Quartz Hill School of Theology

Chapter Ten
Soteriology: Doctrine of Salvation

Christianity and Judaism are historical religions. The gospel is the proclamation about events that happened in a specific geographic area, during a definite, specified period of time. The confessions of Israel's faith consisted primarily of rehearsing the historical actions of God. G.E. Ladd writes:

    The uniqueness and scandal of the Christian religion rests in the mediation of revelation through historical events. The Hebrew-Christian faith stands apart from the religions of its environment because it is an historical faith, whereas they were religions rooted in mythology or the cycle of nature. The God of Israel was the God of history, or the geschichtsgott, as German theologians so vividly put it. The Hebrew-Christian faith did not grow out of lofty philosophical speculation or profound mystical experiences. It arose out of the historical experiences of Israel, old and new, in which God made Himself known. This fact imparts to the Christian faith a specific content and objectivity which set it apart from others....
    The Bible is not primarily a collection of the religious ideas of a series of great thinkers. It is not first of all a system of theological concepts, much less of philosophical speculations....
    The recital of God's historical acts is the substance of Christian proclamation. (G.E. Ladd. The Knowledge of God: The Saving Acts of God. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1962, pp. 7-13)

If the essence of the Judeo-Christian message consisted of philosophical ideas about God, timeless truths, ethical ideals, or profound religious insights, then the historical framework could be discarded without affecting Christian beliefs (for instance, notice the work of Barth and Bultmann in this direction). However, the Bible instead describes God's intervention in the lives of people during certain periods in this planet's history. What James says about faith applies to the way God has worked with the human race:

    What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
    But someone will say, "You have faith; I have deeds."
    Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. (James 2:14-18)

In other religions it may all be subjective warm fuzzies. Christianity, in contrast, is dependent on the acts of God. Christians do not have a God who is merely transcendent; he is also immanent. The Old Testament presents an active God, demonstrating by his deeds that he is truly a God of love, and expecting his creatures to respond in kind. God is not a hypocrite. What he says is backed up and illustrated by his works. He expects no less for his creation. Again, James writes:

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1:27)

Because God is active, rather than passive, and reveals himself in deeds, it is important that a study of salvation should begin with the Old Testament. We can see God's salvation worked out by deeds. Greg Cantelmo writes (I am indebted to Mr. Cantelmo for much of the material in this chapter):

    Throughout the history of the church there has been a tendency to cut the New Testament loose from the Old Testament in one way or another and thus to dehistoricize the gospel. Most studies of the doctrine of salvation begin with the New Testament and therefore do the same. When the historical element is pushed aside, the New Testament message is seriously distorted. It becomes so individualized, internalized, spiritualized, and rationalized that it loses contact with the earth.
    ...To ignore the history of the Old Testament and develop a New Testament theology isolated from its historical background distorts the Christian message. This is why classic systematic theologies are inadequate. They subordinate revelation in acts to revelation in propositions. They tend to abstract theology from its historical setting and place it in a rationalistic framework. (Greg Cantelmo, Doctrine of Salvation. Panorama City: Grace Community Church, n.d.)

The Exodus

1. Introduction:

An examination of Israel's worship shows that its Sabbaths, ceremonies, harvest festivals, and institutions were devoted to commemorating and rehearsing the redemption of the nation in the Exodus, since their national existence was dependent on that event. Even more than Americans look back to the revolution and celebrate it, the Israelites looked back to the Exodus. It was the clearest indication they had of God's love for them. As a concrete reality in history, it stood - and stands - as everlasting proof of God's ability to save. Many of the psalms express worship of God simply by relating his actions during the Exodus:

Your ways, O God, are holy.
What god is so great as our God?
You are the God who performs miracles;
with your mighty arm you redeemed your people,
the descendants of Jacob and Joseph.
The waters saw you, O God,
the waters saw you and writhed;
the very clouds poured down water,
the skies resounded with thunder;
your arrows flashed back and forth.
Your thunder was heard in the whirlwind,
your lightening lit up the world;
the earth trembled and quaked.
Your path led through the sea,
your way through the mighty waters,
though your footprints were not seen.
You led your people like a flock
by the hand of Moses and Aaron. (Psalm 77:13-20)

Systematic theologies customarily describe God by his attributes. God is said to be omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent; he is loving, he is merciful; he is good, he is truth - on and on it goes. While this somewhat philosophical way of putting matters might be helpful, it easily becomes abstract, with the resulting tendency to picture God as a series of files or boxes, each labeled separately. While the Bible identifies all these roles, it presents Yahweh as a whole person - not as pieces - involved in specific activities.

