Safe in the Arms of Jesus: God’s Provision for the Death of Those Who Cannot Believe. By Robert P. Lightner. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2000. 96 pp. Paper, $6.99.
The cover shows the picture of a small baby wrapping his entire hand around an adult’s finger with the child’s arm being enveloped in the palm and fingers of the adult. It is a beautiful picture that envisions safety and strength.
The title of this book is also beautiful and descriptive. Lightner taught Systematic Theology for over 30 years at Dallas Theological Seminary. He now has Professor Emeritus status.
The tone of the book is quite comforting. Lightner is writing specifically to the young couple who has lost a small child. Again and again he refers to their pain and their loss. He writes like the loving grandfather that he is.
His premise is that God applies the death of Christ to all who die without ever have been able to believe.
Here are the arguments he puts forward to prove this:
- Since Jesus showed so much love and concern for children in His earthly ministry, “we have reason to believe that He loves them and grants them eternal life when they die” (pp. 22-23).
- “Because the price [of redemption] has been paid in full, the debt is canceled until it is rejected. Therefore, God can receive into His presence all those who did not receive His Son by faith because they could not do so” (pp. 24-25, italics his).
- “If those who cannot believe are not beneficiaries of God’s salvation, Christ died for them in vain” (p. 26).
- Those condemned to eternal condemnation will all appear at the Great White Throne Judgment. Their works will be judged there. Yet, Lighter points out, those incapable of believing “have no works, having done neither good nor evil” (p. 39). “Because those who died before they could believe have no works, we may be sure they will not appear before the Great White Throne.”
- He asks the question, “Will all of these [those who die before being able to believe] miss heaven because they did not respond to God’s offer of grace when, in fact, they could not respond?” (pp. 45-46, italics his). His answer is this: “I do not believe that for a moment. It seems to me that to believe such a thing impugns the very character of God” (p. 46). He then concludes, “Would it not be mockery for God to call upon His creatures and hold them responsible for doing what they could not do?” (p. 46).
We might quibble a bit with the first four points. For example, God loves all people (John 3:16), yet all are not saved.
The second point is suspect as well. If “the debt is canceled until it is rejected,” that means that the moment a child reaches the age at which he can believe, the cancellation of the debt is withdrawn and the child is condemned. This makes the atonement something that can be temporarily applied, unapplied, and then applied again. (In a personal note, Dr. Lightner indicated, however, that “in the case of infants…the benefit is applied by God only at the time of death.”)
The third point is only valid if the death of Christ provides eternal life for all, regardless of whether they believe or not.
The fourth point is true of those who die before birth. But clearly a 5-year old, for example, has done works, both good and bad.
His strongest point is the last. Surely condemnation of those incapable of believing leaves God open to the charge of being unjust. There is a biblical principle that God only holds those accountable for things they were capable of doing (e.g., Ezek 18:2-3ff.).
One problem that this book fails to address is the death of children who could believe, yet do not. For example, what of a seven-year-old who dies? Many seven-year-olds are capable of understanding the difference between fantasy and reality. They are thus capable of believing in Christ for eternal life. Yet they are but children.
Lightner is not trying to address that question. Thus we should take the subtitle as defining the scope of his discussion. People in children’s work tell me that children are not able to believe in Christ for eternal life until they are between 5 and 10, the age varying from child to child. If that is correct, then this book concerns those who die below that age range, as well as those so severely mentally handicapped as to be unable to believe at any age.
Some might draw the conclusion from his remarks that those who have never heard the Christian gospel will be saved. Lightner shows, however, that this is not so (pp. 59-61). He does a good job of showing that all receive revelation from God and that if a person fails to respond to the light he has, he is accountable for that. God will send the gospel to all who respond to the light God gives them.
JOTGES readers will like the last chapter, “Heaven and You” where Lightner presents the grace gospel. Over and over again he says, “Come as you are.” He closes with the famous song, Just As I Am.
I recommend this book. It is very comforting. Those who believe that only elect babies who die will be with the Lord will likely be unimpressed with the arguments here. However, most everyone else will be.
Robert N. Wilkin
Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society