Introduction: Can infants be saved? Do they need to be saved? Are they born sinners? If they are born sinners, are they culpable for their sins? Do they become culpable for their sins only when they reach a certain age? There are a number of Scriptures and themes that need to be considered in an attempt to answer these questions, if they can be answered at all. I will try to present a number of principles and passages that I think bear on these issues, and I hope in the process to at least offer possible – if not probable – answers to such questions.
First, we need to understand the Scriptural teaching that infants are born is sin.
One of the classic texts on this issue is a psalm written King David, who was also a prophet (Acts 2:29-31):
NKJ Psalm 51:5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me.
I can do no better that Wayne Grudem has done is explaining the meaning of this statement, when he correctly observes that:
Some have mistakenly thought that the sin of David’s mother is in view here, but this is incorrect, for the entire context has nothing to do with David’s mother. David is confessing his own personal sin throughout this section. He says:
Have mercy on me O God
… blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity
… I know my transgressions.
… Against you… have I sinned. (Ps. 51:1–4)
David is so overwhelmed with the consciousness of his own sin that as he looks back on his life he realizes that he was sinful from the beginning. As far back as he can think of himself, he realizes that he has had a sinful nature. In fact, when he was born or “brought forth” from his mother’s womb, he was “brought forth in iniquity” (Ps. 51:5). Moreover, even before he was born, he had a sinful disposition: he affirms that at the moment of conception he had a sinful nature, for “in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps. 51:5). Here is a strong statement of the inherent tendency to sin that attaches to our lives from the very beginning. (Systematic Theology, p. 496)
To this we may add another psalm written by David. He states that:
NKJ Psalm 58:3 The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray as soon as they are born, speaking lies.
Again, we see an emphasis upon the sinfulness of men existing from the time they are born. The Apostle Paul later taught the same concepts. Consider, for example, what he wrote to the Romans Christians about how sin entered the world.
NKJ Romans 5:12 Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned ….
Wayne Grudem is again helpful in understanding this text, when he writes that:
The context shows that Paul is not talking about actual sins that people commit every day of their lives, for the entire paragraph (Rom. 5:12–21) is taken up with the comparison between Adam and Christ. And when Paul says, “so [Gk. οὕτως, G4048, “thus, in this way”; that is, through Adam’s sin] death spread to all men because all men sinned,” he is saying that through the sin of Adam “all men sinned.”
This idea, that “all men sinned” means that God thought of us all as having sinned when Adam disobeyed, is further indicated by the next two verses, where Paul says:
Sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. (Rom. 5:13–14)
Here Paul points out that from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, people did not have God’s written laws. Though their sins were “not counted” (as infractions of the law), they still died. The fact that they died is very good proof that God counted people guilty on the basis of Adam’s sin.
The idea that God counted us guilty because of Adam’s sin is further affirmed in Romans 5:18–19:
Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.
Here Paul says explicitly that through the trespass of one man “many were made [Gk. κατεστάθησαν from καθίστημι, G2770, also an aorist indicative indicating completed past action] sinners.” When Adam sinned, God thought of all who would descend from Adam as sinners. Though we did not yet exist, God, looking into the future and knowing that we would exist, began thinking of us as those who were guilty like Adam. This is also consistent with Paul’s statement that “while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). Of course, some of us did not even exist when Christ died. But God nevertheless regarded us as sinners in need of salvation. (Systematic Theology, p. 494)
So, it is clear that we have not only inherited a corrupt nature from Adam, but that we have also inherited guilt from him in some sense. We are regarded by God as having sinned in Adam, although we are not given an explanation as to how this is so.
Paul also teaches that we are sinners by nature – i.e. that we are born sinners – in his Epistle to the Ephesians, when he writes:
NKJ Ephesians 2:1-3 And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, 2 in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, 3 among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature [φύσις] children of wrath, just as the others.
This reinforces the fact that we are corrupt from birth, that we are deserving of God’s wrath from birth. This means that, if we have inherited both guilt and corruption from Adam, then we are all born deserving of hell. But this is not the whole story.
