Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Leaving Dispensationalism Behind (Part Four)

During my third year in seminary, I could no longer accept the dispensational distinction between Israel and the church. I saw much more continuity than discontinuity in the Bible. I was no longer a dispensationalist, yet I was not comfortable with full-blown covenant theology. What was I?

Some of the resources that helped me see more continuity between Israel and the church were from the perspective known as New Covenant Theology (NCT). I liked this group because they seemed to be a middle ground between Dispensational Theology (DT) and Covenant Theology (CT), which is where I found myself. They also seemed to be charitable in their relations with the other options. This was a huge plus for me because I was tired of hearing both DT and CT blast each other.

I joined an NCT email discussion group and enjoyed reading the email volleys. I was being sharpened, but I kept running into problems understanding their peculiar view of the law, among other things. Over time, I came to see that NCT is not really a middle position. It is just one step past Progressive Dispensationalism, making NCT far closer to DT than CT.

Near the end of my NCT days, the whole Baptism puzzle fell into place. Some NCTers were urging that because the children of believers are unbelievers, they should be treated as such. For instance, since God does not hear the prayers of an unbeliever, we should not teach our children to pray until they are converted. Furthermore, we should not permit our children to sing to the Lord because until they are converted, all of their singing is “strange fire.” I was horrified at such arguments, yet this is the logical conclusion of the Baptist position. NCTers are the only ones who pressed it this far. However, this seemed to conflict with all of the parental instruction from Scripture. “There has to be a better way,” I thought. And I discovered that there is: paedobaptism!


Sean Brandt said...

If this story doesn't end with you saying something to the Presbytery about the need to revise WLC 177 I'm going to be very disappointed.

Moe Bergeron said...

I'm curious as to what NCT list you were a participant? The views you presented with regard to unsaved children are not NCT as I know it and I've been at or the near the center of NCT dialogue since day one.

One more thing. Though I have encouraged my children to sing the songs of Zion and to look to God in prayer I have never encouraged their unbelief by permitting them to assume they are in Christ when they were yet in need of salvation and slaves to sin. The WLC 177 (below) needs more than a mere revision. It needs to inform children of their lost condition before they embrace the sacraments.

The Westminster Larger Catechism 177:[4] Wherein do the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper differ? Answer. The sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper differ, in that Baptism is to be administered but once, with water, to be a sign and seal of our regeneration and ingrafting into Christ, and that even to infants; whereas the Lord's Supper is to be administered often, in the elements of bread and wine, to represent and exhibit Christ as spiritual nourishment to the soul, and to confirm our continuance and growth in him, and that only to such as are of years and ability to examine themselves.

Eric Adams said...


I'm sorry, but I don't recall what list it was. This would have been an email discussion group from about 4-5 years ago.

Yes, you are correct that few NCTers were affirming these views about consistently treating our children as unbelievers, but I did run into this for the first time from NCT.

From a Baptist perspective, this is the consistent conclusion. If our children have no relationship with God, then the only thing we can do is preach the gospel to them and pray for them.

Why would you encourage your children to sing the songs of Zion and look to God in prayer? Do you also teach them that their unbelieving singing is an offense to God? Do you also teach them that their unbelieving prayers are not heard by God?

I found this line of reasoning to be offensive, but as a baptist, I could not refute it.

Mark said...

Here's what's going to happen with your kids. They will be so steeped in empty -- going through the motions of prayer, worship, etc. that they will have a great deal of trouble truly understanding that they are in need of a savior. Surely you don't think that a pre-schooler's prayers are made with full awareness and understanding of what they are doing. No. They are merely learning to perform rituals that you are teaching them to do. Unless you believe their spiritually unregenerate hearts have some means of offering sincere prayers and worship? Didn't Jesus say that the Father is seeking those who will worship in spirit and truth? How can an unregenerate person do either? It's impossible.

I know you have the best of motives, but it's going to be difficult for you to tell your children that they are in need of a savior when you've baptized them, and have had them praying and participating in the church as they are forming their earliest memories. This happens to kids from dispensational bible churches and kids from reformed backgrounds. Both schools of theology, as different as they are, seem to treat little kids as believers long before they can even grapple with the issues of sin, repentance, faith, God, substitutionary atonement(!), etc. Again, think about it: why would your child believe your words about his need to repent and turn to the savior if you have been showing him by your actions that everything is ok between him and God. After all, you've taught him to say prayers and sing hymns, and told him that he's part of a 'covenant community'. You're giving him false assurance by teaching him to go through the motions. That he participates in them means nothing to God. Are you so enamored of your kids that you'll throw out the T in tulip? An unsaved person - even if he is a cute, wonderful little kid who happens to be related to you - is still spiritually dead and God's enemy. Or does Romans 3 not apply to our kids?