If you were to write a biography of a man, you would not have a section labeled "attributes" when you detailed elements of what made that individual what he was. A biography would tell of the actions of that man over the course of his life. If the man were brave, he would be shown to be brave by his deeds, not by a lone sentence telling the reader "he is brave".

If you were to describe the things that made a man special in a eulogy or a testimonial, you would describe his character by relating incidents in his life. You wouldn't call this a list of that man's attributes. In describing his character one ordinarily wouldn't simply say, "he is loving, good, merciful, and generous"; rather, one would likely describe those incidents which elucidate those characteristics of the man. Likewise, it is very unnatural, and (dare I say it) even unscriptural, to portray God's attributes by way of a sterile list. The writers of the Bible, in speaking of God, and in praising him, describe his acts - acts which are loving, merciful, etc. It is no wonder that systematic theologies usually have as much life about them as a three thousand year old Egyptian mummy.

To see how the Bible describes God as a complete person, take a look at Exodus 15:1-18, the Song of Moses, as an example (I am indebted to Greg Cantelmo for this illustration). There, Yahweh is described as:

Specific Statements
Warrior (vs. 3) vss. 1, 4, 5, 7-10, 12
Savior (vs. 2) above, plus 16-17
Wonder worker (vs. 11) see above
Leader (vs. 13) see above
King (vs. 18) see above
Incomparable (vs. 11) see above
Exalted (vs. 1) see above
Powerful (vs. 6) see above
Victor (vs. 6) see above
Awesome (vs. 11) see above
Love [hesed] (vs. 13) see above
Redeemer (vs. 13) see above

The whole Song of Moses can be said to illustrate these different attributes. Don't think of the attributes as abstracts, or unmixables. The attributes describe how God behaves, and they are thoroughly mixed together in this song.

If you asked an ancient Israelite, "Who is Yahweh?", part of his answer might have been, "the one who saves."

The concept of salvation as developed in the pivotal Exodus texts and throughout the Bible, includes two kinds of divine activity: deliverance and blessing. Both of these are the result of a covenant, which as we have learned, grows from love (see Chapters Four through Six). For instance, look back at the Song of Moses: Exodus 15:1-12 shows the deliverance, while Exodus 15:13-18 shows the blessing. Salvation is a way that God shows his love. Ancient Israel knew what it meant to be delivered out of an evil situation, for in its history it experienced deliverance often. But Israel also enjoyed the blessings of God. Its state of well-being was the result of its reconciliation with God.

2. Salvation As Deliverance In History:

Deliverance from Egyptian servitude was a great experience, though not without moments of panic. Israel was in trouble as the Egyptians were chasing them.

    As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to Yahweh. They said to Moses, "Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn't we say to you in Egypt, 'Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians?' It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!"
    Moses answered the people, "Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance Yahweh will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. Yahweh will fight for you; you need only be still." (Exodus 14:10-14)

The first deliverance, as recorded in the rest of chapter fourteen, was a decisive military victory by Yahweh against the Egyptians. Israel went from being the vassal of the Egyptians to being the vassal of Yahweh.

3. Salvation As Blessing Through Sacrifice:

The deliverance from Egyptian bondage was an external deliverance, a rescue from a visible foe. Another sphere in which Israel learned the basic elements of salvation was sacrifice. It was in the sacrifice that recognition was given to her internal deliverance. More significantly, in sacrifice she experienced salvation as the blessing of forgiveness. This blessing goes beyond just sacrifice; it extends to all the acts ritually performed in a worship setting. This embraces public prayer, sacrifice, song, and also ritual structures such as tabernacles and even officiating persons.

In Egypt, as a final plague, the angel of death was about to strike, removing the firstborn from every household. Provision to escape death was given in the Passover sacrifice. The Passover was joy to those who observed the divinely given prescription, but disaster to those who disregarded it. Deliverance from the plague in which the eldest was taken came through the sacrifice of a lamb, essentially a blood sacrifice, known as the Passover. God spared or delivered the people.

The same root word nasal used of the Passover in Exodus 12:27 is used in the deliverance from the Sea of Reeds recorded in Exodus 6:6.

In subsequent history the institution of sacrifice was spelled out in great detail. What did it all mean? What is the power of the sacrifice? What kind of blessing did it signify? Is there a theology of sacrifice?


