Mailbag #24: What Happens to Infants Who Die; Thinking through Civil Disobedience; Calling Out False Teachers by Name
Recently you posted an answer to the question: “Is conscious faith in Christ necessary for salvation?” In your answer you stated that conscious faith was necessary and that hearing the gospel was necessary. Does that mean that no small baby children that die are saved, or do they possess a conscious faith and if so is it only if somebody preached the gospel to them?
You raise one of the more emotionally fraught questions imaginable. From what I can tell, most of the contemporary voices I would look to for answers say that small children or babies who die do go to heaven, including John Piper, John MacArthur (and here), R. C. Sproul, and Al Mohler and Danny Akin. Each of them offers a compelling argument. Older sources, like the Westminster Confession or the Canons of Dort, maintain that elect infants are saved. Tim Challies provides a nice round up of the views here.
To be sure, it’s not difficult to imagine how someone might make a theological argument (combining Bible and logic) on either side. Either we point to the fallenness and guilt of all humankind, or we point to the mercy of God and the fact that infants are incapable of belief and therefore seemingly not culpable in the same way. Both arguments are tidy.
But the question does not simply raise a theological puzzle to be solved. It requires tremendous pastoral care, and part of that pastoral care, I think, means being forthright about what the Bible does and does not say.
For as strong as the emotional pull is to say, “Yes, they all go to heaven,” there just might be reasons why the Bible does not say that as clearly as we wish. Andrew Wilson makes this point well. Wilson observes,
A few years ago, I was on a conference panel with two friends, fielding questions from teenagers. Someone asked this question, and one of my friends suggested a thought experiment. “Imagine,” he said, “that one passage in Scripture gave a clear answer. Let’s say this text undoubtedly affirmed that all infants who died before age, say, 5 would be saved. If that were the case, some sick cult would have emerged that killed children before they reached age 5, in order to send them to heaven. Cults have been founded on much less.”
And we can think of other reasons for why Scripture might be silent on this topic. Maybe Christian doctors would work less hard to save the life of a sick infant. Maybe Christians would be less vigorous in their opposition to abortion. Maybe Christians would take less care in evangelizing the mentally handicapped. Maybe the knowledge that children go to heaven would lessen the burden some parents feel to disciple their children from a young age. Whether you buy any of these possible rationales for Scripture’s silence or not, the point is, there are some subjects on which Scripture remains unclear for our good. God could have been explicit, but he wasn’t.
Does this mean we leave the struggling parent in the lurch, with merely a shrug of the shoulders and a “Who knows”?
Not at all! We can and should look to the goodness and trustworthiness and love of God. Here’s Mark Dever answering the question:
Instead of those logical arguments attached to particular verses, I would just want to go and look at who God is. Look at what he’s done for us in Christ. Is he less just than you? No, he gave his own Son for justice’s sake. Is he less loving than you? In mercy he gave his own Son. So what I would encourage you as parents to do is to trust this God who gave his own Son. He will do what is right. And when you’re standing before him—with him—you’ll see that everything he’s done is right.
So I don’t think we’re called to know a particular answer and trust in that answer that Scripture doesn’t clearly give us. I think we’re called to trust in God, and he is eminently worth trusting, even in the most difficult of times.
Andrew Wilson comes to a similar conclusion:
So I have come to believe that it is enough to know and, when asked about such matters, to say: We can trust the character of God—the one who loves us so much that he came and gave himself for us. We can be confident that his judgments are always right, his nature is always good, his mercy is always wide, and his desire for people to be saved is greater still than ours.
And, Daniel, I can say I’m genuinely satisfied with that answer. It’s about knowing and trusting God, and trusting precisely what he’s revealed to us in the Scriptures. If you or I would do better with all the children who die than God, then I’m not terribly interested in worshipping this God. It’s a good thing, then, that Scripture assures me that God is far, far better than you or me.
I hope this is helpful.
With racial tension on the rise in America, a number of churches have seen this as a great chance to not only dialog with our communities and seek to minister, but also as a chance to partake in social activism. One particular example would be some churches that are participating in civil disobedience to get across certain messages. While Scripture is really clear about obeying your authority, even governments that function in an evil way (a clear example would be Rome), does the Bible have any room for civil disobedience?
A question like that deserves a long answer with a billion qualifications. I address the issue of civil disobedience more carefully here. Let me offer a few remarks on the principles surrounding civil disobedience. I honestly don’t know anything about the churches you are referring to, how they are engaging in civil disobedience, or what the reason is.
In general, yes, I believe the Bible offers room for civil disobedience. We see Peter and John saying as much in Acts 4:19-20.
Human authority is never absolute. It is not intrinsic to any person. Rather, God has established various offices (like parent, prince, or pastor) for certain purposes. And each office comes with God’s authorization or license, which reads, “You must accomplish this, but not that.” It’s like a driver’s license. Your license probably says you can drive cars, but it doesn’t permit you to drive motorcycles or large trucks. So you might climb into the cabin of an 18-wheeler saying that you have a “driver’s license,” but I’m going to tell you that you don’t.
