Infant Salvation As Related to Original Sin



In order to a correct understanding of the Calvinistic doctrine of the salvation of infants, it is necessary to remember tiie two theories of original sin which began in the August in ian and Semi-Pelagian anthropologies, and are continued in the Calvinistic and Arminian. They differ essentially from each other, and result in essentially different views of infant salvation.

The Augnstinian doctrine is that original sin is damning, and that infants deserve eternal death on account of it. Being fallen in Adam, they have a corrupt disposition or inclination, which is both voluntary and responsible. It is the self in its central and inmost self-determination. Though the infant has committed no acts of known and wilful transgression, yet his heart is estranged from God, and his will is at enmity with the holy law of God. When be comes to years of consciousness he feels guilty for this estrangement and this enmity, and this proves that it is guilt. An infant, therefore, needs salvation because be is really culpable and punishable. He reqnires the whole work of the Redeemer, both as expiating guilt and cleansing from pollution.

The Semi-Pelagian doctrine is, that original sin is not damning; that neither infants nor adults deserve eternal punishment on account of it. Only actual transgression merits hell. Upon this theory original sin is calamitous, not culpable, and therefore the dying infant is not in a strictly damnable and lost condition. He has a disordered nature which tempts and prompts to sin, but is not sin itself. Consequently when he is said to be " saved," the term does not mean, as it does on the other theory, that he is delivered from the pains of hell as something that might justly be inflicted upon him.

If the first of these views of original sin is adopted, the salvation of dying infants, whether of some or of all, is an act of unobliged and unmerited grace. It is salvation from deserved eternal death. By reason of original sin the infant is truly culpable before the law and justice of God. He might be punished eternally for it, and no injustice would be done to him. His salvation, therefore, is as unmerited and optional as that of an adult. God has a just liberty to decide whether he will leave all infants in sin and misery, or whether he will regenerate and save all of them or a part of them. These things follow if the premise that original sin is guilt is correct.

If the second of these views of original sin is adopted, the " salvation " of dying infants is not real but nominal and putative, because it is not grace but debt. If there be no culpability in original sin, there is none resting upon the infant; for this is all the sin he has. If he does not deserve hell punishment, he does not need to be saved from it, and is not saved from it. His moral condition is one of misfortune, not of guilt. His so-called " salvation," therefore, cannot be regulated like that of an adult by the sovereign, nnobliged, and optional decision of God. No infants can justly be sent to perdition for original sin. All must be "saved"from its consequences, whatever these may be. These are the necessary inferences from this view of original sin, and they are embodied in the declaration that " it would be unjust and wrong in God to send innocent and harmless infants to perdition."

Now, it is plain that whichever of these two views of original sin be correct, the doctrine of infant salvation cannot be the same upon one that it is upon the other. Neither can there be a blending or mixing of one with the other. It is sometimes said that the extension of election by the later Calvinism, so as to include all infants as a class instead of a part of them as individuals, is a departure from the Calvinistic system, and a considerable modification of it in the direction of Arminianism. But there is nothing of this, provided the Calvinistic view of original sin is retained strictly and fully. So long as the later Calvinist holds with the elder, that "every sin, both original and actual, being a transgression of the righteous law of God, doth in its own nature bring guilt upon the sinner, whereby he is bound over to the wrath of God, and made subject to death, temporal and eternal" (Confess, vi. 6), he stands upon the very same theological ground with him. He adopts the same definitions of sin, of guilt, of salvation, of grace, of regeneration, and of election. The only point of difference is the minor one relating to the diameter of the circle of election. The only question between the parties is, How many guilty and lost dying infants does the infinite and unmerited mercy of God regenerate and save from eternal death? Though the elder Calvinist did not, like the later, say that infant salvation is classical, not individual, he yet prepared the way for it, by distinguishing between infants that are saved by " covenanted " mercy and those that are 6aved by "nncovenanted." Even Augustine indirectly worked toward this widening of the circle of infant election in his assertion that the sufferings of lost infants are "mitissima omnium." He held with great positiveness that original sin in an infant is the inclination of the will descending and inherited from Adam, and as such is free agency and wrong agency, and as such is punishable with the just penalty of sin. It would therefore have been more seIf-cousistent and logical in him, not to have minimized as he did the punishment due to original sin in an infant, but rather to have magnified the divine mercy in saving all infants from it instead of only a part of them. It would have been more self-consistent and logical, we say, because the verdict of justice is a fixed quantity respecting the intrinsic demerit of original sin, whether in an infant or an adult, and may be neither increased nor diminished, but mercy may be more or less. Justice cannot give two decisions as to whether original sin deserves eternal death; but mercy can give two decisions as to whether it will or will not pardon it. Augustine might therefore have affirmed the exact and full retribution due to original sin in the case of infants as in that of adults, and then have affirmed with the later Calvinist that the infinite compassion of God frees all of them from the dreadful guilt and penalty by the blood of atonement. In this instance, where sin abounded grace would superabound. The greater the penalty to which the infant is exposed, the greater the mercy in remitting it. The salvation of an infant in this case means something. Infant salvation is real; for it is the deliverance of a soul that is really guilty and liable to endless woe. And it is costly; for it is by the sacrificial death of God incarnate.

