By the Revd G. W. Bromiley, M. A., D. Litt.
Vine Books Ltd (Publishers to Church Society) , 1955, 1976 & 1977
Chapter 4: The Election of the Father
Baptism in the name of God the Father declares to us the supreme fact that God has a purpose of love for us (Cf. John 3, 16). God is the author not only of our life but also of our salvation. He has willed and planned it from all eternity (Cf. Ephesians 1, 3-4). He has elected us to be covenant-partners with Himself, that He should be our God and we should be His people (Cf. I Peter, 2, 9). He has loved us long before we could ever love Him (I John 4, 10). When we proved unworthy of His love, defying Him and breaking His commandment, He did not abandon His purpose of grace. He carried it through in the history of redemption which begins with the promise of Eden, (Genesis 3, 15) culminates in the coming of the Son, and will be consummated in His coming again and Kingdom. As the sign of the fulfilment of the covenant, baptism directs us ultimately to this electing grace of the Father.
Now we cannot stress too strongly or too often that in the election and the covenant the initiative rests entirely with God: ‘It is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy’ (Romans 9, 16). That there is a covenant at all is not due to any desire or desert in man but to the fact that in free grace God has willed to enter into covenant. This is illustrated plainly in the story of Abraham. For the beginning of God’s dealings with Abraham was not Abraham’s seeking of God but God’s calling out of Abraham (Genesis 12, 1). Abraham did not ask that he should be the father of nations, but God elected him to this honour. Again, the whole point in the choice of Israel as the covenant people is that Israel had no distinction amongst the nations, not even that of a supposed natural genius for religion. Of all nations it was and in many ways remained the most despicable (Cf. Ezekiel 16, 3f.). It was for this very reason that God named it by His own name and it became a people of possession, just as it was for the same reason that God consistently chose the younger rather than the elder sons who could lay claim to the natural rights of privilege or worldly advantage (e.g., Jacob or David). When we turn to the New Testament we find the same truth stated in all kinds of ways. The Lord Himself tells His disciples: ‘Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you’ (John 15, 16) and the choice has clearly not been a choice of human merit or deserving or even desire. Again, Paul emphasizes the graciousness of the divine calling in his warning to the Corinthians: ‘For ye see your calling, brethren’ (I Corinthians 1, 26-28). Or again, in Ephesians, he refers believers right back to their eternal election in Jesus Christ: ‘According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world’ (Ephesians 1, 4). This time baptism itself is fairly clearly linked with the calling, for ‘after that ye believed (he is writing in the first instance to adult converts) ye were sealed with that Holy Spirit of promise, which is the earnest of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, unto the praise of His Glory’ (Ephesians 1, 13-14). The point is that the event signified and sealed in baptism does not begin with an individual human decision, but with the divine decision of covenant-election.
Of course, a covenant is two-fold. Therefore a place is naturally allowed for human response. If God enters into covenant with Abraham, or Israel, or the individual Christian, Abraham, Israel and the individual Christian must also enter into covenant with God. This aspect is brought out plainly in baptism by the fact that it is an individual entry and therefore an acceptance of the proposed covenant relationship with God. But the Bible leaves us in no doubt that this is the secondary and subsidiary side. It is important. Indeed, it is necessary. It can never be despised or disparaged. If the disciple has to be called by Christ, he has also to determine to follow. But he cannot determine to follow before he is first called. He can enter into covenant with God only because God has proposed and therefore purposed to covenant with him. He can be saved from sin only because God has willed salvation for him. The divine election of grace has clear precedence over the human decision of faith.
This point is important, for it means that the absence of the human decision of faith does not always or necessarily destroy the meaning of the sacrament which is the sign of the covenant. In some cases, of course, it obviously does so. If an adult refuses the proposed call to faith and discipleship there can be no question of his baptism even as a testimony to the divine will for him. But this is not usually a live issue, for in the majority of such cases baptism will not be desired. With the children of believers, however, as with the descendants of Abraham, the case is different. For if baptism is administered to them before they can make a conscious choice of acceptance or rejection, the result is to magnify the divine initiative of grace which is the primary message of the sacrament. God Himself has called the children of believers in and with the calling of their parents. The sacrament is a sign and seal of this calling to which the only right response is the response of penitence and faith. The Reformers grasped this point very clearly when they insisted that if faith is the qualification for baptism in the case of adult converts from heathenism, in that of the children of believers the true qualification is the divine election or calling.
But can we be sure that the calling of God does extend to the children of believers together with their parents? Are such children called, not merely in the general sense that God wills the repentance of all, but in some more particular way? We have already referred to passages in the New Testament which strikingly suggest that this is so. They are confirmed by the Old Testament types to which the New Testament itself points us, and more especially by the Old Testament sign which baptism has obviously replaced. The general testimony of the Old Testament is an added confirmation, for it shows us that although individual repentance and faith are always required (Cf. Romans 2, 28-29) God does not deal with individuals alone but with families and generations (Genesis 17, 7-8). In the Old Testament this involved a certain exclusiveness, for, apart from the strangers who attached themselves to Israel, the divine election centred particularly upon one people (Cf. Amos 3, 2). But the exclusiveness was for the sake of an ultimate comprehensiveness in and through the promised seed to which the whole history of Israel pointed (Genesis 17, 4; Isaiah 49, 6). To-day the purpose of God is for all men, ‘even as many as the Lord our God shall call’ (Acts 2, 39). God has not set His name in one people only, but in every race and tribe and kindred and tongue and people. Wherever the Gospel is preached men may enter into the covenant of grace which God has purposed for them according to His own immutable promise. But 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. The Bible itself does not say that there has been any such change in God’s covenant dealings. The evidence is all the other way. 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.
