Frequently, our Reformed-leaning Baptist brothers and sisters insist that the doctrine of imputed sin (i.e. “Original Sin”) as understood in the Augustinian-Calvinist theological trajectory is not only the biblical view, it is also the classic view among Southern Baptists. We’ve shown before that theologians of great stature among Southern Baptists have historically distanced themselves from Augustine on Original Sin. Nonetheless, many still accuse those of us who do not embrace Augustine’s theory of imputed Adamic guilt (based primarily upon Augustine’s skewed reading of Romans 5:12) of being “heretics” at worst and the “lessor” charge of “Semi-Pelagian” at best >>>
The historical evidence demonstrates that many Southern Baptists vigorously rejected the idea of imputed sinful guilt from Adam; instead they interpreted Scripture as teaching we fallen human beings universally inherited a sinful nature from Adam but Adam's sinful guilt was not imputed to us. In other words, there seemed to exist a flat denial of Federal Theology. Not only do all three confessions Southern Baptists have produced lend themselves to this interpretation (1925, 1963, 2000), but writing theologians do as well.1
Let’s add to our evidential repertoire the theological essay entitled “The Salvation of Infants” by C.W. Koller.2 Koller was Fellow in New Testament at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1926. His take on the salvation of infants as inferred from Romans 5:12-21 remains instructive for us as we consider just what Original Sin actually is.3 And, while I am certainly not proposing Koller’s view as “the” Southern Baptist view, Koller nonetheless remains indicative of a rich theological understanding in Southern Baptist history which denied imputed sinful guilt from Adam while embracing a robust understanding of universal sinful depravity expressed through an inherited sinful nature.
The Salvation of Infants
What about the eternal state of a child dying in infancy? Is he lost, or saved? "Lost", is the verdict of many. ”Saved", say others, "provided he is the child of Christian parents. "Still others would declare the infant saved" whether “Christian, heathen, or Hottentot." Scores of reasons are advanced for the varied positions taken, and many make answer by simply raising further questions. "How can he be saved who has never believed nor repented and in fact never knew that there is a God and a Savior?" "Why is he not saved?" is the counter-question. "What has this tiny infant done to bring him into condemnation?" "But, if saved-by the atoning blood of Christ -by what transaction, how, when, and where was this salvation made to become effective?" These and similar questions will be considered in the following paragraphs, in a careful effort to determine the actual teachings of Scripture. The discussion will proceed on the basis of three general questions summing up the issues involved.
I. Is the infant without sin?
Scriptural teaching compels us to reply in the negative. The fact of universal sin is clearly taught, both in the Old and in the New Testament. "There is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good and sinneth not."--EccL 7:20. So it was even before the flood, as indicated in Gen. 6:12, "All flesh had corrupted his way upon the earth." Paul, in Rom. 3:9-12:20, sets forth the condition of mankind as he found it to be several thousand years later and shows that Jews and Gentiles are all under sin, "For all have sinned and come short of- the glory of God." Even Christians are shown to be contaminated with sin, for "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us;" etc.--I John 1:8-10. And those who have not the law are shown to be under like condemnation with those who have the law and "shall perish without the law," Rom. 2:12. But may not these Scriptures, characterizing Christian, Jew, and heathen, apply only to those who have reached the years of accountability, thus leaving the infant without condemnation? Such application might be made, were it not for a further doctrine which is taught with equal clearness.
The doctrine of original sin embraces the child from the moment of its birth. Every conceivable sin is, in New Testament, associated with "the flesh"--that state of being which begins, with the natural birth of the infant and continues till the time of his spiritual re-birth. In Rom. 7:25, Paul traces all sin to "the flesh." In Gal. 5:16-25 he sets forth the hideous fruits which normally issue from the flesh, and the unceasing warfare between "the flesh" and "the Spirit.” In Rom. 8:8 he asserts that "they that are in the flesh can not please God," and in Rom. 8:6 he goes even a step further and pronounces the judgment of death upon those who have the mind of "flesh."
Sin is further associated with the "natural" state, which is necessarily that state which begins with birth continues until superseded by the "spiritual" state. In I Cor. 2:14 the "natural" state is shown to be opposed to the things of God; and in Rom. 2:14 Paul shows that the "natural" state not only tends positively toward sin, but culminates in actual transgression. The doctrine of original sin seems to be set forth also in Ps. 51:5, "Behold I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me." In Eph. 2:3 we learn that the "natural" state is such as to invoke only the wrath of God.
