Saving faith in infants

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Irenaeus

Puritan Board Freshman
Regrettably, I don't have my copy of the Institutes immediately at hand to give a specific citation. I gather from my recent reading that Calvin does not believe infants to be capable of saving faith. It's not the only place I've read such a belief (for instance, it's stated on the PRCA website).

Please correct me if I'm wrong in seeing this as a common assumption, but I'm interested to know how one arrives at this belief. Augustine in the Confessions speaks of the ability of infants to manifest hatred, jealousy, and greed from an early age. Why would they not also be capable, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, of exercising real saving faith?
 

Ioannes

Puritan Board Freshman
Others can provide a better answer, but regarding Calvin's belief of whether or not infants can be saved, his section on pedobaptism addresses this. Book 4, Ch. 16., especially sections 17-19.

Link to Ch. 16 https://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.vi.xvii.html

From section 17: "In fine, if Christ speaks truly when he declares that he is life, we must necessarily be ingrafted into him by whom we are delivered from the bondage of death. But how, they ask, are infants regenerated, when not possessing a knowledge of either good or evil? We answer, that the work of God, though beyond the reach of our capacity, is not therefore null. Moreover, infants who are to be saved (and that some are saved at this age is certain) must, without question, be previously regenerated by the Lord. For if they bring innate corruption with them from their mother’s womb, they must be purified before they can be admitted into the kingdom of God, into which shall not enter anything that defileth (Rev. 21:27). If they are born sinners, as David and Paul affirm, they must either remain unaccepted and hated by God, or be justified. And why do we ask more, when the Judge himself publicly declares, that “except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God”? (John 3:3.) But to silence this class of objectors, God gave, in the case of John the Baptist, whom he sanctified from his mother’s womb (Luke 1:15), a proof of what he might do in others. They gain nothing by the quibble to which they here resort—viz. that this was only once done, and therefore it does not forthwith follow that the Lord always acts thus with infants. That is not the mode in which we reason. Our only object is to show, that they unjustly and malignantly confine the power of God within limits, within which it cannot be confined. As little weight is due to another subterfuge. They allege that, by the usual phraseology of Scripture, “from the womb,” has the same meaning as “from childhood.” But it is easy to see that the angel had a different meaning when he announced to Zacharias that the child not yet born would be filled with the Holy Spirit. Instead of attempting to give a law to God, let us hold that he sanctifies whom he pleases, in the way in which he sanctified John, seeing that his power is not impaired."
 

J.L. Allen

Puritan Board Sophomore
At first look over, I like the wording of the highlighted paragraph on the PRCA website. As you have mentioned in Augustine's work, children display sinful tendencies from a very early age. No one taught them; they just display it. They, like all of us, need the Holy Spirit's conviction upon them. Yes, it's true that they cannot give mental assent to the Gospel, and I don't at all understand how saving faith gifted to you at such a young age would be experienced. This is the same in more severe cases of mental retardation as well. Yet, God is good to save those who would be easily overlooked as especially unworthy by the society in which we dwell.
 

Jerusalem Blade

Puritan Board Post-Graduate
Hello JP @Irenaeus,

It would depend on what is meant by “saving faith”. Does it mean a rational profession of belief, or does it mean a regeneration resulting in knowing God?

Medical doctors discern that babies only a few hours old can distinguish the voice of their mothers from the voices of other women. It is likewise clear that an infant bonding with his or her mother similarly distinguishes her from others, and knows her presence, her heart. Cannot infants likewise know the voice of their God? Or more pertinently, His presence, and heart? Not by cerebral knowledge, but by a deeper knowing in the heart. We have a Scriptural example of this in Luke’s account of Mary visiting her cousin Elizabeth.

In Luke 1:41 we see Mary entering into Elizabeth’s home and calling out in greeting to her. At the moment of her hearing Mary’s voice, the at-least-6-month-old John in her womb leaped for joy, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. Six-or-seven-month-old John, hearing the mother of his Lord’s voice through Elizabeth’s ears gave John a thrill of gladness.

Little John may not have had the words to express himself, but his heart leaped for joy – for the eternal One he was sent to herald was near him! Less than a year earlier the angel Gabriel had told John’s father concerning John, that “he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb” (Luke 1:15).

