Age of Accountability

Posted: July 26, 2010 in Baptism by Immersion, Baptist, Dr. Steve Lemke, Orthodoxy, SBC Issues, Theology

Dr. Steve W. Lemke

Dr. Steve Lemke serves as Provost of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.  He also holds the position of Professor of Philosophy and Ethics.  His article on the “Age of Accountability”  was originally published in January 7, 2010 issue of the Louisiana Baptist Message.  Dr. Lemke is a good friend and has articulated a doctrine that seems to be taken for granted in today’s younger pastors.  Dr. Lemke gives a very reasonable argument and Biblical foundation for this doctrine.

The doctrine often called the “age of accountability” is one of the most foundational Baptist beliefs, yet it is also one of the least understood beliefs.  All three Baptist Faith and Message statements (1925, 1963, and 2000) assert that children are not morally accountable until “they are capable of moral action” (Baptist Faith and Message, Article 3).   We all know that individual children mature at different rates than do others, so it is difficult to establish a specific age at which all children become morally accountable.  It is therefore more accurate to speak of a “state” of being accountable rather than an “age” of accountability.  However, apart from mentally challenged individuals, this state of accountability is normally associated with a “coming of age” sometime in adolescence.  The life transition from childhood into adolescence and early adulthood is recognized with some form of celebration in almost every culture.  In Jewish culture, this coming of age is celebrated at the age of twelve or thirteen with bar mitzvahs (for boys) and bat mitzvahs (for girls).  While this recognition is prompted by age rather than personal spiritual maturity, the term “mitzvah” literally means “one to whom the commandments apply.”  After their mitzvah, children are held to be morally responsible for their own actions and accountable to follow the Jewish law.  This coming of age is hinted at in Jesus’ life in His visit to the temple in Jerusalem at the age of twelve (Luke 2:41-50).

Although the phrase “the age of accountability” is not mentioned specifically in Scripture (as is the case with other doctrines such as the Trinity), there is scriptural warrant for this belief.  Perhaps the best biblical support for the “age of accountability” is in Jeremiah 31:29-30 and the parallel passage in Ezekiel 18:14-21, which makes clear that we are only accountable under the new covenant for our own sins, not those of our parents –

Now suppose he has a son who sees all the sins his father has committed, and though he sees them, he does not do likewise. . . . He practices My ordinances and follows My statutes. Such a person will not die for his father’s iniquity. He will certainly live. . . . But you may ask: Why doesn’t the son suffer punishment for the father’s iniquity? Since the son has done what is just and right, carefully observing all My statutes, he will certainly live.  The person who sins is the one who will die. A son won’t suffer punishment for the father’s iniquity, and a father won’t suffer punishment for the son’s iniquity. The righteousness of the righteous person will be on him, and the wickedness of the wicked person will be on him.   Now if the wicked person turns from all the sins he has committed, keeps all My statutes, and does what is just and right, he will certainly live; he will not die.  In those days, it will never again be said: The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.  Rather, each will die for his own wrongdoing. Anyone who eats sour grapes-his own teeth will be set on edge” (Ezek. 18:14-21, HCSB).

Further support for the concept of an “age of accountability” comes from the fact that nowhere in the New Testament is the baptism of a baby or infant described.  In every case, it is adults who come to faith in Christ.  Evidently, then, moral accountability and salvation by faith are applicable only for those who are capable of moral discernment.

Not only does the Bible teach the “age of accountability,” but we know it is true because of other core doctrinal beliefs.  The Baptist belief in personal soul competency before God presupposes morally competent believers, not infants.  Likewise, the Baptist belief in a gathered church of believers presupposes that each member is a born again Christian who has made their own personal profession of faith in Christ.  We believe in congregational governance because we believe the Holy Spirit is within each true believer to prompt and to guide.

It is believer’s baptism, however, that provides the most significant reason to affirm the “age of accountability.”  Believer’s baptism is a core belief of Baptists (there’s a reason that we are called Baptists!).  The early Baptists were called “Anabaptists” because they believed that the infant baptism they had received was unscriptural, and they were baptized again upon their profession of faith in Christ.  The denial of infant baptism has been a defining issue for Baptists throughout their history.

Infant baptism was one of the key doctrines that separated the Calvinistically-inclined Particular Baptists in England from Presbyterians.  The Particular Baptists modeled their Second London Confession (1689) and the nearly identical American version, the Philadelphia Confession (1742), after the Westminster Confession (1646) which, though written for the Church of England, was and is affirmed by almost all Presbyterian fellowships.   The Westminster Confession had asserted that children were guilty of sin upon birth, and therefore the children of believers should be baptized as infants to remove original sin (Westminster Confession, Articles 6 and 28).  The Second London and Philadelphia Baptist confessions, however, delete the affirmation of the Westminster Confession that “Every sin, both original and actual . . . [brings] “guilt upon the sinner,” (Westminster Confession, Article 6).  The Baptist confessions also delete the Westminster Confession’s allowance for infants to be baptized, asserting instead that only “those who do actually profess repentance towards God, faith in, and obedience to, our Lord Jesus Christ, are the only proper subjects of this ordinance” (Second London Confession, Article 29; Philadelphia Confession, Article 30).  Baptists have never believed that one could be saved by physical birth or by the faith of their parents.  Each person must make a personal profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord in order to be saved.

