“Unto You, and to Your Children”
Joel R. Beeke and Ray B. Lanning
“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 2:39
These words of the apostle Peter were spoken at a critical time in redemptive history. The old dispensation, the time of the “shadow of good things to come” (Heb. 10:1), things promised when “God . . . spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets” (Heb. 1:1), was passing away. A new dispensation, “these last days” (Heb. 1:2), the day of the fulfillment of those promises in the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ, was dawning. Peter himself heralds the new day, saying, “This Jesus hath God raised up, whereof we are all witnesses. Therefore, being by the right hand of God exalted, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost, he hath shed for this, which ye now see and hear” (Acts 2:32-33).
Great changes were in store for the church of God in this new era of redemptive history. Significantly, these words of Peter declare that certain things had not changed and would not change in the new era. The pattern of God’s dealings with believers and their children, as old as creation itself, would continue as a constitutional principle of the visible church. As the Westminster Confession of Faith says:
The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the
gospel (not confined to one nation as before under the law), consists
of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and
of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the
house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility
of salvation. (Chapter XXV, Paragraph II.)
It follows that baptism, as “a sacrament of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ . . . for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible Church” (Confession, XXVIII.I), should be duly administered to believers and to their children. “For the promise is unto you, and to your children” (Acts 2:39a).
The Holy Scripture provides four contexts for the proper interpretation of these words of the apostle. Understood in these contexts, these words stand as the biblical and apostolic foundation for the practice of paedobaptism, defined as the administration of baptism to the children of believing parents.
First Context: Creation, and the Unity of the Human Race
In his systematic treatment of the doctrine of man, Charles Hodge devoted an entire chapter to “The Unity of the Human Race.” He writes, “As the unity of the race is not only asserted in the Scriptures but also assumed in all they teach concerning the apostasy and redemption of man, it is a point about which the mind of the theologian should be intelligently convinced.” This doctrine is best stated in the words of the apostle Paul to the Athenians gathered to hear him on Mars’ Hill: “God that made the world . . . hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation” (Acts 17:24,26).
Sadly, this unity is eroding today, especially for people in Western Europe and North America. In the past forces such as racism and nationalism obscured this unity, and in the modern era, secularism and individualism have all but destroyed it. Characteristic of modern man is his sense of alienation and estrangement from other human beings. He belongs to no one other than himself. To think biblically, today’s Christians must recover a due sense of the unity of families, the unity of the church, and the unity of the human race.
The unity of the human race works itself out in Adam’s apostasy, which extends to all who descend from him. “Wherefore as by one man, sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned” (Rom. 5:12).
The unity of the race also works itself out in the new humanity, “created in Christ Jesus unto good works” (Eph. 2:10). Paul tells the Ephesians that he bows “unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named” (Eph. 3:14,15). The Greek word for “family” is patria, “a collective term for the descendants of the same father, immediate or remote,” Hodge says. Here Paul refers to the new humanity, not the descendants of “the first man Adam,” but those who have been “quickened” or made alive in Christ as the “last” or second Adam. “The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit” (1 Cor. 15:45). Christ is heralded in prophecy as “the everlasting Father” (Isa. 9:6), and His followers are identified as the children God has given Him (Heb. 2:13) as His “house” or “household” (Greek: oikos; Heb. 3:6).
It is thus not surprising to read in the New Testament that turning to Christ was not simply the act of individuals but of households. We read of the conversion of Cornelius (Acts 10:1,2,33,44), Lydia (Acts 16:14-15), the Philippian jailer (Acts 16:31-33), Crispus (Acts 18:8), and Stephanus (1 Cor. 1:16, 16:15). In each case, the households are received into the visible church together with the heads of those households. Significantly, we are told that the households of Cornelius, Lydia, the Philippian jailer, and Stephanus were baptized. Similarly, children of believing parents are addressed as members of churches at Ephesus (Eph. 6:1-4) and Colossae (Col. 3:20). These children were also baptized, as Paul affirms in Colossians 2:11-12, where he calls baptism “the circumcision of Christ.”
James W. Dale states that “the origin, character, and true value of the Family are elements of essential value in determining the ground and obligation of Household baptism.” He explains:
. . . the Family is from the beginning, and that the whole human race
is one vast outgrowth of a single Family head. Within this world family
there are a thousand times ten thousand other families of miniature
dimension, but with identically the same constitution. These families,
more or less conformed to their divine original, fill the earth. It is obvious
that this world is founded on a family constitution. Its constitutional unit
is not an independent, dissociate individuality, but a conjunct and associate
individuality in and under the Family constitution.
