February 12, 2013

Spurgeon and infant salvation

by Jesse Johnson

A few months ago, I put up a list of 26 passages that discuss the eternal destiny of infants who die before reaching a condition of accountability (OT list, NT list). But last week I came across another verse that I had not considered. Spurgeon used it as his text when he preached a sermon entitled, “Infant Salvation.” The verse is 2 Kings 4:26:

“Is it well with the child?”

And she answered, “It is well.”

elisha and son

I’ll let Spurgeon explain the context of this verse:

This good Shunammite was asked by Gehazi, whether it was well with herself. She was mourning over a lost child, and yet she said, “It is well;” she felt that the trial would surely be blessed. “Is it well with thy husband?” He was old and stricken in years, and was ripening for death, yet she said, “Yes, it is well.” Then came the question about her child, it was dead at home, and the enquiry would renew her griefs, “Is it well with the child?” Yet she said, “It is well,” perhaps so answering because she had a faith that soon it should be restored to her, and that its temporary absence was well; or I think rather because she was persuaded that whatever might have become of its spirit, it was safe in the keeping of God, happy beneath the shadow of his wings. Therefore, not fearing that it was lost, having no suspicion whatever that it was cast away from the place of bliss—for that suspicion would have quite prevented her giving such answer—she said “Yes, the child is dead, but ‘it is well.'”

What fascinated me about this passage is that I remember teaching 2 Kings, and wrestling through why the Shunammite woman answered the question as she did. The majority opinion in the commentaries is that she was being deceptive, in order to speak directly to Elisha. After all, she held him responsible for the child–it was his prophecy that gave the child life, and now his absence has ushered in his death. So she lied to Gehazi in order to get to Elisha. She concealed her son’s death from the boy’s father, she left for Elisha under false pretense, so deceiving Gehazi is likely enough.

In fact, when I preached the passage, that is how I preached it. But I remember having that uneasy feeling as I settled on that view. There are some passages where the pastor has to land on an interpretation in order to preach it, but in the context of the narrative, the agreed upon interpretation just doesn’t sit well. This was one of those places for me, and I always had a little question mark in my Bible next to the passage. I mean, why deceive Gehazi? She gained nothing from that answer. And then, when she laid eyes on Elisha, obviously the dam broke, and she collapsed in anguish, grabbing his feet and weeping, barely able to speak. The narrative of the calculating and conniving mother doesn’t seem to fit. .

Thus, I am inclined to agree with Spurgeon about what the woman meant when she attested that her son was well. At the very least, it is as plausible of an explanation as crediting the the woman with deception.

In Spurgeon’s sermon, he went on to give the application, which is obvious:

Now, let every mother and father here present know assuredly that it is well with the child, if God hath taken it away from you in its infant days. You never heard its declaration of faith—it was not capable of such a thing—it was not baptized into the Lord Jesus Christ, not buried with him in baptism; it was not capable of giving that “answer of a good conscience towards God;” nevertheless, you may rest assured that it is well with the child, well in a higher and a better sense than it is well with yourselves; well without limitation, well without exception, well infinitely, “well” eternally.

I know that there are those who think the Bible’s teaching on infant salvation is not clear, or at least is confined to children of the covenant, whatever that means. I don’t expect that this passage in isolation will be persuasive to those people. But when added to the list of the other 26 passages, I think the case is insurmountable. Every single verse (and I list now 27 of them) in the Bible that speaks to this issue, points to the fact that those who die at a young age simply lived their lives on the short road to glory.

Here is the message I recently preached on this topic (link takes you to the video).


Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • Jesse, thank you for this.
    Two weeks ago, we went in for an ultrasound, eager to discover if the baby we were expecting was a boy or a girl. Instead, we discovered there was no longer any heartbeat. It’s been an emotional couple weeks, and it’s not over yet, but we take comfort in Christ. Thank you for this good addition to the topic.

    – Matthew Carroll

  • Michael Coughlin

    Praise to God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit who has encouraged and empowered you to speak boldly and confidently on such a controversial issue in 2013, Jesse.

    To Matthew Carroll – I hope you will believe me when I tell you I feel your pain, brother. Twice, my wife and I have gone for an ultrasound only to discover that God had already taken our baby to Heaven. Only confident hope in our Lord got us through it, and the understanding that God had elected our children to the childlike faith unto salvation.

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  • Curtis

    Jesse, I appreciate your help in this subject and confess I had not read your previous 3 posts before I read this one. I have since read the 3 posts as well as Mike’s. I was especially struck by the story about you and your friend who had lost an infant. That is the same counsel I have given grieving parents and am ashamed if we can know according to God’s word where infants go when they die. I had a discussion about this topic last evening with my men’s group and have found it is great fodder for digging deeper into God’s word. My question is regarding this 2 Kings passage or any narrative about someone’s understanding of children who have died (i.e. David, Job) What tells us that their understanding is 100% accurate? They were prone to misunderstanding God and his promises as much as we are. How do we know that the Shunammite woman was correct?
    Also, if this understanding is correct about infants and children, then God gives some kind of grace to them for a period of time. It seems strange that God would bestow saving grace upon an infant only to take it away at some period of time until they can come to saving faith as an adult.
    Jesse, please teach me on this. I know that if God’s word is clear on this subject, I’ve been mistaken. (And you’re right, the evidence does seem insurmountable.) I mourn my misunderstanding, if it is so, but want to be persuaded apart from the emotional part of this debate.

  • L Pote
  • Nic Standal

    If you would like to understand what “Children of the Covenant means” simply study the works of Owen,Calvin,Edwards,Watson,Flavel, Bunyan, Baxter and most of historical orthodox Christianity. I have studied this topic extensively and even though I believe that Christ has purchased those who cannot understand the Gospel based on their condition, I’m careful to disregard theological reasons proposed by these GIANTS who have deep biblical reasons for believing that there are elect people and elect infants.

  • AStev

    I love love love Spurgeon, but I think it’s a bit of a stretch to say that this verse teaches *infant* salvation, seeing as the death occurred “when the child had grown” according to verse 18. He was working with his father reaping a field, so he was likely in his teens or older by this point.

    Nevertheless, as you said, your other collection of verses make a pretty insurmountable case.