Baptist confessions tend not to use the term “original sin” (it is in none of the versions of the Baptist Faith and Message), and two early Baptist confessions explicitly deny it.  Baptists do believe that we children of Adam “inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin,” but it is not until we become “transgressors” ourselves that we come under guilt and condemnation (Baptist Faith and Message, Article 3).  So while we believe in an inherited sin nature, we do not believe in inherited guilt.  It is the belief in inherited guilt that leads those in the Reformed tradition toward the necessity for infant baptism.

These beliefs about inherited guilt have significant implications for the spiritual status of infants who die.  Presbyterians such as R. C. Sproul, Jr. reject the notion that children who die before the age of accountability who go to heaven. Sproul chided Billy Graham for comforting the parents who lost a child in the day care center in the Oklahoma City bombing by the famous evangelist saying that there would be a “glorious reunion” with these children because they were not personally guilty of sin.  Sproul insisted that since we are born guilty of original sin, unless the infants were elect and responded in faith, they had no hope of salvation. He accused Graham of advocating “a new gospel – justification by youth alone.”[1] While all Presbyterians may not agree with Sproul, his article is infamous it set the record for letters to the editor of this journal, and not a single one of these letters affirmed Sproul’s position.  Baptists have always believed that since infants are not yet capable of actual sin, they go to heaven.

As a person who has lost a stillborn child, I can tell you that this issue of the “age of accountability” really does matter.  Baptists need to be more conscious of this crucial doctrine.


[1] R. C. Sproul Jr., “Comfort Ye My People—Justification by Youth Alone: When Does Comfort Become Confusion?” World (May 6, 1995), also available online at http://highlandsstudycenter.org/article/comfortYeMyPeople.php.

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Comments
  1. [...] we are still publishing on our personal blogs.  Over at Southern Baptist in NC, I have posted an article by Dr. Steve Lemke.  I encourage you to come over and view it.  Dr. Lemke serves as Provost of New Orleans Baptist [...]

  2. lesliepuryear says:

    I’ll be interested to read what the reformed guys have to say about this.

    Les

  3. Matt Svoboda says:

    Tim,

    Im not sure why you think us younger pastors take this doctrine for granted? What is it that leads you to that conclusion? I for one, do not, and I have always appreciated this belief and doctrine. Mohler and Akin wrote an article on this quite some time ago and it gave me some theological feet for a doctrine I had always endorsed.

    Les,

    I really dont see a difference between reformed guys and non-reformed guys on this issue. One of my mentors, Hershael York, preached a great sermon on this and I know that my friends and I were all in great agreement with him.

    I know some think reformed baptists are very little “baptist,” but this is certainly an issue where there isnt any difference.

    This was a great article by Lemke, thanks for posting it Tim!

  4. Tim Rogers says:

    Brother Les,

    I like the way Dr. Lemke explains the difference in the inherited sin nature and the non-inherited guilt.

    Blessings,
    Tim

  5. Tim Rogers says:

    Brother Matt,

    I honestly did not know that your personal beliefs represent the beliefs of all of the younger pastors. :) I know you do not believe your personal beliefs are of such, but that is the way you come across. I am glad that you believe in this doctrine. Help me understand though how you reconcile the doctrine of original sin and the reformed position of total depravity.

    Blessings,
    Tim

  6. Matt Svoboda says:

    Tim,

    I apologize that is how I came across… I simply meant that I and the other young pastors I know seem to mostly agree that we believe in this doctrine as much as anyone.

    Honestly, it is too late for me to deal with it exhaustively, but I will use what Dr. York said:

    Just like when the spies viewed the promise land and gave a negative report- God didnt allow them to inherit it, but he did not hold accountable the children for a decision they didn’t commit. The line York used was, “They were not part of the decision, therefore, they were not held accountable.” It is the same as the inherited sin nature, but not inherited guilt… This is one area that Reformed(presby) and Reformed Baptists would disagree on. At least most of us.

    York, Mohler, and many others are Calvinists and yet agree with every word that Lemke says here. Even less is a Calvinist that believes in Total Depravity an he still agrees with Lemke here. Honestly, for the most part, I do not think there is a difference between the Reformed Baptists and non-Reformed Baptists on this issue.

  7. [...] just about every day. But it is unusual for me to respond. Nonetheless, I decided to respond to an article by Steve Lemke, reposted by Tim Rogers and reported at SBC [...]

