Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:00

The Church's Calling to Catechize Her Youth

Written by Rev. Robert Grossmann
Rev. Grossman is a minister of the Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS). He has also taught at the Mid-America Seminary. This article was taken with permission from the Reformed Herald.
Reformed Churches since the time of the Reformation have carried out programs and classes to catechize covenant young people. This is the process of preparation for communicant church membership. In Calvin's Geneva and Frederick's Heidelberg, parents were required to bring their children to these catechetical classes. This was a practical matter, since the Roman church had neglected teaching its people even the rudiments of the biblical faith. However, it was much more than an expedient. It was a practice which grew out of a conviction that the children of church members are themselves members of Christ's church.

Reformed Christians believe that the church, alongside of the family, has a responsibility to God for their Christian training. The principle and purpose here was not to take over or in any way lessen the parents' responsibility to nurture their children with the discipline of God (Ephesians 6:4). It was a recognition that all members of the church, including baptized children, are under the ministry and discipline of the church.

The point is that "our" children, like everything else that is ours in this world, are really a stewardship from God. We are then to raise them, first of all, as God's children. This is why God's name is placed on them in baptism. It is why we must teach them their heavenly Father's word and ways. The popular idea that the family is some kind of insulated and isolated feudal monarchy, in which the church has no interest or authority, is very attractive to the fundamentalist individualist. However, it is not biblical, covenantal, or Reformed.

Now notice that it is the office of the church to administer baptism. It is not a private or family sacrament. Because of this, Reformed churches are especially zealous that baptism be performed in the regular church worship service, and not privately. This is because the church is the primary steward of God's Word and sacraments on earth. The church is the Òpillar and ground of the truth" (1 Timothy 3:15).

We find two truths here. God has given the stewardship of children to their parents. At the same time, they are members of the church as the covenant community. Therefore, the church and parents must work together as partners in training covenant children in the things of the Lord.

A proper understanding of biblical teaching recognizes that the covenant God makes with His people is genealogical. In other words, it is made with adult members of the covenant and with their children. Not only do we find covenant genealogies in Genesis 5 and 10, but God specifically tells Abraham in Genesis 17: 7 that His covenant is with Abraham, Òand with your seed after you in their generations. " That this covenant membership includes children who will turn out to be unbelievers is also clear in Genesis 17. There, Abraham is commanded to circumcise Ishmael, knowing that he is not the "child of promise" (note Genesis 17: 18-21). Because such children are themselves members of the covenant people ("whether he is born in your house or bought with moneyÓ), the males among them are required in the Old Testament to bear the covenant sign of circumcision (Genesis 17: 14). Similarly in the New Testament, the apostle Peter commands on Pentecost, "Repent and be baptized...for the promise is to you and to your children... " (Acts 2:38-39). Baptism, the New Testament sign of the covenant, is then to be administered to adult covenant members and to their children. The reason is exactly the same as in the administration of Old Testament circumcision to adult and infant alike. The reason is, both the adult members and their children possess the covenant promises of God.

There is essentially only one covenant of salvation in both Old and New Testaments, even though there is a change in administration which includes a change from circumcision to baptism and from circumcision of males only to the baptism of both sexes. The underlying principles and realities of salvation remain the same.

As we read the Scriptural account of the history of God's people, we see immediately that not all the children of believers grow up to be believers themselves. This is why Seth, and not Cain, appears in the genealogy of Adam in Genesis 5. It also is at the heart of the Bible's teaching about Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, and Solomon and Absalom. As Paul says in Roman 9:6-8, "They are not all Israel who are of Israel. " Paul argues that this difference grows out of the electing grace of God. However, he introduces this matter by observing, "Not as though the word of God has taken no effectÓ (Romans 9:6).

The fact of the matter then is that not all those who have the covenant promise of God actually believe it. Circumcision, and now baptism, have to be applied to all those who live within the covenant community. It is the material sign that they have the promises of God. Having the promise, however, is not equivalent to having the thing promised. Ishmael and Esau had the promises but they never received salvation. They never believed the promises. As Paul says in Galatians 3:7,9, only those who believe are the true children of Abraham, receiving the promises of the covenant. The promises of the covenant are not unconditional. They do not promise salvation no matter what. They promise salvation to believers. This was already made clear about Abraham in Genesis 15:6.

