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Author:Rev. Stephen 't Hart
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Melville
 Melville, Australia
 www.frcsr.com/fellowship/melville/
 
Title:Covenant hope: the believer's comfort at the loss of a little one
Text:CD 1 art 17 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Unclassified
 
Preached:2020-09-13
Added:2021-12-06
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Bible Translation: ESV

Book of Praise: 2014

Hymn 64:1,2

Psalm 51:4

Psalm 32:3

Psalm 105:3,4

Hymn 56:1,2,3,4

Read:  2 Samuel 12:1-25

Text: 2 Samuel 12:21-23;  Canons of Dort chapter 1, art. 17

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Stephen 't Hart, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Dear congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ.

I want to begin this sermon by sharing with you some details from my own family tree, the family 't Hart.  This is the story of Hendrik.  In 1736 a boy was born in the village of Pernis, the Netherlands, and he received the name Pieter.  Like many of my ancestors, Pieter was a fisherman.  He later became one of the harbour masters in the fishing village of Pernis as well as an elder in the Reformed church there.  In 1762 Pieter married a young lady named Adriaentje.  On June 20, 1773 a baby was born to them and they named him Hendrik[1].  Sadly Hendrik was taken from them at the age of four months.  They received another little boy on November 6, 1774 and they named him Hendrik.  They buried him, however, one month later on 10 December 1774.  On May 15, 1785 they received another little boy.  Once again they called him Hendrik.  He also died young, and they buried on December 10, 1774.  Three sons.  All called Hendrik.  And they all died before their first birthday.

But the story about Hendrik goes on.  Another 't Hart in my family tree, Hugo, a fisherman and a tug boat operator, was born in 1805 and he married Klasina van der Steen.  On August 23, 1831 they had a little boy named Hendrik but sadly he died four days later.  Then on 3 January 1836 they had another boy named Hendrik.  He died two months later on 2 March 1836.  On August 9, 1838 a third Hendrik was born.  He died on 12 jan 1841. Two years later, to the same family another Hendrik was born, on 18 February 1843.  He died when he was five years old, on September 15, 1848.  On September 5, 1849 they had another little boy whom the named Hendrik.  He died on 7 March 1851.  And then finally on October 17, 1852 Hugo and Klasina 't Hart had a girl.  They called her Hendrika, whom, it appears, survived into adulthood.  All in all they had twelve children and there is only evidence that two of them survived into adulthood.

That's the true story of Hendrik from my own family tree.  I told you this story because of what the preaching is going to be about this morning, the comfort believers have when their children die in infancy.  In times past, but also today, this is in not some theoretical discussion or debate, but it is a deeply pastoral and personal question.  It is a question that the Canons of Dort deals with, in chapter 1, article 17.  Now since this is such an emotionally charged question it is not surprising that many will go with what they feel in their hearts, seeking to find their own answers to the comfort one might have regarding the eternal wellbeing of their little ones.  But the Canons of Dort point us in a better direction.  Rather than base our thoughts on what we feel or want to believe, when it comes to the eternal salvation of their children who die in infancy, believers should be pointed to promises of God's Word.  And it is in God's promises and the sureness of his Word that believing parents can be receive comfort.  I preach God's Word to you under this theme:

Covenant hope: the believer's comfort at the loss of a little one

1. A painful loss

2. A sure comfort

1. A painful loss

The story of all those Hendrik 't Harts sounds pretty extreme but for many families this was reality.  The infant mortality in France in the 1600s was between 15 and 30% before the child's first year.  In the south of Holland, between 1875 and 1879, 259 out of every 1000 children also died before their first birthday.  It is hardly surprising, therefore, that a pressing question was "What happens to our little ones when they are taken from our arms at such a young age?"  But that's not just a question for then:  it is also a question for now.  The infant mortality rate had declined sharply over the years, but it still happens.  And many of you, too, have been faced with the loss of an infant either through that child dying before birth or shortly after birth.  And it hurts for a very long time.  We feel the loss for the rest of our lives.

  But during the early 1600s in the Reformed churches in the Netherlands, there was something else going on that made this pain even deeper.  That is, that in the debate over the Bible's teaching about election and reprobation, a debate that is worked through in the Canons of Dort, the Arminians made some very harsh accusations against the Reformed.  They said, "If it is true that God elects us from eternity, out of his sovereign good pleasure and not because of anything we have or will do, then what about children who die in infancy?"  The Arminians themselves denied the impact of original sin and therefore, since such little children had not in unbelieve committed any sin themselves, they were automatically saved and would be in heaven.  But then they said this about the Reformed teaching of election.  They said, that the teaching about election and reprobation takes away all comfort that believers might have when their children die as infants. 

