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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Title:Early Infant Loss: Godly Parents Ought Not to Doubt
Text:CD 1 Article 17 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Comfort in a World of Pain

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Psalm 66:1,2,6

Psalm 121

Psalm 105:1-3

Hymn 1

Hymn 8

Scripture reading: 2 Samuel 12:15b-23

Catechism lesson:  Canons of Dort 1.17

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of Christ,

“Infant mortality” is a clinical and scientific term for something very painful:  the loss of a child.  Research tells us that infant mortality rates in history were much higher than they are today.  For example, around the time the Canons of Dort were written the infant mortality rate for babies born alive was between 15 and 30%.  Between the ages of one and five, about 18% of children could be expected to die.  Most of the time this was due to illnesses that today are preventable or treatable.  In the days of the Synod of Dort, almost every family had experienced the loss of a child who had been born alive. 

Some of you have experienced that kind of loss too.  Some of you know what it’s like to hold a baby in your arms, watch that baby grow for a time, and then God decides to take that child out of this world at a certain point.  It’s a painful experience.  The hurt and grief never really leave you, even after many years.

Many others among us have experienced a related kind of loss.  You were carrying a baby in your womb for a time and then God decided to end your pregnancy.  You lost that baby.  We often call it miscarriage or maybe a stillbirth, but these days more people are calling it “early infant loss” – a term which includes losing a child after birth too.  Whatever you call it, it’s still difficult.  It’s difficult for the mother who’s been carrying that baby, but it can also be difficult for the father.  When you’re expecting a child, you have hopes and dreams for him or her.  You look forward to holding that baby in your arms.  Then it’s all gone.  My wife and I have experienced it twice, and I know many of you have gone through it too.  Sadly, some of you are going to experience it in the future.  This kind of loss is hard, but it’s common.

Christians can be thankful that God gives us comfort when we’re confronted with early infant loss.  God doesn’t abandon us and remain silent about our loss.  In his Word, he teaches us how to process these things.  He teaches us how to find strength and to accept what he gives us in his wisdom.  When we’re faced with early infant loss, he shows that he’s alert to our pain and wants us to find solace with him and what he says.

Partly because it’s a common human experience, the Canons of Dort summarize the teaching of God’s Word on early infant loss.  We’re going to focus on this teaching this afternoon and we’ll see how God teaches godly parents not to doubt when faced with early infant loss.  We’ll consider:

  1. Why they might be tempted to doubt
  2. Why they should not doubt

Over the last while we’ve been learning about unconditional election with the help of the Canons of Dort.  We saw that the Arminians taught a doctrine of election too.  But their teaching of election was based on God choosing people on the basis of what they would do, particularly on the basis of foreseen faith.  God looked into the future and saw that people would believe, and therefore he chose them because they first chose to believe.  However, the Synod of Dort said on the basis of Ephesians 1 and other passages, “No, the Bible teaches that God chooses us out of his good pleasure and grace.  God’s choosing is not based on anything we do.  It doesn’t come from us, but from him.” 

We then went further and explored questions about assurance – questions like:  how can you know for sure if you are one of the elect?  We learned that the Bible teaches that if you believe in Christ with a true faith, and if your faith is bearing fruit, then you can have assurance.  You can be confident you’re among the elect. 

Last time we learned that there are not only the elect, there are also the reprobate.  There’s election and reprobation.  We learned reprobation is not the negative mirror image of election.  God does not actively reject certain individuals just like he actively chooses certain individuals.  Instead, in the act of decreeing election for some, it follows that God passes many by.  He leaves them in the sin and misery which will lead to their condemnation.  The key thing we saw is that reprobation involves God passing by certain people.

Considered by themselves, these teachings can hold out a lot of comfort for Christians.  But when you’re faced with early infant loss, these teachings also hold out the potential for many questions and difficulties.  In the controversies leading up to the Synod of Dort, the Arminians took advantage of that.  They claimed the Reformed teaching of unconditional election is cruel to parents who’ve experienced early infant loss.  The conclusion of the Canons of Dort summarizes the Arminian accusation in this way: “Many innocent children of believers are torn from their mother’s breasts and tyrannically thrown into hell…”  You see, the Arminians argued that the logical conclusion of the Reformed teaching of unconditional election is that if we lose a baby, that baby is for sure going to go to hell. 

The Arminians said they had a much better teaching.  They held that any child who dies in infancy, whether the child of a believer or not, automatically goes to heaven.  This is because they said the baby doesn’t have the guilt of original sin.  God only condemns people on account of their actual sins.  So the Arminians argued that since a baby has never committed any actual sins, and that baby has no original sin from Adam, that baby is innocent and will definitely go to heaven no matter what.   No actual sins, no original sin, no sin, no condemnation, no hell.  That was what the Arminians wrongly maintained.

