Thoughts on children, death, and eternity (I)...

(Tim) Recently, I've done some reading on the teaching of Scripture concerning children who die early in life, whether in the womb, at birth, or before the age at which they are able properly to discern the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ--to examine themselves as they come to His Table.

First, we have to admire the single-mindedness of the Roman Catholics. Although the doctrine of limbo is widely reported to be on life support at the Vatican right now (and I'm sure abortion has played a key role in bringing it into question), we can see they acted on principle in their manufacture of this dogma. (And yes, despite their efforts to deny it, this doctrine has been dogma until now.)

From conception, children are corrupted by Adam's sin; therefore children, too, need to be saved from that corruption if they are to enter Heaven; baptism washes off the corruption of original sin, saving a man; children who die in the womb are not baptized; therefore, children who die in the womb are not saved. Thus such statements as these...

by Ecumenicall Councils:

The Council of Florence: [The council opposed the practice of postponing the baptism of newborns for one to three months, stating:] ...the danger of death, which can often happen, for there is no other remedy available to these [infants] except the sacrament of baptism, which delivers them from the powers of the demon and makes them adopted sons of God. ...But the souls of those who depart this life in actual mortal sin, or in original sin alone, go down straightaway to hell to be punished, but with unequal pains.

The Second Council of Lyons: The souls of those who die in mortal sin or with original sin only, however, immediately descend to hell, to be punished however with disparate punishments.

"Disparate punishments; hence, limbo. It's the place the Roman Catholics invented for these infants to reside outside Heaven (the beatific vision), and yet not very deep in Hell.

If we recognize the guiding principle of Rome--that doctrine needed by the church for her own well-being may be created regardless of any support that doctrine may have in the Word of God--this particular doctrine of limbo is deeply compassionate. It calms the hearts of fathers and mothers in agony as they face the birth of a stillborn child.

While the best news for parents in grief would be to hear their stillborn child is in the presence of the Lord where there is fullness of joy forevermore, Rome finds itself in an awkward position in this regard. It can't sell off the goose that lay the golden egg. If unborn children are saved without baptism, then newborns and teenagers and adults and the elderly are saved without baptism, also, and the money stops flowing into the coffers.

The older I get, the more it's apparent that the love of money is the root of all evils (1Timothy 6:10). And the evil of sub-prime mortgages and gambling is child's play compared to the evil of shepherds selling indulgences, purpose driven lives, and efficacious baptisms and masses, rather than proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ--both repentance and faith.

When fathers and mothers choose a church with the explicit statement that they want one where the Sacraments "do something," it's clear they've turned their back on the word and the testimony, and are digging for themselves and their children cisterns which cannot hold water.

There is hope for mothers and fathers who grieve, but it's not to be found in efficacious sacraments sold by churches looking to their bottom line. And limbo?

It's no comfort at all, even if we are awed at the past rigor of Roman Catholics in refusing to allow unbaptized children into Heaven and creating limbo as the anteroom of Hell.

Sacramentalism is no hope at all for our children. Rather, God's people have hope for their stillborn and young children preceding them in death based on David's testimony concerning his own newborn covenant child who had just died at the hand of God:

But now he has died; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me. (2 Samuel 12:23)

"I will go to him." We will go to them. This is our faith--our Biblical faith.

Comments

>When fathers and mothers choose a church with the explicit statement that they want one where the Sacraments "do something," it's clear they've turned their back on the word and the testimony, and are digging for themselves and their children cisterns which cannot hold water.

I agree with everything else you wrote but given that the WCF does indicate that God uses sacraments to "do something" is that a fair statement? Might it not be more accurate to say that when parents desire a church where the sacraments "do something" apart from faith and the work of the Holy Spirit they are in deep trouble?

>Rather, God's people have hope for their stillborn and young children preceding them in death based on David's testimony concerning his own newborn covenant child who had just died at the hand of God:

> But now he has died; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me. (2 Samuel 12:23)

>"I will go to him." We will go to them. This is our faith--our Biblical faith.

BTW, this is truly excellent!

>>Might it not be more accurate to say that when parents desire a church where the sacraments "do something" apart from faith and the work of the Holy Spirit they are in deep trouble?

Yes, you're right.

Love,

I trust God.

This is above my paygrade.

>This is above my paygrade.

