Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism Sacred Doctrine

The Salvation of Infants (4): Augustinian Interlude

I said in my initial post that limbo, with respect to those dying in infancy, “does not reckon seriously enough with the grace of God, the character of the atonement, or the relation of sacraments to the application of redemption.” This remark has wider applicability than merely to that bit of postmortem theological fancy.

It has applicability too, I would suggest, to the theology of baptism of Augustine, who denied an intermediary state for the unbaptized dead. Because of a disproportionate weight placed upon the administration of the sacrament, he is forced to the perverse conclusion that unbaptized children–even of believers–cannot be saved.

Augustine makes this clear in De peccatorum meritis et remissione et de baptismo parvulorum (On the Merits and Forgiveness of Sins and on the Baptism of Infants), a work written in three books (originally two) against the Pelagians in 411-12.

Augustine takes Romans 5 and the Adam-Christ typology as a point of departure for his discussion of the guilt of the entire human race, as we have also seen Charles Hodge to do, but turns it ultimately to a very different use, as will become evident. Augustine writes:

Moreover the law entered, that the offense might abound. Romans 5:20 This addition to original sin men now made of their own wilfulness, not through Adam; but even this is done away and remedied by Christ, because where sin abounded, grace did much more abound; that as sin has reigned unto death Romans 5:21 — even that sin which men have not derived from Adam, but have added of their own will— even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life. Romans 5:21 There is, however, other righteousness apart from Christ, as there are other sins apart from Adam. Therefore, after saying, As sin has reigned unto death, he did not add in the same clause by one, or by Adam, because he had already spoken of that sin which was abounding when the law entered, and which, of course, was not original sin, but the sin of man’s own wilful commission. But after he has said: Even so might grace also reign through righteousness unto eternal life, he at once adds, through Jesus Christ our Lord; Romans 5:21 because, while by the generation of the flesh only that sin is contracted which is original; yet by the regeneration of the Spirit there is effected the remission not of original sin only, but also of the sins of man’s own voluntary and actual commission. (1.20)

For Augustine, then, infants, if they are to enter heaven, must be saved, because they are part of Adam’s race–which is to say, they are not innocent. But he is careful to describe the type of guilt that they have: that which comes by original, rather than actual, sin. There is a distinction between the two that must be kept clear; and the type of guilt to which infants are liable is the former rather than the latter.

For instance, Augustine says: “Now, inasmuch as infants are not held bound by any sins of their own actual life, it is the guilt of original sin which is healed in them by the grace of Him who saves them by the laver of regeneration” (1.24). Again: “If, however, the infant departs from the present life after he has received baptism, the guilt in which he was involved by original sin being done away, he shall be made perfect in that light of truth, which, remaining unchangeable for evermore, illumines the justified in the presence of their Creator” (1.25).

These two brief quotations already map for us the direction in which we are headed. Infants are liable to condemnation, and baptism is the only way out of it. Augustine tries to soften the blow a bit by asserting that their condemnation will be “mildest,” but does not allow any other possibility for them:

It may therefore be correctly affirmed, that such infants as quit the body without being baptized will be involved in the mildest condemnation of all. That person, therefore, greatly deceives both himself and others, who teaches that they will not be involved in condemnation; whereas the apostle says: Judgment from one offense to condemnation, Romans 5:16 and again a little after: By the offense of one upon all persons to condemnation. Romans 5:18 When, indeed, Adam sinned by not obeying God, then his body— although it was a natural and mortal body— lost the grace whereby it used in every part of it to be obedient to the soul. Then there arose in men affections common to the brutes which are productive of shame, and which made man ashamed of his own nakedness. Genesis 3:10 Then also, by a certain disease which was conceived in men from a suddenly injected and pestilential corruption, it was brought about that they lost that stability of life in which they were created, and, by reason of the mutations which they experienced in the stages of life, issued at last in death….As a consequence, then, of this disobedience of the flesh and this law of sin and death, whoever is born of the flesh has need of spiritual regeneration— not only that he may reach the kingdom of God, but also that he may be freed from the damnation of sin. Hence men are on the one hand born in the flesh liable to sin and death from the first Adam, and on the other hand are born again in baptism associated with the righteousness and eternal life of the second Adam; even as it is written in the book of Ecclesiasticus: Of the woman came the beginning of sin, and through her we all die. Sirach 25:24 (1.21)

Again, note the differences in emphasis from Hodge: Hodge agrees with Augustine about the universality of guilt treated in Romans 5, but disagrees sharply about what the mercy of God treated in the same passage means for those who die without baptism. Another way to put this is to say that Hodge disagrees about the divine freedom in saving sinners. For him it is expansive, while for Augustine God’s saving will is tied exclusively to the ordinary means, issuing in a rigorously and almost formulaic effect of sacramental performance that leaves little room for the independent work of the Spirit. Thus:

Now if they who are baptized are, by virtue of the excellence and administration of so great a sacrament, nevertheless reckoned in the number of the faithful, although by their own heart and mouth they do not literally perform what appertains to the action of faith and confession; surely they who have lacked the sacrament must be classed among those who do not believe in the Son, and therefore, if they shall depart this life without this grace, they will have to encounter what is written concerning such— they shall not have life, but the wrath of God abides on them. Whence could this result to those who clearly have no sins of their own, if they are not held to be obnoxious to original sin? (1.28)


