The following is a summary of Rich Lusk's fine book: "Paedofaith: A Primer on the Mystery of Infant Salvation and a Handbook for Covenant Parents" by Athanasius Press. You can purchase the book by clicking here
Rich Lusk – Paedofaith
Monroe, LA: Athanasius Press, 2005
We might ask, assuming that Jesus is the ultimate Man of Faith (Heb. 12:1-2), at what age did He begin to trust His heavenly Father? To ask the question is to answer it. Surely the human Jesus never lived without faith, even as an embryo. John Calvin writes:
Truly Christ was sanctified from earliest infancy in order that He might sanctify in Himself His elect from every age without distinction ... If we have in Christ the most perfect example of all the graces which God bestows upon His children, in this respect also He will be for us a proof that the age of infancy is not utterly averse to sanctification.” (Institutes 4.16.18). (p.3)
Covenant children should be nurtured in the faith all along the way from infancy forward to young adulthood. They should learn to view their prior experiences of God's grace (such as God's care for them in the womb and at birth) as a sign of His continued commitment to them into the future. They should be trained in liturgical worship forms so they can silence God's enemies through prayer and praise ...
We should not be skeptical of their Spiritual experiences and their feeble worship; instead we should expect them to live in an environment wholly conditioned by God's grace and truth. They are awesomely distinguished even from the womb as God weaves them together into a holy dwelling place for His Son and Spirit; they are sharp arrows aimed at the hearts of God's enemies; they are a heritage from the Lord and a great reward to the faithful; they are model soldiers and worshippers in the Lord's liturgical army. This is the Psalter's theology of covenant children. (pp.21-22)
On Matthew 18:
Jesus presupposed the child in His arms was converted; modern evangelicals tend to assume the opposite ... In Matthew 18.6, Jesus makes the presupposition of infant faith - implicit in verses two through five - explicit. He speaks of "the little ones who believe in Me." There is nothing in the passage to indicate that the little Jesus was using as Exhibit A (18:2) was a unique, one-off specimen. Instead, that child was illustrative of the entire category of covenant children. ... Moreover, the fact that these children have angels ministering to them indicates that they are heirs of salvation (cf. Heb. 1:14). (pp.25, 29, 31)
Parental nurture is all about character formation, and character formation is all about covenantal identity. Covenant children should be reminded that they are loved by God, perhaps just as often as they are reminded that they are loved by their parents. They should not be trained in methodological doubt or systematic skepticism, as some Christian parenting strategies have it. (pp.32-33)
God makes promises to our children. What is the content of those promises? Nothing less than salvation. He promises to be their God (Gen. 17:7), which is just a shorthand way of saying He promises to be a personal Lord and Savior to them. He promises to be for them in Christ Jesus. (p.39)
My questions for those who deny the possibility of infant faith: What is the minimum IQ a person must have in order to be open to the working of God’s Spirit? How do you know? What are the minimum intellectual and physical abilities a person must have? And how is a denial of God’s freedom to work faith in the totally incompetent compatible with His sovereignty and with sola gratia? These are serious questions. In my opinion, denying infant faith has radical anti-gospel implications. (pp.40-41, fn 2)
Note that paedofaith in covenant children is not a “natural” inheritance, as though parents could pass on faith genetically. “God has no grandchildren,” as the saying goes. Each new generation requires a fresh application of covenant grace.
Rather, we may say that God’s work of redemption is embedded in the structures He set up at creation. Thus, God respects the natural order of the family and works through it. As one Puritan put it, “God has cast the line of election through godly loins.” (p.41)
Similarly, Reformed scholastic Francis Turretin describes the instrumentality of baptism in this way:
Although the sacraments are external means and instruments applying (on the part of God) the promise of grace and justification, this does not hinder faith from being called the internal instrument and means on the part of man for receiving this benefit offered in the word and sealed by the sacraments.
