July 08, 2012 Q & A

Are those who die in infancy (or pre-birth) elect?


Is there any scriptural basis, literal or reasonably deducible, for the position that people who die in infancy (or pre-birth) are all elect?


As you may be aware, your question raises an issue that has been a concern for many down through the history of the church. It is a particularly practical issue and for Christian parents burdened by the death of a pre-born/infant, can be an urgent question.

I offer the following points for your consideration:

1) Chapter 1, section 6 of the Westminster Confession of Faith states, "The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: ...." This is a sound principle for understanding and interpreting the Bible as the written word of God, of which God himself is the ultimate author (WCF chapter 1, section 4). To restate the principle, the Bible's teaching is not only its explicit statements but also what follows from those explicit statements "by good and necessary consequence." The latter (the consequences deduced) are just as much God's word as the former (the explicit statements). With that noted, however, the need is to be sure that the consequence drawn is valid, that is, truly "good and necessary."

2) I make the preceding general point in light of the way you have posed your question. On that question, Scripture does not answer your question by explicit statement, nor does it do so by strictly "good and necessary consequence." In the case of infants of believing parents, however, as I will presently point out, it does answer your question by a "good" consequence, an answer by consequence that there is no good, biblical reason to doubt.

3) The Bible requires that we divide your question into two and distinguish between dying infants of believers and those of unbelievers. In the case of the latter, we ought to remain silent because the Bible is silent; we have no good reason biblically to conclude that dying infants of unbelievers are elect, nor do we have sufficient biblical grounds to say they are not elect.

4) In the case of dying infants of believers the situation is decidedly different. We have every good reason to believe these little ones are elect. The reason is found in the Bible's teaching, pervasive throughout, on God's covenant of grace. Not only believers but also their children by birth are included in that covenant (I make no effort here to argue/show that is the teaching of Scripture). I do not believe that we can make a head for head equation between those in the covenant of grace and the elect (that is, not every member of the covenant community is elect). Still, the proper and primary purpose of the covenant is that it is God's arrangement for saving sinners, i.e., gathering his elect. And in that light, as it has been put, "Godly parents derive from it the consolation that they need not doubt the election and salvation of their children whom God takes from this life in their infancy."

The Reformed confession, the Canons of Dort, Chapter 1, Article 17 ("The Salvation of the Infants of Believers"), affirms:

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.

Rather than amplify this point further here myself, I will do that instead with the following pertinent excerpts from the Reformed theologian, Herman Bavinck. I do hope they and my own comments will be of some help to you.

Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 4: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008). (bolding added)

pp. 123-124:

The objection raised against this view [that from the moment of conception the Holy Spirit can, from that moment on and continually, be active in a human being with his sanctifying presence] always comes down to the fact that in this way the freedom and independence of a person is abandoned and a decision is made concerning people's salvation entirely apart from them. But, in the first place, this objection applies in the same degree with respect to the regeneration that occurs at a later age. For, unless one wants to take the Pelagian route and make regeneration dependent on a person's free religious choice, regeneration in this case precedes faith and takes place in a person without input from that person. Second, it is an undeniable fact that all children have been conceived and born in sin and are therefore subject to all manner of misery, even to condemnation itself. Against this background, it is a most comforting thought that as children they are similarly received without their knowledge unto grace in Christ. And, third, this confession finds support in the manner in which God, in creation and providence, goes to work in the distribution of his gifts. No one can say to him: What are You doing? For no one makes us different but God. What have we that we did not receive? And if we received it, why do we boast as if it were not a gift? (cf. 1 Cor. 4:7).

The doctrine of regeneration in a restrictive sense, therefore, is a precious part of our Reformed confession. Godly parents derive from it the consolation that they need not doubt the election and salvation of their children whom God takes from this life in their infancy, even though in their case the spiritual life could not yet manifest itself in acts of faith and repentance. Here, too, lies the possibility for us to hold on to the continuity of the spiritual life from its very earliest beginnings to its highest point of development and perfection. For regeneration in the restricted sense, according to our Reformed ancestors, does not merely consist in the gift of the power to believe, in the restoration of free will in a baptismal regeneration that differs from regeneration as a renewal of life and is dependent for its permanence on subsequent acts of personal assent and acceptance. On the contrary, it is immediately a regeneration in the full sense of the word, encompassing in principle the whole person, initially renewing all of one's capacities and powers, and later manifesting and confirming itself in all directions, in faith and repentance, in sanctification and good works. It is one and the same life that is infused in regeneration, is continually strengthened in the process of growing up, and will be completed in the eternal blessed life of the hereafter.

p. 531

… but almost half of the population dies before they have reached the years of discretion. For all these children there is in Scripture, to the extent that they are included in the covenant of grace, a promise from the Lord that they cannot consciously and voluntarily reject. If they die before the time they are able to do so, "godly parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children." Canons of Dort, 1.17


Among those who adhere to the confession that no one comes to the Father except by Christ, and that only one name has been given under heaven for salvation (John 14:6; Acts 4:12), there have always been a few people who believed in the possibility of salvation in this life aside from the preaching of the gospel. They taught this view with respect to children of the covenant, to all children who die in infancy within or outside the bounds of Christianity, to the developmentally or emotionally handicapped, and to the hearing-and-speech-impaired who are practically shut off from the preaching of the gospel….

In their confessions the churches made no pronouncements on this issue, and most theologians opposed the idea. Somewhat more favorable were their views on the salvation of children who died in infancy. Catholics teach that all children of Christian parents who died, having been baptized through express intention or in reality, were saved, and that all other children who died young suffered a penalty of damnation but not of sensation in the limbo of children. With respect to children of Christian parents, Lutherans hold the same view as Catholics and leave the others to the judgment of God. The Reformed were inclined to believe that all children who were born in the covenant of grace and died before reaching the age of discretion attained to blessedness in heaven, though in this connection as well many of them made a distinction between elect and reprobate children and did not dare to attribute salvation with certainty to each of these children individually. As for children outside the covenant who died in infancy, the judgment of some was quite magnanimous. [They] would rather surmise out of love that they were saved than that they were lost. [It was said]: As to whether they are lost or some among them are elect and were regenerated before they died, "I would not wish to deny, nor am I able to affirm."

In light of Scripture, both with regard to the salvation … of children who die in infancy, we cannot get beyond abstaining from a firm judgment, in either a positive or a negative sense. Deserving of note, however, is that in the face of these serious questions Reformed theology is in a much more favorable position than any other. For in this connection, all other churches can entertain a more temperate judgment only if they reconsider their doctrine of the absolute necessity of the means of grace or infringe upon that of the accursedness of sin. But the Reformed refused to establish the measure of grace needed for a human being still to be united with God, though subject to many errors and sins, or to determine the extent of the knowledge indispensably necessary to salvation. Furthermore, they maintained that the means of grace are not absolutely necessary for salvation and that also apart from the Word and sacraments God can regenerate persons for eternal life.



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