There is a certain attraction to the Arminian way of thinking.  It’s tempting.  You might wish that we could categorically say that all who die in infancy go to heaven, whether their parents are believers or not.  But what you might wish and what is true are sometimes two different things.  What’s true is what’s found in the Bible.  What’s found in the Bible is the doctrine of original sin.  You can’t get around passages like Psalm 51:5 which clearly state that we’re all conceived and born in sin.  No one comes into this world innocent.  We’re all infected with the hereditary disease of sin.  So the Arminian teaching might sound more attractive, but it can’t be true.  We can’t say with 100% certainty that all infants who die early automatically go to heaven.  We don’t know that. 

But then what about the Arminian argument against election based on early infant loss?  They said the logical conclusion of the Reformed teaching of election is that all infants who die early whether in the womb or outside automatically go to hell.  They must be reprobate.  Why did they say that?  Because we say election is known from its fruits.  The most important fruit is a true faith in Jesus Christ.  If a baby dies before it could be old enough to have faith in Christ, then obviously it wasn’t elect.  You need to see faith before you can say that someone is elect or not.  That’s how the Arminians portrayed the Reformed teaching. 

We might be tempted to think along the same lines.  We might be tempted to think that if we never got to see our baby grow up and embrace Christ for himself or herself, then we can’t be sure of where they went when they died.  That uncertainty includes the real possibility that the little one we lost actually went to hell.  It’s a horrible thought, but if we’re not carefully and biblically working through this teaching of election we can end up being tempted to doubt in these ways.

Our confession from the Scriptures aims to take away all doubt.  The Canons of Dort are directed towards giving pastoral comfort and direction from the teaching of Scripture.  When we look at the full scope of biblical teaching about this matter, we can find huge encouragement.

Take that passage we read from 2 Samuel 12.  The tragic story is well-known.  We have King David at the height of his reign falling into the depths of depravity.  Stupid, sick sin.  The story has sex, deception, and murder.  After killing her husband Uriah, David marries his pregnant lover Bathsheba.  Eventually she gives birth to a son.  This son becomes ill and is dying.  It’s part of the chastisement David endures for his wickedness.  He’s repented from his sin, he’s still a believer, but there are still consequences to his sin.  While the baby is dying, David agonizes, he fasts, and prays.  But the child still dies.  It’s how David responds to the death of his son that gets our attention.  He’s confronted with early infant loss and look at how he responds in 1 Samuel 12:23, “But now he is dead.  Why should I fast?  Can I bring him back again?  I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.”  Notice especially those last words:  “I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.”  Notice the confidence and the certainty in those words.  David doesn’t say, “I hope I might get to see him again.”  There’s no uncertainty there at all.  Instead, he says, “I shall go to him.”  In other words, “I will go to where he is.”  David is expressing his sure confidence that his son went to be with the LORD after he died.  That’s the confidence that any and every believing parent should have in the face of early infant loss. 

On what basis can we have that confidence?  It has to do with the covenant of grace.  In the Canons of Dort we find what are often termed the doctrines of grace.   For example, unconditional election is a doctrine of grace.  The doctrine of the covenant is also a gracious doctrine and it’s evident when we talk about early infant loss. 

To remind you, the covenant of grace is God’s relationship with his people.  The holy God comes into fellowship with a sinful people through Jesus Christ.  Jesus is what we call the Mediator in this relationship.  He’s the one who goes between God and us.  He’s the one who makes the relationship work.  In this relationship, God commits to being our God and we commit to being his people.

Now the important thing to remember here is that this covenant relationship is not just between God and believers.  Amazingly, God includes the children of believers in the covenant of grace.  They’re also called part of his people and recipients of his promises.  When God established his covenant with Abraham in Genesis 17, he said in verse 7 that his covenant was not only with Abraham, but also with his offspring.  This is reaffirmed in the New Testament when Peter says in Acts 2:39 that God’s promises are also for the children of believers.  The children of believers are treated as part of God’s covenant people in the New Testament.  You could think of Ephesians 5, where Paul writes to the children in the church at Ephesus.   He tells them they need to obey their parents in the Lord, for this is right.  The children are included in that letter, because they’re part of God’s covenant and congregation. 

The children of believing parents are part of the covenant of grace and are therefore holy, that means they’re set apart from the world.  Our children have been set apart by God and claimed for his own.  That’s not by nature, but by virtue of the covenant of grace.  All our children don’t become holy or become members of the covenant of grace at baptism.  They’re part of the covenant ever since their conception.  They’ve been members of the church since conception.  The same is true for all our children.  Baptism is the public announcement and confirmation of these things.  In baptism, God says, “Yes, this child is one of mine.  I publicly put my Name on this child and show that she is part of my people.”  What a beautiful thing! 

