I will be a God to you and to your children

Before reading this post, please see here.

The Paedobaptist Argument

One of the most common arguments for the practice of the baptism of infants is the appeal to the phrase “I will be a God to you and to your children.” The argument is that the covenant of grace is repeatedly declared in these terms, or terms similar to it, such as “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” Therefore apart from God’s removal of this promise, it persists.

Passages in the New Testament are appealed to as a confirmation of the persistence of this promise. For example, Peter declared in Acts 2:39 that “The promise is for you and for your children.” Jesus blessed children and said that “of such is the kingdom of heaven.” Households were baptized in the book of Acts. Paul declared that the children of believers are “holy” in 1 Corinthians 7 and taught children to obey their parents “in the Lord” in Ephesians 6.

The argument is sometimes presented to say that the substance of the covenant of grace is summed up in the phrase “I will be a God to you and to your children.” For example, in this post, Dr. R. Scott Clark states,

The substance of the covenant, i.e., that without which there is no covenant, that which is of the essence of the covenant is the promise in v. 7 [Genesis 17:7]: “to be Elohim (God) to you and to your offspring after you.” That promise, “and I will be their God” is repeated after the land promise in v. 8.

[Side note: Dr. Clark, has a much better definition of the substance of the covenant, limiting it to justification and sanctification in this post.]

By equating the substance of the covenant with this promise, the Reformed paedobaptist is able to say that though there are numerous outward changes in the transition from the old covenant to the new, this promise remains the same. It is the substance. It is what the covenant is, in itself. For what could be more gracious than for God to be the covenant-God of a people after the fall? The denier of infant baptism, say they, destroys the unity of the covenant throughout history and disinherits those whom God himself has claimed, the children of believers.


The Reformed Baptist Critique

Allow me to interact with this argument, which I have summarized. Elsewhere you can find ample reading or listening in defense of this particular piece of the grounds of infant baptism.

Counter-argument 1: A Generic Covenant Formula

The promise “I will be their God, and they will be my people” is a generic covenant formula and carries in itself no specific details regarding the promises God provides in covenant, or the obedience he requires in covenant. It cannot, therefore, be correlated to, or equated with, automatically, the covenant of grace which has specific promises and precepts.

In John Owen’s comments on Hebrews 8’s quotation of Jeremiah 31, he discusses this promise. Owen notes that it is is a general phrase for any covenant between God and a people.

John Owen, A Continuation, 278a

Owen argues that this is merely a general covenantal formula because Jeremiah 31 invokes this promise in the context of the new covenant not being like the old covenant. For Owen, the old and new covenants are substantially distinct, but this phrase is used in reference to both. Therefore, this phrase cannot be used to equate two covenants, automatically. Owen notes that the specifics of the covenant must be considered. He comments, immediately after the previous quote:

John Owen, A Continuation, 278b

So, when one finds a formula such as this, one must consider (1) the specific grounds upon which the covenant is founded and (2) that which God specifically promises to his covenant people as well as the response which he specifically requires of them (i.e., the “mutual actings”). Owen identifies the grounds of the new covenant in the mediatorial work of Jesus Christ. And he describes the “mutual actings” in more detail here:

John Owen, A Continuation, 280

The focus and conclusion of this consideration is simply that the phrase “I will be their God, and they will be my people” is a generic covenant formula whose instances in the Scriptures cannot  be equated automatically with one another apart from proof that the  specific grounds of the covenant, the specific parties of the covenant, and the specific precepts and promises of the covenant are actually the same.

The Westminster Confession (as well as 2LCF) affirms the validity of good and necessary consequences. Consequences are necessary conclusions from clear and certain premises. The premises necessitate the conclusion. Covenants are not natural, but supernatural, that is, covenants between God and man exist only when God initiates them, and are what they are based only on what God makes them to be. Considering, therefore, that this formula is generic, not specific, then it follows that there is no necessity in the phrase itself that would permit us to conclude, theologically, the specific content of the generic phrase apart from additional context. Nor is there a sufficient necessity in the phrase itself to equate it with any other covenant, even if the same phrase, or a similar one, appears elsewhere. One would have to align all the specifics.


