Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Are babies saved without Baptism?

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about whether infants and young children can be saved:

Q:  If Jesus is the only way to salvation, then what happens to the souls of children who die before they are old enough to express their trust in Jesus to save them?    

The heavy emotional impact of the answer as well as the lack of a clear, concise statement in Scripture that, “all children are saved” or “all unbaptized children are condemned,” make this one of the most difficult questions that Christian theology must make sense of.

Even though we cannot judge with absolute certainty when we deal with questions of salvation in others, we have some indications from mature persons, such as their own statements affirming faith, or at the very least, we understand their regular attendance at a church to mean that they believed what was taught there; but with infants and young children, we lack this sort of observable testimony to faith, making this a particularly challenging exercise in Biblical discernment.

Numerous attempts have been made over the centuries to alleviate this uncertainty regarding deceased children and therefore give Christian parents hope (or in some cases anxiety) about the eternal state of these young deceased: 

Some have proposed that all children who have not attained the ability to recognize or form intent to sin are innocent and therefore saved.  A related proposition acknowledges that children are guilty of sin but that it is not counted against them until they attain the ability to understand and believe the Gospel. 

Others have proposed that those who have not been Baptized are absolutely condemned.  Still others have proposed that there is a neutral third place (sometimes called “Limbo”) for those who die apart from the opportunity to receive God’s grace through the preached Gospel or the Sacraments. 

Because of the lack of a single-sentence answer in the Bible, it means that Scriptural answers will have to bring together evidence from throughout the Bible.  When formulating such a Biblical answer to this difficult question, there are several factors to take into consideration. 

First, Scripture is very clear that salvation must come through Jesus, so any answer which proposes salvation apart from Jesus cannot be considered.  Similarly, the only means through which Scripture promises God’s grace, won by Jesus, will be delivered are the Gospel and the Sacraments, particularly Baptism, so any solution which proposes a connection to Jesus through any other means is, likewise, unreliable. 

Additionally, because Paul and James clearly indicate the sinfulness of “all people” in their epistles, and because in the Psalms King David specifically applies this judgment to begin “from birth, from the time my mother conceived me,” answers which deny the children’s guilt for sin prior to their ability to observably commit sin are also unbiblical. 

Finally, there is no scriptural evidence for the existence of any “third place,” and a statement approved by Pope Benedict several years ago eliminated the rationale to teach of such a place based on church tradition. 

In spite of the clarity of the Bible that children are also guilty of sin and that forgiveness can only come because of Jesus, this does not mean that children are condemned by default until an age where they can hear and trust the Gospel.  Scripture gives numerous occasions for hope for children’s forgiveness and salvation. 

Peter’s promise that “Baptism now saves you,” and that “the promise is for you and your children,” along with our Lord’s instruction to “Let the little children come to Me,” are the clearest invitation to apply God’s grace to our children through Baptism and thereby gain certain hope that they have received God’s grace. 

Even when Baptism has not been possible, such as a stillbirth or a sudden accident, Scripture gives ample reason for hope.  This includes the faith of John the Baptizer even prior to birth (Luke 1), David’s declaration of His deceased newborn son’s salvation in 2 Samuel, along with numerous indications that Jesus dies for “the world” and that God desires to save “all people.” 

Martin Luther also found hope for the salvation of the children of Christian parents based on God’s promise to answer the prayers of those who trust in Him, combined with the fact that their parents had certainly prayed for them prior to their birth. 

Ultimately, although we cannot pronounce with absolute certainty the salvation of unbaptized children (or of anyone other than ourselves for that matter), and although why and how remains shrouded in mystery, the plentiful promises and revelations of God’s merciful character found in Scripture mean that there is certainly no cause for despair or anxiety when children of Christian parents die prior to Baptism.

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