In Jesus’ Name, Amen
R.C. Sproul, Jr.
I don’t remember the man’s name, nor the exact time of the event. It fell somewhere during the heyday of the Moral Majority, and the man in question had some loose connection with Rev. Jerry Falwell. Mr. Falwell, no doubt, wanted to severe that connection when the gentleman in question hit the news. Rev. Falwell might be a fundamentalist, but he usually picks his words with care. Not so his associate. What he said that made its way into the collective consciousness of the nation was something like this, “God doesn’t hear the prayers of Muslims and Buddhists.” This, of course, was well-before the violent attack on these United States by militant Muslims led us to sink even more deeply into feel good ecumenism. Nevertheless, there was a great stir that a man could make such a bigoted, narrow-minded comment. And him, a man of the cloth.
I had my concerns as well. I had no trouble with anyone saying that God is at war with all those who will not profess Christ. I had no trouble with anyone saying God’s wrath burns hot against such people. I just wanted to be sure that no one was denying God’s omniscience. (It took decades before anyone dared to do that, and many evangelicals still call these folks evangelicals.) Of course God hears the prayers of Muslims and Buddhists, if we mean simply that God is aware of what they are saying. God is not only immediately aware of the prayers of the Muslims and Buddhists, but He was aware of them before they were even uttered. He did, after all, ordain them.
And of course God doesn’t hear these prayers, if we mean by that that He listens as a father would a son. He doesn’t hear them in the sense that He even entertains the requests. God does not take in all the supplications made across the globe, prioritize them on the basis of how sanctified the pray-er is, and then answer them in that order, sometimes getting to the requests of the heathen (on days when Christians aren’t making so many requests), and sometimes pushing the delete button for the spam when His email box is particularly crowded.
The distinction between one kind of hearing and the other kind of hearing is grounded instead in the person bringing the request. Whether you are a Buddhist or a Christian makes all the difference in the world. You may stand outside a local courtroom screaming your lungs out to a local judge. If it’s a hot day and the windows are open, you may be heard. But it takes an invitation to receive a hearing from the judge.
God is the judge of all the earth. He is also the only judge who always judges rightly. But there is only one attorney, only one advocate, who actually has what it takes to be granted a hearing. That advocate is of course His only begotten Son. The truly Supreme Court is strictly a family affair. The one true judge is rather particular. Anyone seeking to avoid a contempt of court charge cannot come into the courtroom wearing just anything. He doesn’t take it well when someone dressed in flip flops and sweat pants tries to enter His most august chambers. Still more you cannot find a place at the bar if you are dressed in the finest Saville Row suit. To enter these chambers you must be spotless, inside and out. This is why Christ alone appears before the judge.
What has any of this to do with baptism and family worship? Everything. For when we worship, we enter into the courts of God. When we worship we come before the presence of this great and terrible judge. And when He charges you with contempt of court, you stay in prison forever.
The church that I serve has what some would call a rather liturgical service. We read prayers together. We sing service music together. Liturgies are tools of remembrance. They are not unlike the stones God ordered to be placed in the center of the Jordan river to commemorate the dry ground on which the children of Israel walked when they entered into the promised land. Every service of worship is liturgical, for every service is designed to help us to remember. Those who look down their noses at our liturgy fear that our worship habits will become just that, habits, that we will remember to do the tools of remembrance, without remembering what they are designed to help us remember. They fear that without knowledge, these things will become rote. It’s a legitimate fear, but one that applies to everyone’s liturgies. When we return thanks before we eat God’s provision at a meal we are using a tool to help us remember that God gives us our daily bread. Despite this reminder, however, we all too often mumble our way through the prayer, hoping our food won’t grow cold.
But it is not just prayers that can become rote, but the parts of our prayers. Many of us, if we are careful, close our prayers in a rather liturgical way. Having brought forth our adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplications, we close with these words, “In Jesus’ name, amen.” I couldn’t begin to guess the percentages, but I wouldn’t be surprised if half the people who close their prayers in this way have no idea what they are saying. What they are saying goes to how we can even appear before the just judge.
What we are doing is reminding God, who needs no reminding, and reminding ourselves, who need reminding, how it is that we are able to appear before Him. We are acknowledging to God that in ourselves we cannot come into this courtroom. We are still sinners. God not only cannot “hear” sinners, He cannot even “look” upon them. “In Jesus’ name” is a poetical way of saying, “Oh great and holy God, we can only come before you with these prayers because we are cloaked in the righteousness of Christ. It is because His blood covers our sins, and His righteousness is forensically our own, that we bring these things before you.” It affirms that if we were to try to stand before God without the work of Christ on our behalf, we would be instantly destroyed.