Counter-argument 2: A Specific Covenant Promise

Proceeding under the notion that generic covenant formulae must be explained by their specific covenant details, we can consider the argument for infant baptism that appeals to the covenant promise in Genesis 17:7, “I will be a God to you and to your children.”

This promise has specific, unique, individual referents. It is a promise to Abraham himself and his descendants, according to the flesh. Consider the simple grammar of Genesis 17:7.

And I will establish my covenant between me and you (2nd person masculine singular) and your (2nd person masculine singular) offspring after you (2nd person masculine singular) throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you (2nd person masculine singular) and to your (2nd person masculine singular) offspring after you (2nd person masculine singular).

The parties are specified clearly–Abraham and his offspring according to flesh (his descendants after him). What are the specific promises? These descendants, according to the flesh, will multiply and possess Canaan. And from Abraham’s descendants, according to the flesh, will be born the one who blesses the nations. This means that Abraham’s offspring, by virtue of being his offspring, possess:

  • The land of Canaan
  • A relation according to the flesh to the one who will bless the nations

God placed a specific demand on these specific parties, a demand which must be kept or these specific promises will be lost. Abraham and his descendants, according to the flesh, must keep the covenant or they will be disinherited on an individual basis (Genesis 17:10, 14). God will guarantee that the covenant does not fail, corporately (Genesis 15), but individuals and families can be cut off and disinherited (such as the wilderness generation).

Considering the specific details of this covenant, on what ground do we connect these specific details with any other covenant? Is there another covenant made with Abraham and his offspring, according to the flesh, which they must keep or they will be disinherited? This is where numerous parties distinguish themselves.

  • Option 1: The Westminster Confession

The Westminster Confession recasts the details of Genesis 17 and abstracts the specifics of Abraham and his descendants according to the flesh to believers and their children. A believer can insert their own name into the second person masculine singular referents of Genesis 17:7. Certainly, they believe they have exegetical reason to do so, as mentioned at the beginning of this post. Nevertheless, the result is that in such a view the Abrahamic, Mosaic, and new covenants are the same covenant, the covenant of grace, made with believers and their children, requiring only a consequent obedience of gratitude, and being threatened only with fatherly discipline and chastisement.

  • Option 2: Formal Republication

Others in Reformed theology follow the previous option, except the Mosaic covenant is distinct in substance from the Abrahamic covenant and new covenant (like Owen, above). Such persons agree that the Mosaic covenant is made with the same parties as the Abrahamic and new covenants, but it dealt only with life in Canaan and must be obeyed and kept in order to be enjoyed. The end result is that the covenant of grace is made with believers and their children now, as it was then.

  • Option 3: Reformed (Particular) Baptist, or at least my position and the position of most seventeenth-century Particular Baptists

When we consider the specifics of Genesis 17 (and from Genesis 12 up to that point), we find that the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants are made with the same parties (Abraham and his offspring according to the flesh), with the same promises (blessed life in Canaan and the birth of the one who blesses the nations), with the same precepts (moral and ceremonial obedience), and the same threats ( qualified disinheritance).

The Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants are not the new covenant, but carry in them the new covenant, in at least two ways. First and foremost, God promised that the one who blesses the nations would be born from their midst. This means that the old covenant(s) can never be considered as divested of a connection to Christ Jesus and his covenant. From the first moment the Abrahamic covenant was introduced (Genesis 12), this was the purpose. Second, God designed Israel from the ground up to be a typical foreshadowing and preparation for the birth of Christ so that his mission would make sense when he came. Again, this means that the old covenant(s) can never be detached from pointing to Christ and preparing the world for him. Positively, the gospel of Christ, and therefore the new covenant, were woven into the fabric of everything Israel was, and did.