A. The Attitude

Sacrifice is a concept of great importance in the Old Testament, and ultimately in the New Testament as well. In contrast to sacrifice in the rest of the Ancient Near East, the sacrifices commanded of the Israelites were not ends unto themselves. The sacrifice for the Israelites was not designed to simply placate the gods. A correct mental attitude, and active righteousness were prerequisites for acceptable sacrifice in ancient Israel. See, for example, Genesis 4:3-7:

    In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to Yahweh, while Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. Yahweh looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.
    Then Yahweh said to Cain, "Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be exalted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is a beast at your door; he desires to have you, but you must master him."

Cain's offering was rejected because he was not doing right. The idea of sacrifice as an expression of love for God and neighbor - an inner attitude of true righteousness as a habit of life - is a common theme throughout the Old Testament. In this light, look at Isaiah 1:10-20:

Hear the word of Yahweh, you rulers of Sodom;
listen to the law of our God, you people of Gomorrah!
"The multitude of your sacrifices -
what are they to me?" asks Yahweh.
"I have more than enough of burnt offerings,
of rams and the fat of fattened animals;
I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.
When you come to meet with me,
who has asked this of you,
this trampling of my courts?
Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations -
I cannot bear your evil assemblies.
Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts my soul hates.
They have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
When you spread out your hands in prayer,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even if you offer many prayers,
I will not listen.
Your hands are full of blood;
wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds out of my sight!
Stop doing wrong,
learn to do right!
Seek justice,
encourage the oppressed.
Defend the cause of the fatherless,
plead the case of the widow.
Come now, let us reason together," says Yahweh.
"Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson,
they shall be like wool.
If you are willing and obedient,
you will eat the best from the land;
but if you resist and rebel,
you will be devoured by the sword.
For the mouth of Yahweh has spoken."

True worship is not just outward ritual; for the Israelites, it became something far more, and therefore far different from that of their pagan neighbors. For the Christian today, worship and true religion means more than singing hymns and attending church. True religion involves love of God and neighbors. Look at James 1:27 again:

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

B. The Types of Sacrifice

1. GIFT OFFERING [Heb. minhah]
    Generally the gift offering is a grain offering. The grain might be raw, roasted, ground to flour, or prepared as bread or cakes. See Leviticus 2:1-16 and 6:14-23.
2. BURNT OFFERING [Heb. olah]
    The whole burnt offering is entirely consumed in the flames upon the altar. All of the animal or bird was laid on the altar, except the hide and those parts which could not be washed clean. The sacrifice had to be a male, without blemish (Lev. 1:3, 10; 22:18-19). It could be a sheep, goat, turtle dove, or young pigeon (Lev. 1:14. The birds were usually offered by the poor. See Lev. 5:7; 12:8; 14:22; 15:14-15, 29-30; and Num. 6:10-11).
3. SIN OFFERING [Heb. hattat]
    The sin offering for the common man was similar to those just described. In the case of a community leader or an ordinary layman, the officiating priest did not enter the Holy Place but put blood on the horns of the altar and poured the remainder of the blood on the base (Lev. 4:27-35). This offering was for someone who sinned "unintentionally in doing any of the things which Yahweh has commanded not to be done, and becomes guilty" (Lev. 4:27). By means of the sin offering such a person was forgiven and therefore received blessing. See Leviticus 6:24-30.
4. GUILT OFFERING [Heb. asham]
    See Leviticus 5:15-6:7. The guilt offering seems to have been confined to offenses against God or man that could be estimated and so covered by compensation. The ordinary guilt offering was a ram, together with restitution and a penalty of one- fifth its value (Lev. 5:1-6:7).
    The distinction between the guilt and sin offering is most likely that sins requiring the sin offering were sins unknowingly committed, through oversight or negligence. The guilt offering, on the other hand, was designed for offenses where damage had been done anda loss incurred. Perhaps the guilt offering could more accurately be called the compensation offering.
    More important than distinguishing the two kinds of sacrifices is understanding their intention. Scripture stresses that by these sacrifices, the worshiper was forgiven his or her sin (cf. Lev. 4:26 and 6:7).
    How are the passages in Leviticus to be reconciled with what the author of Hebrews wrote in Hebrews 10:1-4?
    The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming - not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
    Again, Isaiah 1 is the key. The New and Old Testament both make clear that the sacrificial system served as a symbol, an outward expression, of what had occurred in the mind of the individual sinner. The outward actions alone, without the inward change, were valueless - as was precisely the case in Isaiah's day.
5. SACRIFICE [Heb. zebah]
    Four offerings are specifically labeled "sacrifice" in the Old Testament:

a. Covenant sacrifice (Gen. 31:54 and Psa. 50:5)
b. Passover sacrifice (Exodus 12:1-30; 34:25)
c. Annual sacrifice (1 Sam. 1:21; 2:19)
d. Fellowship (or peace) offering (Lev. 7:11-27)

