It is not unusual for me to get agitated at something I read on blogs. It happens just about every day. But it is unusual for me to respond. Nonetheless, I decided to respond to an article by Steve Lemke, reposted by Tim Rogers and reported at SBC Today.
Take a moment to go read Lemkeâ€™s article on Age of Accountability then come back for my responses. Be warned: mine is a fairly long response to a fairly short article. Feel free to just jump around.
On the whole, I am perplexed by this article. Lemke claims to be presenting the argument for an age of accountability but what he actually does is to argue against other doctrinal claims, particularly original sin and infant baptism. Nowhere does he lay out the case for age of accountability (I will present my tentative arguments for it at the end of this entry). Instead, he presents bad arguments and distorted facts to rail against certain Reformed beliefs.
In this entry I will not deal much with arguments for or against original sin and infant baptism. I do believe in original sin, but I do not believe infant baptism is biblical. But my greater issue with Lemkeâ€™s article is not with what he believes but in how he argues for what he believes.
Lemke starts by saying that the belief in the age of accountability is â€œone of the most foundational Baptist beliefs.â€ This in itself is peculiar – foundational to what? Certainly many if not most Southern Baptists believe in some sort of age of accountability, but the belief is not central to our identity as Baptists, nor is the belief foundational to any other doctrine. Some of Lemkeâ€™s later arguments do touch on foundational issues, but an age of accountability is not one of them.
From there Lemke presents four arguments in favor of an age of accountability (or state of being accountable, to use his suggested term). But as mentioned before, his arguments really do nothing to make the case for an age of accountability but are rather Lemkeâ€™s arguments against beliefs regarding original sin and infant baptism. These arguments are absolutely rife with error.
Age of Accountability in Scripture
Of Lemkeâ€™s arguments, this one has the fewest issues. Lemke claims that â€œperhaps the best biblical support for the â€œage of accountabilityâ€ is in Jeremiah 31:29-30 and the parallel passage in Ezekiel 18:14-21, which makes clear that we are only accountable under the new covenant for our own sins, not those of our parents…â€ If he thinks those passages present the strongest support for age of accountability, fine. Heâ€™s permitted to believe that. But this strikes me as a very weak argument since I think those passages have zero bearing on an argument for age of accountability. I can see how one might (incorrectly, I think) use those passages in an argument about original sin, but an argument against original sin is not an argument for age of accountability.
Description of baptism
Lemkeâ€™s second argument is a bit strange and in some ways relates to his fourth argument. Lemke says that since the New Testament nowhere calls for infants to be baptized but always shows baptism being given to adults, it is evident that â€œmoral accountability and salvation by faith are applicable only for those who are capable of moral discernment.â€ There are a few things I could say here, but Iâ€™ll keep it short and focus on one. In his argument, Lemke draws too much from what is not stated in Scripture. There is a gap between saying, â€œNo babies are baptized in the Bible,â€ and, â€œtherefore, those under the age of accountability are not morally responsible.â€ By the lack of one thing he assumes the existence of another thing.
By this point, Lemkeâ€™s article had me feeling perplexed, but when I got to his next argument agitation began moving in.
Because Baptists believe it
My heading isnâ€™t entirely accurate, but itâ€™s close. For Lemkeâ€™s third argument, he turns to Baptist beliefs, stating â€œwe know it is true because of other core doctrinal beliefs.â€ In other words, because we know those things are true, we know this also has to be true. As it is worded, Lemke (unintentionally, Iâ€™m sure) comes very close to elevating Baptist doctrine on a level with Scripture. He would probably argue that because our beliefs are formed from Scripture, he is ultimately relying on Scripture and not Baptist doctrine. But this does not show up in his argument. His appeal here is made to what Baptists believe, and because of what Baptists believe, he defends the age of accountability.
But even then he once again fails for assuming too much. Essentially he is saying that Baptists believe in a regenerate church membership, to which we say a hearty Amen! But he goes on to argue from this that believers must be morally competent which, we are led to assume, somehow implies an age of accountability.