There is a difference, then, between having the promise and, through faith, actually receiving the thing promised. This is explained clearly by the apostle Paul in Romans 3: 1-4. First, Paul states that true participation in the covenant blessings must be inward, in the heart {Romans 2:25-29). Paul then goes on to ask, "What advantage then has the Jew? or what profit is there of circumcision?" What good is outward membership in the covenant if only true believers are saved? Paul's answer to his own question is exactly in accord with what we have been observing above. The great advantage of outward membership in the covenant is that "unto them were committed the oracles {literally "words") of God " {Romans 3:2). These people, including Ishmael and Esau, had the very "words of God, "i.e., the promises of the covenant.

Well then, why didn't they receive the things promised? Why weren't they saved? Paul's answer here, too, is abundantly clear. It was because they didn't believe the promises! "For what if some did not believe?" are the very next words from his pen. "Shall their unbelief make the faithfulness of God of no effect?" (Romans 3:3) Again, he answers his own question. "God forbid; let God be true and every man a liar " (Romans 3:4).

What if no one, no human being whatsoever, believed God's promises? No problem! The promise is still true. Believers go to heaven and unbelievers go to hell. The promises of the covenant come equally to all who are legitimate members of it, whether by birth or adult confession of faith. However, the actual reception of the eternal salvation promised in the covenant comes only to believers.

Well, what about election? Doesn't God choose who is in the covenant? Doesn't God decide in His eternal election who is to be saved? Yes, of course. However this does not conflict at all with what we have seen above. Why? Because faith itself is a gift of God (Ephesians 2:8). Why did the word of God produce the effect of true faith in Jacob but not in Esau? Paul's answer is specific. ÒJacob have I loved and Esau have I hated " (Romans 9:3). When God places someone in the covenant, He does not, and never has, promised automatic salvation. He has always demanded that we "repent and believe the gospel."

At the same time, growing up in the covenant is a tremendous advantage. Not only do we have the words of God, and worship under them, but we have the natural tendency to imitate our believing parents and other Christians in the church. These are the normal tools that God uses to produce faith in our hearts. We must thank God for them and use them sincerely. The Holy Spirit normally uses God's Word to regenerate our hearts (see I Peter 1:23,25). On the other hand, if our parents and the church around us are hypocrites, we may very likely follow them. The history of the kings of Israel and Judah are a laboratory in which we may observe how generations of kings would follow their fathers. This involves "doing what was right in the sight of the Lord" or "doing what was evil. "

At the same time, we see numbers of men who did exactly the opposite of their parents. As with us today, this all resulted from God's election. If you and I are saved, the credit belongs to God. If it turns out that we are not, God is simply giving us the punishment our sins deserve. God is sovereign. However, this does not mean our faith is meaningless. Nor does it mean we do not need to "work out (our) own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is working in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure " (Philippians 2: 2-13).

Now it is exactly because the covenant promises call us to repentance and faith that we must be most careful to teach our children the word of God and help them understand it. If we have our children baptized but do not teach them God's word, we are robbing them of the chief advantage of the covenant. True knowledge is essential to true faith. We must be zealous for God according to knowledge based on His word (Romans 10:2).

With this background understanding, it's important to raise the question, "But does the church as well as the family have responsibility in training children in the faith?" Several biblical teachings require church responsibility.

1. The membership of covenant children is not mediated through their parents. Theirs is not a second class, or secondary covenant membership. While most little ones are either born or adopted into covenant families, and thus enter the covenant through the family, once they are in, they are in. Should their parents die, they are still covenant members. This teaching is clear already in Genesis 17:7. There God tells Abraham that His covenant is with Abraham and with his descendants after him in their generations. Not only is the membership of Abraham's descendants made equal to his own by the use of the coordinate conjunction "AND", but the addition of the phrase "in their generations" as well. This phrase declares the equality of the descendants' membership with that of Abraham long after he is dead. Dr. E.J. Young, an unsurpassed Hebrew exegete, made this point exegetically from the Hebrew of Genesis 17:7.

Clearly, covenant children have a direct relationship with God equal to that of their parents, with respect of living under His promises. This implies that the church, which is God's visible covenant community, has a ministry directly to covenant children. This is a ministry that is specifically demanded by the Lord Jesus Christ when he says, ÒSuffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of heaven " (Matthew 19: 14). Further more, the Lord exercised this direct ministry in the same context when He laid His hands on them and blessed them. In the same way, the church exercises a direct ministry of baptism upon covenant children.

2. Moses specifically declares this point of direct covenant membership by children in Deuteronomy 5:3, when he declares that God, who had spoken to the fathers who had died in the wilderness, was indeed making His covenant not with the fathers but with the children: with "those who are here today, all of us who are alive." It would be a distortion to say that God had spoken directly to those children (some of whom doubtless had not even been born those forty years earlier) when He spoke to their fathers at Sinai and then conclude that the prophets of God had no direct ministry to them (which is exactly what Moses was doing).

