Dr. William Hendriksen, writing in the Torch and Trumpet of February, 1959, in his series of Outlines on the Doctrine of the Last Things, raises the above question and devotes an entire outline to it. Though, as we remarked before concerning his writings we are generally pleased; we feel that on this subject he should have been a bit more explicit.
He had a splendid opportunity to instruct his readers, many of whom he knows and we know embrace the error that all children of believers who die in infancy are saved, but he did not take advantage of it. And really I’m not so sure but that he himself embraces this error. The reason for this last statement is due to the fact that his article is not clear as to his actual position. One wonders what Dr. Hendriksen would say on the subject if he were to preach the funeral sermon of an infant in his church. I am inclined to believe he would not speak differently than many others of his colleagues who have no scruples in putting each child of believing parents in heaven. But let Dr. Hendriksen speak for himself. Here is what he writes:
1. THE IMPORTANCE OF THIS SUBJECT
Until recently a very high percentage of human beings never attained to maturity. In fact, ever so many died in infancy: Of late, this tragic situation has taken a turn for the better. Concerted efforts are being put forth to counteract the high rate of infant-mortality and to improve the health of the nations. Think of what is being done by the World Health Organization (W.H.O.), an agency of the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations, and by other agencies all over the world. Even so the goal is not yet in sight.
The question naturally arises, Where are the souls of all those who constitute a surprisingly large proportion of the sum-total of all those who at one time or another lived on this earth, be it only for a few years, months, weeks, days, hours, or even minutes or seconds? Must we believe that by far the most of them are in some sense experiencing the agonies of everlasting perdition?
2. WRONG APPROACHES
First, there is what may be called the prevailing view in the Roman Catholic Church. It amounts to this: all unbaptized children are lost. When they die they enter the Limbus Infantum (or Infantium), a place on the outskirts of hell. Their suffering here is negative rather than positive. They suffer the lack of “beatific vision.”
Now this approach, while containing indeed an element of truth (inasmuch as it rightly recognizes the fact that responsibility varies with opportunity), is wrong on two counts: a. Scripture nowhere ascribes such importance to the omission of the rite of baptism; b. it also nowhere teaches the existence o f a Limbus Infantum.
Over against this is the position of those who hold that all babies are “innocent.” According to this view, “original sin,” if it can be spoken of at all, is not punishable apart from actual transgression. Since little children are not capable of actual transgression but are innocent, all are saved if they die in infancy. This, or something akin to it, is the position of many evangelical Protestants today. We love these people as brothers in Christ, but we do not believe that Scripture endorses this reason for their position. Infants, too, are guilty in Adam. Moreover, they are not innocent (see Job 14:4; Psalm 51:5; Romans 5:12, 18, 19; I Corinthians 15:22; and Ephesians 2:3). If they are going to be saved at all, this salvation will have to be granted on the basis not of their innocence but of the application of Christ’s merits to them.
3. THE OFFICIAL POSITION OF THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH U.S.A.
The Westminster Confession does not give a clear answer to the question whether all those who die in infancy are saved. In fact, it leaves room rather for the opinion that some might not be elect and saved; See this for yourself. It states, “Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit, who worketh when and where and how he pleaseth” (Chapter X, Section III). In the year 1903 the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. has, however, “interpreted” this article so that today one knows exactly where this denomination stands with respect to that issue. It adopted the following Declaratory Statement:
“The Presbyterian Church in the United States of America does authoritatively declare as follows . . . With reference to Chapter X, Section III, of the Confession of Faith, that it is not 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.”
4. QUOTATIONS FROM THE WORKS OF REFORMED THEOLOGIANS
“All who die in infancy are saved. This is inferred from what the Bible teaches of the analogy between Adam and Christ (Romans 5:18, 19) . . . The Scriptures nowhere exclude any class of infants, baptized or unbaptized, born in Christian or in heathen lands, of believing or unbelieving parents, from the benefits of redemption in Christ” (Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. I, p. 26).
“Their destiny is determined irrespective of their choice, by an unconditional decree of God, suspended for its execution on no act of their own; and their salvation is wrought by an unconditional application of the grace of Christ to their souls, through the immediate and irresistible operation of the Holy Spirit prior to and apart from any action of their own proper wills . . . This is but to say that they are unconditionally predestinated to salvation from the foundation of the world” (B.B. Warfield, Two Studies in the History of Doctrine, p. 230).
“Most Calvinistic theologians have held that those who die in infancy are saved . . . Certainly there is nothing in the Calvinistic system which would prevent us from believing this; and until it is proven that God could not predestinate to eternal life all those whom he is pleased to call in infancy we may be permitted to hold this view” (L. Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, pp. 143, 144).
