The consistory shall ensure that the covenant of God is sealed by baptism to the children of believers as soon as feasible.
We now pay attention to each of the two sacraments in particular. Baptism comes first into view, for it is the sacrament which stands at the beginning of our life as children of the covenant.
That we speak here of “children of believers” and not of “children of the covenant” is because the parents have to answer certain questions when they present their children for baptism. Thus the church cannot ask the parents these questions unless it is convinced that they are able to live up to the stipulations, being believers. The meaning of these words is not to state that the children, infants, have a right to baptism because of the faith of the parents. In our confessional forms we make profession of the basis for the baptism of infants. Here we stress a different element, although we definitely should not have the impression that our Church Order speaks a different language than our confessional forms.
Since the Lord with His promises and the riches of His covenant places Himself at the very beginning of our life, the parents should acknowledge this and show it by presenting their child for baptism as soon as feasible. Art. 57 makes the provision that the consistory shall ensure that the parents do so. Our Church Order does not state what the church members are to do but what the churches, that is, the consistories are obligated to do. The consistories are to ensure that the parents are obedient also in the point of seeking baptism for their children.
It will not happen very often among us that the office-bearers have to admonish parents to present their child for baptism. It is a good custom among us that the minister is notified of the happy event soon after the birth of a child. When he visits the mother in the hospital he will undoubtedly speak about baptism and in all likelihood will learn that the parents expect their child to receive the holy sacrament on the coming Sunday. If he perceives that baptism will be delayed for various reasons, he will speak about this and teach the parents regarding the rights of the Lord, the right of the child, and the riches of the covenant.
In former days baptism was often delayed for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes parents waited till a second or even a third child was born, because an elaborate “baptismal feast” had to be organized and more often than not the cost of such an undertaking prohibited having such a feast every time there was a birth in the family.
There may still be some controversy regarding the meaning of the words “as soon as feasible.” Does this mean that baptism should be sought at the first opportunity, that is the first worship service that is being held after the
birth of the child? Or does it mean “as soon as everyone is able to attend?” There is no doubt about it that these words mean: at the first opportunity, as soon as a service is held in which baptism can be administered. In proof of this we may quote a decision by the Synod of Dordrecht 1574, which declared that the covenant of God shall be sealed to the children as soon as possible “unless there are weighty reasons to postpone baptism for some time, of which the consistory shall judge. But the inclination of the parents who desire to postpone the baptism of their children till the time when the mothers can themselves present their children, or long to wait for the witnesses, the brothers do not consider a valid reason to postpone baptism.”
Since nowadays the children are born in a hospital, there is a practical need to wait till mother and baby have been discharged, and thus most often both parents are present at baptism. But if the mother is not yet able to be present, baptism should not for that reason be postponed. The same applies in case the father is away for one reason or another, such as working in a remote area and is not expected to be back for some weeks, or if the father has undergone surgery and has not sufficiently recovered to be present the first Sunday the mother is able to come with the child for baptism. Then the mother should come alone with the child and baptism should not be delayed until the father can be present. What is central (and should remain so) is the right which the Lord has to this child and the right which this child has to the promises of the covenant and their sealing by holy baptism.
We may refer here to the provisions regarding circumcision. This sacrament had to be administered on the eighth day, whether it was a sabbath or not. The reason why circumcision was to be administered on the eighth day was that this was the first day on which the mother and the child were free from unclean ness.
Leviticus 12: 2, 3 reads: “Say to the people of Israel, If a woman conceives and bears a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days; as at the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean. And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.”
Neither our children nor their mothers are any longer unclean in that sense. There is no prohibition stating that they should not receive the sacrament at the first opportunity after they have been born. On the contrary, it is one of the greater riches of the new dispensation that not only all the children may receive the sacrament, but that they also are “sanctified” in Christ from their first moment of life, and may receive the confirmation thereof as soon as the congregation is assembled for worship.
We confess that baptism itself does not wash away the sins. Thereby we also refute the fallacy that made people seek baptism towards the end of their life or, at the other end of the scale, as soon as possible after birth, especially if the danger was imminent that the child would die.
It is a well-known fact that Constantine the Great was baptized shortly before his death. This practice was done more often, for when baptism itself washes away all the sins which one has committed, it was thought safer and more prudent to be baptized as late as possible in life. Then fewer sins remain which have not been washed away as yet.
On the other hand, when baptism washes away the sins and is necessary for salvation, as was progressively taught and believed, then it is wiser and safer to have it administered as early as possible in life, for no infant should be exposed to the risk of dying without having been baptized.
