We confess that children who die, including those who die in the womb, go straight to heaven if their parents believe the gospel. Others hold different views, as I will show. But first, an apology related to this.
In July, I published an article about the ICRC[i] and said it did not have the right to exist because it expressed a unity of faith and sought to do mission and other things while the member churches held differing doctrinal views. I’m not apologising for that, because it’s true. However, amongst the examples I gave of different doctrines was the view of baptism held by the Heritage Reformed Congregations (HRC). I said:
“Then there are the Heritage Reformed Congregations (Nth America). According to their website, “the baptized children have many of the outward benefits of the children of God. Until they are regenerated by the Holy Spirit, however, they remain outside of the saving benefits of covenant of grace.”
No apology for that either, because it’s a factual quote. But I went on to say: “Sounds pretty much like the pernicious doctrine of presumptive regeneration from which we escaped in 1944, does it not?” This reference to presumptive regeneration, I’ve been informed by a pastor of the FRCNA[ii], is not correct. I accept his word for it and hereby apologise. After all, it is possible to claim on grounds other than ‘presumptive regeneration’ that children of believers may not go to heaven when they die young. And that appears to be the case in the HRC, as I shall show in a moment.
A criticism of our ‘optimistic covenant view’
In a subsequent email the FRCNA pastor added:
“In fact the FRC of Australia (and CanRC) would be closer to presumptive regeneration in their teaching with their optimistic covenant view while the Bible teaches a more realistic view of the covenant. In that sense, the FRCNA is closer to the HRC in its teaching than the CanRC or the FRC of Australia.”
Now this I find both a surprising and serious allegation and it deserves some attention. First, it’s surprising because we praise God for having freed us in 1944 from being compelled to teach and hold the pernicious doctrine of presumptive regeneration. We condemned it outright because according to this doctrine one ‘presumes’ the child carries a seed of regeneration which will lead to salvation. Consequently, if the child dies young one presumes (but can’t be sure) it is saved.
Second, it’s serious because of the claim that the “optimistic covenant view” we and our Canadian sister churches hold is not completely Scriptural because, says the FRCNA pastor, “the Bible teaches a more realistic view of the covenant”. Apart from the fact that this reinforces what I said about the lack of unity in the (doctrine of) faith within the ICRC, it is a strong criticism of what we teach. In effect we stand accused of being unfaithful to God’s Word in this matter. Have we then got it wrong and have the HRC got it right?
What the HRC teach
Let’s look again at what the HRC teach. According to one website, baptised children “remain outside the saving benefits of the covenant of grace” until such time as “they are regenerated by the Holy Spirit”.[iii] This is confirmed by an HRC website which, beneath the heading ‘Our Beliefs’, states:
“We believe that although infant baptism places us under the privileges of an external (non-saving) covenant relationship with God, we need the personal regenerating work of the Holy Spirit to bring us into the covenant of grace in an internal (saving) covenant relationship with God” (http://hnrc.org/our-beliefs).
So, according to the HRC, children who have not yet received the “personal regenerating work of the Holy Spirit” are not yet receiving the “internal (saving)” benefits of the “covenant of grace”. On that basis one cannot say with confidence that the children of believers who die young are in heaven, just as the proponents of the theory of presumptive regeneration could not be sure. The HRC seeks to support its position (on the website) with a reference to Romans 2:28-29 and John 3:3, but these texts apply to adults.
Thus the HRC do baptise their infants into the covenant but split the covenant relationship with God into an outward and inward relationship. Outwardly the children have a covenant relationship with God but inwardly they don’t until they are regenerated by the Holy Spirit. Meanwhile they remain outside the salvation signified by the covenant of grace.
Not much comfort in this for believing parents grieving the death of their child. More importantly, where is the Scriptural justification for such a dualistic view of the covenant? To be sure, there are hypocrites in the church, and Paul says: “they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel” (Rom. 9:6). But this doesn’t alter the fact that God has established His covenant with believers and their children. As members of Christ and His church, these parents and their children are sanctified in Christ and form the bride of Christ which He has purchased with His precious blood.
Is the covenant with the elect, or is it with believers and their children?
What seems to lie at the heart of this issue is the question of what we understand by the covenant. Is the covenant of grace and full salvation with believers and their children, OR is it with the elect? If it is with the elect, we cannot say with any certainty that the children of believers who die in infancy are with the Lord.
Those who believe the covenant is only with the elect would say that Esau was not both in and of the covenant. Referring to the text “they are not all Israel who are of Israel” they speak of the possibility that people are outwardly in the covenant but not inwardly. In this way they identify election with the covenant. This seems to be the direction the HRC take when they speak of children through baptism receiving “the privileges of an external (non-saving) covenant relationship with God” but needing to be regenerated through the Holy Spirit before they can be “in an internal (saving) covenant relationship with God”.
