Probably the most glaring flaw in true historical Calvinism is their doctrine of reprobation, which simply asserts that some babies are born non-elect, that is, they are born with no hope of ever being forgiven, regardless of their upbringing or how long they live. In the historic Reformed view, Adam’s sin would have assured that these people (the reprobate) would be born guilty and already deserve to be punished in hell as soon as they break the womb. ( I know, it’s pretty bizarre). In the Calvinistic system, they will never be given the ability to repent; they will never be given the ability to believe in Jesus. In the most consistent form of Calvinism, Jesus did not die for their sins. These poor souls would never have an actual opportunity to be saved from the wrath of God because God would not have elected them to be saved by grace. They are said to be “passed by,” which is a more palatable way of saying they aren’t supposed to be saved. They can’t be saved. This is not an exaggeration or straw man description of what they believe. No real Calvinist would deny any of this description. (See Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter 3-Sections 7-8; Calvin’s Institutes iii, xxi, sec. 5; J.P.Boyce Abstract of Theology Chapter XXX.)
The blunt answer to this question for a Calvinist is, “Yes, of course your children could be born reprobate. You need to love God more than your kids, come to grips with His sovereignty, and deal with it.” For obvious reasons, most Calvinists steer away from the blunt answer and try a more “nuanced” explanation.
When this error gets in a Calvinistic parent’s head – the consequences can be dreadful. Try as they might to avoid applying this to their own kids, even the Covenant/Presbyterian brand of Calvinist struggles to sidestep the inevitable conclusion of their system. They are sure that God would have already decided which (if any) of their children will repent and believe the gospel before they are born. No amount of prayer and catechizing would change the immutable eternal decree. This is evidenced by the Calvinistic teaching of Romans 9. In his study guide on the Westminster Confession, G. I. Williamson says:
“Jacob was chosen to eternal life and Esau was passed by and left to the punishment he deserved.” (Page 33)
“Covenant” Calvinists, like Mr. Williamson, teach that the children of believers would go to heaven if they died in childhood. This is because they are “holy” or “sanctified” as per 1 Cor 7:14. The question for these Calvinists is: How could Esau, who was raised by believing parents, be “holy” as a child and yet, at the same time be reprobate with no hope of being saved? I trust the reader can see the confusion generated by the Calvinistic view of election. In their system, Esau could not have gone to heaven if he died as a child because he was not among the elect. The problems only get worse for the more kind hearted Calvinists who agree that all babies are born guilty and some babies are born reprobate but they insist that all children, who die, will go to heaven.
In recounting the spiritual struggles of his youth, David Brainerd said that Romans 9:11-23 was a “constant vexation” to him. This shows the confusion that is thrust upon children who are given a distorted view of biblical election. (See The Life of David Brainerd, a compilation from his diary by J. Edwards.) Brainerd was wise to be concerned about the state of his soul as a young person but no children should ever be made to question whether God desires and equips them to believe the Truth. To question God’s universal love and righteousness is to question the main them of the Bible.
When this error gets into a pastor’s head and he encourages young children to be in the meetings of the church – the consequences can be dreadful. Children often get more out of the sermons than we think. And when a child begins to think that he/she might be reprobate – the consequences can be devastating to their faith. It may actually be worse than those who excessively use the doctrine of hell to scare young children into a profession of faith. The child who is unwisely frightened into a profession of faith by relentless threatening of damnation at least has a chance to develop a faith that works through love; whereas the child who thinks he/she might be reprobate has no reason to hope.
Now to be fair, all Christians, who believe the Bible, know that it is possible that they might raise a child who ultimately decides to reject the Truth and perish. But the differences between the biblical doctrine of an avoidable hell and the Calvinistic doctrine of an irresistible hell are obvious. In the biblical system every sinner, of sound mind, will have encountered the truth, as it is clearly revealed in nature and conscience, along with the God given ability to receive or reject that truth. Those who have been exposed to the gospel of Christ will be even more accountable for receiving that marvelous Light and Truth. Unto whom much is given much is required.
So, how should we view our children?
Are they God forsaken little “vipers in diapers,” who despise everything good and will sin at every opportunity? Or, are they born sinners, who are loved by God and given the necessary grace to resist temptation and believe the Truth? If, as children, we are venom spitting enemies of God why would Jesus tell us to turn back and become like children?? Mt 18:3 ESV How we answer this question will have a great deal of influence in our kid’s lives. If we set unrealistic expectations of faith and obedience for them, before we encourage them in the faith, then we demand more of them than we do for ourselves, in terms of assurance. On the other hand, if you pretend that all is well and look the other way when their sinful nature becomes evident then they will likely either end up with a vain faith or mock us for pretending that they must be believers because they are “my” kids.
Here’s the rub: we are each, indeed, born with a corrupt nature, thanks to Adam, yet God loves every person ever born. He desires their salvation and will be working to that end throughout their entire life; but He refuses to irresistibly compel us to repent and embrace the Truth. He wants us to have a truly volitional faith that works by love. Gal 5:6 This is the serious mistake of the Calvinistic view of election and reprobation; it opens the door for parents to wrongly assume that one (or all) of their kids might not be loved by God and “chosen” to be saved. Again, this can have dreadful consequences in terms of how they treat their kids, especially those who are more strong willed and defiant in childhood. Some of the biggest brats in childhood have gone on to be the most consistent and courageous believers, and some of the most compliant kids have gone on to live selfishly and indifferent to spiritual things.
It is better, and more biblical, to view children as sinners who are loved by God and in a state of grace until it becomes evident that they understand the gospel and have decided to reject it. Even those older kids who grow up with questions and go through times of doubt and rebellion may still be believers deep in their heart of hearts but they cannot enjoy any real assurance of salvation until they show true contrition, and a fruit bearing faith that works by love. Pre-judging the eternal destiny of children based upon their early behavior is a bad idea for all believing parents; this problem is exacerbated by the Calvinistic views of election and reprobation.
It is much better, and more biblical, to know there is no such thing as a child that God doesn’t love and desire to save. As parents and grandparents, it is our duty to water and fertilize the common grace abilities that God gives every child. Sin comes naturally but so does the common grace of God. Yes, we must use the rod sometimes to drive the foolishness out of them. Prov 22:15 But we don’t need to try and beat them into super saints before we offer any encouragement in the faith. (Remember, Jesus did not use the obedience of children as an example! He used the faith of children as an example.)
Jesus loves the little children and everyone was once a little child. Mk 9:35; 10:13; Mt 18; Mt 19