The Church Membership Of Children Cleared Up In A Letter In Answer To The Doubts Of A Friend
By Dr. Thomas Shepard
WHEN we say that children are members by their parents’ covenant, I would premise three things for explication.
1. That children of godly parents come to the fruition of their membership by their parents’ covenant, but that which gives them their right and interest in this membership is God’s covenant, whereby he engageth himself equally to be a God to them and to their seed. This I suppose is clear.
2. That according to the double seed, viz., (1.) Elect seed; (2.) Church seed; so there is a double covenant, (1.) External and outward; (2.) Internal and inward. And because the covenant makes the church, hence there is an inward and outward membership and church estate; there is an outward Jew and an inward Jew. (Rom. 2.28,29.) All are not Israel (i.e., the elect seed) that are of Israel, (i.e., the church seed, or in outward covenant,) to whom the apostle saith belongs the adoption, the covenant, and the promises; that is, the external adoption, whereby God accounts them his children, or the children of his house and family, the children of the church; and accordingly have the promises belonging to them in respect of outward dispensation, although they be not children by internal adoption, to whom belong the promises by effectual and special communication of saving grace. It is clearer than the day that many who are inwardly, or in respect of inward covenant, the children of the devil, are outwardly, or in respect of outward covenant, the children of God. Is. 1.2, “I have brought up children,” and yet “rebellious;” and in the next verse they are called “my people,” (i.e., by outward covenant,) and yet worse than the ox, or ass. Deut. 32.19,20, they are called sons, and yet provoking God to revengeful wrath; and children, and yet without faith. And look, as some may be externally dogs, and yet internally believers, (as the woman of Canaan, whom, in respect of outward covenant, Christ calls a dog, and the Jews who yet rejected him children, Matt. 15.26,) so many may be externally children, in respect of external covenant, and yet internally dogs and evil men; and we see that the purest churches of Christ are called saints, and faithful, and children of God, and yet many among them hypocrites and unbelievers; because they that, in respect of church estate, and outward covenant and profession, are outwardly or federally saints, are many times inwardly and really unsound. Hence, therefore, it is, that when we say that children are in covenant, and so church members, the meaning is, not that they are always in inward covenant, and inward church members, who enjoy the inward and saving benefits of the covenant, but that they are in external and outward covenant, and therefore outwardly church members, to whom belong some outward privileges of the covenant for their inward and eternal good.
These things being clear, I the rather make mention of them to undermine divers usual objections against the membership and covenant interest of children; as, that they have no saving grace many times; and that they make no actual profession of any grace, and that many of them degenerate and prove corrupt and wicked, etc.; for suppose all these, yet God may take them into outward covenant, (which is sufficient to make them the church seed, or members of the church,) although he doth not receive them into inward covenant, in bestowing upon them saving grace, or power to profess it; nay, though they degenerate and grow very corrupt afterward.
3. Because you may question what this outward covenant is, to which the seals are annexed, and under which we shall prove children are comprehended; and because the knowledge of it is exceeding useful and very pleasant, I shall therefore give a short taste of it, as a light to our after discourse, especially as it is considered in the largest extent of it. This outward covenant, therefore, consists chiefly of these three branches, or special promises:—
1. The Lord engageth himself to them, that they shall be called by his name, or his name shall be called upon them, as it is Is. 63.19. They shall be called the sons of God, (Hos. 1.10,) and the people of God, (Deut. 29.12,13;) thou becamest mine, (Ezek. 16.8.) They may not be his sons, and people, really and savingly, but God will honor them outwardly (at least) with this name and privilege; they shall bear his name, to be called so, and consequently to be accounted so by others, and to be reckoned as of the number of his visible church and people, just as one that adopts a young son; he tells the father, if he carry it well toward him, when he is grown up to years he shall possess the inheritance itself; but yet, in the mean while, he shall have this favor, to be called his son, and be of his family and household, and so be reckoned among the number of his sons. See Rom. 9.4.
2. The Lord promiseth that they shall, above all others in the world, have the means of doing them good, and of conveying of the special benefits of the covenant. Nay, they shall be set apart above all people in the world, to enjoy these special benefits of remission of sins, power against sin, eternal life, etc., and shall certainly have these, by these means, unless they refuse them; this is evident from these and such like scriptures and examples: What privilege hath the Jew? (saith the apostle, Rom. 3.1, and what advantage by circumcision, if by nature under wrath and sin? for upon that ground the apostle makes the question:) he answers, It is much every way, but chiefly because to them were committed the oracles of God, i.e., the word, promises, covenant; which are the ordinary means of saving grace and eternal good: others hear the word, but these in outward covenant enjoy it by covenant and promise; and hence these, in the first place and principally, are sought after by these means; and therefore Christ forbids his disciples at first to go preach in the way of the Gentiles, (persons out of covenant,) but to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, (Matt. 10.6;) and himself tells the woman of Canaan that he came not but to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. (Matt. 15.24.) And although he bids his disciples go preach to all nations, yet (Acts 3.26) it is said, Unto you first hath he sent Christ, because you are children of the promise and covenant, (ver. 25;) repent therefore, and be converted. (ver. 19.) Do not resist or refuse Christ, for he hath first sent Christ to you, to bless you and turn you from your iniquities; and the promise is full and fair. (Rom. 11.23.) If they abide not in unbelief, (i.e., in refusing grace and Christ when offered,) they shall be grafted in, for God is able to do it, and will do it; and the reason why the Lord gave his people up to their own counsels, it was because “my people would none of me,” after all the means God used for their good. (Ps. 81.11-13, and Deut. 7.6.) The Lord hath chosen you, above all people on the earth, to be a special people to himself, and thou art a holy people unto the Lord. How a holy people? By inward holiness? No, verily; for many of them were inwardly unholy, both parents and children; but thou art holy, i.e., thou art externally sanctified and set apart, by special means of holiness, to be a special people unto God. And therefore (Is. 5.7) the men of Judah are called God’s pleasant plant; i.e., planted into the root and fatness of the church, and therefore had all means used for their further special good. (ver. 4.) “What could be done to my vineyard that hath not been done?” And hence it is, that though the word may come to heathens as well as church members, yet it comes not to them by way of covenant, as it doth to church members; nor have they any promise of mercy aforehand, as church members have; nor is it chiefly belonging to such, but unto the children of the covenant and the promise, as hath been said. And hence also it follows that God never cuts off the seed of his servants from the special benefits of the covenant, until they have had the means thereunto, and they have positively rejected those means; and hence the Jews (who are made the pattern of what God will do toward all Gentile churches, Rom. 11.) were never cast off till by positive unbelief they provoked the Lord to break them off by rejecting and refusing the means of their eternal peace.