When God said, “I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you” (Gen. 17:7), did He indicate that the children were only outwardly in the covenant? Was not Esau, as he grew up with Jacob, a full member of the covenant? The promises of fellowship with God and all the benefits of salvation associated with it were given to him as well as to Jacob, and both received the sign and seal of those promises through circumcision. However, Esau later rejected his birthright, broke the covenant and turned away from the Lord.
We simply cling to what God says to us in His Word without somehow trying to reason this out with election. When God establishes His covenant with believers and their children, those children are not just outwardly (in a non-saving way) in the covenant. They are also inwardly (in a saving way) in the covenant. If they were to die in infancy they would be with the Lord, and hence elected. That’s why David could say of his dead child born to Bathsheba, “I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me”. This is what we confess in Canons of Dort 1:17, “God-fearing parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom God calls out of this life in their infancy”. If this is too optimistic for some, we say it is an optimism based on the reality of Scripture.
Now the HRC (and FRCNA) are not the only ones who hold a different view than we do about the salvation of children in the covenant. To mention some extremes: Roman Catholics, for example, teach that a child must be baptised in order to be saved. Therefore they administer ‘emergency baptisms’ and have made the involvement of the clergy indispensable for salvation.
At the other extreme are the Anabaptists who say a baptism is only genuine if it is administered to a holy person in a holy church and by a holy servant. If any of these three conditions wasn’t met the person would need to be rebaptised. Their focus is not on the promises of God sealed in baptism but on the believer’s testimony of what God had done to his soul.[iv] Hence they, like the Baptists today, reject infant baptism.
Then there are those who seem to lean in the direction that all infants who die are given a special grace whereby they are received into heaven. R C Sproul, for example, says, “we believe that those children who die in infancy are numbered among the redeemed. That is to say, we hope and have a certain level of confidence that God will be particularly gracious towards those who have never had the opportunity to hear the gospel, such as infants or children who are too disabled to hear and understand”.[v]
Popular author John MacArthur asserts that every child, whether from believing parents or not, are saved when they die young. Asked by the media, “What about a two-year-old baby crushed at the bottom of the World Trade Centre” he immediately responded: “Instant heaven.” On what basis? On the basis that they’re not guilty of having done any wrong. He writes: “the children of idolatrous parents are also considered ‘innocent’ in God’s eyes until they reach a state of moral culpability” and further “all children who die live in the presence of the Lord for all eternity. They are blessed forever in their death”.[vi]
This reminds us of the Remonstrants, Arminians who opposed ‘our’ reformed position at the Synod of Dort 1618. They said that all children, whether of believers or unbelievers, go to heaven. This was based on their view that children were not born in sin and that the original sin of Adam was not imputed to them. “Since children, whether of believers or unbelievers, cannot rightly be said to commit actual sins in their infancy they are not condemned.” [vii]
We believe that God established His covenant with believers and their children, and that the children of unbelievers are excluded from this covenant of grace. We believe this based on God’s promises revealed in His Word. We do not try to reason it out on the basis of election. As Moses warned: “The secret things belong to the LORD our God; but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever…” (Deut. 29:29).
In accordance with His promises we baptise our children into the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Our ‘Form for Baptism of Infants’ puts it nicely when we confess there that the Father establishes an eternal covenant with us and promises to adopt us and our children as His children and to give us all we need. And our Saviour promises that He washes us from our sins and unites us with Him in His death and resurrection. (Note the present tense: He does it now – for us and our children. The children of believers who die have been washed from their sins and united with Him in His resurrection!). The Holy Spirit assures us that He will dwell in us; He makes us Christ’s members and imparts to us all those wonderful blessings – cleansing, renewal, eternal life – we have in Christ (again, present tense – we and our children have it now!). Those marvellous words are spoken at the baptism of infants. All these priceless gifts are not promises for later when the covenant children, including the unborn, come to faith; they apply to them now as much as to their believing parents.
[ii] Free Reformed Churches of North America (no relation to the Free Reformed Churches of Australia despite the similar name).
[iv] J van Bruggen, The Church Says Amen, Inheritance, Neerlandia, 1964, 2003, p. 196.
[v] R C Sproul, Now That’s a Good Question! Tyndale House Publishers, Carol Stream, 1996, p. 232.
[vi] John F MacArthur, Safe in the Arms of God: Truth from Heaven About the Death of a Child, Thomas Nelson, Nashville, 2003 pp. 38/9 and p. 61.
[vii] See Arthur van Delden, Lest any man should boast, Pro Ecclesia Publishers, 2004, p. 91.