Safe in the Arms of God is described on the cover as "truth from heaven about the death of a child." In this short, but intense book, John MacArthur answers the question of what happens to children - those unborn, stillborn, or youngsters - when they die. This is a question that has perplexed Christians since the days of the early church. While most Christians have held the view that their children are in heaven, the majority have believed that without being able to adequately defend their position. In this book MacArthur provides a Biblical examination of the issues and ultimately provides a satisfying answer.
In this short review I will not examine the issue itself, but MacArthur's handling of the issue.
MacArthur's position is that all children who die, regardless of the era they were born in, their nationality or the religion of their parents, are immediately ushered into heaven. When Larry King interviewed him in the aftermath of September 11, he asked MacArthur what happened to any children who lost their lives in the tragedies. His answer was (and remains) "instant heaven." While that answer was all King wanted, inquiring minds are intrigued by the Biblical grounds for such a view. The author spends several chapters carefully crafting his argument. He gives examples from the Bible which show that there is some assurance that children can be taken to heaven (David's son is the common example) and provides a mountain of other important evidence. Most of this, while it helps build the case, does not prove anything on its own.
Essentially, though, the argument comes down to this: salvation is by grace, damnation by works - most notably the action of rejecting God. Infants are incapable of rejecting or accepting God, and thus God chooses to extend His mercy to them. It is important to note that God saves them not on the basis of justice but on the basis of His grace.
After making the argument, MacArthur spends several chapters speaking about whether parents will see and know their children in heaven, why the child had to die and what others can do to help grieving parents. The book is interspersed with the stories and testimonies of parents who have suffered a loss and have taken comfort in God's promises.
MacArthur makes a compelling, Biblical argument to support the idea that all children who die in infancy are saved by the great mercy of God and are safe for eternity in the arms of a loving God. I give it my recommendation.
My wife and I rushed to the emergency room early last week for what the doctors are calling "threatened miscarriage." When I asked myself, "What would happen to our baby if he/she died," I couldn't give an answer from Scripture that I was convinced was God's position on the matter. As I asked myself the question, I had to honestly respond, "I don't know." My hope is that all would go to heaven, even though we're all fallen, but that means very little if that's not how God sees it. MacArthur writes in the second chapter regarding our approach in answering that question
"When we look into the grave of a little one, we must not place our hope or trust in a false promise, in an unbiblical theology, in the instability of sentimentalism, or in the cold analysis of human logic. Rather, we must look to what God's Word has to say on the matter."
John MacArthur spends 170 short pages trying to do just that, look to God's Word on the matter. When he does so he responds as he did on Larry King Live when asked the same question: "Instant heaven."
The book may not read like a typical "mourning" book. It is not full of well-intentioned, positive platitudes whose sole intention is to bring comfort with little though of what is true or not. No, the point throughout the book is to say, "This we know is true, take comfort in this." This is the approach we must take. Comfort devoid of truth is deception; comfort rooted in truth yields true peace. That being said that book is appropriate and comforting; not the theology of classrooms or studies, but the theology of the knowledge of God who is active in all of our life. If you have lost a child, may lose a child, or know anybody who has, I do recommend this book.
He biblically grounds his argument in the personhood of babies from conception. While admitting a level of inherent sinfulness before God present in all humans, he writes on page 35, "Every infant or child who dies before reaching a condition of moral culpability goes instantly to heaven at death." Therefore, children are treated as "innocents". Still, being sinners and not righteous, the baby is dependent on God's grace, which He gives freely to all babies and young children (and mentally handicapped). So "children are saved by grace, but cannot be damned by works" because they cannot assess those works to be against God, MacArthur teaches. Therefore, just as David stopped mourning when his baby died in 2 Samuel 12:23 and had hope that he would be united to him after death, we do not have to mourn because believing parents will be united to their babies after death as they are both spending eternity in the joy of the presence of God. Finally, the book ends with some chapters about what heaven will be like, particularly for babies who die. He also tackles the question of "Why did my baby have to die?"
There is certainly still some mystery involved as God's Word does not speak specifically to this question. Nevertheless, I know that God is good and God is sovereign. So regardless of what happens, I can rest without anxiety that my little baby's fate whether he or she is still in the whom, whether he or she dies, or whether he or she grows up to maturity that his future is in the hands of my loving, self-giving, merciful, just, and sovereign God.
