Do children need salvation?
In a social setting, this is the kind of question that might temporarily suck the air out of the room. People undoubtedly will hesitate to respond immediately, instead gathering their thoughts to prepare for a defense of their tightly-held doctrine.
Depending on your upbringing, your personal history, and your denominational affiliations, your gut reaction may have been different from mine. But hear me out. This is a hard topic, but it’s an important one.
Do children need salvation? The answer has some pretty serious implications. It affects how we treat the children in our lives. It affects how the church views children’s ministry. And most importantly, it affects human lives and human eternities.
So what is the answer? What does the Bible really say about children and salvation?
Children are human beings. It seems like such a condescending thing for me to say, as if my readers don’t understand that children are humans. But sometimes we lose sight of that, don’t we? We get stuck in the day to day challenges of spills and accidents and time-outs, of homework and answering the question “why?” We forget that children are eternal beings in young bodies. We get stuck in today’s mindset and forget that the child in our Sunday school class today may be our colleague or co-worker tomorrow, and that they will exist along side us in eternity.
Human beings are in need of salvation because the consequences of sin are grave. Romans 3:23 (NIV) says that “ALL have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” [emphasis mine] Romans 6:23 tells us that the wages of sin is death. No age limit is indicated. Children are human beings. Human beings are answerable for their sin and in need of salvation to be freed from the consequences.
Human beings are born with a sin nature. When Noah brought his family out of the ark, and made a sacrifice of thanks to the Lord, Genesis 8:21 says, “The LORD . . . said in his heart: ‘Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood.'” [emphasis mine]
Do children exhibit sinful behavior? Of course they do! If you haven’t personally witnessed the rebellious nature of a two-year old, then consider the fact that one of the first words any child learns to say is, “no.”
Please note carefully: I’m not saying that an infant is born a sinner. Sin requires at least a basic knowledge of good vs. evil and a choice to do evil. But human beings are born with an inclination to sin and it doesn’t take long before each one of us inevitably fails.
We don’t know at what point God will hold children accountable for their sins. Here is where it gets sticky. Through the years, the church has diverged on this issue. Some have held that an infant requires baptism, which will provide salvation for the child. Others have taught that all children who die will go to heaven. Nearly everyone agrees that there must be a certain age at which children become accountable for their sins, referred to as the “age of accountability.” Both the Jewish and Catholic traditions assign a fixed age to this age of accountability, either twelve years old or seven years old.
The truth is that there isn’t any Biblical evidence to fully support either of these positions. We don’t really know at what point in their life a child becomes culpable for their sin. But there are enough clues that we can draw some logical conclusions.*
Salvation is offered freely to everyone through Jesus. Nowhere in the Bible does the offer of salvation exclude anyone. It is always freely offered to anyone who will accept it.
Salvation requires faith. Salvation requires a personal choice to follow Christ. Romans 10:9-10 (NIV) says “if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.” Clearly salvation requires an act of faith; believing brings us back into right relationship with God. It also requires an act of intellect; confessing with your mouth requires that you understand, at least on a very basic level, what you are confessing.
So if mankind is born with a sinful nature, and salvation requires a personal choice, we must conclude that there is a point in a child’s life in which they are capable of making a personal choice. There is, for each individual, an “age of accountability.”
Do children need salvation? Yes-in the same way that every human soul needs salvation. Assuming a child doesn’t need salvation puts the child’s eternity at risk and ignores the command of Christ to go and make disciples. But at what point are children capable of receiving salvation? Is there a fixed age? How can a teacher or a parent gauge a child’s readiness? What about grace given to children too young to make a conscious choice to follow Christ?
*Be sure to come back next week for “Children and Salvation, Part 2: At What Age Can Children Receive Salvation?”