Book Review: “Safe in the Arms of God” by John MacArthur (2003)

Truth fro Heaven about the Death of a Child

“‘Instant Heaven’ truly is the destiny of infants and children…including those who die in the womb, those who die at birth, and those who never fully grew mentally to the point of being capable of discerning right from wrong.” (7)

“One’s position on this issue says a lot about one’s view of God and His grace.” (88)

Image result for safe in the arms of god macarthurThis has been a very difficult book for me to read and a more difficult review to write, simply because the book doesn’t satisfactorily answer one of the most desperate questions in ministry. My wife and I have never personally dealt with the loss of a child—in the womb or out—yet we’ve seen it in both our extended families and ministries more often than I care to recall. Every time we get news of another loss, I want to know the definitive answer of where those little souls go for all eternity; I want to give the right answer to the grieving parents. I had hoped that this book would answer all my questions, yet even now, I still don’t know! I assure you: I absolutely NEVER want to be a person that doubts or minimizes God’s matchless grace. At the same time, however, I also don’t want to cheapen his holiness, righteousness, justice, or truth, so when it comes to this question in particular, I need to find the Scriptural balance between them before I take a final stand.

My brother recommended this book to me after he and his wife had a miscarriage. He came away from that experience fully hopeful because of MacArthur’s book, which gives me great hope that, no matter where my own convictions lie, I can still maintain a faithful counsel by recommending this same book by a respectable author, this same hope, to others who are hurting. For me personally, however, I’m sadly still unconvinced. I had hoped that this little book, Safe in the Arms of God by John MacArthur, would be the end-all-discussion for me, but it’s only helped answer a few of the many theological issues behind this debate. While MacArthur certainly fills this book with Scripture as he always does, I sensed that this time he didn’t develop the passages as fully as he ought, often ignoring key questions and counterarguments that didn’t match his thesis (quoted above).

Before I go any farther, let me state explicitly that I most certainly WANT to believe all children are safe in God’s arms, free from any punishment for the sin they bear. I just don’t want to believe blindly, simply because the idea sounds better than the alternative. I am a father of two small children, and my desperate plea is that God would be gracious enough to overlook their sin, were He to take them prematurely. Yet at the same time, this is the very heart of the issue: CAN God—even in His grace—overlook sin? If God doesn’t “overlook” sin in the case of an infant, then we’re left with only two other possibilities: either the child’s inborn sin doesn’t count as deliberate sin worthy of Hell (one of MacArthur’s arguments) or Jesus’ blood can cover unconfessed sin. With these three possibilities in mind, countless other questions arise: If God can overlook sin, what happens to his holiness? If God can accept a child without faith, and if He can count their sin as paid for by the blood of Jesus by His grace alone (yet not “through faith alone”), then why doesn’t He do that for all the elect? Who are the “all” in 1Cor 15:22? Considering the age of accountability, where in Scripture can we find backing for a person having grace, losing it by suddenly becoming damned, and then regaining it through faith? What about the wrath of God “abiding” on a person in John 3:36? Etc. Etc. Etc.

In my opinion, there are far more theological issues at play in this debate than MacArthur acknowledges in this book. He certainly makes some good points about the “innocent” individuals in the OT, or “those who cannot tell their right hand from their left” in the book of Jonah, yet he of all people should know that just pulling a few possible proof-illustrations from Scripture isn’t enough to counteract clear doctrines expounded therein as well. Yes, salvation is always by God’s grace alone, but as often we learn this in the Word, we also learn that salvation comes through faith alone. We also consistently learn about God’s holiness and His attitude toward sin. If God can be inconsistent in these attributes, He’s not God. So where is the balance?  Where are the doctrines that prove that His grace and love supersedes His holiness, righteousness, or justice in the case of a child? MacArthur’s book doesn’t answer this essential question sufficiently.

Now that I have those difficult points out of the way, I can focus on what I absolutely did learn from this book. Primarily, I gained a new understanding of the account of David’s lost “love child” borne by Bathsheba in 2Sam 12. This prime go-to passage in the discussion of life after death has always bewildered me, for while David’s remark that “he cannot come to me, but I shall go to him” (v.23) is proclaimed to be the final proof that infants and babies go directly to Heaven, these words clearly could mean a number of things besides eternity in Heaven, for example that David too will die one day. If David meant that his baby is in Heaven, I had always argued, then I need to know where he learned that information.

Considering the Scriptures which God had provided the world up to that point, I wanted to know where Heaven (or at least the afterlife) was ever described. I had always assumed that, if we cannot find the clear teachings in the earliest portions (chronologically) of the OT, then we are left to believe that the fact of Heaven was either an oral tradition or that David was merely writing under inspiration, not fully cognizant of what he was saying. If the former were the case, I wouldn’t buy it; if the latter were the case, then why would David’s attitude change so abruptly at the child’s death? If a third possibility exists, what is it?

At this point, I ventured outside of MacArthur’s book (because while he answers what David knew, he does not answer how) into a side-study of the afterlife in the OT, and I was surprised at all that I had overlooked! Considering only those passages that were definitely available to David, we have Job 14:1-155, Job 19:25-27, and Genesis 5:24. Thus in answer to my question, “How did David know about Heaven (or at least the afterlife)?” I realized that he needn’t have depended upon mere oral tradition or immediate inspiration. Both Job and Moses had revealed these truths long before. While this doesn’t fully answer the fate of infants, it finally clued me in to David’s own mental processes as he considered not only the death of the child, but much later the death of his rebellious son, Absalom.

When MacArthur turned from the illustration of the infant to that of Absalom’s death and David’s reaction, my mind started reeling a lot more. David wrote much about his belief in the afterlife in his psalms, yet here we get to watch his beliefs unfold. Whereas David found peace in the death of the infant, he fell into abject anguish at the death of his rebellious adult son. Surely the most reasonable explanation is that David’s awareness of the afterlife—of who went where in their deaths—gave him both peace in the one case and sorrow in the other. Can this single, inexplicit illustration end the discussion though? Since David’s attitude and knowledge are still mere speculation, I can honestly say that while it pushes me in that direction, I still cannot take a definitive stand.

I recognize that “One’s position on this issue says a lot about one’s view of God and His grace” (88), but at the same time, I still feel like it also says a lot about one’s view of God and his holiness, righteousness, and justice. If “the wages of sin is death,” it must be consistently so, even in the case of a child. I wish God had added “…unless, of course…” to Romans 3:23, but He didn’t. Therefore, I must remain on the fence on this issue. I just pray that I can do so in love, if ever again I need to counsel someone during their loss. As I stated above, the best I can do in such a situation is gift a grieving parent with this book written by a fantastic author and pastor and simply let the Holy Spirit encourage them better than I ever could.

©2016 E.T.

 

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