But if the other view of original sin, namely, that it is not properly sin, and does not deserve or bring eternal death, is adopted in connection with the universal salvation of dying infants, then indeed there will be a very great departure from the Calvinistic system. Another meaning is given to " sin " and to " salvation." The evil from which the infant is "saved" is very small, and the kindness showed to him is very small also. A "painted sinner," as Luther said, has only a " painted Saviour." It was this view of original sin as not damning, that made many Calvinists in the seventeenth century afraid to affirm the salvation of all infants; because at that time the two views were combined together by the Arminians. Arminian advocates of universal infant salvation rested it upon the ground that it would be unjust to eondemn infants to perdition solely because of original sin. Their Calvinistic opponents, such as Owen, for example, regarded this as a fatal error, leading logically to conclusions respecting the nature of sin and salvation, from which probably some of the evangelical Arminians themselves would have shrunk. Had the doctrine of the guilt and damnability of original sin in infants been conceded, it is highly probable that Calvinists generally of that century might have been more ready, with Calvinists generally of this, to make the circle of election large enough to include all dying infants, and not a part only. For they had no disposition to contract and minimize the extent of God's decree of election, but every disposition to widen it, provided Scripture gave wan-ant for it. In the present controversy respecting the revision of the Westminster Standards, this difference between the two views of original sin should be kept distinctly in mind. The Confession is explicit in teaching the culpability of original sin; and we have seen no proposition to strike this teaching out of it. This tenet, consequently, must go along with that of infant salvation. The mercy of God saves the " little children " from the very same common depravity and guilt that is in their parents, and from the very same dreadful penalty that righteously overhangs " the carnal mind, which is enmity against God, is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be" (Ilom. 8: 7). In this case, the mercy of God is immense, because it pardons and eradicates an immense sin; for the sin of heart and inclination is greater than that of act and outward conduct, because it is the source and poison of the whole of: it. On the other theory, the mercy of God is small; for the only sin that is really forgiven, is that of actual transgression.

The doctrine of the damnation of infants is tempered and mitigated by that of their salvation. This is often overlooked, either ignorantly or designedly, by the opponents of Calvinism. It does not follow that because a human being deserves to go to hell for sin, he actually will go there. His sin may be pardoned and eradicated. The truth, but not the whole truth, is told, when it is merely said that Calvinism teaches the damnation of infants. It teaches their salvation also. This is true even if the salvation is only of the infants of believers, as in the elder Calvinism; and is still more so, if the salvation is of all infants as in the later Calvinism. 'When, therefore, the enemy of this creed stops with the first statement, he is like a false witness in court, who after relating one fact, is silent upon another which ought to be mentioned along with it, and which is reqnisite in order to put the judge and jury in possession of the whole case. A falsehood may be told concerning a theological system, as well by not speaking the whole truth, as b}' uttering a direct lie. And there is considerable of such falsehood current Augustine and Calvin both held that infants, like adults, are children of Adam, responsibly sinned and fell with him in the first transgression, and are jnstly involved with him in the same condemnation to eternal death. "In Adam all die," 1 Cor. 15 : 22. But both alike held that the saving grace of God pardons and eradicates original sin in infants, upon the same principles, and by the same method of election that it pardons and eradicates any and all sin, namely, through the vicarious satisfaction of Christ and the regenerating operation of the Holy Spirit. It is true that they did not find proof in Scripture that infant election is classical, and therefore left it individual like that of adults. But had they, like their successors in the Modern church, seen reason in the Word of God for believing that the Divine mercy is extended to all infants as infants, instead of to a part, they would have gladly affirmed this. It is only a question of exegesis between them and their successor's; and this turns upon the point whether the Saviour's declaration, " Of such is the kingdom of God," means, " Of all such," or, " Of some of such."