3. The Lord promiseth that the seed of his people (indefinitely considered) shall have this heart (viz., which would refuse special grace and mercy) taken away, as well as means used for that end; this is evident from Deut. 30.6, “The Lord thy God will circumcise thy heart and the heart of thy seed to love the Lord;” he will cut off the uncircumcision, and sin, and resistance of the heart against God; he will take away the stony heart; not indeed from all in outward covenant particularly, but from these indefinitely; so that there is no promise to do this for any out of the visible church, (though God of his sovereignty and free mercy sometimes doth so,) but the promise of this belongs indefinitely to those of his church, among whom usually and ordinarily he works this great work, leaving him to his own freeness of secret mercy, to work thus on whom he will, and when he will; in the mean while no man can exclude himself, or any others within this covenant, from hope of this mercy and grace, but may with comfort look and pray for it; for this is God’s covenant, that the Redeemer shall come out of Sion, and turn away ungodliness from Jacob, (Rom. 11.26,27;) for the covenant of God doth not only run thus, If thou believe and receive grace, thou shalt have it; but thus also, I will circumcise your heart, I will take away the stony heart, I will turn away ungodliness from you, I will enable to believe. And hence these three things follow from these things thus opened:—
1. That as the covenant runs not only thus, viz., “If thou believest though shalt be saved,” but also, “I will enable to believe,” so a man’s entrance into covenant is not only by actual and personal profession of faith, (as some say,) because God’s covenant runs a peg higher, viz., to make and enable some to believe, and so to make that profession.
2. That the very outward covenant is not merely conditional, but there is something absolute in it; and hence it follows that it is a great mistake of some who think that circumcision and baptism seal only conditionally, the outward covenant being, say they, merely conditional; for those three things mentioned in the outward covenant, you see, are in some respect absolute, and if the covenant was only conditional, then the Lord was no more in covenant with church members than with pagans and infidels; for it may be propounded conditionally to all such, that if they believe they shall be saved; but assuredly God’s grace is a little more extensive to the one than to the other.
3. Hence you may see what circumcision once did, and baptism now seals unto; even to infants the seal is to confirm the covenant; the covenant is, that God (outwardly at least) owns them, and reckons them among his people and children within his visible church and kingdom, and that hereupon he will prune, and cut, and dress, and water them, and improve the means of their eternal good upon them, which good they shall have, unless they refuse in resisting the means; nay, that he will take away this refusing heart from among them indefinitely, so that though every one can not assure himself that he will do it particularly for this or that person, yet every one, through this promise, may hope and pray for the communication of this grace, and so feel it in time.
These things thus premised, to clear up the ensuing discourse, I shall now do two things. (1.) Leave a few grounds and reasons to prove that children are in church covenant, and so enjoy church membership by their parents. (2.) I shall then answer your scruples.
Argument 1. To the first. The truth of it is manifest by clearing up this proposition, viz., that one and the same covenant, which was made to Abraham in the Old Testament, is for substance the same with that in the New; and this under the New Testament the very same with that of Abraham’s under the Old.
I say, for substance the same; for it is acknowledged that there was something proper and personal in Abraham’s covenant, as to be a father of many nations; but this was not of the substance of the covenant, which belongs to all the covenanters, and unto which the seal of circumcision was set; for all Abraham’s seed, neither in those nor these days, are the fathers of many nations, nor did circumcision seal it.
Again: it is confessed that the external administrations of this one and the same covenant are diverse; but still the covenant for substance is the same. For that old covenant was dispensed with other external signs, sacrifices, types, prophecies, than this under the new. There was something typical in Abraham’s covenant concerning Canaan, a type of heaven; but yet the same covenant remains now with a more naked manner of dispensation, or promise of heaven. And hence it follows that, if it may appear that the covenant itself is one and the same now as then, then as now, then it will undeniably follow that, if the new covenant under the gospel be not a carnal covenant, no more was that; if the new covenant be not proper to Abraham’s natural seed, no more was that which was made with Abraham; if the substance of that covenant was, “I will be a God to thee and thy seed,” then this very covenant remains still under the gospel, it being one and the same with that; if, by virtue of that covenant, the children were made members of the church, and hence had a church privilege, and seal administered, then, the same covenant remaining the same, and in the same force and benefit, our children also are taken into the like membership. It remains therefore to prove that which all our divines have long since made good against the Papists, that the covenant then and now is for substance one and the same; or that the covenant made with Abraham was a gospel covenant, and this gospel covenant the same that was made with Abraham.
1. The covenant made with Abraham is renewed in the gospel, as to the main thing in it, viz., I will be their God, and they shall be my people, (Heb. 8.10; Jer. 31.33;) and though the seed be not expressed, yet it is understood, as it is Gen. 17.8, and if need be shall be proved hereafter.
2. Because Abraham’s covenant is of gospel and eternal privileges; not proper therefore to him, and his fleshly posterity; for righteousness by faith was sealed up by circumcision, (Rom. 4.11,) which is a gospel privilege, and is the ground of all other privileges; and yet in Gen. 17.7, there is no expression of this righteousness by faith, but it is understood therefore in this, I will be their God. So the promise of eternal life and resurrection thereunto is wrapped up in this, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”
3. Because there was never any covenant but it was either of grace or works; that of works on Mount Sinai, that of grace which was made with Abraham; and hence (Gal. 3.17) the covenant which was confirmed afore by Christ, the law four hundred and thirty years after can not disannul. And what was that covenant before? Surely it was the covenant of grace, because it was confirmed by Christ: and what was this covenant confirmed by Christ but the covenant made with Abraham? for of this the apostle speaks, (ver. 14,16,) and he calls it expressly by the name of gospel, or the gospel covenant. (ver. 8,9.)