Notwithstanding the connection the old covenant(s) have to Christ, they are not the new covenant. Their parties, promises, and precepts are distinct. Christ rejected Abrahamic paternity as sufficient grounds for inclusion in his kingdom, he rejected the idea that Canaan would be the realm of his kingdom, and he rejected the continuance of the Abrahamic/Mosaic laws.

The new covenant is the blessing for the nations, a people born from above. It forgives sins and perfects the conscience. It grants an everlasting inheritance in the new creation. It enables its people to believe and obey. It is for Jew and Greek, all who call on the name of the Lord.

The question at hand, though, is this: considering the details of Genesis 17:7, can the phrase “I will be God to you and to your offspring after you” be abstracted to “believers and their children”? Can it be equated with the new covenant?

Many would appeal to Romans 4 and Galatians 3 at this point. Those passages deserve separate treatment. For now, however, if one does appeal to Genesis 17:7, and if it is the pattern, the paradigm, for the covenant of grace, then several questions are raised:

  • Do the children of believers belong to the covenant according to the flesh, as the descendants of Abraham after him did?
    • If yes, does this last their whole life? Or, does their continuance in the covenant transfer at some point from the relation they have to their parents to their individual relation to Christ the head of the covenant?
    • If yes, does the covenant extend to the third and fourth generation and beyond, whether any in that generation believe? If it runs in the flesh, it runs in the flesh. Does a wilderness generation disinherit its children?
    • If yes, are the children instructed that the covenant is of no advantage to them unless they believe its promises? (And at that point, how are they different from the children of unbelievers in such a view?)
    • Does the threat of disinheritance connected with circumcision apply to them if baptism is the new outward form of the same covenantal ordinance and paradigm established in Genesis 17?
  • Do the children of believers belong to the covenant according to the Spirit, as believers are described to be?
    • If yes, why do some fall away?
    • If no, then you hold that they are the children of the covenant only according to the flesh and the previous set of questions apply.
    • If no, how does that fit with the fact that all of Abraham’s descendants, after Ishmael, had a right to the promises of the covenant, but your children do not have a right to the promises because they do not belong to the covenant inwardly?

Genesis 17 declares a definite promise for the offspring of Abraham. It is theirs. All of his descendants have a right to it and in it. Based on this fact, the foregoing sets of questions press the issue of whether the covenant is definite or indefinite to the children of believers, an issue of disagreement among paedobaptists.

To sum up the argument, too many appeals to Genesis 17:7 are vague and general appeals to something quite specific. And given that paedobaptism is practiced as religious worship unto God, it requires a more careful foundation. A conscience desiring to worship God aright must have answers to these questions before acting. Do the specifics of this verse apply to me and my child? Can I substitute myself and my children into Genesis 17:7?


Counter-argument 3: The Problem of Faithfulness and the Eschaton

It is a mistake to equate the substance of the covenant of grace with the promise “I will be God to you and your children” because such a promise will not extend into the consummation of all things (the eschaton). Revelation 21:3 assures us of the blessed comfort that God will be our God, and we will be his people, forever. But, following Owen’s method, what are the specifics of this promise?

The parties are clear. The elect of God alone behold the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. So, in eternity will the promise persist that God is a God to us and our children? No, the promise that persists, the substance of the covenant that lasts into the eschaton, is that God will be merciful unto us and remember our sins no more (Jeremiah 31:31-34). Certainly, by God’s grace some of our children will join us in that precious covenant promise. And God will be their God, but not because of any relation to us.

If we say that the promise that God will be a God to us and our children will persist into the consummation, then we must ask, is God unfaithful? We know that not all our children will be there. If the promises of the covenant depend on God’s sovereign grace and faithfulness, and God cannot lie or fail, and yet some of those to whom he has promised to be God fail to behold his glory in the face of his Son, is God unfaithful?

