A Calvinistic Baptist is heard saying: “I believe in sovereign predestination. Therefore I do not want my child to be baptised, since I don’t know if he is a reprobate!” An Arminian Pedobaptist rejoins: “If the doctrine of election is true, I can only have fifty percent assurance that my children will be saved regardless of what I do. Therefore I do not believe in the doctrine of election!” A Romish sacramentalist adds: “It does not really matter whether my child is elect or not since God’s election is secret (suppose God does elect), but I want him to be baptised because I want him to go to heaven if he were to die before he professes faith!”

I am not sure if you identify with any of these three positions. But I would propose to you that they all arise out of a faulty view of God’s covenant in relation to children of believers. I believe a proper view of the covenant not only ties in very beautifully with the doctrine of sovereign grace, but directs our lives along a biblical balance that is honouring to Christ our King.

In this short introductory study, we will obviously not be able to cover every ground and answer every objection. However, it is hoped that those who hold to those fallacious positions will be made to rethink their objections to sovereign grace and covenant theology. At the same time, it is hoped that those who are already seeking to build up covenant homes will be strengthened in their resolve, or admonished in regards to their complacency.

Covenant Children
in the Old Testament

Few, if any of us, reading the Old Testament objectively, will fail to see the fact that God relates to His people covenantally. Moreover, although there appears to be numerous covenants mentioned in the Old Testament, it is not difficult to see that these are all administrations or manifestations of the same redemptive covenant which may be known as “the everlasting covenant” (Hebrews 13:20; see “
Unity of the Divine Covenants” in PCC Bulletin, vol. 2, no. 25, dated 17 Dec 2000). Furthermore, few, if any of us, who knows anything of the Old Testament, will not believe that the children of the Jews had a special place in God’s redemptive plan. Again, few, if any, who have read the Old Testament objectively, will fail to see that the relationship that God has with the children of believers (or, if you prefer, Jews) was also a covenantal relationship.

God told Abraham:

And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee.… This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised (Gen 17:7, 10; emphasis mine).

It is clear that God is here promising to be a God to Abraham and his children. That is, the promise is not merely about the land of Canaan (Gen 15:18–21; 17:8), but about a relationship with God. What relationship could the Jews have with God? The writer of Hebrews, under inspiration, teaches us: “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever” (Heb 13:8), and the Lord Himself testifies: “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (Jn 14:6). Unless we do not believe these two statements as being perpetual truths, we shall have to say that the relationship with God that the Jews were promised must have been in Christ!

That being the case, we know that circumcision, which is a token of the covenant (Gen 17:11), is not merely a sign that the circumcised will inherit the promised land, but that he will inherit eternal life. Circumcision is an outward sign pointing to heart circumcision which is wrought by God. Moses confirms this doctrine when he says:

And the LORD thy God will bring thee into the land which thy fathers possessed, and thou shalt possess it; and he will do thee good, and multiply thee above thy fathers. And the LORD thy God will circumcise thine heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live (Deut 30:5–6; emphasis mine).

The land, in other words, is not the essence of the promise. Indeed, the land is but a shadowy type to instruct the Jews of old, of the reality of the spiritual inheritance that God is promising.

In the New Testament, Zacharias the father of John the Baptist, filled with the Holy Ghost, testified that the Messiah who would be born, was coming in fulfilment of the covenant which God made with Abraham:

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for he hath visited and redeemed his people, And hath raised up an horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David; As he spake by the mouth of his holy prophets, which have been since the world began: That we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us; To perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember his holy covenant; The oath which he sware to our father Abraham, That he would grant unto us, that we being delivered out of the hand of our enemies might serve him without fear, In holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life (Lk 1:68–75).

Notice how he makes no reference to the land and also assumes that the promise of redemption from the enemies’ hand (cf. Gen 15:13–14) is still to be fulfilled? This is clearly indicative that the Egyptian captivity and the physical land are but types pointing to spiritual realities. The writer of Hebrews confirms this doctrine by stating plainly that Abraham and his faithful children were not desirous of an earthly plot of land, but “they desire[d] a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city” (Heb 11:16; cf. vv. 9–10, 13–15). The Apostle Paul, moreover, confirms this doctrine by telling us that circumcision is “a seal of the righteousness of [i.e., which is by] the faith which [Abraham] had” (Rom 4:11). God’s promise to the Jews and their seed, in other words, is not so much the land (which served as a type), but “righteousness” or heart circumcision. This was what outward circumcision points to. And what is heart circumcision, but regeneration, and indwelling of the Holy Spirit and union with Christ.

