Infant Baptism or the New Covenant?

Dr. Gentry:

I am having a discussion with a friend who rejects infant baptism. Is this quote by Greg reflective of his position? It comes from a tape by Dr. Greg Bahnsen where he is commenting on the question as to when children should take communion:

“How about children? Well not children who don’t understand these things because at Passover, remember, the child who took the meal had to say ‘father what do these things mean?’ The child had to be a discerning, understanding child. But now how young can the child be? The answer to that question is ‘I don’t know.’ You bring me a two-year-old who can give me a two-year-old profession of faith and we’ll have that two-year-old take the Lord’s Supper. Some will say well that’s not possible. I don’t know, I don’t know enough about human psychology to tell you whether it is or not, but if it happens I’m not going to say God’s word says eleven years old before you can join the church. There’s nothing like that. And if we’re going to be true to our principles as Reformed people we should not impose prerequisites that the Bible doesn’t impose. There’s no age requirement for the Lord’s Supper.”

B.M. (Odenton, MD)

Dr. Gentry’s response:

Yes, this reflects Greg’s position according to my experience and discussions with him. For instance, he didn’t like using the term “paedocommunion” to describe the position he opposed: he was against baptized infants being allowed communion. The word “paedo” speaks of “children” without reference to age. “Paedo” doesn’t demand the concept of “infant.” He believed in infant baptism but not infant communion. He believed that some children could not only be converted but could also understand enough to give a testimony. This is why in the Preface to Theonomy in Christian Ethics he speaks of Jim Jordan’s views on paedocommunion in a round about way: “automatic infant communion (without sessional examination).” Greg believed in “paedo” communion, if by that you understood that the children were expected to profess faith in Christ. Interestingly, Lee Hahnlen’s testimony is that he is convinced he was converted at age three.

2. In a discussion with a Reformed Baptist, what do I say about the covenant regarding Isaac’s children. She can’t conceive of how a parent could take any comfort in the covenant when Jacob was chosen and Esau wasn’t. It seems to her that it is based on God’s choice, and that the cov’t relationship of the parent did not affect the outcome. What would you say to that?

For a Reformed Baptist I would focus on their strong predestinarian view (which I share). I would remind them that God’s eternal decree of election is unknown to us. As Spurgeon once said: “I wish God put a yellow mark on the back of the elect so that I could lift men’s coattails and tell if they were elect or not. But since he didn’t, I must preach the gospel to all.” By this point I mean that the Reformed Baptist recognizes (with us) that election is the determiner of salvation. And the fact is, many of the children of believers are not elect and will not be saved. As Presbyterians we recognize that election cuts across the covenant. Jacob and Esau are one example of that truth.

But I would then point out that in the historical outworking of redemption we discover that salvation tends to flow in family generations (consider your own children and your Reformed Baptist’s children). The greatest growth of the church has been through family generations. This is a covenantal expectation, not an accident of history. This is a covenantal expectation even though the covenant does not absolutely insure salvation of individuals.

I would also point out that though the covenant is not a guarantee of salvation, it is a means of grace. Like the preaching of the word. Preaching does not guarantee men will be converted, but it is a means God uses to bring men to himself. Some Calvinists have taken the concerns of your friend and developed Hyper-Calvinism: Since God saves men of his own eternal decree, why should I bother preaching, evangelizing, sending out missionaries? This is obviously an abuse of the doctrine of eternal election. So then, covenant families do not guarantee converted children, but it is a means God uses to bring children to himself. The view of your friend could lead to surmising: Since God saves people in terms of his own eternal decree, why should I bother teaching my children the gospel, to pray, to go to church and so forth? I am sure your friend would not go that route, but it is a logical conclusion in that line of thinking.

The covenant has many benefits even though it does not insure election and guarantee salvation: It provides Christian parents with the means whereby they can have a hope for their children (more children of covenant families are saved than those of non-covenant families) and whereby they can train up their children. It obligates parents to covenantally surround their children with all the means of grace and to seek their children’s profession. It provides their children formal obligations to faith, structures for encouraging that faith, and so forth.

Simply put: covenantal theology continues the old covenant’s inclusion of children among the people of God. We should consider some of the implications inherent in the assumption that family generations are excluded from the covenant community of the New Testament era. If families were no longer considered a part of the covenant community or as partakers and beneficiaries of God’s covenant, the question we must raise is: “Why?” Would this imply that the New Covenant (instituted by Christ in Luke 22:20) is less generous than the Old Covenant (contrary to Gal. 3:28), thereby accounting for his excluding the family unit? Or perhaps this suggests that the New Covenant is less potent (contrary to 2 Cor. 3:7-11), thus explaining its ineffectiveness where no personal, self-conscious faith exists? Are infants of believers today more depraved than they were in the Old Covenant era? Is the family of less significance now than then? The answer to each of these questions must be “no!”

I wonder what your friend would have thought had they been born a Jew in the OT period? Would they have looked at Jacob and Esau and concluded there is no comfort in God’s covenant and his covenant is not a means which he uses to effect the outcome of salvation? You see, in the final analysis our obligation is to commit to what Scripture teaches, even when we do not see all of the advantages or do not understand all the implications. That was Isaac’s obligation even when he learned that “Jacob have I loved but Esau have I hated.” We do see God’s covenant established in Scripture.

I hope this is helpful!


Published by

Kenneth Gentry

Married (1971) with three children and six grandchildren (three of them left-handed!). Author of about thirty books, mostly on eschatology. Retired Presbyterian pastor, having served for 37 years in three conservative denominations. Director of GoodBirth Ministries, a Christian educational ministry.

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