The question is not whether faith alone justifies to the exclusion either of the grace of God or the righteousness of Christ or the word and sacraments (by which the blessing of justification is presented and sealed to us on the part of God), which we maintain are necessarily required here . . . For all these as they are mutually subordinated in a different class of cause, consist with each other in the highest degree. (Institutes 16.7.20, 16.8.5) (p.47)
We ask leave at this juncture to make reference to certain insights of child psychology – not in order to thereby render the Lord’s words acceptable, but to afford a little aid to understanding. We know today how children—and not they only—take in many things without their needing to be verbally articulated, without the use of consciously understood words. How it experiences its detachment from its mother at birth, how people treat it in the first days, weeks, and months (including what is given verbally), is absorbed by the child in a way which will determine its entire life. Thus already from birth onward there comes into existence a personal relationship to the “relational person” of the mother, whom it is thoroughly capable of distinguishing from other people. The child is capable of a “primal trust,” and where this is not developed but held back, it sustains severe personality damage. This “primal trust” is not first developed through heard and understood articulated words, but in a personal mode which is other than verbal and can indeed dispense with the verbal dimension. A child “knows” that it is loved and whom it can trust long before it can understand the words “I love you.” Thus it is a person also capable of personal relationship even without its being able to use intelligence and articulated words. (quoted on pp.53-54)
This opinion [that infants cannot have faith because they lack intellectual and verbal abilities] narrows down man’s capacity for a relationship with Christ and for accepting the kingdom of God by making it dependent on articulated understanding in a way which does not correspond with the actual working of Christ. At the same time it identifies the concept of personal relationship with linguistic articulation and with conscious decision, thereby curtailing the reality of personal human existence. (quoted on p.55)
Their faith is not discursive or reflective; rather it is intuitive and (because of the Spirit’s work) instinctive. It is not conscious, but infants do not have to be conscious of their faith in to order to have it. After all, they are not conscious of any of their members or faculties – though they still possess them nonetheless. Children are alive without “knowing” it as a matter of cognitive assent or rational reflection; in the same way they can have relational faith without being able to reflect on that fact or analyze it. They know and trust their mothers even from before birth, even though they do not know or assent to any propositions about them. (pp.55-56)
Finally, those who deny the possibility of infant faith often confuse the presence of faith with its articulation. Infants (and senile or mentally deficient persons, for that matter) may possess faith (in the sense of a trusting relationship with God), despite their verbal inability to express that faith. But God’s arm is not too short to save; He can redeem to Himself even those whose mental abilities are too weak and/or immature to manifest their faith in intelligent, propositional form. Ordinarily, paedofaith should grow into knowledgeable, articulated faith, but such features are not of the essence of faith. Or, to put the matter another way, God’s gift of faith is not dependent on our intellectual and verbal abilities, as though God could only give faith to people with a minimum IQ.
To deny this verges on turning faith into an autonomous human work. It is rationalism with a vengeance. Infants have a faith they cannot put into words, but it connects them with God and His kingdom nonetheless. (I would add: adults cannot put the totality of their faith into words either, so once again, while we may distinguish paedofaith from adult faith, they are on a continuum. Adults often have a relational trust in Christ that dwarfs their factual knowledge.)
If Christianity is an ideology, then infants are excluded. if Christianity is a new creation, a new life, a new community, a new relationship, a new Israel, then infants can be members as much as anyone else. To be sure, doctrine and ideas are critical; the Church cannot survive apart from truth. The Church must continually study and proclaim God’s Word in an intelligent fashion. The Church must cultivate the life of the mind and disciple the minds of her members, but all of us are growing into an understanding of God’s truth. None of us has it all figured out. If Christianity depends on how much we can understand and articulate, or on our theological precision and formulations, it is just another form of legalism. Paedofaith is actually a helpful safeguard against an insidious tendency to imply salvation is by works – in this case the “work” of knowing theology or articulating biblical truth. There are some men in the Reformed Church who need to be reminded that God can save people who have never read Berkhof’s systematic theology. (pp.58-59)
