Original Sin, Pædobaptism, and the Fate of Infants Who Die in Infancy

By mid-sixth century, following the Council of Orange in 529 CE, baptism became "a watershed with grace dominant beforehand and human agency rising to the fore afterward."1 This is especially the case with regard to the teachings of St Augustine (354-430), who maintained that infant baptism served the purpose of washing away original sin (and original guilt).2 For Augustine, without this washing, infants who die in infancy are fated to spend eternity in hell and separated from the glory of God.

There is much to consider regarding pædobaptism. But, for our purposes in this post, we need to examine the relationship between the doctrine of original sin, to which Arminius subscribed, and the fate of infants who die in infancy. This subject is notably relevant to Arminius and his wife, Elizabeth, since three of their twelve children total died in infancy. Granted, Arminius' three infants who died were baptized into Christ. But do we claim that his departed infants are residing with Christ due to their baptism, which, according to St Augustine washed away original sin, or because of the sheer grace of God in Christ, irrespective of baptism?

If one accepts the notion of original sin, and that the negative, ontological (relating to being or nature) effects of our first parents were passed on to all successive generations, then what happens to an infant when he or she dies in infancy -- and most especially an unbaptized infant? There are many answers to these questions, and they do not all agree on the particulars, even though most agree on the end result. For example, I argue that most Christians believe that all infants who die in infancy are carried by the angels to heaven by the sheer grace of God and not necessarily because the infant was baptized. After all, Jesus insists that the kingdom of heaven belongs to little ones (cf. Matt. 19:14; Matt. 18:4, 5, 10, 14). Not all Christians agree, however.

Those believers who disagree on this matter perpetuate their own problem in defending how God could be just in consigning an infant who died in infancy to eternal separation from Him whose only guilt is being born, regardless of the fact that such a one was born with original sin (or even original guilt), since that little one had no opportunity to commit an actual sin against God of his or her own initiative or will. Arminius carefully parses between inheriting original sin and committing actual sin.

Our first parents, being "under the Law" of God ("but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil," Gen. 2:17), willingly disobeyed His command:
On account of this transgression, man fell under the displeasure and the wrath of God, rendered himself subject to a double death [one spiritual and one physical], and deserving to be deprived of the primeval righteousness and holiness in which a great part of the image of God consisted. (Gen. 2:17; 3:3-6, 23, 24; Luke 19:26; Rom. 5:12, 16, 19)3
Arminius insists that this disobedience was heinous,4 on the part of God's human creatures created in His image, and was the primary cause of God subjecting the universe to entropy (Rom. 8:20-22), depriving our parents of their original integrity, or righteousness (right-standing with God), and rendering their progeny to a depraved nature.5 But we are not permitted to confuse or conflate the inheritance of original sin with actual sinning, which includes a thought, word or action committed that is prohibited (a sin of commission); or even a word or action which should have been exuded, but is neglected or omitted in ignorance (a sin of omission).6 An infant can be guilty of original sin, by no fault of his or her own, yet not commit an actual sin and, hence, not stand condemned before a just, righteous, and holy God.7

How original sin effects us spiritually is by its constant inner drawing toward that which displeases God. The "inwardly-working" cause of sin is "the original propensity of our nature towards that which is contrary to the Divine law, which propensity we have contracted from our first parents, through carnal generation."8 Infants cannot experience this propensity as it relates to one's volition to challenge the Divine law. As the child matures, we have all noticed that one does not have to teach a child to lie, be sneaky, or be disobedient toward his or her parent. These acts a child seems to know intuitively how to perform. But an oblivious infant, without sufficient motive and experience, cannot yet express his or her inner propensity to be defiant.



The Calvinists of Arminius' age made a curious charge against him: they ridiculed him of teaching, "Original Sin will condemn no man. In every nation, all infants who die without [having committed] actual sins, are saved."9 By logical deduction we are forced to concede that the (anachronistic) Dortian Calvinists believed that all infants are worthy of damnation because of the presence of original sin; else why ridicule and question Arminius' orthodoxy if they agreed with this charge? With clarity the Dortian Calvinists constructed the Canons of Dordt thusly regarding infants:
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. (emphases added)
Please note the qualifier: "the children of believers are holy ... by virtue of the gracious covenant in which they ... are included." For many in the Calvinist community, only the infants of the unconditionally elect are saved in God's covenant of grace.

We have witnessed the same language in the Westminster Confession of Faith: "Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated, and saved by Christ, through the Spirit, who works when, and where, and how He pleases: so also are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word." (emphases added) (link) The qualifying word "elect" in both places is gratuitous if the referents include all infants, regardless of either their being baptized, or of having a believing parent.

The Dortian charge toward Arminius, mentioned above, was, according to Arminius, inappropriately applied directly to himself, since Adrian Borrius was the immediate referent. Still, whatever a colleague of Arminius uttered, the blame was typically laid at the feet of Arminius. Borrius denied having ever publicly taught that original sin will not condemn anyone.10 However, Arminius took advantage of the circumstance, and briefly articulated Borrius' sentiments on the state of infants in their infancy.

