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A Brotherly Dialogue on Covenant Theology

July 20, 2015
David Garst

My friend David Garst and his son Calvin

Here’s my dialogue with Mr. David Garst, an advocate of Federal Vision and member of Covenant Christian Church. Mr. Garst and I decided to make our conversation public, hoping that readers will learn something from our exchange of thoughts on some issues pertaining to covenant theology. This post is by no means meant to be read as a comprehensive debate, but as a demonstration that disagreements can be exercised in the spirit of brotherly love.  

 

Mr. David Garst: I appreciate Dr. David Murray’s emphasis on the fact that the worst state to be in is to be a baptized pagan or unbeliever (see Dr. Murray’s article “A Plea to Baptized Unbelievers”). But I don’t think the problem is with “those who are baptized as children but never went on to believe for themselves.” I believe God does pass on the gift of faith to baptized children through covenant succession. I have yet to meet a child at church who thinks like an atheist. Therefore rather than “Calling our baptized children to faith,” we ought to encourage them to persevere in their faith. God gives faith to those are baptized but we must be nurtured and grow in our gift of faith always guarding against the weeds of unbelief which threaten to creep in and take over.

 

Pastor Brian G. Najapfour: May I know the scriptural basis for your belief that “God does pass on the gift of faith to baptized children through covenant succession.” Also, when you say “the gift of faith,” are you talking about saving faith?

 

Mr. David Garst: I think the primary biblical basis is found in Acts 16:31 where Paul declares to the pagan jailer “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.” Paul’s gospel promise to the jailer is singular. And yet the promise attached is: “you will be saved, and so will your household.” Compare with Peter’s message to the Jews: “the promise is to you and to your children,” in Acts 2:39. These dynamics of the covenant are reflected in the story of Noah. If Noah would believe God’s word, his household would be saved. The saving faith of infants is clearly pointed out in the accounts of David, Jeremiah, and John the Baptist. In Psalm 22:9-10 David asserts that he had faith as an infant: “You made me trust while on my mother’s breast.” The part that is complicated is the fact that there are baptized believing Christians who fall away. I agree there is a difference between an elect believing Christian and a non-elect believing Christian. The difference is that one’s faith endures and the latter withers. What the elect and non-elect Christian have in common is that they were both at one time “saved” in the sense that they are both truly connected to the body of Christ (Heb. 6:4-6; John 15:6; Rom. 11:16-17, 20).

 

Pastor Brian G. Najapfour: In regard to your claim that “God does pass on the gift of faith to baptized children through covenant succession,” I don’t think the Scriptures teach such a doctrine. When Paul and Silas say to the Philippian jailer, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household,” they are not suggesting that if the jailer believes, his household will automatically be saved. His household will be saved, only if they believe. This truth is consistent with the rest of Scripture (John 3:36; 11:25-26; 20:31; Rom. 10:9-10).

Our children’s salvation does not depend on our faith. Our children themselves must personally believe in the Lord Jesus Christ in order for them to be saved. To presume that they are automatically saved on the basis of our faith or because they are covenant children is dangerous. That’s why we also lovingly call our children to self-examination to see whether they truly believe or not (2 Cor. 13:5). Even the demons believe but we know they are not saved, for their faith is not saving (James 2:19).

Regarding Noah, his household was saved from the flood of God’s judgement against sin, not because of Noah’s faith but because of their faith in God. Remember God’s command to Noah in Genesis 6:18, “But I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you.” Note: Noah’s family must also come into the ark. If Noah’s family would not come, they would not be saved from God’s wrath. Noah must enter the ark and so must his family. Noah cannot come on their behalf. They themselves must come. In the context of salvation, parents do not come to Christ on their children’s behalf. Their children themselves must come to Jesus by faith, or else they will not be saved (Matt. 11:28). Salvation is personal. It does not depend on somebody else’s faith.

Now, if it is true that God passes on saving faith to baptized children through covenant succession, how come that not all who descended from Abraham were saved? For instance, if Ishmael received saving faith from God through covenant succession, why was he not saved? If you say that Ishmael was at one point saved, then you must also embrace the unbiblical teaching that a saved person can lose his/her salvation.

 

Mr. David Garst: My brief answer would be that if we interpret the story of the jailer as “Maybe the household will be saved” then we would have to add the words “if they believe,” after “you and your household.” I agree that baptized infants can grow into adults who leave the church but the same thing also happens to people who become Christians and are baptized when they are adults. If we assume that a new church member who is baptized as an adult to be a true Christian until he shows otherwise then why wouldn’t we assume the same of the baby?

 

Pastor Brian G. Najapfour: Acts 16:31 does not teach that the jailer’s household would be saved automatically by his faith in Jesus Christ. What it teaches is that the promise of the gospel is also given to his household. And the promise of the gospel is that God will save those who believe in His Son Jesus Christ. Therefore, if the jailer’s household believed, they should also be saved. God does not promise to save those who don’t believe in His Son.

With regard to your last comment, we do not consider a new church member to be a Christian on the basis of his/her baptism but on the basis of his/her faith in Jesus (Acts 11:26). For instance, I call you my brother in the Lord not because you were baptized but because you believed in Christ. Baptism does not make one a Christian. Brother, again thank you so much for engaging with me in this very important subject. God bless you.

 

Mr. David Garst: Thank you also pastor for your graciousness. God bless you, too.

 

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