  8. For me the issue is not the doctrine being argued but the many bad arguments mustered on its behalf. I believe in something akin to the age of accountability, but I think Lemke’s article is too error ridden to be of use. But I’ve put my all-too-long response over here —> http://www.seektheholy.com/2010/07/27/a-response-to-steve-lemke-on-age-of-accountability/

  9. Tim Rogers says:

    Brother Matt,

    Thanks for your clarification. However, Brother Chris Roberts, in his refutation that he links to above, maybe has trumped your position. I am not going to respond to his full position as I would have to do another post. However, I will make my point in my response to just one position he takes.

    Brother Chris,

    You say;

    Certainly many if not most Southern Baptists believe in some sort of age of accountability, but the belief is not central to our identity as Baptists, nor is the belief foundational to any other doctrine.

    The one thing that separates the pedobaptist from us is the baptism of infants. Pedobaptist baptized infants because of a belief that original sin was imputed on us and that child needed to be baptized to “wash away” that original sin. If you remember that was where the reformers reformed from. In their reformation they did not reform baptism as a salvific sacrament. Baptist were the ones who taught that infant baptism was not a means to, neither a covenant with a Holy God. Thus, the doctrine of the age of accountability has to be foundational in that it speaks directly to the doctrine of baptism.

    Blessings,
    Tim

  10. Tim Rogers says:

    Brother Chris,

    As you note in your response over at your place the Deuteronomy 1:34-40 passage is a strong Scriptural case for the Age of Accountability. However, I believe you really strain at gnats in your argument against Dr. Lemke concerning the Westminster Confession.

    III. Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated, and saved by Christ, through the Spirit,[12] who works when, and where, and how He pleases:[13] so also are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word.[14]

    In the heading “Effectual Calling” we see that the WCoF clearly defines that only the “elect infants” who die in infancy are saved by Christ. What happens to those infants that are not elect?

    Blessings,
    Tim

  11. Tim,

    First, in your first comment you mention the Reformed belief that baptism removes original sin. Did you note all my comments about this, including the quote from Calvin himself speaking against those who argue baptism removes original sin? This is not what Reformed people have believed. Lemke’s argument immediately fails on this point because he is arguing against a “Reformed belief” that Reformed people have not believed. I also gave quotes showing that infant baptism was not in any way believed to impart saving grace.

    Second, the section of the WCF you note is certainly relevant to the discussion about age of accountability and could have raised some issues had Lemke referred to it (though even that section may not be as definitive as you think). However, Lemke did not refer to that section.

    Third, Lemke did, however, refer to a lot of other sections and writings, and he almost always misused his sources. It is hardly straining at gnats to desire accuracy of speech and fairness when presenting an opposing side. Lemke says we need to know why we believe in an age of accountability, yet he thoroughly fails to deliver anything resembling a rational argument. Instead he rails against a phantom, something that doesn’t exist, and all his arguments against Reformed folks are based on misrepresentations of their beliefs.

    If you want to argue for a biblical doctrine, then show me where it is found in the Bible. Lemke failed to do that and instead delivered a misguided rant.

  12. Bill says:

    I do believe in an age of accountability, but I honestly never saw it as a “foundational” belief of Baptists.

    Chris is correct, however, that the WCF does NOT say what Mr. Lemke asserts that it does about baptism cleansing infants from original sin.

  13. peter says:

    Tim,

    You gotta love this:

    “[Lemke] almost always misused his sources”
    “yet [Lemke] thoroughly fails to deliver anything resembling a rational argument”
    “all [Lemke's] arguments against Reformed folks are based on misrepresentations of their beliefs”
    “Lemke…delivered a misguided rant”

    I have to say, NOBTS needs to be brought up on charges of abusing CP monies at the next SBC for hiring a complete theological doe-doe head to be their Provost and Professor of Philosophy & Ethics.

    With that, I am…
    Peter

  14. Peter,

    Am I wrong? Did you compare Lemke’s claims with what the sources actually say? Does Lemke fairly represent what is found in the sources?

  15. Tim Rogers says:

    Brother’s Chris and Bill,

    Ok, let me get this straight. You are saying that Dr. Lemke’s argument fails concerning the baptising of infants for the washing away of sins. I am not conceding this I am merely trying to get a handle of what you are saying.

    After all is said and done, you want to say that the WCoF does not teach baptismal regeneration through the sprinkling of babies. However, if you read Chapter 28 you will find that it begins by saying; “Baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament” In the Baptist faith we do not have “sacraments” because the word conveys a salvific relation to the rite. We use the word “ordinance”. According to the WCoF baptism bestows a salvific relation with the rite:

    by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongs unto

    I do not know how anyone can interpret that statement as anything but baptism resulting in salvation.

    Blessings,
    Tim

  16. peter says:

    Chris,

    Now please explain why I would waste time wondering *if* the criticisms I listed from your comment above were valid or not, Chris. When I read assertions like “almost always misused” or “thoroughly” failed to deliver “anything” rational or “all” arguments based on “misrepresentations” of others’ beliefs, and hence concluding an accomplished academic in one of our seminaries published nothing more than a “misguided rant,” why should it be taken seriously, Chris?

