Prodigal Children & the Blessing of Baptism
The best testimonies of Christian faith are sometimes the most boring ones. Often it is the drug-addicted, philandering sluggard who is converted to Christ who receives the most attention—and that is a wonderful miracle! Let us celebrate such a conversion with thanksgiving and joy. Yet a boring testimony may be even more miraculous.
I love to hear a new member who joins our church say, “I was raised in a Christian home; I don’t remember a day in which I did not know Christ.” This is the testimony of children who were blessed with parents who loved Christ, modeled Him before them, talked often of Him, prayed with and for them, and brought them to church week in and week out. People who say this often point back to having been baptized in the church and thus raised in the church. This is truly amazing! It is the story of one who was born into this world a sinner—a child of Adam—but who nonetheless cannot recall a day that he or she did not know the Lord. What a mercy!
Yet, many Christian parents don’t have children with such a testimony. How many have said to themselves, “My covenant children have not believed. Does this mean that I have failed? Or that the covenant promises of God have failed?” And the answer is, “Neither.” Our adversary loves to sow the seeds of guilt and doubt—those are two of his greatest weapons.
You are not the first Christian parent, nor will you be the last, who has raised children to know Christ and yet have not seen the fruit of doing so thus far. You brought up your children in the faith: they attended Sunday school, participated in corporate worship and Vacation Bible School, and went to youth group. As their parents, you did not shy away from sharing the faith at home, and attempted to surround your children with good and godly friends. You sought to model Christ before them. You know you weren’t perfect—far from it—but no Christian parent has or ever will be. Yet now sorrow fills your heart because your children are not walking on the path of righteousness, and you watch as they wander and, in some cases, outright reject Christ.
Sorrow and Comfort
If this is true of you, then first let me say, “I’m sorry.” This is some of the hardest ground that we can traverse in this life. May God grant you comfort and solace under the shadow of his wings. I’m praying that even now for you, as I write these words: “Lord, help any parents who are weighed down with grief or guilt, as they read these words, to know your comfort and grace.” Even more importantly, know that your sorrow is not lost on God. Your heavenly Father keeps count of your tossings upon your bed at night and puts every one of your tears in his bottle (see Ps. 56:8). Though at moments you can feel alone in this sorrow, you are far from alone.
And that is not all. There is comfort in God’s promises as well. Though your sorrow is great, your God is greater still. Keep reminding yourself of the years you spent sowing the truth of God’s Word in your children’s lives. You prayed for them, brought them to church week in and week out, and pointed them to Christ through your conversations and actions. You brought them to Him. Did you do it perfectly? No. Again, what parent has? But you sowed the seeds of truth. And that effort was not wasted—God promises that His Word will not return void (Isa. 55:11) and that it is living and active (Heb. 4:12). The truth your children heard will call out to them for the rest of their lives, both in the Word they heard and the baptism they received.
Remember Their Baptism
Like circumcision before it, baptism calls out to those who receive it. It forever marks them as having belonged to the covenant community, reminding them that they have heard the covenant promises and pleading with them all the days of their lives to believe, to have faith in Christ, and to look to the God of promise.
Baptism is “always there bearing witness to the will of the Father, the work of the Son, and the ministry of the Spirit.”[i] In this sense, infant baptism serves alongside the Word to proclaim to the child who receives it their need for the Spirit to work the twin graces of repentance and faith within them. Through baptism, the child enters the visible church—by being identified on earth as part of the covenant community—but only through faith and repentance does that child become a member of the invisible church, thereby joining the ranks of true believers and having the blessings of the covenant that were signified in their baptism sealed to them by God.
In this way, Reformed theology clearly distinguishes itself from other traditions by maintaining that the sacraments are a means of grace (contra most baptistic, Anabaptist, and “Zwinglian” traditions) to our children and yet that “their efficacy resides not in the sacramental elements or in the sacramental action, nor in the character or intention of the one who administers them [contra the Roman Catholic Church], but in Christ’s blessing and the work of the Spirit in their beneficiaries. They are means of grace only to those who fulfill the conditions of the covenant of which they are signs and seals”[ii]—the “conditions” here referring to repentance and faith. And their baptism continually calls them to these twin graces.
Therefore, from the moment our children receive the sacrament of baptism, we should point them to what that sacrament signified for them. Salvation is all of God and wholly His work, and baptism serves as a good reminder of this—one we often need. This is no empty sign. The sovereign good God of the universe, who is your Father, stands behind it.
Continue in Prayer
He is also the Father who hears your prayers. So keep praying. Like the persistent widow, keep praying until your petition is realized. As the stalwart Reformed theologian Charles Hodge stated, there is “an intimate and divinely established connection between the faith of parents and the salvation of their children; such a connection as authorizes them to plead God’s promises, and to expect with confidence, that through his blessing on their faithful efforts, their children will grow up the children of God.”[iii] Do not shy away from enlisting others in the church to pray for your children, either.
Above all, continue to hope. Not one of our covenant children is too far gone for God’s grace to be able to reach him or her. Never allow our adversary to sow a lie in your mind to the contrary. No matter how great her sin, no matter how hard his heart, no matter how firm her resolve, no matter how strident his tongue, no matter how advanced her years, our Lord can work the miracle of conversion for a covenant child in the blink of an eye. So keep praying with hope. He is a covenant-keeping God. “O Father, this was one of the children of the covenant community. Lord, this child is marked by baptism. Save this child, I pray! Make my child your child. I know that you love me and hear my prayers, so I will keep praying and hoping and trusting.”
Know His Rest
One of my favorite verses in all the Scriptures is the wonderful promise of our Christ, “Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). This promise is ours as we come to Christ in saving faith, yet it is a promise we need to return to again and again. And it is a promise you need to refresh in your mind, dear Christian parent: God provides great rest for Christian parents of prodigal children. He does not turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to his children—and you are his child. He is a covenant-keeping God, and we can pray for our children with confidence that he will make our children his children, because he works according to his covenant promises. Our God has declared that His promises are not only for us but for our children; let’s live, pray, and believe this. All this truth we professed to believe as we brought our children to the waters of baptism. Let us continue to rest in the fact that He is worthy of our trust.
[Editor’s Note: For more about the blessing of baptism, please see Jason Helopoulos, Covenantal Baptism (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2021).]
[i] Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Children of Promise: The Case for Baptizing Infants (repr., Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1998), 81.
[ii] Robert Letham, Systematic Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019), 645.
[iii] Charles Hodge, “Bushnell on Christian Nurture,” Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review 19, no. 4 (October 1847): 507. reprinted in Charles Hodge, Essays and Reviews (New York, 1857), 309.