The question of the eternal destination of infants who die in their infancy is one that can be both divisive and extremely emotional. Whenever we are talking about the loss of a child we are speaking of a daughter, a son, a brother, or a sister. This is a discussion that cannot, for long, be held in merely abstract terms. Historically speaking, the cause for such a discussion has almost exclusively been in the context of a family losing a child prematurely due to miscarriage, disease, or debilitation. Theologically, the question demands a biblical answer that can act as a salve for the soul of those families who find themselves in these tragic situations. However, a new issue has emerged that demands the attention of theologians, pastors, and biblical scholars: Abortion. No longer are we living in an age when the infant mortality rate is primarily a result of disease and miscarriage. Rather, we live in the United States of America where over a million infants are murdered annually through abortion. Rather than weeping over the loss of their children, mothers are actively choosing to destroy their children.
With this new context in mind, we must reconsider whether or not our previously derived theological positions concerning infant salvation hold up. I intend to reexamine the classic positions, not only in light of their theological consistency but, also, with regard to their practical application in the present day. Specifically, do the historically held positions, however unintentionally, actually promote the practice of abortion? If they do, can they be considered Biblical? Is it possible that a well intentioned approach to bring consolation to grieving mothers, has led to an overly inclusive view of infant salvation? If so, what conclusions can we come to that will console the grieving mother, without giving undue license to the mother who, for whatever reason, chooses to abort her child?
Two Major Positions Advanced
There have been two approaches advanced in the evangelical community regarding the eternal destiny of infants who die in their infancy. David Clark, borrowing from B.B. Warfield, calls these two positions the “humanitarian” view and the “gracious” view. He also puts forth a third position which he calls the “ecclesiastical” view. The ecclesiastical position, held primarily by Roman Catholics, suggests that salvation can only come through the visible church and is thereby affected by baptism. For the purposes of this paper we will simply note that, from the Protestant evangelical perspective, baptism does not affect justification and therefore is exempted from this paper.
The humanitarian view, according to Clark, “…holds that the application of salvation depends on a decisive action of the individual… Since infants cannot be held accountable for their predicament because of their inability to act so as to choose him, God graciously acts to save all infants who die.” This view often couches its argument in terms of an age of reason, accountability, or innocence. I prefer to call this view “innocence” mainly because the ultimate conclusion is that (though often heavily qualified) the infants are not accountable, or guilty, in such a way as needing salvation by the ordinary means of believing or exercising faith.
Warfield’s gracious view, which I prefer to call the Reformed view, maintains “…that humans cannot in any way contribute to their salvation. Therefore God, entirely by grace, chooses those who will be saved. Thus infants who are elected by God will be saved.” The reason I call this the Reformed view is because it, uniquely, depends on a Reformed Calvinistic view both of depravity and salvation in order to be advanced. No doubt, Warfield called his own view the “gracious” view in order to emphasize the grace of God in the work. The decision to categorize it as such is, itself, a typical Reformed approach.
The Means, Scope, and Challenges of Each Approach
In order to properly evaluate each position for theological consistency, biblical accuracy, and practical application we need to honestly compare the positions by the same categories. We will examine, first, the scope of infant salvation. When I speak of the “scope” I am referring to the “who” of this discussion. Namely, who is actually saved? Second, we will evaluate the means of infant salvation. Namely, how is salvation actually accomplished? Finally, we will examine, based on the scope and means, some of the challenges that emerge from both positions.