In brief: God has taken the whole human race into a grace of reconciliation through Christ (2 Cor. 5:19). Infants have not actually transgressed any one of God's laws. Thus they are not under condemnation.11 If God were to hold infants responsible for the sin of Adam, and thus condemn them to an eternal separation from Him should they die in infancy, then God would "appear to act towards infants with far more severity than towards the very devils." (emphasis added) He continues (emphases added):
For the rigour of God against the apostate angels was extreme, because He would not pardon the crime which they had perpetrated. There is the same extreme rigour displayed against infants, who are condemned for the sin of Adam: But it is much greater; for all the [evil] angels sinned in their own persons, while infants sinned in the person of their first father Adam. On this account, the angels themselves were in fault, because they committed an offense which it was possible for them to avoid; while infants were not in fault, only so far as they existed in Adam, and were by his will involved in sin and guilt.12
Arminius implicitly dared the Dortian Calvinists to name this view heresy, since the matter would actually call into question the very integrity of God Himself in dealing so obviously unjustly with infants.13 He then accuses the Dutch Calvinists of conveniently abusing their use of the early Church fathers -- the very Ancients they insisted to have been defending on this matter.14 Arminius quotes from Calvinist Francis Junius on this subject, and to the degree that, indeed, elect infants who die in infancy will be saved. Yet also that "those infants whom God calls to Himself, and timely removes out of this miserable vale of sins, are rather saved."15

Arminius then chides his Calvinist colleagues, attempting to trap him in heresy, asking: "Now, that which this divine [Junius] either 'affirms according to the doctrine of faith,' or 'presumes through charity,' may not another man be allowed, without the charge of heresy, to hold within his own breast as a matter of opinion, which he is not in the least solicitous to obtrude on others or persuade them to believe?"16 He also wonders at their motive of the doctrine of condemning infants for original sin: "Is it supposed to follow as a necessary consequence from it, that, if the infants of unbelievers are saved, they are saved without Christ and His intervention?"17 Neither he nor Borrius are willing to admit such an error.

Arminius and most others are unwilling to believe in a God who eternally condemns infants solely on the basis of inherited sin or guilt, whether or not an infant has been baptized, and whether or not the parent of an infant is a believer. The basis for the salvation of all infants who die in infancy is the grace and blood of Christ. They are saved by Christ, on account of Christ, and the for the glory of God in Christ. Even when the sign or sacrament of the covenant of God is absent in the experience of an infant who dies in infancy, God is still able to save, His "arm" being not too short to save a soul in Christ (Isa. 59:1) who has not proactively offended His law and freely and defiantly sinned against His righteous and holy being.

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1 Rebecca Harden Weaver, Divine Grace and Human Agency: A Study of the Semi-Pelagian Controversy (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1998), 232.

2 Jacob Arminius, "Apology against Thirty-One Theological Articles," in The Works of Arminius, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2:12. In an Anglican (and Reformed) context, baptism brings about "victory over death and the devil," as Martin Luther argued, as well as "forgiveness of sin, God's grace, the entire Christ, and the Holy Spirit with his gifts." Therefore infant subjects for baptism are "both baptized and initiated into a baptismal life. We are taken into a baptismal covenant in which we are called to walk each day." See David A. deSilva, Sacramental Life: Spiritual Formation Through the Book of Common Prayer (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2008), 22-23.

3 Arminius, 2:151.

4 Ibid., 2:155-56.

5 Ibid., 2:156-57.

6 Ibid., 2:157.

7 Arminius summarizes Borrius' opinions of those who would condemn infants for being guilty of original sin: "The condition of infants however is, in this case, much worse, by no fault or demerit of their own, but because it was God's pleasure thus to act towards them. From these premises it would follow that it was the will of God to condemn them for the commission of sin, before He either promised or entered into a covenant of grace; as though they had been excluded and rejected from that covenant by a previous decree of God, and as though the promise concerning the Saviour did not at all belong to them." (2:11) This notion both Borrius and Arminius find entirely unjust and unacceptable.

8 Ibid., 2:162.

9 Ibid., 2:10.

10 Ibid., 2:11.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid., 2:12.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid. "But it does not appear equitable [fair], that, whenever it is agreeable to themselves [Calvinists], they should be displeased with those who dissent from them, because they dissent from the [early Church] Fathers; and again, that, whenever it is their good pleasure, the same parties do themselves dissent from the Fathers on this very subject." (2:12-13) Calvinists have, historically, used the early fathers prior to Augustine in the fifth century to their own advantage and, conveniently, disregarded the fathers when they disagree. Yet, they blame the Arminians when they disagree with the fathers, namely, Sts Augustine and Jerome.

15 Ibid., 2:13.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid., 2:14.