Centuries earlier Moses spoke to this sort of thing, when he said to God’s elect people,

And the LORD thy God will circumcise thine heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live. (Deut 30:6)​
A crucial matter is when this heart circumcision of the children was effected, and what it consisted of. We know of John the Baptist that he was sanctified / set apart in his mother’s womb, regenerated – while yet unborn – by the Holy Spirit. Calvin says of this,

Let us not attempt, then, to impose a law upon God to keep him from sanctifying whom he pleases, just as he sanctified this child, inasmuch as his power is not lessened. (Institutes, Book IV, chapter XVI, Sect. 17; Battles Edition)​

Slightly earlier Calvin says,

But how ([the Anabaptists] ask) are infants, unendowed with knowledge of good or evil, regenerated? We reply that God’s work, though beyond our understanding, is still not annulled. Now it is perfectly clear that those infants who are to be saved (as some are surely saved from that early age) are previously regenerated by the Lord. For if they bear with them an inborn corruption from their mother’s womb, they must be cleansed of it before they can be admitted into God’s kingdom, for nothing polluted or defiled may enter there (Rev. 21:27). If they are born sinners, as both David and Paul affirm (Eph. 2:3; Ps. 51:5), either they remain unpleasing and hateful to God, or they must be justified. And what further do we seek, when the Judge himself plainly declares that entry into heavenly life opens only to men who are born anew (John 3:3)? (Ibid.)​

Thus John the Baptist (as noted above) and Jeremiah are exemplars of the Lord working in this manner with children. Did He not say to young Jeremiah,

Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations. (Jer 1:5)​

Talking of Christ, Calvin says,

Truly Christ was sanctified from earliest infancy in order that he might sanctify in himself his elect from every age without distinction. For, to wipe out the guilt of the disobedience which had been committed in our flesh, he took that very flesh that in it, for our sake, and in our stead, he might achieve perfect obedience. Thus, he was conceived of the Holy Spirit in order that, in the flesh taken, fully imbued with the holiness of the Spirit, he might impart that holiness to us. If we have in Christ the most perfect example of all the graces which God bestows upon his children, in this respect also he will be for us proof that the age of infancy is not utterly averse to sanctification. (Ibid., Sect. 18)​

In sum:

1. This is not “baptismal regeneration” in the children’s cases, as the regeneration occurred prior to baptism, and similarly in the old dispensation with circumcision – though sometimes conversion occurred later in life, either in childhood or adulthood. Neither does the promise – in its essential form in the Deuteronomy 30:6 quote above – warrant the assurance that all the children of believers are elect, which we have ample evidence concerning in the Scriptures. Yet we raise them as if they were, for such is our loving duty.

2. Examples: Was not Jacob separated unto God from the womb? (Gen 25:23) Was not Samson “a Nazarite unto God from the womb”? (Judges 13:5) Was not Samuel devoted to the LORD from the womb? (1 Sam 1:11, 19) Was not David (as well as his greater Son)? Psalm 22:9, 10; 139:13–16.

As to calling this what sometimes occurs in babes in the womb, “saving faith”, or simply regeneration, consider what Alexander Nisbet in his Commentary on 1st & 2nd Peter (Banner of Truth, p. 25) says of faith: “. . . it being the nature of true faith to make the thing it closes with spiritually present to the soul.”

Is this not the very case with the children spoken of above? I’ll finish with God’s word:

Gen 17:7 And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee.​
 
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Romans922

Puritan Board Professor
The PRCA doesn’t believe in the free offer nor common Grace. In the end, if John was regenerated in the womb then how can anyone say any other child could not be?
 

Charles Johnson

Puritan Board Sophomore
The PRCA doesn’t believe in the free offer nor common Grace. In the end, if John was regenerated in the womb then how can anyone say any other child could not be?
Some hold that a child can be regenerate without possessing faith, which involves the use of reason. Brakel has a rather lengthy discussion where he asserts this view and rejects what is called seed faith. Others assert that infants lack adult faith but at least have what they term seed faith. So the simple answer to your query is that many do not deny children can be regenerate when they deny they can have faith or adult faith.
 

Romans922

Puritan Board Professor
Some hold that a child can be regenerate without possessing faith, which involves the use of reason. Brakel has a rather lengthy discussion where he asserts this view and rejects what is called seed faith. Others assert that infants lack adult faith but at least have what they term seed faith. So the simple answer to your query is that many do not deny children can be regenerate when they deny they can have faith or adult faith.
Too much of man’s reason, not enough sticking to the secret things belong to the Lord and leaving it be like the Divines who said “Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated, and saved by Christ, through the Spirit, who worketh when, and where, and how he pleaseth: so also are all other elect persons who are uncapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word.”
 

