On the Salvation of Infants Dying in Infancy

The EPC prides itself on allowing differences in “non-essentials” among its churches, and this has included the thorny issue of the eternal fate of people who die in infancy.

The Westminster Confession of Faith states,

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.

The Confession strikes an agnostic position that borders on a tautology: elect infants dying in infancy are the ones who are saved. This position allows for a great deal of flexibility, since the who and how of election for those incapable of being outwardly called is not identified.

In 1903 the PCUSA added a declaratory statement to the beginning of the WCF which functionally amended it. The declaration stated, in part, that,

…with reference to Chapter 10, Section 3, of the Confession of Faith, that it is not to be regarded as teaching that any who die in infancy are lost. We believe that all dying in infancy are included in the election of grace, and are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit, who works when and where and how he pleases.

This declaration had the effect of eliminating flexibility from confessional subscription. Now only one position, namely that all who die in infancy are elect, was permitted. The EPC formed in 1981, and had to choose which amendments and alterations to the Westminster Standards it should adopt. The Declaratory Statement was one of the items considered. At its 6th General Assembly in 1986 an initial vote to adopt the Statement passed 69-63. A recount was requested, where the adoption of the Statement failed by a single vote, 72-71.

While very close, and coming down on a side that may seem less pleasant, the EPC actually protected the historic Reformed position of freedom on the issue. The WCF wants to remain agnostic on the subject: scripture is not explicit, so we will not be either. In his work The Development of the Doctrine of Infant Salvation, B.B. Warfield notes that are five views consistent with the Reformed tradition, which the flexibility of  the WCF allows ministers the freedom to hold:

  1. All who die in infancy are elect,
  2. Faith is the only sure sign of election, so we cannot be sure of anyone’s election who dies as an infant,
  3. Faith, along with the promises of God, are the sure signs of election, so children of Christians who die as infants are saved, and that therefore the children of the reprobate who die in infancy are likewise reprobate,
  4.  Faith, along with the promises of God, are the sure signs of election, so children of Christians who die as infants are saved, but that God can, but does not always, show his grace of election to the children of unbelievers who die in infancy, so some are lost (the position of John Owen),
  5. Faith, along with the promises of God, are the sure signs of election, so children of Christians who die as infants are saved, “while the absence of sure marks of either election or reprobation in infants, dying such outside the covenant, leaves us without ground for inference concerning them, and they must be left to the judgment of God, which, however hidden from us, is assuredly just and holy and good”.

Warfield comments on these saying,

Although the cautious agnostic position [#5] as to the fate of uncovenanted infants dying in infancy may fairly claim to be the historical Calvinistic view [e.g. what is in the Westminster Confession], it is perfectly obvious that it is not per se any more Calvinistic than any of the others. The adherents of all the types enumerated above are clearly within the limits of the system, and hold with the same firmness to the fundamental position that salvation is suspended on no earthly cause, but ultimately rests on God’s electing grace alone…

The Canons of Dort reflect similar caution as the Westminster Confession, declaring in article 17,

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.

Dort is willing to make a more explicit statement on a positive side, choosing elements of options #4 and #5: our confidence in salvation rests on the promises of God in his word, which states that the children of believers are holy. But Dort, like Westminster, is silent about the children of nonbelievers. God’s covenant promises to us, sign and sealed in the sacraments, are means of growing assurance in him.

Geerhardus Vos, in Volume 5 of his Dogmatics states (page 183-185),

Thus we do not maintain that the children of believers are already regenerated at an early age, but leave that completely undecided. And nevertheless, we assume on the basis of the promise of God that the young children of the covenant who die before the use of their understanding, receive eternal salvation…

All salvation of young children, therefore, is based on the gracious imputation of the merits of Christ. How can we now hope that the children of the covenant who die before the use of their understanding have received this imputation? This is inferred from their being in the covenant…The covenant is an established covenant. God wills that for adults we regard it as accepted, and as it will and must be accepted by the young children of the covenant. This is now—and we should certainly pay attention to this—not only a bond of ob- ligation by which He has a certain claim to the children; it is also a divine promise. It includes that where believers raise their seed for the Lord, He will continue His covenant from that seed, will build His church. Thus, not only “It is expected of those children and required of those children that will live in my covenant,” but also: “I, God, will to give it to them, and make true my promises to the parents.” Here, therefore, is a firm divine foundation.

God’s covenant is a giving covenant. It also includes, along with other promises, the promise of regeneration. Suppose, now, that this promise is not fulfilled in young children who die before the use of their understanding. The result would then be that God has given us a promise and prescribed a seal of the covenant, but He does not allow us to cling to it and to draw comfort from it, even where every ground for removing it is lacking. He has caused the sacrament of baptism to be administered to young children. That sacrament sealed the established covenant, and so it was given to the child in truly live in the covenant. If the child dies, then we have to cling to that expectation, and from it may assume for our solace the child’s salvation.

With that said, it is of course also assumed that the child is regenerated before it gains salvation. Without regeneration, no one will see the kingdom of God, and that applies to young children as well as adults. But when the child is regenerated, no one can determine. Whether before baptism, or at baptism, or after baptism—who will say? It can be regenerated at its entrance into heaven, as subsequently the adult believer is completely sanctified as in a crisis. As far as we know, positive data are entirely lacking here.

This is the position of Dort given fuller form: baptism is a sign and seal of God’s covenant promise, that he will be a God to you and your children. For the child of Christians who dies in infancy, this is unshakeable promise to cling to: God fulfills what he promises. But since he has not in his word made similar promises to nonbelievers, to require belief in particular condition of election for the children of those nonbelievers asks too much. The EPC made the right call in allowing its ministers to hold a variety of convictions on this issue.