That settled, we see that elsewhere in the Old Testament, the promise of eternal life according to the covenant is repeated in various forms. At the risk of proving that which is obvious, let me quote some of these verses:

 “Know therefore that the LORD thy God, he is God, the faithful God, which keepeth covenant and mercy with them that love him and keep his commandments to a thousand generations” (Deut 7:9).

 “Be ye mindful always of his covenant; the word which he commanded to a thousand generations” (1 Chr 16:15).

 “The counsel of the LORD standeth for ever, the thoughts of his heart to all generations [Heb.: to generation and generation]” (Ps 33:11).

 “So we thy people and sheep of thy pasture will give thee thanks for ever: we will shew forth thy praise to all generations [Heb.: to generation and generation]” (Ps 79:13).

 “For the LORD is good; his mercy is everlasting; and his truth [i.e., faithfulness] endureth to all generations [Heb.: to generation and generation]” (Ps 100:5).

 “But the mercy of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him, and his righteousness unto children’s children; To such as keep his covenant, and to those that remember his commandments to do them” (Ps 103:17–18).

 “He hath remembered his covenant for ever, the word which he commanded to a thousand generations” (Ps 105:8).

 “As for me, this is my covenant with them, saith the LORD; My spirit that is upon thee, and my words which I have put in thy mouth, shall not depart out of thy mouth, nor out of the mouth of thy seed, nor out of the mouth of thy seed’s seed, saith the LORD, from henceforth and for ever” (Isa 59:21).

 “For the moth shall eat them up like a garment, and the worm shall eat them like wool: but my righteousness shall be for ever, and my salvation from generation to generation” (Isa 51:8).

From these and many other verses, I believe it is impossible not to see that God has promised to be a God unto the Old Testament believer and his seed. But how do we reconcile the fact that many of the Jews died in unbelief? The Apostle Paul has an answer:

Not as though the word of God hath taken none effect. For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel: Neither, because they are the seed of Abraham, are they all children: but, In Isaac shall thy seed be called. That is, They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed (Rom 9:6–8).

That is to say: Though God’s covenant promise extends down the generations, it does not mean that every soul in any particular generation will be saved. We can assume that in every generation, there will be “children of the promise,” but it is not necessary that all the children of the flesh are children of the promise. God does not promise: I will save all your children. He promises, I will save your children. This can mean some or all, but it needs not mean all.

Why then were all the believers’ children (the males) to be circumcised? Because God has promised to be a God not only to the Jew but to his children as well. The family, as an organic whole, therefore may be regarded as a Jewish family or God’s family though it is possible that there may be Esau’s and Ishmael’s within.

God’s dealing with believers and their seed in the Old Testament can hardly admit any dispute. But that is in the Old Testament. What about the New Testament?

Covenant Children
under the New Testament

We can be sure that God still relates to His people by way of the covenant, for the writer of Hebrews, in his benediction, says:

Now the God of peace, that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, Make you perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is well pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen (Heb 13:20–21).

But God’s covenant under the Old Testament embraces the children of believers too. Is this still true today? Did not the Apostle Paul says:

Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ.… And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise (Gal 3:16, 29).

Does this not mean that under the New Testament, only adult believers are to be regarded as the children of Abraham? Is not the Apostle telling us that the seed of Abraham is really only a type of Christ? Is he not saying that since Christ has come, we must no more read “seed” as referring to descendants, but to such as are vitally united to Christ? Does this not mean that the Abrahamic covenant is relevant to the believer individually only and not to his children, since the word “seed” is no longer to be regarded as plural but only singular?

I am afraid not. The fact is that it is quite unreasonable to think of the Apostle Paul assigning a new interpretation to the word “seed.” He does not say: “We are no more to think of ‘seed’ as referring to descendants.” The Hebrew word “seed” (zera; and Greek sperma), when used in the present context, has always have a plural as well as a singular aspect. It is, we may say a singular only as a collective-singular (a rough equivalent being the English word “people”). Paul is saying that this singular aspect points to Christ. The fact is: the word “seed,” in the context of the Abrahamic covenant, has always have a singular reference to Christ and a collective-singular reference to all who are united to Christ.

What about its plural meaning of “descendants,” which is the reason why all the physical descendants of Abraham were circumcised (Gen 17:10)? Did Paul eradicate this meaning? No, we have no indication that he is doing so at all. As we mentioned earlier, only the elect amongst the children of the flesh are children of the promise. Circumcision was intended as a seal of righteousness for the children of the promise, but reprobate children, by virtue of their organic unity with their parents, were also circumcised. This is why Paul asserts:

For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God (Rom 2:28–29).

Let me put it this way: the Apostle Paul is highlighting the importance of personal union with Christ: Only such as are in Christ are the true seed of Abraham. But there is no reason to think that he is giving a new interpretation to the Abrahamic covenant so that it has no relevance to the children of believers.