But it was not for that reason that our forefathers insisted on having their children receive holy baptism at the first opportunity, whether it was on a weekday or on the Lord's day. And everyone who more or less smirks at a father presenting his child one or two days after its birth to have it receive the holy sacrament as a “Romish” act displays only his own ignorance. When our forefathers desired baptism on the first, second, or third day of their children’s life, their motives were free from Romish influences. They desired to honour their God. Later on man was put into the centre with his religious feelings and “needs.” It was the apostate synod of the Netherlands Reformed Church which, by means of a circular letter in 1816, told the churches that it would enhance the impression of baptism if the mother were there too! Later on they “enhanced” this impression even more, when opportunity for baptism was given only once a month, so that a larger number of children would be present to receive the sacrament.
This does not suggest that it would be wrong when the mother is present at baptism and answers the questions together with her husband. On the contrary, this is what happens most of the time when children are born in the hospital and mother and baby are discharged at the same time. It does not happen infrequently that a mother does not miss even one Sunday in church, when her baby is born at the beginning of the week. When she can be present without the baptism having to be delayed, so much the better. If, for one reason or another, she is not able to go to church as yet, baptism should not for that reason be postponed. The consistories should see to it that baptism is requested and administered as soon as feasible. That is what the churches have agreed upon.
Which children are entitled to receive baptism? Perhaps someone raises his eyebrows when reading this question. Do we not speak here of “children of believers?” Is it then not clear who are meant? Although we should always avoid making matters complicated, we are faced with a few questions in this connection. Should all the children of believers be baptized? Who are the children of believers? Are they exclusively their own biological offspring or do they also include their adopted children? What if parents have not yet made profession of faith? What is the procedure if both parents have passed away, for instance, when the father died before the birth of the child and the mother while giving birth or shortly after?
We should, of course, avoid all casuistry, and we certainly do not intend to discuss and try to answer all questions that could be raised in this respect, but we do have to deal with some of them.
All children born of believers, all children of the covenant do have the right to baptism. Since the Lord has assured us that He is the God not only
of the fathers but also of the children, and that the promise is to the children as well as to the parents, there is no doubt that the children also have the right to have these promises and assurances signified and sealed to them by holy baptism.
As for the question whether this applies only to the “natural” children or also to the “adopted” sons and daughters, we quote the simple but straightforward decision of the (to our knowledge) first major ecclesiastical assembly which dealt with the question, namely, Classis West of November 27, 1958.
The classis advises the Church at Edmonton to administer baptism to the adopted child mentioned in its query.
a. by its adoption according to the law that is in force this child has been ingrafted into a believing family;
b. as a member of a believing family it is included in the congregation of Christ and is to be recognized as such;
c. as a member of the church it has, no less than adults, received the promise of God and ought therefore to be baptized.
This writer recalls that during the discussion the Rev. J.T. VanPopta used the following example. Across from us lives a family with ten children, five of whom have been adopted. If it should please the Lord to work in their hearts the desire to be received as members of the church and to receive holy baptism, must we tell them: “That is fine for you and for five of your children, namely, those born of you, but not for the ones whom you adopted?” Should we even inquire whether any of the children have been adopted if a family comes to the church?
Sometimes the argument is used that Scripture speaks of “seed,” but those using it overlook that, when this word is used in Gen. 3: 15, it is used in a figurative sense as well. The “seed of the serpent” are not the snakes and reptiles, but people who live out of the spirit of the devil, whereas the “Seed of the woman” are not people born of woman but Christ and all His own. Being Christ’s, Paul writes in Gal. 3: 29, we are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. As former heathen, we are not Abraham’s “seed” in the literal sense of the word at all. Yet we are his seed, through Christ.
It is our distinct impression that opposition to the baptism of adopted children proceeds more from being opposed to adoption itself than to the baptism of those children. It appears to us that the ecclesiastical advice, quoted above, cannot be refuted.
Concerning the criticism that by our act of adoption we more or less compel the Lord to comply with what we decide and do, we counter with the following: If this is so, then adoption itself should be condemned altogether, as well as several other acts, for instance the procreation of our own children. If it was true what the critics say, no childless couple should seek medical advice or even submit to surgery with a view to receiving children, nor should any couple adopt a child, whether they do have children of their own or not. It is hard to imagine that the Lord would judge harshly if His children, accepting
His guidance in their life, in humble submission to what appears to be His will concerning their marriage, namely, that He withholds from them “natural” children, nevertheless seek to fill the emptiness in their life by adopting a child or children, and to bring them up in the fear of His Name.
We are thankful for the fact that, as far as we know, it is the general consensus in the churches that children who have been ingrafted into a Christian family by means of adoption should also openly be ingrafted into the Christian church through holy baptism.