"Many innocent children of believers are torn from their mother's breasts", they said, "and tyrannically thrown into hell, so that neither the blood of Christ nor their baptism nor the prayers of the church at their baptism can be of any help to them."  (You read in the concluding statement of the Canons of Dort, on page 588 in your Book of Praise.) 

And you can see how such an accusation against the Reformed teaching about election cut like a knife in the hearts of all those mothers and fathers and everyone else who were grieving over the loss of their little ones.  "Is that true?" they would ask.  "Is there no comfort for the believer when their children are taken from them?"

  "That's what these Reformed people believe!" the Arminians would say.  "'Jacob I have loved, but Esau I hated!'  Isaac was elect, but not Ishmael.  If you use these Bible texts to prove that election is from God's sovereign pleasure, apart from anything we do, and if you believe that by nature we are children of God's wrath, affected by the original sin of Adam and Eve, then you have no comfort that your little child is in heaven."

And it is when we are faced with challenges such as this that we begin to understand just how important it is that we have a right understanding about these things.  And question still remains:  what comfort do believers have concerning the eternal salvation of their children should they die as infants?

Until 2007 the Roman Catholic Church taught that if a baby died before he or she was baptised, that they could not go to heaven.  The reason for this, they said, was that the original sin of Adam was still with them and that it was the water of a physical baptism that would wash this sin away, after which they could go to heaven.  It is because of this teaching that Roman Catholics will hold "emergency baptisms" when they think a baby might die soon after birth.  We reject this teaching.  Although we as Reformed believers will also baptise babies we do so for very different reasons to the Roman Catholic Church.  We do not baptise babies with the idea that they will be regenerated or born again through the physical act of baptism but rather as the God-given sign and seal that he has established his covenant with them saying, "I am your God and you are my child."

And it is this teaching of God's covenant that gives the believer true comfort at the death of their loved ones.  When it comes to all those Hendrik 't Harts who have died in infancy, the Arminians would throw the teaching of unconditional election in the face of these grieving parents.  "You believe that election is all of God, do you?  You believe that he has elected some to eternal life from the foundation of the world, while passing others by?  Then what about your little boy who just died?  How do you know if he is elect or not?  How do you know he was a little Jacob and not a little Esau, and Isaac and not an Ishmael?"  It was such a horrible thing to say.  But it did need to be answered.  And the way the Fathers at the Synod of Dort explained this was to show that if you as a believer lose a child, your situation is not the same as that of Isaac with Jacob and Esau where Esau grew to be a man who rejected his birthright, but it is more like that of David and Bathsheba who lost their child as an infant in 2 Samuel chapter 12.  

The story of David and Bathsheba is a heartbreaking one on many levels.  We began our Bible reading at the end of 2 Samuel 11, when David took Bathsheba into his house following the death of Uriah.  Prior to this, there is the account of how Bathsheba was expecting a child with David in the first place.  While Bathsheba's husband Uriah was out fighting a battle on behalf of the king, David saw Bathsheba, he lusted after her and he committed adultery with her.  Soon after Bathsheba sent word to David that she was pregnant.  Knowing the wrong that he had done and the shame of taking someone else's wife in this manner, David tried to cover things up.  He summoned Uriah back home, tried to get him to spend time with his wife and then to play along with the lie that the child Bathsheba was carrying was his.  But things did not go according to plan, so in desperation David went to his plan "b" and had Uriah conveniently killed in battle.  It's a terrible story, a sad story, a story that is so completely wrong.

  In our Bible reading, we picked this story up in 2 Samuel 11:26-27.

26 When the wife of Uriah heard that Uriah her husband was dead, she lamented over her husband. 27 And when the mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house, and she became his wife and bore him a son. But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord.

David's inconvenient problem was over, Uriah was dead and so Bathsheba could enter his house and her child counted as his own.  But the thing that David had done displeased the LORD.  And so God sent the prophet Nathan to David, to confront him with his sin.  And Nathan did so through a story about a rich man who stole his poor neighbour's lamb.  And when Nathan said to David, "You are the man!", David crumbled.  He saw how far he fallen into sin, and he repented.  And there's a psalm that describes David's repentance, Psalm 51.  And in that Psalm, David recognised that he didn't simply sin because of a momentary lapse of good sense and godliness, but sinned because by nature he was inherently sinful.  He said in Psalm 51:3-5,

"For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. 4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment. 5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me."

