Imagine a loved one undergoing the tragedy of losing a child soon after Baptism. What comfort would you extend to the grieving parents? No doubt you would say something like, “Thank God, your child was baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. Now he rests with his Savior.” Few Lutherans would leave room for doubt that the child was in heaven, would they?
But change the chronology a few months. The child dies just prior to Baptism, while still in the womb. Here, for lots of Lutherans, even pastors, the water becomes a lot murkier. Maybe the child is saved, goes the thinking of lots of Lutherans. God is gracious, after all. Perhaps the baby received the gift of faith in Christ through pre-natal exposure to Bible readings and sermons. Or perhaps the mother’s reception of the body and blood of Christ has some salutary effect for the unborn child, others can be heard to say.
In reality, there is ground for certainty about the salvation of infants of Christians in both cases, and for the same reason. We are not certain of the salvation of the baptized infant simply because he or she is baptized, any more than we are certain of the salvation of a baptized adult at his funeral based solely upon the fact that he is baptized. A baptized adult, after all, may have fallen away from the faith, rejecting the promise of his Baptism. Are children any different?
Yes. We have a special promise about the salvation of infants and small children: Jesus’ command, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:16). We have a firm and certain promise here that all such children as are brought to Jesus—by others, no less—will be given the kingdom of God. Thus when infants and small children are brought to Christ in Baptism we have a certainty regarding their salvation that we don’t have in the case of adults, who bring themselves.
But what about infants who are unable to be brought to baptism—such as those still in the womb?
They cannot be brought to Christ through the ordinary means of Holy Baptism. Does this mean that Christ’s promise—“ the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these”—does not apply to them?
That would be a strange turn of events. The Son became an infant in the womb in order to redeem unborn children as well as all others, didn’t He? Should unborn infants be denied the kingdom of heaven simply because they can’t be brought to Christ in Baptism, even though the parents would gladly bring them if they could?
Many Lutherans try to get around this problem by suggesting that exposure to the Word of God before birth is a way of bringing infants to Christ. But this opens another can of worms. Are we suggesting that infants understand sermons or Paul’s argument in the opening chapters of Romans? Or are we saying that the Word of God works faith even when people don’t comprehend it? And if that’s the case, why bother translating the Scriptures into English, or preaching at all?
There is another answer, and that is the one that was held by orthodox Lutheran theologians such as Luther, Johannes Bugenhagen, Johann Gerhard, and others. They held that infants prior to Baptism were saved when they were brought to Christ in prayer.
Johannes Bugenhagen, Luther’s pastor, wrote:
Yes, I say more still on the basis of this promise of Christ, that the parents or others who are there may and should commend the little child with thanksgiving to Christ while it is still in the womb. They should bring or offer the child to Christ with this or similar prayers: ‘I thank you, dear heavenly Father, that you have blessed us with the fruit of the womb. Dear Lord Jesus, let this little child be yours, as you have said: “Let the little children come to me, and forbid them not, because of such is the kingdom of God.” Upon this your promise we bring this little child to you with our prayers. If it will be born and come into our hands, we will gladly also bring and carry it to you in baptism,’ etc.
The prayer may well be made with other words; nothing depends on that, so long as it proceeds from the promise of Christ concerning the little children. So we should believe with certainty that Christ takes the child up [receives the child], and we should not commend it to the secret judgment of God.
Johann Gerhard, the great Lutheran dogmatician of the 17th century, expressed the same thoughts:
One should not wantonly damn or exclude from the fellowship of eternal life the children of Christians who, before they can be brought to Baptism, die in the mother’s womb or are ripped away through an unexpected accident. What pertains to children who die in their mother’s womb is obvious, as follows…through the prayer of their parents and the Church (which in public prays for all the pregnant women), such children have been commended to God the Lord. Therefore, you need not doubt that God (according to His gracious promise about answering prayer, which He has demonstrated throughout Scripture) has heard you in this matter. And what could not occur through the ordained means of Holy Baptism, He has accomplished for these children in an extraordinary manner without means through His Holy Spirit. That He can do this He has demonstrated with the example of John the Baptizer, who was filled with the Holy Spirit in his mother’s womb, Luke 1:15, and who testified to Christ by jumping, v. 41…
God the Lord is not bound to means in the same way that we human beings are so that He cannot help through His divine power without means. For in the same way as we humans are bound to means as pertains to the external affairs of this life, so also in matters pertaining to eternal life we are bound to the Word and the holy Sacraments; contrarily, as God the Lord is not at all bound to means in outward matters (since He can maintain the life of man without food [and] give health again without physicians) so also in matters pertaining to eternal life, He is not bound to the means which He Himself has ordained. Thus, He can make a person saved without [using] them.