The process of adoption must have been completed before baptism may be administered. Quoting negative decisions made in the Netherlands in the past overlooks the fact that the situation was completely different there, since adoption as we know it in Canada was not possible in the Netherlands until some thirty years ago.
Having established that all children of believers have a right to baptism, we now turn to the question whether they all can be baptized without any exception. What are the conditions that must be met? Sometimes a member of the church has rights but conditions may exist that prevent this member from seeing his right exercised. Think, for instance, of the right to participate in the holy supper which all members have by birth but which may be exercised only upon public profession of faith.
A child can receive holy baptism when the parents, or at least one of them, have made profession of faith and are entitled to answer the questions which are asked, to take upon themselves the obligations as formulated in the Form for the Baptism of Infants. If neither of the parents has made profession of faith, the right of the child to baptism remains unaffected, but there is no possibility to have it exercised.
We are thankful that it does not happen frequently that neither of the parents has made profession of faith, and only now and then it happens that a child will have to wait for some time. Grandparents and other relatives cannot stand in for the parents, for they have no control over the child and cannot guarantee that the child will be taught in the doctrine of the church. One cannot make promises for others.
The situation is different when both parents have died, and either the grandparents or other relatives have received legal custody of the children, so that they can be held responsible for their upbringing. The church can then ask them the questions stipulated in the Form for the Baptism of Infants, even though there is no formal “adoption.” These children have the right to baptism already, because of their parents, though not on the basis of the faith of these parents but on the basis of God's faithfulness. The children, too, are heirs to the promise of the covenant.
Another question to be faced here is what to do in case the parents are under discipline or, perhaps, have been excommunicated. When a parent has been barred from the Lord’s Supper, this affects not only his participation in the holy supper but all his rights and privileges in the church, including the
right to answer the questions at baptism. The barring from the table of the Lord means: if there is no repentance, excommunication will be the end. This affects one’s whole position in the church, the right to answer questions at baptism as well as the right to vote. It would be better, therefore, to say that someone has been barred from the sacraments than merely that someone has been forbidden to partake of the holy supper.
Most likely, however, the other parent will still be entitled to all the rights and privileges of church membership and thus able to answer the questions and make the required promises. But if neither of the parents has the right to do so, the child cannot be baptized, although it retains its right to the sacrament.
Would a child of excommunicated members have a right to baptism? Envision a situation where both parents have died and the children are legally in the custody of relatives who are church members. What about baptism in that case?
We must differentiate between the children born before and those born after the excommunication. Those born before the excommunication may be baptized, those born after it may not. Should the parents be again received into the communion of the church upon true repentance, any as yet unbaptized child of theirs would have the right to receive baptism, because it belongs to parents who have (again) been ingrafted into the church of Christ.
At the excommunication the church declares that one is “excluded from the fellowship of Christ and from His kingdom.” He may no longer use (!) the sacraments. He has no part any more in the spiritual blessings and benefits which Christ bestows upon His church. “As long as he persists in sin, let him be to you as a Gentile and outcast.” In other words, through the excommunication the church, in essence, rescinds the promise of the covenant, and declares that this former member may no longer rely on it.
This also affects the position of the children born outside the kingdom. They no longer receive the right of citizenship with all the rights and privileges that are inherent in it.
A different situation exists when members have broken with the church. In that case we should recall what the Lord declares in the second word of the covenant: that only after the third or fourth generation of those who continue in hatred against Him He will wholly withdraw His mercies from them and rejects them utterly. For this reason children or even grandchildren of those who have broken with the church may receive baptism as long as members of the church have legal custody and can thus answer the relevant questions.
Still another question comes to mind: till what age should children be baptized with the parents answering the questions found in the Form for the Baptism of Infants. This question will arise only when a family with children comes to the faith and now is ingrafted into the church of Christ, or when a child is adopted at a later age. When is the “cut-off” age, after which these
children have to wait until they themselves can make profession of faith and answer for themselves? In general, an age of twelve years is taken as the limit, although an early synod declared that not only the age but also the mental development of the children should be taken into account. Another very early ecclesiastical assembly expressed the desirability of having children of seven or eight years of age recite the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the Apostles’ Creed before their baptism wherever this could be done unto edification. Yet another assembly stated the same in the case of twelve, thirteen, and even fourteen year olds.
The age of twelve is only a general guideline, not an irrevocable rule. Besides, it refers only to the administration of baptism, not to church membership. When a family is ingrafted into the Christian church, this whole family with all its members receives all the rights that come with this membership. That there are certain restrictions to the exercise of these rights does not mean that these rights do not exist.