Our Baptist brethren do not at all have a case from Galatians 3:16 or 29 to say that the Apostle Paul abrogated the reference to the children of believers in the Abrahamic covenant!

With this Baptist blind spot eradicated, or at least weakened (for those who still do not see), let us now consider how the New Testament actually affirms our assertion that our children are included under God’s covenant promise.

First, a relatively minor point: Consider how the Apostle Paul teaches us to sing psalms (Eph 5:19; Col 3:16; whatever we may think “songs” and “hymns” are). How can we sing those psalms (some of which are given above) that speak of God keeping His covenant through the generations if it is no longer true?

Secondly, consider how Mary, the earthly mother of the Lord Jesus, rejoices that the blessing of the covenant, which God made with Abraham and his seed, endures from generation to generation:

And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation.… As he spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever (Lk 1:50, 55).

Are we to believe that what was still true then would be destroyed with the coming of the Messiah?

Thirdly, consider the words of the Apostle Peter, said to the crowd gathered at Pentecost: “For the promise is unto you, and to your children…” (Acts 2:39a). Our Baptist brethren are quick to point out that Peter also says: “… and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call” (Acts 2:39). But this is missing the point altogether. Why did Peter mention “and to your children” at all? And how would the Jewish hearers have heard Peter? Surely, they would have heard him reiterating the promise of the Abrahamic covenant: “And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee” (Gen 17:7). What about the reference to all who are afar off? Did not God’s promise to Abraham include blessing upon “all families of the earth” (Gen 12:3)? This, of course, cannot refer to every single family upon the earth, but every family of “strangers from the covenants of promise” (Eph 2:12), which the Lord shall call. Do you notice the reference to families and not just to individuals?

Our Baptist brethren again object: But the promise which Peter made is a promise of the Holy Ghost, it has nothing to do with the Abrahamic covenant. Well, as we have already shown: the promise of the Abrahamic covenant is in essence a promise of the Holy Spirit. But to make it even clearer, consider the words of Paul:

Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree: That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith (Gal 3:13–14; emphasis mine).

Our unconvinced brethren persist: But does not this very verse, which requires the reception of the promise of the Spirit “through faith” invalidate your insistence that the children of believers have a special place in the covenant? Well, our insistence is not ours, but the insistence of the Holy Spirit, for He tells us through Genesis 17 that children are included, and He confirms through Peter that children are included.

Fourthly, if the proofs given so far are still not sufficient, consider how the New Testament speaks of household salvation (which is basically what the “and to thy seed” aspect of the covenant is about). Consider the words of the Lord Jesus concerning Zacchaeus: “This day is salvation come to this house, forsomuch as he also is a son of Abraham” (Lk 19:9). Consider how it is said that Lydia believed, but she and her household were baptised (Acts 16:14–15). Consider how Paul and Silas told the Philippian jailer when he asked: “What must I do to be saved?”—“Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house” (Acts 16:31). Consider how Paul baptised the household of Stephanas (1 Cor 1:16). Our Baptist brethren object that these are all not conclusive that God’s covenant extends to the families. Well, if these are isolated historical records, which cannot be verified by comparing Scripture with Scripture, then we will accede that they are not conclusive. Otherwise to claim that they are not conclusive would be equivalent to a tourist standing before the Merlion and the statue of Raffles, refusing to believe he is in Singapore just because he does not see any sign saying: “Welcome to Singapore.”

But, fifthly, to drive our point further, consider how Dr. Luke, the historian, tells us that some days after Pentecost “many of them which heard the word believed; and the number of the men was about five thousand” (Acts 4:4; emphasis mine). The word “men” translates the Greek anêr, which literally means “man” or “husband,” and is never used in such a context as Acts 4:4, except to refer to “male adults,” or “man… in contrast to woman” (see BAGD, s.v. “anêr”). Surely our Baptist brethren will not insist that there were indeed only males added to the church! How then should we see Luke’s word, but that he is speaking about families being added into the church?

To confirm our thesis, we note that Dr. Luke uses the same word with precision in Luke 9:14 in the context of the feeding of the five thousand: “For they were about five thousand men. And he said to his disciples, Make them sit down by fifties in a company.” Were there only men present? Luke assumes that when he uses the word anêr, he could not possibly be saying that only male adults were present. Matthew fills in the missing details: “And they that had eaten were about five thousand men, beside women and children” (Mt 14:21; emphasis mine). Dr. Luke, we have no doubt, was counting families as represented by the heads of households in both accounts.

