Saturday, July 24, 2004

Some Thoughts on Original Sin and Infant Salvation 

The more that I look at them, the more unpersuasive I find many of the arguments that all infants dying in infancy are saved. This is not to say that I deny that all infants dying in infancy go to heaven; it is merely to say that, in the majority of cases, I am at best agnostic. People like Charles Spurgeon use Ezekiel 16:21, 2 Samuel 12:23 and other such verses in a very general manner, as if they applied to all infants in the same way. Indeed, many today frame the question of infant salvation in a manner that presupposes that all infants fit into exactly the same category. I find this quite impermissible as the Bible clearly draws a distinction between the infant seed of believers and the infant seed of unbelievers — the children of believers are holy; the children of unbelievers are unclean (1 Corinthians 7:14). God does discriminate between different infants, and not arbitrarily. Given the individualism of Western society today we may find this distasteful, but I think that the Bible is quite clear on this subject. Original Sin I have come across a number of people who seem to hold to the notion that infants are born in some sort of ‘neutral’ state — it is only as they commit actual sin that they receive condemnation. This, of course, is Pelagianism; any argument from ‘innocence’ is impermissible. One of the deepest problems with this position, despite its clear unorthodoxy, is that it has little idea of Sin (with a capital ‘S’) and seems to think merely in terms of individual sins, each with their attendant demerit. Often accompanying this position is a particular view of hell, which I find quite unhelpful. According to this position, hell is merited as the punishment for discrete sins. Hell is eternal, either because sin continues in hell forever (which I am inclined to deny) or because sin against an infinite God demands an infinite punishment. In opposition to such notions the Bible seems to suggest that people go to hell primarily because of what they are and only secondarily because of what they do. People go to hell because they are goats and not just because they act like goats (Matthew 25:31f.). Many evangelicals have little idea of ‘Sin’ apart from its manifestation in the form of individual ‘sins’. Passages like Romans 6 seem to stand opposed to such notions; Sin is more like a realm in which we all find ourselves. We do not sin ourselves into this realm, but we are born under the power of Sin and, consequently, sinning is natural for us. This realm and all who remain in it are destined for final and eternal alienation from God. God, however, is delaying the final destruction so that more might repent and be delivered from this realm. This, in my mind, is the proper way to understand original sin. Adam’s sin created the realm of Sin. This realm is under God’s condemnation and will finally be eternally destroyed with all who are part of it. All of those who live within this realm have their very being determined by the character of the realm itself. As their existence is formed from this realm, in addition to being condemned as occupants of the realm, they are also polluted and corrupt themselves as they grow out of this realm. People, therefore, go to hell because they belong to the doomed realm of Sin and not merely because they have committed individual sins. [As an aside, it seems to me that there are many who believe that Adam’s sin is imputed as one among many individual, discrete sins and fail to see that the importance of Adam’s sin is that it constituted the world as the realm of Sin and Death.] The fact that they have committed particular sins will certainly result in greater punishment, but it is not the ultimate reason for their fate. The judgment of hell is not only appropriate to those who have attained to a certain ‘age of accountability’. The Goodness of God According to my position, Sin is primarily a matrix (established by the original rebellion of Adam) in which people’s existence is formed and in which their lives are lived, and only secondarily the actual committing of discrete sins by those who belong to this realm. Starting with such a conception, I do not find the arguments for universal infant salvation on the basis of the goodness of God that convincing. God certainly does not delight in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 18:23) and is good to all of His creation. Nevertheless, this does not seem to imply that all infants will be saved. Even though God does not delight in the death of the wicked, He has certainly commanded many such deaths. Many contend that a good God would never condemn the infant soul. It seems to me that the optimistic anthropology that many deny as the basis for belief in infant salvation is often subtly reintroduced at this point — surely God would not have to ‘hold His nose’ when saving such an infant? I believe that we should be wary of anything that suggests that God’s mercy should necessarily be displayed in any particular case apart from clear warrant from Scripture — something which I have yet to see in this instance. God’s mercy is free and should not be presumed upon. If we see the children of the ungodly in the same manner as God sees them, I think that we might have a different idea. The infant and unborn children of the ungodly are compared to little serpents in Scripture (Psalm 58:3-5). They are also said to be ‘unclean’ (1 Corinthians 7:14). They are naturally seed for the serpent and I fail to see why there is anything in God’s nature that demands that He do anything but destroy them, as someone might crush the eggs of any dangerous serpent. Of course, we are all naturally seed for the serpent prior to God’s grace. I am not trying to deny God’s mercy; rather, I am denying that there is any self-evident reason why God should show mercy to the children of the ungodly, even though it is certainly true that He takes no pleasure in their