The Death of Unbaptized Babies and Holiness Through Christian Family
Q: What happens to babies who die before they are baptized? As Lutherans we state that even infants are sinful and need the washing of regeneration. On the flip side, doesn’t this also mean that all babies who are not baptized are still in their sins and destined for Hell? Also, what does 1 Corinthians 7 mean when St. Paul says that the children of believers are holy?
A: Your questions are not new. In 1542, Martin Luther wrote that “it often happens that devout parents, particularly the wives, have sought consolation from us because they have suffered such agony and heartbreak in child-bearing when, despite their best intentions and against their will, there was a premature birth or miscarriage and their child died at birth or was born dead.” If you have access to the American Edition of Luther’s Works, I encourage you to read this brief writing from Volume 43.
But let’s take the “easy” question first: Paul was addressing Christians living in a thoroughly pagan city. Many believers were married to unbelievers and had questions about their marriages and offspring. Verse 14 says, “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.”
In a commentary on this epistle, Dr. Gregory Lockwood writes, “To say that the unbelieving spouse ‘has been sanctified’ does not necessarily mean that he or she will be saved ... the unbeliever may continue to reject the Gospel. However, the unbelieving spouse does come under the holy influence of the Christian.... The ... home is constantly sanctified by the Word of God and prayer.”
Lockwood continues, “The holy influence of the Christian spouse also extends to the children....” He goes on to speak of Timothy, who came to faith through mother and grandmother (cf. 2 Tim 1:5), even though his father was, quite possibly, pagan (why else would he not also be mentioned?). He also speaks of how these children in 1 Cor 7:14 may well have been baptized, although the resistance of the pagan parents may have prevented baptism in all cases. And this provides a transition to your primary questions on unbaptized babies.
In the above section of 1 Corinthians, we see the value of constant exposure to the Word of God, particularly the saving message of the Gospel. The unborn children of believers are themselves exposed to this Word as their mothers attend church, read Scripture, and talk about the Faith in and out of the home. I would not wonder but that they also benefit along with their mothers through the Lord’s Supper. We know the active power of God’s gracious Word, even upon people whom we would not expect to respond.
Consider that the unborn John the (future) Baptizer “leaped for joy (Luke 1:44)” upon hearing of the Messiah’s incarnation from Mary’s lips. Dead Lazarus heard and responded to Christ’s call to come forth from the tomb (cf. John 11:1-44). Jesus didn’t make him alive, then call him out. Rather, Christ’s words themselves quickened the dead man. Dare we doubt the similar effect of God’s Word upon our own unborn? Medical science teaches us that children can hear throughout the final trimester of pregnancy. Yet were they deaf, would that blunt the power of the Word?
Of course, Christian parents shouldn’t despise the saving gift of Baptism and should bring their children to the “washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5)” as quickly as possible. Yet in those tragic instances when life is cut short before this means of grace can be employed, the Gospel itself has already had ample opportunity to act in the heart of the child.
God in Christ participated in every stage of human life. Unborn and newborn lives are redeemed by His suffering and death and are precious in His sight. We may imagine that the little ones get nothing out of church, and its liturgy, hymns, Scriptures, and sermons, Scripture shows otherwise! Faith is created by Word and Spirit, not through reason. Through the Word read, preached, prayed, and sung, these children — born and unborn — come into the presence of their Lord. Yes, “Baptism ... now saves”; yet only unbelief damns.
Of course, you notice that I’ve only spoken of the children of active Christians. I truly could not speak such comfort to those who despise the house of the Lord, who cleave to other gods, and who have not steadfastly exposed unborn and infant children to the grace of God in Christ.
I borrowed some of his thoughts and thus would like to give special thanks to Pastor D. Richard Stuckwish, Jr. for a published sermon on this topic entitled “Holding Dear Herman.”
Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
Commentary quotes from Concordia Commentary: 1 Corinthians, © 2000 by Concordia Publishing House.
Luther quote from “Comfort for Women Who Have Had a Miscarriage,” Luther’s Works, Volume 43, © 1968 by Fortress Press.
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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.