William D. Dennison
A senior prank to foam the halls of a Christian high school is thwarted by local police at around 4:00 a.m. Is their action an illegal entry or an innocent prank? After graduating, many graduates descend upon the beaches to celebrate. For many, the festivity includes the tradition of alcohol and sexual promiscuity.
A star athlete is caught violating the printed ethical standards of the school: should discipline be exercised, knowing that it may cost a conference, regional, or state championship? A student is caught stealing at the school, but he is defended by his parents on the basis that "everybody" steals and we shouldn't judge others (Matt. 7:1). These are a few situations I encountered while teaching in a Reformed Christian high school for seventeen years. In an environment where the covenant was stressed, one may be mystified by such conduct by students and parents. Since such behavior is more common than we may wish to admit, perhaps it can be helpful to reassess some aspects of life in covenant with the triune God of the Bible in order to encourage godliness.
For thirty years, I have placed a certain practical example before my students in high school and college when discussing the subject of baptism in Romans 6:1–14. Johnny and Susie, who were both baptized as infants, are playing in the nursery during church. Suddenly, Johnny hits Susie over the head with a toy truck. A bump on Susie's head emerges as she breaks out in tears. When Johnny's parents retrieve their son after the worship service, they are told of his action. After apologizing to Susie and her parents, Johnny's parents react biblically by using the rod on their son (Prov. 13:24). As discipline is carried out by Johnny's parents, how is a "covenant consciousness" ruling their action? Are they using the rod solely as an expression of anger and embarrassment, which Christian parents should not do (Eph. 6:4)?
Perhaps in this situation a more biblical approach of covenantal discipline is that of the parent who uses the rod in the quest to remove the total depravity from the child, driving him to see his need for Christ. (The rod is like a tutor to drive the child to a crisis event of receiving Christ and making a profession of faith.) In this model, the parent views the child as a depraved sinner outside the domain of Christ until he makes a profession of faith. Until that day of profession, the parent expects the child to live within the pervasive domain of sin. Over and over, I have heard parents who live out of this model and justify their children's unrighteous behavior by declaring that since their children are totally depraved, "boys will be boys, and girls will be girls."
But that model is a synthesis of Reformed principles and a baptistic view of children. In other words, as the Reformed doctrine of total depravity is applied, the practical mentality is to view infant baptism as the Baptist views infant dedication and to view adult profession of faith as the Baptist views adult baptism. But this mentality undermines the biblical and Reformed understanding of the covenant. Although the Reformed doctrine of total depravity must be maintained, in my experience it has been used too often by Reformed parents to excuse and justify ungodly behavior by their children. Parents would be better served by reviewing some distinctives about the covenant from Scripture and noticing how faithful the language of the Westminster standards is to the teaching of Scripture (esp. WCF 28.1; LC 165, 167; SC 94).
Over the years in my classroom, I have focused on Paul's teaching in Romans 6:1–14. Returning to my example, as the parent comes to the nursery to pick up Johnny, the parent should be shocked that Johnny has hit Susie on the head. Why? Because when we understand what is signed and sealed in baptism, the parent should be surprised that a baptized child would act that way. (I am using the words shocked and surprised only in contrast to parents who never seem surprised by the bad behavior of their children.) Although Paul is not addressing infant baptism per se in Romans 6:3, his teaching here on baptism has implications for infants.
Here is the heart of a "covenant consciousness." Our children have been baptized into Christ's death, and they are to walk "in newness of life," in the power of Christ's resurrection (6:3–4). Specifically, baptism is the sign and seal of the privileges and benefits of the covenant of grace in Christ's death and resurrection (WCF 28.1; LC 165, 167; SC 94). Paul is talking about living out of the gift of grace (6:1). In fact, the covenant of grace has reached its high point in Christ's death and resurrectionGod's incredible gift of redemption to sinners (6:4). Baptism is a visible sign and seal of union with Christ (6:5).