destruction. One might even argue that, by destroying them early, God is in fact showing mercy of a kind. Their judgment would be even greater were they given time to mature in their sinfulness. It would be quite consistent with God’s historical manner of dealing with the wicked were He to destroy the infants of the ungodly eternally. In Psalm 37:28 He promises that the offspring of the wicked will be cut off. In Deuteronomy 20:16-17 He commands His people to slay even the infants of the peoples of the land. In 1 Samuel 15:3 He commands Saul to kill all the infants and nursing children of the Amalekites. We are speaking about the God who inspired the words of Psalm 137:8-9 and brought about the historical judgments spoken of in such passages as Isaiah 13:11-16. Almost all of the great paradigms for final judgment that we see in Scripture seem to include the destruction of the infants of the ungodly with their parents (see verses like Exodus 20:5 also). This, I believe, is because God does not operate in an individualistic fashion. I see no reason to suppose that God will operate according to a different pattern on the final day. It also is the case because God does not operate in an arbitrary fashion. God usually uses means. In particular God usually saves people through covenant. God is certainly able to work beyond His ordinary means, but He does not usually do so. Infants of unbelievers are outside of God’s ordinary means and, consequently, whilst we should not categorically deny that they can be saved, I believe that it is dangerous to hold out that much hope for them. The Infants of Believers When it comes to the infants of believers, there is no reason to doubt their salvation and the greatest possible reason to affirm it. 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 in virtue of the covenant of grace, in which they together with the 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 (Gen. 17:7; Acts 2:39; I Cor. 7:14).
The Canons do not base this confidence upon God’s general goodness to His creatures, but upon His most sure Word of covenant promise. The reasons that they give are not extended to infants in general, but only to the infants of the godly. Infants of believers are certainly born into the realm of Sin. However, God claims them as His own in covenant. In Baptism they are brought from out of the realm of Sin and Death, into the realm of Grace and Life. The unbaptized infant children of believers will certainly be saved, but they still belong to the realm of Sin in a manner that the baptized infant does not. This can, I believe, be illuminated somewhat by the difference between believers in the old and new covenants. Under the old covenant Israel was still ‘in Adam’ and, in a clear sense, under condemnation. The Torah acted like a prism through which the sin of the whole world became focused in Israel itself (and finally upon the Messiah, who would deal with it once and for all). Nevertheless, the Israelites were promised eschatological liberation and lived in hope of this coming deliverance. Their salvation was an anticipated one to a degree that ours is not. They were like the resistance movement living within an occupied country, under hostile government, with only the promise of future deliverance to go by. Those who have been baptized into Christ, however, are more like those who operate in hostile territory, but who return on each Lord’s Day to eat at the table of their King, under whom they are free men. They are no longer in exile. The unbaptized infants of believers have the promise of future deliverance, but they do not know present deliverance in the same manner as those who have been baptized do. Needless to say, the infants of the ungodly have neither the promise of personal future deliverance nor the knowledge of present deliverance. Baptism delivers infants from the world that is under the rule of Satan and brings them into the Church that is under the rule of Christ. They will still operate within the world, but they will no longer belong to the world in the same manner. In this manner I believe that we can see Baptism as incredibly important without making final salvation absolutely dependent upon it. A failure to grasp the nature of the realm of the Church and the realm of Sin seems to lead to many of the misunderstandings on this question. One does not become a member of either of these realms as a result of some merely voluntary decision or action. We are always part of one or the other realm, whether we choose to be or not. To be part of the realm of Sin is to live in great danger, even if one has been given a promise of personal future deliverance. The Bible clearly teaches that we must leave the realm of Sin (just as Christ Himself left it — Romans 6:10) and that we do so in the Red Sea crossing of Baptism. Infant Baptism is based, in part, upon the fact that the infants of believers already belong to God by promise. Consequently, these infants are to be delivered from the realm of Sin into which they were born through the waters of Baptism. There is also a pressing need for this deliverance, which should, among many other things, discourage us from delaying Baptism. Any other ground for belief in infant salvation apart from the covenant promise to believing parents and the blessing of Baptism is a decidedly shaky one, in my humble opinion. Whilst I will not affirm that there are infants dying in infancy who will perish eternally, I am very cautious about denying it. To my mind, the fact that God would be totally consistent in sending the infants of the ungodly to hell is the greatest part of the tragedy of abortion. Those who would establish a shaky argument for the salvation of all of those who die in infancy hide this fact from us. These are just some initial thoughts on the subject. I would appreciate hearing other people’s comments and opinions. Hopefully my next post on Wright will be ready early next week.

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