Second, we need to understand the Scriptural teaching that we are judged according to the sins we actually commit.
There are at least two passages in the Book of Deuteronomy that bear on this issue. The first comes from Moses’ reminder of why it is that a virtually a whole generation of Israelites perished in the wilderness without being permitted to enter the promised land of Canaan:
NKJ Deuteronomy 1:34-39 And the LORD heard the sound of your words, and was angry, and took an oath, saying, 35 “Surely not one of these men of this evil generation shall see that good land of which I swore to give to your fathers, 36 except Caleb the son of Jephunneh; he shall see it, and to him and his children I am giving the land on which he walked, because he wholly followed the LORD.” 37 The LORD was also angry with me for your sakes, saying, “Even you shall not go in there; 38 Joshua the son of Nun, who stands before you, he shall go in there. Encourage him, for he shall cause Israel to inherit it. 39 Moreover your little ones and your children, who you say will be victims, who today have no knowledge of good and evil, they shall go in there; to them I will give it, and they shall possess it.”
Notice that, even though God regards these “little ones” as being born sinners, still He does not judge them for the sins they themselves have not actually committed, not having yet any personal “knowledge of good and evil.” This passage, among others, has led some to argue for an age of accountability, before which people are not responsible for theirs sins. We will deal with that issue later. For now we must see that small children are not judged for the sins of their parents because they were not even able to understand what was happening and therefore could not have actively participated in those sins themselves. They hadn’t yet developed the capacity. Later in the same book we also have this explicit statement from the LORD:
NKJ Deuteronomy 24:16 Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall the children be put to death for their fathers; a person shall be put to death for his own sin.
God could not be any clearer in asserting that he does not unfairly punish children for the sins of their parents.
In a manner similar to the text in the first chapter of Deuteronomy, the Prophet Isaiah also speaks of a time when children begin to learn to discern between good and evil, when he writes in a Messianic prophecy that:
NKJ Isaiah 7:14-16 Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel. 15 Curds and honey He shall eat, that He may know to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 For before the Child shall know to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land that you dread will be forsaken by both her kings.
The implication would seem to be that, since there is a time when little children learn to discern between good and evil, then there is a time before that when they are unable to do so and would therefore not be held accountable for doing so as older children and adults are. Not surprisingly, this is another passage often cited in defense of the idea of an age of accountability.
The Prophet Ezekiel later recorded a prophecy in which God is challenged the Israelites’ false conception of Him by which they assumed that He unjustly punishes men for sins that their fathers had committed. This false idea of God was encapsulated in a proverb that was apparently common among them but with which God took strong exception, namely that, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, And the children’s teeth are set on edge” (vs. 2). God told them “you shall no longer use this proverb in Israel,” after which He offered a defense, which includes the following passage:
NKJ Ezekiel 18:20-24 “The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself. 21 But if a wicked man turns from all his sins which he has committed, keeps all My statutes, and does what is lawful and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. 22 None of the transgressions which he has committed shall be remembered against him; because of the righteousness which he has done, he shall live. 23 Do I have any pleasure at all that the wicked should die?” says the Lord GOD, “and not that he should turn from his ways and live? 24 But when a righteous man turns away from his righteousness and commits iniquity, and does according to all the abominations that the wicked man does, shall he live? All the righteousness which he has done shall not be remembered; because of the unfaithfulness of which he is guilty and the sin which he has committed, because of them he shall die.”
Again, God could not have made it any clearer that He does not punish people for the sins their parents have committed.
The Apostle Paul later assumed the same thing when wrote of God’s gracious choice of Jacob over Esau:
NKJ Romans 9:10-12 And not only this, but when Rebecca also had conceived by one man, even by our father Isaac 11 (for the children not yet being born, nor having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works but of Him who calls), 12 it was said to her, “The older shall serve the younger.”