If an appeal is made to Paul’s discussion of Israel’s faithful remnant as evidence of God’s faithfulness, then one must be willing to say that God is a God to us and our children, so long as we persevere in the covenant, and God has not promised to preserve us all. And therefore, at the end one can say that yes, the promise to be God to us and our children lasts into the eschaton, because God never promised to save them all and the unfaithful ones have already been cut off. Now, such a position involves many preceding arguments and/or suppositions with which I strongly disagree. But I regard it as an unavoidable dilemma (and conclusion) of making the formula “I will be a God to you and your children” the substance of the covenant of grace.


In conclusion, when someone appeals to the formula, “I will be their God, and they will be my people,” or the formula, “I will be a God to you, and to your offspring after you,” it is necessary that the specifics of these general formulas be investigated and explained carefully.

  • This is a general formula, what are its specifics?
    • What are the grounds of this covenant?
    • Who are the parties?
    • What does God promise?
    • What does God require?

I will conclude with more of Owen’s comments on the precious promise of Jeremiah 31:33 quoted in Hebrews 8:10, that God will be our covenant God, and we will be his covenant people.

John Owen, A Continuation, 280-1

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The Tree-fort

Oh, the internet. The social sphere and shopping mall of the modern world, where Christian brothers and sisters can go to…spew snark, sarcasm, snide comments, and condescension at each other. Isn’t it great? No, it isn’t, because our hearts are wicked. And from the wicked fullness of our hearts, our thumbs tweet. We are all guilty, to varying degrees.

John Clark, Phraseologia, 9

Permit me for a short while to express where I am coming from, and where I think many others are coming from, as a Particular Baptist (adherent to the 1677 2LCF), often called a Reformed Baptist, interacting regularly online with those in the Reformed denominations on various issues. I would like to appeal to my Presbyterian and Reformed brothers and sisters to acknowledge that 2LCF (1677) and those who confess it belong in the diversity of the Reformed Family Tree.

Accept, for the sake of reading this charitably, that the seventeenth-century Particular Baptists of 2LCF (1677) share a historical and theological heritage with the Reformed churches, and that their use of the Savoy Declaration and the Westminster Confession to edit/compose 2LCF was sincere. If you accept this, then those who embrace 2LCF in modern times will view the modern Independents as their elder brother (alas, I don’t know any), and the Presbyterians as their eldest brother.

If you accept the previous, how will modern Particular Baptists respond to Presbyterian and Reformed brethren who often (in my experience) dismiss and distance the 2LCF Baptists? To the Particular Baptist, it feels like condescension, ignorance, and unnecessary unkindness from our closest theological relatives. Oh no! Our feelings! Yes, our feelings. The internet may be a virtual reality, but it is a reality. It is the modern social sphere where real people interact with real people, where real Christians spend real time with real Christians through a virtual medium. So, these things do matter. And we should do everything, whether in word or deed, in the name of our Lord Jesus (Colossians 3:17). The virtual nature of the internet doesn’t exempt us from guarding our words (which are actions).

Perhaps in this post we can gain some clarity and direction for better interacting with each other as Particular (Reformed) Baptists and Presbyterian and Reformed brothers and sisters in Christ.

What do Particular Baptists not want? If I may speak for myself, and perhaps others, 

  • We do not want all Presbyterian and Reformed persons to forfeit their views and convert to 2LCF 1677 views. When Particular Baptists want to be acknowledged as a branch of the Reformed family tree, it is not a desire to combine all the branches into one trunk. It is not a desire for the Presbyterian and Reformed brethren to say “You are exactly the same thing as we are.” We want our place among the diversity already present in their midst to be recognized.
  • We do not want all Presbyterian and Reformed persons to cease criticizing or challenging baptistic theology. Christian brotherhood should involve iron-sharpening and mutual edification. Addressing errors can be done charitably and winsomely.

