Rebellious Young People and Children Dying in Infancy

I appreciated the clarity of the series of editorials on "The Covenant of God and the Children of Believers." I have given copies to others. I have two questions on the concluding installment (theStandard Bearer, Sept. 15, 1990). I ask that you answer them in the SB. The first concerns your statement that rebellious young people in the sphere of the covenant are to be disciplined by the church. At what age can a rebellious child be taken by his parents to the elders for discipline? Would not such a child have to be "of age"? Never having read or heard of this in any church, I have no idea what this means, how old the youth might be, or what constitutes behavior serious enough to warrant this. 

My second question has to do with the assertion that the Protestant Reformed view of infants as members of the church and covenant of God brings comfort to parents whose children die in infancy or early childhood. They are assured that their children are saved. If people can accept the fact that some covenant children show in adulthood that they are not believers, why cannot they leave the eternal destiny of their children dying in infancy to the providence of God as well? Why do people sup pose that they must be assured of the salvation of the children dying in infancy? I have always had a hard time understanding what this theological discussion is all about. 

N. P. Jefferson 

Mount Vernon, NY


Children are members of the instituted church by virtue of baptism. They are, therefore, subject to church discipline even before they make public confession of faith, thus becoming members in full standing. In the normal course of life, a child would be in his middle or late teens before he would manifest himself as the proper object of church discipline by ungodliness of life and rebellion against his parents. Deuteronomy 21:18ff. andHebrews 10:25ff. indicate the behavior that requires church discipline in such a case: refusal to attend church and catechism; drunkenness (which today includes drug use), as well as general intemperance of life; and persistent, stubborn disobedience to his parents. That especially which calls for church discipline is his impenitence. Deuteronomy 21:18 teaches this: "when they (the parents) have chastened him, (he) will not hearken unto them." The parents can do nothing with him anymore. There is yet something they can and must do: call in the elders. Of course, the elders will work patiently with such a young person. But if he continues in his wicked life, refusing to repent, the church must excommunicate him. In the case of such a young person who has not yet confessed his faith, the Protestant Reformed Churches practice "erasure," which is disciplinary in nature and takes place after repeated admonitions. 

As to your second question, my assertion concerning children of believers dying in infancy was this: "(The Protestant Reformed covenant view) gives comfort to, parents and children alike. To mention only one aspect of its rich comfort, only this doctrine of the covenant enables believing parents to bring the body of their infant child to the grave without doubting of the election and salvation of the child." I based this on the Canons of Dordt, I/17, to which I also referred:

Since we are to judge of the will of God from His Word, which testifies that the children of believers are holy, not by nature, but in virtue of the covenant of grace, in which they, together with the parents, are comprehended, godly parents have no reason to doubt of the election and salvation of their children, whom if pleaseth God to call out of this life in their infancy.

Herman Hoeksema minimized the importance of this article in the Reformed confession:

This article leaves much to be desired as far as clarify and sharpness of definition are concerned; and it cannot be denied that in the form in which the matter is here cast if really cannot be considered an item for a confession..... From this point of view it certainly would not have been any great loss if Article 17 of Canons, I-A, had never been included (Believers and Their Seed, pp. 146-159).

With this implicit criticism of the article, I do not agree. The article is important both doctrinally and practically. It is important doctrinally. It contains one of the few references to the covenant in our "Three Forms of Unity." It demonstrates that it is historically, creedally, and essentially Reformed to teach that the infant children of believers are included with their parents in the covenant of grace and, therefore, to practice infant baptism The article also makes clear that the Reformed fathers understood the holiness of the children of believers taught in I Corinthians 7:14 as actual holiness worked in the infants by the regenerating Spirit, and not as a mere formal setting apart of the children in the visible church. The article appeals to the words of Paul in I Corinthians 7:14: ". . . else were your children unclean; but now are they holy." The creed explains this holiness as inner, spiritual renewal by the Spirit. For it regards this holiness as proof of the salvation of the children, which, of course, it could not be if it were only the outward setting apart of the children as members of the visible church, as some hold. 

Nor should the practical importance of the article be slighted. First, the Synod of Dordt was exposing the slander of the Arminian foes, that "many children of the faithful are tom, guiltless, from their mothers' breasts, and tyrannically plunged into hell; so that neither baptism, nor the prayers of the Church at their baptism, can at all profit them" (cf. the "Conclusion" of the Canons). The doctrine of predestination as confessed by the Reformed faith implies no such thing. Second, the article comforts grieving parents at the little coffin of their baby by reminding them that the explanation of the death of their little one, regardless of the physical cause of death, is that it pleased God to call the child out of this life. The sovereignty of God, which is the one, great theme of the Canons (as it is of the Reformed faith in its entirety), is applied consistently also to the painful experience of the death of a little child. This too is comfort in Article 17 of the Canons. This keeps God-fearing parents in that dark hour so that they neither faint nor curse. Third, the article offers the comfort that these parents have no reason to doubt the election and salvation of the child who dies in infancy. 

Debate in the Reformed churches over the exact force, and even over the truth, of this consolation often misses the point. The point is simply this: The Reformed faith, rich in comfort, has comfort for godly parents in the death of their little child that no other faith can offer. The comfort is grounded in the covenant that the God who took this child makes with believers and their children. A faith that denies the inclusion of infants in the covenant of grace, e.g., the Baptist faith, can never give this comfort to parents burying a little child. The Reformed faith also has comfort concerning the death of little children because it knows the saving work of God to be sovereign, unconditioned by the activity of the sinner. It does not require repentance and faith as a prerequisite. There is no reason, therefore, why God should not regenerate, give faith to, and sanctify infants. And in fact He does. For, as Paul proclaims in I Corinthians 7:14, the children of believers are holy. The fact that these children die before they are able to believe and to show holiness in their confession and walk does not exclude them from heaven. 

The Canons are forceful in stating this comfort. J. G. Feenstra is correct when he speaks of "a very strong expression" ("een zeer sterke uitdrukking"-cf. his De Dordtse Leerregelen, p. 70). Our English translation is, "godly parents have no reason to doubt." The Latin original is, "pii parentes . . . dubitare non debent," i.e., "godly parents ought not to doubt." The Dutch has, "ZO moeten de Godzalige ouders niet twijfelen," i.e., "therefore godly parents must not doubt." The meaning of the Canons is not that godly parents have no reason to doubt of the election and salvation of their children who die in infancy, but that it is understandable and permissible that they doubt anyway. They may not doubt. They are obliged not to doubt. That which obliges them is the Word of God in Scripture concerning the covenant: I will be your God and the God of your children. 

Why does the Reformed faith insist on this comfort? 

Because the God of all comfort affords also this comfort to His covenant people in their deep sorrow. And the Reformed faith is jealous that God's covenant people enjoy all of the comfort that God wills them to have. 


More related items