Though I have largely concluded my assessment of the biblical evidence for paedocommunion, I believe it is important to return once more to the principal assumption that underlies much of the contemporary advocacy of this practice in Reformed and Presbyterian churches. When I introduced this study, I noted that advocates of paedocommunion often argue that the historic practice of the Reformed churches belies their covenant doctrine.
Whereas the inclusion of children within the covenant people of God is adduced as a compelling basis for the practice of paedobaptism, the implications of this inclusion are denied when it comes to the admission of children to the Lord’s Table. By denying children access to the Lord’s Table, the significance of the biblical doctrine of the covenant is mitigated and a “baptistic” view of the children of believers is unwittingly imported into the doctrine of the sacraments.
Rather than constituting a means of grace that strengthens the communion of all covenant members with Christ, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is restricted to those only who have made a “profession of faith” and are capable of the kind of faith that remembers, proclaims and discerns the body of Christ. In the traditional practice of the Reformed churches, there is, according to contemporary advocates of paedocommunion, a sort of back-handed “ex-communication” of covenant infants and children that radically compromises their status as genuine members of the new covenant community.
It is not my purpose here to delve deeply into the complexities of the covenant theology that undergirds the present advocacy of paedocommunion. However, I do want to offer some general reflections on the shape of this theology, particularly the reason it so strongly insists that all covenant members be admitted to the Lord’s Table without previously professing their faith in Christ.
Covenant Theology and Paedocommunion in Contemporary Discussion
Among some contemporary advocates of paedocommunion, the claim is made that all covenant members without exception—believers and their children who are recipients of the covenant promise and the accompanying sacrament of covenant incorporation, baptism—enjoy a full and saving union with Christ. Though Reformed theologians have traditionally distinguished between those who are “under the administration” of the covenant of grace and those who truly enjoy the saving “communion of life” that the covenant communicates, some proponents of what is sometimes termed the “Federal [covenant] Vision” reject as inappropriate any such distinction between covenant members.
In the traditional language of Reformed theology, a distinction was made (using a variety of expressions) between the covenant in its historical administration, which includes all professing believers and their children, and the covenant in its fruitfulness as a saving communion of life. This distinction was drawn in order to account for the biblical teaching that not all recipients of the covenant of grace in its historical administration are “elect” persons according to God’s sovereign purposes.
Among those who are under the administration of the covenant, some are non-elect and never come to true faith so as to enjoy the saving benefits of Christ’s redemptive mediation. Despite the privileges and benefits of their participation in the covenant in its outward administration, these members of the covenant community ultimately prove to be unbelieving and impenitent and fall under the greater judgment of God. In order to preserve the biblical teaching regarding God’s sovereign and gracious election, and to account for the perplexing circumstance that not all of those who are recipients of the covenant promises are “children of the promise” in the same sense (cf. Rom. 9:6), Reformed theologians have ordinarily articulated the doctrine of the covenant in a way that allows for the inclusion of non-elect persons within the administration of the covenant of grace.
Though it is difficult to know precisely what some present-day advocates of paedocommunion mean when they insist that all covenant members are in saving union with Christ, it is not difficult to find statements in their writings that assert this in an unqualified manner. Rich Lusk, for example, offers the following definition of the covenant of grace:
On the one hand, some so totally identify covenant and election that to be in covenant and to be elect are one and the same. … At the other extreme are those who identify the covenant with the visible church, but make covenant membership a matter of mere externals. … Against both of these distortions, we must insist that the covenant is nothing less than union with the Triune God, nothing less than salvation. … So when someone is united to the church by baptism, that person is incorporated into Christ and into his body; that person becomes bone of Christ’s bone and flesh of his flesh.
Whether or not Lusk accurately represents the alternatives to his view, it seems clear from this statement that he believes that all believers and their children are in saving union with the Triune God. All covenant members enjoy the richest communion with Christ, such that they are bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. Other advocates of paedocommunion offer similar definitions of what it means to be in the covenant of grace. Every covenant member is understood to enjoy the saving benefits of communion with Christ, which include the forgiveness of sins, regeneration, justification, sanctification, and the like. Since the children of believing parents are members of the covenant community, they too share fully in Christ and his saving work.
Within the framework of this unqualified definition of what it means for all believers and their children to be members of the covenant of grace, contemporary advocates of paedocommunion also assert a strong doctrine of the efficacy of baptism as the sacrament of covenant inclusion. This emphasis upon the significance and efficacy of baptism is of particular relevance to the question whether children of believing parents should be admitted to the Table of the Lord. Since the baptism of the children of believers effectively unites them to Christ and grants them full participation in his saving work, baptism by itself provides a sufficient warrant for admitting such children to the Table of the Lord without requiring a preceding profession of faith.