Again, passages such as this, as well as the above texts from Deuteronomy 1 and Isaiah 7, have led some to conclude that there is an age of accountability before which God does not hold infants and small children responsible for sin in any sense. But, given the Bible’s teaching on original sin, with which we began this brief study, this seems to me an untenable position. It seems better to me to say that infants do inherit guilt from Adam that is worthy of judgment, but that they have not yet added to this their own personal sins and have not, therefore, stored up additional deserved wrath (see, e.g. Rom. 2:5). This also means that, if infants are going to be saved, it will have to be because of God’s grace and Christ’s atoning work and not because they deserve it.
Third, we need to understand the Scriptural teaching that seems to indicate that God does not judge those who lack the natural capacity to see His revelation or will.
Matt Perman, has published an article at the Desiring God Ministries website entitled What happens to infants who die? in which he offers this line of reasoning from John Piper, who adds it to the other Biblical arguments that God saves infants. I think it may be helpful to reproduce it here:
In a funeral sermon several years ago for an infant, Dr. Piper summarized the basis for his conclusion:
Jesus says in John 9:41 to those who were offended at his teaching and asked if he thought they were blind – he said, “If you were blind, you would not have had sin; but since you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”
In other words, 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.
The other text is Romans 1:20 where Paul is dealing with persons who have not heard the gospel and have no access to it, but who do have access to the revelation of God’s glory in nature:
Romans 1:20 “Since the creation of the world God’s invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.”
In other words: 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.
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.
In another sermon, he adds:
God in his justice will find a way to absolve infants who die of their depravity. It will surely be through Christ. But beyond that we would be guessing. It seems to me that the most natural guess would be that babies will grow up in the kingdom (either immediately, or over time) and will by God’s grace come to faith so that their justification is by faith alone just like ours.
It is important to emphasize that, in our view, God is not saving infants because they are innocent. They are not innocent, but guilty. He is saving them because, although they are sinful, in his mercy he desires that compassion be exercised upon those who are sinful and yet lack the capacity to grasp the truth revealed about Him in nature and to the human heart.
If there is a flaw in this line of reasoning, I have not yet been able to find it. It seems to me to bring together harmoniously the various principles we have thus far considered. But it also adds another, to which we will now turn our attention.
Fourth, we need to understand the Scriptural teaching that infants can be saved.
The first passage we will consider may teach this idea if we understand it to apply first to David as a type of Christ. In this psalm of David he writes:
NKJ Psalm 22:9-10 But You are He who took Me out of the womb; You made Me trust while on My mother’s breasts. 10 I was cast upon You from birth. From My mother’s womb You have been My God.
Now, we know that this psalm is a Messianic psalm that ultimately refers to our Lord Jesus, for it is clearly cited as such in the New Testament (see, e.g., Matt. 27:35, 39, 43, 46). If these words, then, were was only intended as a prophetic reference to Jesus, then it simply describes how He trusted the LORD from birth (and notice that it doesn’t mention any sin here). However, if understand as having an initial applicability to David, who served as a type of Jesus Christ in some says, then it means that David himself also trusted in the LORD while an infant and was thus saved at that time. That is, because the LORD saved him while an infant, he could not remember a time when he did not trust in the LORD.
The next passage also informs us of David’s thinking about the possibility that infants can be saved, for in it is clearly believed that his deceased infant son was saved:
NKJ 2 Samuel 12:19-23 When David saw that his servants were whispering, David perceived that the child was dead. Therefore David said to his servants, “Is the child dead?” And they said, “He is dead.” 20 So David arose from the ground, washed and anointed himself, and changed his clothes; and he went into the house of the LORD and worshiped. Then he went to his own house; and when he requested, they set food before him, and he ate. 21 Then his servants said to him, “What is this that you have done? You fasted and wept for the child while he was alive, but when the child died, you arose and ate food.” 22 And he said, “While the child was alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, ‘Who can tell whether the LORD will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ 23 But now he is dead; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.”
Now, we do not know how David knew this, whether he believed that all those who die in infancy are saved, or whether he was given a special revelation from God about this particular child. But it seems clear to me that he knew this infant was saved and that he would see him again after he himself died. He clearly believed, then, that infants can be saved.
Just one more Biblical example should suffice to make the point. This example is John the Baptist, about whom an angel said, when he foretold his birth:
NKJ Luke 1:15 For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.
