Her name was Hannah. Bethany was 4 and a half, Noah had just turned 3. It was October 9, 2002. And for some reason, on that day, we could not hear our baby’s heart. The next day, one of our friends came over and babysat while we went to deliver her. Next year, November 14, we delivered another precious baby, Charity. Like Hannah, we never understood why, we just held her and said good-bye. Again.
My wife mentioned in a fine article you can find on our blog that it was a symptom of how oblivious we were to how to grieve, how to mourn, how to honor our babies, that we didn’t even know there was a Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. Ronald Reagan established it in 1988 and it began to be practiced broadly in 2002, the same year our family joined the movement without even knowing it.
I failed to lead my family through that time of grief in concrete, meaningful ways that haunt them and me to this day. And I repeat publicly and honestly, how sorry I am for that.
When people we know die, they are still there, functionally. We talk to them, we dream of them, we go through events and say “What would X have said about this?”
But for Hannah (and the next year, Charity), their place is an empty one. It’s empty and the wind whistles through it. It’s like a Civil Wars song where Joy Williams and John Paul White sing in To Whom it May Concern,
I missed you But I haven’t met you
Oh but I want to How I do How I do
This song completely breaks my heart. It’s cast in a romantic light but it’s impossible to ignore the application to God’s providence of tiny babies, with big lives that prove they matter because of the big holes they have left in my heart.
Our my goal today is to meditate upon the inherent worth and value and joy that children bring from the moment of conception, look at how the Reformation impacted how we treat children, and how the Scriptures offer hope to us for salvation through Christ alone.
Moms and dads have always grieved the loss of children, but what happens after they live and start to act like little people? That’s been transformed. The Reformation began a revolution of how we view children. In the two waves of the Children’s Crusade of 1212, the RCC allowed kids to go off to war against the Muslim occupation of Jerusalem. They allowed this because the Pope Urban II on November 27, 1095, in the most influential sermon of the Middle Ages, promised that anyone who died in war against Islam would be granted complete absolution and complete remission of all sins past and future for those who died in service to Christ. Sound familiar?
Children were put in a different category by the church due their baptism removing the stain of original sin and prior to some sort of age of accountability or age of reason, that they put at age 7. They had original sin removed, which included guilt, and they could not become guilty until the age of reason (1910, Pope Pious X, decreed it but it was practiced throughout history). So children existed in a special category and thus the Catholic church created special rules for their salvation, their deaths prior to birth, what happens before and after first communion, and so forth.
The Reformers generally said “No, children are people just like us.” John Calvin and his wife, Idelette, lost their only son in infant death. But he loved and cared for Idelette’s two sons she brought in from her previous marriage. He spoke of children constantly in his writings, but it was, according to Jason Goroncy, but it was always using them as examples of Christian maturity. Calvin started schools in Geneva, gave instructions on child rearing that were unheard of in Catholicism, and taught that “the elect are, from birth, full inheritors of God’s covenant and members in the church.”
This is the first thought that I bring before you today is that the Reformation brought about a movement that treated children like people, and if they are people, then they are not just potential, but real members of the church of today. They are saved and sanctified and have hope in Christ not of an exceptional nature, but of the extraordinary work of Jesus Christ on the cross, who died to bear our own original sin and guilt, bear the curse and wrath of God, and gift his elect with a ring and a robe that fits their tiny finger and small frame.
Children are like us biologically—no matter how small, from zygote on up, they are human. Children are like us spiritually—they have a body and a soul. And that soul is tainted with sin as Psalm 51:5 says, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” Romans 5 is clear that Adam’s one transgression and single sin, he became both the natural father and federal father of all of humanity, and as he declared war on God, he put us as a race at enmity with God. We’ll come back to Romans 5 to clarify that, because Paul’s argument is that if one man, Adam, could put a race at war with God, then one man, the second Adam, could bring peace between God and his people. But the point is there is nowhere in Scripture where children end up being another category. People like talking about dying children becoming angels, but that’s bad news. If they become angels, Jesus didn’t die for the angels! If babies are different from us spiritually, then you end up creating some sort of limbo between heaven and hell, called limbus infantum in RCC theology. But if they are just plain people, then there’s a wealth of information we have about their salvation from Scripture.
The second thought that we must presuppose to guard ourselves against error in thinking about children and their salvation is we do not want to shout where God has whispered. Since nowhere in the Bible does it spell out how children who die in pregnancy or infancy precisely are saved, it would be dangerous to go beyond the boundaries of Scripture. Deut. 29:29 says “The secret things belong to the Lord” and if he’s chosen to keep the mechanics of this a secret, that’s his business.
On the other hand, it would be equally wrong to take what God has said plainly in the Word and throw up our hands and say, with all the postmodern false humility possible, “We just can’t know.” We can know and both now and later, when we know the whole story, the truth will make us go “Wow, good going Lord!” And for that reason, it’s important to address a question like this, as controversial as it is, as emotional as it is, with eyes looking for God’s glory to be revealed in it.
