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The Canons of Dort, First Head of Doctrine, Article Seventeen

Synod%20of%20Dort.jpgArticle 17: The Salvation of the Infants of Believers

Since we must make judgments about God's will from his Word, which testifies that the children of believers are holy, not by nature but by virtue of the gracious covenant in which they together with their parents are included, godly parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom God calls out of this life in infancy.


Because of human sin, and the fact that the guilt of Adam’s sin is imputed to all of his descendants, unspeakable tragedies occur.  Ours is a sinful and fallen race.  We are weakened in body because of the inherited corruption passed down to us from our first father.  Furthermore, we are subject to the sinful actions of our fellow sinners.  Because we are under the curse, we will all die.  As one of the sages of popular culture puts it, “nobody gets out of here alive.”  

One of the worst consequences of the Fall is the death of a child.  It is bad enough that children, now grown, must bury those who brought them into the world, and who have cared and provided for them.  It is even worse when parents are forced to bury a child who never lived to adulthood.  If such a tragedy is not a graphic picture of the reality which is the imputation of Adam’s sin to all his progeny, then I don’t know what is.

Having raised the brutal reality of the consequences of original sin (guilt, death, and final judgment), the authors of the Canons have also spoken of election (the exercise of God’s mercy) and reprobation (the exercise of God’s justice).  

But at this point, the Canons address the very difficult subject of what happens when infants and small children of believers die in infancy, or in their youth, without ever having made a public profession of faith in Jesus Christ.  Are we to consider such children as elect (and saved)?  Or as reprobate (and lost)?  Even framing the question like this makes us shudder, but it is a question we have all asked (if the truth be known), and the Canons do not shirk from answering it.

While most American evangelicals can fall back upon their Pelagianism and argue for the innocence of such children, we have already seen that the Scriptures do not allow us such an unbiblical escape.  If the Bible is clear about anything, it is clear that our children–however precious they are to us–are sinful from the time of  their conception (Psalm 51:5; 58:3).  Like their parents, they are by nature, children of wrath, and therefore subject to the curse, which is death (Romans 5:12).  

Despite the widely accepted American dogma of an “age of accountability”–that unspecified moment when children supposedly become responsible for their sins, and for any possible rejection of Christ–there is no such doctrine taught anywhere in Scripture.  Sadly, this unsupported dogma holds out the false promise of a salvation apart from Christ, and sets out the false hope that should our children die before they reach the age of accountability, they will automatically go to heaven, because they are “innocent” and never needed saving.

Realizing the myth of human innocence under any circumstances, the Canons point us to an even better source of comfort–not the supposed innocence of our children, but to the merciful God, who in Jesus Christ, provides the means of salvation for all of his elect, including the children of believers.  God’s grace may even extend to all those who die in infancy, but since Scripture is silent on this matter, and all we have is human opinion, we’ll leave that discussion for another time, as the Canons themselves wisely do.

According to the apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 7:14), the children of believers (even if only one parent is a Christian) are holy.  They are “set apart” through the faith of a one believing parent, so that all promises made by God to his people under the covenant of grace apply to them.  If we are believers in Jesus Christ, without hesitation we affirm that our children are members of the covenant of grace, the promises of which are signed and sealed unto them though baptism.  As Christian parents, the Canons direct us to find comfort in the tragic case of the death of a child, in the fact that all of the promises of the covenant center in God’s unconditional promise, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.”  We need not count upon the false hope of the innocence of our child to save them.  No, we count on something much, much, greater–the mercies of God in Christ!  

It is because God is absolutely faithful to his covenant promises, and not because our children are somehow “innocent,” we can be confident that those children of believers who die in infancy are indeed numbered among the elect, and go to heaven when they die.  The Canons wisely counsel us not to doubt the election of such children, but to be absolutely confident of being joined with them eternally in the “age to come.”  Why?  Because of God’s covenant promise!  God's grace in Christ trumps human sin.

The promises God makes to us under the covenant of grace give us wonderful comfort in the darkest of moments.  These same promises remind us that God is gracious, and that death and the grave do not have the final word.  God will raise all his own from the dead, ensuring that all his people will one day bask in their promised inheritance together–the children with their parents–as they enjoy their eternal Sabbath rest in the presence of the Savior.

While the promise never removes the pain of death--this side of Christ's second coming--it certainly gives us a sure and certain hope.  Far better to count on the blood and righteousness of Christ, than on the supposed “innocence” of those we love.  And this is why we make our judgments from Scripture, where we find far better promises and a much greater hope.   For it is Scripture which promises us, that should our children die, they are even now beholding the face of that one who redeemed them with his precious blood.