I'm not used to you quoting Obama... :)

Agreed, this is one area where we have enough Biblical evidence to say that children who die are covered by God's grace, but we are not really told *how* that grace is extended to them. The non-Calvinist idea of some 'age of responsibility' does not explain everything, but then I am not sure that the Covenant family idea (and its close dispensational equivalent) really explains everything either. As much as we like neat doctrinal systems, there are some things that at the end of the day we can only commit to the mercy of God, and this is one of them.

Ross, well said; and if we can trust God for the eternal well being of our little ones, how easy it becomes to trust God in ever lesser thing.

Most Calvinists seem to be quite sure that the Lord's Supper will "do something" -- something *really bad* -- to those who partake unworthily (which we usually define in such a way to make everyone worried to death that they are doing so). We believe that more fervently than we believe God will use it to do something *really good* like maybe giving His people bellies full of grace and mercy and joy and peace. Rome doesn't have a corner on the neurotic superstition market.

My understanding is that to partake unworthily is to do so without reference to the objective value of Christ's atoning work.

Ross,

Some of us believe that the Bible is utterly clear on how that grace is brought into the lives of these children, by faith, which faith is a gift of God. If we but give up this silly notion that little children are not capable of saving faith (which is true enough, none of us are capable of saving faith- it requires a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit), then suddenly, as we might expect, these little ones are in the same boat as the rest of us. Those whom He blesses with faith are covered by the blood of Christ and enter into His reward. Seems what some believe in is two ways into heaven, justification by faith and justification by dieing young.

>Seems what some believe in is two ways into heaven, justification by faith and justification by dieing young.

You confuse faith with the ability to articulate acceptance of intellectual propositions. That is a common error.

Sorry, I'm not making that confusion, others are. If they believe that these small children get in some other way than faith, then they must believe faith isn't possible for the littles. I'm suggesting, as I suspect you are, that possession of faith and profession of faith are not one and the same, that the former saves, and may be present with or without the latter

Dear Friends,

My dear brother, Josh Congrove, sent me the following privately. He's a member of Church of the Good Shepherd and I thought his comments would be helpful to us all.

Please understand if, while on vacation, my posts and responses are more limited.

Love,

Tim Bayly

* * *

Josh Congrove writes:

I just read your most recent blog post, and, though I agree with much of the substance of it and found it profitable, I have two qualms for your consideration:

1.  I get the impression from the post that you're attributing the creation of the doctrine of limbo to a Roman Catholic 'guiding principle' such that the RCC may create extrabiblical doctrine it finds necessary for the well-being of the church.  Am I correct in assuming this?  If so, I'm not equally convinced that 'limbo' falls into this category.

As far as I know, the rudiments of 'limbo' come from Augustine, who did indeed hold that unbaptized children could not enter heaven, and that therefore their future was in hell, though in the mildest punishment possible.  I disagree with him on this point, but I don't think we can fairly charge him with ulterior motives for the doctrine that came from this.  So, while I think it's valid to attribute Rome's maintaining of 'limbo' to her desire to not "give away the goose," I don't think it's charitable to attribute the creation of the doctrine to the same motivation—-particularly in the case of Augustine, who was scrupulously upright in matters of money.

Beyond this, it must also be said that Augustine hated the doctrine that he nevertheless considered to be a necessary corollary of original sin.

Perhaps you intended to let the RCC off the hook in their development of this doctrine, but that wasn't the impression I got.

2.  While I am inclined toward your position on children dying in infancy, I'm reluctant to express any certainty about it.  In particular, I think the 2 Samuel passage can't bear the theological weight that we're inclined to put on it in this question, and I think a reasonable argument can be made that for David to go to his son means only that he will go to him in death likewise someday.

Now, I also have read other good arguments made by Mohler and others that reason from the general character of God as well as from elsewhere in Scripture; nevertheless, excepting the case of 2 Samuel, all these others are quite indirect in nature.  I just don't think Scripture really addresses this particular question, and I think it's notable that the Westminster Confession left out any statement about the destiny of non-elect infants.

Perhaps you can direct me to some more helpful resources on this entire issue, but so far, the best conclusion I've been able to come to (from Sproul, incidentally) is that I have a certain expectation and confidence that God, who is just and kind, will not allow infants to suffer for the burden of Adam's sin, but will regenerate them by his mercy.  I hope and cautiously believe this is true, but I can't be at all dogmatic about it.

