“Will my son go to heaven?” The father choked out the words as he talked about his child with profound intellectual disabilities. The boy could barely communicate about his basic needs and had no ability to articulate an understanding of the gospel.
What would you say to this father? Or to parents who have experienced the death of a baby?
Section 8 of the Desiring God Affirmation of Faith points to why I affirm that the grace of God covers babies who die and people with profound or severe intellectual disabilities. Section 8.4 concludes with this sentence:
We do not believe that there is salvation through any other means than through receiving the gospel by the power of the Holy Spirit, except that infants and people with severe intellectual disabilities with minds physically incapable of comprehending the gospel may be saved.
Note that this sentence is not based on the idea that babies or those with profound intellectual disabilities are innocent, or that they have somehow merited forgiveness in themselves. The Bible is clear that all humanity has been stained by sin (Romans 3:23), and will endure the consequences of sin, unless saved through the unmerited grace of Jesus Christ (Romans 6:23). So what is the basis for this statement? Are we allowing sentiment to guide rather than Scripture?
Who Is Without Excuse?
As with our aim in the entire Affirmation of Faith, the sentence flows from God’s word — and especially from Paul’s words in Romans 1:19–20:
What can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.
What leaves humans without an excuse before God? According to Paul, the ability to perceive God’s invisible attributes in creation. As John Piper explains,
Mankind would seem to have an excuse if they had not seen clearly in nature what God is like. And so, because I don’t think little babies can process nature and make conclusions about God’s grace, glory, or justice, it seems they would fall into the category of still having an excuse. . . . God will not condemn them because he wants to manifest openly and publicly that he does not condemn those who did not have the mental capacities to put their faith in him.
We could consider other passages alongside Romans 1. Ecclesiastes and Job, for example, seem to suggest that stillborn children enter a state of rest, not damnation, when they pass from this world (Ecclesiastes 6:3–6; Job 3:11–19). But Romans 1 lays a firm enough foundation, from Scripture rather than sentiment, that God’s grace covers those who never suppressed the truth of his revelation (Romans 1:18), because they could not perceive it.
Comfort for Caregivers
If you know of someone who has lost a young child, Nancy Guthrie, who lost two infant children, offers wise, careful words as you serve grieving families. John Piper also offers helpful ways to think and talk about the death of a baby through his funeral meditation for Owen and his remarks about the death of his granddaughter. I particularly recommend these resources to pastors, who will, at some point, counsel parents in these circumstances.
Yet where does that leave those of us who are caring for adults with profound or severe intellectual disabilities? My 26-year-old son, Paul, functions at about the developmental level of a 15-month-old child. He needs assistance with every basic life need; he is completely vulnerable and dependent on others. He is expensive in every way that can be measured: financially, relationally, emotionally, spiritually, physically.
Is my only hope and comfort that someday he’ll be covered by the grace of God as he enters his rest? Am I just hanging on until he (or I) dies and enters this rest?
Limited but Free
First, if that were true, it would be enough. God created him in his mother’s womb just like every other human being (Psalm 139:13), and God is completely unembarrassed that he intentionally made him with disabilities (Exodus 4:11). God’s promise to supply every need of his, and mine, is anchored in Jesus (Philippians 4:19).
But there is more. Though his dependency is counted against him in most cultures of the world, he approaches life as God instructs all of us to live:
- He has no anxiety about what he will eat or wear (Matthew 6:25–32).
- He does not worry about tomorrow or live with regrets about his past (Matthew 6:34).
- He forgives quickly and completely; he has never held a grudge (Matthew 6:14–15).
- He shows no partiality with regard to ethnicity, education, or wealth (James 2:1–7).
- He is completely unembarrassed at his dependency (2 Corinthians 12:9–10).
“My son lives more freely in his limitations than any ‘normal’ adult I know.”
Frankly, he lives more freely in his limitations than any “normal” adult I know. And if God intended his life solely as an example to the church, that would be enough. But there is more.
Weak but Indispensable
Paul teaches clearly about the power of God through weakness, maybe best summarized in 1 Corinthians 12:22: “The parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.” As Piper notes,
Paul says they “seem” to be weaker. He leaves open whether they are or not. They may not be. But they seem to be to one side or the other. And he says that if they seem to you to be weaker, they are, nevertheless, necessary. Not optional, but necessary. Not merely helpful, but necessary. Not maybe a needful part of the body, but necessarily a needful part of the body.
My son is weaker in every way — that is observable. But what about the work of the Holy Spirit in his life? The Holy Spirit is not limited by anything, even your own sin and disobedience. There was a time “you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked” (Ephesians 2:1) and could never please God (Romans 8:8). Praise God, “by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:5), if you are embracing Christ as Savior, King, and Treasure! It is the same grace that covers babies and those living with severe intellectual disabilities.
Frail but Unafraid
God, through David, tells us one way the Holy Spirit uses infants, or anyone living with the intellectual capacity of an infant, for his glory:
Out of the mouth of babies and infants, you have established strength because of your foes, to still the enemy and the avenger. (Psalm 8:2)
Babies and infants, and frequently my son, make noise that makes no sense. Yet God establishes strength through them that puts Satan to flight. I’ve read books and PhD dissertations on God’s word that couldn’t do that, and a few that even served Satan’s work in the world. In standing before Jesus, which would you rather be: the babbler who was used by the Holy Spirit to protect a family or a church from Satan, or the geniuses of this age who, “claiming to be wise, . . . became fools” (Romans 1:22)?
My son may only have limited, functional language, but he is unafraid to use it for God’s glory. I have met other adults with severe intellectual disabilities who behave in the same way.
When my Paul was getting off the bus from school several years ago, his bus aide told me, “A revival broke out in Music Therapy class today!” Paul had spontaneously started to sing “Amazing Grace” in his entirely secular public-school setting — and nobody stopped him or disciplined him. Maybe someday Jesus will tell us about the human soul he saved that day through Paul’s song.
“Don’t pity him, or me as his father, but pray that God would allow you to be as free.”
So, don’t pity him, or me as his father, but pray that God would allow you to be as free.
Greatest Thing in the World
The greatest thing in the world is to be saved. On the basis of God’s word, we can be confident that God’s grace covers babies who die and the severely intellectually disabled who live for decades.
Yet, as D.A. Carson once noted, don’t be “pastorally insensitive and theologically stupid” toward families suffering because of the death of a child, or living in a culture hostile to those with intellectual disabilities (How Long, O Lord? 101). Rather, embrace your own dependency on God, learn and trust God’s word to us, pray for wisdom, and then embrace with love and care families in these circumstances, for God’s glory, the health of your church, and your own joy.