The God who wants all people to be saved (2 Peter 3:9; 1 Timothy 2:4) certainly wants all children to be saved. The Lord Jesus said, “Permit the children to come to me and do not hinder them, for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Luke 18:16). How and when do little children enter God’s Kingdom? There has been much division and confusion over this issue. Men and church systems have devised ways of salvation for children, but often they are ways with no sound Biblical basis. Certainly there cannot be two ways of salvation, one for adults and another for children. A child must be saved on the same basis as anyone. That way has been set forth in previous chapters.
The problem with helping children to be saved is that it is impossible for an infant, for example, to understand intelligently the gospel and exercise saving faith. Because of this difficulty, certain church systems have taught that all children of believers are automatically counted as saved because they have Christian parents. One possible source for this idea is 1 Corinthians 7:14. With even one believing parent, the Bible says that the children are counted as “holy.” What does this mean?
In Scripture, even non-living things such as the Temple vessels or priestly clothing were considered holy in the sight of God. Why? Because they were set apart for God’s use as ceremonially sacred. It had nothing to do with salvation. To be considered “holy” means that the children of believers are placed in a position of privilege or favor. They are exposed early to the teaching of the Holy Scriptures. They are under God’s special care during early childhood. It does not mean they can be sure of salvation for the rest of their lives.
Often parents who do not even attend church call us and ask if we will baptize their infants or children. When we say, “We don’t do that, even for infants in our own congregation,” the conversation ends. We understand they want to somehow guarantee their children will be in Heaven. If we thought baptism would save children we would baptize every child on whom we could lay hands. I wish we could, but we can’t do that with a good conscience and Biblical authority.
The children of Israel were called “the chosen people.” They were set apart for God’s purposes, yet many still rebelled against the Lord and were lost. The Lord said, “I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against Me” (Isaiah 1:2). They have forsaken the Lord. They have provoked to anger the Holy One of Israel (v 4). They were called to repentance and promised cleansing if they returned to Him (vv 16-18). But for the most part the people did not listen to God. They faced the judgment of eternal fire by failing to do so (v 31). The same thing can happen to “holy” children of true believers once they are beyond their early childhood and therefore personally accountable to God.
Many times people say, “I have always believed.” But no one has always been a believer. We have been sinful, at least in tendency, from birth. David said, “I was brought forth in iniquity and in sin my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5). The Lord said of Israel, you “were called a transgressor from the womb” (Isaiah 48:8). We are born with sinful natures, not as innocent, unspoiled little creatures. We are part of a condemned race beginning with Adam, long before the Law and the Prophets were given. That is why “death reigned” (Romans 5:12-21) and divine condemnation faced us all (John 3:18). We cannot be “born again” by fleshly birth (John 1:13; 3:5-7) or water baptism. Spiritual birth is a requirement to enter the Kingdom of God.
What then is the fate of infants and small children who die during early childhood? David said of his dead child, “I shall go to him but he shall not return to me” (2 Samuel 12:23). He expected to see his child in Heaven.
Sins were cleansed prior to the time of the Lord Jesus. Animal sacrifices anticipated the great and final sacrifice of the Lord Jesus. He was called “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). The reckoning of Christ’s salvation work, reaching backward in time to the first man, is called “the pretermission of sins” (that is, those sins committed before Christ’s sacrifice). When people responded to God, obeyed Him and offered the appropriate animal sacrifices, it sanctified (set them apart from the unsaved) “for the purifying of the flesh” (Hebrews 9:13). Only by Christ’s shed blood can there be forgiveness for anyone (Hebrews 9:12,22). That includes the sins of Old Testament believers, whereby the sins of the faithful were covered, backward in time, by the anticipated death of Christ.
God is free to apply the blood of Christ to anyone He wishes, from man’s beginning to the end of time. It is a part of God’s character to be absolutely just, impartial and righteous. “Shall not the judge of all the earth do right [or deal justly]?,” asked Abraham (Genesis 18:25). We can trust the destiny of all infants and small children to such a Judge. It is not necessary to invent a doctrine such as “limbo.” This is a transitional or confined state, invented by Roman Catholic theology to which babies or children were sent if they had not received Christian baptism. This concept enabled the church to avoid the horrifying thought of “infant condemnation” for any unbaptized child. There is no Biblical basis to invent offices like godparents (taking vows for the child) or to have confirmation services (the children assuming these vows for themselves). There is no salvation in the waters of baptism. There is no clear and distinct account in the New Testament of a baby or small child being baptized. If salvation of such ones were possible, the Bible would plainly say so. Sprinkling water or making “the sign of the cross” on their foreheads does not make them believers. It is understandable, however, that concerned parents want such rituals to be sure their child, by this means, is going to Heaven. Remember, however, that some of the most evil men of history such as Adolf Hitler were given early Christian baptism by the church.