Finally, my misgiving here is that if Rome is wrong to maintain an extra-Scriptural doctrine for its own gain, Protestants also need to be careful not to invent an extra-Scriptural doctrine to serve as a comfort for us when our children die, even if this is a more laudable goal than the former.  In any case, I can't attribute bad motives to Augustine in assigning children to limbo anymore than I can to Protestants who absolutely assign them all to heaven.

Again, I do agree with much of the post, particularly your comments about sacramentalism. And perhaps I've misread you on some of these things, so if so, please excuse this.

>I'm suggesting, as I suspect you are, that possession of faith and profession of faith are not one and the same, that the former saves, and may be present with or without the latter

Apologies, I misread you. That is precisely what I'm saying...

>I think it's notable that the Westminster Confession left out any statement about the destiny of non-elect infants

Is anyone anywhere in this discussion asserting that non-elect infants are saved?

Our hope for those who die in infancy is rooted in God's sovereign grace; the same hope that we as adults entertain for ourselves. While the logic of the covenant encourages this hope for our own children, I must agree that the exegetical evidence is indeed scant.

Dear Friends,

Here's another comment from a dear brother who, with his wife, just recently lost their six-month-old stillborn daughter.

Tim Bayly

* * *

He writes:

I read your blog entry today about limbo being an unconsoling compromise for parents grieving the loss of their stillborn babies. Thank you! It’s a GREAT mercy that we have David’s statement recorded in Holy Writ to put the matter beyond doubt, because even with our best thinking caps on, none of us could reason this one out. This is where we see that Catholicism is indebted to the hubristic Scholastic view of reason rather than to humble faith in the plain teaching of the Word. What’s amazing here is that the same man who said this about his baby also wrote Psalm 51’s “in sin did my mother conceive me,” so no one can say he was being sentimental about the innocence of children. The only explanation is that somehow he knew that his baby’s original sin was covered by the same righteousness “extra nos” that covered him. How can we not be baffled by this and praise God for the inexplicable wideness of His mercy! Without that one verse, I don’t think we could come away with any certain consolation. But there it is, and we camp out on it and clamp a tight lid on fruitless casuistry about efficacious washings, vicarious faith, and ages of accountability. As you put it at the end, “how” we’re not told; what we know for certain is “I will go to him.”

Even Dante doesn’t paint Limbo as a place of consolation. It’s a grim twilight place, kind of like Lewis imagines the drab, joyless precincts of hell in The Great Divorce. Here are some stanzas from Canto IV of Inferno:

And he [Virgil]: “The pain of these below us here,

Drains the color from my face for pity,

And leaves this pallor you mistake for fear.”

No tortured wailing rose to greet us here

But sounds of sighing rose from every side,

Sending a tremor through the timeless air,

A grief breathed out of untormented sadness,

The passive state of those who dwelled apart,

Men, women, children—a dim and endless congress.

And the Master said to me: “You do not question

What souls these are that suffer here before you?

I wish you to know before you travel on

That these were sinless. And still their merits fail,

For they lacked Baptism’s grace, which is the door

Of the true faith you were born to. Their birth fell

Before the age of the Christian mysteries,

And so they did not worship God’s Trinity

In fullest duty. I am one of these.

For such defects are we lost, though spared the fire

And suffering Hell in one affliction only:

That without hope we live on in desire.”

Look at Dante come right out and say this about virtuous pagans and unbaptized babies alike:  “these were sinless.” Now compare David: “In sin did my mother conceive me.” But Dante’s ear is tuned more to Aristotle than to Scripture, so he writes his heresy boldly. And in the end, what kind of consolation does Dante show for souls in Limbo? “Without hope we live on in desire.” This sounds like Tantalus in gnawing hunger ever reaching for the fruit only to find it eternally beyond reach. Sounds like Mick Jagger singing, “I can’t get no satisfaction.” Sounds like hell to me, not consolation. Let’s hope Limbo is on life-support in the theological think-tanks of the Vatican, because there’s never been life in it. Even Dante, with his veneration (bordering on idolatry) of Virgil, can’t manage to place his Master in a comforting eternal home. This is telling; apparently, even the imagination rebels at this bizarre and thoroughly unbiblical No-place.