It seems clear to me, at least, that John the Baptist was regenerate from his mother’s womb.
Thus we have clearly seen, I hope, that God can and does, at least sometimes, save infants. And, when adding this fact to the principles we have already considered, it would seem to indicate that all those dying in infancy will be saved, since they have yet to commit any sins of their own, and since they lack the capacity to discern between good and evil or to understand the revelation from God that they have received.
Fifth, we need to understand the Scriptural teaching about Jesus’ attitude toward infants and small children.
The following passages indicate how consistently our Lord Jesus used little children – even sometimes infants – as examples of the kind of trust in Him that He expects from us:
NKJ Matthew 18:1-5 At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 Then Jesus called a little child [παιδίον] to Him, set him in the midst of them, 3 and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children [παιδίον], you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child [παιδίον] is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 Whoever receives one little child [παιδίον] like this in My name receives Me.”
NKJ Matthew 19:13-15 Then little children [παιδίον] were brought to Him that He might put His hands on them and pray, but the disciples rebuked them. 14 But Jesus said, “Let the little children [παιδίον] come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” 15 And He laid His hands on them and departed from there.
NKJ Mark 10:13-16 Then they brought little children [παιδίον] to Him, that He might touch them; but the disciples rebuked those who brought them. 14 But when Jesus saw it, He was greatly displeased and said to them, “Let the little children [παιδίον] come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God. 15 Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child [παιδίον] will by no means enter it.” 16 And He took them up in His arms, put His hands on them, and blessed them.
NKJ Luke 18:15-17 Then they also brought infants [βρέφος] to Him that He might touch them; but when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. 16 But Jesus called them to Him and said, “Let the little children [παιδίον] come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God. 17 Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child [παιδίον] will by no means enter it.”
I think John MacArthur is correct when he comments thusly on Jesus’ teaching that “of such is the kingdom of heaven”:
These children were too young to exercise personal faith. See Luke 18:15, where Luke refers to them as “infants.” Therefore, it is all the more significant that Christ uses them to illustrate those who make up “the kingdom of heaven” (cf. Matt. 18:1-4). Mark 10:16 also says He “blessed them.” God often shows a special mercy to those who, because of age or mental deficiency, are incapable of either faith or willful unbelief (cf. Jon. 4:11). They are called “innocents” in Jer. 19:4. Innocence does not mean they are free from the inherited guilt and moral corruption of Adam’s sin (see notes on Rom. 5:12-19) but rather that they are not culpable in the same sense as those whose sins are premeditated and deliberate.
Jesus’ words here suggest that God’s mercy is graciously extended to infants so that those who die are sovereignly regenerated and granted entrance into the kingdom—not because they are deserving of heaven, but because God in His grace chooses to redeem them. (The MacArthur Bible Commentary, e-Sword)
Conclusion: It is Scriptural evidence such as that given here that has led a number of Reformed pastors and theologians to believe that all those who die in infancy are indeed among the elect and are saved. In fact, Charles Spurgeon felt so strongly about it that he amended chapter 10, paragraph 3, of the Baptist Confession of 1689 to reflect this conviction. The Confession originally stated that “elect infants dying in infancy are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit” (emphasis added), but Spurgeon removed the word elect so that the Confession stated that “infants dying in infancy are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit.”
For our part, at Immanuel Baptist Church, where I serve as the primary teaching pastor, we have retained the original reading of the Confession, even if we agree with Spurgeon’s sentiments based upon what we would consider to be Scriptural reasoning. We have done so because we recognize that, although the Bible does clearly teach that all the elect will be saved, there is not the same kind of clarity as to whether all who die in infancy are among the elect. Still, however, I think that, taken together, the Biblical principles stated above would lead us to the conclusion that God does, indeed, save all those who die before reaching an age at which they can discern between good and evil and consciously approve of and participate in the sin that is within them and all around them.
See also: The Salvation of the ‘Little Ones’: Do Infants who Die Go to Heaven? by R. Albert Mohler, Jr. and Daniel L. Akin