Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

Babies and the Unchangeable God

Posted by BrianJ on January 18, 2011

Mormon states that babies don’t need baptism, but if they did then that would mean that God is changeable. But he doesn’t explain his reasoning and, well, I just don’t see how he reaches that conclusion. So, if you see it, please explain.

Here are the two most relevant verses (Moroni 8):

12 But little children are alive in Christ, even from the foundation of the world; if not so, God is a partial God, and also a changeable God, and a respecter to persons; for how many little children have died without baptism!

18 For I know that God is not a partial God, neither a changeable being; but he is unchangeable from all eternity to all eternity.

Note: I am not disputing Mormon’s claim. Rather, I am asking for someone to take me through the logic behind this statement. Thanks!

39 Responses to “Babies and the Unchangeable God”

  1. Gary said

    The word “unchanging” in reference to God usually seems to equate with “uni-directional”, or that he doesn’t switch from one course or set of rules to another. But it also includes that fact that he doesn’t make exceptions to his rules. I think this chapter reads better if you use “consistent” instead of “unchangeable”. If God saved a baptised child and damned an unbaptised child, he would be not be consistently compliant with the principle that “the whole need no physician, but they that are sick”. Rather he would be partial to a baptismal status that is irrelevant to babies who are universally whole.

  2. Karen said

    I agree with Gary here. I too have struggled with the logic in verse 12 (if we take that verse out of context, then it sounds like we don’t need baptism for the dead or perhaps baptism at all!). But the point he’s making in general makes sense: “little children are whole, for they are not capable of committing sin; wherefore the curse of Adam is taken from them in me, that it hath no power over them” (v.8). The idea of requiring baptism from someone who is not capable of repenting does not hold up. In this sense God would be changing the rules: if so, we could then ask, “I thought you said little children were whole? Why are you now requiring baptism?” But I agree that the logic in verse 12 is problematic. For me, I have to read that verse as not laying out a principle, but adding in his own emotion in a letter meant for his son, and not meant as a list or doctrinal treatise.

  3. SilverRain said

    I think a key here could also be “from the foundation of the world”. Perhaps one of the arguments used by those who pushed child baptism was the fulfillment of the Law of Moses. Presumably, under the law of Moses children were not baptized because they were not considered capable of choice, so why would they be baptized now after Christ came?

    Also possible that he is pointing out that the portion Christ’s Atonement which released us from the bonds of death and released the innocent from sin applied to all children from the beginning, not just those who were born after He atoned.

    Finally, whether or not a baby is baptized has nothing to do with their personal choice. As Mormon points out, many children have not been baptized through no choice of their own. God would be a changeable, fickle God if He allowed someone to be damned because of another’s choices and actions.

    It seems that he is only lightly touching on the reasoning, probably because Mormon knows his son is aware of cultural and doctrinal assumptions of their day, so they don’t need explaining.

  4. Robert C. said

    I’ve wondered the extent to which Mormon has Nephi’s words in 1 Ne 17:35 in mind, “the Lord esteemeth all flesh in one; he that is righteous is favored of God.” (Notice that earlier, in 17:32–33, Nephi explicitly raises the question of children…).

    Anyway, like others, I think unchangeable probably has reference to not changing the conditions required for being loved and blessed. What is required for blessings is righteousness. Children are righteous. Ergo, children are blessed. To say otherwise is to say that God is “changing” the conditions needed for blessing.

    Good question, though, I still don’t feel I really understand this….

  5. RuthS said

    See 2 Nephi 9:25-26 Babies and others whatever their stage in life who have no law given them or who cannot understand the law are saved by the power of the atonement. They have no need to be baptized because baptism is for the remission of sins. Babies have not sinned, neither are children under the age of eight required to be baptized. To require baptism for babies while others who are not guilty of sin who might be fully grown but did not know anything about the law to be exempted, is changing the rules. It is not just.Therefore an unchanging God must treat all those in that situation the same or he is changeable and a respecter of persons

  6. BrianJ said

    Thank you all for your responses.