4. Because, when God reneweth his promise and covenant made with Abraham with his people at the plains of Moab, (Deut. 30.6,) it runs in these words, viz.: “I will circumcise thy heart, and the heart of thy seed.” Now, this is a gospel privilege and a gospel covenant, as appears by comparing this text with Rom. 10.8, wherein the righteousness of faith, or the gospel, is brought in speaking the words of this covenant, saying, “The word is nigh thee, in thy heart and mouth.” (Deut. 30.11-14.) Now, if that place (Gen. 17.7) should be said to be obscure concerning the promise, (I will be a God to thy seed,) yet here in this place God speaks plainly, which by comparing the Scriptures is a gospel promise, and of a gospel privilege, and therefore to be preached by ministers of the gospel, and to be believed by the professors of it.
5. Because this promise (I will be a God to thee and thy seed) doth not belong to Abraham and his seed as after the flesh, or as lineally descended of Abraham, but as believers; and this is most evident Rom. 11., wherein it is said of the Jews, (1.) That they were broken off (made no people, no church) by unbelief. (ver. 20.) (2.) That by faith they shall be graffed in again. (ver. 23.) If, therefore, they were broken off the church by unbelief, then they stood as members of the church by faith; and if by faith they should be graffed in, then they stood by faith at first. Again: it is said, in this Rom. 11.28, that they are loved for the fathers’ sakes, surely not as natural fathers, but as spiritual by faith; and hence (Neh. 9.8) it is expressly said, that God found Abraham faithful before him, and made a covenant with him.
Again: if the posterity of Abraham were members upon this ground only or chiefly, (viz., because they were lineally descended of Abraham, then Esau, Ishmael,) the Jews (Rom. 11.20) could never have been cast off from being members of the church, because they were always the natural offspring and posterity of Abraham. Hence, therefore, it follows that, if they were ingraffed in the church as believers, (the fathers as actually believing, the children as set apart by promise of God to be made to believe, and in their parents’ faith accounted believers,) then all believers at this day have the same privilege, and the covenant then, being made only in respect of faith, must needs be gospel covenant, the same with God’s covenant at this day. And hence, also, it follows that if they were members as believers, then not as members of that nation. They were not, therefore, members of the church, because they were descended of Abraham, and were in a national church, and were by generation Jews. Circumcision was a seal of righteousness by faith, (Rom. 4.11;) therefore they were sealed as believers.
Thus much for the first argument, wherein I have been the larger, because much light is let in by it, to answer divers mistakes. I shall name the rest with more brevity.
Argument 2. If it was the curse of Gentiles to be strangers to the covenants of promise (made with the Jews) before they became the churches of God, then by being churches this curse is removed: and hence (Eph. 2.12,13) the apostle saith they were strangers to the covenant and commonwealth of Israel, but are not so now. If you say that the Ephesians were in covenant, but not their seed, and so they were not strangers, I answer, that the apostle doth not set out their cursed estate merely because they were without any covenant, but because they were strangers to that covenant of promise which the Israelites had; for if their children had it not, they were then as without covenant, so without God and without hope, as pagans are, which is notoriously cross to the current of all Scripture, as may afterward appear.
Argument 3. The apostle expressly saith, “Your children are holy,” (1 Cor. 7.14;) and if federally holy, then of the church, (for real holiness can not be here meant,) and in the covenant of it; even as it is said, (Deut. 7.6,) Thou art “a holy people unto the Lord thy God,” few of which number were really and savingly holy; but they were all so federally, or by covenant, and so became God’s special church or people.
If you say that this holiness is meant of matrimonial holiness, viz., that your children are not bastards, but legitimate, the answer is easy; for upon this interpretation the apostle’s answer should be false; for then, if one of the parents had not been a believer, and so by his believing sanctified his unbelieving wife, their children must have been bastards; whereas you know that their children had not been in that sense unclean or illegitimate, although neither of them were believers; for the apostle’s dispute is plain, viz., that, if the believing husband did not sanctify his unbelieving wife, then were your children unclean, i.e., say you, bastards; but it is evident that children may be in this sense clean, and yet no faith in either parent to sanctify one another to their particular use, unless you will say that all children of heathens are bastards, because neither of the parents believe.
Argument 4. Rom. 11.17, “The Jews are cut off from the fatness of the olive tree, and the Gentiles put in, or ingraffed in their room.” Now, this ingraffing is not into Christ by saving faith, for it is impossible that such should ever be broken off who are once in; it must therefore be meant of their ingraffing into the external state of the visible church, and the fatness and privileges thereof, of which church Christ is the external and political head, into whom (in this respect) they are ingraffed by external visible faith and covenant. Hence thus I reason: that if the Jews and their children were ingraffed members of the church, then the Gentile churches ingraffed into the same state, and coming in their room, are, together with their children, members of the church; when the Jews hereafter shall be called, they shall be ingraffed in as they were before, them and their seed. (ver. 23.) In the mean while the apostle puts no difference between the present ingraffing of the Gentiles now and of theirs past, or to come, and therefore they and their seed are ingraffed members now.
Argument 5. Because there is the same inward cause moving God to take in the children of believing church members into the church and covenant now, to be of the number of his people, as there was for taking the Jews and their children; for the only cause why the Lord took in the Jews and their children thus, was his love and free grace and mercy. Deut. 4.37, “Because he loved thy fathers, therefore he chose their seed;” which choosing is not by eternal election, or choosing to glory, for many of their seed never came to glory, but unto this privilege, to be his people above all others in outward covenant with him; which is exceeding great love, if you remember what hath been said of the branches of this outward covenant and visible church estate. And hence, (Deut. 10.15,) “because the Lord had a delight in thy fathers,” hence he chose their seed above all people, as at that day, viz., to be his people; so that I do from hence fully believe that either God’s love is in these days of his gospel less unto his people and servants than in the days of the Old Testament, or, if it be as great, that then the same love respects the seed of his people now as then it did. And therefore, if then because he loved them he chose their seed to be of his church, so in these days, because he loveth us, he chooseth our seed to be of his church also.