But here a difficulty arises, for not all the children of Christians do in fact take up their covenant-membership by personal faith in Jesus Christ. Until it is known whether they have done so or not, is it not rash and perhaps misleading to speak about the divine election and covenant? There are two answers to this difficulty. The first is the very plain example of Old Testament Israel. To all Israel there belonged ‘the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises’ (Romans 9, 4), but if we study any given generation we shall probably find that only a small proportion of Israelites were genuine believers. In Elijah’s day there were no more than seven thousand who had not bowed the knee to Baal, and this was far more than the prophet himself had thought. Yet in spite of this, Israel still remained the people of the covenant. The covenant sign of circumcision was still administered. The faithlessness of a generation, or of the main part of a generation, could not defeat the indefatigable and gracious faithfulness of God.
The second answer is that there is no alternative solution to the difficulty. It is all very well to talk about believers’ baptism, but even if we baptize only on a profession of faith there is no certainty that all those who are baptized do genuinely enter into covenant with God and are born again of the Spirit. The New Testament itself gives us an unmistakeable warning, for Simon Magus received adult baptism on a definite and apparently sincere profession of faith (Acts 8, 13). Baptism can never be equated directly with what we might call the secret election of God, for this is something which will not be known until the day of judgment. It can be equated only with that external calling or covenant-membership which can be known either by an adult profession of faith or by a Christian descent. It has been made known in Scripture that externally at least God’s covenant is with all those who profess His name or who derive from professing parents. Therefore to them there belongs by right the external sign and seal of the covenant. Whether beyond this there is an internal secret election of true believers is another matter on which opinions may vary. But if there is such an election it cannot be known and therefore it cannot serve as a norm for the administration of the sacrament.
In this connection it is worth noting that many baptists hold the pathetic but also the rather impudent view that they can anticipate the final judgment by already discerning the secrets of the heart (in spite of 1 Samuel 16, 7) and separating true believers from hypocritical or merely nominal Christians. Sometimes, like Elijah, they are led in this way to an ultimate despair of almost all their fellow-confessors, so that they only are left. They may often enough be right. But they are taking a bold step if they refuse the covenant-sign to those who have the external qualifications of covenant-membership either by confession or by descent. It is indeed a dangerous thing to try to be wiser than God Himself. The disciples found this to their cost when they thought that Jesus could not possibly be interested in infants, or that infants could not properly be received by Him as the recipients of His blessing. ‘I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious’ (Exodus 33, 19) is the text which we must still remember in relation to all the redemptive dealings of God. The beginning of salvation for all of us is not in ourselves, who are always unworthy sinners, but in the gracious and merciful purpose of the Father. In baptism we attest that gracious and merciful purpose to all those who outwardly at least are called by His name, either by their own profession or by that of their forefathers. God Himself has taught us in Scripture that there should be this attestation. If, therefore, He has chosen that His name should be set in a family or nation, it is not for any man, let alone for his disciples, to try to withhold the attestation on the ground that the external confession is unsupported by internal faith. Only when a family or a generation deliberately and finally rejects the divine purpose of grace for it, should the attestation cease; but then there will no longer be any desire for it.
Since baptism as the sign of the covenant takes us right back to the beginning of salvation in the eternal and gracious purpose of God, it is right and proper that in it the emphasis should not fall on the human decision of faith but on the prior election of grace. In the case of adult converts from heathenism the holding out of the covenant promises and therefore the realizing of the divine purpose will be more or less coincident with the decision of faith. But baptism itself is still a reaffirmation of the gracious will of God rather than an expression or enactment of faith. On the other hand, the infants of Christians are enfolded in the covenant promises from the very first. They grow up in the sphere of the divine calling. There never is a time when the elective purpose of God is not held out over them. The decision of faith is evoked by a consciousness of the divine purpose as declared in the word with which they grow and attested in the sign under which they stand. In both cases, the function of baptism is to direct us to the gracious will of the Father by which our salvation was determined not only before our baptism but before the world was: a will which is declared to be for us in the fact that the Gospel has now reached out to us or that we are born into an existing sphere of its operation.
There is just one final point, and it leads us forward to the next section. To-day the gracious purpose of God is linked with the preaching of the Gospel. This is the case because the gracious purpose of God has been fulfilled in that redemptive work of which the Gospel speaks. It is no longer a purpose only but an accomplished fact. When we are baptized therefore, we are baptized into a purpose which has already been realized. Baptism does not witness to a salvation which is brought into being only when I believe, but to a salvation which God Himself brought into being when He acted for us in fulfilment of His purpose of grace. The purposes and promises of God are held out to us in the Gospel as promises and purposes which have already been fulfilled in this way. The baptism of both adults and infants points us to this prior historical fulfilment which the Bible tells us took place in Jesus Christ. To see how this is the case we must turn from the gracious and eternal purpose of the Father to its accomplishment in the substitutionary work of the Son.
>> Chapter 5 - The Substitution of the Son