February 27, 2013

Theologians on infant salvation

by Jesse Johnson

BabyA few months ago, I ran a series of posts that argued that infants who die are rescued by God, and are now in eternal glory (part one, two and three; and a sermon combining them is here). I listed 26 verses that say as much, and I obviously think the weight of the argument is insurmountable.

What surprised me the most from this study is that historically this topic was viewed as a debate between Calvinists and Arminians. Shockingly, through history it has been the Calvinists who have argued for infant salvation, while it was the Arminians who were forced to deny that the scriptures taught such a thing.

Today, it seems like the sides have switched. In the past it was the Calvinist who would say, “salvation does not depend on man who wills or runs, so it completely fits within God’s saving nature to rescue infants.” Meanwhile, it was the Arminians who would stammer, “I know it sounds unfair, unjust, and unloving, but salvation depends on a person making a decision for Jesus, and an infant simply wasn’t old enough to be able to make that kind of decision…”   

BB Warfield explains the reasoning behind the divide:

“If only a single infant dying in irresponsible infancy be saved, the whole Arminian principle is traversed. If all infants dying such are saved, not only the majority of the saved, but doubtless the majority of the human race hitherto, have entered into life by a non-Arminian pathway”  (Two Studies on the History of Doctrine, 230).

It strikes me though that in the last 20 years or so, it seems like the sides have flipped. Now it is often the Arminian who says that infants are saved, without realizing that it flies in the face of their entire system. So today I thought it would be interesting to look at what theologians through history have taught on this topic.

The oldest evidence of this debate I found is in Calvin’s Institutes, where Calvin condemned Servetus. He said that Servetus’ theology was so twisted that it stressed free will to the point that if you followed him, you would be forced to conclude that even infants who died were damned to hell because they were not able to exercise their will to believe in saving faith (Institutes IV, 16, p 31). In that same section, Calvin addresses John 3:36, and argues that it points to infant salvation, as infants were not able to exercise willing unbelief, so they do could not possibly stand condemned.

Calvin often taught on this issue, and in one instance he even preached a sermon (on Isaiah 14:21) where he explained that reprobation (pre-destination for hell) was true of infants, but that God would allow all of them to grow to a condition of sinful accountability so that they could secure their own damnation (here is a long but fascinating paper which takes an in-depth look at all Calvin taught on this subject).

After Calvin and Luther died, their followers went in different directions on this issue. Calvinists stressed the salvation of infants, while Lutherans (and later Methodists) went on to claim the salvation of baptized infants, while remaining largely silent on the fate of others. The Westminster Catechism seems to track with the Calvinists, by arguing that infants who die are in glory (ch. 10, sec. 3 says those “dying in infancy are regenerated and saved by Christ”).

Loraine Boettner explained why the doctrine of infant salvation must be uniquely Calvinistic:

“The doctrine of infant salvation finds a logical place in the Calvinistic system; for the redemption of the soul is thus infallibly determined irrespective of any faith, repentance, or good works, whether actual or foreseen. It does not, however, find a logical place in Arminianism or any other system. Furthermore, it would seem that a system such as Arminianism, which suspends salvation on a personal act of rational choice, would logically demand that those dying in infancy must either be given another period of probation after death, in order that their destiny may be fixed, or that they must be annihilated.” (Unconditional Election, 145).

BB Warfield had earlier written something similar:

“Their destiny is determined irrespective of their choice, by an unconditional decree of God, suspended for its execution on no act of their own; and their salvation is wrought by an unconditional application of the grace of Christ to their souls, through the immediate and irresistible operation of the Holy Spirit prior to and apart from any action of their own proper wills . . . And if death in infancy does depend on God’s providence, it is assuredly God in His providence who selects this vast multitude to be made participants of His unconditional salvation . . . This is but to say that they are unconditionally predestinated to salvation from the foundation of the world” (Two Studies on the History of Doctrine, 230).

Charles Hodge agreed. He wrote, “All who die in infancy are doubtless saved, but they are saved by grace” (Systematic Theology, ii, 11).