He even seems to contradict himself when he says, â€œThe Baptist belief in personal soul competency before God presupposes morally competent believers, not infants.â€ But what is the Baptist belief in soul competency? It is the belief that every individual is able to stand before God without a human intercessor – this is the priesthood of believers. We do not need Pope and priests to stand between us and God. We have Christ as our intercessor, and because of Christ we are given access to the Father. If anything, this belief would imply the moral accountability of all people since all people are competent to stand before God.
Original sin and infant baptism
Here we get to the heart of Lemkeâ€™s argument and the biggest string of Lemkeâ€™s errors. I donâ€™t mean places where I disagree with him, I mean places where Lemke completely misrepresents or misquotes those in the other camp. He does this several times when he addresses various confessions. I want to look at each mistake.
First, and perhaps the worst mistake, Lemke says, â€œThe Westminster Confession had asserted that children were guilty of sin upon birth, and therefore the children of believers should be baptized as infants to remove original sin.â€ He then notes the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapters 6 and 28.
It is possible that the Westminster Confession of Faith has undergone revision (I doubt it, I read the 1646 WCF), but the WCF as it stands today does not say what Lemke claims. Go read the chapters for yourself, they are short. You will find clear statements about original sin, that because of Adamâ€™s sin we all inherit both the corruption and the guilt of sin. To this point Lemke was essentially correct. From conception on, children inherit Adamâ€™s guilt and are under the same penalty of death. Be sure to note the Scriptural support offered by the WCF.
The second part of Lemkeâ€™s argument contains the real problem: â€œ…and therefore the children of believers should be baptized as infants to remove original sin.â€ This sounds very much like the Catholic view of baptism, but you will not find it in the WCF. Read Chapter 28 of the WCF. It affirms that baptism is a sign and seal of Godâ€™s covenant of grace. It further affirms that baptism itself does not save and may not even do anything when it is administered (â€œThe efficacy of Baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administeredâ€). Furthermore, the WCF states that baptism is not essential for salvation.
I think Baptists and Presbyterians agree on most issues regarding baptism, except for the (large and important) issue of when baptism is to be administered. I do not agree with the WCF and I do not agree with Presbyterians on this issue, but letâ€™s make sure we present them fairly. They do not claim that infant baptism is able to remove original sin.
Second, Lemke mentions changes made to two Baptist confessions, the Second London Confession and the Philadelphia Confession, seeming to argue that these confessions, while drawing from the WCF, remove language that would teach original sin. Lemke is correct that the specific words he quotes are removed, but the Second London Confession (and Philadelphia, being identical to the SLC) still contains strong language about original sin (Iâ€™m looking at the 1689 version of the SLC): â€œOur first parents, by this sin, fell from their original righteousness and communion with God, and we in them…â€, â€œThey being the root, and by Godâ€™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…â€ (Second London Confession, Chapter 6, sections 2 and 3). Clearly, this confession voices strong affirmation to the belief in original sin. Lemke cannot argue that these early Baptists did not believe in original sin.
Third, Lemke states that â€œBaptists have never believed that one could be saved by physical birth or by the faith of their parents.â€ Who does believe this? The WCF does not teach this view. Who is Lemke arguing against? By making the statement he seems to imply that the WCF, and those who hold to it (Presbyterians and other Reformed types), believe individuals can be saved by merit of their birth or their parents. Later we will see a statement by R. C. Sproul, Jr that â€œchildren of at least one believing parent are viewed differently by God,â€ but he is making pointed reference to 1 Corinthians 7:14 which supports his claim. Saying there is some sort of different treatment is not the same as saying they are saved by their parentsâ€™ faith.
Fourth, Lemke mentions two early Baptist confessions that explicitly deny original sin. Iâ€™m not going to challenge him on that, but Iâ€™m wondering which ones? Considering he has thus far misrepresented every confession he referenced, Iâ€™m not willing to take him at his word. I want to read them for myself, consider their context and writers, etc. Plus, what does it matter? We claim to be a people of the book. Will we base our beliefs on confessions or on the Bible?
Getting closer to the truth, Lemke addresses theÂ Baptist Faith and Message. The language of Chapter 3 is much more ambiguous than the other confessions. One could easily make the case that the 2000 BF&M argues against original sin, and the writers probably meant for it to. Nonetheless, the ambiguity at least leaves room for those who hold to original sin.