Dale concludes that “the constitution of God’s gospel kingdom is in harmony with God’s constitution of the human race.”
This creational context partly explains how the apostolic church understood Peter’s words. They struck a deep chord in the hearers in their appeal to the unity of the human race in Adam and the unity of the church as the new humanity in Christ. The promise embraced by believing parents is extended to their children. Just as the children of believing parents are “partakers of the condemnation in Adam, so they are received unto grace in Christ.” Could that be why there is not a single case in the Scriptures of a person being born and reared in a Christian home, being baptized later upon reaching an “age of accountability”? As Acts 2:39a says, “The promise is unto you, and to your children.”
Second Context: Redemption, and the Covenant of Grace
If the unity of the human race is assumed in all that the Scriptures teach concerning the redemption of fallen mankind, all that Scripture teaching is expressed and summed up in the covenant of grace. As Hodge writes, “The plan of salvation is presented under the form of a covenant.” He explains, “Our Lord commanded his disciples to go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. The gospel, however, is the offer of salvation upon the conditions of the covenant of grace.”
The covenant of grace stretches back to the first promise of a Savior made to Adam and Eve when God said to the serpent: “I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:15). The promise was confirmed and amplified in the words God spoke to Abraham and to his seed: “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” (Gen. 17:7). In the context of this covenant, God promised David, “Thy seed will I establish for ever, and build up thy throne to all generations” (Ps. 89:3-4).
Hodge therefore asserts what he terms “the identity of the covenant of grace under all dispensations.” This has ever been “the common doctrine of the Church,” he says. “By this is meant that the plan of salvation has, under all dispensations, the Patriarchal, the Mosaic, and the Christian, been the same. . . . There is the same promise of deliverance from the evils of the apostasy, the same Redeemer, the same condition required for participation in the blessings of redemption, and the same complete salvation for all who embrace the offers of divine mercy.”
Luke, author of both the gospel which bears his name and the Book of Acts, places his account of the conception and birth of Christ in this same context. Gabriel announces to Mary the imminent conception and birth of a Son. “Thou shalt call his name JESUS. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: and he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end” (Luke 1:31-33; cf. Isa. 9:6,7).
In her canticle of praise, the Magnificat, Mary says that God’s mercy “is on them that fear him from generation to generation” (Luke 1:50; cf. Pss. 103:17 and 105:8). Her song concludes with these words: “He hath holpen [helped] his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy; as he spake to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed for ever” (Luke 1:54,55; cf. Gen. 17:7).
Luke’s next witness to the covenant of grace is the father of John the Baptist, Zacharias, whose canticle, the Benedictus, celebrates the covenant of grace as something promised long ago and now wondrously fulfilled:
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for he hath visited and
redeemed his people,
And hath raised up an horn of salvation for us in the house of
his servant David;
As he spake by the mouth of his holy prophets, which have been
since the world began:
That we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of
all who hate us;
To perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to
remember his holy covenant;
The oath which he sware to our father Abraham (Luke 1:68-73).
Finally, Luke calls on Simeon, “just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel,” whose canticle, the Nunc Dimittis, extols the infant Jesus as the salvation of God: “Mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel” (Luke 2:25, 30-32). Clearly Luke establishes the redemptive-historical context in which he presents not only his gospel but also his account of “the Acts of the Apostles.”
Several elements stand out in the words of Acts 2:39. First, it is clear that Peter uses the term the promise as rhetorical shorthand for the covenant of grace, which embodies the promise of salvation he calls upon his hearers to embrace (see Acts 2:21). This promise is the same as those made to Abraham, to David, to Israel, and even to the Gentiles. It includes the promise of the Holy Spirit and forgiveness of sins referred to in the previous verse (Acts 2:38).