I must say that I am not convinced by much of what MacArthur writes. Upon finishing the book, I must say that my answer to my original question is still largely, "I don't know." I think Wayne Grudem has some good advice regarding this question from his book Systematic Theology (p.499).
"But then what do we say about infants who die before they are old enough to understand and believe the gospel? Can they be saved?
"Here we must say that if such infants are saved, it cannot be on their own merits, or on the basis of their own righteousness or innocence, but it must be entirely on the basis of Christ's redemptive work and regeneration by the work of the Holy Spirit within them. "There is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus" (1 Tim. 2:5). "Unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (John 3:3).
Regarding the children of unbelievers who die at a very early age Scripture is silent. We simply must leave that matter in the hands of God and trust him to be both just and merciful. If they are saved, it will not be on the basis of any merit of their own or any innocence that we might presume that they have. If they are saved, it will be on the basis of Christ's redeeming work; and their regeneration, like that of John the Baptist before he was born, will be by God's mercy and grace. Salvation is always because of his mercy, not because of our merits (see Rom. 9:14-18). Scripture does not allow us to say more than that."
So why can I recommend this book if I'm not convinced by each and every one of its arguments? In no way am I saying that I think babies don't go to heaven. I believe the Bible is silent on the topic so we shouldn't speak with the complete confidence of MacArthur on the issue (who said in dismay on page 13, "How can a person be a pastor and not have an answer to that question?") as if the Bible speaks more definitively than it does on the issue. Nevertheless, the Bible is full of clues as to how God will deal with the child. John Piper, in his "Funeral Meditation for Owen Glenn Shramek" says
"Our confidence that Owen is safe and uncondemned is not that he was innocent, but that he was forgiven and he was counted righteous because of Jesus Christ. The Bible is very plain that we are saved from our sin and from God's punishment by grace through faith in Jesus Christ who died in our place and rose again from the dead.
"But what about tiny children who do not yet have the physical ability to even know the basic facts of the gospel or even of any of God's revelation in nature? Does the Bible teach that God will judge them in the same way that he will judge an adult who consciously rejects the truth of God that he knows?
"No, there are clues that God does not condemn those who are physically unable to know the truth that God has revealed in nature or in the gospel. I'll mention two clues.
One comes from Deuteronomy chapter one. God is angry because the people would not trust him to help them take the promised land. They rebelled against him. So he says, "Not one of these men of this evil generation shall see the good land that I swore to give to your fathers [except Caleb and Joshua, who had trusted him]." Then he adds a word about the children: "And as for your little ones, who you said would become a prey, and your children, who today have no knowledge of good or evil , they shall go in there. And to them I will give it, and they shall possess it" (vv. 35, 39).
"Not having the "knowledge of good and evil" takes away the judgment. They were not yet physically able to know what they needed to know, and so God does not sweep them away with the adults who wouldn't trust God.
"The second clue confirms this principle from the New Testament. It's found in Romans 1:18-21. The text is not about children, but the same principles of justice apply. Listen to the relationship between having available knowledge and having accountability. "What can be known about God is plain to [men], because God has shown it to them. For ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. Therefore they are without excuse; for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him."
"The point is this: to be held accountable at the judgment you need two things: 1) available knowledge of the glory of God whom you should have adored and thanked; 2) the physical ability to know it, to perceive it. If this knowledge were really not available, then, Paul implies, there really would be an "excuse" at the judgment. No adult, except perhaps profoundly retarded or mentally ill ones, have this excuse. That's Paul's point. We adults are without excuse. But children are in another category. They do have this excuse. They don't have the physical ability to know what God has revealed. Therefore we believe that God will apply to them the blood and righteousness of Christ in a way we do not know. We adults can have this pardon and righteousness only through faith. That is the clear teaching of Scripture (Ephesians 2:8; Romans 3:28 ). How are infants united to Christ? We don't know. And speculation would not help us here.
"We leave it at this: Owen Shramek will glorify Christ all his everlasting days for salvation by grace on the basis of the death and righteousness of Christ. There is no other name under heaven by which he could be saved. Jesus Christ will get all the honor for Owen's salvation."
So based on the Biblical clues that MacArthur so thoroughly and thoughtfully presents to ground our hope in truth, if my baby were to die... I believe it would be "Instant heaven". I can say with 100% confidence, I trust God to do what would glorify Him most, and for that I trust and long.