The Innocence Approach
The innocence, or humanitarian, view always has the salvation of all infants in view by virtue of the means by which infants are saved. Although J. Mark Beach’s article on “Original Sin, Infant Salvation, and The Baptism of Infants” is primarily a defense of infant Baptism, he does an excellent job of demonstrating how this “innocence” view plays out theologically, particularly among contemporary Baptists. He cites Millard Erickson, Gordon Lewis, Bruce Demarest, and Stanly Grenz as samples of a “…Consensus regarding Original Sin and Infant Salvation.” Although all of these men affirm, with vigor, that infants have been affected by original sin, they find a way to remove the “guilt” of that sin from the infant. For example Beach, citing Erickson, writes, “While the status of infants and those who never reach moral competence is a difficult question, it appears that our Lord did not regard them as under condemnation.” Notice that Erickson couches his position in terms of “moral competence.” For those who hold to the innocence position, this sort of terminology always seems to emerge. Although they affirm the notion of original sin, they find a way to effectively make the infant “innocent” from the spiritual consequences of that sin. Beach writes of Lewis and Demarest, “…in defining the grounds of judgment, guilt, and punishment, Lewis and Demarest… do not affirm a doctrine of imputed guilt but focus upon personal rebellion…’Nevertheless infants who die do not suffer the eternal penalty, for that penalty falls only on those who themselves responsibly sin.” Again we see the use of the phrase “responsibly sin” to weaken the roll of depravity in the case of the infant. In regard to Grenz, Beach writes, “…guilt is not part of what constitutes original sin, which is to say, depravity alone is not indicative of guilt and condemnation… ‘persons who do not develop the moral potential do not fall under the eternal condemnation of the righteousness of God.‘”
After reading Beach’s critique I became curious about other contemporary Baptist theologians that I’m familiar with. I turned, first, to an article by Dr. Albert Mohler who, by modern measurements, is seen as the Calvinist, or Reformed, side of the Southern Baptist Convention. He writes, in similar fashion, “What, then is our basis for claiming that all those who die in infancy are among the elect? First, the Bible teaches that we are to be judged on the basis of our deeds committed ‘in the body’… Have those who die in infancy committed such sins in the body? We believe not.” This is a pretty surprising line of reasoning for a man who is known for his Calvinistic approach to soteriology. What is even more surprising is his advance of what appears to be a form of prevenient grace. After citing Deuteronomy 1:35, 39 he writes,
“We believe that this passage bears directly on the issue of infant salvation, and that the accomplished work of Christ has removed the stain of original sin from those who die in infancy. Knowing neither good nor evil, these young children are incapable of committing sins in the body – are not yet moral agents – and die secure in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Mohler, who holds adamantly to a strong view of total depravity, nevertheless finds his way to a position of effective innocence for infants. I was surprised to see him go so far as to say that original sin is removed by the blood of Christ. Mohler, trying to walk a fine line, still affirms that God saves infants “…not on the basis of their innocence or worthiness – but by his grace, made theirs through the atonement he purchased on the cross.” It is important to note, at this juncture, that while infants are innocent of any actual sin, they are not saved by virtue of their innocence. This point is only advanced in order to place infants in a special category so they can be exempted from exercising “decisive action” in regard to their own salvation.
Dr. Floyd Barackman, a professor of theology at Davis College, formerly Practical Bible Training School, effectively takes the same position in his “Practical Christian Theology” when he writes, “I believe that all infants who die before they are able to make responsible, moral decisions are saved upon death.” He goes on to list five reasons which, at first, affirm that infants are participants in Adam’s initial sin. Nevertheless he too finds his way back to a form of infant innocence.
“While people are guilty of Adam’s initial sin, they do not go to hell solely because of this. They are condemned for their actual sin as well. Infants who die have not yet committed actual sins… it appears that infants who die, although born unsaved because of original sin, are saved upon death by God’s applying to them the value of the Lord’s atoning work… I infer that infants who die before the awakening of moral consciousness and accountability are part of the elect whom God has chosen to save.”