What do we want?

  • We want Presbyterian and Reformed persons to realize who 2LCF Baptists are.
    • They are the modern confessors of 2LCF. That is painfully obvious, but what I mean is that many Baptist churches confess 2LCF without any changes from its original publication. You could walk into a Particular Baptist church in 1689 or 2019, 330 years later, and you should get the same theology.
    • This matters because one of the ways in which our Reformed brethren are dismissive of us is to lump 2LCF Baptists into the generic common criticisms of Baptists. It is unhelpful and misguided.
  • We want Presbyterian and Reformed persons to acknowledge the historical and theological roots of the Particular Baptists.
    • Historically, Particular Baptists emerged from the collision of Reformed theology with the Church of England in the early seventeenth century, the same as Ball, Burgess, or Marshall. It is historically and factually wrong to locate the Particular Baptists’ origins among the continental Anabaptists. See this post.
    • Theologically, the Particular Baptists intentionally and sincerely employed Reformed theology to edit/compose 1LCF (1644) and 2LCF (1677). See this work. Read this book.
    • Discussion:
      • P&R Response: 1LCF and 2LCF may incorporate Reformed theology, and that at a high percentage. But, the deviations are sufficient to invalidate the category “Reformed” being applied to the finished product.
      • Particular Baptist Response: But in the context of 1646 WCF and 1677 2LCF, let us consider the “deviations”: Church government, liberty of conscience, role of civil magistrate, subjects of baptism, and mode of baptism. To begin, the modern WCF reduces these differences down to church government, subjects of baptism, and mode of baptism. So, the P&R brethren must recognize that since 1646, they have moved closer to us (at least in the case of Westminster Presbyterians).
      • Now that the differences reside in ecclesiology and baptism, let it be remembered that the Dissenting Brethren and some Continental churches practiced Congregationalism, and are just as much a part of the Reformed Tradition by most judgments. See this book and its two reviewers.
      • So, now the boundaries of our shared Reformed heritage are only divided by the subjects and mode of baptism. But isn’t that precisely what the label “Reformed Baptist” implies?
      • Ultimately, what is desired here is to acknowledge roots, origin, and provenance. One may think that the Particular Baptists went too far (and again, the only criteria left for modern Presbyterians are the subjects and mode of baptism), but where they came from should be acknowledged.
  • We want Presbyterian and Reformed persons to acknowledge that the idea or version of “Reformed theology” that they promote, as a means of opposing Baptist theology, is not accurate. Specifically, modern P&R brethren need to realize that their Reformed heritage contradicts some of their common criticisms of Baptists, and that infant baptism has diverse views and justifications associated with it, views rarely believed today. Such as:
    • It is common for P&R Christians to argue that Baptism is God’s word to us, in opposition to the “Baptist” idea that it is our profession to God. This is convenient for upholding infant baptism. But it is not accurate, as far as historical theology is concerned. Baptism is not just God’s word to us, but also our word to God and the world (and I emphatically agree that it is both, and Baptists who limit it to one side are liable to criticism just as much as paedobaptists who limit it to the other side).
      • John Calvin: A sacrament is “a testimony of God’s favor towards us confirmed by an outward sign, with a mutual testifying of our godliness toward him.” [The Institvtion of Christian Religion, IV. 13. 1. Cf. also IV. 13. 13-14.] In fact, Calvin says that a sacrament is commonly known as a pledge sworn by a soldier to his captain, and therefore the burden of proof lies on showing that a sacrament is not just our word to our Superior, but a word from our Superior to us.
      • William Perkins: “Baptism serves to be a pledge unto us in respect of our weakness, of all the graces and mercies of God, and especially of our union with Christ, of remission of sins, and of mortification. Secondly, it serves to be a sign of Christian profession before the world, and therefore it is called ‘the stipulation or interrogation of a good conscience,’ 1 Pet. 3:21.” [A Commentarie or Exposition, upon the five first Chapters of the Epistle to the Galatians, 249.]
    • Infants of believers have the habit or seed of faith. (Cornelius Burgess and others)
    • That Jesus Christ died for a mixed or “inchoate” body – to explain why all infants of believers are of the covenant of grace, but only some persevere. (John Ball)
    • Owen and others believed that children have a right to the public profession of baptism by virtue of being the children of believers, but cannot join the church as members until they make their own profession of faith.
      • If Owen and the Independents are not cut out of the “Reformed” label for this, then it too must be jettisoned when dealing with Particular or Reformed Baptists.
    • The previous points are important because most modern-day Presbyterian and Reformed persons that I know (thinking of the OPC, PCA, and URC here) reject or neglect various of these diverse views.
      • This matters because the infant baptism they are left with affirms:
        • Their children are not necessarily regenerate by virtue of being the children of believers.
        • Their children need to be evangelized.
        • Their children are holy in a general sense, meaning simply that they belong to the church outwardly.
      • At that point, the only difference between the Reformed Baptist’s children, and the Presbyterian’s children is that the children of the one were baptized, and the children of the other were not. Both will be catechized and evangelized.
  • We want Presbyterian and Reformed persons to read charitably the literature of the Particular Baptist tradition and its historiography, not just John Gill and Charles Spurgeon.
    • I’ll be the first to say that there is a great deal of Baptist literature that is so overwhelmingly and obnoxiously Baptist that even I don’t want to read it. So, here I am not talking such books, but about serious scholarly thoughtful, and yet intentionally Baptist, literature.