This is a critical point for me personally. I know that if I were writing the Bible, and I had the Holy Spirit guarding my words from sin, and I had the opportunity to clarify for all time the precise mind of God concerning all babies who die, I would have written it clearly. I believe the Bible writers are just like us—they wanted to know! They wanted to know with confidence about their child’s future, just as we do. And yet, none of them spoke to it. The closest we get is with David in 2 Samuel 12, where he says of his son who died at birth, “I will go to him but he cannot return to me.” The writers of Scripture, if they could have been, would have been more precise. They were not.
Let’s look at this more closely though. If you are a universalist, as the writers and fans of The Shack are in recent years, you think that God is just going to save everyone anyhow, and since children are people, they will be reconciled to God along with the rest of creation. It’s heresy but perhaps one of the mildest forms of it that does seek to end debate about this question of the salvation of children. There’s an element of truth in it; God’s mercy is wide and his love extends into places you don’t expect, at least if you believe the stories of the Bible. But God saving everyone isn’t what is taught in the Bible.
You might also be on the opposite end, where you think that very few people are actually going to heaven, and you are very pessimistic, and you believe that there’s only a small remnant who actually are believers. The way is narrow, and few will find it. But the book of Revelation shows people from every nation and every tongue worshiping God, and it being a large number is not hard to imagine.
Maybe you emphasis that some children are surely going to heaven, the children of believers. Look at 1 Cor 7:14. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.
So if the children of at least one believing parent are “holy” or set apart by God, does that mean they are elect? Or that they are in covenant with God, members of the visible church? I think Paul means they are members of the visible church and should be baptized, but what if it’s more? It’s possible that this verse would lead us to think that the children of a believing family, with at least one believing parent, have something special about them. This could mean they are set apart by God for salvation.
But can unborn babies believe? Not by themselves, but again, that’s just like you and me. It takes a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit to make that happen. Do we have reason to believe that He sometimes makes that happen? David’s hope of seeing his sin again in II Samuel 12:21-23 suggests He might. I Corinthians 7:14 suggests He might. Add to that John leaping in the womb at the presence of Christ (Luke 1:41) and we could have further reason to hope.
As I made clear in my first comments, and I’m sure are echoed in your experiences, this is not just theory for me. It’s an emotional issue that goes to the core of my heart. Our emotions, however, should not lead us to add to the Bible, nor to muddy the precious saving waters of the work of Christ given to us by faith. Our hope for them is the same as our hope for anyone. We are all sinners, and all without hope save for the work of Christ. But praise be to His name, He came into this world to save sinners, amen?
We turn to Reformation theology to give us more hope as we close. The Reformers noted that salvation has three elemental aspects in the Bible. I want to show that infants could possibly accomplish all three of these and thus we can have hope of seeing them again.
The first is Knowledge. This refers to the content of faith, or those facts that we believe. We place our faith in something, or more appropriately, someone. In order to believe, we must know something about that someone, who is the Lord Jesus Christ. What do children know? Well that’s the difficult one. How can someone with such a tiny brain know that Jesus saves and his atoning work is the rescue from their lost spiritual condition? Well, God would have to communicate that to them in some way because faith has some content. He could do that before, during, but probably not after death, since the writer of Hebrews is clear that after death, there is no second chance, but “judgment.” He could do it in the way that he did for John the Baptist, who leaped in Elizabeth’s womb when he knew Jesus was present in Mary’s womb. I don’t understand the mechanics of how God did that, but he did. The other two are more simple to understand, though.
Assent. This is our conviction, our agreement with God that the content of our faith is true. You can know about the Christian faith and yet believe that it is not true. Genuine faith says that the content taught by Holy Scripture — is true. It’s not false. It’s received as truth and acted upon as much as possible.
Trust. This refers to our reliance and dependence on the gospel. Knowing and believing the content of the Christian faith (the first two points) is not enough, for even demons can do that (James 2:19). Faith is only effectual if, knowing about and assenting to the claims of Jesus, one personally trusts in Him alone for salvation. There’s no reason a baby couldn’t trust. Anyone who has tossed a baby in the air and heard giggles instead of screaming knows that a child can trust. If a baby instinctively knows that food is in their mother’s breast, then that child can by God’s grace, trust and rely on Jesus for salvation.
So in John 3, when Jesus speaks of being born again and becoming like a child spiritually to enter into the kingdom of heaven, it’s not strange at all that he would say this: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Calvin was just following Jesus’ example when he moved from the knowing, believing and trusting of a child to show adults how salvation really works.
Based on what we learn from the Scriptures and is highlighted by our forefathers in the faith, we can trust that God can save children before, during or after birth.
What about you? Do you know the Lord Jesus Christ? Do you know about the sinless life He led and the work He did on the cross? Do you believe that He is who He says He is and does what He says He does? Have you trusted in Him alone to save you from the wrath of God?
You may have walked down an aisle or prayed a prayer or been religious all your life, but you may be spiritually empty. Be like a child, and come to Jesus today, and trust him to grant you supernatural life and health and peace. To all, young and old, he says “Come unto me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
If you have never believed in Christ, believe today. Don’t live on more second in not being sure. If babies can be sure of God’s saving call to them, something is definitely wrong in your spiritual life that you remain uncertain or worse, uncaring.
I leave you with exactly what Jesus left the very adult Nicodemus, who needed to become a little child to enter the kingdom—
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.” (John 3:16-17).