3. The point of a direct ministry to the children of the covenant in the Old Testament is emphasized by the note in Joshua 8:35 that the children were present for the reading of every word that Moses had commanded. They must hear God's word directly, not just through and from the parents. (This, of course, is also necessary. Deuteronomy 7:6

4. The gathering of the people, specifically with their little ones, was required by Moses' law every seven years. The purpose was for them to hear for themselves the reading of all of God's law (Deuteronomy 31 9-13). This gathering would not have been necessary if the education of the children was mediated through their parents. In that case, it would have been enough to read the law to the fathers who were already commanded to gather in Jerusalem three times a year for the feasts of the Lord.

5. The priests and Levites were charged with teaching the people, and with travelling from town to town to do that (2 Chronicles 17:9; 30:22). To exempt children from this direct teaching would be artificially to place them outside of God's people. This is the exact opposite of what their covenant membership requires.

6. Christ's words quoted from Matthew 19:14 above stand in themselves as a specific support for a direct reaching ministry to covenant children by the church. This is because Christ's ministry, including that of teaching, is handed specifically to His apostles and their successors in the church; we find this in Matthew 28:20, Òteaching them to observe all things I have commanded you."

7. This conclusion is supported most directly by Christ's command to Peter in John 20:15 to Òfeed my lambs." The Greek word arnia here can have no other reference but to the children of the covenant. Arnia specifically means "young lambs" (Langenscheidt's Greek English Dictionary). It goes without saying that Òfeeding sheep" in Scripture means "teaching them God's Word" (Jeremiah 23, especially verse 16).

8. The implication of the placing of God's name upon covenant members in baptism (Matthew 28: 19) is that they are thereby claimed as belonging directly to God. This, of course, includes infants, because, as Peter says, "Repent and be baptized... For the promise is to you and to you and to your children " (Acts 2:38-39. The NIV inexplicably omits the strategic "For" at the beginning of verse 39, thus failing to be an accurate translation.). The point is that God's name upon covenant members denotes that they are part of God's family (Ephesians 2: 19). Christians need to understand that "their" children are, first of all, members of God's family. They are, secondarily, members of their human family. God's claim is greater: "else were your children unclean; but now they are holy" (1 Corinthians 7:14).

Covenant children then grow up as members of two families: God's (manifested in the church) and that of their parents. They are privileged, therefore, to be subject to the teaching and discipline of both church and family. (This is an issue long since a part of normal Reformed teaching from the time of the Reformation on. Calvin's Geneva required parents to bring their children to catechetical classes, as have Reformed churches ever since.)

9. The Elders of the church are charged with responsibility for oversight and teaching of the souls of its members (Hebrews 13: 7,17). This responsibility does not begin with profession of faith, but with infancy. Pastoral care of the sheep includes the "little Iambs" (see again John 20: 15). The fact that the Elders, in carrying out this responsibility, are to judge the confession of faith of each church member requires them to be involved in their lives. This is not just at the point of the verbal confession, but also in knowing them well enough to know if this confession is contradicted by daily words and actions. Consistent with this principle, historically Reformed churches have carried out this responsibility by having the Elders and Ministers involved in the preparation for profession of faith by covenant children. (Personal experience of over 32 years of teaching catechetical classes has shown me the wisdom and necessity of personally knowing each child as they prepare for profession, R.E.G.)

10. The ministry of the Word of God on the part of the Christian minister includes a broadly expressed teaching work. This is clear from Paul's exhortations to Timothy as well as his descriptions of his own ministry. He taught Òpublicly and from house to house " (Acts 20:20). This, of course, is in carrying out Christ's command in Matthew 20:20 to teach those baptized Òall things 1 have commanded you. " In the light of direct covenant membership on the part of covenant children, it seems most artificial to exempt them from this direct ministry of the church, either by absenting them from regular worship teaching or by failing to provide specific classes to help them grow up in the Lord. Paul did not grow up at the feet of Gamaliel by chance (Acts 22:3).

11. In the Scriptures, covenant children are addressed directly, not only through their parents. Paul's exhortation to children in Ephesians 6:1 is a good example. Note that Paul not only expects parents to teach their children the Fifth Commandment. He speaks directly to them about it. Thus, Paul considers himself to have a direct ministry to these children. Notice also how Paul calls them to conscientious obedience "in the Lord for this is right. " He addresses them as responsible covenant members, which is exactly what they are. They are responsible to hear and obey God's Word, whether taught by their parents or by the ministers of the gospel in the church.

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