Second, as the words of Gabriel, Mary, and Zacharias indicate, the covenant promise is always made, as Peter says, “unto you, and to your children.” Peter included children in Acts 2:39 on account of the content and structure of God’s covenant fellowship with His people ever since the days of Abraham. Mary’s Son has a rightful claim to David’s throne because He is the seed of David, and the promise was to David and to his seed. God’s covenanted mercy, Mary declares, continues “from generation to generation” in fulfillment of the promise made “to Abraham and to his seed for ever.” Zacharias speaks for the children of the covenant (cf. Ps. 105:6: “O ye seed of Abraham his servant, ye children of Jacob his chosen”) when he recalls “the mercy promised to our fathers” as “his holy covenant; the oath which he sware to our father Abraham.”
The theme of the covenant with Abraham and his seed recurs through the balance of Luke’s gospel and into Acts. John the Baptist warns listeners not to claim Abraham as their father if they do not bring forth “fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8). Christ’s lineage is traced back through David and Abraham to Adam (3:23-38). Christ describes a woman healed of a longstanding infirmity as “a daughter of Abraham” (13:16). Lazarus dies and is carried to the bosom of “Father Abraham” (16:22,24). When Zacchaeus repents, Christ declares, “This day is salvation come to this house, forsomuch as he also is a son of Abraham” (19:9). Peter reminds his listeners that they are “the children of the covenant which God made with our fathers” and that is why God has sent His Son Jesus to them first of all (Acts 3:25-26). Stephen recalls the promise, “which God had sworn to Abraham” (7:17). In the synagogue at Antioch, Paul informs hearers that God has raised “unto Israel a Saviour, Jesus,” and declares, “Men and brethren, children of the stock of Abraham, and whosoever among you feareth God, to you is the word of this salvation sent” (13:23,36).
In Acts 2, Peter proclaims that Jesus of Nazareth is “Lord and Christ” (v. 36). That fulfills the promise made to David concerning “the fruit of his loins” (Ps. 132:11) and David’s own prophecies of Messiah’s resurrection (Ps. 16:8-11) and ascension into heaven (Ps. 110:1). The presentation is intensely covenantal, since the covenant with David and his seed is rooted in the covenant with Abraham and his seed.
Peter’s words in Acts 2:39 are therefore a covenantal formulary. “Unto you, and to your children” simply restates “between me and thee and thy seed after thee” (Gen. 17:7). These words assert the identity of the covenant of grace under all dispensations, and the continuity of the covenant pattern in which promises made to believers are extended to their children. As God has always done, so He will continue to do in these last days. “I am the LORD, I change not” (Mal. 3:6).
We have to remind ourselves that the multitude who heard Peter’s sermon on Pentecost was Jewish. It included Jews from Palestine, proselytes, and dispersed Jews from other parts of the Roman Empire and beyond. The Old Testament was all they had of the Holy Scriptures. As they listened to Peter preaching from those Scriptures (twelve of the twenty-two verses of Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 contain quotations from the Old Testament), they could only have understood his words one way—as a reference to the promise in God’s covenant, and the fact that that promise extended not only to believers but to their children as well. To interpret Acts 2:39 in light of the New Testament Scriptures, which did not yet exist, as do many Baptists, is to engage in exegetical error and can only lead to a serious misrepresentation of the mind of the Spirit.
The Jewish multitude had Jewish expectations—not just about the Messiah but also about the way in which God works with people. Suppose that you were one of those Jews, who had grown up knowing all the privileges and encouragements of a God who says, “As the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine” (Ezek. 18:4). You are told that in Christ the covenant has been restated in a new and better way, but children are now left out of the picture. They are no longer included in the way that God deals with people. Would it not at least trouble you to think that God had made such a fundamental alteration to the way in which He offers His grace to men and women?
The bonds of natural family affection are such that for God to cut across those in such a dramatic way would have at least caused people to ask serious, urgent questions. As Francis Schaeffer said, “If Peter did not mean what the Jews understood him to mean in an Old Testament context—that God establishes His covenant not with just believers but with our children also—then there would have been a riot on that day. Or if it had been a polite crowd, there would at least have been hands going up saying, ‘Excuse me Peter, what do you mean by that? Could you clarify yourself?’ It was such a serious thing for the Jew to be told that God is changing a fundamental way in which He deals with people.”
There are a plethora of books that argue the case for or against infant baptism. But no matter how baptism is presented, one argument Baptists never can answer is this: How could a converted Jew regard the new covenant as a better covenant, if now the children were to be excluded from God’s dealings with His people, no longer receiving a sign of God’s covenant promise?
