Q – Assuming the ‘substance of faith’ is true, and assuming that all children are born wicked, are children ever saved…or do they automatically perish?
Jim – I’m not really sure what you mean by that first phrase, “assuming the ‘substance of faith’ is true.”
The “substance of faith” is a phrase used by theologians to discuss the content of what a person believes – not whether they believe. In other words, we all have confidence in something. But, God only counts confident trust in Him as the type of faith that is counted for righteousness.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. You and I have great faith in gravity. When we get up in the morning and swing our legs out of bed, we don’t expect them to hit the ceiling. We know they will hit the floor. We expect gravity to work, we trust that gravity will work, we are convinced that gravity will work, and sure enough it does.
But, faith in gravity, no matter how well founded, will not get you saved. God does not count our trust in gravity as faith. Only faith in God’s revelation of Himself is counted for righteousness.
Now, the substance of 20th Century New Covenant Christian faith is the death, burial and resurrection of Christ as our substitute, paying our ransom, rising for our justification, going to prepare our inheritance, etc. However, when Abraham had faith and God counted it for righteousness, Abe had no knowledge of Christ, the atonement, substitution, any of that. In fact, we find nothing in the Old Testament about those doctrines until the time of Isaiah 52-53. Abraham only knew that he was going to have a natural son with Sara and through that child the whole world would be blessed. He believed (Hebrew “aman,” or “amen”) what God said to him and God counted that as righteousness (Gen. 15:6, Rom. 4:3, Gal. 3:6).
So, the “substance” of Abraham’s faith was quite different from the “substance” of our faith today. Nevertheless, his absolute confidence in the security of God’s word to him made Abraham’s faith the example for all time. God said it; Abraham believed it. That’s it. We may be living in a different, fuller phase in God’s continuing revelation of Himself, but our faith is no more valid than Abraham’s “aman” faith. Whatever God has said to us becomes the content of our faith. Again, God said it; we believe it. That type of faith is counted for righteousness.
So, the real question becomes, can children have faith (regardless of the content or substance) that God commends as a form of “saving” faith?
Fortunately, Jesus answered that question in Matthew 18:1-5:
“At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them, And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me. But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.”
In that passage, Jesus used a “little child,” very young, as His example of faith. He even went so far as to say that the child represented “these little ones which believe in me.” So, He did not argue the substance of their faith, He merely saw that they loved Him, trusted Him, and gave evidence of what Jesus called “faith.” And, He even said that the unbelieving adults needed to be converted and trust Him the way the children did.
That’s my starting point when I think about children and faith. Yes, they are born sinners, wicked and depraved. But they are no more wicked than the adults who are brought to faith. Faith, as a gift from God, can be placed in any human of any age at level of development. And, if it is simple, childlike, Abraham-type faith, all the better.
So no, I do not assume that they automatically perish. There is no evidence for that idea.
Q – I sort of understand where people get the “age of accountability” theory, but that is ultimately too problematic for me to believe.
Jim – Right. John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Ghost while he was in his mother’s womb. The Holy Spirit is a gift from God and He can give it to whomever He chooses. Age is not a factor in the eyes of the Ageless One. But, people who believe that we are saved on the basis of works have to excuse children who cannot perform those works. So, they constructed the false notion of an “age of accountability” or the Catholic notion of an “age of innocence.”
But, salvation by grace through faith requires no such artificial boundaries. God is in the business of saving sinners. Children are born sinners and are therefore perfect candidates for salvation. And, they are capable of believing (again, a gift), according to Jesus. And, their faith is sufficient, regardless of its “substance.”
Q – So, you’re saying that a six-month old child is not held accountable for the substance of faith? That makes sense. He doesn’t even understand language yet, much less substitutionary atonement. If it were otherwise, then all young children who die before they hear the word or understand perish.
Jim – Right. We must not turn the grace of God, the only means of salvation, into a form of legalism. There are no rules or requirements for eternal life that God Himself does not provide. That’s true of every individual saved person, regardless of age. Mental capacity is no hindrance to an omnipotent God.