But by the late 1800’s, it seems that there were already some hyper-Calvinists who had begin to adopt the Arminian teaching of the damnation of infants. Spurgeon responded to this change with this rebuke (from a sermon appropriately titled “Misrepresentations of Calvinism cleared away):

“Among the gross falsehoods which have been uttered against the Calvinists proper, is the wicked calumny that we hold the damnation of little infants. A baser lie was never uttered. There may have existed somewhere, in some corner of the earth, a miscreant who would dare to say that there were infants in hell, but I have never met with him, nor have I met with a man who ever saw such a person. We say, with regard to infants, Scripture saith but little, and, therefore, where Scripture is confessedly scant, it is for no man to determine dogmatically. But I think I speak for the entire body, or certainly with exceedingly few exceptions, and those unknown to me, when I say, we hold that all infants are elect of God and are therefore saved, and we look to this as being the means by which Christ shall see of the travail of his soul to a great degree, and we do sometimes hope that thus the multitude of the saved shall be made to exceed the multitude of the lost. Whatever views our friends may hold upon the point, they are not necessarily connected with Calvinistic doctrine. I believe that the Lord Jesus, who said, “Of such is the kingdom of heaven,” doth daily and constantly receive into his loving arms those tender ones who are only shown, and then snatched away to heaven.”

Later in that same sermon he want on to say:

“It is plain that Arminians and Pelagians must introduce a new principle of election; and in so far as the salvation of infants is concerned, become Calvinists. Is it not an argument in behalf of Calvinism, that its principle is uniform throughout, and that no change is needed on the ground on which man is saved, whether young or old?”

I pass along all of these quotes because I want to make clear that this teaching is not new, and it is not Arminian. Obviously, it was held by Calvin, the Westminster divines, Hodge, Spurgeon, Warfield, and Boettner. In our own life time it has been ably defended by John MacArthur and John Piper. I want to give you confidence in God’s goodness, and assure you that your confidence is not contrived from theological niceties, but rather it has its foundation in the deep and saving nature of God.

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.
  • Thanks for the history on this, Jesse. I recall Spurgeon’s words in that sermon, a time when apparently the charge had been raised that Calvinists did not teach salvation of infants that die, and he responded by mentioning John Gill and all “modern Calvinists” (and including himself) among those who certainly did believe in the election and salvation of all infants that had died. Yet the preachers within the Reformed Baptist (non-denom, Sovereign Grace) churches I attended had quite a different view. It was

  • Mandi

    I haven’t read through the sermons linked at the beginning so please forgive me if the answer to my question lies therein, but I’m curious as to your thoughts about the concept of the age of accountability. Does this find some middle ground, whereby those who lack the capacity to make a rationale decision are not expected to do so?

    • Hey Mandi: I suggest you read those other posts, and see if your answer is there. Thanks!

  • Michael Coughlin

    Last year, I attempted to teach “election” to my men’s Sunday school class…knowing I’d find some disagreement. After spending 3 weeks on just “how to read the bible,” I finally got to election where everyone was ok with total depravity, but it was regeneration that caused quite a stir.

    The conversation immediately went to free will. I proposed to the men of my church that if the concept of free will many of them taught were true, then infants are condemned. Maybe this wasn’t the best “proof, but it certainly showed a contradiction in their stated theology which I hoped might make them think about it.

    • Yeah, and it is striking that this was one of the arguments that Calvin made against Servetus!

      • Michael Coughlin

        Striking in deed! I thought I had invented the idea. 🙂

        Humbling as it is that others were sufficient thinkers without me, it is good to review how early (or even semi-recent) churchmen interpret the scriptures.

        I have actually asked my pastor if we could have a memorial service to my 2 miscarried babies. I thought it would be a good time for the congregation to all have a chance to memorialize their miscarried babies…and as well…offer an opportunity to re-iterate and clearly define WHY we have this assurance.

        He sees it as a bit “unprecedented” and wants to proceed with caution, which I agree with his caution.

        That being said, what do you think of the idea?

        • Another Mike

          Hello Michael. The best description of how Free Will is not trampled on by God was in a sermon series by R. W. Glenn at Solid Food Media at Redeemer Bible Church. The sermon series is called The Hardening of Pharaoh’s Heart.

          • Michael Coughlin

            Maybe true. I listened to this series and benefited from it greatly.

    • AStev

      When people talk about “free will” I usually ask them how they deal with these verses:

      John 1:13 explicitly says that our salvation does not depend on “the will of the flesh, nor the will of man, but of God.”

      And John 15:16 says “you did not choose me, but I chose you.”

      John 6:65-66 is pretty powerful as well: “And he said, ‘This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.’ After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.”

      You could also simply ask: “As unbelievers, were our wills actually free? Or were they subject to our sinful nature?”

      Our egos desperately want to believe that we can take some amount of credit for our own salvation. In my former arminian days, I used to struggle with the question, “Is my faith a ‘work’ that merits my salvation?” What I didn’t realize was that faith wasn’t something I had willed myself to have, but something that God willed to work in me.

