How the Doctrine of Election Can Offer Comfort in Tragedy (Digging into Dort, Point 1, Part 5)

One of the most surprising and remarkable things I found when I started “Digging into Dort” in preparation of this series is that the Canons of Dort address a question I am often asked as a pastor, but one that is not mentioned in the more widely known and read Reformed statements of faith like the Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, or Westminster Confession and Catechisms. This concern is the fate of infants who die. This topic is a perennial pastoral issue because death is often feared and a great tragedy in our world is the death of young children. (This was an even greater issue at the time of the writing of the Canons of Dort since infant mortality rates at that period were much higher than they are today.) The Conclusion to the Canons of Dort (“Rejection of False Teachings”) states that some people claimed that the Reformed doctrine meant that “many infant children of believers are snatched in their innocence from their mothers’ breast and cruelly cast into hell so that neither the blood of Christ nor their baptism can be of any use to them,” and the Canons of Dort addresses this issue in the First Main Point.

False Accusations Addressed

In particular, Article 17 of the First Main Point of the Canons of Dort shows that this teaching is a false accusation, stating, “Since we must make judgments about God's will from his Word, which testifies that the children of believers are holy, not by nature but by virtue of the gracious covenant in which they together with their parents are included, godly parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom God calls out of this life in infancy.” It tells believers that their children who die in infancy are holy and thus part of God’s covenant people by virtue of being part of a believing family. A similar idea appears with a little more explanation in the Counter Remonstrants of 1611 (a response to the 1610 document produced by the followers of Jacob Arminius known as the Remonstrance of 1610, which set forth the Five Points that the Canons of Dort dealt with) as it states that the church (rightfully) taught that “not only adults who believe in Christ and accordingly walk worthy of the gospel are to be reckoned as God’s elect children, but also the children of the covenant so long as they do not in their conduct manifest the contrary; and that therefore believing parents, when their children die in infancy, have no reason to doubt the salvation of their infants.”

A Point of Agreement

Interestingly, this seems to be a point of agreement between both groups in the debates at the time of the Synod, as one of the writings of the Remonstrants says this, “All the children of believers are sanctified in Christ, so that no one of them who leaves this life before the use of reason will perish. By no means, however, are to be considered among the number of the reprobate certain children of believers who leave this life in infancy before they have committed any actual sin in their own persons, so that neither the holy bath of baptism nor the prayers of the church for them can in any way be profitable for their salvation.” It goes on to also say this, “No children of believers who have been baptized in the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit, living in a state of infancy, are reckoned among the reprobate by an absolute decree.” (quotations from the Counter Remonstrants and Opinions of the Remonstrants are taken from the translation of these works found in Matthew Barrett, The Grace of Godliness: An Introduction to Doctrine and Piety in the Canons of Dort [Kitchener, Ontario: Joshua, 2013]). Therefore, both groups hold the same position. That being said, I wonder if the statement of the Remonstrants puts too much emphasis on baptism, causing one to think that this what would cause salvation.

Looking to Scripture

Overall, this is a tough topic to deal with, not only because it deals with tragic situations, but also because we do not have a Bible verse that gives an explicit answer -- we have to come to one through good and necessary deductions from the Scripture. One of the primary places people turn for discussion on this topic is 2 Samuel 12:15-23, as David mourns the loss of his child and states that he will see him again, implying that they will be reunited in the resurrection of believers. This would point to the salvation of this child. [For more on the discussion of what happens when infants die, see this great post by Samuel Storms, a pastor who lives in Oklahoma:]

Comfort Given

This agreement about the fate of infants is remarkable in light of the number of differences that existed between the two groups and should give Christians even more confidence in this truth, giving comfort to believing families who experience the horrible loss of a child. Therefore, regardless of where one stands on other topics discussed in the Canons of Dort, one can both receive and give comfort from this teaching.


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