If such were the case, Peter, and later Paul, surely would have had to face this question repeatedly. And yet it is never debated or even mentioned in the New Testament. Peter and Paul are never called upon to answer the question: Do we baptize the infants of believing parents?
Why not? Because Acts 2:39 and other texts underscore that the covenant is God’s polity or constitution of His kingdom. It’s the way He operates His church, in both the Old and New Testament eras. As David Bostwick, an eighteenth-century Presbyterian minister from New York, wrote:
Observe, Peter does not say, the promise was to you and your children, but it is still; otherwise they might naturally be supposed to object, that their children were like to be in a worse condition under the gospel, than they were under the law; which must greatly strengthen their prejudices against the evangelical dispensation. The Apostle therefore precludes any such objection, by informing them, that they can lose nothing by submitting to this new dispensation of the covenant; for the privileges of the gospel should by no means be more confined and limited than those of the law; but on the contrary more enlarged: for under the law the promise was only to them and their children, as descendants of Abraham; but now it shall extend to all among the Gentiles, and their children also, whom the Lord our God shall call.”
Thus, in Acts 2:39, after Peter assures Jewish believers that the covenant promise and covenant pattern are still in effect, and that the covenant promise continues to be in force for their children, he boldly proclaims that the promise shall also be to all that are afar off—i.e., afar off from the covenant community and its divine covenant promises. Peter is affirming that God is no longer restraining His saving purposes to one nation in the New Testament era. The gospel is to all to whom it comes without exception or distinction from this time on. God’s saving purposes are to all nations, “even as many as the Lord our God shall call” (Acts 2:39b), Peter says. Wherever the gospel is preached, sinners are welcome to enter into the covenant of God that He has purposed according to His immutable promise. We have no reason to conclude that when they do so the covenant now is only with the individuals of the first generation of converts. As Geoffrey Bromiley says, “Surely God has not given with one hand, extending the covenant in space, only to take away with the other, contracting the covenant in time. The promise of God in Jesus Christ is still to a thousand generations when the gospel of Jesus Christ is preached and received, so that the children of believers awaken to consciousness with the word of the promise in their ears and the mark of the promise on their bodies. The call to them as to Old Testament Israelites is to enter personally into a covenant-membership which does not come to them as a new thing from without, but of which they have already both the word and the seal by virtue of their Christian descent.”
Baptists often dismiss this covenantal argument by harking back to verse 38, arguing that since Peter says “repent and be baptized,” baptism must always follow repentance. Since infants are not yet able to repent, they ought not be baptized. To such reasoning, we would posit three responses. First, the word “and” between “repent” and “be baptized” is a coordinate and not a causal conjunction. That is to say, though both things are true, there is not necessarily a causal connection between them. “Repent” and “be baptized” are two coordinate commands. Acts 2:38 does not require that we are to be baptized because we have repented, nor does it say that it is wrong to baptize someone who has not repented.
Second, the causal conjunction, “for,” at the beginning of Acts 2:39 indicates that verse 38 is part of a larger thought which is concluded in verse 39. Attempting to understand repentance and baptism in verse 38, therefore, without examining verse 39 is refusing to listen to the whole text. “For” in verse 39 indicates that that verse is giving the reason why we are to repent and be baptized, namely, “for the promise is to you and to your children, and to all that are afar off.” In other words, those who have received the promise of God of the remission of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit are qualified to be baptized, and, Peter clearly says, that includes them and their children.
Third, an argument against infant baptism from Acts 2:38 is ipso facto an argument against infant salvation. If infants cannot be baptized because they are incapable of repentance and faith, then they cannot be saved for the same reason. The use of such verses as Mark 16:16 and Acts 2:38 to argue that repentance and faith are required for baptism also argues that repentance and faith are required for salvation, thereby a priori consigning all infants incapable of repentance and faith to perdition.
John Owen asserted that since God has appointed baptism as the sign and seal of regeneration, “unto whom he denies it, he denies the grace signified by it.” Thus, God refuses baptism to impenitent sinners (Matt. 3:7-8) because, not granting them the grace, He will not grant them the sign. If therefore God denies the sign to infants of believers, it must be because He denies them the grace. All children of believers who die in their infancy, then, must be hopelessly lost—not that all must be lost who are not baptized, but all must be lost whom God does not want baptized. Yet most Baptists will admit that the New Testament, like the Old, indicates that small children—even infants (Luke 18:15-17)—are proper subjects of Christ’s kingdom (see Matt. 18:6, 19:13-15, 21:16; Luke 10:21).