Nevertheless, not all Reformed theologians speak so positively. Some bring out more clearly the difference, as they see it, between infants of believers and all other infants. “The children of the covenant, baptized or unbaptized, when they die enter heaven; with respect to the destiny of the others so little has been revealed to us that the best thing we can do is to refrain from any positive judgment” (H. Bavinck, Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, third edition, Vol. IV, p. 711).
Similarly, L. Berkhof, while in full agreement with the Canons of Dordt regarding the salvation of children of godly parents whom it pleases God to call out of this life in their infancy, states with respect to the others, “There is no Scripture evidence on which we can base the hope that adult Gentiles, or even Gentile children that have not yet come, to years of discretion, will be saved” (Systematic Theology, pp. 638, 693).
5. SCRIPTURAL TEACHING
a. If those who die in infancy are saved, it is not on the basis of their innocence but on the basis of the sovereign grace of God in Christ applied to them (see under point 2 above).
b. The fact that the heart of God is: concerned not only with the children of believers but also with those of unbelievers, even with those “who cannot discern between their right hand and their left” is clearly taught in Jonah 4:11.
“For the love of God is broader
Than the measure of man’s mind
And the heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind.”
(F.W. Faber, 1854)
d. Infants have not sinned in any way similar to the adults who have rejected the preaching of the gospel and/or have sinned grossly against the voice of conscience.
e. Scripture nowhere explicitly teaches that some or all unbelievers’ children who died in infancy are saved. Though on the basis of b., c., and d. (above) a person may feel strongly inclined to accept the position that some or all of these are saved, he can never say that Scripture positively and in so many words declares this to be true.
f. God has given to believers and their seed the promise found in Genesis 17:7 and Acts 2:38, 39. Cf. also I Corinthians 7:14. Hence, the Canons of Dordt declare, “Since we are to judge of the will of God from his Word, which testifies that the children of believers are holy, not by nature, but by virtue of the covenant of grace, in which they together with their parents are comprehended, godly parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom it pleases God to call out of this life in their infancy” (I, article 17).
So far Dr. Hendriksen.
There are two points the writer makes clear and they are: that all children of believers and unbelievers are conceived and born in sin and their salvation is determined only by the sovereign grace of God in Christ; and the error of the Roman Catholics. No one of Reformed background will dispute with Dr. Hendriksen on this.
But notice what else he produces in the way of argument. We call attention first of all to c. Does he mean by this that on the basis of God’s tender mercies and love we may conclude the salvation of dead infants? Or, does he mean that on the basis of God’s mercies and love we may agree with the verse of poetry he quoted? We are inclined to believe the former. But if that is the case, does the writer imply that the universal display of God’s mercies and love saves all infants who die in their infancy? We do not know what he means.
Or again, notice d. Does Dr. Hendriksen mean by this that the rejection of the preaching of the gospel or sinning against the voice of conscience are the sole factors in determining the damnation of human beings? It would seem that he cannot mean that on the basis of what he wrote regarding original sin and guilt. Does he mean then that because infants cannot be as great sinners as adults because they cannot reject the gospel and sin against conscience, and therefore are in a better position to be saved? Again, we do not know what he means.
Regarding above, though Hendriksen feels he can say nothing positive on the basis of Scripture he nevertheless leaves the impression that he is inclined to believe that some or all infants of unbelievers who die in infancy are saved. But again, he is not clear.
As to f. above, though the writer makes no definite assertion of his conviction he nevertheless leaves the impression that on the basis of the Scriptures quoted and the statement of the Canons of Dordt, he believes that all children of believers who die in infancy are saved. Here Dr. Hendriksen would have done his readers a service if he had given a brief explanation especially of Article 17 of Canons I. Regarding this article the question arises: Did our fathers make an objective statement of fact here regarding the salvation of children of believers who die in infancy? Or, Were they merely subjective, making no positive statement at all regarding salvation of infants, but merely instructing parents to rest in the comforting promises of God’s covenant?
We are of the conviction that the latter is explanation of the article, and that the fathers make no objective statement whatever concerning the salvation of infants. Our ground for this interpretation is the historical background of the article, particularly the discussion of the subject at the Synod of Dordt when the article was adopted. It is plain from that history that our fathers could not make a positive statement concerning the salvation of infants who die in infancy because no such objective statement is possible. The Arminians accused our fathers of being monsters who delighted in teaching that God would condemn even the infants of believers to hell. In answer to this accusation, they offered article 17 as a judgment of love. This is the only possible position we can take.