While there may be some differences among advocates of paedocommunion regarding the efficacy of baptism, some authors ascribe to baptism a kind of power that leads inexorably to an insistence that all baptized persons be admitted to the Lord’s Supper. For example, in his defense of paedobaptism, Rich Lusk insists that the sacrament of baptism does something that even the Word preached does not accomplish. In his interpretation of Acts 2, especially verse 37, Lusk argues that [p]reaching alone is insufficient to make them [believers and their children] participants in Christ’s work of redemption. … Baptism, not preaching per se, is linked with forgiveness and the reception of the Spirit. Clearly, Peter believes God will give them something in baptism that they have not received through preaching alone. Baptism will consummate the process of regeneration begun by the Word preached.
In this statement, the sacrament of baptism is understood to be constitutive of its recipients’ membership in the covenant of grace. Whereas traditional sacramental theology would speak of the Spirit producing faith through the Word and confirming faith through the use of the sacraments, this view of sacramental efficacy ascribes to the sacraments the power to effect communion with Christ in the fullest sense of the term. By virtue of their baptism, believers and their children are constituted members of Christ and participate in the fullness of his redemptive work on their behalf. All of the benefits of Christ’s saving mediation are imparted to those are incorporated into the covenant community by means of baptism.
Another example of this emphasis upon baptism as an effectual means of incorporating believers and their children into Christ is provided by Steve Wilkins. In his understanding of the relation between covenant, baptism, and salvation, Wilkins also proceeds from the conviction that covenant membership involves full, saving communion with the Triune God. All persons who are incorporated into the covenant of grace enjoy “a real relationship, consisting of real communion with the triune God through union with Christ. The covenant is not some thing that exists apart from Christ or in addition to Him (another means of grace)—rather, the covenant is union with Christ. Thus, being in covenant gives all the blessings of being united to Christ.”
The sacrament of baptism is the instrumental means whereby this covenant union with Christ is effected. All who are baptized, accordingly, enjoy the fullness of participation in Christ and are the recipients of all the blessings of such participation, including regeneration, justification, and sanctification. Though it is possible for such persons who through baptism are united to Christ to fall away in unbelief and impenitence, thereby losing the real benefits of salvation that were once their possession, Wilkins maintains that baptism is the means of incorporation into Christ and places its beneficiaries in possession of all the benefits of his saving work.
Within the framework of this understanding of what is true of all members of the covenant community, and of the effectiveness of baptism as constitutive of their incorporation into Christ, the warrant for the admission of children of believers to the Table of the Lord should be apparent. It is a simple matter of theological and covenantal consistency to move from the reality of covenant membership and saving union with Christ, which are the possession of all believers and their children under the covenant of grace, to the reception of children of the covenant at the Lord’s Table.
To exclude children from the Table of the Lord is nothing less than a denial of their covenantal membership and its corresponding privileges. The children of believing parents, who already possess Christ in his fullness, may scarcely be denied a participation in Christ by means of the sacrament that Christ appointed to strengthen communion with himself and to nourish faith. At stake in the debate regarding the admission of children to the Lord’s Table is nothing other than a consistent covenantal hermeneutic or way of interpreting Scripture. Consequently, those who advocate the admission of children to the Lord’s Table upon the basis of their covenant membership regard the historic practice of the Reformed churches on this question to be baptistic and inconsistent.
Some Critical Observations Regarding the Covenant Communion Argument
Some of the features of the contemporary covenant theology that undergird the advocacy of paedocommunion are exceedingly complex and beyond the scope of our interest. However, it is this theology, more than any exegetical arguments that appeal to particular biblical passages, that constitutes the real engine that drives much of the advocacy of paedocommunion today. For our purposes, it will be sufficient to take note of some of the serious problems that this covenant theology entails.
First, the unqualified assertion that all believers and their children—who are embraced within and stand under the covenant of grace in its historical administration—are savingly united to Christ is contrary to the teaching of Scripture and the historic understanding of the Reformed churches. While it is commendable to insist upon the importance of the administration of the covenant of grace in the communication of the saving work of Christ, it is simply impossible to argue that all persons who are embraced within the circle of the covenant enjoy an identical, saving communion with the Triune God.