    My present post deals with Dr. Nathan Finn’s advocacy of “Reformed Baptist” as a viable label for Baptists. Tomorrow I plan to offer a few critical remarks and state an alternative view. But, Chris I hope with all my hoping I won’t be caught dead making Dr. Finn out to be a bumbling fool like you just did to Dr. Lemke. No wonder more academics do not come to the internet and exchange with others concerning their views. Who wants to wade through such unmitigated non-sense as “thoroughly” failed to deliver “anything” rational?

    Frankly, I’ve come to believe that some guys have just got their panties in a knot.

    With that, I am…
    Peter

  17. Bill says:

    Tim: I am saying nothing of Lemke’s argument, whatever that is. I’m saying that the WCF does not say that baptism washes away original sin. Nor does it say that baptism saves, quite the contrary. Now, you may think that the WCF infers that, or that it is inconsistent in what it says. Perhaps so. But it says what it says, and since few who hold to the WCF believe in baptismal regeneration, I’m inclined to accept their view of it.

  18. Tim,

    There is significance in our use of ‘ordinance’ vs ‘sacrament’ but it is incorrect to say that the historic Reformed use of ‘sacrament’ carried salvific implications. Note the WCF chapter 27 which deals with sacraments.

    As for the WCF statement in chapter 28, read the whole chapter on baptism. At the very beginning, it describes baptism as, “a sign and seal” meaning it functions at least as a pointer to something else. It stands as evidence of the promise of God, a sure reminder that God will do this work. However, it does not guarantee that those who receive baptism will be saved. In section 5 we read, “grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it… that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated.” In other words, baptism does not equal salvation and there are those infants who are baptized who nonetheless never receive saving grace, never receive regeneration. Paedobaptists see infant baptism as carrying over from infant circumcision, and just as there were many circumcised children of Israel who were not believers in God, there can be many baptized children of the church who are not saved.

    What chapter 28, section 6 affirms is that baptism always serves as a sign and seal of the fact that God is the source of saving grace and that God will save all those whom he has chosen. Look at the entire sentence you quote: “he efficacy of baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited and conferred by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God’s own will, in his appointed time.” Baptism assures us that all those God has chosen to save, he will save. And he will save them in his appointed time. Right there we see that they are not saved at the moment of baptism (nor are they guaranteed salvation), but are saved in God’s appointed time, as he wills.

    One thing just now stands out to me, and it is huge. The phrase in parenthesis there, “whether of age or infants”. I will need to dig into that some more, but it seems at least an implicit recognition of something similar to age of accountability.

  19. Peter,

    I would hope that you love truth enough to take the time and confirm whether or not someone has spoken accurately. You took the time to find statements of mine that you do not like; that shows at least some dedication.

  20. Bill Nettles says:

    The 1689 London and the Philadelphia both say: “They being the root, and by God’s appointment, standing in the room and stead of all mankind, the guilt of the sin was imputed, and corrupted nature conveyed, to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation, being now conceived in sin, and by nature children of wrath, the servants of sin, the subjects of death, and all other miseries, spiritual, temporal, and eternal, unless the Lord Jesus set them free.”

    If you don’t set the imputation of GUILT stated in this, then I don’t know what you have read.

    Also, any statement that Presbyterians believe that baptism washes away sin needs a reference. I don’t believe that you can find one.

  21. peter says:

    Chris,

    I think you need to read my final line of the previous comment over and over and over again, guy.

    With that, I am…
    Peter

  22. peter says:

    Tim,

    Tim,

    I could not open Dr. Lemke’s link at the end.  So, I rummaged around till I got a link which would work. At least it did when I tested it.

    With that, I am…

    Peter

  23. John says:

    It would be nice if Dr. Lemke spent more time in the scripture than human documents. In his haste he ignored many very important passages on the subject. Let me share a post from a now defunct blog I wrote on the subject some time ago. Let me apologize in advance for the length.

    When a Baby Dies

    Several weeks ago, I shared with you the story of my younger brother James, who suffered from Down Syndrome all of his life, and suddenly passed away last July. After a week of struggle, my parents were approached by their doctors who gave them some terrible news. James’ internal organs had all shut down, there was nothing else to be done, so a decision had to be made to keep him on the machines until he died after a few days, or go ahead and turn the machines off and let him go quickly. Understandably, my parents wanted the night to think it over. At about 11 o’clock at night, I got a call from my mother who was very distressed. She asked me, based on my studies of the Bible, what was going to happen to James after he died?

    This is a difficult question – what is the eternal fate of those who die while incapable of professing Christ due to age or mental ability? The very early Catholic Church, faced with a high infant mortality rate, answered this question with infant baptism. They argued that infant baptism conveyed God’s grace upon this child, thus guaranteeing them a place in heaven. Today, in Baptist circles, we have a belief called the age of accountability. We argue that there is a time of innocence in people’s lives, and if they die during that time they are sinless and are permitted into heaven.