Argument 6. Because our Saviour speaks plainly of all children who are brought to him, that of such is the kingdom of heaven; and none are ordinarily heirs of the kingdom of glory but such as are of God’s visible church and kingdom here. The objections against this place I think not worth confuting, because I hope enough is said to clear up this first particular, to prove the children of confederate believers to be in covenant, and church members.
I now proceed to the second thing, viz., to answer your objections.
Objection 1. If children (say you) be members, as it was in Abraham’s covenant, then wives and servants, and all the household, are to be taken in; for so it was Gen. 17. and Gen. 35.2,3; and then what churches shall we have but such as you fear God will be weary of and angry with?
Answer. Churches at first (by your own confession) were in families, where therefore God’s grace did the more abound by how much the less it did abound abroad. And hence Abraham’s family and household was a church of God: but yet consider withal that all were not of this family church, merely because they were of the family or household, but because they were godly, or the children of such as were godly in the family; for Abraham’s servants and household were such as he could and did command to keep the way of the Lord, and so were obedient to God in him, (Gen. 18.19;) and we see they did obey, and did receive that new, strange, and painful sign of circumcision, about the nature and use of which, no doubt he first instructed them; and in the place you mention, (Gen. 35.4,) they “gave to Jacob all their strange gods and earrings” to worship God more purely. And it is evident (Ex. 12.45) that every one in the family had not to do with the seals of the church, and therefore now not of the church, though of the family; for a foreigner or hired servant was not to eat of the passover, nor was every one who was bought with money to eat of it until they were circumcised, (ver. 44,) nor were any such to be circumcised until they were willing and desirous to eat the passover, and that unto the Lord; then, indeed, they and theirs were first to be circumcised, (ver. 48;) and although this be not expressly set down (Gen. 17.) in Abraham’s family, yet I doubt not but that as one scripture gives light unto another, so this scripture in Exodus shows the mind of God in the first beginning of the church, as well as in these times: if, therefore, the servants who were godly in the family were only to be circumcised, and their children born in the house with them, then this example is no way leading to corrupt churches, as you fear it will, but rather the contrary, that if proselyte servants then were received into the church together with their seed, much more are they received now; and if they did not defile the church then, neither should we think that they will do so now.
And, I beseech you, consider of it, that God was then as careful of keeping his church holy as in these days, especially in the first constitution of it, as in this of Abraham’s. (Gen. 17.) And hence God was as much provoked by their unholiness then as by any unholiness now. (1 Pet. 1.16.) Suppose, therefore, (as you imagine,) that all the household, whether profane or holy, were to be received into the covenant, and so to the seal of it, do you think that this course of admitting all profane persons then would not make the Lord soon weary of, and angry with, those family churches, as well as of national or congregational, now, upon the like supposition? If, therefore, any servants born in the house, or hired, were admitted, surely they were not such unholy ones, whom the Lord could not but be as much angry with then as now; but they were godly and holy, at least in outward profession, upon which ground the Lord commanded them to be circumcised.
I know there are some, and very holy and learned also, who think that if any godly man undertakes to be as a father to an adopted pagan or Indian, that such a one, not grown up to years, is, from the example in Gen. 17., to be received into the covenant of the church, and the seal of it; and I confess I yet see no convicting argument against it, if it could be proved that some servants bought with Abraham’s money were such, and were under years; but I see as yet no convicting argument for this assertion from this example, and therefore I stick to the former answer, and see no reason from any rule of charity but to believe that all those in Abraham’s family were either visibly godly or the children of such, to whom circumcision belongs, and consequently might as well partake of church membership as Abraham himself; which sort of servants, in these days, may as well be admitted to church membership without fear of defiling the church as their masters themselves.
Objection 2. If children (say you) be members, then all children, good and bad, must be received, as Jacob and Esau, etc.
Answer. Why not? For if there be any strength in this argument, it holds as strongly against the admission of professing visible believers; where, though all are externally and federally holy, yet some, yea, many, yea, the greatest part of such, may be inwardly bad, and as profane in their hearts as Esau; and must we therefore refuse them to be church members because many of them may be inwardly bad? Verily, there must then never be churches of God in this world. So it is among children: they are all outwardly holy, yet many of them may be inwardly unholy, like Esau: must we not, therefore, accept them to membership? It is a miserable mistake to think that inward, real holiness is the only ground of admission into church membership, as some Anabaptists dispute; but it is federal holiness, whether externally professed, as in grown persons, or graciously promised unto their seed.
Reply 1. But you here reply, If so, then they are of the church when they are grown up, and profane until they are cast out; and to take in profane is sinful. (Ezek. 44.)
Answer. It is very true; for it is herein just as it is in admitting professing believers; they may prove profane, and continue so in church membership until they are cast out; but is this therefore any ground to keep out those who are personally holy by their own profession? No, verily; why, then should such as are parentally and federally holy be kept out from church membership because they may prove profane, and being profane must remain church members till they be cast out.
Reply 2. But then (you say) they must be church members though their parents themselves and the whole church be unwilling thereunto, even as (say you) a man that marrieth a woman, her children must be his, and he be a father to them, though he, and she, and they should say he shall not be a father-in-law [step-father] to them.
Answer. This similitude of marriage doth neither prove nor illustrate the thing; for the relation between father and such children is absolute and natural, and hence continues though they say he shall not be their father, and though he profess he will not; but the relation founded upon church covenant between member and member is not natural, nor only and always absolute, but also conditional, which condition not being kept, the relation may be and is usually broken; for look, as the Jews were not so absolutely God’s people, but, if they did in time reject the gospel, they were to be cast off, and indeed are so at this day, (Rom. 2.25; Hosea 2.2; Acts 13.46,51,) so it is with all Gentile churches, and the members thereof; and as for that which you last say, that they may refuse their parents’ covenant at age as well as own it, and so may members go out at pleasure, which is disorder, I answer, that the like may be said of such members as come in by personal profession, for they may renounce their own covenant with God and the church: one may do so, and so may twenty; yet, though this be wickedness and disorder, yet the church may proceed against them, and so it may against their children, who are bound to own the covenant made with God, and of God with them in their parents, as well as any church members are to own their own covenant by their own personal profession. What disorder, therefore, will come in as you conceive this way, will come in by your own way, and what course you should take to heal the one, by the same you may heal the other.