While our standard accounts of faith are fine as far as they go, as already noted, they are too cognitive to be applicable to infants. The triad of knowledge, assent, and trust works well in the case of adults, but seems unable to account for passages like Psalm 22:9-10 and Matthew 18:5. Once again, I would suggest that knowledge, assent, and trust comprise mature faith, while infant faith is simply an age-appropriate expression of personal trust. Factual knowledge and assent will be added in later, but in the meantime nothing keeps the child from having a trusting relationship with God anymore than the child is prevented from developing a relationship with his parents prior to attaining rational and verbal abilities. The child has knowledge – personal, relational knowledge – of God in the same way he has personal, relational knowledge of his mother. This knowledge is fully sufficient to serve as a means of salvation. Lest this seem too strange, remember that even in the womb God is infinitely closer to the child than the parents. God is never denied access to His creatures, even those who are not yet fully developed mentally and emotionally. (fn: 5. Thus, Jesus could heal a deaf-mute (Mk. 7:31-37). Indeed, God even has access to the dead (cf. Jn. 11:38ff). What God can work in us is not at all dependent on our native or inherent abilities. If God can work life in a human corpse, He can work faith in living infants. Nothing is too hard for God.) (pp.70-72)
Michael Polanyi’s personalist epistemology is also relevant here since Polanyi shows that knowledge and articulation are not always identical. Indeed, we know more than we can say in almost every area of life. (p.71 fn 3)
I conclude there is biblical warrant for saying that every child who has a legitimate right to baptism, or who has been legitimately baptized, may be regarded as a believer until and unless proven otherwise. (p.74)
Mark 2:1-12 is a good example of the importance of “communal faith.” Several men bring a paralytic to Jesus for healing. When Jesus saw their faith, the man received forgiveness and (just afterward) healing. Certainly the paralytic had faith, but the emphasis is on the faith community of which he is a part. His friends believed the gospel on his behalf, and therefore brought him to Jesus. He was a beneficiary of corporate faith.
Believing parents are doing the same thing when they bring their babies for baptism. They believe the gospel for the sake of their children. There are several biblical accounts of Jesus acting on behalf of a child because the parent exercised faith. In some of these cases, the child may not have had faith (e.g., the child was already dead or was demon-possessed), but it is a safe assumption that in each of these cases the child came to share his or her parent’s faith afterwards. See Matthew 8:5-13; 9:18-26;15:21-29, etc. Medieval theologians Anselm and Bernard based their view of infant salvation on this type of corporate faith: the faith of the parents (or the Church) interposes on behalf of the child.
When considering the faith of our children, it is fair to start with the corporate faith of the church body of which they are a part. We are not isolated atoms, but molecules, interrelated and interdependent. Our children are grafted into the living, faith-filled, Spirit-created organism of the new Israel. This corporate faith ensures their individual faith. When you have authentic corporate faith, you get individual faith thrown in as well. The individual and the corporate interpenetrate one another. The child’s faith will become more and more individualized as he matures, but at the same time it will be more and more closely intertwined with the community’s life of faith. (p.75 fn 3)
Related to our topic in this book, Nevin and Schaff both argued for a high view of sacramental efficacy and a covenant nurture model for Christian parents. Rather than making a point of conversion the basis of Christian identity, they argued that Christian identity should be inculcated in our children over time through prayer, catechesis, and sharing in the common life of the Church. Nevin argued:
Infants born in the Church are regarded and treated as members of it from the beginning, and this privilege is felt to be something more than an empty shadow. The idea of infant conversion is held in practical honor; and it is counted not only possible, but altogether natural that children growing up in the bosom of the Church under the faithful application of the means of grace should be quickened unto spiritual life in a comparatively quiet way, and spring up numerously “as willows by water courses” to adorn the Christian profession, without being able at all to trace the process by which the glorious change has been effected.
For all practical purposes, this is a doctrine of paedofaith. By grace, children share in the organic faith-life of the Church. Whereas the revivalists addressed their ministries exclusively to adults, Nevin viewed Christian children as fit recipients of salvation through the Church’s means of grace. They were to be gradually enculturated into a life of Spiritual conversion, beginning with baptism. Thus, the Church grows not just from the outside, through external additions, but also from the inside, as children are conceived in her womb. The Church is the supernatural elevation and transformation of human life in its wholeness and fullness in Christ Jesus. As a new creation, the Church must (like the old creation that she takes up into herself to transform and renovate) include children, including infants. (pp102-3)
The French Reformed baptismal liturgy makes the point with great eloquence. At a baptism, the pastor would speak these words to the child:
Little child, for you Jesus Christ has come, He has fought, He has suffered. For you He entered into the shadows of Gethsemane and the terror of Calvary; for you He uttered the cry “it is finished.”