Mark Beach has some very important questions for those who hold this position. He wonders “…why infants should come under any condemnation at all, eternal or temporal… if inherited guilt is denied, why is temporal condemnation merited while eternal condemnation is not? What sins have infants committed? Indeed, what guilt bears upon them? If they are not worthy of condemnation, how are they subjects of salvation?” For those studying infant salvation it is somewhat disappointing that this article turns back to a discussion on infant baptism. These questions present a host of problems for those holding to the position of infant innocence. First, if decisive action is necessary for obtaining salvation, and infants are not able to exercise such actions, does infant salvation become a second “way” of salvation? Interestingly, Dr. R.C. Sproul Jr., who does NOT take this view, anticipates a similar tendency among the Reformed community when he writes, “I agree that all the elect go to heaven… but I deny with vigor the doctrine of justification by election alone. It is not election, but faith which appropriates the work of Christ.” Beach drills down on this problem and sees in this formula not only two “ways” of salvation but “diverse grounds” of salvation. “…the ground of salvation shifts from sacrifice for guilt to a restorative act by divine fiat… [it] is not grounded in grace… for infants who die are not guilty of sin and therefore they are not worthy of condemnation…. [S]alvation… as it applies to dying infants, entails a necessary divine act of restoration.” Beach likens this to the restoration of creation at the end of time. Creation, itself, was affected by the curse but it, personally, did nothing wrong. It will be restored but it is not restored or “saved” in the same way men are saved from their sin by Christ’s substitutionary work on the cross.
The second challenge that this view faces is an inconsistent application of total depravity and its consequences. As was noted by Beach earlier, we have to ask the question “Why do infants die at all?” If they are dying because of their participation in original sin, it seems to follow that they should, likewise, face the eternal penalty for that sin. Paul says in Romans 6:23 “the wages of sin is death.” If the “wage” for sin is death, why do infants, who have not sinned, receive that wage? If we follow Mohler’s explanation of Deuteronomy 1:39 there is no reasonable explanation as to why infants, prior to committing actual sin, should have to pay the wage of death for the sin of Adam. Mohler explicitly denies that infants are “moral agents” and explicitly states that “the stain of original sin” has been removed by Christ. If this is taken at face value, why are the physical ramification of original sin (i.e. death) applied to infants but not the eternal ramifications? If, as Mohler argues, we are “exempted from judgment… because of [our] age” why do infants inherit the judgment of death?
In passing, it should also be noted that the notion that God doesn’t judge a son for the sins of his Father is not always the Biblical precedent. For example, infants were not rescued from the siege of Jerusalem and, in fact, some were eaten by their parents as a judgment for their parent’s sin. Further, there are times when God curses a people to the third and fourth generations (Numbers 14:18). The most glaring examples, of course, are the flood of Noah’s day and God’s judgment upon Egypt where God specifically executed the children because of the sins of the Father. So, clearly there is no Biblical precedent of God refusing to pass judgment onto a next generation as a result of the father’s sin.
A third challenge, which is most applicable to our discussion, is that the scope of the salvation is fixed. Specifically, those who hold to the innocence, or humanitarian, position are arguing based on the condition of ALL infants. There is absolutely no room for the possibility that “some” infants may not be saved. The very nature of this position is that it argues for the salvation of all infants. When considering giving hope to a grieving mother, that may be considered a positive attribute of the position. However, when faced with the challenge of a woman who is about to have an abortion, and is looking for solace in making her decision, it proves a bit more challenging.
In this view, there is little to keep its adherents from celebrating the death of children. In fact, in an effort to bring comfort on this issue, Mohler cites John Newton, “’I cannot be sorry for the death of infants. How many storms do they escape!‘” In the context of a grieving mother who has lost her child, this is great hope. However, if this statement is placed in the context of a woman about to have an abortion, this advice seems somewhat misguided. While it is not appropriate to judge a position based on how its detractors may misrepresent it, it is noteworthy that this position has no other possible resolution to the abortion context. If one holds to this position, they must say (however regrettably) to the woman having the abortion “Yes, your child will go to heaven if you abort it.”
The Reformed Approach
The Reformed, or gracious, approach seeks for theological consistency as it relates to the depravity of man as well as the salvation of all men, when dealing with the issue of infant salvation. The scope, unlike the innocence view, is not entirely fixed as a result of the means of salvation in the Reformed view. For this position the means of the salvation of infants and the scope are two different matters. We will begin with the means and move to the scope.
