This is not an ivory-tower question for me. Misty and I have three children, ages 13, 10 and 4. They were all baptized in good Presbyterian fashion in their infancy and Misty and I have raised them and treated them as Christians, as members of the household of faith. But the question arises, Is it not necessary for them to be converted? Doesn't the Bible insistently and repeatedly command "all people everywhere to repent" (Acts 17:30)? See also Isa 55:6-7; Ezek 33:11; Mark 1:15; Luke 13:3, 5; Acts 2:38; 3:19 -- to list only a few of the many verses that use terms for "turning" from sin, "repentance," and so on. Indeed, repentance is said to "lead to life" (Acts 11:18) and "to salvation" (2 Cor 7:10), which suggests that conversion is vital, perhaps even necessary for salvation.
Yet, on the other hand, the Bible also makes clear that covenant children are to be treated as saved, as members of the body of Christ. For example, Paul addresses the children of the church at Ephesus, right alongside the husbands and wives, masters and slaves, as those who can be exhorted to respond to the imperatives of the gospel in light of union with Christ: "children obey your parents in the Lord" (Eph 6:1).
So which is it? Do covenant children need to have a conversion experience or are they to be treated as those who already enjoy salvation?
Part of the solution is to make a distinction between regeneration and conversion. Regeneration is God's secret operation, at the subconscious level, by which he gives the elect a new heart that is capable of repenting of sin and exercising faith in Christ. Conversion, to use Berkhof's definition, is
"that act of God whereby He causes the regenerated sinner, in his conscious life, to turn to Him in repentance and faith" (p. 483). "The principle of the new life implanted in regeneration passes into the conscious life in conversion" (p. 491).
If we accept this distinction between regeneration and conversion, it leads to a number of important but often overlooked implications:
First, regeneration is prior to conversion, and conversion follows regeneration. Thus, it is possible for a child to be regenerated in the womb, and to experience conversion or the evidence of conversion, namely, conscious repentance and faith, at a later date.
Second, regeneration is absolutely necessary for salvation, but conversion is not. Berkhof writes, perhaps somewhat suprisingly:
"The Bible speaks in absolute terms of the necessity of regeneration; not so of the necessity of conversion. It tells us plainly that, 'Except a man be born again (anew, or, from above), he cannot see the kingdom of God,' John 3:3, but does not speak of the need of conversion in the same general way, which allows of no exceptions ... The expressed or implied exhortations to turn about, found in Scripture, come only to those to whom they are addressed and do not necessarily mean that every one must pass through a conscious conversion, in order to be saved" (pp. 490-91).
Why is conversion not spoken of in Scripture as being absolutely necessary like regeneration? Perhaps one reason is because ...
"those who die in infancy must be regenerated, in order to be saved, but cannot very well experience conversion, a conscious turning from sin unto God" (p. 491).
Third, if regeneration is at the subconscious level and then passes into the conscious life in conversion, i.e., in the form of conscious turning from sin and trusting in Christ, then it is best to treat covenant children as regenerated and then to expect that they will experience growing evidence of conversion, that is, repentance and faith, as they mature.
Fourth, regeneration is a one-time, instantaneous, sovereign act of God, whereby the heart is changed from a heart of stone to a heart of flesh, but conversion can be experienced repeatedly throughout life as the fruit of regeneration. For example, Jesus said of Peter, "I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers" (Luke 22:32 ESV). See also the exhortations to the seven churches of Asia (Rev 2:5, 16, 21-22; 3:3, 19). Indeed, the Christian life is one of continual repentance and putting death our sinful deeds and desires by the Spirit in union with Christ in his death and resurrection (Rom 6:11-14; 8:13; Gal 5:24; Col 3:5).
It is unreasonable to expect covenant children to have one definite conversion experience, as is more common among those converted in adulthood. It is more likely that our covenant children will experience a series of critical stages in their Christian growth where their regeneration manifests itself in moments of more or less stronger awareness of their sinfulness, a desire to turn from sin to God, and a sense of coming to Christ in faith. A crisis conversion
"can hardly be looked for ... in the lives of those who, like John the Baptist and Timothy, served the Lord from early youth. At the same time, conversion is necessary in the case of all adults in the sense that its elements, namely, repentance and faith must be present in their lives. This means that they must in some form experience the essence of conversion" (p. 491).
In other words, the consequence or fruit of regeneration, namely, repentance and faith, must be present.
My two older children sometimes ask me when they were regenerated and converted. I tell them that I don't know for sure, but I suspect they were regenerated when they were in their mommy's womb or in infancy, and that we have both seen and hope to see growing evidence of their regeneration in the form of further increases of repentance and faith as they get older.
[All quotes from L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (4th ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991).]