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In:Early Church, Miscellaneous, Salvation and the New Birth, Sin

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By Andrew V. Ste. Marie

It is often said that “We are born spiritually dead” or “We are born dead in trespasses and sins.”  In other words, as soon as a little, pure, sweet, innocent baby is born, he is spiritually languishing in corruption, sin, and death.  Some would go so far as to say that any infant or child dying unbaptized (or unsaved) will go to hell for eternity.  Others say that although the infant is spiritually dead, if the baby dies, he will go to heaven despite being unsaved (?) due to the grace of God.  Are these claims true?

When Does Spiritual Death Occur?

The Apostle Paul teaches very clearly in Romans 7 regarding spiritual death and when it occurs.

What shall we say then?  Is the law sin?  God forbid.  Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet.  But sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence.  For without the law sin was dead.  For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died.  And the commandment, which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death.  For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me.  Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good.  Was then that which is good made death unto me?  God forbid.  But sin, that it might appear sin, working death in me by that which is good; that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful (Romans 7:7-13).

Paul had been teaching earlier in the chapter that by the death of Christ, all those in the New Covenant are dead to the Law of Moses, and we may now “serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter.”  Immediately, then, Paul anticipates the question which may be asked: Is the Law inherently wrong or sinful, since the “motions of sins” were actually “by the law” and “did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death” (verse 5)?

To this question, Paul gives an emphatic no.  The Law points out what sin is (for example, covetousness), but it is human nature that what is forbidden is doubly attractive, simply for the reason that it is forbidden.  The Law, then, makes opportunities for sin, and Paul says that the commandment against covetousness actually helped to foster covetousness in his own life.  The sin (such as covetousness) was “dead” in Paul’s life before he knew God’s standard.

Now we come to the sentence which is important to our question: “For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died.”  Notice that Paul was “alive without the law once.”  Does this mean physical life?  The context tells us that it does not, for “I died” later in the verse obviously refers to spiritual death.  (Paul was physically alive when he was writing the letter to the Romans.)  So from this we learn that children, such as the Apostle Paul as a little boy, are born and grow up spiritually alive.  Is the spiritual life of children the same as that of mature adults who make a conscious decision to follow Christ?  No.  However, although children have not experienced the new birth, they do not need to until they have died spiritually.  The Apostle Paul did not need to experience the new birth when he was “alive without the law once,” nor could he have.[1]

So when did Paul die spiritually?  Notice that he says “when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died.”  The spiritual death was the result, not of some guilt imputed to him from Adam, but of his own personal, conscious sin against the will of God.  Paul was able to sin on this level once he came face-to-face with God’s righteous standard revealed in the Law of Moses.  Was Paul a naughty little boy on occasion before then?  Probably he was, just like all little boys (and girls) are.  But he was not in conscious sin against the Law of God on the same level as when he was older.  When did the commandment come to Paul?  Did his parents teach him from the Law?  They probably did, at least the Ten Commandments and probably more; Paul’s father was a member of the Pharisees, “the most straitest sect of our religion” (Acts 23:6; 26:5).  We cannot say exactly when Paul had the experiences recounted in the following verses.  Perhaps it was due to his father’s or rabbi’s teaching from the Law; perhaps it was due to his own reading from the Law; or perhaps it did not occur until he began to sit at the feet of Gamaliel and learn the Law.  In any event, it did not occur until he had the knowledge and mental understanding of what God required and he was able to interact with the Law (so to speak) at a mature level.[2]  The exact timing of these events in Paul’s life is a side question; what we can see clearly in this passage is that it was only once sin had been stirred up in his life by the Law of Moses that he died spiritually.  We can say the same for every infant – born and raised spiritually alive, but dead spiritually when, like Adam, they knowingly and willingly sin against God stirred up by the prohibitions of God’s will.

Savior of All Men

For therefore we both labour and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, specially of those that believe (I Timothy 4:10).

In what way is God the “Saviour of all men,” and why is it said that he is “specially” the Savior of those that believe?  This must mean that He is also, in a sense, the Savior of those who do not believe.  Comparison with other Scriptures (such as Romans 7) leads us to the conclusion that God is unconditionally the savior of all men in infancy, but is the savior of those mature people who meet the Gospel conditions – such as faith (belief).[3]

Many Go in Thereat

Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it (Matthew 7:13-14).

Related to the idea that people are “born spiritually dead” is the statement sometimes made that people are “born on the broad road.”  In Matthew 7, however, Jesus teaches us that the broad gate which leads to destruction is a gate which “many…go in.”  People must enter into the broad way; they are not born there without any personal choice in the matter.  When a man comes to the age of understanding, he must make a personal choice whether he will go into the broad way or the narrow way.  Praise God, a man on the broad way can repent and enter the narrow way; but they are not born onto the broad way.

