Baptism, Salvation, and the Age of Accountability

PHOTO CREDIT: NT Blog

PHOTO CREDIT: NT Blog

Ask a Christian – Baptism and Salvation

I received a question recently submitted through the Ask a Christian feature on this site. This is a feature I kicked off a while back in hopes that individuals with questions about Christianity would submit those questions, and allow me to take a stab providing answers to the best of my ability. This particular question is as follows:

What happens if you die as a child, and haven’t been baptized?

This is certainly an important question. As a parent I am concerned about many things related to my children. The chief of these concerns is their relationship with God. I have Baptist Christian views, so you might imagine I find baptism to be an important part of believer’s walk with God. Keep in mind I do not find baptism to be important because I have Baptist views. Rather, I have Baptist views because I find such views to be biblical. With that said, let’s take a look at baptism, salvation, and something often referred to as the age of accountability.

Isn’t Baptism Just for Baptists?

Many Christian denomination believe in baptism albeit with different nuances. Some examples are Roman Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, and – of course – Baptists.

What is baptism?

Peter writes the following in 1 Peter 3:21-22:

21 Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ ,22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.

In this passage Peter writes of baptism as “an appeal to God”. Does Peter mean that it is the act of baptism that saves? Notice Peter qualifies this statement by indicating it is “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” that this appeal must go. No power exists in the act of being baptizes, but only in the saving power of Jesus. Of high importance is the idea that no act that we can perform (or have performed on our behalf) can add to our salvation. We are saved “sola fide” – by faith alone – so we cannot boast in ourselves (Ephesians 2:9, 1 Corinthians 1:28-31), but in God. The bible describes a faith-based salvation. If baptism were a requirement of salvation then we would leave the door open to a works-based system of salvation. This is simply an unbiblical perspective that we should be wary of. To say we have to be baptized to be saved is to say that the work of Christ on the cross was insufficient, and that full salvation requires our personal intervention through the act of baptism. Are we really prepared to say that we have individual power that is greater than that of Jesus? I am not.

I should pause here a moment to note that there are multiple “types” of baptism indicated throughout the bible (baptism with fire, baptism into the Holy Spirit, and so on). Where I say “baptism” here I am referring to water baptism – the type of baptism that comes to most of our minds when we hear the term. Water baptism is more symbolic than effectual. John the Baptist exclaims the following in Matthew 3:11-12:

11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

John is referring to Jesus in this passage (“he who is coming after me”). This leads well into a good reason for being baptized if you are a believer… Jesus was baptized (Matthew 3:13-17). The primary focus of a follower of Christ should be to try to emulate Jesus as closely as possible. Additionally, baptism is a symbol of our commitment to strive to be more Christ-like. A symbol of our old life, our bondage in sin, being washed away to be born anew (1 Corinthians 6:11).

Salvation

OK, so while baptism is a biblical, symbolic affirmation of our commitment to Jesus, what then is salvation?  One of the most straight forward ways I have seen salvation explained is via the following three aspects:

Three aspects of salvation:

  1. Justification – Separation from the penalty of sin (Acts 2:21; Ephesians 2:4-10; 1 Timothy 1:12-17)
  2. Sanctification – Separation from the power of sin (Romans 8:1-5; Philippians 2:12-16; 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; Hebrews 10:8-10)
  3. Glorification – Separation from the presence of sin (Romans 8:23-30; 2 Timothy 2:10-13)

A good summation of this concept has been written by Paul Tautges. In his article Tautges clarifies the above three aspects of salvation by referencing tense (justification – past, sanctification – present, glorification – future). For the purposes of this article I will focus on justification. Justification for followers of Christ was accomplished through Jesus’ work on the cross. Jesus paid the penalty that all of us, as sinners, should have paid. In contrast to sanctification, which is a process of the Holy Spirit working in us, justification was accomplished instantaneously. Even if we wanted to do works to “ensure our justification” we would not have the time to do anyway. That which Jesus accomplished in a moment (our justification) we could not hope to accomplish in a lifetime by our own hand.

I will not go in depth into each of the above three aspects of salvation; however, I have included some scripture references to support each. Additionally, I strongly suggest reading Romans 8 in its entirety, as this chapter covers all three aspects of salvation fairly comprehensively. The important takeaway for the question at hand is the instantaneous nature of justification. An 80 year old man is no more or less justified than an 80 second old baby boy.

The Age of Accountability

We know we are sinners from the time of our conception basis Psalms 51:5:

Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.

So if we are sinners from the time we are conceived, are we held accountable for our nature of sin before we even understand we are sinners? The prophet Isaiah explains in Isaiah 7:15 when Jesus will reach what might be referred to as the age of accountability:

He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.

Of course, Isaiah does not give us a specific age that this understanding will begin. So, we cannot know when a child should be considered accountable for his or her sin nature. We do have some insight into how Jesus felt about children by way of Matthew 19:13-15:

13 Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, 14 but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” 15 And he laid his hands on them and went away.

For Jesus to say the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to children is not a statement to be take lightly, but does this mean that if a child dies before he or she understands good or evil that his or her soul is bound for Heaven?

Conclusion

Truly only God knows who goes to Heaven, and who does not. We can, however, make some inferences based on what we know from scripture. We know God is perfectly righteous (Proverbs 2:5-10; Job 37:23; Isaiah 5:16). We know how Jesus feels about children (Matthew 19:13-15). One can infer from these facts that a righteous God who loves children would not condemn to hell those who have not yet even developed the faculties to understand good or evil.

So what happens if you die as a child, and haven’t been baptized. It really depends on what your relationship with God looks like. If you have accepted Jesus as your Savior then you should feel confident in your salvation. If you are thinking that you need God in your life, but have not pursued God, then you should talk to someone to see what that looks like. Again, only God knows who goes to Heaven, and who does not, as He is the final judge. A believer, however, should feel confident in his or her salvation when following biblical principles. Another thing I am confident in is that we all need God in our lives. Without God we are lost. With God we have hope, and all things are possible. God gives us good cause to be…

believinforareason!

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