For you He rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, and there for you He intercedes. For you, even though you do not yet know it, little child, but in this way the Word of the Gospel is made true, “We love Him because He first loved us.” (p.109)
We should learn to couch our understanding of covenant children in light of the reality of paedofaith. Sometimes we speak of the Church as composed of “believers and their children” – as though these were two separate classes of people – adult Christians (who have faith) and their children (who are baptized, but not regarded as believers until later in life). It may be appropriate to distinguish professing believers from their children (who cannot yet verbally profess their faith) as the Westminster Confession does (WCF 25.2), but we should not regard our covenant children as unbelievers unless and until they prove themselves to be so. The Church is simply the community of the faithful and our children are part of the Church. God’s promise and Christ’s declaration ensure that fact. Of course, deadwood may show up in the community from time to time, and it has to be pruned away. Not every church member turns out faithful, and so church discipline is a necessity, but three-year-old apostates would seem rather unusual in a healthy Christian church, Again, there is no reason to put our young covenant children in the category of “covenant-breaker.” We must view them through the lens of the covenant promise.
We should also revise the common terminology that contrasts “believer’s baptism” with infant baptism. This concedes the high ground to the Baptists since it is easy enough in Scripture to show a link between faith and baptism (Mk. 16:16). We should avoid giving the impression that Baptists believe in baptizing believers while paedobaptists do not. Instead, we should grant to our Baptist brethren that only believers should be baptized, and then we should issue the challenge: prove (in light of all the evidence adduced above, from both Old Testament and New Testament) that our covenant children do not have faith! Baptists may not be willing to grant our reading of these texts, but neither should we grant their premise that they baptize believers while we do not.
This is the ground on which our discussion with Baptists should take place: Do children of the covenant have faith? Has God made them promises? The debate is not over whether or not it is acceptable to baptize unbelievers, provided they come from believing parents. There is only one kind of baptism in the Church; adult believers and infant believers receive the same baptism. (p.113)
Frequently, the baptized children of Christian parents grow up never knowing themselves to be anything but Christian. They may not like theoretical predestination, but many live by a practical one. Their being brought to baptism through the concern of Christian parents is an act of fulfillment of God’s will for them. They know the Church as insiders. Through baptism God has made them insiders, not onlookers. Becoming what God has made them, Christians, goes on largely in the family. This is why every threat to the family today also endangers the traditional means of shaping new Christians. Such threats undermine the best locale for catechesis Christians have ever known, the family.
Christianity, after all, is more than a theology; it is a way of life, a network of relationships of love. To include children in the Christian family and yet exclude them from membership in the body of Christ [the Lord’s Supper], seems inconsistent. If children cannot be part of God’s community being saved, it is dubious whether adults belong there either … Baptism goes much deeper than intellectual cognition alone. It is not contingent upon our maturity and cognitive abilities. Rather, it changes our whole life within a context of loving community relationships, expressed both in family and in the Church. (quoted on p.123)
Raising God’s Children
Our children belong to God. Through the covenant promises, ratified and sealed in the sacrament of initiation, God makes our children His own. In other words, all Christian parents are really foster parents: we are raising Somebody else’s children. Our children are God’s special possession (Ezek. 16:20; Mal. 2:15; Mt. 18:10-14), and we will be held ac countable for raising them according to His standards. As Bucer said, if we do not expend the greatest pains and effort in bringing our children up to obey Christ, then we are guilty of robbing God of His children. In effect, we hand them over to Satan.
Parenting is a form of stewardship. But God does not put Christian parents in the impossible position of having to kindle faith from nothing in the hearts of their children. He gives Christian children a spark of faith that parents will either fan into a flame through diligent nurture, or douse through carelessness and laxity. The heart of covenant nurture, of course, is giving our children the gospel as the story they live (and die) by.