What is of greatest importance to the Reformed view is a theological consistency both in regard to the application of the effects of original sin, as well as the subsequent means of salvation. The great Baptist preacher, Charles Spurgeon, separated himself from the contemporary Baptists cited above when he preached, “…though [infants] have not sinned after the similitude of Adam’s transgression, they have original guilt. If they be saved, we believe it is not because of any natural innocence.” Spurgeon refused to be moved in either his doctrine of depravity or in his doctrine of salvation. He goes on to say, “[Infants] enter heaven by the very same way that we do… I do not think nor dream that there is a different foundation for the infant than that which is laid for the adult.” This is perfectly consistent with the Calvinistic view of total depravity and justification by grace alone through faith alone.
At this juncture, it is good to identify a theological nuance that separates the two views. The Reformed view sees “faith” as a gift that is applied to a person graciously by the work of regeneration where the innocence view sees “faith” as a decisive action that results in justification. The Reformed view is not forced into a dilemma as a result of the infant’s incapability to respond to an outward call of the Gospel. Indeed, the Reformed view actually sees adults and infants as equally incapable of responding to the outward call of the Gospel. Therefore, the means of salvation are exactly the same for both. This fact is most evident when examining both the Westminister and 1689 London Baptist confessions of faith. In Chapter 10 Paragraph 3, in identical fashion, both confessions state,
“Elect infants dying in infancy are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit; who worketh when, and where, and how he pleaseth; so also are all other elect persons, who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word.”
Notice that the confessions include not only that the infants are elect and saved, but that they are regenerated.
It is important, for the Reformed view, that infants not be saved in any different way than adults. Infants are not saved without first being born again, or without receiving the gift of faith. Elect infants are regenerated, they are given the gift of faith, and are altogether the same as adults except that they never get a chance to outwardly exercise their faith. As noted above, Dr. R.C. Sproul Jr. goes out of his way to point out that infants that are saved, are saved by grace through faith. “Babies are guilty, and there is only one way in. The good news is that God is able to give the gift of faith to whomever He pleases… Yes, that faith must have an object. There is content that we must believe. But it is believing that content, not expressing that belief that puts us in union with Christ.” Sproul acknowledges that infants who are saved, are saved by grace, through faith in Christ. Though they may not exercise that faith in any outwardly distinguishable way, nevertheless God can give them saving faith. Spurgeon goes a step further than Sproul and demonstrates, Biblically, that the Spirit has the power to, and actually has, affected infants. “That [infant regeneration] is possible is proved from Scripture instances. John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Ghost from his mother’s womb. We read of Jeremiah also, that the same had occurred to him; and of Samuel we find that while yet a babe the Lord called him.”
While the Reformed view seems to solve many of the theological inconsistencies that exist in the innocence view, it also seems to lose a level of certainty as it relates to the scope of the salvation of infants. It is interesting to our study that, at that Synod of Dort, this question was dealt with specifically. However, it was not dealt with in terms of “all infants” but rather in terms of “infants of believers.” The Arminian Remonstrants had accused the Calvinists of teaching, specifically, that the children of believers could be lost. At the Synod of Dort this issue was taken up and addressed in Article I/17. Cornelius Venema does an excellent job tracing the back and forth on this issue citing a number of those delegates who responded during the drafting process. While most responded that children (in general) are elect and therefore saved (the English), or specifically that children of believers have hope (the Swiss), three Dutch professors, along with Sybrandus Lubbertus and the Drenth delegation, took a most interesting approach. “The three Dutch professors maintain that ‘[t]here is a vast difference in the condition of those little children who are born of non-covenant parents, since Scripture declares the latter to be unclean, alienated from Christ.‘” While the three Dutch professors affirmed the election of the infants of believers, they also explicitly denied the salvation of the children of unbelievers.
What is most intriguing is that while the final draft was being written for the Canon’s of Dort, Article I/17 was changed from saying that “…we are not to investigate God’s hidden judgments” to saying “..we must make judgments about God’s will from his Word.” This change, according to Venema, was likely meant to pull the proverbial rug out from under any Arminian suggestion that there was a possibility that the infants of believers might be lost. Adding to the intrigue, is that the Westminster Confession, drafted less than 30 years after the Synod of Dort, did not make a specific distinction between the infants of believing and unbelieving adults. That statement left room, first, for the possibility that some infants are not elect and, second, that some infants of believers may not be elect.