Reader Comments (9) spelled it out beautifully.
April 3, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterhb
KR, the truth is that given the lack of absolutely clear guidance in Scripture, both paedo-baptists and credo-baptists have a dilemma. Credo-baptists cannot rely on children being innocent / "safe" below some "age of accountability. However, given that individual faith in Christ is the touchstone of salvation, at what unspecified "age of accountability" are covenant children of paedo-baptists "on their own", so to speak. Food for thought and counsel to trust God rather than our own systems in the last analysis.
April 4, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterPB
PB: actually, Scripture does speak a little more clearly than you suggest. The situation is only a dilemma if you think that "faith", at root, means something different from "trust". "Trust" assumes some knowledge, granted, but no more knowledge than is possible. An infant doesn't know his parents very well, but trusts them all the same; if such an infant can trust his parents, the Lord can certainly grant him a lively faith unto salvation.
April 4, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterPhil Walker

Thanks for the great post. Our first child just turned 2 years old and my wife and I are expecting our second son on, of all days, April 15th. :-) The first time our baby got sick, it really got me thinking about such things. Our pastor (Vandermeulen) gave me two books to read on infant baptism when we became members, as I wasn't yet convinced of the propriety of baptizing infants. Material I found in Danny Hyde's book on the subject along with materials like this post are truly comforting. It's good to know that our little ones are partakers of the convenant with us. Thanks for this post!
April 4, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterR.J. Stevens
Phil - True enough. I just preached the funeral of the adult daughter of one of our members. This "girl" was 31 years old yet severly disabled all her life and not verbally communicative. Yet we were comforted in that God mercifully acts in accordance with the amount of light / knowledge which a person - however limited, by age or medical condition - can receive.
April 4, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterPB
Reformed theology teaches that not all that are brought into the covenant of grace are "elect". (Some of those in the covenant of grace do not persevere to the end.) So, to use 1 Corthians 7:14, as proof that the children of believers are automatically saved, is going way beyond what the scriptures say.

What actually happens to a child of a believer that dies prematurely? The Bible doesn't answer that question. We simply entrust such a child into the hands of a loving and gracious God.

The descision theology folks maintain that the child automatically goes to heaven because the child has not yet reached the age of accountability. Again, this is not in the scriptures. The child is already accountable with orignal sin (Romans 5, Psalm 51:5, and they are by nature "children of wrath", Ephesians 2:3.)

Both the Reformed and the descision theology views are logical, but neither is Biblical.

How do we handle such a question based on the scriptures?

The Lutheran viewpoint is the only one that can be supported from the scriptures.

Because my wife and I are believers, the Bible does not automatically save my children, "because they are in the covenant of grace." This is a question the Bible doesn't answer. We simply entrust such a child into the hands of a loving and gracious God.

As Lutherans, we trust that the Lord will save our child through baptism, Titus 3:5, 1Peter 3:20 & 21. God also washes away the sins through baptism Acts 22:16.

A child is saved through faith, just as an adult is. Children can believe, Luke 18:15-17.

God can create saving faith in a person through baptism or through his Word. Baptism is the only means he has given us to work faith in babies. (God is the active party in baptism, not us!) (There is no age requirement for baptism, everyone needs to be baptized.)

Lutherans do not teach that baptism is a magic formula where everyone that gets baptized is saved. (Once again, that would go beyond what the scriptures say.)

Both the Reformed and the decision theology folks, once again, come to logical conclusions that are not in the Bible!

Luther always stuck to the scriptures, not to his system!!!
April 4, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterLLOYD
Thank you. Questions settled. Very comforting, indeed.
I am very thankful for the conclusion that most everyone is coming to on this matter. However, I would like to disagree with the avenue traveled to get there. I do believe that all infants of saved parents go to heaven instantly upon death. I further believe that all the infants of unsaved people go to heaven as well.
I believe there is evidence for this position in the Scriptures, although admitting that it is only mentioned by inferrence.
Besides the passages of David and Solomon mentioning that they will see their children in heaven, as well as passages that referto the children of pagans as "the innocents", there is Romans 5:13 in which Paul says, "for until the law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when ther is no law." I understand that the intent of this passage is not to teach that all children go to heaven, but I do think that one can make that inference from here. Only children have no law. All adults of every generation from Adam until now have some kind of law whether of conscience or of Scripture. Rom.2.
While they are guilty of original sin at the time of conception, they are not culpable for that sin until they understand law.
I would like to mention a great book on this subject by John MacArthur called, "Safe in the Arms of God". It would serve the body of Christ well to read this great work and be prepared to minister when this need arise.

As to baptism, it has always fascinated me that so many practice something that is no where found in Scripture. To argue for the baptism of infants is to argue from silence. The truth of the matter is that unbelieving children simply were not baptised in the Bible.

April 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJason Nolte
Aren't you making an "argument from silence" when you say "The truth of the matter is that unbelieving children simply were not baptised in the Bible"? Does the absence of an explicit command to baptize infants mean that infants weren't baptized? Where in scripture is a person raised in the church and then baptized once they make a profession of faith? Never once.
April 6, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermax

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