At the sbctoday blog, Dr. Steve Lemke of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary is currently writing a series of posts entitled “Distinctive Baptist Beliefs.” While pointing out the many bridges between Baptists and Presbyterian traditions, he is seeking to also provide a series of distinctives that separate Baptists from our Presbyterian brethren. The second distinctive concerns the age/state of accountability—a theological idea more readily recognized in the question, “What happens to babies when they die?”
Many in both traditions posit that infants (and people, such as those who suffer from severe mental retardation, who are incapable of exercising faith) go to heaven when they die. Dr. Lemke takes the position (and shows that many Baptist confessions of faith do the same) that this is because Baptists do not hold to original sin. He states:
While it may be more of a ‘state’ of being accountable rather than an ‘age’ of accountability…this state of accountability is normally associated with a ‘coming of age.’ No specific age is given; it is assumed that individual children mature at different paces from each other. By affirming the age of accountability, Baptists deny that children are guilty upon birth, and so deny the need for infant baptism.
As a Baptist who holds to original sin and inherited guilt, I am a bit confused by Dr. Lemke’s logic in linking original sin to infant baptism. It seems such a logical flow holds true only if we also believe in baptismal regeneration. We don’t baptize infants regardless of our beliefs concerning original sin and inherited guilt because we don’t hold to baptism as a means of conferring grace and salvation. Furthermore I would argue that the primary reason for a difference in practice between Presbyterians and Baptists on infant baptism flows more from our different views in understanding how the Old and New Covenants relate and within that the relationship between baptism and circumcision. But that’s another topic and another post for another day.
Instead what I want to do here is offer an alternative proposal to that of Dr. Lemke’s. With him I will affirm infants and others incapable of exercising faith are not held in judgment of their sins, while also affirming original sin and inherited guilt. Frankly, I do not see original sin as antithetical to Baptist tradition (though I will not deny many do), and as noted above I do not see original sin as logically leading to infant baptism. Yet I believe the Bible clearly teaches the concept of original sin.
So then, let’s return this to the underlying question at hand: What happens to infants when they die? To answer this, we must consider the answers to several related questions:
First, are infants guilty of sin (the question of original sin and inherited guilt)? While no one would deny that the youngest of children (and others mentally unable) are incapable of reasoned decision making, does this likewise mean they share no guilt of sin? The Bible gives us several answers about the origin of sin in our lives, and these inform us that all people share in the guilt of sin from conception.
In the beginning, when God created, he formed male and female in his own image. The depth of this has to do with our rule over the earth and our creative powers of life (procreation), etc., yet it also has to do with our sinlessness. We were created sinless in the image of God and were placed on an earth that had no stain of corruption. In the sight of God it was “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Yet, shortly, something happened. God told Adam and Eve to refrain from eating of a single tree. Instead of heeding the voice of God, they obeyed the voice of Satan in the form of a serpent and ate. Adam and Eve went from being sinless ones identifying with God to rebels identifying with Satan. Their eyes were opened to realize shame and fear, and their good relationship with God was broken. More than this, they brought both spiritual death and physical death into the world, and brought the curse of God upon themselves and creation.
In this brokenness and corruption, the image of God still remained (9:6) but it was now marred and stained. The Bible then says “When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God…when Adam had lived 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image” (5:1-3). Adam had a son in his likeness, but this likeness was not as the perfect image of God in which Adam was created. Instead, this likeness was the image of a man under sin, the curse, and death.
The Genesis narrative sets the stage for Paul’s argument in Romans 5. There Paul makes several statements, including: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (5:12). Also, Romans 5:15-17:
But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. If because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life…
And Romans 5:18-19:
Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.
And in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul states: “For as by a man came death, by a man has come the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive” (15:21-22); and, “The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven” (15:47-49).
Taken together this is what Paul is saying, relevant to our question:
- In life we either bear the image of Adam (condemnation) or we bear the image of Christ (salvation).
- The image of Adam is our natural state.
- It is through Adam we are guilty—it is through his “one trespass” that death and condemnation came.
- At the same time we are also guilty through our own sin—we all die because we all sin.
When it comes to guilt and the punishment of death we are guilty in both Adam’s sin and our own. One thing of note is what Paul says in Romans 5:12, “so death spread to all men because all sinned.” As throughout the entire storyline of the Bible—death is directly connected to sin. We die because we are sinners. The wages of sin is death. If this is true, and if infants only have the propensity to sin and not an actual inherited sin nature then infants would not die. Yet they sadly do die. The reality of their death must be connected either to personal sin or a sin nature. With all else that Paul says about humanity’s relationship with Adam then it must be a sin nature.
David makes this same point in Psalm 51. He cries out for God’s mercy upon his sin, asking God to cleanse him and give him a new heart. Within this plea (51:3-6), David speaks of his own sin and states, “I was brought forth in iniquity and in sin did my mother conceive me.” If this verse stood alone, one could get the impression he was speaking of the actions of his mother, but given the context it is clear David is speaking of his own life—his own sin and guilt. He stood guilty before God for sin from the moment of his conception.