This is precisely how the Bible’s most comprehensive instruction on parenting works. InDeuteronomy 6:1-9, 20-25, we find that the first responsibility parents have (after loving God themselves) is diligently and constantly teaching their children about God’s work of redemption on their behalf. This is what it means to teach them Torah: it is to press into them the story of what God has done and how we should respond (Deut. 6:20-25). It is simply a given that this story of redemption belongs to our children as much as to us. All parental instruction begins and ends with the imparting of this gospel narrative. For the Israelites, this meant teaching the exodus story; for us, it means teaching the new covenant exodus in Christ. But the pattern is unchanged.
On the basis of this redemptive narrative, parents are to impress upon their children holistic instruction from God’s Word: the forehead (thought/worldview), hand (work/play), doorpost (family life), and city gate (public life) are all to be marked with God’s Word. In other words, our children are to live in an atmosphere permeated and saturated with the stories and principles of God’s revelation in Scripture (6:8-9), Parents are not to do this intermittently, but simply as a way of life, using every possible occasion as an opportunity for carrying on this work of education (6:7). They are not to be slack or sloppy in it, but diligent, in both formal and informal modes of instruction (6:7). To put it briefly, parents must sanctify the time and space their children indwell by surrounding them with the Word of God, spoken, embodied, enforced, and exemplified. Parents must remember: everything matters to God. Their teaching should be constant and comprehensive.
Parents are not simply to give their children a form of morality, but are to root carefully and explicitly the Christian way of life in the story of redemption (6:20-25). This is their ultimate task. This is the key to covenant succession (cf. Ps. 78). Children who are given rules without the underlying story are the first to forget the rules the moment they leave home. The moralism their parents passed on to them has no solid foundation; it is a house of cards, and can be (at best) propped up by self-righteousness. It cannot produce a life of faithfulness, integrity, joy, and service.
If we fail to constantly teach our children the gospel, we will still be teaching them - but we will be teaching them that the stock market, baseball, and Disney are all more important than Jesus. Parents teach inescapably, and if they aren’t proclaiming Christ to their children, they’re proclaiming something else. Silence about Christ is just another form of dogma every bit as insidious as a heresy cult or rank paganism. If we fail to teach our children the infinite value of Christ, we end up teaching them He is of no value at all. (pp.124-126)
Dabney is exactly right in stressing the importance of parental obligations. In no other area of life will we so directly influence whether or not another person goes to heaven or hell. (fn 5 on p.126)
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Paedofaith: A Summary
What does the doctrine of paedofaith mean? We cannot summarize everything here, but we will try to lay out the most salient points of the Bible’s teaching, setting paedofaith in the context of the Bible’s wider covenant theology. This is not intended as a precise confessional statement, but rather one last way of tying everything together for the convenience of the reader.
God graciously includes the children of at least one believing parent in the covenant of grace. The covenant promises are not made merely to individuals but to families. They are trans-generational and corporate. This is because the covenantal program of salvation is rooted in God’s plan to reclaim the fallen creation and renew it. But if creation is to be reconstituted, that renovated new creation must be co-extensive with the old. In other words, it must include all the varieties of creational diversity in human life, including infancy. This means covenant infants must be open to receiving salvation in infancy. They are not beyond God’s reach. Nothing hinders the Spirit from working faith in them.
The children of believers share in the faith of their parents. Covenant parents are called to believe the gospel on behalf of their child, but also the child himself becomes a believer through the promises of the covenant. Faith spreads from the parents to the child as the Spirit flows out through the family’s organic, covenantal bonds. Obviously, much here is hidden in the secret working of God (as Calvin said), but somehow the Spirit works to connect the faith of the parents to the faith of the child. Faith is not just an individual reality, but also corporate. In the gospels, parental faith procures blessings for children quite frequently, and paedofaith is simply an application and extension of this principle. Parents who believe the gospel for the sake of their children may be assured that their young children are believers too. There is every reason to believe God rewards parental faith by blessing their children with faith. This is why the children of the God-fearing man are called an inheritance and blessing from the Lord.
Infant faith is normative and typical. There is no reason to doubt the presence of infant faith in children who belong to healthy Christian families and churches. In apostate church and family situations we can be far less confident, of course. Nevertheless, in any “normal” situation, the Bible gives us a paedofaith paradigm (e.g., David) through which the developing experiences of our children should be viewed. This means revivalism, however necessary it may have been in countering nominalism and deadness in eighteenth and nineteenth century churches, is itself a very serious distortion of biblical teaching. It is urgent that the Church recover a biblically based paedofaith/paedobaptism-grounded approach to parenting so that we can begin countering the influences of our secular culture from the earliest days of our children’s lives.