In light of having the visible sign and seal of Christ's death and resurrection upon his head, the child is to exhibit that the old man of total depravity has been crucified and that he or she is no longer a slave to sin (6:6). Positively, the child is to live in the freedom of the efficacious work of Christ on the cross"set free from sin" (6:7). In the cross, sin is dead in the baptized (6:2–8a). But dead people are not alive. In order for the baptized child to live in the freedom of Christ, the resurrection of Christ must be applied to the child's life as well as Christ's death. The child is to be alive unto the glorious resurrection of Christ that has been signed and sealed (6:8b–11).
So when Johnny hits Susie over the head with a toy truck, his parents should not expect or accept such action, since Johnny is to be living his baptismliving daily as one who is dead to sin (Christ's cross) and alive to righteousness (Christ's resurrection). Even so, if Johnny hits Susie, what is happening? According to Paul, Johnny is allowing sin to reign in his mortal body by obeying the lusts of his heart (vs. 12). He is presenting his body as an instrument of unrighteousness, and living under the law by allowing sin to have dominion over him in that moment (6:13–14). So, in this model, why do Johnny's parents use the rod? Because Johnny is not living out of the gift of the crossJohnny is not living as one who is dead to sin and, thus, he is not living out of the power of Christ's resurrection and the Savior's righteousness.
With this understanding of "covenant consciousness," parents train their children to live their baptism. This life in covenant with God is predicated upon the ministry of the ascended Christ in the heavenly places through his Spirit (cf. Eph. 1:3; 2:6; Col. 3:1–4). This redemptive life begins with the decretive will of the Father in heaven, and it is accomplished by the condescending work of the Son, who is now ascended as the Holy Spirit applies the benefits of Christ to the elect children of God (Christ's church). The covenantal gift starts in heaven so that our covenantal children can go to heaven; you must start in heaven in order to end up in heaven.
This accomplishment of the triune God's work in his people is all of grace. Covenant parents lay hold of the promises of the covenant as they participate in this grace by instructing, praying for, and loving their child in the dynamic power of Christ's death and resurrection, instilling in the child a life of faith and obedience in conformity to the Word of God. Through the work of Christ's Spirit, grace abounds and not sin (Rom. 6:1; cf. Eph. 6:4).
Even within the covenantal environment of the Reformed world, it can be appalling to see the delinquent lifestyles that are permitted, rationalized, justified, denied, and even encouraged. Indeed, Scripture conveys the realistic circumstances of the church's continual journey in this world: there will be covenant breakers. Depravity will raise its head. Even so, parents need to be reminded of the seriousness of their covenantal oath, which was taken at baptism, to raise their child in the fear and admonition of the Lordto raise their child to confess and to live their baptism.
In Romans 6:1–14, we are reminded of the Holy Spirit's prescription for understanding our "covenant consciousness" of union with Christ's death and resurrection. The Spirit, who is the final author of Scripture, provides the infallible interpretation and meaning of the gracious event (gift) of Christ's redemption. The Spirit, who wrote the Word of God, breathes freely into our spirit, so that we live out of the biblical textso that our lives freely submit to the Spirit, who shapes our homes and our children in that event.
Together with Christ's death and resurrection, we also live out our union with Christ in the heavenly places. We live our lives under the covenantal banner of faith and obedience before the final presence of Christ, which is already before us. What do our homesparents and childrenlook like before the continual presence of Christ? Does your home look like heaven before the ascended Christ? In other words, through the direction of the Spirit's Word and the application of the Spirit's work, is sin being put to death through living in the newness of life in Christ's resurrection? That is to say, are the fruits of the Spirit clearly evident each day in our covenant homes (Gal. 5:22–26; cf. Col. 3:12–17)? By the time we come to the end of Romans 6, Paul has implied his own application of the phrase "without excuse" to the covenant people in Christ's church. Simply put, those who have received the covenant sign and seal of baptism are "without excuse" to live the death and resurrection of Christ every day!
The author, an OP minister, teaches at Covenant College. Reprinted from New Horizons, June 2008.