Of Elect and Non-elect Infants, A Clarification

Clarifying beliefs is a tricky business. It is hard to explain one’s beliefs to others if there is not a good frame of reference that the person you are addressing can relate to easily. This is especially true when the issue is an emotionally charged one. On the question of whether infants or the mentally retarded go to heaven upon death, one must strive to be very clear on their beliefs and the biblical basis upon which those beliefs are built.
It has been charged that the Reformed view, or Calvinist view, teaches that those babies or mentally retarded persons who are not elect of God will go to hell when they die. This is not the teaching of either Calvin or the Presbyterian church, nor most Reformed believers. At issue is the statement in the Westminster Confession which states “Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated and saved by Christ” (Chap. X. Sec. 3). The charge is that this implies that non-elect infants are lost. Concerning this Dr. S. G. Craig says: “The history of the phrase ‘Elect infants dying in infancy’ makes clear that the contrast implied was not between ‘elect infants dying in infancy’ and ‘non-elect infants dying in infancy,’ but rather between ‘elect infants dying in infancy’ and ‘elect infants living to grow up.’ ” However, in order to guard against misunderstanding, furthered by unfriendly controversialists, the Presbyterian Church in the U. S. A. adopted in 1903 a Declaratory Statement which reads as follows: “With reference to Chapter X, Section 3, of the Confession of Faith, that it is not to be regarded as teaching that any who die in infancy are lost. We believe that all dying in infancy are included in the election of grace, and are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit, who works when and where and how He pleases.” (a)  The Presbyterian view goes beyond the Westminster Confession in stating positively that all infants who die are part of God’s elect but is the clarifying, or logical extension of what was written.
It is this difference that is crucial. The phrase was worded as such to contrast with the belief of the Catholic church that baptized infants were saved but unbaptized infants were not. Since the Reformed churches do not believe baptism confers saving grace, they were setting out their beliefs to reflect this. For what Calvin taught, I defer to Dr. R. A. Webb: “Calvin teaches that all the reprobate ‘procure’—(that is his own word)—’procure’ their own destruction; and they procure their destruction by their own personal and conscious acts of ‘impiety,’ ‘wickedness,’ and ‘rebellion.’ Now reprobate infants, though guilty of original sin and under condemnation, cannot, while they are infants, thus ‘procure’ their own destruction by their personal acts of impiety, wickedness, and rebellion. They must, therefore, live to the years of moral responsibility in order to perpetrate the acts of impiety, wickedness and rebellion, which Calvin defines as the mode through which they procure their destruction. While, therefore, Calvin teaches that there are reprobate infants, and that these will be finally lost, he nowhere teaches that they will be lost as infants, and while they are infants; but, on the contrary, he declares that all the reprobate ‘procure’ their own destruction by personal acts of impiety, wickedness and rebellion. Consequently, his own reasoning compels him to hold (to be consistent with himself), that no reprobate child can die in infancy; but all such must live to the age of moral accountability, and translate original sin into actual sin.” (b)
So, to clarify, the classic Reformed view does teach that all infants who die are part of the elect. There are those who hold differing opinions, of course, but the original teachings were that God’s grace saves those who cannot save themselves – which is precisely the point of the gospel. No one can save themselves, it is a gift of a gracious and merciful God made possible by the atoning work of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Adults are just as helpless, spiritually speaking, to affect salvation in their own life as an infant is. All people, no matter the age, need the Holy Spirit to “quicken” (make alive) their spirit. Praise be to God that He graciously provides for us what we cannot provide for ourselves. As Ta Ethne works with believers of differing interpretations of doctrines, it is important not to charge someone with believing something that isn’t necessarily true. Here, we hold to this particular belief about infants and the mentally disabled — that God in His grace provides them His salvation.


a — http://www.ccel.org/ccel/boettner/predest.iv.iii.xi.html

b — Calvin Memorial Addresses, p 112