Good post, and good comments, on a mysterious subject. I thought of Dante's First Circle too (the circle of Hell for the virtuous pagans). I bet "That these were sinless. And still their merits fail" is just acceptably loose language referring to lack of outward sin, since Dante surely believed in Original Sin, and probably in sinful intent--- which even a fetus can engage in (in fact, it would be hard for a fetus to be anything but extremely selfish).

Augustine's motive for limbo wouldn't have been the well-being of the church. I expect he started on the wrong foot by holding the necessity of baptism for salvation, and then tried to find a way to patch up his theology by adding limbo so God would not seem as unjust. In theology, as in science, one wrong step leads to another. Whether a doctrine makes it from a theologian's speculation to official dogma, however, depends on practical pressures as well as intellectual coherence. That's why Augustine's limbo was more happily accepted than his predestination.

It's hard enough to know whether an adult is one of the elect or not, even if we were to know their entire outward life. Things look good for my daughter, pretty good for my mother, and less good for my father, but I am hopeful for all and pray for God's mercy for all, if especially for my father. As for infants, though, I don't see how we can know anything. They are people, like the rest of us, and so they sin and need God's grace. Presumably He elects some and not others, just as with the rest of us. We can be hopeful. We must trust in God's plan, and realize that unlike with adults, where we are part of His plan for bringing in the harvest, He does not rely on human help for saving the souls of the very youngest of us who die.

Dear Brothers,

You'll all be pleased to hear that the blog's owners get their comments pulled by the spam filter, too. But I didn't notice my comment hadn't been posted until now--quite while and a number of comments after I wrote it. So, if you read this comment, please note that I wrote and posted it sometime between the 11:08 and the 11:42 comments.

* * *

>>I'm suggesting, as I suspect you are, that possession of faith and profession of faith are not one and the same, that the former saves, and may be present with or without the latter...

We have to be careful here, don't we? We're just around the corner from "How unnecessary are the feet of those who bring good news." If children in the womb and young enough to lack understanding can have faith without hearing, and hearing without the Word of God, so can unreached men. Pretty soon, John Stott's (respectable and evangelical, don't you know?) universalism isn't too far off.

And by the way, that's pretty much where it appears the Vatican is taking its stand as it moves away from limbo. In one sense, I'm pleased to see them showing any smallest crack in their steel wall of sacramentalism. But what is the cost and why are they doing it?

Maybe the cost will be the doctrine of Original Sin and the reason is a combination of abortion and sentimentality. So far, we have over a billion unborn children slaughtered. Protestants may not be thinking about it, but Roman Catholics certainly are: what is the eternal destiny of these little ones, they are asking. And being sensitized to the subject by abortion, what of all the little ones miscarried through the ages? Do we realize it's likely that they comprise the majority of men made in the Image of God? Then, we move on to Original Sin...

* * *

Dear Josh, As I wrote, I had a tickle in the back of my mind urging me to tone down what I said about the Roman Catholic church precisely for the reason you said in your comment: that I should not paint so broadly as to smear godly Augustine with my brush. Maybe I should have listened to that tickle?

But let's keep in mind that Augustine, Calvin, and R. C. Sr. are a whole world removed from Scripture, and the sweet scent of money is never far from any of our noses--certainly not mine.

On this specific point, I do respect Augustine's consistency and don't think he was working to set up what Kierkegaard refers to as "the livings." Rather, he was stuck in that rut that seems to have rushed in to the post-Apostolic church, sacramentalism (or in this particular case, baptismal regeneration).

I feel about this concerning Augustine the way I feel about infant baptism concerning John Piper: it is God's kindness that we have such glaring errors on their part, pointing us back to the law and the testimony (Scripture) for our only sure foundation. (By the way, dear readers, Josh also is a credobaptist so I'm tweaking him here, but with no malice; I hold him in high respect and real affection.)

Finally, I differ with you on the matter of David's statement of faith. But more on that later.

Love,

>We have to be careful here, don't we? We're just around the corner from "How unnecessary are the feet of those who bring good news." If children in the womb and young enough to lack understanding can have faith without hearing, and hearing without the Word of God, so can unreached men.

But isn't it helpful to distinguish here between what is normative and what is not? Paul makes it clear, at least to me, that the normative way that man is saved is through the hearing/preaching of the Word. When I understand that to be normative I don't find it problematic that God can choose to deal with infants or people with severe cognitive disfunction in exceptional ways.