10As it is written:
"There is no one righteous, not even one;
11there is no one who understands,
no one who seeks God.
12All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one."[c]

You said you rejected this position because it offended you. Not because of scriptural reasons but because you found it offensive. When you wrote, "I found this line of reasoning to be offensive, but as a baptist, I could not refute it" what you said is, "I didn't like the conclusions the baptists (i.e., NCTers, etc) came to, so I changed camps. I don't think that's the best line of reasoning. We're supposed to follow wherever scripture leads us. That some of scripture's conclusions about us (and our children) are offensive is our fault for being sinful and offensive people. When Adam sinned we all became repugnant to God. Even the cute little kids among us. The greatest gift you can give your child is a clear understanding of the gospel, which pretty much begins with: 'you are a sinner and cut off from God until you turn to him in repentance and faith.' I just can't see how teaching a three or four year old to pray and sing songs helps you do that, especially when those songs are written for people who are already saved.

Hopefully this does not come across as antagonistic, but as a message from one thinking father (who has left dispensationalism) to another. I've empathized with a lot of your story, but I'm sad you've ended up in this place on the question of how to treat your unsaved children. I have 3 age 3 and under, with one more on the way, so I'm not indifferent to your predicament.

Eric Adams said...


Thanks for reading my blog and taking the time to comment. Here's two quick responses:

1) Your "prophecy" about what will happen to my children is actually the complete opposite of what I have found in my home and in the homes of other countless other godly families.

2) It was my emotional reaction against NCT that drove me back to the Scriptures. You missed my explanation for why I rejected NCT: "However, this seemed to conflict with all of the parental instruction from Scripture."

Mark, a question for you: Is the OT instruction on parenting (e.g., Proverbs) applicable for us today?

Mark said...

One thing to think about when thinking of wonderful reformed families and their covenant children: ever visited Switzerland? Ever wonder how the reformed legacy there turned into the atheistic, materialistic society we see today? How about the Netherlands? Ever been to Amsterdam? It's amazing when you think about the fact that the Synod of Dordt was a state-sponsored conference in the same country that now features pot-laced brownies and retail prostitution in Amsterdam. If covenant children begat covenant children, then how does this happen? Doubtless there were "countless godly, (Calvinist) families" in that country in the time of the famous Synod. How do countless godly families in a such a small country have so little effect when they've been reproducing for hundreds of years?

The OT teaching on child-rearing is applicable but incomplete. It does not take into account the greater revelation we have "in these last days." To illustrate this point, look at what God says to Israel in Deuteronomy 6:

1 These are the commands, decrees and laws the LORD your God directed me to teach you to observe in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess, 2 so that you, your children and their children after them may fear the LORD your God as long as you live by keeping all his decrees and commands that I give you, and so that you may enjoy long life. 3 Hear, O Israel, and be careful to obey so that it may go well with you and that you may increase greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, just as the LORD, the God of your fathers, promised you...

6 These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. 7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.

This is what God commanded Israel to do. However, it is very revealing to ask yourself if these commands ever bore fruit. Was there ever a generation of Israelites who truly feared God? The OT and the NT both answer this question 'no' . So, even though God gave them the command to train up the kids in the Jewish religion (His very own Law) they were lacking one thing: regeneration. That is why Paul's prayer for the Israelites in Romans 9 is that they would be saved. And the same goes for our children. No matter how diligent we are at applying God's law to their minds and bodies (corporal punishment), they need to be regenerated by the Holy Spirit.

Proverbs are great for today so long as you don't apply them with out taking new covenant truth into account. For example, you could urge your sons to avoid the immoral woman, and they could do so, but that alone would not justify them before God. The same goes for hard work. You could raise sons who are not lazy, but their industry alone would not justify them before God. You can apply all the wisdom in the book of proverbs, but still miss the heart of the gospel, which is that all men are born sinners who need to repent of sin and turn to Christ. The Proverbs themselves witness to this fact when they say that the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the lord. And we know very well what the fear of the Lord means, because we have the new testament scriptures to guide us to that end: fearing the lord involves turning in repentance and faith. And as Calvinists, we know that this is a monergistic work of God. We as parents, then, are only responsible to do what is in accordance with the gospel: bring up our children with wisdom, and to urge on them the same gospel that we give everyone else.