Of Such is the Kingdom of God

And they brought young children to him, that he should touch them: and his disciples rebuked those that brought them.  But when Jesus saw it, he was much displeased, and said unto them, Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.  Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein.  And he took them up in his arms, put his hands upon them, and blessed them (Mark 10:13-16).

Jesus welcomed the children to Himself and blessed them, and specifically said that “of such is the kingdom of God.”  Had these children been baptized?  We have no hint of it in this passage.  Had they experienced some kind of crisis conversion?  Not likely.  They were simply, as Paul was, “alive without the law,” and Jesus gave them what they needed and could have at their age – a blessing from God.

The Mouths of Babes and Sucklings

And when the chief priests and scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying in the temple, and saying, Hosanna to the Son of David; they were sore displeased, And said unto him, Hearest thou what these say?  And Jesus saith unto them, Yea; have ye never read, Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise?  (Matthew 21:15-16).

Jesus taught that God has “perfected praise” out of the mouths of innocent little children.  Their praises are highly pleasing to God.  How can this be reconciled with the idea that they are lost sinners?  “The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD: but the prayer of the upright is his delight” (Proverbs 15:8).

Dead in Trespasses and Sins

You might be thinking, “But doesn’t the Bible say, ‘born dead in trespasses and sins’?”  It actually does not.  This is a misquotation of Ephesians 2:1: “And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins” (compare with Colossians 2:13).  Notice: They were dead, not “born dead.”  The following two verses show that the people being referred to could not have been infants; they are said to have “walked according to the course of this world” and to have lived “fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind.”

The Early Christians

The early Christians believed that infants and young children were innocent and pure, and that, if they died, they would be saved.

Hermas (c. 150) wrote:

…they are as infant children, in whose hearts no evil originates…for all infants are honorable before God, and are the first persons with Him.[4]

Irenaeus (c. 180), a disciple of Polycarp (who was a disciple of the Apostle John), wrote:

And again, who are they that have been saved, and received the inheritance?  Those, doubtless, who do believe God, and who have continued in His love; as did Caleb [the son] of Jephuneh and Joshua [the son] of Nun, and innocent children, who have had no sense of evil.[5]

Tertullian (c. 198), regarding the idea of infant baptism, wrote:

And so, according to the circumstances and disposition, and even age, of each individual, the delay of baptism is preferable; principally, however, in the case of little children…The Lord does indeed say, “Forbid them not to come unto me.”  Let them “come,” then, while they are growing up; let them “come” while they are learning, while they are learning whither to come; let them become Christians when they have become able to know Christ.  Why does the innocent period of life hasten to the “remission of sins?”[6]

He also wrote (c. 207):

But, behold, Christ takes infants, and teaches how all ought to be like them, if they ever wish to be greater.  The Creator, on the contrary, let loose bears against children, in order to avenge His prophet Elisha, who had been mocked by them.[7]  This antithesis is impudent enough, since it throws together things so different as infants and children,—an age still innocent, and one already capable of discretion—able to mock, if not to blaspheme.  As therefore God is a just God, He spared not impious children, exacting as He does honor for every time of life, and especially, of course, from youth.  And as God is good, He so loves infants as to have blessed the midwives in Egypt, when they protected the infants of the Hebrews which were in peril from Pharaoh’s command.  Christ therefore shares this kindness with the Creator.[8]

Cyprian (c. 250) wrote that “Infancy is still yet innocent and unconscious of worldly evil.”[9]

Origen (185-254) was one of the most famous Christian teachers of his time and wrote the first surviving set of Bible commentaries.  While teaching that even infants are subject to sin’s defilement (he quoted the Septuagint rendering of Job 14:4-5 several times: “No one is pure from uncleanness, even if his life should be one day long”),[10] he nevertheless taught the following in his Commentary on Romans (written c. 246):

But this law [referring to natural law, or the law of the conscience] is found in man neither at all times nor from the beginning, when a man is born, but rather he lives without this law for a certain time, while his age does not allow it, just as Paul himself acknowledges when he says, “I was once alive without the law.”  Therefore, at that time, when we lived without the law, we did not know covetousness.  He did not say: I was not having it; but: “I was not knowing it,” as if covetousness existed, but it was not known what it was.  But when reason arrives and the natural law finds a place within us in the advancement of age, it begins to teach us what is good and to turn us away from evils.  Thus, when it says, “You shall not covet,” we learn from it what we did not know before: Covetousness is evil.

“But sin, receiving an opportunity, worked in me through the commandment all kinds of covetousness.”  That law of which he says, “For I would not have known covetous desire had the law not said: You shall not covet,” is also called the commandment.  Thus he says that by an opportunity afforded by this commandment, in which we are forbidden to covet, sin was kindled all the more intensely within us and worked all kinds of covetousness within us.  For because the flesh lusts against the Spirit, i.e., against the law that says, “You shall not covet,” it is likewise opposed to it and engages it in battle in a certain manner, so that not only would it satisfy the covetousness but also it would conquer an enemy.