    Both of these doctrines sound good and well reasoned, the only problem is that both of these doctrines runs against everything that the Bible tells us. Regarding the Catholic view, please refer to my posts on baptism. Regarding the “age of accountability,” please see below.

    First, the bible never mentions an age of accountability, nor does it say that people are innocent at any time in their lives.

    Second, when is the age of accountability? How old do people have to be before we start witnessing to them? One Sunday School teacher once told me that if you can send a child into a room full of people naked, then they are innocent. But once they start feeling shame, then they have reached the age of accountability. I have only a one question about that – where is that in the bible? If this is true, then the age of accountability must be quite old, because I remember when I was living in the dorms of a state college, I ran into more than a few naked people running through the halls without a stitch of shame. Though I somehow doubt that they were innocent.

    At this point in my post, I’m sure that you have guessed that I reject the “doctrine” of an age of accountability. Does that mean that I think those who die in infancy are condemned to hell?

    Not at all.

    In fact I do believe that those who die in a state where they are unable to accept Christ due to age or mental ability are indeed saved. I just want to have biblical reasons for believing this.

    So, lets begin our discussion with reasons why infants are NOT saved.

    Infants are not saved because they are innocent or lack sin. The bible is very clear that everyone sins. For example, the bible says:

    Romans 3:23 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,

    Psalm 58:3 3 The wicked are estranged from the womb; These who speak lies go astray from birth.

    1 John 1:8 8 If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us.

    We should not say that infants are innocent, the truth is that they are sinners just like the rest of us. I realize that this is a difficult thing for us to grasp. Just last night I slipped into my 5-month-old baby’s room while he slept and just watched him, and marveled at how perfect he was. However he is not perfect. He is in fact a slave to sin. A sin nature resides in his heart at this very moment, and he has likely committed some sin in his body that I am unaware of.
    Right now, at this point in his life, my son can say:

    Psalm 51:5 5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, And in sin my mother conceived me.

    So, how are children who die in infancy saved?

    They are saved the same way that everyone else is saved – through the atoning work of Jesus Christ. The bible says:

    John 14:6 6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.

    Acts 4:12 12 “And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.”

    Those who die in infancy are not saved because of their own personal righteousness or innocence. They are saved because their sins have been covered by the blood of Christ.

    So how does this happen?

    First, we do see in the scriptures that it is possible for God to communicate the gospel to infants in a way they can respond to, even though we as adults may not fully understand it. This may be seen in the case of John the Baptist. Luke 1:15 says:

    Luke 1:15 15 “For he will be great in the sight of the Lord; and he will drink no wine or liquor, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother’s womb.

    This combined with the fact that John the Baptist acknowledged Christ while in the womb (Luke 1:41), gives clear evidence that it is possible for the gospel to be communicated to, and accepted by infants and those we would not think of being capable of understanding.

    To say that some infants who die will be saved is the safest position to take. This can be proven 100% from the scriptures. If I were in a debate with another person well versed in rhetoric and the scriptures, this would be the position I would argue for.

    However, I do believe that the scriptures do allude to the fact that all infants who die will be saved. This can be found in places like Deuteronomy 1:39 which states:

    Deuteronomy 1:39 39 ‘Moreover, your little ones who you said would become a prey, and your sons, who this day have no knowledge of good or evil, shall enter there, and I will give it to them and they shall possess it.

    Here, God has pledged to wipe out Israel for not going into the Promised Land. However, he has made an exception for those who were not old enough to engage in the decision making process of the people. Because this event is situation specific, it cannot apply to all children at all times – however it does give us the hint that God’s judgement is tempered towards those who are ignorant of their sinful estate.

    Now the big question – why doesn’t God just say that all who die in infancy are saved? I believe that he does not say this for our benefit.

    Not long ago, the news reported that a young mother decided to drown all four of her children – one at a time. Her reason for this? Her new boyfriend did not want kids, “so she had to get rid of them somehow.”

    Given the rate of mental instability among some people, one could only imagine what would happen if the guarantee of salvation for infants was expressly given in the scriptures. One could imagine a parent having a child, loving it for 2 or 3 years, and then killing it before the “age of accountability” so that it would be guaranteed salvation. Yes that is a sick thought, yes it is twisted – but unfortunately, it is not far from reality. For example, I can remember many years ago when a member of my state convention’s board of ethics argued that abortion was an acceptable and harmless practice, because all of those aborted were guaranteed salvation because they had not yet reached an age of accountability.

  24. peter says:

    Dr. Lemke,

    You conclude, “Baptists have never believed that one could be saved by physical birth or by the faith of their parents. Each person must make a personal profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord in order to be saved.”

