What is the Reformed teaching on the salvation of infants or young children who die? I heard John MacArthur's teaching on this recently and he believes that scripture supports the salvation of infants, young children, and even mentally handicapped adults who die prior to coming to saving faith. He referred to the "condition of accountability" (in contrast to the "age of accountability"). He teaches that all who die in this condition are, in fact, God's elect. Do most Reformed theologians agree with this?
I am not sure what "most" Reformed theologians say on this, though I know you can find those who defend the proposition that all those who die in infancy are among the elect.
The Westminster Confession of Faith uses very precise and carefully chosen language on this matter: "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 incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word" (10.3).
The Confession entertains the idea that at least some infants who die in infancy and some others "who are incapable of being outwardly called" are among the elect. Note our Lord's words to His disciples in Luke 18:15,16 (the word for babies in v.15 indicates nursing babes, infants): He says that "such as these possess the kingdom of God").
However, the Confession does not say that all such infants, etc., are saved. What it does say is that the Holy Spirit can regenerate such who are elect by means of His sovereign choosing. Surely John the Baptizer presents an instance of infant regeneration (in the womb), Luke 1:39-44.
The problem I would have with John MacArthur's teaching (I will here assume you are accurately conveying his intended meaning, since I have not heard or read from him myself on this subject) is that it seems to rest on the mistaken idea that up to a certain point of development children are not held by God to be accountable for their sin (most say "age of accountability" while MacArthur says "condition of accountability", but it seems to come down to the same basic concept). Now there may be some particular sins for which some young children might not be accountable (if, for example, a wicked father compelled his five-year-old son to steal items from a store), though I am not sure I would defend even that very strenuously.
The Bible teaches that we are all conceived and born in sin and are by nature deserving of God's wrath (Ps. 51:5, 58:3, Eph. 2:1-3, etc.). Infants are not innocent; they simply have not yet the ability to express their sin-nature noticeably. But from the first opportunity they demonstrate a natural bent to rebellion against godly authority and sinful self-centeredness. No parent has to teach or encourage her children to sin, they just do it (like water running downhill); but we have to work diligently to teach them obedience to the Lord.
Romans 5:12-21 teaches not only that Adam's sin-nature has passed to each of us as an inheritance, but that in Adam we are all (all mankind, including infants) under condemnation for his one act of disobedience. By nature all human beings, including infants and mentally incapacitated people, are sinners in Adam and in themselves, and as such we all deserve the wrath and curse of God.
I hope this answer is of help to you. You do not indicate that your asking is motivated by anything more than a desire to know the truth (you don't indicate, for example, that you are struggling over the loss of an infant). If I can be of further help, feel free to come back with more questions or clarifying information.
"Questions and Answers" is a weekly feature of the OPC website. The answers come from individual ministers in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church expressing their own convictions and do not necessarily represent an "official" position of the Church, especially in areas where the Standards of the Church (the Scriptures and the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms) are silent.
The questions come from individuals like yourself. If you have questions about biblical and theological matters, you are invited to send them by e-mail by using the "Pose a Question" link on the OPC home page or by clicking here.
At least one new question is posted each week, so there should always be something new here for you to read. (For those people who would like to look at previous questions and answers, they will continue to be available as well.)
The purpose of the OPC website's "Questions and Answers" is to respond to biblical and theological questions. Matters of church discipline, disputes, or debates go beyond the scope of our work. We recommend that you present your concerns in these areas to the appropriate judicatory. In most cases this will be to a local pastor, elder, or session. We do not want the website to replace personal involvement in, or commitment to, the local, visible church.
While we will respond to every serious questioner, we are not bound to give a substantive answer to every question, should we deem the question to be beyond the scope of our purpose or our own ability to answer.
You will receive an answer by e-mail. Please be patient as many of our respondents are busy pastors. The response to your question may take up to two (2) weeks. Some of the questions submitted will be chosen to be posted here, along with the corresponding answers.
Note that the "Questions and Answers" posted on the site have been editedall personal references are removed, Scripture references or from some source may be added, and sometimes portions are expandedto make the questions and answers more useful to a larger audience.