Growing up around popular evangelical culture, one is taught more than his share of folk beliefs. Some are completely harmless, such as the idea that the three wisemen visited Jesus at the manger (rather than in a house one to two years later), or that people will live forever in heaven (rather than resurrected in a physical body that is made to live upon a recreated earth--although this can lead to or stem from dangerous assumptions). Others, however, can be harmful, in fact, downright deadly, as they place assumptions in a person’s mind that ultimately undermine the gospel. The folk religious idea of the age of accountability is one of these beliefs.
If you’re not familiar with it (I’d be shocked if you weren’t), the idea is that children are all saved because God doesn’t hold them responsible for sin. Some argue that sin requires willful intent, and children supposedly don’t have this (according to this belief), so they cannot be punished for sin. They are innocent until they can make a conscious and mature decision to follow or reject Christ. This idea always sounded a bit off to me, and when I got older, I realized why: It isn't in the Bible, and in fact, contradicts it.
Here are some of the assumptions that one must hold, however, in order to come to this idea.
- People are separated by God for their own personal sins, not the curse placed upon humanity through Adam.
- People are innocent until they become of a certain age, and only then do they become sinners in need of redemption.
- There are people who are saved apart from answering the invitation of the gospel call.
- There are people who are saved apart from Christ, and therefore, there is another way of salvation besides Christ, depending upon one’s age.
All of these ideas assume something about humanity that is heretical, and that is that humans are basically a blank slate (or even good), and only need Christ if they become sinners. Hence, since children are blank slates (or good), they have no real sin. They are thus saved by their morally neutral (or good) disposition toward God. There is no need to condemn them. This idea is called Pelagianism, named after a man, Pelagius, in the fourth and fifth centuries who taught that some people were saved apart from Christ by virtue of their goodness. He taught that there was no sin of Adam, or sin nature/curse from God’s salvific presence, that transferred to humankind. Pelagius denies that the Fall was a Fall of humanity instead of just a fall of the first couple.
Augustine rose up and showed why Pelagius’ views render unnecessary the gospel in some cases, and hence, elevated humanity to the point that Christ’s death was not a complete salvation of an unredeemable mankind, but supplemental to man’s own righteousness. Hence, because it rendered the gospel unnecessary to everyone everywhere, it was condemned as a heresy.
The biblical truth, Augustine argued, is that all humans are born in sin. They are born in the condemnation of the Fall. That means they are born separated from God’s salvific power gained from His relational presence and predisposed toward self, and therefore, evil. Augustine points to the baby who slaps away the other baby as he is nursing at the breast so that he can nurse instead as one of may displays of an infant’s depravity. Infants, Augustine argued, are in danger of hell. Pelagius could not tolerate such a view. As such, the two views were at complete odds with one another.
Augustine won the day, and what he presented has been Christian orthodoxy for the past 1500 years. Only the East, both then and now, took exception to Augustine’s theology; but such was expected from a poorly thought out anthropology, hamartology and soteriology as one had in Eastern Orthodoxy.
Here’s why Augustine’s views are correct: They explain biblical teaching better. For instance, in Pelagius’ world, Abraham had no need of a savior. In the Bible, he is a sinner (remember his laughing in disbelief toward God?). In Pelagius’ world, the sin of Adam is his own, but Paul argues that death spread to all of us from Adam (and even if this is a disputed passage, the Genesis account itself indicates that humanity goes south after the expulsion from God’s paradise because all of man’s thoughts are evil from his youth). In Pelagius’ world, no children should be punished for crimes they have not committed, but in the Bible, children are destroyed all the time for sins (of their parents—see below). In Pelagius’ world, some are saved who are not called, but in the Bible, all those who are predestined are called and justified. In Pelagius’ world, there is another way to the Father besides Christ. In the Bible, there is no way to the Father except through Christ.
Hence, the Bible teaches that all humanity is under condemnation. There is no one who is good, no not even one (that includes children). As such, all of humanity needs Christ’s death and resurrection to be applied to them through their faith in the gospel. Apart from this, no one can be saved (as we’ve discussed before that God cannot be arbitrary in forgiving people).