At the age of twelve or thirteen a boy or girl becomes responsible for personal choice and course of life, and may be held accountable for his or her actions. Besides, no one has to wait till his eighteenth or twentieth year before he should be allowed to make profession of faith and receive holy baptism. (Cf. the “Bar Mitzvah”)
Baptism by Others
During the ages it has been a point of discussion and even of controversy what to think of the validity of baptism administered by others, by sects and erring churches, as well as by false churches. Should persons who received baptism outside the church be accepted as baptized persons, or should they be re-baptized in the belief that what had happened to them was just some “spilling of water?” (The term “re-baptize” would be inappropriate in this case, because the original baptism is not recognized as a true baptism.) Sometimes the value and legitimacy of baptism were even made dependent upon the spiritual condition of the one who administered it, as if they depended on man and his piety or purity.
It would be wrong to speak of a “recognizing” of baptism administered outside the church. We are not “recognizing” anything. All we do is state a fact which cannot be undone when we accept a person as a baptized person. There is an old Latin saying which bears remembering in this respect as well. Translated it reads: “There are many things which should not be done; yet, once they have been done, they are facts and stand.” (Multa fieri non debent, quae tamen facta valent.) We disapprove of the birth of a child outside of holy wedlock, but once it is born, it is there. It is the same with baptism. Here it is not a matter of “recognition,” but of being faced with a fact.
Certain conditions must be met before we accept as a fact someone’s baptism. Various ecclesiastical assemblies occupied themselves with the question what these conditions should be. It was clear that safeguards were necessary. The conclusion was that the following points are mandatory.
A. Baptism must have been administered into the Name of the Triune God.
B. It must have been administered with water, either by sprinkling or immersion.
C. It must have been administered by someone who within his group has the authority to do it. This does not amount to a recognition of a right to administer the sacrament or of the legitimacy of the office of the person who officiated. The thought behind setting forth these conditions is that ultimately also the baptism administered outside the church does not go back to a human invention or idea but to the institution of the sacrament by the Lord. Moreover, the person who was authorized (by the group to which he belongs) to administer the sacrament has derived his position in last instance not from the need of a group to have one person act on behalf of them, but in final analysis from the fact that the Lord Jesus Christ has ordained the offices in His church.
It is not important whether the sprinkling with water is done once or three times. Something can be said in favour of either method. What is important is that water is used, for it signifies and seals the washing by Christ’s blood.
That baptism must have been administered into the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit does not need any further proof. What sometimes was done by modernistic ministers who “baptized” into faith, hope, and love was no baptism, they “just” spilled water. It was their sin that they spilled the water of baptism.
At what point in the worship service should baptism be administered? Should it be done before or after the sermon? In principle, it does not make any difference.
In defense of the thesis that it should be administered after the sermon has been delivered we are reminded that the sacraments are signs and seals added to the Word, and that therefore the Word should come first, to be followed by the sacraments. This sounds convincing, and it is true that the sacraments have been added to God’s Word, but we should also be aware that this specific baptism is not a sign and seal added to the proclamation of God’s Word in that particular service in which this child is baptized, but to the whole of God's promises given in His covenant. These promises are explained every time when the Form is read before the administration of baptism. In this Form we are taught that the sacrament signifies and seals God’s promises to us and to our children. This teaching most likely is not done in the sermon which is supposed to precede baptism in that particular service.
Though for the sake of the symbolic character of baptism it might be preferable to have its administration after the sermon, practical reasons plead for having it before the sermon. We never know whether the baby will keep quiet during the whole service or will start crying, with all the commotion and distraction this may bring about. The mother may be able to be present and yet not be well enough to sit through the whole service. We definitely do not advocate an early disappearance from the service of mother
and baby, but in general our pews are not all that comfortable and certainly not for someone who just recently has given birth. Administration of baptism towards the end of the service may compel the mother to stay at home or to wait in some room till the sermon is over and baptism is about to be administered. Practical reasons plead for having baptism as early as possible in the service.
Should the congregation sing after the administration of baptism? It is recommendable to do so. Having seen anew the mercies and faithfulness of the covenant God, it is good when all those present also in their singing acknowledge God’s Fatherly goodness and mercy which He has shown to this child and to them all. Let them praise the Lord.
Whether this should be done standing is, again, something which should be left in each congregation’s freedom. The only question we pose here is why the congregation should rise when singing a song of praise after a baptism, but remain seated with many other songs. It lends a special aura to this singing, which seems slightly out of place.
In most cases the parents remain standing at the baptismal font when a song of praise is sung, and the minister is supposed to do the same. We prefer a different practice, namely, that after baptism parents and minister both return to their various places and that the congregation sings after everyone has returned to his place. The singing is not an intrinsic part of this ceremony and this should be manifested. It ought to be clear that we do not sing to the child or the family but to the Lord. For this reason every one should be back at his proper place, in the midst of the congregation, in the pew and on the pulpit.