The challenges that emerge for the Reformed view focus primarily on the scope rather than the means. The first challenge, raised most adequately by David Clark against B. B. Warfield, is whether or not the Reformed view is even capable of definitively, consistently, and biblically asserting that ALL infants go to heaven. Clark explains that if Warfield maintains the reason that God saves all infants is because they are persons “who have spiritual needs but who cannot exercise ‘free will’” then he is actually proving universalism. The reason this is true is because Calvinists maintain that all persons are persons “who have spiritual needs but who cannot exercise ‘free will.’” As we have seen, the Reformed view goes out of its way to establish an equality in both the depravity and salvation of all men regardless of age. This leads, inevitably, not to a position that all infants are saved, but rather to a position that only some are saved, just like adults. “…it stands to reason that if God is just in electing to salvation only some adults… he should also be just in electing to salvation only some infants. But this conclusion is an unhappy one.” R.C. Sproul Jr. remains consistent in his Reformed view on this issue and concedes certainty regarding all infants when he writes, “Could God give saving faith to all that he takes from us? Of course He could. Does He? I don’t know.” This lack of certainty does not bother Sproul as he concludes, “If He wants to have mercy on all the little babies, praise be unto His name. If He doesn’t, praise be unto His name.”
Warfield was not willing to make the same concession and neither was Spurgeon, “We say that the opposite doctrine that some infants perish and are lost, is altogether repugnant to the idea which we have of Him whose name is love.” Spurgeon goes on to appeal to the goodness of God and the character of Jesus Christ. The problem, though, is that if the goodness and character of God demands salvation of all infants, on what ground are those infants different than their adult counterparts? Spurgeon goes out of his way to equalize adults and children in their depravity, and in the way they are redeemed, but does not equalize them in the scope of their redemption. If God must be gracious to save all infants why should he not, too, be gracious to all adults who find themselves in the exact same condition? It appears as though taking the Reformed view necessarily requires that the scope be reduced to “some” and a level of certainty left up to the good pleasure of the divine purposes of God.
The second challenge to the Reformed view is actually two rolled into one. If we cannot say, certainly, that all infants are saved, can we say anything certainly about any particular infant? This inevitably leads to a third challenge as to whether or not any real hope can be given to mothers who have lost their children prematurely. As one reads the Canon’s of Dort and the Westminster and London Baptist confessions there is a sense of uncertainty lurking in the background. In the confessions, it only states truths about elect infants. It says nothing about which infants are elect. The Canon’s of Dort may seem to give more clarity, but they simply say that believing parents “ought not to doubt.” It does not say, with unequivocal certainty, that all infants of believers which die go to heaven. It just simply says that parents should not doubt. Further, what it does say leaves room for the loss of infants of the parents of unbelievers. What comfort, then, shall be brought to the thirty year-old mother who has had three miscarriages prior to her conversion? Were those infants lost because of her unbelief? At first glance this position, leaving some room for infants to be lost, may act as a deterrent for abortion, but it may also equally remove any hope of certain consolation for those who have lost children prematurely.
There is much at stake in this discussion and neither position is without its difficulties. It is apparent that both positions require a certain willingness to make concessions on various points. The innocence position requires that the adherent hold loosely to both his theology of depravity as well as to his view of justification by grace along through faith alone. If he is not willing to concede that infants are treated altogether differently by God, then he must at least concede that he holds his view in self-contradiction of other stated truths regarding salvation and depravity.
The Reformed position requires that, for the sake of theological consistency, he hold loosely to his certainty that all infants will be saved and also release some level of confidence by which he can comfort a grieving family who has lost a child (whether believing or unbelieving.) If he is unwilling to hold loosely to his certainty that all infants will be saved, then he, too, must at least concede that he holds this view in self-contradiction of other stated truths regarding the application of grace to adults (limited) as opposed to infants (universal).