    Sproul writes, “John Gerstner was once invited to preach at a local Presbyterian church… [An elder] asked Dr. Gerstner to present a white rose to each infant’s parents before the baptism. Dr. Gerstner inquired about the meaning of the white rose. The elder replied, “We present the white rose as a symbol of the infant’s innocence before God.” “I see,” replied Dr. Gerstner. “And what does the water symbolize?” Imagine the consternation of the elder when he tried to explain the symbolic purpose of washing away the sin of innocent babies…Though the infant is innocent of specific acts of sin he is still guilty of original sin” R. C. Sproul, Chosen by God, 1996, c1986).

    So, perhaps our brothers can inform us, what precisely did the baptism symbolize, according to Presbyterians, Sproul & Gerstner?

    Also, we need to recall that infant baptism is a *sign of faith* in the child being baptized. If this is so, note also, for the Reformed, the presence of faith presupposes regeneration. Hence, it seems to be correct to assume infant baptism as a definitive *sign* of regenerative faith implies the infant’s guilt is washed away.

    Chris brought up WCF’s “qualification” to this suggesting it overthrows Dr. Lemke’s above assertion, presumably since Lemke is incapable of bringing a rational notion to the table. However, the irony remains that Chris may very well be the one to “misuse” or “misrepresent” others’ belief.

    For example, here is W.G.T. Shedd, surely a “Reformed” voice acceptable to our brothers:

    –“The sacrament of baptism is the sign and seal of regeneration” (Dog. Theo. p.816)

    –“Baptism, being the initiatory sacrament, is administered only once” (ibid)

    –“Baptism is to be administered to believers and their children” (p.817)

    –“The baptism of the infant of a believer supposes the actual or prospective operation of the regenerating Spirit, in order to the efficacy of the rite. Infant baptism *does not confer* the regenerating Spirit, but is a sign that he either *has been or will be conferred* in accordance with the divine promise in the covenant of grace (all emphasis mine, p.817)

    –“Hence baptism is the sign and seal of regeneration either in the past, in the present, or in the future. Westminster Confession 38.6 teaches that “the efficacy of baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered”; in other words, the regenerating grace of the Spirit, signified and sealed by the rite, *may be imparted when the infant is baptized or previously or at a future time (p.817)

    –“Baptism is the probable sign of regeneration, when the infant lives to years of discretion. It is possible that the baptized child of believing parents may prove, in the day of judgment, not to have been regenerated, but not probable” (p.818)

    In the face of such language from an eminent Reformed theologian, to deny the Reformed understanding of infant baptism carries no “salvific implications” remains incredible.

    With that, I am…
    Peter

  25. peter says:

     

    John,

    You counsel Dr. Lemke for his haste and assert it would have been nice if he spent more time in the scripture than human documents.  But what if the subject addressed discusses both Scripture *and* tradition? Being so, it would have been irresponsible for Dr. Lemke to not deal with tradition, would it not? 

    Nor is the position you espouse clearly *the* biblical position.   Nor is the “safest” position to be one of skepticism concerning all persons who die in infancy. It is perhaps the most cruel position though to suggest some babies are in heaven—perhaps the “elect” babies–and some babies are burning in Hell.

    Allow me to further comment on your piece if I may:

    “Today, in Baptist circles, we have a belief called the age of accountability. We argue that there is a time of innocence in people’s lives, and if they die during that time they are sinless and are permitted into heaven.”  To the contrary, it is not just “Baptist” circles which maintain a variant of the “age of accountability” teaching.  No do I know of anyone (in my circles anyway) who frames the issue in terms of “age of innocence” or “sinless” and therefore, being worthy in and of themselves to enter heaven.  Who can you cite who teaches this, John?

    “First, the bible never mentions an age of accountability, nor does it say that people are innocent at any time in their lives.” Dr, Lemke made it clear concerning the language of “age” being in Scripture. And, please do not forget Dr. Lemke’s important distinction between “actual” sin and “inherited sin.”  Or, in his words, “So while we believe in an inherited sin nature, we do not believe in inherited guilt.”  

    Second, when is the age of accountability?  Dr. Lemke addressed this:  “…it is difficult to establish a specific age at which all children become morally accountable.  It is therefore more accurate to speak of a “state” of being accountable rather than an “age” of accountability.” Hence, a “state” of accountability more describes what Baptists have believed about the issue.

    “Infants are not saved because they are innocent or lack sin….We should not say that infants are innocent, the truth is that they are sinners just like the rest of us.” Well, no, John, not  “just like” the rest of us. If they were sinners “just like” the rest of us, why do we not hold them accountable “just like” the rest of us? Why do we let them off the hook, so to speak, when they sin?  Are not sinners responsible for their actions?

    A sin nature resides in [my son’s] heart at this very moment, and he has likely committed some sin in his body that I am unaware of.” Sweet Jesus, man, is this what you think about when you look at your 5 month old son sleep?  If my son-in-law told me he looked at our precious little granddaughter like that, I’m slap his face into his pants.

    Right now, at this point in his life, my son can say: Psalm 51:5 5” No, at this point in his life, he can say very little.  His mind is only potentially able to grasp the Psalm.