This fact stands in contrast with his reference that three thousand “souls” (Greek: psuchê) were baptised and added into the church at Pentecost itself (Acts 2:41). Do we not have good reason to believe that these 3,000 souls included women and children, whereas in the second survey (Acts 4:4) only the men (anêr) were counted? Why does the inspired Scripture account for the new additions into the church in this manner? Surely our Baptist brethren will not say it is merely cultural, or charge Dr. Luke as being a sexist? The fact is that this, and all the other evidences we have laid out, point out uncontrovertibly that God does view His church in the New Testament in terms of families. His covenant with believers is not only with them but also with their seed.

Where Do We Go From Here?

We have show conclusively, I believe, that God’s promise of salvation is unto us and to our children. This is the reason why we baptise our children and include them into the church with all its privileges (including worship, instruction, church discipline and, when they are capable of self-examination, the Lord’s Supper) and bring them up as Christians, or covenant children, just as the Old Testament saints circumcised their infants and included them into the covenant community. We can do no other. In the Old Covenant, the uncircumcised child is excluded from the covenant (Gen 17:14). This neglect was regarded to be so serious in the case of Moses, that God sought to slay him (or his son) for his neglect (Ex 4:24). Under the New Covenant, God does not generally break out in wrath in quite the same way. But do we dare, presumptuously, to disbelieve His promise when there is such a weight of scriptural testimony upon it? Should the fact that God does sovereignly elect whom He will cause us to doubt His promise? Or do we believe His promise, but dare not do what is right for the fear of offending God by baptising a reprobate? Oh, how that speaks of our unbelief and our thinking ourselves to be wiser than God!

Yes, it is true that it is possible that ultimately one or more of our children may be reprobate. But in the first place do we believe God’s promise? Should we not believe as He has said that He would be a God to every of our children unless He should ultimately indicate otherwise? In the second place, do we not realise that we are never to act according to God’s secret decree, but according to His revealed will? His revealed will is that we are to include our children as members of the church and train them up as covenant children, believing that God is able to regenerate them early in their lives. In the third place, do we not realise that although God sovereignly predestinates, He has placed the responsibility of bringing up our children upon our hands? The Lord says of Abraham:

For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the LORD, to do justice and judgment; that the LORD may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him (Gen 18:19).

The scriptural instruction is clear. Though God sovereignly elects and though He has promised to be a God to our children, parental upbringing is the chief instrument to fulfilling the promise. In so saying, we are also asserting that, in general, some form of parental neglect is imputable in most, if not all, cases where the children grow up in unbelief. This is a hard saying, as many parents who have unbelieving grown-up children may perceived that they had done their best, or that they had neglected their children due to ignorance. But the fact remains that God held Eli responsible for the apostasy of Hophni and Phinehas (1 Sam 2:29–30). The fact also remains that David’s failure as a father had direct consequences, such as in the incestuous assault of Amnon (2 Samuel 13, note how the account immediately follows the record of David’s adultery); the rebellion of Absalom (see 2 Samuel 13:21ff); and the uprising of Adonijah (1 Kgs 1:5–6). The same may be said of Hezekiah whose apparently callous attitude towards his children (cf. 2 Kgs 20:19) was very probably the main cause of Manasseh’s wicked apostasy (though his later conversion speaks of God’s sovereign covenant grace, despite Hezekiah’s failures).

What about in the New Testament? Is not the Apostle Paul essentially asserting parental responsibility in the conversion of children when he intimates that elders must have “faithful children” (Tit 1:6)? If parents cannot in any way be held responsible for the faith of their children, how could Paul use it as a qualification for elders? Experience teaches us that there are often mitigating circumstances that require a church to judge on a case by case basis whether an existing elder whose children turn apostate should be held responsible and asked to relinquish his eldership. However, the fact remains that the Scripture places a strong emphasis upon parents for the spiritual upbringing of their children. Concerning our duties, Solomon says: “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Prov 22:6). This counsel must not be taken too lightly. No one who neglects his covenant responsibility to bring up his children according to God’s Word can expect his children to grow up to be believers.


Is there anyone thinking that he can presume that God will save his children even though he disbelieves God’s promise that He will be a God to his children? Is there anyone thinking that if God has promised to save our children, he can safely take a backseat and simply pray for their conversion? Is there anyone of us thinking that it is never too late to start training his children, and so he can delay to do so? Is there anyone of us treating our children like reprobates when God requires us to bring them up as His children? Is there anyone of us setting such high standards upon our children, and such low esteem for God’s promise, that he refuses to believe that God has begun a work of grace in their hearts? Is there anyone of us thinking that baptism ensures salvation and therefore neglecting to call his children to faith and repentance? I beseech you, in the light of the Scriptures, perish these false notions, and think and do aright!

May the Lord grant us, that a right theology will renew our minds and transform our lives by causing us both to enjoy the comfort and assurance of God’s covenant blessing; as well as to lovingly build up our covenant homes according to our covenant responsibilities, to the praise and glory of Christ our covenant Lord. Amen.