Faith: A Bond, a Gift, and an Activity (4): Salvation in Principle and in Reality
Reformed Free Publishing Association
What follows is from Martyn McGeown's article "Faith: A Bond, a Gift, and an Activity, but Not a Condition for Salvation," published in the Protestant Reformed Theological Journal, April 2019, Vo. 52, No. 2. The article will be serialized on the RFPA blog. The previous entry is Faith: A Bond, a Gift, and an Activity (3): "Can and Must Do".
If faith is a bond that unites us to Jesus Christ, is that bond not necessarily present in regeneration, so that we do not need to believe to be saved? Is it not true that in a certain sense we are already saved when we are regenerated? While that is certainly true, we still must do justice to 1 John 5:1, which states, “Whosoever believeth [present tense] that Jesus is the Christ is born [has been born—perfect tense] of God.” In other words, the faith (believing) occurs after regeneration or is the fruit of regeneration (Canons 3-4, 12 refers to it as the “consequence” of regeneration). Similar is the testimony of John 1:12-13: “As many as received him [the activity of faith], to them gave he power to become the sons of God [adoption, which is an aspect of justification], even to them that believe on his name [faith], which were born… of God [regeneration].” Therefore, regeneration occurs before faith, that is, the activity of faith.
There is also an important difference between being saved in principle and being saved in fact. This applies especially to the infant children of believers, who possess the bond or faculty of faith before the activity of faith is expressed in their lives. Certainly, this is the experience of many, if not most, of those who grew up in the church— they do not remember when they first believed in Christ; for them it was a gradual, even imperceptible growth into Christ. The Bible does not deny that infants possess salvation, but we do not know what they experience, for they are (in a sense) unconscious. The activity of faith takes place subconsciously. They do not, at least not in any way that we can comprehend, have certain knowledge of, and assured confidence in, Christ. They do not yet hold for truth everything revealed in the Word of God (Heidelberg Catechism, A. 21). They do not even know what the Word of God is—not yet. The Bible does not address unconscious persons, although Christ can: you cannot preach to an unconscious person and expect a conscious response, but Christ can call such a person (if he is elect) by the efficacious call. However, apart from a few examples, such as the infant John the Baptist (Luke 1:41, 44) and Jacob’s prenatal struggle for the birthright (Gen. 25:22), the Bible speaks almost exclusively about adults and about their calling to repent and believe in Jesus, such as the Philippian jailor in Acts 16.
Nevertheless, we do not underestimate the power of the Spirit in an unconscious child, which is why parents bring their children to hear the voice of Jesus (which they can hear even before they understand the words of the preaching of the minister) as soon as possible. If the life of regeneration is present before the child is born, Christ certainly addresses that child in its earliest infancy.
Besides that, the issue is not what is required; the issue is what is given and in what way is it given. God’s gift to an unconscious infant of the whole of salvation in principle, but only in principle, can be likened to the planting of a seed into the child’s heart (1 John 3:9). Ordinarily, a seed grows, the life that God gives develops, and the child comes to conscious faith. We do not believe in dormant regeneration, which was an error of Abraham Kuyper. He taught that a person (usually a child) could be regenerate, but not come to conscious faith for twenty, thirty, or even sixty years. We do not know that a child is saved unless that child grows to maturity and believes, and we do not presume it either. But if God takes the child in infancy, we have no reason to doubt that child’s election and salvation (Canons 1, 17).
However, if a child who is baptized in the church never expresses faith as the activity of believing, which also produces good works, but instead grows up unbelieving and rebellious, we have no right to view him as a saved person and we have no right to tell him that he is a saved person either. Instead, we call him to repentance and faith, which is a call that comes to him, whether implicitly or explicitly, in every catechism lesson and in every sermon, as well as through the admonitions of parents, grandparents, Christian school teachers, and officebearers.
David Engelsma explains how God uses means to save covenant children, without which He is not ordinarily pleased to work salvation in the children of believers:
No Christian parent and no child may presume upon the gracious promise of the covenant. Parents may not presume that their children will be saved, regardless that the parents do not rear them in the nurture and admonition of the Lord Jesus, which rearing is the means that God uses to save covenant children. The children may not presume that they are and will be saved, regardless that they do not believe on Jesus Christ with the true faith that produces a life of holiness, which faith is the means God uses to justify and save the elect children of believers. The covenant promise does not allow for unbelieving presumption, but rather works, addresses, and assures faith.
Therefore, salvation (justification—conscious justification) does not depend on any activities of the child, for all the benefits of salvation are gifts, but justification comes in no other way than by faith only, which faith includes an embracing, a conscious embracing, of Christ as the righteousness of the child, as the child grows to maturity. Commenting on the “Declaration of Principles,” Engelsma explains the relationship between faith, salvation, and assurance in covenant children:
The Declaration has laid down the dogmatic truth that the promise is for the elect. But this statement does not assure the individual child of his being the object of the promise personally. Nor does it assure him of salvation. For the only way one can know himself elect is by coming to Christ by a true faith in response to the preaching of the gospel. The form, therefore, that the particular covenant promise takes to all of the elect children is this: ‘Come to Christ, and to everyone who comes, I will give the life and peace of the covenant of grace.’ By coming to Christ, they thus know themselves also as chosen by God in Christ in eternity.
There certainly is a difference between the salvation of a newborn child and the salvation of a fifty-year old person. It is the difference between an acorn and an oak tree, or an acorn and a sapling (if we prefer to reserve the oak tree illustration for the glorified saint in heaven). What is “required” for an acorn, which is an oak tree “in principle,” to become an oak tree in fact? Time, water, sunlight, and other nutrients are required—but the acorn does not produce these; the acorn receives these. In God’s providence an acorn will ordinarily develop into an oak tree under God’s blessing (Ps. 104:13-17, 30). Similarly, faith, which includes the conscious activity of believing, is required, but God works faith in us by the Holy Spirit through the means of grace, by which He is pleased to save the child and by which He causes the child to experience and enjoy his salvation as a mature, confessing member of the church (Canons 3-4, 17). The Spirit causes life and growth in the natural and in the spiritual realm; much of God’s work is mysterious and hidden. We cannot see what God is doing in the heart of an elect infant, but, unless God is pleased to take the child in infancy, we shall see the fruit of God’s work when the child begins to demonstrate faith.
All saints are planted into Christ by a true faith, but there is a difference in development, rate of development and degree of development. God has planned each saint’s life—his birth, the number of his days, and even the good works in which he is ordained to walk (Eph. 2:10). God takes some saints to heaven earlier than others, but His work in every saint is completed and perfected according to God’s good pleasure.