Objection 3. If children (say you) be members, then their seed successively, until they be either dissolved or excommunicated; and if so, then what churches shall we have?
Answer. 1. What churches shall we have? Truly, not always churches of angels and saints, but mixed with many chaffy hypocrites, and ofttimes profane persons. But still I say this objection holds as firm against gathering churches of visible professing believers; for God knows what churches we may have of them, even heaps of hypocrites and profane persons, for I know not what can give us hope of their not apostatizing, but only God’s promise to be a God to them and to preserve them; and truly the same promise being made to their seed gives me as much ground of faith to hope well of churches rising out of the seed of the godly, as of the professing parents themselves. I know one may have more experimental charity concerning some few professing the fear of God; but my church charity is equal about them, especially considering that those whom God receives into church covenant, he doth not only take them to be a people to him, but to establish them to be such, viz., for time to come. And hence God is said to establish his covenant with Isaac, not Ishmael, who was to be rejected, (Gen. 17.19,) and God is said to gather them into covenant, to establish them to be a people, both young and old, present posterity and that which was to come. (Deut. 29.11-15.)
2. God was as holy and as exactly requiring holiness from the Jewish church as well as from Christian churches: now, do you think that the covenant which then wrapped up the Jews’ children into church membership was a highway of profaneness and unholiness in the members thereof, and of defiling and polluting God’s church? or was it a way and means of holiness, and to keep them from being profane? To affirm the first is something blasphemous and very false, for it is expressly said, (Jer. 13.11,) that “as the girdle cleaveth to the loins of a man, so he caused the whole house of Israel (not grown men only) to cleave to him, that they might be to him a people, (which was by covenant,) and for a name, for a praise, and for a glory.” God’s name, glory, praise, was the end, and the covenant was the means hereunto; and therefore it was no way or means of unholiness in that church; but if you say it was a means of holiness, why then should we fear the polluting of churches by the same covenant, which we have proved wraps in our seed also? Indeed, they did prove universally profane in the Jewish church; so they may in ours; but shall man’s wickedness in abusing God’s grace, and forsaking his covenant, tie the hands or heart of God’s free grace from taking such into covenant? What though some did not believe? saith the apostle, (Rom. 3.3,4,) “Shall their unbelief make the faith of God without effect? God forbid.”
3. Suppose they do prove profane and corrupt churches; yet even then, when they are corrupt, they are such churches where ordinarily God gathers out his elect, and out of which (till purer are gathered, or these wholly rejected) there can not be expected ordinarily any salvation; for so saith our Saviour, “Salvation is of the Jews,” (John 4.22,) even in that very corrupt and worst estate of the church that ever it was in.
Objection 4. If children be members, then they must come to the Lord’s supper; for you know no difference between member and member in point of privilege, unless they be under some sin.
Answer. 1. Yes, verily, there is a plain difference between member and member (though professing believers) in point of privilege, though they lie under no sin; for a man may speak and prophesy in the church, not women. A company of men may make a church, and so receive in and cast out of the church, but not women, though professing saints.
2. All grown men are not to be admitted (though professing believers) to the Lord’s supper: my reason is, a man may believe in Christ, and yet be very ignorant of the nature, use, and ends of the Lord’s supper: now, such may be baptized as soon as ever faith appears, (Mark 16.16,) but they may not be admitted to the Lord’s supper, because they will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord, if they through their ignorance can not discern the Lord’s body. I know no reason but ignorant persons may be as well suspended from the use of this privilege, though they be true believers, (for faith may consist with much ignorance,) as well as distracted persons, who, notwithstanding, may be believers also.
3. If, therefore, children be able to examine themselves and discern the Lord’s body, they may then eat; and herein there is no difference in this privilege between member and member.
4. Children not being usually able to examine themselves, nor discern the Lord’s body, hence they are not to be admitted to the use of this privilege; and yet they may be such members as may enjoy the benefit of other privileges, even that of baptism; for baptism seals up our first entrance into the covenant. This first entrance is not always by personal profession of faith, but by God’s promise of working, or of vouchsafing the means of working of it: now, children (as is proved) being under this covenant, (as we see all the posterity also of Abraham was,) hence, though children can not profess faith, nor actually examine themselves, yet they may receive, and must receive, baptism, being already under God’s covenant; but because the Lord’s supper doth not seal up this first entrance and first right to the covenant, but our growth and fruition of the covenant, hence this act on our part is required to participate in this, which the apostle calls self-examination, and the act of taking and eating Christ, and of discerning the Lord’s body, and of doing this in remembrance of Christ, which every baptized person and church member is not always able to do. A child may receive a promise aforehand of a rich estate given him, and this promise sealed up to him, his father receiving it for him; but it is not fit that he should be put to the actual improvement and fruition of that estate until he is grown up, understands himself, and knows how to do it: so it is here; the sacrament of the Lord’s supper requires ability, (1.) To take Christ as our own; (2.) To eat Christ; that is, to take fruition of him; the which acts of faith God doth not require of all those immediately who are wrapped up in covenant with him.
Objection 1. But here you say that that examination (1 Cor. 11.) is required of all that be members, and that at all times, as well as at their first coming to the Lord’s supper.
Answer. This examination is indeed required of all those members who should partake of the Lord’s supper, but it is not required (as you seem to say) of every one to make him a member, so that none can be a member but him that is able to examine himself; for God’s covenant to work faith, and to give power to examine one’s self afterward, may make some as truly members as those who are able to act and express their faith. Now, I have proved that God’s covenant is aforehand given to children; and to give them the seal of their first entrance into it many years after is as vile a thing as for them that are able and fit to examine themselves to have this sacrament of the Lord’s supper denied or delayed till many years after.