Of course it is not only in our prayers that we enter into God’s presence. If we would sing His praises, we must do so in His presence. We know that while we are all always coram Deo, before His face, unbeliever and believer alike, nevertheless when we come to Him with our songs of praise we are inviting Him to pay attention. (Keeping in mind, of course, that God is always immediately aware of all things.) And if we do so we had better be covered in the blood and righteousness of His Son.
Like any father, I love my children. They are a delight to me, truly a great reward and blessing from my own heavenly Father. Because I love them I am not too permissive. My love for them does not lead me to allow them to do whatever they please. When I say “No” to my daughter Erin Claire, as she reaches out to touch the hot stove, I do so not as a cruel tyrant, but as a loving father that does not wish to see her be hurt. There is, however, a far greater danger to my children than a hot stove. The greatest danger is a hot eternity, to fall into the hands of the living God.
My love for my children, I pray, does not lead me to forget what the Bible teaches about my children. They are indeed a blessing, a source of joy, but they are also, in themselves, under the wrath of God. They were, like David, conceived in sin. They are justly deserving God’s displeasure. They, like their father, are not in a position, in themselves, to come before that living God. They too, like their father, must be covered by Christ.
Understand that that little liturgy at the end of our prayers, “In Jesus’ name” is not a magical incantation. It’s not as though those words are the equivalent of “Open Sesame”, the magic words that open the door to God’s courtroom. When we say those words we do not bring Christ’s covering over us, but affirm that Christ’s covering has already been placed over us. If Christ hasn’t truly covered us, we only add to the wrath of God, as sinners trying to barge into His courtroom.
Which brings us back to baptism and family worship. There are a host of different ways that people understand baptism. There are those, both who affirm paedo-baptism, and adult baptism who believe that the water works the magic. These are sacerdotalists, who believe that the working of the work covers those baptised with the work of Christ. Those who hold to this position, of course, deny justification by faith alone, and so are not baptizing anyone into the Christ of the Bible.
Then there are those who believe that the water is water, and with respect to the baptizing of infants, that what we are doing is dedicating our child to God, saying in essence, “Lord, here is your child. We hope you’ll save him one day.” Then there are those who fall somewhere in between these two views. They deny that baptism is merely a wet dedication, and deny that baptism ushers anyone into the kingdom. Instead, baptism increases the odds that God will one day redeem the children. It invites the children to partake of the means of grace (at least some of them), to come under the discipline of the church, and under the preaching of the Word. Finally there are the credo-baptists, those who affirm that we ought not baptize anyone unless or until they can make a credible, and verbal profession of faith in Christ.
All of these views, excluding those which are sacerdotal, affirm this negation about those who have been baptized- we have no reason to believe that the baptized are in fact covered by the blood of Christ, and credited with the righteousness of Christ, until we hear from them a credible profession of faith. Which raises the question- how, and why should we be leading these little ones into the presence of God?
There seems to be some kind of schizophrenia when our understanding of baptism and family worship come together. With respect to baptism, we think our little ones who haven’t been “confirmed” as inside the church, but not inside the faith. But with respect to family worship, we see them as inside the faith. We lead these little ones into the throne room of the most high, all the while believing that they can’t truly pray, “In Jesus’ name.” I’m sure there are parents who are more consistent in this, who maintain the same understanding of baptism, but who are more cautious about how they treat the prayers and praise of their children. I’m sure also that there aren’t too many who are this consistent.
There is, however, another option, one that does not require us to adopt an ex opere operato understanding of baptism, but does allow us to bring our children before God in worship. Baptism is the sign of faith. We can deny sacerdotalism, and yet affirm we ought to treat our covenant children as believers. We need not create two different covenants, as some tend to do. Instead we can affirm that, as far as we know, our covenant children are in fact in the covenant, in the church, in the kingdom, in the faith, and so we may, believing them to be covered by Christ, bring them before God in worship. The baptism neither causes this to happen, nor is an iron-clad guarantee. Instead it is the sign of faith. The baptized child may be yet unregenerate. The child may in fact be a reprobate. But our assumption is, based on the covenant promises of God, is that the child is in, all the way in, until he or she gives evidence otherwise and is eventually excommunicated.
This view is consistent with how God worked in the Old Covenant. A son is born, and is given the mark of the covenant. Jewish parents did not wait in fear and trepidation, hoping and praying that one day this covenant child would embrace the faith and be brought into the kingdom. God established no system of “confirmation”, when the child reached a certain age. No Hebrew ever walked an aisle, or made a decision. He was instead raised within the covenant community.