It’s also a comforting thing should we be faced with the loss of that child.  Our confession says that because of their place in God’s covenant, godly parents should not doubt “the election and salvation of their children whom God calls out of this life in their infancy.”  We ought not to doubt.  We can stand on solid ground. 

The solid ground we stand on has to do with God and his promises.  He promises to be our God and the God of our children.  Normally, as they grow older, our children have the calling to embrace that truth.  We pray for their regeneration and ask that the Holy Spirit will give them true faith in Jesus Christ.  As they get older and become accountable for the choices they make, to be saved they must place their trust in Christ as their Saviour.  As parents, we have to disciple them and lead them in that direction.   But should it happen that their lives are cut short in God’s wisdom, we don’t believe that God lets go of them.  Just because they’re not able to take hold of him yet doesn’t mean he lets go of them.  Until they reach that age where they’re called to believe for themselves, the faith of their parents in the Saviour is accounted to them within the covenant relationship.  And thus the blood of Christ avails for them too.   

Loved ones, we have a gracious God.  He is not going to leave us doubting and questioning when he brings the loss of a child into our lives.  We can trust him and trust his covenant promises.  That child you lost through miscarriage is with him, enjoying him and praising him in his presence.  That little one you lost when he or she was still a child is with the Lord too – you don’t have to doubt it or question it.  God is a God of mercy and love towards his people, and his mercy and love extend towards our children as well.

And what about unbelievers and when they experience early infant loss?  One of my most awkward moments as a pastor happened once when I was a volunteer hospital chaplain.  I got a call to come to the hospital to spend some time with a couple.  They had just received the news that their baby had died in the womb.  They asked for a chaplain to come and I was the man on call that day.  I came in the hospital room and introduced myself.  They explained to me what had happened and then asked if I could do something for their baby.  I asked them if they were Christians, but they said, “No.”  This is where these kinds of questions stop being theoretical.  Here you have a husband and wife, they’re not Christians, they’ve just lost their child, they’ve called for you a Christian pastor, and they want you to do something for their child.  You want to be compassionate and loving, but at the same time you also have to speak the truth and can’t offer false hope.  I told them that I could only tell them what I know from the Bible.  I said, “I know for a fact that God is merciful and I also know that he has done what is right and good with your baby.”  I couldn’t say more than that, because the Bible doesn’t say more than that.  I then prayed with them and asked God to reveal himself to them through his Word as a God of mercy and goodness, so that they might find comfort in who he is and what he’s done.  It was all I could do. 

Loved ones, we need to be careful in making categorical statements about anyone’s reprobation, and that includes the children of unbelievers dying in infancy.  You have to be careful, because you don’t know if those unbelievers will someday become believers.  You don’t know whether God’s decree ultimately includes them and their children in his people.  You see, when God’s Word says something clearly, we should speak clearly.  However, when the Scriptures don’t give a clear answer to a particular question, then we need to be cautious in how we speak.

Canons 1.17 shows us again that our Christian faith is not abstract and theoretical.  It touches on real life issues and challenges many of us face or will someday face.  The doctrines of God’s Word are there to encourage us when we find ourselves dealing with loss and grief.  When you understand these things properly, even though you’re hurting from the loss, you don’t have to be despairing.  You can still have solid ground under your grief.  So, brothers and sisters, if you’re still struggling with the loss of a child, know this:  you ought not to be in doubt about the election or salvation of that child.  That’s something you should never worry about.  And it could be that in the future, you and your spouse will find yourself in this situation with an early infant loss.  Then you need to remember what you confess here in Canons 1.17.  Tuck this vital truth away in your memory.  Let your heart and mind go back to these truths to find comfort and strength in coping with that kind of loss.  God is mindful of it, and he urges you to look to him as your rock and help.  AMEN.          


Gracious God,

We’re grateful to you for being our God and the God of our children.  We’re thankful that we have this covenant relationship with you where you promise to hold on to us.  Father, please let your promises give comfort when we’re dealing with the loss of a child.  Sometimes in your wisdom you bring this in to our lives.  When you do, help us with your Spirit to go on trusting you despite our hurt and pain.  Help us not to doubt your love.  Help us not to doubt what you do with our infant children whom you call to yourself.  Father, please give us comfort and strength for dealing with past losses.  Please give us comfort and strength for dealing with future losses.  Continue to be our God and the God of our children.                                


* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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