Eric Adams said...

Mark, a couple of responses:

1) Europe is a spiritual wasteland. I tend to blame this on their failure to raise their children in the covenant. Baptism alone is no guarantee of godliness.

2) Where does the Bible say that Israel's problem was regeneration? Paul says their failure was a lack of faith (Rom 9:32).

3) Does Prov 22:15 apply to regenerate children only?

Mark said...

1) Europe is a spiritual wasteland. I tend to blame this on their failure to raise their children in the covenant.

It's hard to believe that so many thousands of Christian parents were so uncaring or incompetent. What exactly should they have been doing to ensure success? Is what happened in Europe the same thing that happened in the American northeast? Originally, the colonies were full of Christian people and their children. But now the northeast is spiritually dead in a similar way to Europe (consider BB Warfield's Princeton to what came after). What happened there? Everything was going along fine, then all of a sudden a whole generation of parents neglected to "raise their children in the covenant"? It just seems hard to believe that so many Christian parents failed their covenant duty.

2) Where does the Bible say that Israel's problem was regeneration? Paul says their failure was a lack of faith (Rom 9:32).

They pursued righteousness by works (v. 31). That leaves them in an unsaved (unregenerate) state, no? As it says in verse 27:

Though the number of the Israelites be like the sand by the sea,
only the remnant will be saved.

3) Does Prov 22:15 apply to regenerate children only?

"15 Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline will drive it far from him."

No, it applies to all children. This is my point. The rod can help form children who are not characterized by folly, but it cannot regenerate a spiritually dead heart into one that is spiritually alive. Only God's work can do that. That's pure, biblical Calvinism - the 'I' in TULIP. Do you think this verse refers to the salvation of a child?

Mark said...

Here's another interesting passage which comments on the spiritual deadness of Israel. It's a sweeping judgment made to the Sanhedrin by Stephen:

51"You stiff-necked people, with UNCIRCUMCISED HEARTS and ears! YOU ARE JUST LIKE YOUR FATHERS: You always resist the Holy Spirit! 52Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him— 53you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it."

Just something to think about.

Eric Adams said...


Thanks for your interaction on these issues. I'm not going to make any more comments on this particular post since this is an older thread. However, you have spurred me on to write a new post addressing some of the issues you've raised. I look forward to continuing our conversation as soon as I am able to put something together. Thanks again.

Doug said...


In respect to your not wanting to continue this thread any longer feel free not to post this comment.

I do find your interaction with Mark intriging. When I initially came across your blog I had alot of questions that I never asked understanding that all the blogging to this point was biographical. But the difference between raising children in the covenant and from a baptist perspective is interesting(are there actually baptists who don't allow their 3 yr old to pray or sing Jesus loves me?). I'm also curious as to what grace actually occurs during infant baptism. And how does a reformed beleiver view baptist children?

As for the spiritual decline of Europe... maybe it would be better to examine the US. It's not as if Reformed views are winning the day here either. Where are all these children of the covenant anyways.

I'm actually most curious as to why a reformer wants to blame parents for not raising their children in the covenant when it was God's choice from eternity, of whom he will bring to himself. This choice based solely in His sovereign decision. Did God's choice fail in Europe? Or are their a large number of unbeleivers simply because God determined it to be that way for His own reasons?

Eric Adams said...

Doug, some quick points:

1) Yes, there are a few Baptists who don't allow their children to pray or sing to the Lord. Mark appears to be arguing this very point. To his credit, this is consistent with the Baptist position.

2) With regard to the decline of the church in Europe, I'm not a historian, but I do think that one of the major factors was a failure to treat children as covenant members.

3) With regard to "Did God's choice fail in Europe?" you are not considering how God uses means, that is secondary causes.

For example, the ultimate cause that the church has failed in Europe is because God decreed it to be so. There may be many secondary causes, such as inconsistent treatment of children, revivalistic soteriology, etc.

Thanks for continuing to interact on these issues. I do plan to write more on each of these topics in the future, Lord willing.