In all this Baptists are not faithful to Scriptures, nor to the Reformers who clearly and unanimously understood infant baptism in the covenantal terms of Acts 2:39. John Knox wrote, “God has promised that He will be a God to us and the God of our children unto the thousandth generation… instructing us thereby that our children belong to Him by covenant and therefore ought not to be defrauded of those holy signs and badges whereby His children are known from infidels and pagans.” “In baptism,” said Calvin, “we have the covenant of God as it were engraved in our bodies.” Herman Bavinck, a leading Dutch theologian of a century ago, summarized: “This covenant was the solid, biblical, and objective foundation upon which all the Reformers unanimously and without exception rested the legitimacy of infant baptism. They had no other deeper and more solid foundation.”
The views of the Reformers were formulated in the Reformed Confessions. Perhaps best known is Question 74 of the Heidelberg Catechism, Are infants also to be baptized?
Answer: Yes, for since they, as well as the adult, are included in the
covenant and church of God; and since redemption from sin by the
blood of Christ is promised to them no less than to the adult; they must
therefore by baptism, as a sign of the covenant, be also admitted
into the Christian church.
Similar statements appear in the French (Gallican) Confession of 1559 (XXXV), the Scots Confession of 1560 (XXIII), the Belgic Confession of 1561 (XXXIV), the Second Helvetic Confession of 1566 (XX), the Westminster Confession of Faith of 1647 (XXVIII.IV) and the Larger Catechism of 1648 (Q. 166). The Scripture proofs attached to the Westminster Standards form a long catena of evidence rooting infant baptism in the covenant of grace: Genesis 17:7,9; Matthew 28:19; Mark 10:13-16; Luke 18:15-16; Acts 2:38-39; Romans 4:11-12, 11:16; 1 Corinthians 7:14; Galatians 3:9,14; and Colossians 2:11-12.
The Reformers were aware that their basis for infant baptism was not that of the medieval church. They knew that pre-Reformation practice was largely dictated by custom or church tradition as well as erroneous (“superstitious”) views of the sacrament. Thus, in Reformed churches, ministers took pains to present a correct view of the sacrament. They confronted parents presenting children for baptism with a frank admonition, saying, “Beloved in the Lord Jesus Christ, you have heard that baptism is an ordinance of God to seal unto us and to our seed His covenant; therefore it must be used for that end, and not out of custom or superstition.”
So then, why do we baptize children? Because God’s covenant, the framework in which He operates, has not been changed. There has been no explicit instruction which says that God has altered His modus operandi, His way of operating, with regard to the inclusion of infants participating in the covenant sign and seal, as John Murray has pointed out. The promise which says, “I will be your God and you will be my people,” given to Abraham to embrace not just Abraham but his family, still stands; and it is still, in the words of Peter, “for you and for your children.” Children would therefore naturally be regarded as subjects of baptism just as they were of circumcision in the Old Testament. As Pierre Marcel concludes, “The covenant, together with its promises, constitutes the objective and legal basis of infant baptism. Infant baptism is the sign, seal, and pledge of all that these promises imply.”
Third Context: Prophecy, or the Vision of the Prophet
Peter heralds the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, and the outpouring of the Spirit as the fulfillment of prophecy. The prophecies themselves identify and explain these events as signal moments in redemptive history. As Peter says: “This is that which was spoken by the prophet” (Acts 2:16).
Prophecy also provides a context for understanding Peter’s formula in Acts 2:39. The prophet Joel speaks of the Spirit being poured out upon entire households and upon succeeding generations: “I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions: and also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out my spirit” (Joel 2:28-29). David’s prophecies also speak of things promised to “the fruit of his loins” (Pss. 18:50; 72:17; 89:4,29; 132:11). And Isaiah unfolds a bright prospect for the seed of the covenant (Isa. 43:5-7; 44:3; 45:25; 61:9; 65:17,22-23; 66:22).
Similarly, prophecy identifies the church under the gospel as the “generation” and “seed” of Messiah (Isa. 53:8,10). “A seed shall serve him; it shall be accounted to the Lord for a generation” (Ps. 22:30; cf. Heb. 2:13 and 3:6). What Christ purchases for His seed will be a lasting heritage for “the seed also of his servants” (Ps. 69:36). So the prophets see the covenant pattern obtaining and continuing in the church under the gospel.