David was sinful from birth.  The sin of Adam and Eve affected him too.  The only way for David to be cleansed from his sin was to be cleansed by God.  Psalm 51:7,

"Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow."

And God would wash him, he would forgive him his sin.  And so Nathan the prophet told him in 2 Samuel 12:13,

"The LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die."

David was forgiven.  He deserved to die - he was an adulterer and a murderer - but God would have mercy on him.  And that in turn caused David to write another psalm, Psalm 32.  Psalm 32:1,2

1 Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. 2 Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

And Psalm 32:5,

5 I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.

For David, therefore, there was complete forgiveness for the sin that he had committed.  Oh the depth and the greatness of God's mercy that was shown to him!

But our God is also a just God.  And sin does still have consequences, even forgiven sin.  And so David will still taste the bitterness of the sin that he had committed.  2 Samuel 12:14,

"Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the LORD, the child who is born to you shall die."

And that's what happened.  The LORD afflicted the child that Uriah's wife bore to David, verse 15 says, and he became sick.  This is one of the few cases in the Bible that a child died on account of the sin of his father.  It is unusual, but through this God is teaching us that there is a difference between the forgiveness of sin and relief from the consequences of sin.  Even after you are forgiven, there may still be consequences, even pain, to bear.  For the child himself, however, this was not a sense of punishment but for him it was an entrance into eternal life.

But David was grieved and, like any God-fearing parent, he poured out his heart to God and begged God to save his child.  2 Samuel 12:16-17,

16 David therefore sought God on behalf of the child. And David fasted and went in and lay all night on the ground. 17 And the elders of his house stood beside him, to raise him from the ground, but he would not, nor did he eat food with them.

We get that!  We understand it.  The pain, the grief, the heartfelt crying out to God is what we all do when our little ones are so very sick.

But on the seventh day, the child died.  Although David had begged for God's mercy and pleaded for the life of his child, his child still died.  What a painful loss!  What a bitter blow.  Indeed, it was so painful that David's servants did not know how to tell him.  2 Samuel 12:18,

18 On the seventh day the child died. And the servants of David were afraid to tell him that the child was dead, for they said, “Behold, while the child was yet alive, we spoke to him, and he did not listen to us. How then can we say to him the child is dead? He may do himself some harm.”

But when David understood that his child was dead, he got up from the earth, he washed and anointed himself and changed his clothes.  This was the opposite to what his servants had expected.  Instead of breaking down altogether and doing himself harm, David was comforted in the face of his child's death.  How could that be?  What was it that gave David comfort at the time of the death of his child?  We will look at this our second point.

 

2.  A sure comfort

David's response to the death of his child puzzled his servants and they said to him in 2 Samuel 12:21,

"What is this thing that you have done?  You fasted and wept for the child while he was alive; but when the child died, you ate food."

These servants didn't get it!  But nor do we, unless we understand the reason for David's sure comfort.  David responded to his servants in verse 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."

Now some people conclude from this that David is simply saying that crying and fasting won't bring his son back to life and that one day David too will be in the grave with him.  Although I respect those who think this way, it is not a satisfactory explanation of David's sudden change.  Where is the comfort in that?  Verse 24 says that from here David went on to comfort his wife, Bathsheba.  So he's not being fatalistic here.  He's not saying, "I tried to get God to change his mind, but he did not, so there's nothing more to do."  No!  David is comforted!  But how is he comforted, and why?

  Let's go back to 2 Samuel 12:20.

"Then David arose from the earth and washed and anointed himself and changed his clothes. And he went into the house of the Lord and worshiped. He then went to his own house. And when he asked, they set food before him, and he ate."

Notice what David did.  He first got up from the ground.  He washed off the dust, he removed the sackcloth and ashes, or whatever it was that he used to express his grief, his repentance and his humbling before God.  And then what did he do?  Verse 20: 

"He went into the house of the LORD and worshipped." 

That's what he did!  He went to God's house and was strengthened by the promise of the forgiveness of sins and of the steadfast love of his covenant keeping God.  David was forgiven, his relationship with God was restored and all was well with his soul.  David's servants did not get this.  "What is this thing that you have done?" they asked.  But David rested in the promises of God, and David was at peace.  David explained himself further in 2 Samuel 12:22,

"While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept, for I said, 'Who knows whether the LROD will be gracious to me, that the child may live?"

That was David's motivation for pleading with God for those seven days.  He knew that God is gracious.  He knew that God was eager to forgive.  And so he pleaded that God might take away not just David's sin but also the consequences of his sin.  But in his wisdom, God did not do this.  But that did not make David angry, nor was he bitter or discouraged.  Rather, he went into the house of the LORD and he worshipped.  He called to mind the covenant promises of God, and David was comforted.  And it was in this context that David said in verse 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."

