Volume 13, Issue 2: Stauron
The Cross and the Cradle
. . . for of such is the kingdom of God.
How does christís work of salvation on the cross apply to infants and young children? Does it apply at all? Our opening verse assures us that it does indeed.
Luke 18:15 tells us that parents brought their infants to Jesus. But His disciples were forbidding the crowd to think that Jesus cared to welcome infants. Jesus promptly corrected that erroneous assumption and used the situation as a great lesson. He taught that seeing how the kingdom of God is "of such" would yield the correct view of adult salvation.
The first thing we understand is that Luke 18:15—16 does not make a declaration about infants in general. Rather, the subject is much more narrowly defined. The context is found in the parallel accounts of Matthew 19 and Mark 10. Those following Jesus are the Jewish residents of Judea. These were covenant infants. To assume for all infants would have the Scriptures contradicting themselves, as we will see.
The vast majority of contemporary Christians, both in and out of Reformed churches, fall into one of two ditches: either preferring to remain agnostic as to infants of unbelievers, or else going outside of Scripture to assume that all infants who perish in infancy are elect. While the latter error is more prevalent, both positions are contra scripturam. This is an area where our thinking needs to be biblically sharpened.
The Westminster Confession of Faith states that "Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated and saved by Christ." Seeing that some churches go beyond the Confession and hold to universal infant election of those who perish,1 we owe this crucial issue another visit. Murray encourages us to always subject our systematics to further analysis. "It would not be, however, in the interests of theological conservation or theological progress to think that the covenant theology is in all respects definitive and that there is not further need for correction, modification, and expansion. Theology must always be undergoing reformation."
The Scriptures are replete with distinctions between the elect and the damned. In Matthew 25:34, Christ describes the judgment. He says to those on His right hand "Come, inherit the kingdom." But in verse 41, He tells those on His left hand "Depart into everlasting fire." Ephesians 5:5 states: "For this you know, that no . . . unclean person . . . has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God."
1 Corinthians 7:14 highlights the fact that this distinction between elect and damned, heirs and unclean, exists even among the youngest children; and that this division is defined covenantally upon Godís work in the parent(s) (cf. Acts 2:39): "For . . . otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy." The Greek term for unclean, here and in Ephesians 5, is a strong one. It is the same adjective used over twenty times for the demons, or "unclean spirits" (e.g., Mk. 5:12—13 uses devils and unclean spirits interchangeably). The Greek vocabulary for the elect is equally clear-cut. The word for holy is also used for "holy angels" (Rev. 14:10); "holy apostles and prophets" (Rev. 18:20); the "holy man"John the Baptist (Mk. 6:20); the "holy child Jesus" (Acts 4:27); and the "Holy Ghost" (Mt.1:18). When stood alone, this word is translated over sixty times as saints, (e.g., Col. 1:12; 1 Thes. 3:13). From a study of the biblical usage, the terms in 1 Corinthians 7:14 clearly point to children who are saints—and just as importantly—to children who are not.
Any doctrine of infant salvation must start with the fact that infants are lost members of a lost race for whom there is no salvation apart from Christ.2 To do otherwise accepts a Pelagian view that denies original sin, and supposes infant innocence and sinlessness. But Scripture instructs: "Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me" (Ps. 51:5). "In Adam all die" (1 Cor. 15:22). All are "by nature, the children of wrath" (Eph.2:3).
How we treat this issue reveals whether we truly understand the gospel of Christ. One writer inadvertently points to the flaw in much of the reasoning on this issue. He correctly cites the need to believe with the heart "unto righteousness" (Rom. 10:10). But then he states that "all . . . admit that infants . . . [are] incapable of exercising personal faith."3 Yet, when verses such as Mark 9:42, Psalm 22:9, Luke 1:44 and Ephesians 2:8—9 show that this incapability is true enough on a human level (at any age), but that the occurrence of infant faith is nonetheless affirmed in Scripture, then we need to think again. As the Confession states, we are all "altogether passive" until quickened by the Holy Spirit. Adults have nothing at all over infants in the cradle or toddlers on the playground. We are all "dead menís bones." None are capable of faith in and of themselves. We understand this utter helplessness in infants. Yet we apply a different yardstick to adults. But Christ brings us up short (Lk. 18:17). Faith is not our cognitive work (Eph. 2:8—9).
Scripture points to a division between elect and damned, even in children. We must be careful to declare what the Scriptures teach about faith and the new birth. Jesus said that we understand this by looking at our infants.