Fifth, jumping right back into error, Lemke says, â€œIt is the belief in inherited guilt that leads those in the Reformed tradition toward the necessity for infant baptism.â€ I assume he says this based on his earlier claim about the WCF arguing that infant baptism removes original sin. But since the WCF says no such thing, and Presbyterians and other Reformed types believe no such thing, his statement is ridiculous.
One of the earliest Reformed writers was John Calvin. Calvin is clear that baptism does not remove original sin: â€œIt is now clear how false the doctrine is which some long ago taught, and others still persist in, that by baptism we are exempted and set free from original sin, and from the corruption which was propagated by Adam to all his posterity, and that we are restored to the same righteousness and purity of nature which Adam would have had if he had maintained the integrity in which he was created.â€ (Institutes, book 4, chapter 15, section 10) He goes on to explain that baptism is a sign assuring us that the guilt and stain of original sin, along with the guilt of our own sins, is taken away in Christ. In other words, baptism is a sign of Godâ€™s forgiveness through Christ.
Sixth, Lemke ends with a rant against R. C. Sproul, Jr. You can read Sproulâ€™s words for yourself and see if Lemke gave him a fair shake. Lemke claims that Sproul argued, â€œsince we are born guilty of original sin, unless the infants were elect and responded in faith, they had no hope of salvation.â€ Despite Lemkeâ€™s emotional argument (why do non-Calvinists love to make emotional appeals regarding children as an attack against Calvinism or Reformed positions?), what Sproul essentially said is that Graham went too far in offering absolute assurance to parents that their deceased children went to Heaven.
Throughout his article Sproul is gracious to Graham, never taking the harsh tone implied by Lemke. He acknowledges the difficulty of Grahamâ€™s position, having to address many parents whose anguish was still quite fresh. Sproulâ€™s ultimate position is, â€œCompassion tells us not to sugarcoat, but not to supply a poison pill either. We cannot say for sure what happens to small children who die. But Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:14 that the children of at least one believing parent are viewed differently by God…â€ He goes on to say that Graham â€œwould have served the mourners well had he stuck to the simple life-changing truths that he has spoken so clearly so often in so many places…â€
Seventh, one of Lemkeâ€™s closing remarks is that â€œBaptists have always believed that since infants are not yet capable of actual sin, they go to heaven.â€ But Lemke never demonstrates that Baptists have always believed this. And as we noted earlier, early Baptist confessions clearly affirm original sin, that even infants receive imputed guilt from Adam. This does not mean they did not believe in an age of accountability, but it at least does not provide Lemke room to claim what Baptists have always believed.
Lemke closes on a personal note: â€œAs a person who has lost a stillborn child, I can tell you that this issue of the â€œage of accountabilityâ€ really does matter. Baptists need to be more conscious of this crucial doctrine.â€ I agree with Lemke that it matters. I believe all doctrine matters. I do wish, however, Lemke had presented a better case. So humor me for one more brief moment and see my case for age of accountability.
Age of Accountability
First, I do not believe we have enough biblical evidence to be dogmatic. Ultimately, we must just trust in God. We know he will do what is best.
That said, I believe children who die go to be with the Lord in Heaven. I believe this because of what I think I know about the character of God. In terms of Scripture, finding biblical evidence can be a difficult matter, but there is at least one passage which I think makes a strong case for age of accountability: Deuteronomy 1:34-40. The key point is in verse 39:
And as for your little ones, who you said would become a prey, and your children, who today have no knowledge of good or evil, they shall go in there. And to them I will give it, and they shall possess it.
Moses has assembled the people of Israel and is reminding them of the judgment upon them due to their lack of faith when they refused to enter the promised land. None of those who were present at that time would be allowed to enter the promised land. None, that is, except the children, those little ones â€œwho today have no knowledge of good or evil.â€ They are not held accountable for the guilt of the people (note: â€œnot held accountableâ€ is not the same as â€œdo not shareâ€). It is at least implied that the children were allowed to enter the promised land because of their lack of knowledge of good or evil. They were not able to understand sin, so they were not held accountable for sin. They may have been guilty of sin, just as children are guilty of their sins, but the little ones of Israel were not held accountable for that guilt incurred while they had no knowledge of good or evil. In the same way, I believe children who die are not held accountable for sin – theirs, or that sin inherited from Adam.