In his assault upon divorce as practiced in the Old Testament church, Malachi declares, “The LORD, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away [divorcing]” (Mal. 2:16). As Christ Himself did (Matt. 19:5,6), Malachi appeals to the words of institution for marriage (Gen. 2:24), saying, “And did he not make [the twain] one?”
Malachi goes on to ask, “And wherefore one? That he might seek a godly seed” (Mal. 2:15). Unbiblical divorce not only destroys the unity God has ordained for man and wife; it also puts at risk the children the Lord has given them as His heritage (cf. Ps. 127:3) and “a godly seed” (cf. 1 Cor. 7:14). In other words, Malachi appeals to the promise of the covenant made not only to believers, but also to their children.
These prophecies are anchored in the promises of the covenant, and confirm those promises “to a thousand generations” (Ps. 105:8). They also reinforce the covenantal pattern or form which the promise takes. At every point, “the promise is unto you, and to your children” (Acts 2:39a).
Fourth Context: Forensics, or God’s Lawsuit against Unbelieving Israel
Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 goes farther than proclaiming Jesus of Nazareth as Lord and Christ. Peter also indicts his hearers as “this untoward generation” (v. 40), who “by wicked hands” have crucified and slain “a man approved of God among you . . . that same Jesus, whom ye crucified” (vv. 22,23,36). He repeats this charge in a subsequent sermon (see Acts 3:13-15).
Matthew records what the people said to Pilate when he washed his hands and declared himself innocent of Jesus’ blood. The people answered, “His blood be on us, and on our children” (Matt. 27:24-25). Here, too, is covenantal language. “We accept this guilt, and we also accept it on behalf of our children and succeeding generations.”
Luke does not report this incident in his gospel, but he does record the charges laid by the high priest against Peter and John in Acts 5:28: “Behold, ye have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” Significantly, Peter and the other apostles plead guilty as charged, saying, “We ought to obey God rather than men . . . and we are his witnesses of these things” (vv. 29,32). The apostles are witnesses for the prosecution as God avenges the blood of His saints, His prophets, and His Son, and visits the guilt of that blood on those who have shed it. As Christ Himself had said: “Therefore also said the wisdom of God, I will send them prophets and apostles, and some of them they shall slay and persecute: that the blood of all the prophets which was shed from the foundation of the world may be required of this generation . . . verily I say unto you, It shall be required of this generation” (Lk. 11:49-51).
Nonetheless, on the day of Pentecost, the promise of mercy stands. Forgiveness of sins is promised even to those who have “denied the Holy One and the Just” and “killed the Prince of life” (Acts 3:14,15). The covenant accounts for the criminality of what was done to the Mediator of the covenant. At the same time, the covenant embodies the promise of forgiveness of sins even to those who committed the crime.
This offer of grace, the promise of forgiveness, is “unto you, and to your children.” Yet the time to repent may be short. So Peter says, in effect, “For your own sake, and for the sake of your posterity, turn from your sins and be saved! Separate yourselves from this crooked and perverse generation, and save yourselves and your children from the wrath about to fall upon it.” Sinners have involved their children in their crime and blood guiltiness; they now have the opportunity to be absolved of that crime and purged of guilt, for themselves and their offspring.
This forensic context stands with the others—creational, redemptive, and prophetic—and is closely tied to them. Indeed, it is difficult to discuss one of these contexts apart from the others. What is implicit in the “family constitution” (Dale) of creation is made explicit in covenant as promises are made to believing parents and their children. What is promised in the covenant is confirmed by all that the prophets have spoken.
Finally, the forensic context reminds us that God is bound by His covenant both to save those who turn to Him in Christ and to punish those who spurn the promise and judge themselves unworthy of everlasting life (Acts 13:46). If covenant children do not respond to God’s covenant promises and mercies, the sign of baptism will testify against them on the Judgment Day. “Unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required” (Luke 12:48). Covenant breakers, who fail to appropriate covenant privileges, will reap God’s covenant judgment instead of His covenant blessing.
In one way or another, all four contexts fix the meaning of Peter’s words as a formula of the covenant. Implicit in that formula is the extension of the covenant to all who are embraced in the scope of the promise of the covenant, which ever was, is, and shall be “unto you, and to your children.”