All have inherited guilt and share in original sin from Adam. Infants, etc. are not guiltless before God.
Second, does the Bible give the notion of the age of accountability? People often turn to two verses to answer this with “yes.” One is Deuteronomy 1:39. Speaking about the wilderness journey and Israel’s unfaithfulness to go in and take the land due to fear of the people, God prevented the older generation from entering the land. But after they died, he gave it to the younger generation. The people complained their “little ones” would become a prey, but God said, “To them I will give it and they shall possess it.” These were children who had “no knowledge of good and evil.” While this might seem to speak to an age or state of accountability, in Numbers 14 the age of those allowed to enter the land is quite high. “As I live, declares the Lord, what you have said in my hearing I will do to you: your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness, and of all your number, listed in the census from twenty years old and upward, who have grumbled against me, not one shall come into the land” (14:28-30). Here the “accountable” age is twenty years and older. All who were nineteen and younger were allowed to enter the land. When we speak of an “age of accountability” do we seriously speak of those up through the age of 19? Most would answer no it is much younger—but if that is the case we cannot truly use Numbers and Deuteronomy as a proof-text for the existence of such an age or state.
Another verse comes from 2 Samuel 12:23. Here David speaks of his first born son (with Bathsheba) who died shortly after birth. David prayed and fasted while the child was alive yet ended his pleas and mourning when the child died. When questioned about the reasoning behind his actions, David answered, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept, for I said, ‘Who knows whether the Lord will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ But now he is dead. Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.” Since God’s revelation and the Jews’ understanding of the afterlife was not as fully developed in the Old Testament, it’s hard to say for sure what David was thinking of when he spoke these words. Regardless, we must be careful of using them to build a particular aspect of theology. Was David a king and a prophet of God who often spoke under the direction of the Holy Spirit? Yes. But are David’s every words divinely inspired? No—as is the case with his lies before this as he attempted to cover his sin. Second Samuel 12:23 is the Holy Spirit inspired truth and part of an inerrant Bible so far as David truly spoke these words. However, the text doesn’t give us an indication one way or the other as to whether David’s words here are actually true. They may be, but they also may not be—they may simply be his own thoughts and opinions. If we are going to build a theology of the age of accountability, we need something more solid, and the Bible doesn’t provide it in terms of proof texts.
Third, so if infants are guilty before God and the Bible does not give solid evidence of an age of accountability, can we still say with good reason that infants go to heaven when they die? Here, I still believe the answer is yes but not based on the reasons Dr. Lemke argues (a denial of original sin), or for reasons that others argue (proof-text verses for an age of accountability). Instead, I reason it is due to the fairness of God in judgment.
From Genesis to Revelation the Bible teaches God is just—he is fair in all his judgments.
And Jesus asserts this about the day of judgment. In Matthew 10, he sends out the twelve and tells them, “And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town. Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town” (10:14-15). And then one chapter later he pronounces woe upon the unrepentant cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum. He compares them to Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom and tells them if those cities of old had witnessed the same works they saw, Tyre and Sidon would have repented and Sodom would have remained. But as it is, “it will be more bearable on the day of judgment” for the cities of old than those unrepentant cities.
In these cases, God’s judgment still stands against the cities and the people, but it is an equitable judgment based on the revelation given. They are still guilty, but those who have seen more of the power of God incur greater guilt because they have rejected more. Thus God’s judgment will be harsher.
We can take this truth and apply it to our main question here. The Bible makes it clear—the only way to be saved is to hear the Gospel and turn to Jesus in faith and repentance (Romans 10, etc.). According to Romans 1, the general revelation of God in nature is enough to cause people to stand guilty before God, because they see his power and might and should worship him but in their evil hearts they reject God and worship creatures instead. So we must hear the Gospel to be saved and our ignorance of the Gospel does not serve as a valid excuse.
But what about those who cannot hear and respond? Those such as infants and those who suffer from severe mental handicaps, etc.? Are they still guilty? Yes. But since God is fair and just, and since they are absolutely incapable of hearing and responding to the Gospel and seeing his power in nature, then I posit that God will not hold them culpable for their guilt.
Like Dr. Lemke’s position, this still implies the notion of a state of accountability, but it does not reject what I believe is the clear teaching of Scripture concerning original sin. As Baptists we have no need to reject original sin or inherently link the doctrine to infant baptism, and we can still maintain the state of accountability based on the justness of God.
Note: Dr. Lemke’s article can be read here: http://sbctoday.com/2011/08/25/distinctive-baptist-beliefsnine-marks-that-separate-baptists-from-presbyteriansdistinctive-baptist-belief-2%e2%80%94the-age-or-state-of-accountability/
Note 2: All scriptures quoted in this post are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright 2001—Crossway Bibles (Good News Publishers)