    “So, how are children who die in infancy saved? They are saved the same way that everyone else is saved – through the atoning work of Jesus Christ.”  Now we’re getting somewhere.  Amen!

    “Those who die in infancy are not saved because of their own personal righteousness or innocence. They are saved because their sins have been covered by the blood of Christ.”  Who among Baptists believe any differently than what you’ve just stated, John?

    First, we do see in the scriptures that it is possible for God to communicate the gospel to infants in a way they can respond to…” Granted John.  But to cite special cases are hardly applicable to all.  You made the point yourself below concerning DT. 1:39: “Because this event is situation specific, it cannot apply to all children at all times.” This was a miracle; hence, to cite it as normative does not follow. Nor does John recognizing Christ in the womb—another miracle.

    “To say that some infants who die will be saved is the safest position to take.”  As I mentioned earlier, it’s probably also the most cruel.  Nor does it speak well of the God of Israel to damn babies to hell.

    However, I do believe that the scriptures do allude to the fact that all infants who die will be saved. This can be found in places like Deuteronomy 1:39…”  No, the text doesn’t state anything about infants who die in infancy.  It speaks of temporal matters, not eternal. In addition, you state as a reason you assert all infants dying in infancy to be saved is that God “made an exception for those who were not old enough to engage in the decision making process of the people.”  That’s an interesting statement, John.  In fact, it sounds very similar—if not identical–to what Dr. Lemke meant about the “age” or “state” of accountability.  

    Why doesn’t God just say that all who die in infancy are saved? I believe that he does not say this for our benefit.” I’m sure you are right, John.  That by no means excuses us from responsible exegesis and sound moral reasoning to gain an answer as best we can.  

    I do appreciate your openness concerning your view. I think, from my observations, Dr. Lemke’s position is much more attractive—biblically, theologically, morally, pastorally, and emotionally.

    With that, I am…

    Peter

  26. Peter,

    Do we need to draw in yet another source? My ultimate point is that Lemke misquoted most of his sources. Nothing I’ve seen offers any indication that Lemke did not misquote his sources.

    On the issue of salvation through baptism, I think that you continue to misunderstand what is being said. Salvation by baptism is clearly not taught in the WCF or in other sources I’ve mentioned; it is specifically denied by Calvin; and it is not affirmed in your quotes from Sproul or Shedd (disclaimer: I know little about Shedd). At the very beginning of his discussion on baptism Shedd says (and you quote in part), “Baptism is not a means of regeneration, as the Lord’s Supper is of sanctification. It does not confer the Holy Spirit as a regenerating Spirit, but is the authentic token that the Holy Spirit has been or will be conferred, that regeneration has been or will be effected.” So right off the bat Shedd is clear that this is not something that brings salvation but it points to that which brings salvation.

    What Shedd goes on to say, and I would heartily disagree with, is: “The infant of the believer, consequently, obtains the regenerating grace by virtue of his birth and descent from a believer in covenant with God and not by virtue of his baptism.” No one receives salvation through either birth or baptism. Shedd at least allows this much: “It is possible that the baptized child of believing parents may prove, in the day of judgment, not to have been regenerated, but not probable.”

    Shedd’s quote of Hodge is much better: “It is not every baptized child who is saved; nor are all those who are baptized in infancy made partakers of salvation. But baptism signs, seals, and actually conveys its benefits to all its subjects, whether infants or adults, who keep the covenant of which it is a sign.” So Hodge says that baptism points to saving grace which is guaranteed to the baptized child if he proceeds to take hold of it. So the child must still receive Christ by faith to receive the benefits of the new covenant.

    At any rate, I suspect Shedd would not be alone in claiming “salvation by birth”, but from what I’ve read from Calvin and the confessions, it does not seem that Shedd represents what has generally been held in historic Reformed teaching. I cannot make that claim dogmatically, I just don’t know. I do know that in my time growing up in a Reformed (PCA) church, I never heard any suggestion of “salvation by birth”. It is certainly not a widespread belief today. And I may even be misreading what Shedd has said on the subject. I’ve given him just a cursory look.

  27. Just a quick note that I’m going to back out of the discussion at this point. I’ll keep checking for comments, so I’ll see any responses to what I’ve said, but I don’t know that I can say more than I’ve already said. So, brothers Tim and Peter, I’ve actually enjoyed the discussion. We disagree, that has unfortunately not changed, and my concerns about Lemke’s misrepresentations remain unchanged, but I’ll let stand what I’ve said.

  28. Tim Rogers says:

    Brother Chris,

    I have enjoyed this discussion also.