Though all covenant members are recipients of the gospel promise, which proclaims God’s grace for his people in Christ and is signified and sealed in baptism as a kind of “appendix” (Calvin) to the Word, all covenant members do not enjoy thereby the same fullness of saving union with Christ. The grace of God remains sovereign, even though it is not “arbitrary” in the way it is covenantally communicated. Ordinarily, the triune God works salvation in the lives of his people by means of the administration of the covenant of grace, which includes the proclamation of the gospel Word and the administration of its accompanying sacraments. God sovereignly accomplishes his saving purposes in the way of the covenant and throughout the generations, embracing believers together with their children. However, the Scriptures clearly and frequently remind us that, to use Old Testament language, some of the “circumcised” (and “baptized”) members of the covenant are not genuinely “of” the people of God. They may be “in” the covenant, but they are not genuinely “of” the covenant people of God (see e.g., Deut. 10:16; Jer. 4:4; 9:25–26; John 15:5–8; Heb. 11:20–21; Rom. 2:28–29; 9:6, 11–14; 1 John 2:19).
Once this distinction between covenant membership and authentic, saving communion with God is acknowledged, the argument that covenant membership entitles all believers and their children to be admitted to the Lord’s Table begins to lose some of its persuasiveness. The claim that all believers and their children already enjoy full participation in Christ, and ought therefore to be nourished in Christ at the Table of the Lord, is an unwarranted exaggeration of what covenant membership entails. To insist that all covenant members enjoy true communion with Christ and therefore may not be excluded from the Table of the Lord presumes too much. However much we may emphasize the significance of the covenant relationship between the Triune God and his people (believers and their children), it is simply not true that this relationship entails the salvation of all with whom God covenants.
Second, the understanding of the sacraments that is associated with this covenant theology, borders on a form of “sacramentalism.” Rather than viewing the sacrament as a sign and seal of the promise communicated through the gospel, baptism is understood to effect the incorporation of all its recipients into a saving fellowship with Christ. On this understanding, baptism itself is identified with the grace that it signifies and seals. To use the traditional language of theology, the sacrament of baptism works by its mere performance (ex opere operato, “by the work performed”).
Though proponents of this view of the sacrament do not deny the need for faith on the part of the sacrament’s recipient, the implication is left that all persons who are baptized into the name of the Triune God enjoy on that account the salvation in Christ that the sacrament visibly confirms. The sacrament of baptism not only attests the covenant membership of believers and their children, but it also confers upon all of its recipients the grace to which it points. Consequently, some authors who view baptism in this way are prepared to speak of a kind of “baptismal regeneration” or “baptismal salvation.”
The problem that this conception of baptism creates should be apparent. Whereas the Reformed confessions emphasize the sacramental connection between the “sign” of baptism and the grace “signified,” they resist the temptation to confuse or simply identify the sign with the reality to which it corresponded. The blood and Spirit of Christ, to which baptism points sacramentally, are the means whereby the baptized person’s sins are washed away, not the water of baptism.
Furthermore, in the historic Reformation view of the sacraments’ use in relation to the gospel Word, the sacraments do not add anything to the Word, nor do they effectively communicate the grace of Christ, which they signify and seal, without the presence of faith on the part of their recipients. Only as the Holy Spirit produces faith through the Word of the gospel, to which the sacraments are added as visible signs and seals, do believers enjoy saving communion with Christ. Even the sacrament of baptism, which is administered to the children of believers upon the basis of their covenant status without their knowledge or informed consent, does not confer grace to its recipients unless the Spirit works faith in them. In this understanding of the sacraments, it is essential that baptized members of the covenant community respond to the gospel promise in Christ in the way of faith and obedience. Such faith and obedience are only authored by the Holy Spirit, who uses the preaching of the Word to produce faith and the administration of the sacraments to confirm faith. Such Spirit-authored faith is always indispensable to a right reception and use of the sacraments as means of grace.
The historic practice of the Reformed churches, which requires a prior profession of faith on the part of covenant members who are admitted to the Lord’s Table, is fully coherent with this understanding of the Word and sacraments. Far from representing a failure to think through the implications of the covenant, this practice recognizes that covenant membership, including reception of the sacrament of baptism as a sign and seal of the gospel promise, places believers and their children under definite covenant obligations.
Principal among these obligations is a believing appropriation of the grace of God in Jesus Christ, which is firstly communicated through preaching and secondly attested by the proper use of the sacraments. Since baptism, which visibly confirms the gospel Word, requires Spirit-authored faith in order to communicate God’s grace in Christ, baptized children are required to confirm publicly their appropriation of the covenant promise by way of a public profession of the Christian faith.