Martin Luther, in discussing how infants receive the faith which they confess at their baptism, writes the following:
…baptism avails for nobody and is to be administered to nobody, unless he believes for himself…For the faith must be present before or at least in the baptism; otherwise the child will not be delivered from the devil and sins.
Therefore if their [the Waldensians] opinion were correct, all that is done with the child in baptism is necessarily falsehood and mockery. For the baptizer asks whether the child believes, and the answer for the child is: Yes. And he asks whether it desires to be baptized, and the answer for the child is again: Yes. Now nobody is baptized for the child, but it is baptized itself. Therefore it must also believe itself, or the sponsors must speak a falsehood, when for it they say: I believe…
…Therefore we here conclude and declare that in baptism the children themselves believe and have their own faith, which God effects in them through the sponsors, when in the faith of the Christian church they intercede for them and bring them to Baptism…children are not baptized in the faith of the sponsors or of the church; but the faith of sponsors and of the church prays and gains faith for them, in which they are baptized and believe for themselves….
In other words, according to Luther, children are given faith before or baptism through the prayer of the sponsors, who bring the child to Christ in intercession. Luther’s thinking along these lines extends also to unbaptized infants who die in childbirth, as can be seen from his “Comfort for Women who Have Had a Miscarriage”:
For this reason one ought not straightway condemn such infants for whom and concerning whom believers and Christians have devoted their longing and yearning and praying.
Nor ought one to consider them the same as others for whom no faith, prayer, or yearning are expressed on the part of Christians and believers. God intends that his promise and our prayer or yearning which is grounded in that promise should not be disdained or rejected, but be highly valued and esteemed. I have said it before and preached it often enough: God accomplished much through the faith and longing of another, even a stranger, even though there is still no personal faith. But this is given through the channel of another’s intercessions, as in the gospel Christ raised the widow’s son at Nain because of the prayers of his mother apart from the faith of the son. And he freed the little daughter of the Canaanite woman from the demon through the faith of the mother apart from the daughter’s faith.10 The same was true of the king’s son, John 4 [:46-53] and of the paralytic and many others of whom we need not say anything here.
What conclusions can we draw from this?
First of all, we can rejoice in the great comfort this gives us regarding the infants of Christians. Parents who have lost children in miscarriage need not labor in doubt concerning their children but can rejoice that they have been brought to Jesus in prayer, whether their own or that of the church. Parents who should lose their infants prior to baptism can also be comforted that their little ones have been brought to Jesus, and they are not lost because they were not immediately baptized upon leaving the womb.
Secondly, we can rejoice in the great privilege afforded us as Christians, that we are not only permitted to bring our infants directly to Christ in prayer, but also everyone who has been committed to our royal priestly intercession. While we do not have the same promises for all people that we do regarding the little children, we have the promise that God hears us.
And this is what we call the power of alien faith: not that anybody can be saved by it, but that through it as an intercession and aid he can obtain from God himself his own faith, by which he is saved. It may be compared to my natural life and death. If I am to live, I myself must be born, and nobody can be born for me to enable me to live; but mother and midwife can by their life aid me in birth and enable me to live. In the same way I myself must suffer death, if I am to die; but one can help bring about my death, if he frightens me, or falls upon me, or chokes, crushes, or suffocates me. In like manner, nobody can go to hell for me; but he can seduce me by false doctrine and life, so that I go thither by my own error, into which his error has led me. So nobody can go to heaven for me; but he can assist me, can preach, teach, govern, pray and obtain faith from God, through which I can go to heaven.
 Johannes Bugenhagen, quoted in Karl R. Hess, „The Faith of Unbaptized Infants in Bugenhagen’s On Unborn Children,” Logia vol. 23 no. 2, p. 38.
 Johann Gerhard, A Comprehensive Explanation of Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. (1610) Trans. The Rev. Elmer Hohle. Malone, TX: Repristination Press, 2000, pp. 173-175.
 Martin Luther, “Sermon on the Gospel for the Third Sunday after Epiphany”, Church Postil, 26-28, 31, 34. http://www.lutherdansk.dk/Web-Fastepostillen%20AM/index.htm
 Martin Luther, “Comfort for Women who have had a Miscarriage.” http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&ved=0CCAQFjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.lcms.org%2FDocument.fdoc%3Fsrc%3Dlcm%26id%3D533&ei=Br4HVKfOFo6LyASJ_4HABw&usg=AFQjCNE1CPMMcuz_HGASTvUHyGfXGHV3OQ&sig2=iL–fQBqADrxXNJGj9rbLg
 Martin Luther, “Sermon on the Gospel for the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany,” Church Postil, 31. http://www.lutherdansk.dk/Web-Fastepostillen%20AM/index.htm