Finally, those who maintain vigorously that all infants are certainly saved, regardless of means, must wrestle with how that position may embolden a culture that is immersed in the blood of aborted infants. We must consider if a less than certain view of infant salvation is not, itself, consistent with the Scriptures which are peculiarly silent on the subject. Further, we must consider whether or not a lack of certainty about the eternal destination of children actually produces an inability to console grieving families. Of all the sources cited in this paper only one was willing to say that some infants may not be saved: Dr R.C. Sproul Jr. He begins his response with these words, “My dear wife Denise and I have lost six children to miscarriage that we know of. In addition we have one precious blessing who will likely not make a verbal profession on this side of the veil, given her special needs.” If Dr. Sproul can find consolation in God, while not being absolutely certain about the eternal destination of all infants, then it’s possible to loosen our grip on the insistence that all infants go to heaven, without sacrificing our ability to console grieving families at the same time.
 Cornelis P. Venema. 2006. “The election and salvation of the children of believers who die in infancy: a study of Article I/17 of the Canons of Dort.” Mid-America Journal Of Theology 17, 63. Venema, writing regarding the occasion of the Synod of Dort states, “In the early seventeenth century, the infant mortality rate was much higher than is often the case today. It was a rare family that had not been touched by the death of an infant child.” He cites Gootjes, “Can Parents Be Sure?” which suggests an infant mortality rate of between, “fifteen and thirty percent for babies born alive” and “about eighteen percent” for children between ages 1 and 5.
 Lifematterstv.org, “LMTV Abortion Counter Background,” Life Matters TV Program, accessed July 2, 2014, http://www.lifematterstv.org/abortioncounters.html.
 David K. Clark. 1984. “Warfield, infant salvation, and the logic of Calvinism.” Journal Of The Evangelical Theological Society 27, no. 4. p 459.
 Jeremy Lundmark. 2010. “Children for Breakfast.” Theology and Life. Accessed July 2nd, 2014. In this particular article this author demonstrates that the eating of children was prophesied in Leviticus 26:29, Deuteronomy… 28:56, 57, Ezekiel 5:9-10. That prophesy of judgment is recorded as fulfilled in Lamentations 2:20, 4:10.
 Albert Mohler, Jr. and Daniel L. Akin. 2009. “The Salvation of the ‘Little Ones”
 Charles H. Spurgeon. 1861. “Infant Salvation.” The Spurgeon Archive. Accessed July 2nd, 2014.
 Ibid. p. 71. Lubbertus argued from Romans 9:6,7 that not all infants of all believers went to heaven. “Lubbertus’ opinion makes the general point that there is an election and reprobation of children, and that this election and reprobation may even distinguish between children of Covenant parents.”
Barackman, Floyd H. 2001. “Practical Christian Theoglogy – Fourth Edition.” Kregel Publishing. Grand Rapids, MI.
Beach, J Mark. 2001. “Original sin, infant salvation, and the baptism of infants: a critique of some contemporary Baptist authors.” Mid-America Journal Of Theology 12, 47-79. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed July 1, 2014).
Clark, David K. 1984. “Warfield, infant salvation, and the logic of Calvinism.” Journal Of The Evangelical Theological Society 27, no. 4: 459-464. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed July 1, 2014).
Venema, Cornelis P. 2006. “The election and salvation of the children of believers who die in infancy: a study of Article I/17 of the Canons of Dort.” Mid-America Journal Of Theology 17, 57-100. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed July 1, 2014).
This paper was presented to Baptist Bible Seminary in partial fulfillment of the requirements for TH501-Dispensational Premillennialism.
Jeremy Lundmark is a former pastor and former host of the podcast "After The Sermon." Jeremy has earned his Masters of Ministry from Summit University in Clark's Summit, PA. He is the author of the book, The Fury of God. Jeremy is a husband of thirteen years to Alison G. Lundmark and is the proud father of three children: Alexander, Brionna, and Scarlett. To connect, leave a comment on one of his posts at TheologyMix.com.