Do Children Need Salvation?

No doubt, if you have listened to various believers giving their “testimonies”, you have heard stories similar to these:

“My Sunday school teacher led me to Christ when I was four years old.”

“When I was eight, I accepted Jesus in the back of my parents’ car on the way to the lake.”

“I was saved at the age of fourteen.”

Were these people in need of salvation at such a young age? Many say they did — that the earlier one embraces salvation, the better. They often reference such passages as Psalm 51:5:

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

Psalm 53:3 says,

. . . There is no one who does good, not even one.

Psalm 58:3 adds to this.

The wicked are estranged from the womb; these who speak lies go astray from birth.

Romans 3:23 says all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

Scripture makes it clear that human being are sinful and wicked by nature. Our fleshly selves drive us from a young age, beginning with a desire for food and, if allowed, escalating to downright selfishness and destructiveness when we get older. We all have a tendency to follow our emotions and fleshly reactions rather than do what is right.

But are children in need of salvation from the consequences? John Calvin taught that all children are so depraved by nature that, if they die before being saved, they go straight to hell. If this is the case, the millions of aborted babies, who have done nothing, are damned. The children who die in infancy are lost. The five-year-old child who lost her life to cancer is suffering in eternal condemnation.

Some teach that children are innocent until the first time they do something wrong. When they tell their first lie, for example, their innocence is shattered forever, and instantly they are in need of salvation.

Is either belief in accordance with Scripture?

In Romans, Paul speaks about God’s law, the moral boundaries God set for us. He is explaining how the law binds us to the consequences of sin (Romans 6:23), sin being transgression of the law (I John 3:4). In Romans 7, Paul goes on to explain how salvation sets us free, or apart, from the law. In verse 9, Paul makes a curious statement:

I was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment [regarding covetousness] came, sin became alive [through knowledge of sin] and I died.

Based upon this verse, we can conclude that there was a point in Paul’s life when he was not subject to the law of sin and death (Romans 8:2). He then became entangled in sin and its consequences, and had to be set free. We can read about his liberation in Acts, the story of his salvation. Paul writes in I Corinthians 15:56-57,

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

So at this point, Calvin’s teaching of original sin takes a heavy blow. Apparently, Paul was born innocent, and he remained innocent until he became subject to the law. This agrees with a passage we find in Ezekiel 28:15:

You were blameless in your ways from the day you were created until unrighteousness was found in you.

One can conclude then, that we are innocent at infancy, and thus sacred and blameless in God’s eyes. On the day that we sin, however, we become caught in the consequences of sin, and are in need of salvation.

But what about six-year-old Tara? She was running in the house, though her mom told her not to, and accidentally knocked over an expensive heirloom vase, which shattered on the floor. Her mom and dad find the aftermath and ask what happened. Tara knows she should tell the truth — her parents and her Sunday school teacher have both told her that many times — but she is afraid of the punishment she might receive for breaking the vase. So she points to her three-year-old brother playing with his MegaBlocks and blurts out, “Mark did it!”

Tara is only six years old. She knew she was not supposed to disobey her parents, but she did in running in the house. That’s against God’s command (Ephesians 6:1). She lied and accused her brother of breaking the vase, which God also forbids (Exodus 20:16). She violated God’s will knowingly. Is she doomed to go to hell unless she gets saved? Will she be held accountable for her actions as a small child?

In Numbers 14, God has led Israel through the wilderness and at last brought them to the very doorstep of the Promised Land. But when spies return with word of giants living in the land, the people panic, and for what seems to be another instance among countless others, they rebel against God. They accuse Him of trying to kill them all, and even talk of returning to the very Egypt from which God so miraculously delivered them. God, in His anger, then condemns them to wander in the wilderness. Read carefully as he pronounces His judgment on the people in verses 29-33:

. . . your corpses will fall in this wilderness, even all your numbered men, according to your complete number from twenty years old and upward, who have grumbled against Me. Surely you shall not come into the land in which I swore to settle you, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun. Your children, however, whom you said would become a prey — I will bring them in, and they will know the land which you have rejected. But as for you, your corpses will fall in this wilderness. Your sons shall be shepherds for forty years in the wilderness, and they will suffer for your unfaithfulness, until your corpses lie in the wilderness.

God was holding the people of Israel responsible for rebelling against him . . . but only those aged twenty years and older. Why? Is He saying that out of the thousands of Israelites who were age nineteen and younger, not one of them joined their parents in complaining against God? Not necessarily.