Objection 2. But you say, It is left to every one’s conscience to examine himself, not that others should examine them, and consequently, if children be members, then it must be left upon their conscience.
Answer. We know in our own consciences that children usually can not examine themselves: now, if the elders and the church are bound to see Christ’s rules observed by others, and if this examination be the rule that all must walk by who participate here, then they must not suffer such young ones, no, nor persons grown up and entered in by personal profession, to receive this seal as they know are unable thus to do. I think, if churches should degenerate in these days, this course of discipline should be attended (especially by the elders) toward any of their members, which way soever they have entered, whether by their own or by their parents’ covenant. And I have oft feared that there is some need already of it, even toward some who enter by their own covenant, and may have faith, but are miserably to seek in the nature, use, and ends of the Lord’s supper, and consequently unfit to discern of Christ’s body, and so to come to that sacrament.
Objection 5. If children may be members, and yet not come to the Lord’s supper, then it may come to pass that a whole church may be a church, and yet not have the Lord’s supper, or ought not to have it.
Answer. 1. So there may; for a church may be a true church, and yet want the benefit of some one or more of God’s ordinances, sometimes pastors, sometimes elders, sometimes seals.
2. A church of professing believers may degenerate, and turn profane, and sottish, and so have no just right to the seals; and their officers may leave them, and so have no use of the seals; yet I suppose it is a church of Christ still, though degenerate, though unfit to enjoy seals: will you therefore think the way of their membership unlawful, viz., by professing their faith, because such a rare thing as this may happen? Why, then, should you think the way of children’s membership unlawful, because of the like rarity in such a dark and gloomy state of them as you mention?
Objection 6. If children be members, then there will be many in the church who are not saints by calling, nor faithful in Christ Jesus, which ought not to be if the church could see it; hut these may be too plainly seen.
Answer. 1. I do think it is true that poor children may be and are looked upon with too many dejected thoughts of unbelief, despising of them as children of wrath by nature, and not with such high thoughts of faith as children and sons of God by promise, as I have shown. And I think herein is our great sin, as it was in Christ’s own disciples, who were the first that we read of that would not have little children brought unto him, for which he rebuked them, showing their privilege; and for want of which faith in God’s promise about our children, certainly God smites and forsakes many of our children.
2. If, therefore, you think that church members must consist only of saints by calling, so that your meaning is, such saints as are so by outward and personal profession, from the call of the gospel, are only to be church members, this is an error; for, (1.) You know that they who define a church to be a number of visible saints, they usually put this phrase in, “and their seed,” who may not profess faith perhaps as their fathers do, and you shall find that the Israel of God, under the Old Testament, are all of them said to be adopted, (Rom. 9.4,) chosen, and called, (Is. 41.8,9,) and faithful, (Is. 1.21,) and yet we know they were not all so by personal profession, but in respect of their joint federation and the outward covenant of God with them. (2.) The outward covenant is not always first entered into by personal profession of faith, but by God’s covenant of promise to work, or to use the means to work faith. Hence it undeniably follows that as many may be in church covenant before they profess faith personally, so many may be members of the church without this profession of faith; for this covenant of working faith (as hath been formerly explained) doth not only belong to the Jews, but to Gentile churches also, and believers, as hath been proved, and might further be confirmed.
Objection. But say you, If we saw hypocrites, we were to cast them out as well as profane persons; and we see no grace in many children, and therefore they must not be received in.
Answer. 1. If you see children of whom you can not say that they are faithful personally, yet they may be faithful federally, (as hath been showed,) for they may lie under God’s covenant of begetting faith by some means in them, and then you are not to cast them out, but accept them, as God doth.
2. The children of godly parents, though they do not manifest faith in the gospel, yet they are to be accounted of God’s church until they positively reject the gospel, either in themselves or in their parents; and therefore God did never go about to cast off the Jews and their seed, until they put forth positive unbelief; the Lord promised to give them the means of faith, and did so; and when Christ was come, and the gospel sent first unto them for their good, the Lord herein fulfilled his covenant mercy, as toward his beloved people; but when they rejected these means, and cast off Christ and his gospel, then (Rom. 11.) they were broken off, and not before. Now, hypocrites are such as profess Christ in words, and yet deny Christ in deed. (Titus 1.16; 2 Tim. 3.5.) Hence they are such as positively refuse Christ; hence the case of children in whom no positive unbelief appears is not the same with this of hypocrites or profane persons; and when young children shall grow positively such, I know not but they may be dealt with as any other members for any such like offense.
Thus you see an answer to your six objections. In the end of your paper there are two questions, which I suppose may not a little trouble against their baptism and membership. To these briefly.
Question 1. What good (say you) is it either for a wicked or an elect child, till he be converted, to be in the church? or what good may any have by being in the church, till they can profit by what they enjoy?
Answer. 1. The apostle puts the like case, and gives you an answer, (Rom. 3.1,2,) “What advantage hath the Jew? and what profit is there of circumcision?” What use or profit could the infants then make of their church covenant, membership, or seal, who understood none of these things? Do you think the Lord exposed his holy ordinances then unto contempt, and is more careful that they may be profitably used now? Was there no good by circumcision? Yea, saith the apostle, much every way.
2. What profit is it to persons grown up to years, and yet secretly hypocrites, who enter into the church by profession of the faith? You will say there is good and profit in respect of the privileges themselves, but, they abusing them, they had, in this respect, better have been without them, because they bring hereby upon themselves greater condemnation. The same say I of children, whom God receives into his church by promise and covenant of doing them good, although at present they may not be so sensible of this good.
3. To speak plainly, the good they get by being thus enriched is wonderful. And here there is more need of a treatise than of a letter, to clear up the benefits from all scruples arising by being in outward covenant in church fellowship, even unto infants. I confess I find little said by writers upon this subject, and I believe the doubts against children’s baptism, as they arise by blindness in this particular, so I think that God suffers that opinion to take place, that by such darkness he may bring out light in this particular. I will only hint unto you some few of my many thoughts, which have long exercised me for many years in this thing. The good by children’s membership, especially when sealed, is in four things.
