Dear Larry Wilson:
I have wondered about the eternal destiny of infants and young children who die before reaching the age of accountability. Are they “lost” or “saved?”
For twenty centuries, Christians have debated the question of how God deals with the death of young children. In ancient times, infant mortality was very high, so to make sure that infants would inherit eternal life, certain Christians began baptizing infants as soon as possible after birth.
In fact, Catholics and a few other Christian groups currently believe that baptism is a requirement for eternal life, so they apply the sacrament of baptism to infants as soon as possible. (See John 3:5.) On the other hand, most Protestants do not accept the idea that sacraments are necessary for salvation.
Protestants believe that salvation comes through faith in Christ alone and baptism is regarded as an ordinance. (An ordinance is something that a believer does to show publicly that he or she is a follower of Christ, but it is not a requirement for salvation.)
As you can see, baptism means different things to different Christians, but the question still remains, “What happens to children who die before reaching the age of accountability?” Are they saved because they were baptized, are they condemned because they were born into the curse of sin or does God deal with them as though they never existed?
I believe that all children, in all religions and cultures, are born in a “saved” state. Yes, the Bible teaches that all human beings are born with fallen natures. We come from the womb having a natural tendency toward selfishness, sin, and rebellion, but I believe God does not impart guilt to children for their sins until they reach the age of accountability. For normal children, the age of accountability (knowing the difference between right from wrong and having the ability to follow through with a conscientious decision to do right or wrong) varies somewhere between the ages of 7 and 14.
In other words, God does not condemn a child to eternal death because (a) Adam sinned, (b) the child’s parents are sinners, or (c) the child is a natural born sinner. If the blood of Jesus can justify an adult who has willingly sinned, then the blood of Jesus can also justify a child whose ability to reason is limited and knowledge of right and wrong is incomplete. A child is a living trust given to parents until he or she is intellectually and emotionally prepared to bear the responsibilities of adulthood – or age 18, whichever comes first.
Because the emotions of children can be easily swayed, because children cannot reason adequately, and because children do not have a well-defined understanding of right and wrong, they do not have accountability during their first years of life. In fact, this is why we call them “minors” until they are 18 years old.
Minors do not have the same rights as adults. Minors cannot enter into legal agreements, own property, vote, or get married without parental consent. Because children lack judgment (intellectually and emotionally), they are not generally held to the same standards of conduct as adults. (Occasionally, there are cases in juvenile courts where minors are charged and sentenced as adults because the court proves that the minor knew the difference between right and wrong and chose to willfully do wrong.)
If, in our fallen state, we realize the insufficiency of minors, surely God does, too. Notice how God deals with the insufficiency of Gentiles (those who do not know God). “Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law [of God, that is, a revelation of the will of God], do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts [by the Holy Spirit], their consciences [when they do right are free of guilt] also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing [when they do wrong, they know their guilt], now [their actions show their faith] even defending them [in God’s sight].” (Romans 2:14–15)
Paul makes the point clear that when Gentiles follow the leading of the Holy Spirit, God accepts them as His children even though they do not know Him! God justifies Gentiles who do not know Him because He sees the hearts of Jews and Gentiles alike. A person’s salvation is not based on the purity of his beliefs about God. Instead, a person’s salvation is based on his response to the Holy Spirit. Our response to the Spirit reveals our faith. God called Abraham to leave his homeland.
The Bible says, “By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.” (Hebrews 11:8) When God called Abraham, one could say that Abraham was a Gentile!
God tested Abraham’s faith by asking him to leave his family and home behind, and Abraham passed the test because Abraham loved God! Similarly, God knows that many Gentiles are honest in heart and they would gladly do all that He commands if only they had knowledge of His commands! Therefore, since God is willing, through the blood of Jesus, to justify Gentiles who do not know His ways, God also justifies insufficient minors with the same blood!
Carefully consider this passage: “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men [that is, death was imposed upon all mankind because of sin’s curse], because all sinned – for before the law was given [at Mount Sinai], sin was in the world. But sin is not taken into account [that is, God does not impart guilt] when there is no [knowledge of the] law [right and wrong] . . . .
Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men [the curse of sin was passed along to the offspring of Adam through his sin], so also the result of one act of righteousness [Jesus living a perfect life for us, without sin] was justification that brings [eternal] life for all men.
For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man [Jesus Christ] the many [sinners] will be made righteous [before God].” (Romans 5:12–13, 18–19 insertions mine)
Paul affirms three important facts in Romans 5 that every Christian should know. First, Adam’s offspring inherited Adam’s fallen nature. Thus, everyone, but Christ, has sinned because we have Adam’s sinful nature. Second, even though a person will eventually die because of the consequences of sin, God does not impart guilt to a person who sins ignorantly. God is more than fair. He does not hold a person accountable for things that person does not or cannot know.