Infant faith, along with the covenant promises and the command of Christ, provides a more than adequate grounding for the practice of infant baptism. Infant faith means children can and do make right use of baptism. In principle, all baptism should be “believer’s baptism.” Because covenant children have faith, there is no reason to doubt that their baptisms “took.” There is every reason to believe they received what God offers in baptism. There are at least a couple possible errors we should avoid here. Baptism is not constituted by faith rather it is offered to faith. Nor does baptism elicit faith rather it presupposes faith and increases strengthens confirms and assures faith.
Because of paedofaith and the efficacy of paedobaptism, covenant children should be regarded and treated as Christians. Parents should welcome and receive their children in Christ’s name, meaning the children are regarded as bearers of Christ’s presence and in union with Him. Parents should prize and care for their covenant offspring as they would treasure and treat Christ Himself. Parents should disciple their children, nurturing them in the faith and the fear of the Lord. This also means parents should be diligent in cultivating habits and virtues in their children that will enable them to walk worthy of the calling they have received in the gospel. Parents do not need to be anxious or uncertain about the status of their children or God’s intentions toward their children, but should live by faith in the promises.
The covenant state and status of our children also indicates they should be included at the Lord’s Table. Just as children were participants in the sacramental life of the old covenant, including the meals and feasts, so it should be in the new covenant. Paedocommunion is another form of covenant nurture.
Covenant infants have faith, which means all who die in infancy are most certainly saved. Grieving Christian parents should be given this solid comfort, However, this is not to say that our children are guaranteed an unconditional salvation if they grow up to reject the covenant. Infant faith is defectible. If covenant children stumble and fall away from the faith, their precious covenantal blessings will become intensified covenantal curses. Their baptism will devolve from waters of life into waters of death and drowning. They will receive the greater condemnation. Furthermore, those through whom offenses come will be judged as well. Jesus said those who turn “little believers” away from Christ will have millstones wrapped around their necks and will be cast into the deepest parts of the sea.
Infant faith is mysterious We are not told how God works faith in the hearts of covenant infants. However, we can insist that God’s freedom to work in our children (or the senile or mentally handicapped) is not bounded by our rational and emotional abilities. The gospel is especially for the weak, humble, and poor. Our children are among the best illustrations of gospel grace because their weakness, dependence, and inability are so utterly obvious. Covenant children in home and church are living parables of the gospel for the whole community to see.
Infant faith is a matter of relational trust As a matter of relationship this faith will grow over time and as infant believers mature rational and volitional elements (knowledge of and assent to gospel propositions) will get added into their faith. They believe as infants in order to grow into understanding as adults. But in the meantime, their faith is genuine. Paedofaith is real authentic faith It is simply baby faith. Or to put it another way paedofaith is to adult faith what babies are to adults. Paedofaith is not merely a disposition to faith or a potential faith or an openness to faith in the future; it is faith appropriate to the personhood of the child.
Paedofaith has a long and venerable theological history. The Church fathers were certainly open to a doctrine of paedofaith (and often paedocommunion), and many who grew up in covenant homes claimed to have served God from infancy. Going back to the Reformation, Luther advocated a very strong paedofaith position. Calvin followed suit, adding nuances, but still insisting that infant “seed” faith is real faith. Later, scholastics and Puritans began to qualify and minimize paedofaith in various ways, which in some measure further opened the door to both Enlightenment rationalism and American revivalism. But after a temporary eclipse, the doctrine of paedofaith is making a comeback in several theological traditions, often bringing along with it a pro-paedocommunion movement. Finally, contemporary paedofaith advocates are very interested in exploring non-cognitive, non-discursive ways in which we acquire knowledge. While no doctrine is to be based on extra-Scriptural considerations, the teaching of Scripture is often clarified and buttressed by these considerations. That seems to be happening, at least in small ways, with the biblical doctrine of paedofaith.