1. In respect of God. God shows hereby the riches of his grace toward them, in taking them to be his people; in adopting them to be his children; in preventing them with many special promises aforehand of doing them good; by all which the Lord doth, as it were, prevent Satan, in wooing their hearts, as it were, so soon to draw them to him before he can actually stir to draw their souls from him. So that I beseech you, consider; suppose they can not as yet understand, and so make profit by all this; yet is it not good for them, or for any of us, to partake of God’s grace before we know how to make use of it? Is it not good for God to be good to them that are evil? Is it not good for God to glorify and make manifest his grace to man, though man knows not how to make use of his grace? Was it not rich grace for Christ to wash Peter’s feet, and yet he not know at present what it meant, only, (saith Christ,) “thou shalt know it afterward”? Is it not good for God to give life to us, and to let us be born in such and such a place of the gospel where it is preached, and to lay in mercy aforehand for us, before we know how to be thankful, or know how to use any of these outward mercies? And is it no mercy or favor to have so much spiritual mercy bestowed on children aforehand, before they can be thankful or make use thereof? (Deut. 7.6,7.) The choosing of them to be his people above all other people, (which you know was from the womb,) it is called God’s setting his love upon them, and the reason of this love (ver. 8) is said to be because God loved them; this love was not electing and peculiar love, (for thousands of these perished and went to hell,) but it was his external, adopting love, to choose them to be his people, and to improve all means for their good, and to give them the good of all those means unless they refuse, and to give indefinitely among them, and particularly to many of them, such hearts as that they shall not be able to refuse the good of those means, (as hath been showed formerly;) this is love; great love and mercy; not shown or promised to any who are not of the visible church throughout the whole world. By which God is glorified, and let him be so, though we can not see how to profit by it when it first breaks out. Have not you profited much by considering God’s preventing grace, long before you understood how to make use of it? Hath not God received much glory from you for it? Hath this grace then, think you, been unprofitably spent on God’s part? No, verily. The case is the same here; David blesseth God for being his God from his mother’s belly, and from the womb, (Ps. 22.9,10,) and God’s grace is shown through this expression. (Is. 46.3.)
2. There is much good hereby in respect of the parents; for suppose the children can not profit by it, yet parents may; and it is in respect of them very much that God looks upon their children, thus to receive them into covenant. (Deut. 4.37.) For, (1.) Parents may hereby see and wonder at the riches of God’s grace, to become a God not only to themselves, but to take in their seed also, whose good they prize as their own, and as if done to themselves; hence Abraham fell down upon his face adoring God, when he heard of this covenant. (Gen. 17.) See also how Moses aggravates this love in the eyes of all that had eyes to see. (Deut. 10.14,15.) (2.) Hereby God gives parents some comfortable hope of their children’s salvation, because they be within the pale of the visible church; for as out of the visible church (where the ordinary means of salvation be) there is ordinarily no salvation. (Acts 2.47.) So, if children were not of Christ’s visible church and kingdom, we could not hope for their salvation, no more than of pagans or Turks; for if they be without God, they are without hope, (Eph. 2.12;) and to be without hope of such, to whom God hath made such promises of salvation not given to pagans, nor proper to Abraham, is very hard, and horrid to imagine; for the promise runs universally, that “the seed of the upright (whether Jews or Gentiles) shall be blessed.” (Ps. 112.1,2. Prov. 20.7.) (3.) Hereby parents are stirred up the more earnestly to pray for them, because God’s covenant and promise is so large toward them, at which prayer looks, and by which it wrestles with God; and hence we find that Moses and others, they use this argument in their prayers: “O God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” etc. (4.) Hereby they may not only hope and pray, but are encouraged to believe concerning their children and the rest of those who are in covenant among them, that God will do them good, as they conclude mercy to the remnant, forgiveness of their sins, with faith upon this ground, “Thou wilt remember the truth to Jacob, and thy mercy to Abraham, sworn unto our fathers in days of old.” (Micah 7.18,20.) This, indeed, is the children’s faith for themselves and their children; but so it may be a ground of parents’ faith. And if we pray for our children, why should we doubt (leaving only secrets to God) if we see them die before they reject the gospel positively? I see no reason for any man to doubt of the salvation of his child if he dies, or that God will not do good to his child in time if he lives. (5.) This stirs up their hearts to be the more sincerely holy, and keep in with God, because of their children; and to educate them with more care and watchfulness, because they are the Lord’s children as well as theirs; they are not common, but holy vessels, and therefore let them see that they be not defiled; and hence we find that when God exhorts to any duty of holiness in Scripture, he oft makes this the ground of it, “I am your God;” and hence God aggravates their sin in offering their children to Molech, (Ezek. 16.,) because they were his children, that should have been better used.
