Where did the Newtown, Connecticut Sandy Hook Elementary school children go when they were tragically killed just a few days ago now? This is an important question that so far I haven’t, unsurprisingly, seen the media cover yet. Growing up I was taught what is called the ‘age of accountability’; if you haven’t heard of this before, it is the concept that children until they get to a certain age (and this varies from child to child, known only by the Lord) are not accountable for saying either yes or no for Christ; since, as the thought goes, these children do not have the intellectual/volitional capacity to grasp the significance and their need for Jesus Christ. And so since they are unable to appreciate this, it is said, because of who God is (gracious, loving, and merciful) that he does not hold them accountable for salvation, and he thus applies Jesus’ finished work to them, and thus they are saved on this basis.
My sketch above is pretty much the extent that this argument or thought has going for it. While I do not contend with the idea that some children will not ultimately be saved (because I do believe in something like the age of accountability), I do think that there is a better, more theologically rich and thick way to articulate an account of this that has more going for it. To this we turn.
Myk Habets, in our edited book, wrote a chapter therein entitled Suffer the little children to come to me, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Infant Salvation and the Destiny of the Severely Mentally Disabled (chapter 11). In his chapter, Myk develops this material in a way that I think helps to provide the depth to what some might simply all an ‘age of accountability’; Myk provides the kind of theological depth that is ultimately grounded not in a simple belief, but in a christologically charged account of what grounds salvation for infants who die, children who could be said are not of age, and the mentally handicapped. Without giving a full report on what Myk wrote, I will just briefly touch on what I think are some salient points; points that help make my case for trying to develop an actual theological account for an age of accountability, so called.
Mid chapter, Habets refers to the Cumberland Presbyterian Church (1829), Tenessee, and a corrective that they offered for the infamous Westminster Confession of the Faith which was originally penned in Seventeenth Century Puritan England. What they write in correction to WCF, chapter 10, article 3 (as reported by Myk Habets) is this:
All infants dying in infancy are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit [Luke 18:15, 16; Acts 2:38, 39], who worketh when, and where, and how he pleaseth [John 3:8]; so also are others who have never had the exercise of reason, and who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word. [Myk Habets citing The Creeds of Christendom: Cumberland Presbyterian Church, in Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church, 302.]
So this correction identifies the grouping of peoples that would fall under our consideration in this post; a group of young people, or children, whom might not have the capacity or ‘exercise of reason’ to appropriate the salvation of Christ for themselves as of yet. But something that Cumberland does not mention is, again, what is the ground and basis for God’s saving work on behalf of those who are the incapable amongst us. Something, in context, though that Cumberland does do (besides identifying the categories of peoples who are incapable) is that they presuppose that such people (the incapable) can be said, by virtue of their incapacitating state, to be those who are elect of God. If this is the case, then the children who died in Newtown, the 20 of them, should be considered and assumed the elect of God. But there is more to this than simply appealing to this; there is still the issue of what grounds these children’s election in Christ. Is it simply God working around the ‘system’ so to speak, around the fact that God has said that ‘Jesus is the only way, truth, and life’ to the Father, and without the faith in Christ or of Christ that no person shall see the Father? Or does God still consistently work through the fact that Jesus is the only way, even for the incapable (or elect) amongst us? The answer is that God still works through what he has revealed as the only way to him, and that is through the finished and vicarious work of salvation accomplished by Jesus Christ alone.
Myk, in his chapter develops this further by noting that the ground of this salvation, especially for the incapable (which at some level we all are, but not in the same kind of special way that those under consideration here are), is the vicarious humanity and faith and repentance of Christ for us. I will close this, with this point, and then a quick summary and application of this to the children who were ridiculously gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary. Here Myk quotes himself from another one of his books; he is discussing how Thomas Torrance thought of the significance of Christ’s vicarious humanity for us, he writes:
According to Torrance the vicarious humanity of Christ means that only Christ’s response is ultimately valid. All other responses to God are excluded because Christ is the ground and the norm of our response to God. Torrance makes this clear throughout his essay “The Word of God and the Response of Man” where we read, “In the Gospels we do not have to do simply with the Word of God and the response of man, but with the all-significant middle term, the divinely provided response in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ.” The humanity of Christ occupies a unique place in which he is the exclusive representative and substitute in all our relations with God, “including every aspect of human response to Him; such as trusting and obeying, understanding and knowing, loving and worshipping” … Because the incarnate Son of God is fully human (enhypostasis), his response personalises ours. In all of his soteriological activity: “Jesus Christ is engaged in personalising and humanising (never depersonalising and dehumanising) activity, so that in all our relations with him we are made more truly and fully human in our personal response of faith than ever before. [Myk Habets, Chapter 11, Evangelical Calvinism, 317.]
If this is the case (and I think it is), that, in general, salvation for anyone is grounded in the vicarious humanity and response for us in Jesus Christ; then it is a really small step away from applying this general reality to the particular situation of infants who die, children who die, and the mentally handicapped. It is this reality that supplies the theological salvific resource that provides a way for us to think about the so called ‘age of accountability’ in rich and christological ways. For those amongst us who are incapable due to un or underdeveloped human faculties (i.e. in regard to having the mental/intellectual furniture to adequately respond); the ground for these folk’s salvation is the same ground that is present for any of our salvation responses. The ground though for the ‘incapable’ is applied in a particular way, such that this kind of inadequacy (due to a human and developmental deficit) is made adequate through the saving and mediatorial faith for us in and through Jesus Christ’s vicarious humanity.
We can apply this reality to the tragedy that was perpetrated upon these 20 young children at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. Beyond simply and wishfully referring to God’s good grace and mercy (mysteriously short circuiting what the Bible pronounces is the only way of salvation, Jesus Christ), as the traditional ‘age of accountability’ does; what has been sketched here suggests and even argues that the incapable amongst us (as defined above) are saved in and through the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ, and applied in a particular and intense way defined by the particular situation presented by the so called incapable. The ground of salvation is the same for them as it is for anyone else, it is just that it is applied differently, or in a different way, because of the uniqueness that the incapable’s situation requires.
I have a genuine hope and Christ conditioned joy, knowing that these young children in Connecticut are now in the presence of the Lord; ‘to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord’. And my hope is in Jesus Christ alone, and through faith in him alone; a faith ensured and realized in his humanity first, for us, and in particular, relative to our discussion and context, applied directly to these youngsters in Connecticut. amen.