The prefrontal cortex of the human brain is located just behind one’s forehead. It is in this section of the brain that we make all our rational decisions, as opposed to our emotional, knee-jerk decisions. Here we make choices based on what we know as right or wrong. For example, if someone insults us, our first impulse might be to say something scathing or even hit them. That reaction would be based on emotion. But we know that Jesus told us to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39), and that Proverbs 15:1 says a soft answer turns away wrath. To not respond in kind would be a rational decision. All our rational decisions come from the prefrontal cortex.

Scientists have proven that the prefrontal cortex has not fully developed until around the age of twenty years old — the same age God used to draw the line between those whom He held responsible for the rebellion and those whom He did not. Scientists have just recently become aware of this fact. God knew it when He pronounced His judgment on Israel. It was not, as some might think, an arbitrary age. God never does anything arbitrarily. He knew that the young Israelites were not yet fully mature — but their parents should have known better, especially after all the miracles and awesome things they had witnessed.

Children and teenagers are all apt to make decisions based on emotion, hormones, and insufficient knowledge. They have yet to fully grasp the concept of responsibility. The time spent growing up with their parents is for them to learn these concepts so that, when they are grown and their ability to make rational decisions is fully developed, they can make wise, sound choices. Proverbs 22:6 says,

Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old he will not depart from it.

A parent’s responsibility is to give a child a solid beginning, teaching them about morals and truths, about God and righteousness and Christianity, so that, when a they grow to adulthood they can make wise decisions — including the lifelong commitment to following Jesus Christ.

Proponents for the salvation of children use the example of Jesus in Matthew 18:2-6:

And He called a child to Himself and set him before them, and said, “Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of God. Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me; but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”

Remember that salvation is not based on faith alone. One must believe, repent, and be baptized. Therefore, when Jesus speaks of “these little ones who believe in Me”, he isn’t referring to children who have been saved. He’s speaking of the little voices you hear singing “Jesus Loves Me” and the ears listening to Daddy read Bible stories. The child believes in Jesus because Mom and Dad say Jesus is real, just as children raised in a secular home believe Santa Claus is real because Mom and Dad say he‘s real. The child has not made any profound observations on his or her own or realized how profound a sinner he or she is as a fallible human being. But it is important that a child believe in Jesus, because that is the very foundation of a Christian life. Mom and Dad are training up the child in the way he should go. Otherwise, they are sacrificing their child’s spiritual future, and it would be better for them to be thrown into the sea than to have the child’s blood on their hands.

Also remember that Christianity is a lifelong commitment. For a child to make the commitment to follow Christ at the age of six is ridiculous. Their ability to make decisions based on knowledge is extremely limited. Because of this inability, God does not hold them responsible. He considers them innocent. Mark 10:13-15 offers proof of this. Parents were bringing their children to Jesus for him to touch, and the disciples were trying to forbid them.

But when Jesus saw this, He was indignant and said to them, “Permit the children to come to me; do not hinder them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these [people who are like little children]. Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child [with the humble, innocent manner of a child] will not enter it at all.”

Though this passage is used by many to argue that children should be led to salvation, Jesus is not saying anywhere here that this is the case. He is saying that, in order to enter the kingdom of God, we must be innocent, childlike — born again. He is using children as an example of purity: “The kingdom of God belongs to SUCH AS THESE.” If children were in need of salvation, to say that one must be like a child would be inaccurate.

So should a parent or teacher or anyone else pressure a child into being saved? Absolutely not! God has given children time to mature and make up their OWN minds, based on what THEY know. He wants them to be responsible adults, so that when they do make their choice to follow him, they will be able to follow through with their decision.

A danger lies in pushing a child toward salvation at a very young age. Because God does not hold a child responsible for their actions, would He consider them saved when pressured into salvation by an adult, especially since he holds them innocent in the first place? From what does this child need saving? A four-year-old child does not have nearly the understanding of sin and death, of God and righteousness, that an adult would have. He gave them this twenty-year period of development so they would have plenty of time to make their own decision based on knowledge of good and evil, the realization of their true wretchedness, and their ability to follow through with a lifelong commitment. Can a five-year-old make a commitment she must hold to for the rest of her life? Of course not! To expect such things is unreasonable and foolish. It’s equivalent to having a little boy swear to a little girl that he will marry her. It’s happened before, and we consider it foolish. Why? Because they are children. A lot can happen in their lives. That little boy is not held to his vow to the little girl because he made it when too young to completely understand what he was saying. It is no different with salvation.

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