On every hand the teachings of Scripture with reference to original sin are borne out by human experience and observation. Just as soon as an infant attains to the age when it is at all possible for him to manifest a sinful nature he invariably does so. This is universal. It is observed also that his evil tendencies develop naturally and without necessity of the slightest encouragement from without. Just as a garden or field will grow weeds if left without attention, so the character of the infant will "grow weeds" if allowed to develop along its natural course. It is noted also that the influence of a bad example is far more potent in the development of the child than is the influence of a good example. A bad character develops naturally and without effort; a good character develops only as the result of strenuous and persistent effort. The observation of any individual from the time of birth to adolescence forces us to the conclusion that the fruitage of sin noted in adolescence must have been germinally present in the infant. A further conclusion, based on the uniformity of our observations with all children, is that the stream of' humanity must have been corrupted at its source; otherwise there would be exceptions to the rule. Both these conclusions coincide with the teachings of Scripture which have already been considered.
The sinful state of the infant, already established, is emphasized in Scripture by the doctrine of total depravity. Every bodily function and every mental and spiritual faculty is impaired in a greater or lesser degree by the presence of sin in the human race. All the world's misery, physical, mental and spiritual, bears witness to this fact, as do the inspired utterances of both the Old and the New Testament. In Gen. 6:5 we are told of the condition of man, that "Every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was evil." This verse, like the "doctrine of total depravity," does not teach that the imagination and thoughts of man were totally evil and without any admixture of good whatsoever; but that his every imagination and thought was somehow tinged with evil. The objection might be raised that this referred to the race that was destroyed in the flood; yet it can not be denied that we are descended from the group of eight people who were saved from the flood, and it is nowhere stated that Noah and his family were different from the rest of their generation either in kind or degree. It is simply related that "Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord." (v.8) In other words, Noah was saved by grace in like manner as we all are, and all his descendants are inheritors of both his sinful nature and his "total depravity." Both may be modified or heightened by the character of our more immediate ancestry, and thus changed in decree but not in kind.
Having established the facts of universal sin. original sin, and total depravity, we come to the next great question.
II. Is infant salvation a fact?
Scripture nowhere expressly states that a child dying in infancy is saved, nor is it taught that the infant is lost This necessitates a good deal of interpretation with reference to those passages that are thought to hear upon the question. While it is the prevailing view of evangelical Christianity that infants are "safe," there are many earnest Christians who do not accept ibis view, and other-, who find great difficulties in reconciling infant salvation with the facts of original and universal sin. Here we stumble immediately upon the problem presented by the infants of heathendom. If the infant is saved--in case of death, but loses this salvation in case he lives to maturity, and finally is lost, would it not be a mercy of God if all heathen could die in infancy? This question, though difficult, is no different for the question, why did God allow sin to come into the world in the first place? These unsolvable questions we are compelled to leave to the justice and mercy of God, both of which have become richly manifest to us in our own Christian experience. Between the views of those who consider the infant lost and those who consider the infant saved are two mediating views. It has been urged that the children of believing parents are saved but that others are lost upon the basis of 1 Cor. 7:14, which passage states that where the father or mother is a believer the children "are holy." But such interpretation would--to be consistent--hold the child to be saved not only in infancy but also in maturity. This would be a clear contradiction of New Testament teaching, and can not be a proper interpretation. A more tenable position, or one more nearly approaching the spirit of the New Testament, is that which holds the infant to be lost by reason of a supposedly inherited guilt but leaves to him "the easiest place in hell." According to this view condemnation of the infant is real, but very slight because the inherited guilt has not been aggravated by personal transgression. Those who hold to this latter view rely on such passages as John 3:3-6, which teach the necessity of a re-birth conditioned upon the exercise of faith. Much is made of the Greek use of the indefinite pronoun "tis" and its English rendering "except anyone be born again he can not see the Kingdom of God." It is insisted that the conditions essential to salvation have not been complied with, namely, repentance (Acts 2-:38) and faith (Acts 16:31). But this view does not satisfy. The infant is not a subject of Gospel address, and hence can not be put in the same category with mature men and women. Manifestly the Scriptures here cited are misapplied.
While the Bible leaves no doubt as to original sin, it nowhere teaches that original sin involves original guilt. Under the law of God, the infant appears to be in the position which he occupies under the law of man; not responsible for anything he might inherit but responsible for every use to which he might put his inheritance when his personal administration of that inheritance begins. Of course, his dealings will be largely adapted to the nature of his inheritance both material and spiritual; but it is at this point, and not before that his personal responsibility begins.While there is nothing in the Scriptures to indicate that the infant has fulfilled the conditions of salvation there is also nothing to indicate that this was necessary. In fact the opposite seems to be clearly the intent of the New Testament. Coleridge, in an epitaph over the tomb of four infants in St. Andrew, England, seems to have given the correct interpretation:
“Bold infidelity turn pale and die;
Beneath this stone four infants lie.
Say, are they lost or saved?
If death’s by sin, they’ve sinned for they are here;
If heaven’s works, in heaven they can’t appear.
Reason, Oh how depraved!
