The Age of Accountability: A Response to Steve Lemke

Steve Lemke recently posted an article about the age of accountability in Baptist theology.  You’ll need to read it before being able to follow the arguments presented here.  While there are a number of things in this article that I would affirm, there are several points I would offer  in response to some of Dr. Lemke’s claims:

(1) Lemke does not recognize the distinction between “original sin” and “imputed sin.”  Original sin refers to the corruption of our nature due to the fall of Adam.  Imputed sin is the actual reckoning of guilt to us on the basis of Adam’s sin.  These concepts are related, but not identical.  Lemke seems to be equating original sin with imputed sin and then denying that Baptist have historically affirmed original sin.

(2) In any case, the Particular Baptist tradition affirmed both original sin and imputed sin.  The Second London Confession 6.3 says, “They [Adam and Eve] 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.” The fact that the phrase “original sin” may not be used in the document does not mean that the concept is not there.  It clearly is.

(3) The Second London Confession affirms the salvation of “elect infants,” though it does not specify whether some or all infants belong to that group.  The salvation of at least some infants is not linked to the fact that they have not sinned.  It is attributed to God’s mercy in election and regeneration (Second London Confession 10.3).  This position is taken over word-for-word from the earlier Westminster Confession.

(4) While the doctrines of original sin and imputed sin were important for the Augustinian doctrine of infant baptism, they are not the basis for infant baptism in the Reformed tradition.  The Westminster Confession does not speak of baptism as a sacrament that washes away the guilt of Adam’s sin, contrary to Lemke’s claim.  Presbyterians baptize infants in order to bring them into the covenant.

Lemke’s article is part of a string of recent attempts to distance Baptists from the Reformed heritage.  Properly speaking, Baptists are not, never have been, and never could be Reformed, because Reformed theology implies adherence to a covenantal theology that entails infant baptism and a corresponding doctrine of the church that is incompatible with Baptist theology.  However, the historic Baptist doctrines of sin and salvation are virtually identical to those of the Reformed tradition, which is to say, they are Calvinistic.  The imputation of Adam’s sin to his posterity is not one of the five points of Calvinism, but it certainly goes hand-in-hand with them.  And while there are a number of Baptist leaders today who do not particularly like it, Calvinism cannot be purged from historic Baptist theology.

But what about the issue Lemke raises at the end?  What about those who die in infancy?  How should we minister to their parents?  Personally, I am reluctant to make firm statements about what God has not revealed clearly in his Word.  And while there may be hints in Scripture that those who die in infancy are saved through Christ (especially strong hints in the case of infant children of believers), the fact remains that God has not given us a clear, definitive word on this very difficult subject.

At the end of the day, when we face the horrible reality of the death of a child or infant, speculation about an age of accountability is not really going to help all that much.  Even if there is an age of accountability, how can we possibly say when any individual child has reached that age?  I have a son who is four years old, and he has been able to sin willfully for some time now.  I know by experience.  Has he crossed the threshold yet?  How could I ever know?

No, unwarranted speculation is not what grieving parents need.  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.

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6 Responses to The Age of Accountability: A Response to Steve Lemke

  1. Tim Rogers says:

    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 then 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

  2. Aaron says:

    Tim,

    I think the point is that if we do not have a certain word from God, we cannot create one for ourselves, no matter how difficult that may be emotionally. What is certain is that God will always do what is right. Bereaved Christian parents likewise have good reason to believe that God’s mercy extends to the salvation of their children. But I cannot formulate a universal doctrinal statement on the question where none has been given in Scripture.

    I am open to changing my mind if one can prove to me that David’s statement is a clear word from God on the matter, but I think there are too many difficulties with it:

    (1) Within the context of the Old Testament world in which he lived, David was most likely speaking about the fact that his baby went to Sheol, which is simply a general term for the realm of the dead.

    (2) Even if we accept the point that David’s baby was saved (or will be saved on the day of resurrection), we still cannot draw a universal conclusion about all babies from it. David was a member of the covenant people, and his child was an infant at the time of death. Does this give us any certain conclusion about the children of unbelievers, or children who are three, four, or five years old at the time of death?

    I am by no means saying that all or even some children who die before a certain age are lost forever. The point is that I just don’t know. I think there are strong suggestions that at least some children are saved, but the biblical evidence falls far short of a firm conclusion. So we must be content to trust God when we do not understand.

  3. Tim Rogers says:

    Dr. O’Kelley,

    I am off to Mexico tomorrow (Saturday 8/1) for a mission trip to Brasa. I will be gone all week and then I hold revival meetings the following week at a local church in our association. It may be a week or two but I will respond to your statement in a post over at my place. I will give you the heads up before the blog is posted.

    Thanks for the discussion and I look forward to more discussions with you on this subject.

    Blessings,
    Tim

  4. Aaron says:

    Tim,

    The Lord’s blessings to you as you travel and especially as you proclaim the gospel of his Son.

    I’ll be interested to hear what you have to say when you get a chance.

    In Christ,
    Aaron

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