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Blow ye the trumpet in Zion, and sound an alarm in my holy mountain: let all the inhabitants of the land tremble:

for the day of the LORD cometh, for it is nigh at hand, Joel 2:1.

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Thursday, 23 May 2013

The dangerous error of Covenant Succession Part 1

There is a belief, professed among some ultra-Reformed, and hyper-Calvinistic circles, that the children of believers do not need to be evangelised and certainly do not need to be converted in the conventional sense of the term. It is 'nurture' and 'discipline' that they need, not 'evangelism' is their mantra!

These 'covenant children', as they are described, are to be looked upon and treated as being 'the children of God'. They must therefore be treated, not as the enemies of God, but as members of, and brothers and sisters in, the kingdom of God. They are even to be welcomed to the Lord's Table in many instances from an early age and encouraged to be partakers of the bread and wine.

This view goes under a number of different titles such as: 'Covenant Succession', 'Presumptive Regeneration', 'Presupposed Regeneration', 'Dormant Regeneration' or 'Covenantal Regeneration'. All with slight variations of meaning in each term, and maybe in some cases no difference of meaning at all. Some adherents certainly engage in semantics where they deny they believe in or hold to 'Presupposed Regeneration' but rather describe their view as 'believing covenant promises' or 'trusting in covenantal election'. Same thing only different words!

In this new series of posts on this Blog there is a desire to explore whether this is a Scriptural position to adopt or just a self-deluded fallacy. What saith the Scriptures on this matter? This is the most important question to ask. It matters not what others think, say or write. What the Word of God say, is to be our final rule? A consideration of the Word of God will suggest that this is nothing less than a fallacy.

We will commence with a consideration of:

I. The Fallacy of Covenant Succession Explained 
Adherents to this belief claim that as everyone must stand before God in a covenant relationship we are either under the old covenant made with Adam and must obey God perfectly, or suffer eternal punishment; or we are under the new covenant of grace found in the Lord Jesus Christ who perfectly kept the first covenant, and by His death paid the penalty for the failure of His people to keep it. An individual can enter into new covenant relationship with God in Christ in one of two ways: 
[1] By profession of faith like Abraham, or the Philippian jailer, etc;
[2] By birth like Isaac, Jacob, the children of the Philippian jailer, Timothy, etc.

Covenant Succession deals with the last of these two possibilities. It would seem there are at least two ways of looking at this matter by those who believe it, or maybe a mixture of both: 
[1] God takes the faith of the father, the head of the household, as the faith of each member of the household; 
[2] Children by virtue of being born of at least one believing parent are deemed to be in the covenant and therefore automatically are to be treated as the children of God.

Believing parents are to trust implicitly that their 'covenant child' is already regenerated and that their little infant will grow up trusting in Christ alone for salvation. It is acknowledged that only God can grant a 'covenant child' a new heart and if a child has been renewed, it will show itself in their faith, love and obedience. If not, their baptism will be a constant reminder of God’s mercy in providing a Saviour for them and of their need to repent and believe on Him. If these little infants were to continue into adulthood in unbelief, their baptism would become a witness against them that they are a covenant breaker and their condemnation would be all the more severe.

As a starting position for this thesis, Genesis 17:7, is often quoted: And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee. The argument runs along the lines that this covenant made with Abraham and his seed is identified with the Gospel in Galatians 3 and as it contains an emphatic reference to Abraham's physical children, here therefore, is the principle of 'Covenant Succession'. 

A number of other Scripture references are pressed into service to support this assertion. For example, it is taken that Joshua is referring to 'Covenant Succession' when he speaks of himself and his house serving the Lord, Joshua 24:15: …but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD. Another interesting portion that is used in the same vein is Isaiah 54:13: And all thy children shall be taught of the LORD; and great shall be the peace of thy children

It is argued by the exponents of this notion that the New Testament also supports their thesis. Portions are quoted such as: 
Matthew 18:14: Even so it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish; 
Acts 2:39: For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call; 
Acts 16:31: And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house; 
Ephesians 6:1-3: Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right. Honour thy father and mother; (which is the first commandment with promise;) That it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth.

Furthermore, use is made of Scriptural testimonies to further bolster this point of view. Reference is made to:
Psalm 22:9,10, But thou art he that took me out of the womb: thou didst make me hope when I was upon my mother’s breasts. I was cast upon thee from the womb: thou art my God from my mother’s belly;
Psalm 71:5,6 For thou art my hope, O Lord GOD: thou art my trust from my youth. By thee have I been holden up from the womb: thou art he that took me out of my mother’s bowels: my praise shall be continually of thee.
Jeremiah 1:5 Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.
Luke 1:15 For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb

As a result of holding to this view, adherents believe/presume that as a rule the Spirit of God regenerates the child of a believer, ie a 'covenant child', early in childhood, even in its mother's womb before they are born, and that they then grow into conversion where they become aware of their election in Christ. Repentance unto life is viewed as something to be repeated many times over in life and not once at a conversion experience. 'Covenant children' born in these circumstances will be expected to grow up as Christians, will be treated as Christians at home by their parents and in the church by the oversight and congregation.

For those who believe in 'Covenant Succession', the salvation of their children is dependent to a large extent on whether or not a parent is faithful in bringing up their children. Much emphasis is placed upon parents creating a Christian culture or atmosphere in their home; diligently teaching their children the ways of God; and generally treating their children as Christians and not as unsaved or unregenerate.

Parental faithfulness in the matter of child rearing, it is believed, will bring about the desired outcome whereby children will grow up to profess and serve God. The promises of God are made good to a 'covenant child' only in the context of 'diligent' teaching and example by its parent[s]. 

Some who believe in this fallacy have gone as far as to assert that individuals like the Apostle Paul [Saul of Tarsus] must have been regenerated in their youth, maybe even regenerated in their mother's womb, because, after all, they were 'covenant children', having received the sign of the Old Testament covenant in circumcision. 


Anonymous said...

Have you read "how to bring the Gospel to our covenant children" by Joel Beeke?

It is very good and would help you immensely in your study of this topic.

Rev Brian McClung said...


I have read it. My article is directed at that form of 'covenant succession' which sees no need to evangelise children of believers.

Brian McClung