Turn to the Bible’s sacred page; the knot’s untied,
They died, for Adam sinned; they live for Jesus died”
III. How is the atoning blood of Christ made to become effective in the salvation of the infant?
Certainly this is not accomplished by faith; that is clear. Nor will the faith or virtues of the parent save the child; for each must stand before the judgment bar of God and render account in his own name. Nor is there any Scriptural ground for holding to a theory of "unconscious regeneration" for the infant. When Jesus speaks of the necessity of "becoming as little children" in order to enter into the Kingdom of heaven (Matt. 18:3) he is not referring to their innate purity as the basis of salvation. In fact, this passage (Like Matt. 19:13-15; Mk. 10:13-16; and Lk. 18:15-17) has no bearing whatever on the manner by which the infant himself is saved. Christ is setting forth the proper attitude for one to take toward Him if he is to be saved. This sinner must become like a child in his manner of "receiving the kingdom of God" (Mk. 10:15). In other words he must become trustful, teachable, and obedient.
The only satisfactory answer to the perplexing problem of infant salvation is found in Rom. 5:12-21, especially verses 12, 18, and 21. At first glance it may not be apparent that this chapter bears upon the salvation of infants; but upon careful study these verses will yield sufficient light to make the status of the infant quite clear. The idea that potential death and potential salvation were passed upon all mankind by Adam and Christ respectively involves no difficulties when applied to mature men and women. But when we consider side by side the fact of physical death without guilt and the idea of spiritual salvation without faith the problem becomes profoundly complex. The following difficult questions arise: (1) If God condemns potential sin, in the nature of evil thoughts, desires, and emotions in the mature man, even though they never find actual expression, why does He not in like manner condemn potential sin ("original" sin) in the infant? Both alike are sin in the germinal state. (2) If by Adam physical corruption and death came into the world, why did not the atonement of Christ remove this curse from mankind? How can we consistently hold that in Christ the infant was made alive spiritually, when the same is manifestly not true with reference to the child's physical state? (3) To what extent did the redemptive work of Christ undo the consequences of Adam’s fall? These three questions will be answered in the order given.
(1) While potential sin in the heart of a man and original sin in the infant are alike sin in the germinal state, the former is conscious and willful while the latter is unconscious and unpremeditated. The man can appropriate salvation by the exercise of faith; the infant being incapable of faith becomes a recipient of grace, in accordance with the general principle that grace begins at the point where human ability fails. “Where sin abounded grace did much more abound." (v.20) "As through one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the one shall the many be made righteous." (v.19) If Christ by His atonement could not confer righteousness and life upon unborn millions, neither could Adam by his fall involve them in sin and condemnation. In the light of Scripture there is no escape from the idea of the moral unity of the human race. Our access to the benefits of salvation is not due to our own individual personalities, but to our membership in the human race.
(2) While a complete physical redemption has not accompanied the spiritual redemption wrought by Christ, we find that the same is true in our individual Christian experience. Yet the spiritual restoration of every Christian is so conclusively manifest to him that he could not doubt it even though his physical ills continue. At the same time it is observable that the physical ills of the world decrease in direct ratio with the world's appropriation of the spiritual redemption provided by Christ. Furthermore, we have the promise of an ultimate regeneration of the physical universe corresponding to the ultimate spiritual deliverance of all the redeemed of. mankind. The problems of the fifth chapter of Romans are greatly simplified when we remember that physical misery and death were only an incident to the big issue resulting from Adam's fall, namely, spiritual death or separation from God. The physical life granted to Adam and Eve after the fall was only a gracious prolongation of the measurable enjoyment of the goodness and mercy of God.
(3) In the sight of God the redemptive work of Christ seems to have left the infant in a position comparable in some respects to that of the unfallen Adam. Before the commission of conscious, actual, willful sin he does not need to be saved by an act of faith, but is safe. Forensically, the righteousness received through Christ has undone the condemnation, imposed, through Adam by means of original sin.
In conclusion it might be added that from the human point of view the child normally passes through three stages--that of innocence, that of "twilight" between innocence and guilt, and that of guilt--there are before God only two stages. The child is either "safe," under the age of accountability; or guilty as an actual transgressor, having passed out from under the benefits of his inherited righteousness through Christ. Scripture provides for no "twilight zone." While we can not pass the finger along the line of demarcation, it is nevertheless real. The infant is safe by inheritance, and those who have crossed the line must consciously appropriate Christ through faith.4
1for a solid contemporary exposition of this view, consider Dr. Adam Harwood’s helpful volume, The Spiritual Condition of Infants: A Biblical-Historical Survey and Systematic Proposal
2The Southwestern Evangel, January 1926, pp.29-31
3I’m indebted to SWBTS students for assisting me in locating this article
4all emphasis by italics are original with the author