I have come, says Christ, a light into the world, that whosoever believes in me should not abide in darkness. John 12:46 Now what does this passage show us, but that every person is in darkness who does not believe in Him, and that it is by believing on Him that he escapes from this permanent state of darkness? What do we understand by the darkness but sin? And whatever else it may embrace in its meaning, at any rate he who believes not in Christ will abide in darkness,— which, of course, is a penal state, not, as the darkness of the night, necessary for the refreshment of living beings. [XXV.] So that infants, unless they pass into the number of believers through the sacrament which was divinely instituted for this purpose, will undoubtedly remain in this darkness. (1.35)

Augustine’s position here, as I noted above, leaves no room for an intermediate place in the afterlife–no room for limbo. He is consistent on this score:

Now none who shall partake of this life shall be made alive except in Christ, even as all die in Adam. 1 Corinthians 15:22 For as none whatever, of all those who belong to the generation according to the will of the flesh, die except in Adam, in whom all sinned; so, out of these, none at all who are regenerated by the will of the Spirit are endowed with life except in Christ, in whom all are justified. Because as through one all to condemnation, so through One all to justification. Romans 5:18 Nor is there any middle place for any man, and so a man can only be with the devil who is not with Christ. Accordingly, also the Lord Himself (wishing to remove from the hearts of wrong-believers that vague and indefinite middle condition, which some would provide for unbaptized infants—as if, by reason of their innocence, they were embraced in eternal life, but were not, because of their unbaptized state, with Christ in His kingdom) uttered that definitive sentence of His, which shuts their mouths: He that is not with me is against me. Matthew 12:30 Take then the case of any infant you please: If he is already in Christ, why is he baptized? If, however, as the Truth has it, he is baptized just that he may be with Christ, it certainly follows that he who is not baptized is not with Christ; and because he is not with Christ, he is against Christ; for He has pronounced His own sentence, which is so explicit that we ought not, and indeed cannot, impair it or change it. (1.55)

But his consistency in sacramental realism in relation to justification comes at a cost, for the divine freedom is most free and is not infallibly bound to means even if the use of means is the Spirit’s most normal way of proceeding: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3.8, ESV). Thus this is one area of soteriology in which the Reformation helpfully revised the Augustinian position and returned it to due proportion with the rest of the revelation of salvation in Jesus Christ.

So, for instance, in Westminster Confession of Faith 5.3, “Of Providence”: “God, in His ordinary providence, makes use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them, at His pleasure.” This point can be extended to the ministry of the church, and is: thus WCF 25.2, “Of the Church”: “The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.” The divines are adopting the language of extra ecclesiam nulla salus; but they are also adapting it, and the significance of the addition of the word “ordinary” cannot be overstated. This Protestant emphasis is a departure from much of what came before, and it is a departure in the right direction (cf. John 3.8 above): God can work where, when, and how he pleases.

The same general point must be applied to particulars, and this the divines do, so that when they come to treat baptism they hold two points in balance without distorting them: the importance of baptism and the possibility of being saved without it. The divines write in WCF 25.5, “Of Baptism”: “Although it is a great sin to contemn or neglect this ordinance, yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it, as that no person can be regenerated, or saved, without it: or, that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated.”

It is this peculiarly Protestant emphasis and this peculiarly Protestant way of making the necessary distinctions, I would argue, that allow both Hodges, Charles and A.A., to speak in the way that they do about God’s saving purposes toward guilty sinners and to take the expansive view about divine mercy and benevolence that is evident in what we have seen so far. The discussion of Augustine also provides necessary background for understanding the full weight of the nuanced treatment of this issue in the writings of W.G.T. Shedd, who will be our next subject of investigation.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.

4 replies on “The Salvation of Infants (4): Augustinian Interlude”

It is interesting to note that Lutheran heavyweights like Luther himself and Chemnitz did not come to Augustine’s conclusion despite their affirmation of baptismal efficacy.

“Who can doubt that those Israelite children who died

before they could be circumcised on the eighth day were yet saved by the
prayers of their parents in view of the promise that God willed to be their
God. God has not limited his power to the sacraments, but has made a
covenant with us through his word.”

Martin Luther

“Are the children of believers who died before birth or
in birth damned?

By no means, but since our children, brought to the light by
divine blessing, are, as it were, given into our hands and at the same time
means are offered, or it is made possible for the seal of the covenant of grace
to be applied to them, there, indeed, that very solemn divine statement
applies: The man-child, the flesh of whose foreskin is not circumcised on the
eighth day, his soul shall be blotted out from [his] people (Gen. 17:14). Hence
the Lord met Moses on the way and wanted to kill him because he had neglected to circumcise [his] son (Ex. 4:24-26). But when those means are not given us–as when in the Old Testament a male died before the eighth day of circumcision–likewise when they, who, born in the desert in the interval of 40 years, could not be circumcised because of daily harassment by enemies and constant wanderings, died uncircumcised, (Jos. 5:5-6) and when today infants die before they are born–in such cases the grace of God is not bound to Baptism, but those infants are to be brought and commended to Christ in prayers. And one should not doubt that those prayers are heard, for they are made in the name of Christ. (John 16:23; Gen. 17:7, Matt. 19:14) Since then, we cannot bring infants as yet unborn to Christ through Baptism, therefore we should do it through pious prayers. Parents are to be put in mind of this, and if perhaps such a case occur, they are to be encouraged with this comfort.” (An Enchiridion, by Martin Chemnitz, Page 119, CPH St. Louis 1981)”

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