Irenaeus

Puritan Board Freshman
Thank you all for these thoughts. I have more questions, but the mind needs some time to find them into words and sentences. :)
 

Irenaeus

Puritan Board Freshman
My issue is as follows:

I incline toward the belief that infants can, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, exercise real saving faith. I am concerned that this inclination places me outside of the Reformed consensus on the topic (though I gather from this thread that I am not completely alone in my thinking, at least).

My reason, however, for inclining in this direction: to assert that infants are incapable of exercising saving faith, or that infants don't have the knowledge of good and evil, seems to undermine teachings that appear to me critical to Reformed theology. Specifically, this line of reasoning seems to open up another way of salvation by omitting that element of faith. It also, to my mind, undermines the doctrine of total depravity to assert that infants do not have the knowledge of good and evil. Worse is when I hear people argue (perhaps carelessly and without thinking through their words) that covenant children are saved because they are covenant children. If that isn't salvation by proxy (i.e., your good works secure someone else's spot in heaven), or a renewal of the Jewish concept of salvation by heredity, I don't know what is.

When Adam and Eve ate of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they obtained that knowledge for themselves and all humanity after them. An infant does express emotions and make choices. We see this plainly in the varied behaviors and personalities of infants evident from birth. An infant smiles, cries, reacts to its environment in various ways. If an infant's mind seems impenetrable to us and at the level of an animal, I simply argue that an infant has a soul and so is capable of emotion and reason in some form. And, as far as saving faith goes - an infant is capable of great faith that its mother's breast or a bottle will provide life-giving sustenance. Why should it be capable, under the Spirit's guiding, of real saving faith?

So, where have I gone wrong, if indeed I have?
 

Contra_Mundum

Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger
Staff member
Perhaps, a helpful way of thinking about this would be to distinguish the faculty of saving faith from the exercise of said faith. When we say in our doctrine that we are saved through (instrumentally) faith, we are speaking of the ordinary means by which the benefits of our redemption come into our possession. We mean the exercise of our faith, which faculty (hence also its exercise) is itself part of the gift of our salvation. We are given the ability to believe as part of the salvation "package" even as it is immediately engaged for our reception of God's grace to us. Dead Lazarus heard the command of Christ to "Rise!" The very word that raised him again to life gave him the receptive faculty of hearing, and hearing he obeyed.

I think of God saving infants (however many he saves), and in his mercy he calls and regenerates (by some means other than the external preached word of ordinary means, since these like some others cannot take advantage of the ordinary); and in such an act he grants them the receptive faculty which we call faith. The difference is: being the age they are, they don't exercise the faculty we see exercised by those elect who come of age in this world. Rather, dying our of this world, they only ever perfectly grow thereafter in their spirits in the grace and knowledge of their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, doing so in his glorious presence. Having been given the only faculty that can exercise saving faith (as do all those saved in this world), these may be said to have faith and so "please God," Heb.11:6, even if they lack the full capacity of faith's exercise (so not saved "through faith" in the ordinary sense).

The idea some in the tradition seem to want to move away from is the idea of faith-as-seed, planted within (maybe at baptism, or baptism is witness to implantation), which seems like a different thing from what I'm suggesting. In the notion of "seed" (rather than a faculty) there is a kind of homunculus of the faith-to-be-exercised, something in the gift waiting to spring forth fully formed at a future moment--which clearly hasn't happened in the case of dying infants. But if, rather, we think of the faculty of saving faith being a power to hear/see/apprehend spiritually, then we can appreciate how if given early to a covenant-child, that child begins to test and to use the faculty according to his age, growing (in this life) in his understanding of this gift, in a way analogous to his growing understanding of his bodily gifts, his sensory gifts, or his intellectual gifts, etc.

In this way he "comes to faith," that is to the saving knowledge of Christ that he embraces (ideally) and may never know a lurching moment of reorienting transition from death to life--though that will also be the experiential case for some covenant children. There is always a transition, but for some it is a radical "change to the slope" (-/+, first derivative for you calculus types) and for others it is nearly imperceptible move along the curve. But for the infant who doesn't live in this world with a chance to so note the exercise, there is simply an apprehension of Christ, recognizing him in the Spirit as well as he might have recognized his earthly mother desipte his limited earth-faculties. There can be no ups-and-downs with this one's faith-become-sight, because his awareness (glowing in the light of heaven) can only move in the direction of perfection.

Again, to sum up, if by "faith" one cannot help but include the exercise of faith in the conception, then no infant is "saved through faith" because the full tripartite faith measure (knowledge, assent, trust) is not present in the nature of the case. However, if one regards the faculty of saving faith as faith-itself, and if one thinks of the instinctive "trust" such an elect child dying in infancy must have as soon as he encounters the face of the Savior who he is able to recognize on account of the gift, then it seems fitting to me that we appreciate the rudiments of faith may be found very early in our covenant children.
 

