By the Revd G. W. Bromiley, M. A., D. Litt.
Vine Books Ltd (Publishers to Church Society) , 1955, 1976 & 1977
Chapter 8: The Salvation of Infants
We have now followed through the main reasons for a continuance of infant baptism. Before we leave the subject, however, there is one question which demands more specific treatment, although it has been implicit in all our previous discussions. This is the question of infant salvation. Can we believe that infants, or at any rate some infants, are saved, even though they do not have the opportunity to came to a conscious decision of faith? Have we any scriptural guidance on the question, or is it simply a matter for pious speculation? In countries with a low incidence of infant mortality the subject is not so urgent as it once was, and it may appear to be of greater academic than practical interest. But taken over the whole range of Christian geography and history it is a very relevant and pressing matter. It may also help us to bring our views on infant baptism into a final and sharper focus, for the two are plainly interrelated. If there is no salvation of infants in default of a conscious decision, the case for infant baptism is more difficult and perhaps impossible to sustain. On the other hand, if infants can enjoy the work of God which is the thing signified, there can be no good or proper reason for refusing them the baptismal sign.
The scriptural evidence need not detain us long because it consists for the most part of passages to which we have already referred. In the New Testament the Lord Jesus Christ Himself made some very definite and almost startling declarations in relation to children. Some of them have no doubt a parabolic character: ‘Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven’ (Matt. 18, 3), or again: ‘I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes’ (Luke 10, 21). Even so, it is not insignificant that a child is taken as the illustration in matters which concern the renewing and enlightening work of the Holy Spirit. In other cases there is undoubtedly a precise and direct reference to infants as such: ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the Kingdom of God’ (Mark 10, 14); or ‘Whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me. But who shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea’ (Matt. 18, 5-6). Whatever may be the interpretation of these sayings, there is no doubt that Christ Himself does not envisage an exclusion of children from salvation, or the impossibility of a childlike faith. This conclusion is supported by the Pauline reference to the sanctification of infants and the scriptural examples of children sanctified or even filled with the Holy Ghost.
The Old Testament evidence all points in the same direction. This is especially the case with its assumption that children are themselves members of the covenant people. It is also significant that some of the most tremendous prophecies look forward to the coming of the Messiah in the form of a child (Isaiah 7, 14; 9, 6). In His humanity Christ Himself was to become an infant with no more self-awareness than other infants, yet not on that account separated from the Father or the Spirit. The second-century writer Irenaeus was not altogether fanciful when he supposed that Christ identified Himself with every stage of human life in order that there should be salvation at every stage. Indeed, is it not suggestive that we read of redeemed creation: ‘A little child shall lead them’? (Isaiah 11, 6).
The argument need not be pressed, for apart from those who argue that infants are saved only by way of baptism there are not many Christians who will dispute the matter, and even sacramentalists do not deny the possibility of infant salvation so long as the sacrament is administered. But now we must go deeper. Granted that infants are or can be saved, on what grounds are they saved? This is obviously a critical question, not only for our understanding of infant baptism, but for our whole conception of the Gospel message, especially in its relationship to the atoning work of Christ.
For at once there opens up before us the tempting possibility that infants are saved simply because they are never lost. They have not committed any conscious acts of sin. Therefore they are in a state of inherent righteousness. No accusation can be made or sustained against them. They do not need the divine forgiveness. They do not have to participate in the atonement. They are as it were in the state of Adam before the fall. If they live, they will certainly fall into sin. They have a propensity to sin. But in themselves they are completely innocent. They belong to the Kingdom of Christ by virtue of this innocence.
On this view there is obviously no point in administering baptism to infants. They are not excluded from salvation but they have no title to the sign of the divine election fulfilled in the substitutionary work of the Son and the regenerative work of the Spirit. They neither need nor know the grace and forgiveness and renewal which it is the particular purpose of this sacrament to attest. In this respect it is significant that when Pelagius advanced a teaching of this kind he found it necessary to invent special reasons for continuing infant baptism, and he was opposed by the crushing and rather gruesome insistence of Augustine that infants are under damnation until they receive the sacrament. It is also significant that the majority of sixteenth century baptists not only had a rather rationalistic view of the decision of faith but revived the Pelagian doctrine that there is no such thing as unconscious sin. Infants are saved because they are innocent. It is, therefore, unnecessary and inappropriate to administer to them the sacrament of forgiveness.
The Bible, however, does not support this teaching, as even a cursory reading must surely suggest. It insists strongly that all men without exception are guilty sinners. ‘There is none righteous, no, not one’ (Psalm 14, 3; Romans 3, 10). The human race is bound together in a solidarity of sin from which not even infants are exempt. ‘Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me’ (Psalm 51, 5). ‘By one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed on all men, for that all have sinned’ (Romans 5, 12). The propensity to sin which we find in infants is due to the fact that they are already sinners by nature. Opinions may vary as to the detailed outworking of this thought. The Bible itself maintains a comparative reticence which we do well to imitate. But it leaves us in no shadow of doubt that adamic man is a fallen man. He is a man who does not merely commit sins but commits sins because he is a sinner and is therefore guilty before God. Paul sums it up in a sentence: we are all ‘by nature the children of wrath’ (Ephesians 2, 3).
