Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. (Ephesians 6:1-4)
Ephesians 6 is not a chapter I see people often directed to when they inquire about covenant theology or infant baptism. Yet, I find it to contain some intriguing text for the subjects. It speaks volumes about the relationship of children to their parents and God. It also gives us insightful historical references and context that we can draw compelling conclusions from, namely, substantiating that children are part of the covenant. When you study this text in detail you find that covenant theology is clearly seen and applied. Once this foundation is established, we discover a persuasive argument for infant baptism.
It is not lost on me that there are individuals reading this because they are resolved on disproving anything related to covenant theology and/or infant baptism. For those people, first, let me thank you for reading. Secondly, let me qualify something from the start, there will never be a right understanding for a case of infant baptism without an accurate understanding of covenant theology; one is dependent on the other. If you approach this text with strict dispensational glasses, there is a reasonable chance you will miss my argument.
lastly, its worth saying from the outset that what I am providing is not an exhaustive argument for covenant theology and infant baptism. There have been many fantastic books and articles written on it. I am not looking to restate what has been said, I am rather, trying to add to the argument from a text that is often overlooked.
The Critical Nature of Context
When approaching any study of a section of scripture, regardless of the amount of the text, it’s a good idea to gather the context of the letter or book. Who wrote it? Why did they write? Who was it to? Basic questions, like these, serve us in understanding what is being said. Without context, we can get quickly get led astray and draw wild conclusions.
One of my favorite examples of how easily the point can be missed when the context is lost comes from a friend of mine who observed a Daily Inspirational Verse Calendar at a relative’s house (pictured). We have all seen these; each day there is new verse for you to read and meditate on. In this case the verse reads “If thou therefore wilt worship me, all shall be thine,” from Luke 4:7.
This verse, by itself and with no context, sounds quite powerful and awe inspiring indeed. Yet, if we take a moment to explore the context, we learn that it is actually Satan speak here as he is tempting Jesus in the wilderness! That GREATLY changes how you might interpret and apply this verse. Context is critical.
So, some quick context on Ephesians: almost everyone agrees it was written by the Apostle Paul (few dispute this). It was written around 62 A.D., we know this because of the mention of his imprisonment while writing it. The introduction of the letter communicates to us that Paul is writing this letter “To the saints who in Ephesus, and faithful in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 1:1). This may seem elementary or obvious, but it’s significant for our subject matter. Lastly, based on the overall theme and content, it’s generally assumed that Paul wrote the letter to encourage unity in Christ among a diverse set of believers. This too is also important.
The first point to make, which I have already hinted at, is that this letter is clearly defined as being written to those “in Christ Jesus”, or Christians. Paul did not write this to every person in the city/area. He specifies who it is for and then begins explaining (Chapter 1) that those to whom the letter is written are elected, predestined, etc. Undoubtedly, Paul does not intend for this letter to be received by the general masses. The message is unique and the audience has a unique qualification, being the body of Christ.
After the introduction, he goes on to describe what unity in Christ is and what it means to live as the body of Christ (Chapter 4). He then addresses wives and husbands and gives them a spectacular example of what the marriage relationship is to be like, modeled after Christ and the church (Chapter 5). We see no variation in the audience for who the letter is intended, as he transitions and speaks to the children in the church, in Chapter 6.
Paul addresses the children in the same way as he addressed the husbands and wives in the previous chapter, as if they are accepted members of the body of Christ. Also, note that the commands he gives them are “in the Lord”. That is a strong and weighty phrase. He doesn’t give any qualifications to indicate he is addressing a faithful segment of children; he speaks to all children in the church of Ephesus. If you connect that with the fact that the theme of the letter is unity is Christ, it begins to paint a strong picture of how Paul viewed the children in the church.
This is not the only place that Paul addresses children like they are members of the body. Consider 1 Corinthians 7:14. Here, Paul argues that children are “holy” if there just one believing parent in this house. They are set apart; they belong to a culture that seeks to honor God, in Christ. While they are certainly spiritually dead in their sin, (outside of the saving grace of Jesus Christ) they are within the visible body of Christ and, as we will see, expected to not only be familiar with covenant language but partakers of its promises.
Covenantal Theology and Language
I should explain a little more about what covenant theology is as its helpful in interpreting this set of verses. Covenant theology is a conceptual overview and interpretive framework for understanding the overall flow of the Bible. Stated differently and more plainly, it’s how we understand the way God saves His people. The Old Testament and New Testament are joined together in part of one perfect plan by which God fulfills His promise of “I will be their God and they will be my people”. This statement, and ones like it, are scattered through the whole of scripture. This He does to praise of His glorious grace.
The big overarching plan of salvation is comprised of several covenants that work and flow together to accomplish God’s purpose. You might have heard of some of these smaller covenants, such as the Adamic covenant, Noahic covenant, Davidic covenant, and the one Christians today know intimately, the new covenant.
When considering this text in Ephesians 6, we should remember that much like the people of God in the Old Testament, there were some who were part of the visible congregation, but necessarily spiritually reborn or “saved”. Yet, that didn’t make these people any less of a member of the nation or culture of Israel. They were taught the same laws, philosophy, and values as everyone else. They attended the same gatherings and events. They were treated like Jews because they were Jews; they have been given the covenant sign (circumcision) of the Jews. Consider Genesis 17:10, when circumcision was introduced as the covenant sign and deep connection it has to the covenant itself: “This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised.”
A similar reality is true for us in the church today. We don’t avoid teaching our kids the bible until they profess faith in Christ. No, we are commanded to teach and instruct our children about the gospel from the beginning and hope for faith to come. We work to impress upon them God’s law, philosophy, and Christian values. We treat them as Christians because in every visible way, they are.
Furthermore, notice the text that Paul quotes in our Ephesians text, “Honor your mother and your father”. He is quoting from a well-known section of scripture called the 10 commandments. We find this narrative in in Exodus 20, when God established the Mosaic Covenant. Clearly, children were members of the covenant then or they would have not been bound by the law or held to its commandments. In the same logic, why would Paul give the same command to the children of church, if they were not also part of the covenant people of God?
It’s also interesting that Paul directly references the promise that is tied to the original commandment in Exodus. One could argue that it looks as if Paul is trying to establish a connection in the relationship of parents and children now to the relationship of parents and children in The Old Testament, or Israel. It would be very odd for Paul to apply covenant language under the “in the Lord” qualifier to those outside of the body of the Christ. To whom covenant promises are given, they are covenant members.
In this text, we also see a promise of “land” to the children who “honor their mother in father”. In the new covenant, we understand this to be eternal life and not physical land as it was for the children of Israel. But this parallel further draws the connection between how we are to understand the covenantal relationship between parents, children, and God.
The Sign of Covenant
Once we establish that children of Christians are to be recognized members of the church and covenant community, the journey to infant baptism is not difficult. Much like circumcision was physical sign given to identify someone in The Old Testament as members of the covenant, we know from the New Testament that baptism is the method by which we make this pronouncement today.
When Christians baptize our children, we do so with the understanding that this child will be taught the gospel, taught the laws of God, taught Christian customs, taught how to worship, they will go to church, they will be involved in church events, and so on. They are to be treated as if they are part of the church because they are part of the church. After all, they given a commandment with a promise.
In closing, its worth stating clearly that baptism does not save, as circumcision did not. Faith is required for salvation and that is not imparted through baptism. God alone initiates faith as He is “the author and finisher of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). Baptism is an outward physical sign of a larger covenantal reality.
For more information and reading on covenant theology I suggest the following books: