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Romans 4:15 says, "For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression."  What does this mean for babies and young children, or for adults who have never heard of God's law or of Jesus?  Does it mean they aren't held responsible for sin? (2007)

This seems like a logical and important question arising from this verse; however, none of the commentaries that I examined even addressed it, much less answered it.  (The ones I looked at were Wesley, Calvin, F. F. Bruce, Barclay, and Douglas J. Moo.)  The Expositor's Greek Testament commentary for Romans 4:15 referred the reader to Romans 2, which does answer the question for adults who have never heard of God's law or of Jesus.  I did some more looking around to determine the position for babies.

Adults who have never heard of God's law or of Jesus

To summarize the argument, God's law is actually written in our hearts.  That is, our own consciences and the order of the natural world, and to a lesser extent the laws of man, should give overwhelming testimony of what a person should and should not be doing, even in the absence of God's law written on paper.  Adults outside the Judeo-Christian law will be judged according to God's universal law written in their hearts. 

For example, anyone can see that it is wrong to steal, and a person who steals will be judged accordingly.  Not everyone can see from first principles that it is wrong (for example) to work on the Sabbath, and so people outside the law might not be judged too heavily for that.  To some extent, this is good news/bad news.  On the one hand, a person unlucky enough never to have heard the Good News is not automatically damned.  On the other, they will be held responsible for sin, because "nobody told me that" is not going to cut any ice on Judgment Day.  I have given the pertinent verses and portions of John Wesley's comments on each verse below. 

Romans 2:12 For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. Romans 2:14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. Romans 2:15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them Romans 2:16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
Romans 2:26 So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Babies and Infants

I can find no clear indication in scripture or doctrine as to whether babies and infants are held responsible for sin.  Presuming that the Church would address this as a question of what happens to a child who dies before baptism, I switched my investigation to that situation.  The answer seems to be that there is no consensus. 

At one end of the spectrum, some have held that an unbaptized child is condemned, if not to hell, at least to purgatory.  John Wesley, in his Treatise on Baptism, was in favor of infant baptism because it washes away original sin.  In his words, "If infants are guilty of original sin [which he had established to his own satisfaction in a previous paragraph], then they are proper subjects of baptism; seeing, in the ordinary way, they cannot be saved, unless this be washed away by baptism."  (Bold italics added.)  It is my understanding that this also used to be the position of the Catholic churches.  It may still be the position of some denominations today; I don't know.

As I understand it, the current position of the Roman Catholic Church is that they don't know.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 1261) says "1261: As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus' tenderness toward children which caused him to say: 'Let the children come to me, do not hinder them,' allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism. All the more urgent is the Church's call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism." (Bold italics added.) 

The position of the United Methodist Church today is different from Wesley's.  The appropriate age for baptism is "as soon as possible and practical," according to the General Board of Discipleship, because "Baptism is," among other things, "incorporation into the Body of Christ."  However, "The baptism of infants is properly understood and valued if the child is loved and nurtured by the faithful worshiping church and by the child’s own family. If a parent or sponsor (godparent) cannot or will not nurture the child in the faith, then baptism is to be postponed until Christian nurture is available. A child who dies without being baptized is received into the love and presence of God because the Spirit has worked in that child to bestow saving grace. If a child has been baptized but her or his family or sponsors do not faithfully nurture the child in the faith, the congregation has a particular responsibility for incorporating the child into its life." (Bold italics added.)  This UMC position is quoted from By Water & The Spirit

According to The Rev. David L. Hunter, retired American Baptist minister, most denominations with "Baptist" in the name hold to the historic Baptist position of believer's baptism.  Children who die before they have reached the "age of accountability," that is, before they are old enough to make their own profession of faith, automatically go to heaven.  The age of accountability is typically around 12 or 13; however, pastors in many Baptist denominations will baptize a younger child who clearly understands its sinful nature and the significance of baptism.  The Rev. Hunter baptized one child at age eight.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints allows baptism by proxy after a person has died.*  If the person chooses to accept that baptism (presumably at that point having complete knowledge of the situation!), then he or she can be saved.  The person is also free to reject the baptism.  This practice is based in part on Paul's saying in 1 Corinthians 15:29, "Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all, why are they then baptized for the dead?"


Adults who have never heard the Good News will be judged by the standards of God's Law written on their hearts.  This in no way excuses us from vigorous evangelism. 

Given that scripture appears to be lacking or ambiguous and that the Church as a whole cannot come to consensus on the status of babies, I conclude that God has a plan, but we don't have to know it.  The most common Biblical description of God is that he is "gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil."  This suggests to me that he will take care of babies and infants, baptized or not.

* Let me just add that as a devout genealogist, I fully support the LDS Church in their effort to baptize everyone back to Adam and Eve.  As a United Methodist, I do not believe such baptisms to be spiritually efficacious. 

Copyright 2008, 2011 by Regina L. Hunter.  All rights reserved.

Opinions expressed on this page are solely those of the author, Regina Hunter, and may or may not be shared by the sponsors or the Bible-study participants.  Thanks to the Holy Spirit for any useful ideas presented here, and thanks to all the readers for their support and enthusiasm.  All errors are, of course, the sole responsibility of the author.

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