That's not just resigned acceptance of reality.  That's a word of hope!  Covenant hope.  David, the man who had sinned, will go to be where his son is.  David too will go to be with the Lord.  And he'll be there, with his son.  Where does David get this sure comfort from?  He gets it not just from feelings, nor from empty words, but he gets it from the sure promises of the Word of the LORD.  Because not even David's sin can separate him from the love of God!  David cannot bring his child back again, but he shall go to him.  One day David will be there with him.  No, not just in the grave, in a hole in the ground - for there is no comfort in that - but in heaven, in the presence of our God and Father.

Because isn't that the place where God's covenant promises will be fulfilled?  In Genesis 17:7 the LORD had said to Abraham,

"And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting God to you and to your offspring after you."

Was this promise only for David?  Was it not for his son, even his son who had died also?  Of course it was for his son, even his son who had died.  And so why was David comforted even when his infant son was taken from him, yes, even when he died on account of David's own sin?  He was comforted on account of the fact that God is true, that the promises of his covenant are true, and that David's child was God's child.

And if David could believe that in the Old Testament, how much more can we believe this in the New?

"For the promise is for you", Acts 2:39 says, "and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself."

And 1 Corinthians 7:14,

"For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband.  Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy."

Your children are holy!  Set apart to the Lord!  It is to your children, therefore, that the LORD says, "I am your God and you are my child."

And therefore, when you suffer a miscarriage or when you go through the pain of a still birth, or when a child dies in infancy, do not use the doctrine of election to doubt God's covenant love.  Do not go to Bible texts such as that of Jacob being loved and Esau hated to throw doubt on the eternal salvation and well-being of your child who was taken from you in infancy.  Instead, look to the covenant promises of God and trust them.  Because every promise of God is declared to be Yes and Amen in Jesus Christ.  Because Jesus came to die for them also.  Because our God is a gracious, a merciful and a heavenly Father.  He loves us.  He loves our children.  And they are his.

And now back to the Synod and the Canons of Dort.  Back to the challenge that the Arminians made against the Reformed.  Back to their claim that the doctrine of election is a horrible doctrine that effectively rips babies from their mothers' breasts and casts them into hell.  Do you see how wrong that all is?  Do you see how this doctrine has been twisted?  Listen once more to what our fathers wrote in the Canons of Dort, chapter 1, article 17.

"We must judge concerning the will of God from his Word, which declares that the children of believers are holy, not by nature but in virtue of the covenant of grace, in which they are included with their parents.  Therefore, God-fearing parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom God calls out of this life in their infancy."

God-fearing parents "ought not to doubt."  No, this is not a weak way of saying "we still don't know" but in its context, and in the context of what the Arminians were charging the Reformed believers with, this means that you can be convinced!  Your children are God's children.  They have been given rich and wonderful promises in Christ Jesus.  Yes, as they grow older they will be called to respond to those promises in faith.  The time must come that, as your children grow up that you must say to them, "Here is the promise of God.  You must trust in Christ alone for your salvation as he is offered in the gospel.  Embrace the promises of God's covenant that he has made with you in Christ."  But for our little ones, for those who have not yet reached such an age of discretion, let us trust God, let us believe his promises.  And let us be comforted that he holds these little ones in his hand.

There is more that could be said.  The promises of God, the promises of his covenant, are so deep, so rich, so wonderful, so full of meaning.  But for now, hold fast to the covenant promises of God that are yours in Christ Jesus.  Hold them fast for yourself.  Believe him, trust that in him you too may have the forgiveness of sins and a new life.  Trust that in him you too are assured of eternal life.  And trust that in him your children, yes also those who have passed from this life to the next, are secure in his hand.

The story of the many Hendrik 't Harts is a sad story.  Even for parents who share a firm confidence in the love of God in Christ Jesus the death of an infant is really hard.  But for those who are in Christ Jesus, for those who believe the covenant promises of God, we have a hope, we have a comfort.  And our hope and our comfort is that the grave is not the end.  Our hope and our comfort is that we will see our children once again.  In fact, our hope and our comfort is that we will even see those children whom we never even really got to see in this life.  Our hope and our comfort is that one day we will be with them in the presence of God.  Our hope and our comfort is that when our little ones are taken from our arms, they remain safe in the arms of our Saviour.  Amen.

 

[1] The spelling of the first family of Hendriks was actually Heijndrik.




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Stephen 't Hart, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2020, Rev. Stephen 't Hart

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