Bible-teaching, gospel-preaching churches (called fundamental, evangelical or just conservative) have their own pitfalls to avoid. Because they believe personal faith and commitment to Christ must precede baptism, there often is undue haste in pressing children to make “decisions for Christ.” Child evangelism workers, camp speakers and counselors, Sunday school teachers and concerned parents gladly assist, or even press, children to “ask Jesus into your heart.” Some lead us to believe that children even from ages two to five can make a mature, intelligent commitment to Christ and thus be saved. Obviously, they must think they are not saved prior to this, unsheltered by the blood of Christ. Children are often told to pray a prayer or come forward to be saved. “You want to be with Jesus, don’t you? You don’t want to go to Hell, do you?” Of course not. So they make a “decision” under emotional pressure.
This brings before us the mystifying “age of accountability,” the age when children are supposed to become accountable to God for their souls. What is this age? No one knows. There is no Scripture covering this. Perhaps it had better be called “the age of comprehension” at which age children can understand what behaviors are sinful and require repentance. When can they recognize selfishness and disobedience as sin? Are they convicted, concerned about this? When do they really understand the gospel? Do they know who Jesus is and what it means to be saved? Is it too much to expect a simple understanding of these salvation truths in connection with a “decision for Christ”? It may be that the age or time differs with each child. The stages of child development include a transitional time called puberty, which does not come at an identical age for everyone. Although Jesus at the age of twelve took a significant step into the adult state (Luke 2:40-52), that can only be considered a guideline, not a Biblical law. Children ought to know right from wrong early in life, but children differ greatly. Maturity, as reflected in the ability to make important moral decisions, often comes at a later age. Although children can understand gospel facts early in life, they may not be ready to make a moral decision affecting their entire future until later.
It is important that children not be manipulated or pushed into “decisions.” Even when a child begins to ask significant spiritual questions, this is not necessarily the best time to press them to pray about being saved. It may be wiser to wait for the emergence of true spiritual comprehension and a strong desire to be saved. Simple salvation reading matter or a Bible course may help. Children should be encouraged to talk to a mature, respected worker or teacher rather then going only to their own parents. Possibly the parents may not be fully objective. Do not be in a hurry. Is there real conviction, concern, earnest desire and persistence in seeking God? If so, we suggest that you have them write out a simple testimony as to how and when they repented and surrendered to Jesus as their Lord and Savior, fully trusting His work for their acceptance by God. Explain it carefully. Review it even more carefully.
The work of the Spirit enables even children to live as God-pleasers. Believer’s baptism is the expected aftermath of a salvation experience (Matthew 28:19; Acts 2:38,41). It is also important to help children understand the privilege of participating thoughtfully in the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:23-29). Baptism and the Lord’s Supper go together as the only two New Testament ordinances commanded by God for observance by His people.
There is a typical but worrisome pattern in many children professing to be Christians. First, there is a point of “asking Jesus into your heart.” Then there is a long delay without being baptized. Then may follow a period of spiritual drifting or not following the Lord. Then there is the “rededicate my life” stage, still relying on some early childhood prayer. The rededication could be a surrender to Jesus Christ as Lord. If there is evidence of this, it is more likely the real point of conversion. When regeneration truly occurs, spiritual life begins to grow. Maybe at this point the child should consider baptism. If there is a breakdown or “falling away” from the Lord, His people and His ways at any point, the child’s relationship to the Lord needs to be reconsidered—by them, by their parents, by their teachers. This is a decision of considerable importance. Do not be so quick in referring them to 1 John 1:9, which says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” That may be true, but only if one is sure they are truly saved. Salvation involves more than confessing your sins to God. Restoration to fellowship by a believer to God requires more than confession. It also necessitates forsaking the sin in question (Proverbs 28:13).
Can children be saved? Yes, in the same manner, on the same basis, with the same gospel message by which anyone is saved. The life pattern that then follows is called “the things that accompany salvation” (Hebrews 6:9). That means living for Christ today. It should not be based on a hope relying on an early childhood “decision” when there is little or no evidence of the transforming presence of the indwelling Spirit.
Study Guide Lesson 8 What About Children Being Saved?
1. How have you dealt in the past with children who asked, “How can I be sure of going to Heaven?”
2. What would you do now in dealing with a child who inquires about being saved? What Scriptures would guide you?
3. What have you believed in the past, or now, about the so-called “age of accountability” in children? When can you be reasonably certain that a child is now responsible before God to respond to Him in repentance, understanding the gospel, and submitting their lives to Christ?
4. What are at least three dangers in the area of child evangelism which should be known and avoided?