What is the desired result?

  • Speaking for myself, because the internet is a social sphere I want to be able to “spend time” with P&R brethren, i.e., occupy the same digital spaces, without being told regularly, but wrongly, that I am something worlds apart from the P&R heritage, and being treated as such. You be you. I’ll be me. And we’ll be a happy Reformed family.
  • More importantly, I want to be able to defend and protect, mutually, our shared heritage.
    • Within the modern Reformed world, there are serious theological threats to the biblical, classical, confessional Reformed heritage–especially on the doctrine of God.
    • Personal connections, networking, and the dispersal of ideas through social media can be a useful tool (supplemental to scholarly work in seminaries and pastoral fidelity in pulpits and presbyteries) to lock arms and hold the line.

Make no mistake. Baptists themselves have their own part to play in this. For every instance of condescension on the part of a P&R Christian, there is an instance of some similar, or other, extreme on the part of a Baptist Christian. This is a two-sided, two-party, problem. We would do well to learn from the Appendix to the 2LCF.

2LCF Appendix

In closing, imagine a tree-fort, a really great and wonderful tree-fort. Imagine an elder brother, we’ll pick a random name for him–Presbyterian. Imagine a younger brother, we’ll pick a random name for him, too–Particular Baptist. Imagine that Presbyterian is playing in the family tree-fort and every time Particular Baptist wants to come up and play, Presbyterian pulls the ladder up. This isn’t kind. Presbyterian says, “Go away, you don’t belong here.” Particular Baptist says “It’s the family tree-fort! I want to play, too!” Presbyterian refuses to provide the ladder, so Particular Baptist goes looking for the middle brother, let’s call him…John Owen. But he’s nowhere to be found, so Particular Baptist just gets cranky and annoying, while Presbyterian smugly enjoys the tree-fort.

Mom comes out, we’ll call her Geneva Anglicana. She says, “Presbyterian, that tree-fort doesn’t belong to you. Drop the ladder for your younger brother! And Particular Baptist, stop being a pain in the neck to your older brother! Play nicely, both of you!”

Then Mom says, “And where’s John Owen?”

Particular Baptist replies with tears, “I don’t know, but I miss him.”

Then Presbyterian remarks, “Why? You know, he’s a paedobaptist.”

And Mom says, “Boys! Stop it!”