On page 132 we contend that the first is the most natural understanding of the words of Christ, and we also think that it is the most natural understanding of the Assembly's phraseology respecting " elect infants dying in infancy." There are two interpretations of this Confessional phrase. One makes the antithesis to be, " non-elect infants dying in infancy ;" the other makes it to be, "elect infants not dying in infancy." According to the first view, the contrast is between the elect and the nonelect, in which case the election of dying infants is individual. There are some non-elect dying infants. According to the last, it is between two different classes of the elect, in which case the election of dying infants is classical. There are no non-elect dying infants. That the last view is the correct one is evident, for the following reasons:

1. Whenever the contrast between the elect and nonelect is intended in the Westminster Standards, both classes are particularly mentioned and particularly described. See Con. iii. 3, 6, 7; L. C. 13, 68. But in Con. x. 3, when dying infants are spoken of, mention is made only of the elect, and a description is given of them alone. In view, therefore, of the fact that the Assembly invariably mention and describe the non-elect in connection witb tbe elect, whenever, in their opinion, there are any non-elect, the natural inference from this silence of the Assembly concerning non-elect dying infants is, that they did not mean to teach that there are any.

2. All of the elect are elected as infants in the womb. Jer. 1:5; Luke 1: 15; Eom. 9: 10-12; Gal. 1: 15. There is no election of men as adults or in adult years. Consequently, the phrase ''elect infants" is the only one that designates the entire body of the elect. As in law, "infants " means all persons under age, so in the Westminster theology, " elect infants " means all persons who are chosen to eternal life " before the foundation of the world." This being so, "elect infants" fall into three classes with reference to the time of their death and their regeneration. (a) "Elect infants "who die in infancy and are regenerated in infancy. (5) " Elect infants" who do not die in infancy but are regenerated in infancy, (c) "Elect infants" who do not die in infancy but are regenerated in years of discretion. The object of the declaration in Con. x. 3, is to describe the manner in which the regeneration of the first class of "elect infants " (and, incidentally, also of the second) is effected as compared with that of the third class. It declares that such "elect infants" as die in infancy "are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit," without the outward call and conviction of sin. This distinguishes them (and also, incidentally, the second class, who also are regenerated in infancy but do not die in infancy) from the third class of "elect infants," who come to years of discretion, and not having been regenerated in infancy, are then "regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit," in connection with the outward call and conviction of sin by the law, written or unwritten. The true antithesis, consequently, to "elect infants dying in infancy " is " elect infants not dying in infancy," and not non-elect infants dying in infancy.

That this is the correct interpretation of the phrase, "elect infants," is corroborated by the fact that the original draft of the tenth chapter of the Confession did not contain this third section, being wholly silent concerning dying elect infants and elect heathen; and the Assembly instructed its committee to insert a section relating (a) to the manner of regeneration when there can be no outward call by the ministry of the Word and no conviction of sin, as in the case of elect infants dying in infancy; and (5) to the manner of regeneration in the case of " all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the [written] Word," but who are capable of conviction of sin through the instrumentality of the unwritten. These latter belong to the third class of "elect infants." An adult heathen who was elected in infancy but not regenerated in infancy, is "regenerated by Christ through the Spirit who worketh when, and where, and how he pleaseth." The regeneration in this instance occurs in adult years, and is effected in connection with conviction of sin; but the instrument employed by the divine Spirit in this conviction is not the written law, but the unwritten, spoken of by St. Paul in Rom. 2: 14, 15.