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Suffer Little Children

by Prof. Samuel Miller

A vital key to understanding infant baptism is the fact of the church membership of children. In the Old Testament God's covenant with Abraham included his infant posterity: circumcision was applied to them as a token of their church status. When it is realised that there is but one people of God and one covenant of grace then it may be seen that baptism, the New Testament sign and seal of the covenant, belongs to the children of believers.

Samuel Miller (1769-1850) was Professor of Ecclesiastical History and Church Government at Princeton Seminary for thirty-five years. The following is an excerpt from his Infant Baptism: Scriptural and Reasonable; and Baptism by Sprinkling or Affusion the Most Suitable and Edifying Mode, published in 1835.

This article was published in thePresbyterian Standard, Issue No. 18, April-June 2000.

T HEactual and acknowledged church membership of infants under the Old Testament economy is a decisive index of the divine will in regard to the baptism of infants. Whatever else may be doubtful, it is certain that infants were, in fact, members of the church under the former dispensation; and as such, were the regular subjects of a covenant seal. When God called Abraham, and established his covenant with him, he not only embraced his infant seed, in the most express terms, in that covenant, but he also appointed an ordinance by which this relation of his children to the visible church was publicly ratified and sealed, and that when they were only eight days old. If Jewish adults were members of the church of God, under that economy, then, assuredly, their infant seed were equally members, for they were brought into the same covenant relation, and had the same covenant seal impressed upon their flesh as their adult parents.

This covenant, moreover, had a respect to spiritual as well as temporal blessings. Circumcision is expressly declared, by the inspired apostle, to have been "a seal of the righteousness of faith" (Rom. 4:11). So far was it from being a mere pledge of the possession of Canaan, and the enjoyment of temporal prosperity there, that it ratified and sealed a covenant in which "all the families of the earth were to be blessed" (Gen. 12:3). And yet this covenant seal was solemnly appointed by God to be administered, and was actually administered, for nearly two thousand years, to infants of the tenderest age, in token of their relation to God's covenanted family, and of their right to the privileges of that covenant.

Here then, is afact a fact incapable of being disguised or denied, nay, a fact acknowledged by all – on which the advocates of infant baptism may stand as upon an immovable rock. For if infinite wisdom once saw that it was right and fit that infants should be made the subjects of "a seal of the righteousness of faith," before they were capable of exercising faith, surely a transaction the same in substance may be right and fit now. Baptism, which is, in like manner, a seal of the righteousness of faith, may, without impropriety, be applied equally early. What once, undoubtedly, existed in the church, and that by divine appointment, may exist still, without any impeachment of either the wisdom or benevolence of him who appointed it. But,

As the infant seed of the people of God are acknowledged on all hands to have been members of the church, equally with their parents under the Old Testament dispensation, so it is equally certain that the church of God is the same in substance now that it was then ; and, of course, it is just as reasonable and proper, on principle, that the infant offspring of professed believers should be members of the church now, as it was that they should be members of the ancient church. I am aware that our Baptist brethren warmly object to this statement, and assert that the church of God under the Old Testament economy and the New, is not the same, but so essentially different, that the same principles can by no means apply to each. They contend that the Old Testament dispensation was a kind of political economy, rather national than spiritual in its character; and, of course, that when the Jews ceased to be a people, the covenant under which they had been placed, was altogether laid aside, and a covenant of an entirely new character introduced. But nothing can be more evident than that this view of the subject is entirely erroneous.

The perpetuity of the Abrahamic covenant, and, of consequence, the identity of the church under both dispensations, is so plainly taught in scripture, and follows so unavoidably from the radical scriptural principles concerning the church of God, that it is indeed wonderful how any believer in the Bible can call in question the fact. Everything essential to ecclesiastical identity is evidently found here. The same divine Head, the same precious covenant, the same great spiritual design, the same atoning blood, the same sanctifying Spirit, in which we rejoice, as the life and the glory of the New Testament church, we know, from the testimony of scripture, were also the life and the glory of the church before the coming of the Messiah. It is not more certain that a man, arrived at mature age, is the same individual that he was when an infant on his mother's lap, than it is that the church, in the plenitude of her light and privileges, after the coming of Christ, is the same church which, many centuries before, though with a much smaller amount of light and privilege, yet, as we are expressly told in the New Testament, enjoyed the presence and guidance of her divine Head "in the wilderness" (Acts 7:38). The truth is, the inspired apostle, in writing to the Galatians, formally compares the covenanted people of God, under the Old Testament economy, to an heir under age. "Now I say, That the heir, as long as he is a child, differeth nothing from a servant, though he be lord of all, but is under tutors and governors, until the time appointed of the father. Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world: but when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons" (Gal. 4:1-6).

Hence, the inspired apostle, in writing to the Hebrews, referring to the children of Israel, says, "Unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them" (Heb. 4:2). Again, in writing unto the Corinthians, he declares, "They did all eat the same spiritual meat; and did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank it of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ" (1 Cor. 10:3). "Abraham," we are told, "rejoiced to see Christ's day; he saw it, and was glad" (John 8:56). And, of the patriarchs generally, we are assured that they saw gospel promises afar off, and embraced them. The church under the old economy, then, was not only a church – a true church, a divinely constituted church – but it was a gospel church, a church of Christ, a church built upon the "same foundation as that of the apostles."

