What Happens When Infants Die?

Warning: this post is longer than the average blog post. Consider the topic and little more needs to be said.

A few weeks ago Pastor Clay gave a terrific message on family issues. In it he referenced the 1689 Confession of Faith and its statement regarding the difficult question of what happens to infants who die in infancy.

Elect infants dying in infancy are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit, who works when and where and how He pleases. The same is true of all elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called through the preaching of the gospel (Chapter 10, paragraph 3).

After the message I expressed some need for clarification about this particular provision of the document and promised to blog at some point to that end. Here goes.

Everything within me wants to believe this and more. Who doesn’t? However, I deny or at least want to qualify full subscription to the confession at this point for one very important reason. It says more than the Scripture says. Where the Bible is silent we are wise to remain the same. And the Bible is especially silent on the question of the children of unbelieving parents. We simply can’t say from Scripture with authoritative citation what the Lord does in such cases. Whatever He does we may be certain that He is just and wise in all His ways in determining the fate of little ones who die before the so-called age of accountability – the time they actually understand the truth and can make some choices about what to do with it. We may rest right there on the matter, as far as I am concerned.

As for the children of of believing parents, we stand on safer ground to say more. God certainly can regenerate an infant, even in the womb, as testified by the account of John the Baptist in Luke 1:15. But clearly this is not the normal way He saves. Still, as Wayne Grudem points out:

We should recognize that it is God’s frequent pattern throughout Scripture to save the children of those who believe in him (see Gen. 7:1; cf. Heb. 11:7; Josh. 2:18; Ps. 103:17; John 4:53; Acts 2:39; 11:14(?); 16:31; 18:8; 1 Cor. 1:16; 7:14; Titus 1:6; cf. Matt. 18:10, 14). These passages do not show that God automatically saves the children of all believers (for we all know of children of godly parents who have grown up and rejected the Lord, and Scripture also gives such examples as Esau and Absalom), but they do indicate that God’s ordinary pattern, the “normal” or expected way in which he acts, is to bring the children of believers to himself. With regard to believers’ children who die very young, we have no reason to think that it would be otherwise.

Theologians of significant stature from the past including Charles Hodge, W. G. T. Shedd, and B. B. Warfield have not shied away from proclaiming confidence that God saves the infants of believers who die in their infancy because of arguments like Grudem’s. Many often point to the account of the child of David and Bathsheba who died in infancy due to God’s judgment upon David for his sin in 2 Sam. 12:23. Grudem calls David’s confidence that he would go to the child the language of personal reunion, the only plausible explanation for David’s reversal from a state of enormous grief to business as usual (a change not lost on his servants as the context notes).

One of the most helpful insights on this subject contributing to my tentative yet hopeful view that infants who die in infancy go to be with God in heaven comes from this section from a funeral meditaiton by John Piper at the occasion of an infant’s death.

But what about tiny children who do not yet have the physical ability to even know the basic facts of the gospel or even of any of God’s revelation in nature? Does the Bible teach that God will judge them in the same way that he will judge an adult who consciously rejects the truth of God that he knows?

There are clues that God does not condemn those who are physically unable to know the truth that God has revealed in nature or in the gospel. I’ll mention two clues.

One comes from Deuteronomy chapter one. God is angry because the people would not trust him to help them take the promised land. They rebelled against him. So he says, “Not one of these men of this evil generation shall see the good land that I swore to give to your fathers [except Caleb and Joshua, who had trusted him].” Then he adds a word about the children: “And as for your little ones, who you said would become a prey, and your children, who today have no knowledge of good or evil , they shall go in there. And to them I will give it, and they shall possess it” (vv. 35, 39).

Not having the “knowledge of good and evil” takes away the judgment. They were not yet physically able to know what they needed to know, and so God does not sweep them away with the adults who wouldn’t trust God.

The second clue confirms this principle from the New Testament. It’s found in Romans 1:18-21. The text is not about children, but the same principles of justice apply. Listen to the relationship between having available knowledge and having accountability. “What can be known about God is plain to [men], because God has shown it to them. For ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. Therefore they are without excuse; for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him.”

The point is this: to be held accountable at the judgment you need two things: 1) available knowledge of the glory of God whom you should have adored and thanked; 2) the physical ability to know it, to perceive it. If this knowledge were really not available, then, Paul implies, there really would be an “excuse” at the judgment. No adult, except perhaps profoundly retarded or mentally ill ones, have this excuse. That’s Paul’s point. We adults are without excuse. But children are in another category. They do have this excuse. They don’t have the physical ability to know what God has revealed. Therefore we believe that God will apply to them the blood and righteousness of Christ in a way we do not know. We adults can have this pardon and righteousness only through faith. That is the clear teaching of Scripture (Ephesians 2:8; Romans 3:28 ). How are infants united to Christ? We don’t know. And speculation would not help us here.

I treasure our confession. Some exceptions apply as for me and my house. With regard to this statement, some clarification. Whatever the case, God will be found to have no fault in whatever He does with the souls of those who die in infancy or without rational capability.

For another helpful article click here.

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