However, God does hold a person responsible for refusing to learn. Third, God reconciled the world to Himself through the blood of Jesus. Jesus voluntarily came to Earth and died in our place so that God could legally save sinners through the process of covering our life’s record with the perfect life of Christ.
(The process of covering our sinful record with Christ’s sinless record is called “justification.”) The net effect of God’s love is truly beautiful: In spite of Adam’s failure and our sinful natures, each child starts out in life “saved” through Christ’s perfect life until a time comes when as an adult, that person insists on rebellion against the Holy Spirit.
Look at this verse: “For if, when we were God’s enemies [that is, when we were in rebellion against God, nevertheless], we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life [the gift of His sinless life which covers our sins]! Not only is this so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” (Romans 5:10–11, insertions mine)
The Holy Spirit Has Two Objectives
When a baby is born, the Holy Spirit begins working with that baby. The Holy Spirit understands the sinful nature which the baby has inherited. The Holy Spirit understands the rebellion that is in each human heart. The Holy Spirit also understands the language and culture of the baby.
He also understands the religious training which the baby will receive. The Holy Spirit knows all this, but He has two persistent objectives. First, He wants to impress on the child the importance of honesty and truth, that is, firmly standing up for what is right and good and abhorring whatever is wrong and evil. Second, the Holy Spirit works on each person to bring us into submission with the will of God. (For some people, this happens in childhood, and for others, submission occurs in adulthood.)
Obviously, the Holy Spirit has many obstacles to overcome such as arrogance and ignorance, but the greatest obstacle for the Holy Spirit is man’s natural rebellion toward God’s authority! For example, God says love your enemies. Human beings do not naturally love their enemies.
God says do not steal, commit adultery, covet, or lie. God says, take care of your parents, do not commit sexual immorality, do not take His name in vain, do not worship idols, and do not forget to rest on the seventh day, as He did. So, what is the problem with doing all that God wants?
“Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace; the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God.” (Romans 8:5–8)
The Holy Spirit may work on the heart of a person for many years, attempting to bring that person into a “born again state.” Being born again means starting all over in life. Paul says it is a whole new beginning, a new life! (Romans 6:4) Finding submission to God’s will as a joyful experience is only possible after being born again. Some people have “on again – off again” experiences with the Holy Spirit for years. Fortunately, the Holy Spirit does not give up until He sees our rebellion cannot be overcome.
I have known people who have resisted the Holy Spirit for most of their lives, and then at the end of their lives, they finally relinquished their rebellion and surrendered their will to the Lord before it was too late. I have also seen people resist the Holy Spirit and die without appearing to have any interest in God or spiritual matters.
Of course, I am not in a position to read the mind or heart of anyone, but I am saying that the hope of salvation is lost when we grieve away the Holy Spirit. Once the Spirit leaves, there is no return and in His absence, there is no further interest in spiritual things or a desire to glorify God. “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.” (Hebrews 10:26–27)
From birth, everyone has a sinful nature. Therefore, a minor will sin, but a minor is guiltless in God’s sight because he or she is intellectually and emotionally insufficient. Jesus has reconciled the whole world to the Father through His perfect life and sacrificial blood.
This means that God is permitted to legally wrap every minor and every submissive person in the perfect record of Christ’s life (justification). Salvation is a gift from God for everyone. Salvation does not come through sacraments, rituals, or observing ordinances. What matters to God is our response to the demands that the Holy Spirit imposes on us. If we are honest-hearted and love “the light of truth,” we will embrace the truth, and then upon experiencing rebirth, we will make every effort to conform our lives to Christ’s gospel through His power.
If we remain self-centered and rebellious and we allow our fallen nature to control us, we can be sure the Holy Spirit is not making headway in His struggle to bring us into submission. Obviously, the Holy Spirit tests different people with different things to see if they are willing to obey God.
Do you remember the story of the rich young ruler? (Luke 18:18–24) He failed the test of selling his material wealth for Christ’s sake. He loved his religion and his money more than he loved God. He could not walk away from his wealth and his status in Israel and follow Jesus. One the other hand, King Nebuchadnezzar is an example of a rich ruler who was tested with humility, and after being humiliated by God’s Spirit for seven years, the king finally became a believer. (Daniel 4:35–37)
In closing, “Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.’ ” (Matthew 19:14) Crystal, if you can accept the idea that minors are freely justified by God’s grace, this text will make perfect sense just as it reads!
I hope this helps!