But what places the identity of the church, under both dispensations, in the clearest and strongest light, is that memorable and decisive passage, in the 11th chapter of the epistle to the Romans, in which the church of God is held forth to us under the emblem of an olive tree. Under the same figure had the Lord designated the church by the pen of Jeremiah the prophet. In the 11th chapter of his prophecy, the prophet, speaking of God's covenanted people under that economy, says, "The LORD called thy name, A green olive tree, fair and of goodly fruit" (Jer. 11:6). But concerning this olive tree, on account of the sin of the people in forsaking the Lord, the prophet declares: "With the noise of a great tumult he hath kindled a fire upon it, and the branches of it are broken." Let me request you to compare with this, the language of the apostle in the 11th chapter of the epistle to the Romans: "For if the casting away of them be the reconciling of the world, what shall the receiving of them be, but life from the dead? For if the firstfruit be holy, the lump is also holy: and if the root be holy, so are the branches. And if some of the branches be broken off, and thou, being a wild olive tree, wert grafted in among them, and with them partakest of the root and fatness of the olive tree; boast not against the branches. But if thou boast, thou bearest not the root, but the root thee. Thou wilt say, then, The branches were broken off, that I might be grafted in. Well; because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not highminded, but fear: For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee. Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness, if thou continue in his goodness: otherwise thou also shalt be broken off. And they also, if they abide not still in unbelief, shall be grafted in: for God is able to graft them in again. For if thou wert cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and wert grafted contrary to nature into a good olive tree: how much more shall these, which be the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree?" (Rom. 11:15-24).

That the apostle is here speaking of the Old Testament church, under the figure of a good olive tree, cannot be doubted, and is, indeed, acknowledged by all; by our Baptist brethren as well as others. Now the inspired apostle says concerning this olive tree, that the natural branches, that is the Jews, were broken off because of unbelief. But what was the consequence of this excision? Was the tree destroyed? By no means. The apostle teaches directly the contrary. It is evident, from his language, that the root and trunk, in all their "fatness," remained; and Gentiles, branches of an olive tree "wild by nature," were "grafted into the good olive tree" – the same tree from which the natural branches had been broken off. Can anything be more pointedly descriptive ofidentity than this?

But this is not all. The apostle apprises us that the Jews are to be brought back from their rebellion and wanderings and to be incorporated with the Christian church. And how is this restoration described? It is called "grafting them in again into their own olive tree. " In other words, the "tree" into which the Gentile Christians at the coming of Christ were "grafted,"was the "old olive tree," of which the ancient covenant people of God were the "natural branches;" and, of course, when the Jews shall be brought in, with the fullness of the Gentiles, into the Christian church, the apostle expressly tells us they shall be "grafted again into their own olive tree." Surely, if the church of God before the coming of Christ, and the church of God after the advent, were altogether distinct and separate bodies, and not the same in their essential characters, it would be an abuse of terms to represent the Jews, when converted to Christianity, as grafted again into their own olive tree.

Having seen that the infant seed of the professing people of God were members of the church under the Old Testament economy; and having seen also that the church under that dispensation and the present is the same ; we are evidently prepared to take another step, and to infer, thatif infants were once members, and if the church remains the same, they undoubtedly are still members, unless some positive divine enactment excluding them can be found. As it was a positive divine enactment which brought them in, and gave them a place in the church, so it is evident that a divine enactment as direct and positive, repealing their old privilege, and excluding them from the covenanted family, must be found, or they are still in the church. But can such an act of repeal and exclusion, I ask, be produced? It cannot. It never has been, and it never can be.

The introduction of infants into the church by divine appointment, is undoubted. The identity of the church, under both dispensations, is undoubted. The perpetuity of the Abrahamic covenant, in which not merely the lineal descendants of Abraham, but "all the nations of the earth were to be blessed," is undoubted (Gen. 18:18; 22:18; 26:4). And we find no hint in the New Testament of the high privileges granted to the infant seed of believers being withdrawn. Only concede that it has not been formally withdrawn, and it remains of course. The advocates of infant baptism are not bound to produce from the New Testament an express warrant for the membership of the children of believers. The warrant was given most expressly and formally, two thousand years before the New Testament was written; and having never been revoked remains firmly and indisputably in force.

It is deeply to be lamented that our Baptist brethren cannot be prevailed upon to recognize the length and breadth, and bearing of this great ecclesiastical fact. Here were little children eight days old, acknowledged as members of a covenanted society – a society consecrated to God for spiritual as well as temporal benefits and stamped with a covenant seal, by which they were formally bound, as the seed of believers, to be entirely and forever the Lord's. Can infant membership be ridiculed, as it often is, without lifting the puny arm against him who was with his "church in the wilderness" (Acts 7:38), and whose ways are all wise and righteous?