Some may object that the Old Covenant was an earthly covenant. God had promised Abraham that He would give him a land that He would show him. He promised also that He would give him a son, and through him a mighty nation. He promised Abraham also that he would be a blessing to all the nations. All of these promises, though they are astounding in their grace, cannot be compared with the greatest promise, that the Lord would be God to Abraham (and to his seed.)
How does one have God as his God? There is only one way, through the mediatorial work of the Son. All those, old covenant and new, who are not in union with Christ are at war with the Father. Abraham had peace with God, and the sign of that peace was circumcision. The promises, then were not merely earthly, but heavenly. The sign symbolized God’s covenant blessing.
Others may object that not all Israel was Israel. Paul himself said so. How can circumcision be a sign of belief when some had the sign and did not believe? Wouldn’t it make more sense to give the sign of belief only to those who actually believe? Of course some were given the sign who did not believe. The sign is a sign, not a guarantee, a peek into the Lamb’s book of life. The same is true of covenant baptism. Because we are not sacerdotalists, we affirm that indeed some are given the sign of faith who do not have faith. Not all of the new covenant community are of the new covenant community. The trouble with this objection is that it objects to too much. Those who baptize covenant children are not alone in this dilemma. Even in baptistic churches there are those who are given the sign of faith who are in fact not in the faith. That someone lacks the thing signfied does not mean that they should not have been given the sign. The trouble is that we just don’t know who are the elect of God and who are not. Neither circumcision, paedo-baptism nor credo-baptism can get past that fact.
Others still might object that little children do not have the capacity for faith. If such is the case we can safely conclude two things. First, all those who die in infancy spend eternity facing the wrath of God. The Scripture affirms both that we are sinners from the beginning, and that there is only one way to escape the wrath of God, by believing on the Lord Jesus Christ. Those who cannot believe cannot escape. Second, we must not take those who cannot have faith into the heavenly temple. If they have no faith, they are not covered by Christ. If they are not covered by Christ, then appearing in God’s courtroom is not a safe place for them to be.
There is every reason to believe that little children do not have the capacity to believe the gospel. They lack that which is necessary. The good news is that no person has the capacity to believe the gospel. Not a one of us can believe on our own, not because we aren’t smart enough, but because we are not good enough. What stops the little children from believing is not a tiny brain, but a wicked heart. And God is stronger than both tiny brains, and wicked hearts. It is a miracle, regeneration, but if God can do it in a sinner like me, He can certainly do it in a sinner like a little baby. He can even do it in the womb. When Elizabeth came to visit Mary, the Scripture tells us that John the Baptist leapt in his mother’s womb. The unregenerate do not leap in the presence of the Christ, they cower. John, even in the womb, had been given new life.
The question comes down to, how do we see our covenant children? How are we to look at them when we know that we cannot see into their hearts, when we know we cannot see into the Lamb’s book? If we are to look at them as potential converts, hot prospects, then we will treat family worship one way. We will perhaps instruct them, witness to them, evangelize them. We will warn them of the wrath to come, and remind them of the very point I am trying to make, that until you come repenting, claiming the blood of Christ, by no means seek to enter into the presence of God.
If, on the other hand, we are to look at them as young servants of the king, as recipients of the grace of God, our family worship will look different. It will be most different in this- it will be family worship. We will come as a family into the presence of God, and will ascribe the glory that is due His name. We will receive instruction from the Captain of the Lord’s hosts, knowing that we are among those hosts, that we, and our children, are soldiers in the army of God. We will rejoice in the redemption wrought for us in Christ. We will bring before God our prayers and petitions, as children before a loving father.
Our earthly goal (remembering that we do family worship ultimately for the glory of God and not for the benefits we might receive) will be not conversion, but sanctification. We, in practicing family worship, will be acting in obedience to God’s command, that we raise our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Of course we will still preach the gospel to our children, just as the gospel continues to be preached in faithful pulpits across the world. We do not forget the gospel once we have been saved, but continue to grow into it. And we want the same for our covenant children.
If we learn to see our children as being in the one true covenant, then, and only then, can we not only pray for them, but pray with them. Only then can we bring them to the great and terrible judge of all the world, because we believe that the one who is our advocate, who stands and speaks for us, has already been lifted up to receive what is our due. Only then can we be confident that He truly hears the prayers of our children. Only then can they rightly pray, “In Jesus’ name, Amen.”