C. The Significance of Blood in the Sacrifices

The sacrifices, whether designed for the collective sins of the people and offered once a year, or whether prescribed primarily for the individual and offered as necessary, were usually blood sacrifices: that is, they necessitated the ritualistic slaughter of an animal. Other animal sacrifices, such as the burnt offering and the peace offering, because they involved slaughter, also involved blood. However, in the sin and guilt offerings particularly, blood has a special role. Unlike the burnt and peace offerings, the blood of the sin/guilt offering was a crucial element, at least according to the traditional interpretation of the rite. However, it must be noted in Leviticus 5:11 that:

If, however, he cannot afford two doves or two young pigeons, he is to bring as an offering for his sin a tenth of an ephah of fine flour for a sin offering. He must not put oil or incense on it, because it is a sin offering.

This reminds us again that it is the inner attitude of the sacrificer which is important, not the offering itself. Even so, the importance of blood cannot be overlooked. Leviticus 17:11- 14:

For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one's life. Therefore I say to the Israelites, "None of you may eat blood, nor may any alien living among you eat blood. Any Israelite or any alien living among you who hunts any animal or bird that may be eaten must drain out the blood and cover it with earth, because the life of every creature is its blood. That is why I have said to the Israelites, you must not eat the blood of any creature, because the life of every creature is its blood; anyone who eats it must be cut off."

It was not the random shedding of blood, but blood applied to the altar that was efficacious for the removal of sin, because the altar, like the mercy seat, was symbolic of deity.

How was forgiveness understood? If atonement was made, what exactly was accomplished? The Hebrew root word means either "to cover" or "to wipe clean", with the former being by far the most common understanding. For instance, even in modern Hebrew, a form of the root has come to have the meaning "hat".

D. An Explanation of Sacrifice

As Greg Cantelmo pointed out, there is no systematic explanation given in the Old Testament for the ritual of sacrifice. To arrive at a systematization, one must operate inductively, following the scientific method.

Israelite sacrifice is not a matter of serving God or procuring benefits. A more biblical understanding of sacrifice is that by sacrifice communion with the deity is established. The burnt offering represented thanksgiving and was received by God as a sweet savor. Because the priest (as God's representative) and the one who offered the sacrifice, ate the meal together, often in the company of his or her friends, the fellowship offering especially signified communion and fellowship with the deity. The worshipers shared in a feast with Yahweh. But while the above were offerings in the context of harmonious relationships with Yahweh, provisions were also made for contact with the deity when, through human failure, these relationships were broken. Such provisions are the sin and guilt offerings already discussed. According to Cantelmo, a theology of sacrifice can be summarized this way:

1) The sacrifices were intended to restore the harmonious relationship of the wrong-doer with God.
2) The sacrifices, as shown by the stress on blood, revolved around the idea of life. This is why grain could be used as a substitute for blood, since grain also represents life and blessing. 3) God's forgiveness was not extended because of the sacrifice itself, but because of what was behind the sacrifice: the changed life and true repentance (often with restitution).

4. Reflections on Salvation

According to Cantelmo, two forms of divine salvation are revealed in the Old Testament:

1) Deliverance from external bondage by Egypt.
2) Deliverance from internal bondage by sin. What do these models of redemption signify for the Christian today?

The Exodus has become a central part of what is popularly called "liberation theology". It has been widely accepted in much of the Third World, and there serves to justify wars of liberation - whether wars against colonial masters, or revolutions against oppressive dictators. It is a self-serving interpretation of what God did for Israel against Egypt, and strikes me as being somewhat presumptuous. There is no reason for thinking that what God did for Israel will necessarily apply to modern violence against oppression. In fact, the ideas of liberation theology seem to run counter to New Testament teaching, especially the Sermon on the Mount, not to mention the teachings of Christ, Paul and Peter regarding the proper role of the believer toward the state (even as oppressive a state as ancient Imperial Rome).