This then is the opportunity that he says comes from the commandment.  For these things that are forbidden are somehow longed for more passionately.  On this account, though the commandment is holy and just and good—for what prohibits evil must of necessity be good—yet by prohibiting covetousness it instead provokes and kindles it; and through the good it worked death in me.  The Apostle is showing by these things, however, that the origin of sin has arisen from covetousness.  As long as the law is issuing prohibitions, whether it is Moses’ law, which says, “You shall not covet,” or even natural law, as I have explained above, whatever is forbidden is desired all the more tenaciously…

“For apart from the law sin is dead.  But I was once alive without the law.  But when the commandment came, sin revived.  I, however, died; and the very commandment that was unto life was found to be unto death to me.”  Up above has already been conducted a full investigation of practically all these matters.  Therefore, in order that we not be constantly repeating the same things, we shall briefly call to remembrance what was previously said.  We showed how sin is dead in us without law, i.e., before the mind within us grows vigorous when it reaches the age of reason, when we introduced the example of the little child who strikes or curses his father or mother.  In such a case it would appear that at least according to the law, which forbids striking and cursing the father and mother, a sin was committed.  Yet that sin is said to be dead since the law is not yet present within the child to teach him that what he is doing ought not be done.  It is certain that Paul and all men have lived at one time without this law, namely, the age of childhood.  After all, during that time everyone is equally not yet capable of this natural law.  For Paul’s confession concerning this would not seem to be true.  Indeed how will it be proved that Paul once lived without the law of Moses, seeing that he declares himself to be a Hebrew of Hebrews and circumcised on the eighth day according to the precepts of the law?  On the contrary, in the way in which we have said, in childhood he also once lived without natural law.  He did not say that sin did not exist in man at this time, but that sin was dead and afterward revived when natural law came and began to forbid covetousness.  This law raised sin from the dead, so to speak.  In fact this is the nature of sin, if what the law forbids to be done happens.  Therefore, when sin revived, he says, “I died.”  “I.”  Who does he mean?  Doubtless, the soul that had committed what the law was forbidding to be done; for “the soul that sins,” as the prophet says, “shall itself die.”  The commandment, therefore, that had been given unto life, i.e., unto [the life] of the soul, that it might teach the soul the works that lead to life, was found to have surrendered it over to death when it does not flee the things forbidden but desires them all the more passionately.[11]

Summary

The idea that “we are all born spiritually dead” cannot be found in Scripture; rather, there are several Scriptures which clearly teach against such an idea.  The early Christians believed that infants and young children are pure, innocent, and saved, and sinful actions which they do are not counted as sin against them until “the commandment [comes]” and sin revives.

Knowing the truth on this subject can help safeguard us against such errors as infant baptism and child evangelism and can provide comfort in knowing that our departed little ones are safe with Christ.

 



[1] This is one of the problems with child evangelism – little innocent children, who should be taught to love Jesus at a simple, age-appropriate level, are instead pressed to “ask Jesus into their hearts” so that they can escape the damnation of hell.  At the stage before the Law has stirred up the lust to sin in them, they are still “alive without the law” and must not be pressed into an adult experience with Christ.  Trying to do so may result in so-called “conversions” in the short run, but in the end can cause confusion at best; at worst, it may cause sin, doubt, and apostasy.

[2] This probably happens for most people well before 20 years old.  Paul explains that for heathens who have no knowledge of the true God or of the Scriptures, they still are accountable for the revelation of God through their own consciences (Romans 2:12-29), so the “law” comes to them in the form of “natural law,” the law in their consciences.

[3] I am indebted to George R. Brunk I and his son, George II, for this commentary.  They explained this Scripture in this fashion.

[4] Ante-Nicene Fathers (ANF), volume 2, p. 53.

[5] ANF, volume 1, p. 502.

[6] ANF, volume 3, p. 678.

[7] This was written against the Gnostics, who claimed that the Creator God (the “Demiurge”), the God of the Old Testament, was not the Father of Jesus.  These two sentences give a Gnostic argument urged against the orthodox Christians, to which Tertullian replies as follows.

[8] ANF, volume 3, p. 386.

[9] David W. Bercot, ed., A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, 1998, Hendrickson Publishers, p. 93.

[10] For this reason Origen supported infant baptism – the first Christian teacher known to have done so.

[11] Thomas P. Scheck, translator, Origen: Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, Books 6-10, 2002, Catholic University of America Press, pp. 31-33.

 

Originally published in The Witness, February 2014.

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