A Concluding Word on the Responsibilities of the Covenant Promise
Peter’s Jewish audience would have understood from Acts 2:39 that covenant promises entail covenant responsibilities. Believing parents respond to the covenant promise that comes to them and their children by bringing up those children in the fear and admonition of the Lord, as Paul enjoins in Ephesians 6:4. We must not allow our children to make up their own minds in isolation from covenant truth; rather, we must positively apply the teaching and the discipline of the Lord to direct their minds and feet in the paths of righteousness. We must evangelize our covenant children, calling them to repentance before God and to faith in Jesus Christ.
The promise of Acts 2:39 ought to encourage us in training our children at home, in church, and at school. Through prayer, family worship, catechizing, daily conversation, and godly mentoring, we are commanded to teach the Word of God to our children every day and everywhere. Deuteronomy 6:7 says, “And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.” What God said of Abraham must be the rule for Christian parents: “For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the LORD, to do justice and judgment; that the LORD may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him” (Gen 18:19).
Our response to Acts 2:39 is to set the Christ of the covenant before our children, as He is revealed in the Scriptures, trusting that He will grant them faith and repentance by His Spirit. Nor does anything said above obviate the need for personal regeneration as the experiencing of the truth and power of the covenant promise. Covenant promise is no substitute for personal regeneration. Parents who presume that their children are regenerate by virtue of the covenant may see no need to tell their children that they must be born again. William Young calls this view “hyper-covenantism,” because the relation of children to the covenant is exaggerated to the point that the covenant relation replaces the need for personal conversion. As Young points out, “Doctrinal knowledge and ethical conduct according to the Word of God are [then] sufficient for the Christian life without any specific religious experience of conviction of sin and conversion, or any need for self-examination as to the possession of distinguishing marks of saving grace.”
Consequently, what our Reformed forefathers called experimental religion is deemed largely superfluous. Religious life becomes grounded in external church institutions and activities rather than in the soul’s communion with God. “A system for breeding Pharisees, whose cry is ‘We are Abraham's children,’ could hardly be better calculated,” Young concludes.
Rather, as Doug Wilson wrote, we “parents who know what the covenant obligations are should tremble at the baptismal font.” If we have laid hold of God’s promise concerning our children, we are under oath to do everything in our power, in dependency on the Spirit, to lead our children into the realization of the promise. We must stress repeatedly justification is by faith alone, apart from works of the law (Rom. 3:28); that salvation is by grace alone through faith (Eph. 2:8); that only the blood of Christ can wash away our sins (1 John 1:7; see also Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 72). It is our duty to be the first teachers of our own children. After his conversion, Augustine thanked God for his mother, saying, “Lord, she from whom I received my birth, led me to thy bond; and taught me to know thy own handwriting.”
Richard Cecil said, “We bring our children to Christ, when we teach them to read the Scriptures; when we bring them to the house of God; when we are praying with them, and for them.… Do you really wish your children saved? Treat them as you do plants which you would have thrive. You place them in the sun, and give them water: you shelter them from blighting winds. Bring your children under the rays of the Sun of righteousness; water them by continual instruction. Keep them from the contagion of the world, from the blasts of temptation, and from poisonous books.”
Let us press on, holding fast the promise made to us and to our children while striving to fulfil our obligations to our little ones. God will be true to His own promise. What an encouragement! Salvation depends upon God’s promise, God’s power, and God’s faithfulness. “I will and you shall.” That is always the language of His covenant. “Faithful is he that calleth you, who also will do it” (1 Thess. 5:24).
Dr. Joel R. Beeke (Ph.D.Westminster Theological Seminary) is President and Professor of Systematic Theology and Homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, pastor of the Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and editor of Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth. He has written numerous books, most recently Truth that Frees: A Workbook on Reformed Doctrine for Young Adults; A Reader’s Guide to Reformed Literature; Puritan Evangelism; and The Quest for Full Assurance: The Legacy of Calvin and His Successors. He is frequently called on to teach at seminaries and speak at Reformed conferences. He and his wife Mary have been blessed with three children.
Rev. Ray B. Lanning (M.Div. Westminster Theological Seminary) is pastor of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church of Grand Rapids. He has also done graduate work at Calvin Theological Seminary. He has written a variety of articles for various periodicals, including coauthoring several chapters with Dr. Beeke. Ordained to the ministry in 1977, he has served Presbyterian and Reformed churches in various parts of North America. He and his wife Linda have been blessed with four children.
