Original Sin & the Death of Infants

It seems that people were surprised to learn, in an article I wrote last week, that I presume my children to be unsaved. The article, What’s Dead Looks Dead, expressed my belief that my children (ages 6, 3, and 3 months) are, at this time, likely unsaved and are thus spiritually dead. The subsequent discussion was very interesting and the commenters ranged from Reformed Baptists to Roman Catholics and just about everyone between. I was honestly very surprised at the reaction, for I had not thought that what I wrote was so controversial.

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The comments turned quite quickly to a discussion of what happens to children who die in infancy. I’d like to discuss that issue along with my previous posts over the next couple of days.

There was a time that the issue of what happens to children who die in infancy was near and dear to the hearts of almost every family. It is only in recent days and in industrialized nations that the infant mortality rate has plunged. Only a few short decades ago almost every family knew the pain of losing children. I am grateful that I live in an age when this issue is, in many ways, abstract. Then again, we live in an age where countless millions of children are aborted each year. God has blessed us with the knowledge, understanding and technology to drastically reduce the number of children who die in infancy. Yet this same knowledge, understanding and technology has been used to terminate untold millions of lives. So perhaps this is an issue that is as relevant to our day as to any day.

When we examine the issue of what happens to children when they die, we will find four predominant views among believers. The first is that all children who die in infancy are saved. If one view holds an edge on the others in terms of the quantity (and perhaps even quality) of adherents, this would likely be the one. While all admit the Bible is not explicit in stating that every child who dies in infancy is saved, they believe it can be deduced from a study of relevant passages in Scripture. The second is that the children of believers are saved. This view, held by a minority of Christians, is dependent upon a belief in covenant theology, something that would put it at odds with many believers. This view indicates, then, that while the children of believers are saved, the children of most, if not all unbelievers, are reprobate. The fourth view is that we can have no assurance. This view simply states that there is not sufficient evidence in Scripture to make a firm determination. Eventually we must simply admit that this is an area in which Scripture is silent and leave it to God to work out. The final view is that unbaptized infants are not saved while baptized infants may be. This is the view of the Roman Catholic church and Protestant denominations which teach some form of baptismal regeneration. Because this view clashes with the beliefs of the vast majority of Protestants I will not address it at this time, for it would require in-depth understanding of the Catholic doctrines regarding baptism, something that is outside the scope of our discussion.

I’d like to briefly examine each of the first three teachings.

All Children Who Die In Infancy Are Saved

As mentioned earlier, this seems to be the predominant view in Christian circles, both mainstream and Reformed. Among the many notables who have held to this view are R.C. Sproul, John MacArthur, John Piper, B.B. Warfield and Charles Spurgeon.

This view teaches that God, out of His grace chooses to save all who die in infancy. While adherents affirm the seriousness of original sin and acknowledge that all infants have inherited a sin nature from Adam, they also teach that God chooses to extend special grace to these infants. Sproul says “infants who die are given a special dispensation of the grace of God; it is not by their innocence but by God’s grace that they are received into heaven.” (Now That’s A Good Question, page 295). Sinful nature, then, is not sufficient reason for God to condemn the child, for where salvation is by grace, damnation is by works. Those who have not had opportunity to do works which explicitly and willfully reject God are not condemned to hell.

John MacArthur, in his book Safe In The Arms of God points out that the Bible consistently refers to the inhabitants of hell as being those who willfully committed sins and rebellion. He believes God does not condemn infants because: they have no willful rebellion or unbelief; they have never suppressed the truth; they have no understanding of sin’s impact or consequences; they have no debased behavior; and they have no ability to choose salvation. MacArthur concludes “there is no place in Scripture in which a person suffers the judgment of damnation on the basis of anything other than sinful deeds, including the sinful deed of disbelief–a conscious, willful, intentional choice to disbelieve. Furthermore, God does not charge people with sins until sins are committed.” (page 89)