3. In respect of themselves the good is very great. (1.) It is a special means to prevent sin. (Deut. 29.) I make this covenant, not only with him that is present, but with your seed also, who are not here, (ver. 15,) lest there should be among you man or woman, family or tribe, whose heart turns away from God, and lest there should be a root of gall and wormwood; and indeed it mightily works on the heart to think, Shall I, whom God hath chosen to be his, be my own, or be the devil’s, or be my lusts’? etc. (2.) It is a strong motive and engagement upon them to forsake sin, even the uncircumcision and sin of their hearts, as is evident, Deut. 10.15,16. The Lord had a delight to choose the seed of your fathers, even you, to be his people, as it is this day: what follows? “Therefore circumcise the foreskin of your hearts, and be no more stiff necked.” (3.) It is a special help, as to avert their hearts from sin, so to convert and turn them to God, and to make them look toward God, that he would turn them, when perhaps they are without any hope (in other respects) of mercy, or of being able by any means they can use to turn themselves; this is evident, Acts 3.19, with ver. 25. Repent and be converted, for you are the children of the covenant which God made with our fathers; this draws their hearts, when they see how God calls them to return. (Jer. 3.22.) Come unto me, ye backsliding children, etc.: we come unto thee, for thou art the Lord our God. When backsliding Ephraim could not convert himself, he cries unto God, “O, turn me, and I shall be turned, for thou art the Lord my God,” (Jer. 31.18,) which places can not be meant of being their God only by internal covenant, in giving to them the special benefits of the covenant, for then they should be in covenant with God, and have remission of all their sins, etc., before they were turned, or before faith; and therefore it is meant of being a God in outward and external church covenant, which is no small motive and loadstone to believe. And although many do not believe, and will not be turned, yet this covenant is a high privilege and great favor, fit in itself to draw to God, though many believe not; and hence the apostle saith that the privilege of the Jews is great in having God’s oracles (which contain God’s covenant) committed to them, though some believe not, which unbelief makes not (he saith) the faith of God, i.e., God’s promise or covenant, of none effect, or an ineffectual and fruitless covenant; for this word of God’s covenant shall take some effect among some such as are in it; which therefore is a privilege, though many perish, as is evident, Rom. 9.4,6. (4.) It is a special means of binding them fast to God when they are turned. Jer. 13.11, “As the girdle cleaveth unto a man, so have I caused the whole house of Israel to cleave unto me, that they may be for a name and glory.” Deut. 30.20, “Thou shalt cleave unto him, because he is thy life, and the length of thy days;” he was not their life spiritually and savingly, (for many thus exhorted were dead and in their sins,) but federally, or in outward covenant. (5.) If they shall forsake and break loose from God, and from the bond of his covenant, and have (as much as in them lies) cast themselves out of covenant by their own perfidiousness and breach of covenant, that one would think now there is no more hope, yet it is a special means to encourage their hearts to return again, even when they seem to be utterly cast off; and therefore it is said, (Jer. 3.1,) “Though thou hast committed whoredom with many lovers, (whereby the covenant was broken,) yet return unto me;” so, (Deut. 4.,) if when you are scattered among the nations, and shall serve wood and stone, and be in great tribulation, if from thence thou seek the Lord thy God, thou shalt find him, he will not forsake thee; and what is the reason of it? viz., his remembrance of the covenant with their fathers, for so it is Deut. 4.27-31. But I forbear to name more such things as these which come by outward covenant to inchurched members.
4. In respect of others their good is very great; for, (1.) Now they may enjoy the special watch and care of the whole church, which otherwise they must want. (2.) They hereby have the more fervent prayers of others for their good; and hence (Rom. 9.1-3) we see how Paul upon this ground had great zeal in his prayers for the Jews, not only because his countrymen, but especially because to them did belong the adoption and covenants, and they had gracious fathers, etc. So, (Ps. 89.49,) “Lord, remember thy former loving kindnesses, which are sworn to David in truth.” And hence we see Moses oft pleads and prevails with God in prayer for the sinning Israelites, viz., “O, remember Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”
Now, I pray you, lay all these things together, and then see whether you have any cause to say, What profit is there by covenant and church membership of persons not yet able to profess the faith of Jesus Christ?
Question 2. You say, when families were churches, all of the family were of the church, and when a nation was a church, all that were of that nation were of that church; but now, believers being matter of the church, what if none were admitted till they can hold forth visible faith? would not many of these things be more clear?
Answer. In these words there is a threefold mistake.
1. That all of the family and nation in former times were of the church: this is false; for God never took any to be his church but as they were believers, at least externally, in that nation. I say believers; which either are professed believers, or promised believers, such as by outward covenant shall have the means to be made believers in that nation; and hence you have heard that the nation of the Jews stood by faith, and were broken off by unbelief; and if any rejected the covenant, as Ishmael and Esau, they were not of that church, though they did and might dwell in that nation, as doubtless thousands did.
2. You think that visible personal faith only makes the church, and members of it; which is an error, as may appear from many things already said; for children may be in God’s account professors of the faith parentally as well as personally; i.e., in the profession of their parents as well as in their own. And hence you shall find that the covenant God entered into with the parents of church members personally, the children are said to have that covenant made with them many hundred years after. See, for this purpose, among hundreds, these few scriptures, Haggai 2.5. In Haggai’s time God is said to make a covenant with them then when they came out of Egypt, (which was not personally, but parentally;) so, (Hos. 12.4,5,) when God entered into covenant with Jacob at Bethel, God is said to speak with us who lived many years after; and hence the children many years after challenge God’s covenant with them, which was made with their fathers for them. (Micah 7.19,20.) Hence, also, those children are said to come to Christ who were not able to come themselves, but only were brought in the arms of others to Christ. It is a known thing among men, that a father may receive a gift or legacy given to him and his heirs, and he and his heirs are bound to perform the condition of the covenant and promise by which it is conveyed, and that the child doth this in his father.
3. You think that if men only grown up and able to profess faith should be of the church, then all things would be more clear about children. Truly, I believe the quite contrary, upon the grounds before laid down; for, (1.) Hereby pollution of the church shall not be avoided, but rather introduced, to exclude children from a holy-making covenant, as we have proved. (2.) Hereby that good and benefit of their covenant should be lost (not gained) by excluding them out of covenant until they can personally profess and make use of the covenant. The wisdom of man furthers not the righteousness of God. And here let me conclude with the naked profession of my faith to you in this point, which is a bulwark of defense against all that is said by Anabaptists against baptizing of infants.
(1.) That the children of professing believers are in the same covenant God made with Abraham: Abraham was a father of many nations, and not of one nation only; and hence the same covenant made with him and the believing Israel in that nation, the same covenant is made with all his believing seed in all other nations. (2.) That baptism is a seal of our first entrance and admission into covenant; and therefore is to be immediately applied to children of believing parents as soon as ever they be in covenant, and that is as soon as they become the visible seed of the faithful, for so the covenant to Abraham runs, (“I will be thy God, and the God of thy seed,”) not only his elect seed, but church seed, (as hath been showed,) not only of his seed in that one nation, but in all nations.
These two things I can not tell how to avoid the light of, they are so dear; and the ignorance of these makes so many Anabaptists, (as they are called,) and I never yet met with any thing written by them (and much I have read) that was of any considerable weight to overthrow these. But I forget myself, and trouble you: my prayer is, and shall be, that the Lord would give you understanding in all these things.