 Systematic Theology, vol. 2 (New York: Scribner, Armstrong, and Co., 1877), pp. 77-91.
 Ibid., p. 77.
 Charles Hodge, Commentary on Ephesians (reprint Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1991), p. 125.
 Classic Baptism: An Inquiry into the Meaning of Baptizo as Determined by the Usage of Classical Greek Writers (reprint Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1989), pp. 220-238.
 “Form for the Administration of Baptism,” in The Psalter (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 199?), p. 126.
 Systematic Theology, 2:354, 363.
 Ibid., 2:366-68.
 Cornelis Trimp, “The Sacrament of Baptism,” Mid-America Journal of Theology 11 (2000):126.
 E.g., William Cleaver Wilkinson, The Baptist Principle in its Application to Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1881), p. 158.
 Baptism (Wilmington, Del.: TriMark, 1976); cf. Thomas M’Crie, Lectures on Christian Baptism (Edinburgh: Johnstone and Hunter, 1850), pp. 60-62.
 The Baptist response that Acts 2:39 refers to adult children contradicts Peter’s argument. As David Bostwick says, “Why then is their relation to their parents mentioned at all, and why are they joined with them, as the subjects of the promise, if after all they are to stand on their own footing, as adults, as much as the children of heathens? Nor does the construction consist with the plain grammatical sense of the words, for the Apostle does not say the promise is now to you, and shall be to your children when grown and called by the Word, but the promise is now to you and your children; by which he very plainly intends the present privilege the Jewish children enjoy, above the present unconverted Gentiles, who are said to be afar off, and to whom he says the promise shall belong when called into a Church-State, and to their children also” (A Fair and Rational Vindication of the Right of Infants to the Ordinance of Baptism: Being the Substance of Several Discourses from Acts ii.39 [New York: for Edward and Charles Dilly, 1765], p. 17).
Cf. Gerald R. Procee, Holy Baptism: The Scriptural Setting, Significance and Scope of Infant Baptism (Hamilton, Ont.: Free Reformed Church, 1998), pp. 74-75.
 Ibid., p. 14.
 The Baptism of Infants (London: Church Book Room Press, 1955), p. 12.
 John Owen, “Of Infant Baptism,” in The Works of John Owen (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1968, 1968), 16:260.
 Church of Scotland Interim Report (1958), p. 13; cited in G.R. Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), p. 337.
 Sermons of Master John Calvin upon the Fifthe Book of Moses called Deuteronomie, trans. Arthur Golding (reprint Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1987), p. 421.
 Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, 4th ed. (Kampen: Kok, 1930), 4:282. Cf. William Goode, The Doctrine of the Church of England as to the Effects of Baptism in the Case of Infants (London: J. Hatchard and Son, 1850); Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Baptism and the Anglican Reformers (London: Lutterworth Press, 1954), pp. 15-54.
 Cornelis Venema, “The Doctrine of the Sacraments and Baptism according to the Reformed Confessions,” Mid-America Reformed Journal 11 (2000):21-86.
 Cf. Gregg Strawbridge, Infant Baptism: Does the Bible Teach It? (Fort Myers, Fla.: n.p., 1999), pp. 14-17.
 “Form for the Administration of Baptism,” p. 127.
 Christian Baptism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1974), pp. 52-53.
 C.G. Kirkby, Signs and Seals of the Covenant (Worcester: n.p., 1988), pp. 66, 78.
 The Biblical Doctrine of Infant Baptism: Sacrament of the Covenant of Grace (London: James Clarke, 1953), p. 198.
 Samuel Miller, Baptism and Christian Education (Dallas: Presbyterian Heritage, 1984), pp. 16-17.
 Robert R. Booth, Children of the Promise: The Biblical Case for Infant Baptism (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1995), p. 9.
 For a practical booklet on how to do this, see Joel R. Beeke, Bringing the Gospel to Covenant Children (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2001).
 “Historic Calvinism and Neo-Calvinism,” Westminster Theological Journal 36, 2 (1974):166.
 Ibid., p. 167.
 Tabletalk 22, 6 (June 1998):59.
 Robert Rayburn, What About Baptism? (St. Louis: Covenant Theological Seminary, 1957), p. 87.