Irenaeus

Puritan Board Freshman
Rev. Buchanan,

How do we know that infants are incapable of the exercise of the saving faith that they possess? The "apprehension of Christ" that you mention, analogizing it to recognition of an earthly mother, looks to me very much like an exercise of faith.

And, while I appreciate the distinction between the faculty of faith and the exercise of said faculty, that still does not solve for me the problem noted above. If, for people "of age", the faculty of faith is inseparably tied to its exercise, and infants are incapable of the exercise, then this still amounts to a different set of rules for infants. In fact it appears to be an argument for an implicit faith of sorts.
 

KMK

Administrator
Staff member
If I were a Paedobaptist, I would cling to the words of the Canons of Dort, Article 17:

Article 17: The Salvation of the Infants of Believers​

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.
 

Contra_Mundum

Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger
Staff member
Irenaeus/JP,

Implicit faith isn't faith-in-the-object, the proper Object of faith being Christ. Implicit faith is a description of the attitude that says: I believe whatever it is the church (or whoever) believes. Implicit faith is not what we think children possess, if they possess saving faith or the faculty of faith. We don't argue that the child is helped to heaven piggybacking on mom&dad's faith. No one is saved because he believes in someone else who is believing in Christ. But that is some fair description of what Rome teaches its members about their obligation. "Trust Us," is that motto.

But for our part, we never settle for "trust us;" nor do we begin with that. It is not enough for a child or for anyone to rest in the greater faith of someone else, or to benefit from belonging to the "true" church.

Do you recognize full, confessionally defined faith as notitia, assensus, and fiducia? This is how we define saving faith in its full representation, as expressive of the connectional relationship between the subject (believer), the Object (Christ), faith being the instrument of connection procuring the benefits of the relationship flowing from the Object to the subject.

If you recognize that, then it seems reasonable to admit that a child doesn't 1) gain knowledge/information; 2) nor can he assent/admit the trustworthiness, receiving as someone of more mature years; 3) yet, it seems as if he (as, for example, the case of John the Baptist in the womb) can be granted the end of the triplet, that is to apprehend and have the emotative trust, the resting in Christ--and not in anything short of Him.

Now, that to me speaks to two things. On the one hand, it isn't saving faith according to the definition. On the other hand, it is possession of the end or telos of faith, and is an especially pure exhibit of that simple "trust of a little child." What is saving about this simple trust is that it is in the True and Proper Object.

Imagine the child with a sad condition of trusting in a worthless parent. Imagine the poor fool who trusts the empty backpack he thought was his parachute. In the latter case, the "knowledge" portion of "faith" was sorely lacking. There is also a lack of knowledge, or even assent in the former case; but the real tragedy is the danger the parent poses to the child, rather than the safety that ought to be his lot from trusting the inherently trustworthy.

I don't think there's basic error if you prefer to accept the child has faith, seeing he has the end of faith, i.e. trust in the secure Object i.e. Christ. He has that apprehension by grace, and it is by faith's fiducia (if minus to start with the full prior steps to resting; he certainly grows in grace and knowledge in heaven thus validating his trust). But if you understand: some say faith can't be present absent the triplex condition, you may still agree in the result, though the language presents an obstacle to formal consent.

Blessings...
 

lynnie

Puritan Board Graduate
You might want to dig up BB Warfield on this. He believed all dying babies go to heaven. You can ague that his position is neither biblical or confessional, but its worth a read mainly because it is Warfield. Maybe somebody can find you a link.

I hope he is right :)
 

Jerusalem Blade

Puritan Board Post-Graduate
From pastor Bruce’s post #10, which says simply and clearly the gist of it:

“I think of God saving infants (however many he saves), and in his mercy he calls and regenerates (by some means other than the external preached word of ordinary means, since these like some others cannot take advantage of the ordinary); and in such an act he grants them the receptive faculty which we call faith. The difference is: being the age they are, they don’t exercise the faculty we see exercised by those elect who come of age in this world.”​

The Lord draws near a child in the womb and lets the child know Him [“grants them the receptive faculty which we call faith”] – makes him or her alive unto Him, alive unto God, apart from any “reckoning” or volitional activity, simply such knowing as only an infant or profoundly disabled person can. The LORD can do this, and we see in Scripture does do it.

“He who says it simplest says it best.”
 
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