The salvation of our children is priceless; their spiritual needs far outweigh their physical needs. They need our prayers—our earnest prayers with hearts aflame, both for their initial repentance and coming to Christ by faith, and for their life of ongoing growth in faith. Matthew Henry rightly declared that it is of far more value for parents who die to leave behind a treasury of prayers for their children than it is to leave behind a treasury of silver and gold.
My mother died recently. She had little to pass on to her children financially, but we do treasure the years of prayers that she and my father stored up for us. When my parents commemorated their fiftieth wedding anniversary, all five of us children decided to thank my parents for one thing they had done for us. Without prior consultation, each of us chose to thank my mother for her prayers. We all knew that over many years, she had prayed earnestly, fervently, and perseveringly for each one of us.
We are by no means alone. At a ministers' conference in Italy, I asked the attendees how many of them were influenced by the prayers of their mother. It seemed to me from the podium that almost everyone put up a hand. God blesses the heartfelt prayers of parents to the spiritual and eternal well-being of their children.
According to God's promise (Gen. 17:7; Acts 2:39), the children of believing parents are included in the covenant of grace and must be received as members of the church by baptism. This promise is precious, and the privileges it confers on our children are great indeed. But they afford us no ground to presume that our children are regenerate and no reason to treat them as such before they come to saving faith and repentance.
We baptize infants based on many points, but not on account of "presumptive regeneration." The results of this view, which says that we must assume all covenant children are regenerate unless by flagrant sin they prove otherwise, can be quite tragic. Knowledge and morality are often substituted for salvation, without Spirit-worked regeneration, conviction of sin, repentance unto life, saving faith, and the necessary fruits that accompany it (John 3:5; 16:8-11; Luke 13:1-9; John 3:16; Gal. 5:22-23). Knowing God savingly and personally is then replaced with engagement in "kingdom activities" at home, in church, at school, and in the community at large.
As a Jew, Nicodemus was included in the covenant, received the sign of the covenant (circumcision), and was educated in the Scriptures, but Christ said to him, "Ye must be born again" (John 3:7, KJV). (Here Christ uses the plural form ye because He included all other Israelites in His blanket prescription.) Until he was born again, Nicodemus was spiritually blind to the truths of God's kingdom (vv. 3, 10).
Likewise, apart from a saving work of God's grace, our children are fallen and sinful, not righteous (Pss. 51:5; 58:3). The Belgic Confession (Article 15) says, "Original sin is extended to all mankind, which is a corruption of the whole nature and a hereditary disease wherewith infants themselves are also infected, even in their mother's womb." To be saved by Christ, they must be "ingrafted into Him, and receive all His benefits, by a true faith"—the faith "which the Holy Ghost works by the gospel" in their hearts (Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 20-21).
The children of believers have an external holiness—a place in the visible church—but they do not share in the salvation promised in the covenant unless and until they are regenerated by the Holy Spirit. He must convert the children of Abraham in order for them to receive the blessing God promised to Abraham (Acts 3:25-26). Christian parents need to pray for the salvation of their children and call their children to trust Jesus Christ as the only Savior, for His blood alone cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:7).
God did indeed make a promise to Abraham that He would be a God to him, to his children, and to their children after them—to a thousand generations (Gen. 17:7; Ps. 105:8). But the Lord also said to the Jews through His prophet John the Baptist, "Think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham as our father" (Matt. 3:9). To those who placed their confidence in their heritage, Jesus said, "If you were Abraham's children, you would be doing the works Abraham did" (John 8:39), works that are the fruit of saving faith that show a spiritual lineage, not just a physical lineage (Rom. 4:11-12). God's promise is made to all who, like Abraham, believe unto justification and life.
How should we pray for the salvation of our children? Here is a prayer offered by nineteenth-century Scottish preacher Alexander Whyte: "O Almighty God, our Heavenly Father, give us a seed right with Thee! O God, give us our children. A second time, and by a far better birth, give us our children to be beside us in Thy holy covenant!"
There is nothing automatic about salvation. There is no room for mere presumption; Christian parenting is an enterprise of faith. God's promise gives us a solid foundation for all our prayers and for all our hopes for our children. But He also commands us to use the appointed means to obtain His good gifts. Do you pray daily for your children? Do you pray daily with your children? If not, what can you expect from the Lord? Whether they are saved or not, are you able to say, by God's grace, that you storm the mercy seat for them with a heart aflame for their well-being and God's glory?