by Dr. Harvey Plett
Many parents have some misgivings about how their children relate to the Church and the Kingdom of God. A question that haunts many is, “If my child dies, will it go to heaven?” This discomfort has been produced, in part, by a lack of teaching in our churches, or by improper teaching about what the Bible says regarding children.
A further influence that has affected this discomfort is the influence of various groups that stress child evangelism. They stress that as soon as a child knows it is doing wrong it is old enough to make a salvation decision. In addition, most groups stressing chid evangelism also teach eternal security. This gives impetus to the idea of getting children to make decisions, for then they are eternally secure no matter what may happen in the future.
Another influence that has raised questions about the child’s eternal welfare has been getting to know people who have been baptized as infants. Later they have accepted Christ and are dynamic Christians. Many of these have continued to hold a strong view that their infant baptism, whether it is sacramental or covenantal, is a valid baptism. This creates a problem for us when such people ask for membership.
We understand, with our Anabaptist forebears, that the Scriptures teach a believer’s baptism. We tend to be afraid that by requiring a believer’s baptism of such individuals we will offend them and turn them away. We do not want to offend or hurt them and so seek for a rationale that will permit us to accept their infant baptism as a valid baptism.
Consequently many people are not sure about the spiritual status of children. For many it has also been an impetus to find an answer that is biblical and will give us peace should our child die.
In the search for some assurance, some parents find comfort in Child Dedication. Psychologically going through a ceremony gives a sense of comfort even though we all know that no human can dedicate another human, for each is ultimately responsible for himself or herself.
Somehow we hope the ceremony will do something to the child until it is old enough to make its own decision and also condition the child to make the decision when old enough. Those believe the biblical teaching of believer’s baptism know the ceremony really doesn’t do anything for the child, but it makes us parents feel better.
Children Are In the Kingdom
Jesus teaches children are in the Kingdom of God. Mark 10:13-16 gives us the context in which Jesus teaches this. In verse 14 Jesus says, “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God.” Rather clearly and simply Jesus rebukes his disciples for hindering children coming to Him and then adds that they are in the Kingdom. You find the incident also described in Luke 18:15-17 and Matt. 19:13-15.
Children are in the Kingdom because the salvation of Christ. Romans 5:18 says, “Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men.” Titus 2:11 also suggests that the salvation in Christ covers those who are still in what could be called their innocent state. No ceremony or baptism is needed to secure a child’s salvation. The child is covered by the blood of Christ.
Age of Accountability
This raises a few critical questions. Does this mean a child does not need to make a decision for Christ? When is a person old enough to be held accountable so that when he sins he will experience the consequences, separation from Christ?
We do have two illustrations in the Bible when children are held accountable. The first is that those who were 19 and younger would be able to enter the Promised Land (Num. 14:29-31). Evidently they were not held responsible for the murmuring and rebellion against God, which resulted in the condemnation to all who were 20 and over. The second illustration is Jesus being brought to the temple at the age of 12 (Luke 2:41ff). This could have been preparation for his Bar Mitzvah the following year. A Jewish boy became responsible and accountable for himself in his obedience to the Law when he turned 13.
Both examples are illustrative and not necessarily normative. However, when we add to this our knowledge of child development, we know that a person grows in knowledge, understanding, and accountability.
Somewhere around puberty a person begins to become accountable. To make a decision for Christ, a person has to have some understanding of what sin is, what faith is, and what salvation is. The understanding of sin, as merely individual acts, is not an adequate understanding of sin.
A child taught about right and wrong by her or his parents will be bothered when it does things it has been told not to do because its trained conscience registers it negatively. Human development teaches us that a person becomes responsible and accountable as they grow older and develop understanding and, as I have suggested, it probably comes around the onset of puberty.
Two more truths in connection with this must be kept in mind. Each person develops and matures at his or her own pace. We all know individuals who were very mature by 14 and others who were only that mature when they were 16 or 17. Thus we as a community of faith will have to do some discerning when a person is accountable enough to receive baptism.
The second truth is that the transition from childhood to adulthood, through what we call adolescence, takes time. And so, we have a somewhat overlapping of the childhood state and young adult state. Again this demands discernment by the community of faith. This discernment must be made humbly, lovingly but not motivated by fear.
So what does this mean for our life together as churches? Stay tuned for Part Two.
Dr. Harvey Plett (Prairie Rose) is a long-time EMC minister, educator, and conference worker. He has served as president of SBC and as EMC moderator. He continues to do some teaching, preaching, counselling, and writing. He and his wife Pearl live in Mitchell, Man., and celebrated 58 years of blessed marriage on Aug. 22, 2016. They have a daughter, three sons, 13 grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.