grace - the privilege of a godly home; the care and protection of Christian parents, the privilege of hearing the Bible, the benefit of mingling with God’s people so as to be exposed to less gross sin. The benefit to an unbelieving child in a covenant family, although short of saving benefit, is nonetheless of great value.
Positive Assurance In the Death Of An Infant
The Bible is not clear as to whether all children who die in infancy are saved. In fact, the only clear verses we have on the subject are related to children who die in covenant families. We cannot be dogmatic as to where children of unbelievers go after death, heaven or hell. We must leave the children of unbelieving parents in the hands of a loving, sovereign God who does all things right and well. However, parents of a covenant family have hope for infants who die as seen in the loss of King David’s son. “But now that he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me” (2 Sam. 12:23).
Are you a child that has been raised in a Christian home, yet you hate Christ, hate church, hate God’s people? Do you long for the day you can get away from your parents and live as you please? Think twice before you reject the God of your parents! God has placed you in a Christian home so you can hear the truth—a tremendous advantage. Don’t reject your covenant privilege. Don’t reject your Christian heritage.
Bow to Christ. Accept the true God, the God of scripture and the God of your parents. Children of the covenant who reject Christ are doubly guilty, and if you die without Christ your punishment will be greater in hell because you turned from the promises of salvation, God gave you through your parents.
Are you an unbelieving parent? Do you have children who trouble you, who do things even you would not do? Unbelieving parent, turn to Christ. Trust Him as your Savior. Bow to Him as Lord. Become part of God’s covenant. When you believe, you will establish a Christian home, a covenant family, and you will have some promises from God to deal with your wayward children. Trust Christ and begin a new spiritual family in Christ.