What is the eternal destiny of children who die in the womb or who are aborted? Some have said that their original sin merits eternal condemnation. Most such a horrible conclusion hasn’t rung true for most Christians. Roman Catholics have posited the existence of “Limbo,” a place of natural–though not supernatural–happiness for the unbaptized. The Orthodox see the Fall as giving only the predisposition to sin and not sin itself, so children who die before they are baptized go to Heaven. Calvinists have recourse to their doctrine of election. Arminians see no problem for those who never had the opportunity for a decision. Baptists say no one can be lost before the “age of accountability.” Lutherans leave it to the Grace of God.
But Martin Chemnitz, the second greatest Lutheran theologian and the man most responsible for the Book of Concord has actually addressed this question in his classic treatment of Christology, The Two Natures in Christ:
“This teaching [the doctrine of the hypostatic union] is not idle sophistry, for it is an article of faith that Mary did not beget a man in whom God dwelt. Rather she bore the only Son of God by receiving His flesh, as Augustine says, “He was conceived and born of the Virgin Mary who for this reason and in this sense is correctly called the God-bearer (Theotochos).” If reverently considered, this act produces the most comforting thoughts. For the Son of God embraced the human race with such great love that He did not shrink from descending to such a humble state that He not only did not assume a man who was already formed and born, but rather He united to Himself personally an individual human body in the very moment of its conception and made it His own. Thus the Son of God in assuming His own flesh, but without sin, also endured those things which commonly befall man in conception, pregnancy, and birth (as the fathers of the Council of Ephesus said), so that from His very beginning, rise, and, as it were, root, He might first restore in Himself our depraved nature and so cleanse and sanctify our contaminated conception and birth that we might know that Christ’s salvation applies even to man’s fetus in conception, gestation, and birth.”
Chemnitz’s Works: The Two Natures in Christ, (St. Louis: CPH, 2007), p. 102.
Thanks to Larry Hughes for drawing this to my attention and for his own comments on the matter. He points out that some critics of Lutheranism say that the baptism of infants implies that those who die without baptism are necessarily lost; and since that would be too terrible to contemplate, so goes the argument, infant baptism is a false teaching. Larry puts together what Chemnitz says about the Incarnation with the Lutheran doctrine of the objective, universal atonement–that Christ died for the sins of the whole world, which would certainly include the unborn and very young children–as the basis for confidence in their salvation. He then says why this by no means takes away from baptism:
Connecting it to fetuses, the pre-born, and babies that die without baptism – Jesus atoned for them as well. But for those that live and grow up there is baptism. We must ask the Ethiopian Eunuch’s rhetorical question, “Since–not if, but SINCE–Jesus atoned for them, as is clear in His incarnation and assumption at conception itself, then why in the world is baptism withheld from any infant or person?” Answer: “It only is because men do it themselves.” E.g. it is not we who say a Baptist’s child is not forgiven or saved by Christ; we do and thus would baptize them, it is they via their doctrines that do so. I.e. the only thing holding the gift of the Holy Spirit and grasping more firmly forgiveness from their children and some adults is they themselves, not God. Jesus clearly says, “Baptize” (Mathew 28). Baptism is for those that will have to live through the lies and deceptions that say, “hath God really said”; it’s a Gospel weapon. Because it is as we grow as adults that we are tempted to turn away sometime in the future as we age by the devil, the world and our ever present flesh. A fetus or preborn, or very young baby has no such growing and increasing resistance, as it were. In short the sacraments are the Gospel weapons of assurance of the promise for me, for those who will have to traverse this “valley of the shadow of death”. Those that die before this journey need it not. Christ atoned for the sins of the world and His incarnation is the sine qua non of that doctrine.
“I think it is helpful when talking about the sacraments to distinguish between two kinds of logic. One is the ‘logic of shortage’ which is the normal human logic in which the controlling premise of the syllogism is death. In the end you are going to get it anyway. And death is the ultimate shortage. When thinking about the sacraments it is necessary to learn another logic, that is the logic of the resurrection.
Because the first premise in the logic of baptism, the Lord’s Supper & the absolution is ‘SINCE Christ is raised’. When that’s the controlling premise then everything turns excessive. It’s open, it’s over flowing, it’s abundant. And so Luther in the small catechism asks questions like this, “What are the benefits…”? In the logic of shortage that’s a very impertinent question because somebody might run out. But in the logic of the resurrection ‘what are the benefits of this sacrament’ is an entirely appropriate question. You know that Jesus is never going to run out and therefore thinking about the sacraments requires us to first of all register this first premise. SINCE Christ is raised, since Christ has been raised from the dead, therefore…you see? And then in baptism rather than thinking in it in the terms of control the question becomes rather what the Ethiopian Eunuch asked Phillip, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?
You see, the legal, the shortage question is ‘how can I qualify’. But the question of excess is ‘What is to prevent me!” And Phillip answers, ‘well nothing at all, here’s the water and I have the Word on the tip of my tongue’, see. And the same with the Lord’s Supper that the logic of the Lord’s Supper is controlled by the presence of the risen Christ. He is meeting you here.
Now that does not mean indiscriminately, but it means rather handing out His benefits making sure that the sacrament is administered in such a way that His benefits are given. It turns everything over, the same with absolution, you know, ‘Since Christ is raised your sins are forgiven’. That’s fun. You know if you wait until you can believe in your own faith then you are going to the sacrament for the wrong reason anyway. If Christ is going to break out against anybody anyway He is going to break out against the pious who are there because they are true believers and the others are not. So Luther will say things like this, ‘When you wonder if you are a believer just lean back into the faith of the community and let them carry you’. You see what he is doing? He is taking the eye off of self and placing the eye on Christ. So that you are delivered from yourself. So that like for a woman that was in despair and fighting with herself, nothing is better than the sacrament, nothing…it’s beautiful.”