Regarding salvation in the Old Testament, and the question of whether it was the same for the people of earlier ages as it is for us, Cantelmo had some pointed questions that might help clarify the situation:

"What do we need to be saved?" Whatever we need, the people in previous ages needed it too. The oneness of the fallen condition of the human race guarantees the oneness of salvation in all ages.

"Who is the author of salvation?" God alone. Consider Genesis 6:8, Jonah 2:9 and John 3:16. God is the author of salvation regardless of the period under consideration. Some have suggested that the people of the Old Testament were saved by their legal obedience of the law. If that were the case, then they would have been the authors of their own salvation. No, if a sinner was saved in Old Testament times, then it was by the gracious work of God, not by his or her own acts of righteousness.

Paul demonstrates that justification through faith was experienced by Old Testament saints, and he even points to its teaching by such Old Testament prophets as Habakkuk. In Romans 4:1-5 Paul argues that Abraham was justified through faith, not because of the works he did. In Romans 4:6-8, he illustrates that David was likewise justified through faith alone. Greg Cantelmo writes:

    By quoting from the Law (4:1-5), the Writings (4:6-8), and the prophets (1:17), Paul demonstrates that the entire Old Testament from beginning to end taught the same gospel he preached, i.e. salvation comes by justification through faith alone. In case these passages were not enough, Paul even quotes Moses in Romans 10:5-9 as preaching the Gospel. And he gives the gospel call to come to Christ by quoting Joel 2:23 in Romans 10:13....
    We would further point out that a close study of the book of Galatians will reveal the same teaching of the Apostle Paul: Abraham was saved through believing the Gospel. Old Testament saints were justified by faith apart from the works of the law (Gal. 2:16; 3:6-14). Also in Hebrews 11 we are told that the Old Testament saints lived and died through faith. Look at the story of Moses in Hebrews 11:24-29. Do you notice anything interesting about verse 26? (Cantelmo, p. 32)

The interesting thing about verse 26 is the mention there that Moses, in some way, was conscious of Christ. This demonstrates that the object of faith has always been the same: the Lord Jesus Christ. How clearly the people of the Old Testament understood Christ is open to question, since from a reading of the Old Testament it is obvious that they had very limited knowledge.

As a result, some have taught that faith in the Old Testament had God the Father as its object, while faith in the New Testament has God the Son as its object. Unfortunately, such thinking fails to recognize exactly which member of the Godhead the people of the Old Testament usually interacted with.

As most Christians realize, Jesus existed from all eternity before his incarnation (John 1:1-18). Notice too, that all theophanies in the Old Testament must be pre-incarnate appearances of the Son of God. John 1:18 records:

No one has ever seen God, but God the only Son, who is at the Father's side, has made him known.

The Father has never been seen by human beings. Therefore, God sightings in the Old Testament are clearly appearances of the Son of God, rather than the Father. Therefore, the Old Testament people had as the object of their faith, the pre-incarnate Christ.

Cantelmo writes that it is sometimes taught that the Old Testament people were saved by looking forward to the coming of Christ as we today are saved by looking backward to the work of Christ. This is very common terminology, but not at all scriptural.

Saving faith has as its object the person of Christ, who accomplished the redemption. Faith does not have as its object the work of Christ. We are rather told to "believe on the Lord Jesus Christ" (Acts 16:31). We are saved not by looking back to the work of Christ, but by looking up, believing, and calling upon His name for salvation (Romans 10:13). Saving faith is a personal and immediate coming of Christ (Matthew 11:28). People in the Old Testament were saved, not by looking forward, but by looking up, to the person of the Son of God. Salvation was procured by the death of Christ on the cross for everyone who believes, past, present, and future. Christ's death is why salvation is possible. We obtain that salvation by the grace of God, through faith in the person of Christ. Consider the following passages:

Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the Earth; for I am God, and there is no other (Isaiah 45:22)
Seek Yahweh while he may be found;
call on him while he is near.
Let the wicked forsake his way
and the evil man his thoughts.
Let him turn to Yahweh,
and he will have mercy on him,
and to our God,
for he will freely pardon. (Isaiah 55:6-7)
Trust in Yahweh with all your mind
and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make your paths upright. (Proverbs 3:5-6 my translation)

One thing to keep in mind about salvation in the Old Testament: the method was the same for the people living before Christ as it is for those living today: it is by the grace of God, through faith. The perfunctory acts of the law and the performance of sacrifice never brought salvation. Rather, keeping the law became the outward expression of the salvation which had occurred (see Deut. 6:4-6). The New Testament expresses this concept clearly, as in 1 John 5:2-3:

This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands. This is love for God: to obey his commands....