But again, the Bible makes it crystal clear that there is no way of salvation except by Jesus Christ alone and therefore by faith in Him. Against the representative figure Adam there is set the representative figure Christ (Romans 5, 15f.), the righteous One who bore the sin of the world (John I, 29) and who is the head of the new creation (I Corinthians 15, 20f.). If there is to be salvation at all it can be only in Christ and on the ground of His righteousness. There is no such thing as an infant righteousness which can stand side by side with the righteousness of Christ. Salvation is exclusively by way of the divine forgiveness. ‘There is none other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved’ (Acts 4, 12). But this also means that it is exclusively by faith in Christ, the faith which is the work of the Holy Spirit identifying us with Jesus Christ. Because we say ‘By Christ alone’ we must also say ‘By faith alone’. ‘Without faith it is impossible to please God’ (Hebrews 11, 6). Infants are either saved by Christ and therefore by faith in Him, or it is difficult to see how they can be saved at all. But if they are saved by Christ and therefore by faith in Him, there is no intrinsic reason why they should be refused the sacrament of salvation and faith.
Can we say, then, that infants, or at any rate some infants, are saved by Christ and therefore by faith in Him? The explanation is not perhaps so very difficult when we remember that salvation is by the substitutionary work of Jesus Christ and faith is by the regenerative activity of the Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ took the place of men. He took the place of all men. He was and is the representative man, identifying Himself with every stage of human life from infancy to manhood. When He died on the cross He took to Himself all sin: ‘The Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53, 6). He made an end of the old man, the sinner, in order that in Him there should be raised up the new man of righteousness. In this representative work of Jesus Christ infants and their sinfulness are clearly included. Infants, too, are sinners in Adam. They are born the old man. But Christ has taken their place too. In His activity for them they have died as old men, sinners, and been raised up as new men. They need not be condemned because of their sinfulness, for there is forgiveness for that sinfulness by the atoning work of the sinner’s substitute. They need not be excluded as the children of Adam, because their life as the children of Adam ended at the cross and in Christ they have a new life as the children of God. This work has been done for them, and their baptism signifies the substitutionary work.
But while we can see that the work has been done for them as for all men, can we say that they really enter into it and share the benefits, so that they are individually redeemed? Again, the answer is not so very difficult if we remember that the faith by which Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us is not primarily a human decision but the regenerative work of the Spirit. Certainly, it is a miracle. But it is no less a miracle that anyone believes in Christ. And we dare not say that it is beyond the capacity of the Holy Spirit to give faith to infants. Even if they do not consciously decide to believe, this is in keeping with their need, for they do not consciously decide to sin. But in such infant awareness as they have, by the inward enlightenment of the Holy Spirit they can be believers in the children’s Saviour. Their baptism signifies the operation of the Spirit by which this infant faith is possible, and therefore their entry into the atoning and renewing work of Jesus Christ.
There remain only two problems. The first is whether this salvation applies to all infants, and if so, when do so many infants apparently cease to be saved? In the light of the divine providence the question is a superfluous one. All that we need to affirm is the twofold fact that children who die in infancy are certainly saved (but only by faith in Christ), and that those who grow to years of discretion need to make a personal decision of faith (although in many cases this may proceed from a work of the Spirit which dates right back to infancy). For the rest, we are left very much in the field of speculation. There are some who hold that original sin is forgiven to all men, which seems most reasonable in the light of Christ’s substitutionary work. Others take it that all infants are saved until they consciously sin or consciously reject Christ. Others embark on a distinction between infant faith and adult faith. Speculations of this kind ought not to be pressed, for the true answer is the secret of the sovereign Spirit: ‘The Lord knoweth them that are His’ (II Timothy 2, 19). But if there is a problem here, it is not so much a problem of infant baptism as of infant salvation generally. If we believe at all, as we must, that infants, or that some infants, are saved, the fact that we do not know this ultimate secret is no reason for withholding the sacrament in the proper cases. For after all, we do not know that all adults who make a profession of faith are saved. The administration of the sacrament cannot be made to suspend on a knowledge of the secrets of the heart.
The final problem is whether on this view we ought not to extend infant baptism to all infants instead of limiting it to the children of professing Christians. Again, the question is really superfluous, for in point of fact most heathen parents do not desire baptism for their children. Nor is there any warrant to administer the covenant sign where God has not set His name and the children will not grow up in the covenant sphere of the word and the Spirit. This does nor preclude the possibility that the children of non-Christians may be saved, as many of the sixteenth century Reformers ventured to hope. What it means is that they do not visibly come within the covenant promise like the children of Christians, and therefore we cannot give them the visible mark. If they die in infancy, they may indeed be saved by the substitutionary work of Christ and the secret operation of the Spirit. Even if they grow to years, they may come under the sound of the Gospel and believe. But outside the visible covenant they cannot meaningfully be baptized in the Triune name. In any case, the question of their baptism will not normally arise.
Of course, many professing parents are Christians only in a very loose and nominal sense. This gives rise to the problem of what is often called indiscriminate baptism. In effect, however, the problem is not one of baptism at all but of church discipline. It cannot arise seriously except in a badly disciplined church or Christian society. The remedy is not to begin by exercising a wholly unwarranted discrimination against the infants who are not responsible, but by insisting upon a proper fulfilment by parents and sponsors of the obligations of their own confession. Where Christians live notoriously irreligious or inconsistent lives, they should be faced with their sin, given the opportunity to repent, and if they refuse to do so properly excommunicated. Where both parents are excommunicated, the right to the covenant sign may properly be withheld unless they are restored, and this should be recognized by all churches. But sporadic discrimination against individuals on the occasion of baptism is no solution to a problem which can be met only by proper action on the part of the church and the churches generally. Indeed, it is not in the context of baptism that the problem ought to be raised, for the right to baptism often rests on many generations of covenant descent and cannot easily be overthrown by the lapse of one generation. In baptism, if anywhere, there is good reason for mercy rather than severity, for the emphasis is on the covenant faithfulness of God rather than the covenant failure of man. Certainly there must be discipline in the church. But discrimination in the administration of baptism is not the proper starting-point.