Again, there is no evidence that children who die before they hear the Word or understand perish. If they belong to Him, they will trust Him just as surely as you trust Him. You may have a greater depth of understanding, a greater grasp of theology and greater evidence from history and experience, but your faith is no more valid in the eyes of the Author and Finisher of Faith (Heb. 12:2).
Remember, salvation was completed at Calvary and we add nothing to it. That being the case, He may save anyone He wants. He will produce sufficient faith in them to guarantee their eternal righteousness, but even that righteousness is imputed to them on the basis of Christ’s finished work, not their capability to apprehend the totality of that work. Simple, basic, childlike faith is still sufficient faith. And, God is able to implant just such faith in the children He saves.
Now, I’m not saying that all children are saved. I don’t have evidence for that, either. But, I have firm Biblical evidence that children are capable of believing sufficiently to impress Jesus and that age is no barrier to the infilling of the Spirit or the promise of eternal life.
Q – Ultimately, I know God is in control of when people are born and die. It just seems odd to think of a bunch of little fellas in Hell who didn’t have the capacity to understand and didn’t know. But, it doesn’t seem odd to think of a bunch of adults in Hell who were ancient Mayas and didn’t know.
Jim – Salvation is God’s work. Remember that. He can save a newborn Mayan if He wants to. We have adult faith and somewhat “grown-up” knowledge. Based on that knowledge we can see the evidence of the Spirit at work in our lives and know that our faith is firmly rooted and grounded in Him. That evidence gives us confidence in our eternal destiny. But, none of our knowledge is the basis of our salvation.
Faith is the conduit, the means by which God saves His people. But, the level of intellectual persuasion is not the deciding factor in faith. The focus of faith, the object of faith, is what’s important. I mean, how much did the thief on the cross know? Yet, he had an absolute guarantee from the Prince of Life that he would be with Him in Paradise. He had no “substance” to his faith beyond knowing who to look to for salvation. Faith has always been about whom you believe.
And, since faith is wholly comprised of Christ’s own effort – He begins it, sustains it and finishes it – we can have hope as adults that our children are firmly in His hands and He will deal with them justly and graciously … just like He will the Mayas … and us.
There will not be a bunch of little fellas in Hell because they didn’t have the capacity to understand. There will be sinners in Hell who were put there because God did not gift them with the means of grace and faith. Age is of no consequence. Hell will be filled with old and young sinners. Heaven will be filled with old and young sheep.
Q – So, I was confusing the issue. It is reconcilable.
Jim – Yep, you were confusing the issue. But, no permanent damage is done.
Look at salvation through God’s eyes, not human eyes. Human logic can corner us sometimes.
Remember that the “substance” of faith has to do with being responsible for what has been revealed to you. You have faith in Christ’s finished atonement because that’s what God has said to you as an adult with good comprehension. Then, He gifted you with the ability to believe it. Then, He counted that belief as righteousness, imputing Christ’s own righteousness to your account. He saved you utterly and completely, providing for you everything that He requires from you.
He can do that for a child, too. The child will be responsible for what he knows, which may only be “Jesus loves me, this I know.”
Lastly, if salvation is dependent on our ability to maintain the “substance” of our faith, then we are all without hope. In the end, we all get sick, feeble and die. If we lose our capacity for reason, we cannot maintain our faith. We will forget what we believe. We will forget who people are, or who Jesus was. And, we will die in that condition. But, are we lost?
No. We’re saved.
Why? Our salvation is not dependent on our ability to hold on to Him; it is based on His ability to hold on to us.
Same deal with kids.
Faith is the means that God uses to keep us saved Christians. But, entrance into eternal life is wholly the work of the One who died and rose again. His faith will guarantee our faith.
Q – Thank you. I knew you’d have thoughts on this issue.
Jim – Too many, my friend. Too many. Remember, I’m a father.
Q – Maybe I think too much! 🙂
Jim – Naahhh. Just don’t confuse yourself. And, don’t rest your salvation in your ability to think. God may not always be kind enough to remind you of what you think you know. :)After all, He’s very protective of His sovereignty. And, there’s always that Nebuchadnezzar deal to contend with.
Be well. By the way, this is a great question and I thoroughly enjoyed answering it.