So where does that leave infants? To Augustine, it left them condemned to hell with the rest of humanity. So, what do we need to do? Baptize them. They needed to be baptized, because in Augustine’s view, baptism restored the lost relationship with God that the child was lacking when he or she came into the world.
Now, I don’t want to get into what baptism does for children. I actually think Augustine is wrong here, since I believe that baptism is a sign of the promise of God in the gospel toward salvation, as well as our committing our lives to Christ in faith. My point here is to show that, whether you agree or disagree with Augustine, the theological assumptions within his means employed to save children is consistent with the Bible and the evangelical folk belief of the age of accountability isn’t. It’s consistent with the Pelagian heresy that undermines the necessity of the gospel of Christ in each and everyone’s (including a child’s) life.
Hence, I would argue as Augustine in all of the theological assumptions made, but I would answer differently than Augustine as to the solution. The solution is simply this: the child and the parent are identified by God as one and the same person and is saved (or damned) via the parental-child relationship. This is why I would also baptize infants, not because it saves them, but because it identifies them with the faith of the one person of whom they are a part. The one person exercises faith and the one person is baptized. The one person is thus saved. Whether this is because God views children as spiritual possessions of the parent, and possessions are often identified with the possessor (why do you think Christ can only save us on the cross when we are identified with Him through His relationship with us as our Lord?), or whether it is simply because God considers only adults to be individuals is not known.
So in my view, the same people (almost) would be saved, as only a Christian parent would render baptism effective in Augustine’s theology in order for the child to be saved anyway (although one could stand in for the parents in Augustine’s view—hence, the creation of godparents). I just think that the kid is saved already through that parent, and if the parent chooses to baptize on top of that to display that identification, so be it. If not, so be it. Salvation is through the faith of the parent, not the baptism of the child.
Now, I realize this might all sound really strange to everyone who has grown up in our common folk religion, but I assure you that this is far more biblical than a folk religion that, while being more palatable, is completely heretical in undermining the very gospel that exists to save everyone who believes.
Of course, there are people who believe that all children are damned, but I think, again, that is an unbiblical assumption about children (i.e., that they are individuals unto themselves who must exercise faith). The truth is the decision to follow or not follow Christ has major implications for our children, as (while they are truly children) our faith is their faith and our lack of faith is their lack of faith.
Now, of course, this is talking about young children, not teenagers or adults who are now individuals in the eyes of God. They must choose and prove whether they are truly saved by exercising faith. So I am not talking about cases such as in Ezekiel 18, where a son of the righteous can become evil or the son of the evil can become righteous. I am talking about the status of children who die before they reach sexual (and therefore individual) maturity. That seems to be the split off point in Scripture (“for this reason a man will leave his father and mother and cling to his wife,” etc.). Some may put it earlier than that, but I would caution against that.
Of course, not all infants in the world are saved in this, so it’s not what anyone wants to hear; and if someone wants to believe something different, that’s perfectly fine; but you don’t have the right to teach heresy to make yourself feel better. Hence, believe something consistent with biblical teaching and the necessity of the gospel, not something that undermines them. The age of accountability has led to all sorts of other rejections of Christian orthodoxy, simply because assumptions creep in and very rarely remain boxed safely in a corner of your mind. They will affect other ideas too. But I think that the age of accountability myth is bad enough as it is. Christ is the only way of salvation, for Jew and Greek, man and woman, slave and freeman, adult and child, because we have all fallen short of the glory of God and cannot please God apart from Christ. So I say to you, If you want your children to be saved, be saved yourself. When you drive them to church, go in with them. When you encourage them to read the Bible, you read it to them. Encourage them to exercise faith on their own. Teach them that they need to choose to follow Christ, and get them ready for the day when they will make that decision, but when they are children, their salvation is through you. So I say to you, as the Scripture says, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household,” “for otherwise your children are unclean but now they are holy.”