Furthermore, since the Lord’s Supper is uniquely the sacramental means of nourishing such faith, the church is biblically warranted to require a rite of public profession as a way of ensuring the presence of faith, which is the mouth whereby Christ is received in the sacrament. Far from constituting an artificial barrier to children of the covenant, the requirement for a preceding profession of faith prior to admission to the Table of the Lord, represents a consistent application of the doctrine of the covenant and the administration of the means of grace. Because the Reformed view rejects the teaching of baptismal regeneration, which ascribes a full and saving union with Christ to all the baptized, it has always rejected the admission of children to the Table without a confirmation of their believing embrace of the gospel promise proclaimed to them in their baptism. It is not surprising, therefore, that contemporary advocates of paedocommunion within the Reformed churches have found it necessary to revise substantially the historic conception of the way God’s grace is communicated to believers and children, particularly by means of the sacrament of baptism.
And third, the argument from covenant membership for the admission of children to the Lord’s Table fails to reckon adequately with the biblical stipulations for the administration of the covenant, including the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Both in the old and new covenants, membership among the covenant people of God bestows real privileges. But such membership also places covenant members under corresponding obligations and responsibilities. Believers and their children are not “automatically” guaranteed access to all the rites of the covenant’s administration.
During the course of our consideration of the biblical evidence regarding admission to the Lord’s Table, we have had occasion to review the Scriptural requirements for admission to the Table. Though we have acknowledged that the promise of the covenant and its sacramental confirmation in baptism constitutes a kind of “invitation” to come to the Table of the Lord in order to be nourished in faith, this invitation is not an unqualified opening-of-thedoor of entrance to whoever wishes to come. It places recipients of the invitation under the obligation to come in the way of faith, after they have “examined” themselves to see whether their faith exhibits the marks that belong to true faith.
Though analogies are often dangerous due to their obvious limitations, sometimes the analogy is used here of what it means for children to be “minor” members of a family, but not yet permitted to enjoy all the privileges of such membership until they come to sufficient maturity. Restrictions upon a child’s exercise of adult responsibilities are not tantamount to a kind of “exclusion” from true membership in the family. Similarly, children who are not permitted to exercise certain privileges within the context of the civil order, are not on that account any less citizens of the civil community. They may not be permitted, for example, to drive a car, since there are certain pre-requisites necessary to the responsible exercise of such a privilege.
No doubt these kinds of analogies are of limited usefulness in evaluating an administration of the new covenant that requires that children of believing parents profess their faith before they are admitted to the Lord’s Supper. But they do serve at least one purpose: they illustrate how it is possible to be a true member of a community, including the covenant people of God, though not yet permitted to enjoy all the benefits of such membership.
In this connection, it is especially important to note that, in the case of the children of believing parents, there are no restrictions upon such children’s access to the primary means of grace and nourishment in Christ that the new covenant church has been given. It is irresponsible, therefore, to insist that children, who are nourished in the richest of foods, the preaching and teaching of the Word of God, are virtually “excommunicated” from the covenant and fellowship with Christ if they are not admitted to the Lord’s Table without a prior profession of faith.
With this brief treatment of a recent form of the argument from covenant membership for paedocommunion, we come to the close of our assessment of the question of the admission of children to the Lord’s Supper. Though my consideration of the case for paedocommunion has led to a negative conclusion, I do not wish to close on a negative note. Nothing in my evaluation of the case for paedocommunion should be taken to suggest that Christian churches do not have an obligation to lead children, on the basis of the covenant promise that was signified and sealed to them in baptism, to the Table of the Lord.
There is a direct pathway that leads from the baptismal font to the Lord’s Supper, and it is the duty of the Christian church accordingly to exert itself in the course of instructing the children of believing parents in the Christian faith. The baptized children of believing parents need to be constantly reminded of the great privileges and corresponding obligations of their membership in the covenant community and of their baptism.
When such children are properly instructed in the faith, the church may expectantly anticipate that they will be admitted to the Table of the Lord, where the faith they have professed will enjoy a most wondrous feast of thanksgiving and communion with the crucified and risen Lord. The spirit and the form in which such children are instructed in the faith in preparation for their coming to the Table of the Lord, should reflect the words of the Lord Jesus himself who said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:14). Despite the claims of paedocommunionists, who often argue that this invitation is belied by the historic practice of the Reformed churches, the instruction of children in the faith before they come to the Lord’s Table is precisely the biblically responsible way in which such children should be brought to the Lord and to his Table.
Dr. Cornelis Venema is the President of Mid-America Reformed Seminary. He is also a contributing editor to The Outlook.