      Obviously the Bible has a LOT more to say about human will and responsibility, but these verses are pretty sufficient to undermine the notion that salvation comes through any sort of free will. I’ve seen one person ask, “What is the difference between me as a saved person, and the unsaved person next door? Is it something that *I* did, or something that *Christ* did?” If you think the difference is something you did, then you think salvation is by works, not by grace.

  • busdriver4jesus

    How would you respond to the position of the London Baptist Confession, which protects God’s freedom to save infants, but does not go beyond the “little Scripture saith”?

    “Elect (note not “all”) infants dying in infancy are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit…”

    • Great question. In fact, I selectively quoted the WC above, because it says that “elect infants” are saved. I emitted that phrase, because everything I’ve read from that time period says that they used the phrase “elect infants” to be synonimous with “all infants who die.” Calvin said that you know an infant was elect becasue he died. So while I don’t know about London Confession, I do know that when the WC uses “elect infants” they mean “infants who die.”
      They used the phrase “elect infants” as a contrast from the Lutherns and Arminians that said “baptized infants.” So I understand it in that context.

      • AStev

        That seems to be my understanding as well. We anachronistically read it as “Elect infants? So not all of them??” when it seems that they understood it as “Infants dying in infancy, being elect, are regenerated and saved by Christ…”

        Why did they not word it this more precise way? Probably because of a reluctance to go beyond what Scripture has explicitly said, and being more comfortable going with what Scripture implies.

  • Kip’ Chelashaw

    What’s striking about all the past theologians you mentioned (bar Spurgeon) is that they were all paedobaptist. IMO infant Salvation doesn’t at all cohere with credobaptism and I suspect that Spurgeon, MacAruthur et al haven’t joined the dots or are ignoring the links.

    K

    • I think that conclusion would be valid if the paedobaptists used the “covenant child” construct to explain the salvation / election of children of believers. But if, as Jesse stated above, the Westminster Divines and other paedobaptists of the time believed that all infants who died were elect and thus saved — whether children of believers or unbelievers — then it would seem that paedobaptism has nothing to do with it.

    • Michael Coughlin

      So Kip – would you advocate that we sprinkle the bellies of pregnant women? Just wondering how that part works.

  • shawn

    I believe there is a significant argument to be made for the issue of “believing” and “disbelief” as regards to an infant’s destiny. The focus of the posts in this series has been related to the “sin” of the infant. How is it accounted for in the Gospel and how is it accounted for in God’s economy.

    We see in a variety of verses the condemnation for “disbelieving” the Gospel or unbelief in Christ. (Romans 11:20, Hebrews 3:19)

    Since an infant (or young child) has not reached the capacity to believe or not believe the Gospel, the argument is that they are not accountable because they have not been presented with the Gospel and have not expressed faith or disbelief.

    Of course this opens up other issues; such as the accountability of adults who have never heard the Gospel. But I believe it is a consideration to be examined.

    • Michael

      People go to hell for their sin. They go to heaven through their trust in Christ. Disbelieving the gospel is just worse sin to pile on their account. Therefore, anyone who has not heard the gospel is still without excuse.

      • Shawn

        @Michael – Your comment doesn’t address the “sin” of the infant. How is it accounted for in God’s economy (?) That is the point of this series – what does the Bible say about infants and young children who pass away?

        With your position, an infant goes to hell (?) is that what you are saying? They are too young to trust in Christ and gain reconciliation with God.

        My comment kind of goes hand-in-hand with the classic “age of accountability” position. With this view an infant or child is not accountable until they can understand their sin, the Gospel, and have the capacity to make a ‘faith response.’ Thus, the verses that talk about “disbelieving” the Gospel come into play here.

        And, as I point out, this raises other questions which are addressed by other Scriptures. Such as those who ‘haven’t heard’. I believe this is addressed in Romans chapter 1 (as you mention).

  • shawn

    ps…Jesse, I saw your post about Lordship Salvation. But the comments were closed. Yes, it is still a very significant debate. There are multiple new organizations developing supporting the “Free Grace” position in response (see the Free Grace Alliance). There are also notable theologians speaking at FG conferences, and supporting the FG movement (Norman Geisler, Tony Evans, and the president of DTS to name a few).

    This is in response to the heavy emphasis in LS circles and churches on commitment, sacrifice, and ‘hard belief’ in connection with faith. It smacks of works and clouds the simplicity of the Gospel and faith. (sorry, tried to email you and not respond here but couldn’t find a way to contact you.)

    Blessings, Shawn

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