It is interesting on this question that Luther's position is generally in line with the Reformed while he differs from the Book of Concord. On the Wittenberg Trail website you can see discussions of parents baptizing dying infants in the delivery room lest they be damned. Some Lutheran pastors sided with Luther in the discussion but it was a minority.

I'm with David, and would point out that all sides have this peculiar problem. That is, if children are welcomed into the kingdom without saving faith, we are still just around the corner from "How unnecessary.." That I should posit that they can, and in the case of covenant children likely do, have faith without hearing (though here too we are assuming something we don't know. We don't know what babies hear in the womb. My children are in the presence of gospel preaching, teaching and singing from conception) at least has the benefit of still seeing saving faith as necessary in all circumstances. My fear is the "Because God is just and merciful all babies go to heaven without saving faith" is that it is just around the corner from the Father answering Jesus' prayer, "Is there any way that this cup could pass..." with, "Well, I could kill them all before they reach an age of accountability."

Cornel Venema addresses this issue very well:

http://tinyurl.com/nmfkw5

Dr. Venema concludes: "As members of the fallen race in Adam, the children of believers whom God calls out of this life in infancy are saved solely by virtue of God's gracious favor. Far from intimating any doubt respecting the assurance of their election, this article declares an assurance securely founded upon the biblical and Reformed teaching regarding election."

Dr. Venema makes no direct reference to scripture in the referenced link but he does indirectly cite I Corinthians 7:14 twice.

This text is a bad proof for defending the certain election of the children of believers even if one were willing to allow that the text says more than that the believing parent/spouse is not defiled by association with their unbelieving spouse or child (Calvin's first and correct interpretation of the text).

Any proposal of this sort demands that either the election of the children of believers is certain whether they survive childhood or not or that we adhere to some sort of reformed "age of accountability" after which the children of believers are no longer protected by their covenantal election.

I think that's a rather facile reading of Venema's paper, Max. I try to get back to you shortly on this.

I would encourage all interested in this subject to read Warfield's "The Development of the Doctrine of Infant Salvation"

http://www.lgmarshall.org/Warfield/warfield_infantsalvation.html

Some excerpts: "In the case of infants dying in infancy, birth within the bounds of the covenant is a sure sign, since the promise is "unto us and our children... It is the confessional doctrine of the Reformed churches and of the Reformed churches alone, that all believers' infants, dying in infancy, are saved... In the course of time the agnostic view of the fate of uncovenanted infants, dying such, has given place to an ever growing universality of conviction that these infants too are included in the election of grace; so that to-day few Calvinists can be found who do not hold... that all who die in infancy are the children of God and enter at once into His glory."

>>"...all who die in infancy are the children of God and enter at once into His glory."

Dear Jack,

For some time, I've thought Warfield's view of the number of the elect, and particularly his dogmatic assertion that "all who die in infancy are the children of God and enter at once into His glory," to be unsupported by Scripture. Yes, he's one of my heroes. It's often true that the more rational and unflinching among us yield to amazing corners of sentimentality.

Love,

I hope you'll take time to read the article, Tim. I sure appreciate this blog, brother.

One reason why the question of infant salvation is important is that it helps each of us know whether he really believes in salvation by faith rather than by works. It's no more unfair for a nice child to be damned than for a virtuous heathen. And if cuteness or virtue saves, then the kindest thing we can do for the child or heathen is to murder them. In fact, whenever we are pretty sure that a person's good works balance has shifted to positive, we should kill them immediately, lest they do something bad and go negative.

To follow up on Josh's point on Augustine being the origin of the Limbo as the destination for unbaptized infants, The 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia has a good summary of the views on Limbo from various Catholic theologians from the Early Church Fathers through, well, 1911:

http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09256a.htm

Augustine's views on Limbo were developed as part of his battle against Pelagianism:

"[T]his Augustinian teaching was an innovation in its day, and the history of subsequent Catholic speculation on this subject is taken up chiefly with the reaction which has ended in a return to the pre-Augustinian tradition."

John

Call me crazy, but I've always thought that Luke 1 gives evidence to a baby acknowledging his Savior even before he was born. What do you all think?

Dear Marta,

Yes, both John the Baptist and Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:5) demonstrate the work of the Holy Spirit in the womb. So no one's calling you crazy.

Love,

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