What of the Children of Believers?

I am opening a can of worms.[1] I have never been shy of controversy, and this topic is no exception. Most assuredly, there are some readers who will peruse my thoughts and wonder what all the fuss is about, while others grip their seats as the cognitive dissonance experienced gives way to a minor brain aneurism.

The issue: There is a stream of thought amongst some Reformed that the New Covenant, in some sense, is extended to our progeny by virtue of our representative headship.

Objection: They sardonically quip, “Do you honestly believe that a new and better covenant means that we don’t include our children, even though the shadowy covenant did?”

I have always been curious what is meant by the phrase, “The Old Covenant included the children.” Doesn’t Paul’s discourse in Romans 9:6–8 address this exact mentality? There, Paul explains why Ishmael was rejected and Isaac accepted: to show that it was never about physical progeny. While, yes, Isaac was a physical descendant of Abraham, and the recipient of the covenant blessing, that was not why he was included in the covenant blessing. He was included because of God’s election. Said differently, he was chosen, not because he was a child of flesh, but because he was a child of promise.

Objection: What of the mention of children and generations within new covenant promises (Acts 2; Jer 32; Ez 37; Is 59)?

What I find interesting is that the group that raises this question is also intransigent in their commitment to the tenet that God, solely by his sovereign choice, elects some for salvation and passes over others. Without the least constraint they will confess that this election is not predicated on any outside factors whatsoever, unless, of course, it doesn’t include their own children. Suddenly, reticence and rigidity morphs into readiness to finagle the text with the hopes of squeezing out a more preferable synthesis of the data.

“The children, and their children’s children” from Ez 37:25 should be read in light of the fact that, from the very beginning of God’s covenant with Abraham, it did not include his own child, Ishmael, nor his son’s child, Esau. That’s the thrust of Paul’s point in his theodicy to his Jewish audience in Rom 9:6–13. Their complaint to Paul: But we are Abraham’s children! And Paul says in not so many words, You didn’t bat an eye when Abraham’s own son and his grandchild was passed over. Their response, That’s not fair! We are the original recipients of God’s covenant, Torah, and circumcision! Thankfully, Paul’s rejoinder to this line of thought is recorded for us: “What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” (Romans 9:14–15).

Objection: What of the commands from Paul to the children of various congregations as church members, e.g. “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right” (Eph 6:1)?

Absolutely, I believe the imperative still stands true. But what can the law do? The law can show us what a righteous life looks like. What can’t the law do? Make us obey it. In teaching our kids to honor the Lord by obeying their parents, we are being faithful to do all that God has commanded us to do regarding child rearing. Our efforts have no bearing whatsoever on our children’s election or their coming to faith–“So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Romans 9:16). Now, God may bring our children to faith through our efforts, but never because of our efforts. The nuance is slight, but the distinction is crucial. That is to say, the medium of salvation is not the cause of salvation.

Objection: Are you suggesting that there is nothing a believer can do to distinguish their child from a child of an unbeliever?

It depends on what one means by “distinguish.” There are only two federal heads: Adam and Christ. Even though a parent may be under Christ’s covenantal headship, the child–until they profess saving faith in Christ–is identified by his or her union with Adam. For all of us were once in covenant with Adam, and by virtue of his representation we shared the same standing: “What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin” (Romans 3:9). There are some, however, even though they may not articulate it in this way, who seem to believe that the parent who is in Christ can in some sense extend their standing to their children who are born in Adam. To this I would rejoinder, “For there is one God, and _there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus_” (1 Tim 2:5, emphasis added). But this is not to say that there is no benefit to being born in a believing household!

Paul is clear on this, the unbelieving household member is made holy because of the believing parent(s) (1 Cor 7:14)–they are sanctified by and in the vicinity of the transforming power of the gospel. So what should we do with our kids? We should teach them!

  • We can teach them who God is, what he has done, and what he has promised to do.

“[T]he Lord said to me, ‘Gather the people to me, that I may let them hear my words, so that they may learn to fear me all the days that they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children so.’” - Deuteronomy 4:10

  • We can teach them about the law of the Lord.

“You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” Deuteronomy 6:7

  • We can teach them to obey the commands of the law.

“As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’” (1 Peter 1:14–16)

  • We can teach them to fear the Lord.

“Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD, and turn away from evil.” - Proverbs 3:7

“Let all the earth fear the LORD; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him! For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm.” - Psalm 33:8–9

  • We can make them wise for salvation.

“[F]rom childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” - 2 Timothy 3:15

  • We can work together with God to make an appeal for them to receive grace.

“Working together with him, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For he says, ‘In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you.” Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.’” –2 Corinthians 6:1–2

  • We can teach them to honor God.

“[T]he Lord declares: ‘Far be it from me, for those who honor me I will honor, and those who despise me shall be lightly esteemed.” 1 Samuel 2:30

“For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’” - Mark 7:10

  • We can teach them to thank God.

“For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” - Romans 1:21

  • We can teach them about sin.

“For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” - Romans 3:22–23

  • We can teach them about repentance.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:7).

  • We can teach them to seek God and wait for His calling.

“Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near” (Isaiah 55:6).

“Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, > they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation> ” (1 Peter 2:12, emphasis added).

“Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down, and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant hears.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place” (1 Samuel 3:9).

  • We can teach them to hide God’s Word in their hearts.

“And the Lord appeared again at Shiloh, for the Lord revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the Lord” (1 Samuel 3:21).

“How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word… . I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:9, 11).

“The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes. Moreover, by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward” (Psalm 19:8,11).

  • We can teach them doctrine so they can discern truth.

“But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8).

The role of the Christian parents, then, is to–in the spirit of the Archibald Alexander– place firewood on the hearth of their children’s hearts, so that when the Spirit of God strikes their souls may be set ablaze.


  1. You may find it interesting that this idiom is likely an Americanized version of the old adage “Opening Pandora’s box.” In the 50s, worms were sold in sealed metal cans, as opposed to the plastic containers or styrofoam cups of today. Obviously, if one wanted to use said worms, he or she would have to open the can, grab a worm, and set the can down in order to hook the worm to the line. With the open can on the ground, the worms–left unattended–would wriggle their way out of the can while the fisherman was preoccupied with the worm in hand.  ↩