Why do we serve God? Why don't we rob banks? Why don't we kill people who irritate us? Why don't we have sex with every beautiful man or woman we meet? Why are we such fine, upstanding people? Why is it that we don't lie and cheat? Usually we are "righteous" simply because we don't want to get in trouble. We are worried about our reputation or we worry that "God will get us." But if those are our reasons for righteous behavior, then we are no different than the people Isaiah condemned in Isaiah 1:10-20, nor are we any better than the first century Pharisees that Jesus and Paul fought against.

So why should we serve God? Matthew 22:34-39 is the key, of course:

    Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?"
    Jesus replied: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and Prophets hang on these two commandments."

One should serve God for the same reason that a man brings flowers to his wife: love. That alone should be the motivation behind all our actions.

Question: Is There an Age of Accountability?

The next subject is something of an excursus, but still related to the main topic of salvation. A popular doctrine in evangelical Christian circles is the belief that all children below a certain age, usually called "the age of accountability" - that is, the age at which time they can make decisions of right and wrong - are automatically guaranteed heaven because of God's grace. This doctrine has served well to comfort bereaved parents who have lost a baby either through miscarriage before birth, or through accident or disease following birth. There is but one passage, an Old Testament passage, which is used in support of this teaching: 2 Samuel 12:23.

But now that he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me.

The traditional doctrine of the "age of accountability" suffers from several major problems.

1. Imputed sin

The first problem to be faced by the doctrine of the "age of accountability" is the issue of human depravity. Human beings are sinful and guilty before God, not just because of their own personal sin, but because of what is technically called "imputed sin". To impute something means to give to someone something that may or may not be theirs. Christ's righteousness is "imputed" to us by grace. It is unearned. We are simply declared righteous in him. In the same way, sin comes to us. Look at what Paul wrote in Romans 5:12-14:

Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned - for before the law was given, sin was in the world, but sin is not taken into account when there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did no sin by breaking a command as did Adam, who was a pattern of the one to come.

Look at 1 Corinthians 15:22:

For as in Adam all die, so in Christ will all be made alive,

From the moment of conception, human beings are sinners. Notice Psalm 51:5:

Surely I have been a sinner from birth,
sinful from the time my mother conceived me.

Or consider, please, Job 25:4:

How can a man be righteous before God?
How can one born of woman be pure?
It must be concluded that even the unborn are sinful in God's sight.

2. Method of Salvation

A second problem that faces the "age of accountability" is consistency with the way salvation is obtained. Look at the following passages:

Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12).
Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:6)
For it is by grace you have been saved, though faith - and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that no one can boast (Ephesians 2:8-9).
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son (John 3:16-18).

How is it that a fetus or baby is going to "believe" or "have faith"? The method of obtaining salvation hardly seems consistent with the idea of an "age of accountability".

3. Eternal Security

The final problem faced by the doctrine of the "age of accountability" is in reconciling the impossibility of losing one's salvation with the idea that, until a certain age, all children are under the grace of God and will be saved if they die. But, once they commit the unpardonable sin of reaching the age of say, six, their salvation simply vanishes? How can this possibly be reconciled with John 10:28-29?

I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father's hand.

If someone has been saved, they have eternal life and can never perish. How can that truth be made to fit with the traditional doctrine of "the age of accountability"?

4. Conclusion

And 2 Samuel 12:23? The popular interpretation of the verse is that David is thinking in terms of the after life: the child is in heaven, and some day I will be there also. However, does such an interpretation make sense in the light of the three objections raised above? An alternate interpretation might make better sense of the text in 2 Samuel, both in dealing with the objections, and in fitting ancient Israelite thought. All David was saying, was "the baby has died, and someday, I will too." "Dust you are, and to dust you will return." I believe that the doctrine of the age of accountability is inconsistent with what the Bible has to say about the human condition, and with what it says about the method of receiving salvation. In the final analysis, I believe the traditional doctrine is little more than wishful thinking - whistling in the dark - with no scriptural support.

Still, it must be acknowledged that the question of what happens to babies who die is not an issue that the Bible addresses specifically. A lack of dogmatism on the issue is probably the most practical, particularly since it is an area beyond human control anyway.

From the theology book by R.P. Nettelhorst, Does God Have a Long Nose?

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