The government has the license (or authorization) to render judgment and to punish evil (e.g. Gen. 9:5-6; Rom. 13:1-7). It has no authority to render injustice or to act otherwise outside of the jurisdiction given to it by God, just like you don’t have the license to drive trucks or drive however you please. Therefore, whenever the government acts unjustly or outside of its jurisdiction, I don’t believe you or I possess the moral duty to obey it. The state cannot legitimately require something that God has not authorized it to require. Period.
That said, any actual decision about whether or not to engage in civil disobedience is a bit more complex. So far I’ve been dealing at the level of theory. In real life, any decision to disobey the government comes with real costs and entanglements, and those costs or entanglements may introduce forms of harm or evils which add up in the overall moral equation to make the act of civil disobedience wrong. Suppose, for instance, that my act of civil disobedience will likely accomplish nothing, but it is virtually guaranteed to bring great harm to my family. I might legitimately decide that my duties to my family (see 1 Tim. 5:8) outweigh the opportunity to protest an unjust law.
For a church to formally involve itself in activities of civil disobedience, to be sure, brings with it a whole host of entanglements. For one, it involves one God-ordained authority pitting itself against another. Also, it puts the church’s message of the gospel very much at stake. And what if the church’s perceived political solution is the wrong one? Such assessments might be easy to make in hindsight. We understandably laud churches that signed the Barmen Declaration in Nazi Germany, and criticize the Alabama ministers who opposed Martin Luther King’s peaceful protests. But these assessments are often terribly difficult to make in the moment. Oh, proceed cautiously!
Here’s the bottom line: Every act of obedience and disobedience to the government will be assessed by King Jesus on that Last Day. His judgment alone is absolute. Surely, some of our obediences he will condemn. And some of our disobediences he will exonerate. But remember, the government is “God’s servant for your good” (Rom. 13:4), and “whoever resists authorities resists what God has appointed” (v. 2)? The question you must always ask yourself before any act of obedience and disobedience is, are you ready to give an account to Jesus on that Day for defying an authority that he has established?
You had better be pretty darn certain he will take your side on the Last Day if you are. As such, my own sense is that our activities of civil disobedience should be relatively few and rare.
How would you advise pastors to speak of false teachers in the area? There is a massive church in our area that is doing some serious damage with their unbiblical methodology. We are a lowly church plant with minimal influence, but our people are being impacted by this church if by virtue of nothing but its sheer size.
Is it unwise to publicly “take a stance” as it were concerning this church and their leadership?
—Trevor, South Carolina
It depends. It might be unwise, but it might also be the way of righteousness and faithfulness. Think of how often Paul and John and Peter warned against false teachers, even referring to specific parties.
My first question is, what do you mean by “unbiblical methodology”? Are they a bit seeker-sensitive? I would not encourage you to call them out. Do they preach a prosperity gospel? Then, yes, you might call them out. The great dividing line here is the gospel itself. I think we should exercise tremendous charity toward fellow evangelical (gospel-preaching) churches. So you will never hear our elders criticizing other evangelical churches in our area, even if they are shallow, pragmatic, or Presbyterian! (A playful poke to my Presbyterian friends.) But yes, we will “take a stance” on gospel denial.
But that leads to my second question: what do you mean by “take a stance”? Do you mean you will teach against something, or do you mean that you will treat it as a matter of church discipline? Those are the two ways churches can take a stance on something.
Let’s start with teaching. I am presently teaching a class on biblical theology, and just last week I pointed to Bruce Wilkinson’s use of Jabez’s prayer (1 Chron. 4:10) as a bad example of proof-texting. I didn’t say anything about Wilkinson as a person or as a Christian or about his ministry overall. I pointed to one very narrow fact—his failure to put 1 Chronicles 4:10 into canonical context. In that sense, I took a stance on what I believe is a wrong use of a text because I know Wilkinson’s book has made such a broad impact.
It’s one thing to take a stance on wrong teaching; it’s another thing to take a stance on a wrong teacher or a wrong church. I think there is a place for both, but I think the bar is quite a bit higher for taking a stance on a whole ministry. I know almost nothing about Bruce Wilkinson or his ministry. I just know I don’t like what he’s teaching people to expect by praying 1 Chronicles 4:10. So that’s what I mentioned.
The question I have for you and this massive nearby church is, can you address just the teaching or do you need to address the teachers? Pull a few weeds or condemn the whole garden? In so far as you can, stick with the former.
But now let’s go back to the great dividing line of the gospel. If someone leaves our church to join a church that denies the gospel, we will “take a stance” by proceeding toward discipline. This is a whole garden problem, not just a weed problem. For instance, a woman left our church to join a Oneness church that denies the Trinity. We “took a stance” by excommunicating her. That means we formally said, “We can no longer affirm that this woman is a Christian insofar as she has joined herself to a church that denies the Trinity.”
Obviously, we only take a stance through discipline when the gospel itself is at stake.
All this, Trevor, brings me back to my original, it depends. If your neighbor church is gospel-preaching, I would encourage you to lean hard toward graciousness. If it is gospel-denying, I would urge you to take a stance. If it is in the squishy middle and you aren’t sure, as can be the case with prosperity-gospel churches, you might occasionally target a false teaching. And you might quietly warn individual sheep who are thinking about joining that church, or who want to use their material. In the meantime, the best thing you can do is to provide a positive, healthy, life-giving, Bible-preaching alternative.
I would really need to know more specifics before getting more concrete, but I hope this gives you a good start.