    Blessings,
    Tim

  29. peter says:

    Chris,

    The reason (s) I brought in yet another source is a) to demonstrate Reformed fellows do not dispute Lemke’s interpretation and exist contra “Reformed Baptists” such as yourself and b) because Bill mentioned sources needed to be provided

    Now, originally you denied the Reformed community embraced “salvific implications” for baptism (your word was “sacraments”). Hence, I gave you several quotes from a reputable Reformed historian and theologian which definitively suggested otherwise. I also gave you the little Sproul/Gerstner’s anecdote to suggest otherwise; that is, baptism–including infant does have “salvific implications” in Reformed circles.

    Now, however, you switch your original complaint to a much stronger denial. You write: “On the issue of salvation through baptism, I think that you continue to misunderstand what is being said. Salvation by baptism is clearly not taught in the WCF or in other sources I’ve mentioned” (emphasis mine). I did not suggest nor ever have suggested the much stronger denial you now make, Chris. Rather, as Shedd clearly points out, there are “salvific impliocations” to baptism, albeit it may be possible to *not* be saved–including infants–but not probable.

    Finally, though I may have missed it, unless you can show precisely what and how Lemke “misrepresented” his sources–spell it out instead of asking rhetorical questions like “don’t you agree he misrepresented…?”–I do not blame you for pulling away from the conservations.

    With that, I am…
    Peter

  30. [...] to Steve Lemke Posted on July 28, 2010 by Aaron O'Kelley Steve Lemke recently posted an article about the age of accountability in Baptist theology.  You’ll need to read it before being [...]

  31. Tim Rogers says:

    The last link is to Dr. Aaron O’Kelley’s blog. I would encourage you to read his response over at his place. Very insightful and well written. However, I took the time to comment over there and wanted our readers to see the comment. Thus, I pasted it below.

    Dr. Kelly,

    Help me understand your last statement better.

    Abraham’s confession must suffice: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Genesis 18:25). In the darkest moment imaginable for any parent, what is needed is a calm assurance of the goodness and righteousness of God. We must be content to know that God is God, and he has not told us everything there is to know about his ways. But we do know that he always does what is right. Furthermore, we know that he is full of mercy to those who are in need, and we know that his mercy was concretely demonstrated in the love of Jesus for children. That must be enough, because God has not given us anything more.

    I am a lost parent that was just told that my little baby had an awful accident and died. You are on the scene to comfort me and I ask you if you believe that my baby was in heaven. You respond by saying “We know that God is full of mercy to those who are in need, and we know that his mercy was concretely demonstrated in the love of Jesus for children. ” I respond; “then that means that my baby is in heaven and certainly must be an Angel now, because we cannot know anything other that what God has given us. So, because God has not said for sure–my baby could be in hell–but I had a sweet baby and that baby couldn’t be in hell could it?”

    I appreciate your point and it certainly does give insight. However, one is left with the same dilemma as before, no certain word from God pertaining to this matter. Are you seriously expressing that David’s statement of fact in 2 Samuel 12:23 falls into your statement that we cannot know that infants go to heaven when they die?

    Blessings,
    Tim

  32. Nick C.E. LeBleu says:

    God’s sovereignty is like that too. Everything is within His hands life – death, joy – pain, everything. Someone asked me about my extreme position insofar as babies in God’s eyes. I said, “what does the scriptures say?” Does it not say all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God? All includes babies too. You mean they are condemned and doomed to hell? I said, I did not say that. But without faith it is impossible to please God. You mean they do not please God? God is pleased with His creation – he said it was very good. Why don’t you ask the question you are wanting to ask? Do babies go to heaven when they die? Yes, I believe they do. Not because of their innocence and I do not purport to understand it all, but based on what Paul said “For until the law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law.” Law assumes knowledge which a baby does not have for a while. They are still sinners that is why they die a physical death, but sin is not imputed because there is no knowledge and thus no law. Whether you baptize an infant or not is to no effect. He will die because he is a sinner, but he will not go to hell because God’s grace is imputed because where there is no law, sin is not imputed. I don’t know if my explanation helped this parent, but that is what I told them. I was not thinking about it at the time, but it makes pretty good sense. God helps even mental infants in their babblings. I know God is sovereign and not a thing happens without His allowance. We do not know the whys and the wherefores as Job did not. I am glad it is like that though.

  33. Linda says:

    I think if there is an average age of accountability, that it is a young age, say age 2 or 3, certainly not age 12 or 13.

    Most 2 or 3 year old’s have been told by their parents not to do some thing (the law), like do not take your siblings toy, or do take not food without asking permission, and they break these parental laws, and when questioned they lie about it. They have the ability to understand what their parents are forbidden them to do, yet they break parental laws especially when they think the parents are not looking, clearly they are accountable.

  34. Les ,
    Iif you’re interested, you can check out what I wrote in response to this article in 2008.
    http://drjamesgalyon.wordpress.com/2008/10/07/what-is-accountability/

  35. “We all know that individual children mature at different rates than do others, so it is difficult to establish a specific age at which all children become morally accountable.” I am completely in agreement with that.

  36. David Hanna says:

    Thanks for the enlightening comments. I say hats off to Dr Lemke for a very poweful argument of this long debated subject.