John Piper, after acknowledging the presence and importance of original sin, says “if a person lacks the natural capacity to see the revelation of God’s will or God’s glory then that person’s sin would not remain–God would not bring the person into final judgment for not believing what he had no natural capacity to see.” In response to Romans 1 which speaks of God’s revelation through nature as leaving those who have never heard the gospel without excuse Piper says “if a person did not have access to the revelation of God’s glory–did not have the natural capacity to see it and understand it, then Paul implies they would have an excuse at the judgment.” He concludes: “The point for us is that even though we human beings are under the penalty of everlasting judgment and death because of the fall of our race into sin and the sinful nature that we all have, nevertheless God only executes this judgment on those who have the natural capacity to see his glory and understand his will, and refuse to embrace it as their treasure. Infants, I believe, do not yet have that capacity; and therefore, in God’s inscrutable way, he brings them under the forgiving blood of his Son.”

Having thoroughly studied this view, I believe that it fails to satisfactorily reconcile itself with the doctrine of original sin. So allow me a moment here to discuss original sin. Some theologians, Wayne Grudem and John Frame among them, believe that this term is misleading and prefer to speak of inherited sin. They are probably correct in their belief that this is superior. Still, for sake of ease, I will stick with the more common terminology. Paul teaches in Romans 5 that somehow, when Adam sinned, we all sinned. He begins this argument in verse 12 where he writes, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned…” He continues in verse 19 saying, “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” He teaches in verse 16 that all men have been held accountable for Adam’s sin: “For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation.” He repeats this point just two verses later saying, “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men…”

Original sin, according to Desiring God, is “the sinful tendencies, desires, and dispositions in our hearts with which we are all born.” It is the only explanation in all the world for the sin problem that plagues all of humanity. It is the only explanation for our sinful natures. It is something inherent in all of us and immediately manifests itself in all manner of sin and depravity. This doctrine tells us that we do not become sinners when we sin, but that we sin because we are sinners.

Romans tells us in clear terms that were are born sinful and that Adam’s sin is held against all humanity. What it does not tell us is how this happens. But we know that somehow Adam’s sin is imputed to us. It is held against us as if we sinned in Adam’s place. There are several understandings of how Adam’s sin is imputed to us, but the best seems to be the representative view which teaches that God appointed Adam as representative for the human race. In his position as representative, Adam made a decision and took an action that affected all those whom he represented. This is similar to how the President of a nation, as representative of the people, can declare war on another nation, thus bringing every citizen of one nation into a state of war with every citizen of another nation. So not only have we inherited a sinful nature from Adam, but “we are also regarded as having sinned in Adam such that we are guilty of his act as well (imputed sin). Imputed sin is the ruin of our standing before God and is thus not an internal quality but an objective reckoning of guilt, whereas original sin is the ruin of our character and thus is a reference to internal qualities. Both original sin and imputed sin place us under the judgment of God” (Desiring God).

Original sin and the imputation of Adam’s sin are problems that plague even the youngest of human beings. Because they are inherent to all people, children are as fully and justly condemned as adults. The Bible makes no exceptions. The teaching of Scripture is clear: even if I never committed a sin throughout my entire life, I would still be justly condemned to hell because of the original sin of Adam. This sin is imputed to me because Adam, as representative of the human race, sinned on my behalf. We see the pervasiveness of this sin by the fact that Jesus had to be born of God rather than man, for that is the only way He could be born freed from the burden of original sin. As such He was pure, not just in His actions but also in His very nature. Adam’s sin was not imputed to Christ. If we are to believe that Christ stands as our representative in the act of redemption, we must also believe that Adam stands as our representative in the act of becoming a fallen people. We cannot have one without the other. Even children are born with a nature opposed to God.

When Sproul indicates that children “have not had opportunity to do works which explicitly and willfully reject God” he does not seem to account for the imputation of Adam’s sin to our account. When MacArthur says that the unregenerate are damned because of “a conscious, willful, intentional choice to disbelieve,” he also does not seem to reconcile the fact that Adam made a conscious, willful, intentional choice on our behalf and that this is imputed to us. And thus Adam’s sin is held against us. And so these men can make an argument that answers sin, at least to some extent, but not, as I understand it, a sinful nature.