In head 1, article 17 of the Canons of Dordt, we confess that “godly parents have no reason to doubt of the election and salvation of their children whom it pleaseth God to call out of their life in their infancy.”
The question that arises from this statement is, “What does this mean?” Do we have assurance that all our children who die in infancy are saved, head for head? Or is our knowledge on this subject limited, so that we don’t really know anything about the condition of such children’s souls? Answers to these questions are important since they touch on an experience that can be a great trial to parents—the loss of a child by miscarriage or death before they can confess the name of Christ.
What does Canons 1:17 teach?
First, the article instructs us not to doubt the election and salvation of our children who die in infancy. Whether you follow the English translation used by the Protestant Reformed Churches (“have no reason to doubt”) or the alternate translation (“ought not doubt”), the intended meaning is the same. To have “no reason to doubt” something means you assume that it is true. If you “ought not doubt” something, you should assume that it is true.
Second, the article limits our knowledge to what is revealed in Scripture. It starts by saying, “Since we are to judge of the will of God from His Word.” We must look at what Scripture tells us about the subject and make conclusions based on that. The article does not say “all children of believers who die in infancy are elect” because this absolute statement cannot be proven from Scripture. The article does say that we have no reason to doubt since nowhere in Scripture are we given reason to doubt the election of our infants.
Third, the article bases this instruction on the covenant of grace. Two scriptural concepts are presented in this connection: first, children of believers are included in God’s covenant (Gen. 17:7; Acts 2:39; and many other passages), and second, the children of believers are therefore holy (1 Cor. 7:14).
Article 17 instructs us to make the charitable assumption that all children of believers are elect unless proven otherwise by their manifestation of unbelief. It especially comforts grieving parents by exhorting them to look at God’s gracious dealings with us by maintaining his covenant in the line of generations, rather than to curiously inquire into God’s secret counsel.
What have Reformed theologians taught?
A brief review of various commentaries on this article by Reformed theologians demonstrates general agreement with the ideas explained above.
John Calvin, in a letter to a grieving father whose infant had died before being baptized, stated, “By virtue of what our children are saved, if not by that of the saying: I am the God of thy offspring? But for that they would not be capable even of being baptized. If their salvation is assured by the promise, and the foundation on which it rests is sufficiently solid of itself, we must not conclude that all the children who die without baptism go to perdition.” Calvin is here emphasizing the fact that we trust God’s promise, and his statement that the children’s “salvation is assured by the promise” applies to all infants of believers.
Homer C. Hoeksema, in Voice of Our Fathers, limits the scope of our “not doubting” to a conscious knowledge that the matter of election and reprobation ultimately lies with God, but that based on the covenant of grace given in Scripture, we have reason to believe that a deceased child is elect. His example prayer over the grave of a dead infant clearly shows this: “To thee we consecrated that child, that it might be a child for thy covenant…we rest satisfied in thy way…knowing that thou…dost save thy children out of our seed.” Hoeksema also lists the opinions of others prior to the Synod of Dordt who generally agreed that Christian parents must not doubt the salvation of their children, because the covenant promise is to them and their children. They also generally agreed that the children of unbelievers are reprobate, and that whether or not reprobation may also take place in children of believers who die in infancy is not something we should curiously pry into since Scripture cuts off all reason for doubting. Scripture always testifies of the good inclination of God toward them.
Prof. David J. Engelsma, in The Covenant of God and the Children of Believers, makes clear that the ground for Canons 1:17 is not that our children are holy in themselves, but that God establishes his covenant with us and our children. He notes that we don’t know with absolute certainty anyone’s election, other than our own, but argues that we have solid reason to believe that fellow church members (adults and infants) are elect. He also points out that all the examples in Scripture show that reprobate children of believers grow up to clearly manifest themselves as reprobates, and that these examples are authoritative for us in considering this question.
Rev. Martyn McGeown, in Grace and Assurance, agrees with Engelsma and even states that “God does not call the reprobate children of believers out of this life in their infancy. God causes the reprobate seed to grow to maturity, so that they can fill up their cup of their iniquity, and so that God can be justified in their destruction.” He points to examples in Scripture of Esau, the sons of Eli, and Absalom.
Dr. N. H. Gootjes, in a Clarion article titled “Can Parents Be Sure?” states that it is a “well established interpretation” of article 17 that the election and salvation of such children is certain, though some doubt the positive certainty of it. He claims that Canons 1.17 is in response to the false Arminian charge that the Reformed doctrine has God ripping infants from mothers and casting them into hell.
Cornelis P. Venema, in an article titled “The Election and Salvation of Children of Believers Who Die in Infancy: A Study of Article 1/17 of the Canons of Dordt,” states that this article in the Canons is remarkable in that it expresses “full confidence regarding God’s favor toward such children.” He agrees with Gootjes that the purpose of the article was to refute the Arminian charge. Venema also argues that if we allow doubt as to the election of such children, we open the door to doubting our own election. He concludes by saying that this is based on nothing but God’s good pleasure, as it is revealed in his word, according to the covenant of grace.
To carry on in the same vein as these theologians, we could add 1 John 2:19: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us.” This verse clearly expresses the overall biblical truth that reprobation serves election—God reprobates the unbeliever in the service of his church. Applying this to the current discussion, we understand that the purpose of God is for reprobate children of believers to grow up in order for them to be used by God to try his people. Through this trial he will cause them to know his mercy and grace in a deeper way as they struggle with their loved one’s unbelief. For other passages that teach that reprobation serves election, see the parable of the wheat and tares in Matthew 13, Romans 11:25, and the many references in Scripture to chaff and wheat (e.g., Matt. 3:12).
In summary, we can affirm that there is no passage in Scripture that specifies the spiritual condition of dead infants of believers; however, the idea that God elects and saves such children aligns with what Scripture reveals about how God establishes and maintains his covenant. Therefore, we may and do have a certain confidence of their salvation, grounded in God’s gracious covenant established with believers and their seed. This is a great comfort to those whose children die in infancy or childhood before they can actively confess their faith in Christ.
Originally published September 2021, Vol 80 No 9
 John Calvin, “To a Gentleman of Provence,” in Letters of John Calvin, ed. Jules Bonnet (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2007), 73.
 Homer C. Hoeksema, The Voice of Our Fathers (Jenison: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1980), 140.
 David J. Engelsma, The Covenant of God and the Children of Believers (Jenison: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2006)
 Martyn McGeown, Grace and Assurance: The Message of the Canons of Dordt (Jenison: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2018), 124.
 N. H. Gootjes, “Can Parents be Sure?” Clarion 44, no. 20 (Oct. 1995): 464.
 Cornelis P. Venema, “The Election and Salvation of Children of Believers Who Die in Infancy: A Study of Article 1/17 of the Canons of Dordt,” Mid-America Journal of Theology 17 (2006): 57–100.