    I think Karen brings up an interesting sticking point: baptism for the dead. Some of the same arguments we might make against infant baptism we could also make against baptism for the dead. For example, neither children nor those who never hear the gospel during their lives have a choice in getting baptized or not. Is God respecting one brand of “ignorance” but not another?

    Another thought is about God treating “everyone the same.” Why shouldn’t he treat us all differently? Recall the parable of the workers: even those hired at the latest hour receive full pay.

    I think perhaps the most compelling of the explanations here is this: “Babies don’t need remission of sins, thus they do not need baptism, thus requiring it of them would be…” well, that’s where this explanation kinda falls off for me. The word I would choose to finish that sentence is “silly” or “unnecessary.” Why Mormon chose to use “changeable/partial” is still not clear to me; i.e., it is not the most obvious way (in my mind) to complete his point—which makes me think that I’m still missing his point.

    • Justin said

      From [#5] and [#6]: “They have no need to be baptized because baptism is for the remission of sins.“…”I think perhaps the most compelling of the explanations here is this: ‘Babies don’t need remission of sins, thus they do not need baptism.’

      Eight year-olds have no sins to remit b/c they have previously been incapable of committing any. Jesus Christ had no sins to remit b/c his lived his life committing no offense against God or man.

      Baptism is not about remission of sins — it is about publicly witnessing that a believer has made a covenant with God to love Him and keep His commandments.

      • BrianJ said

        See my response to Gary in #12. I agree that baptism is not about remission of sins. I disagree that 7-yr olds have no sins. But I think that Mormon may be talking somewhat loosely here, as so many scripture verses do, and lumping “baptism” in with the true remission of sins that comes only via the Holy Ghost.

  7. kirkcaudle said

    Great question here Brian, and good comments over all from everyone.

    With that said, I have always been a little uncomfortable with the idea of children (or anyone for that matter) not “needing” baptism. Even if children die at the age of three would they not still need to receive all the same ordnances as everyone else? After all, baptism is not just about sin per se, but could simply be a sign of “fulfilling all righteousness.”

    Therefore, it seems to me that baptism would not be required for children in term of sin because “the curse of Adam is taken from them in [Christ].” However, baptism would be required of them as far as salvation goes because everyone that reaches exaltation must go through each ordinance (see D&C 131 esp.).

    If this is not true then it would seem to make God “changeable” in the fact that He has different rules for different people/spirits.

    Perhaps?

    • BrianJ said

      Very good point. Baptism is, in part, an outward sign of a commitment to follow Christ (and “mourn with those that mourn, etc.”)

  8. Clark said

    It might be useful considering those verses in light of earlier parts of the Book of Mormon, such as Mosiah 3 or Mosiah 15. It might just mean that he’s saying that if it were true for those who died before Christ came it would be equally true for those who died after Christ came.

    Recognize that the whole Book of Moroni is a kind of book end to the book his father compiled. As such it probably should be read in terms of an assumption the reader has read the rest of the book. There is a typological assumption in the Book of Mormon that children are the archetype of innocence and righteousness. Now it’s true that Moroni 8 is an epistle written quite a bit earlier by Mormon to his son.

    It is interesting though that Mormon here doesn’t appear to know about baptism for the dead. Those who are “without law” simply are automatically saved according to this chapter. (From which the obvious corollary is that it sucks to hear the law)

  9. Velska said

    That unchangeableness of God means his character if I understand anything. God changes, not like we do, but he does. He somehow grows in some respect/dimension we don’t understand fully when he eventually is able to share his Glory with us. God becomes more when he has equals around him, not less.

    God told his children not to shed each others’ blood. He also told Abraham to offer Isaac. Well, Isaac offers himself, Abraham offers Isaac and God says thanks but that’s enough. I don’t want you to kill him, just that we both know you’re not going to quit your faith when it gets a bit rough for you.

    Did God change his mind in any point in this exchange?

    Of course, the logic that if God would punish innocent children for their parents’ sins, would he punish innocent teenagers for their parents’ sins to them who never had been taught right from wrong? So that logic isn’t fully there, and I think the point in Mormon’s abhorring infant baptism is that it so undermines the mercifulness of the Atonement that it’s beyond the pale.

    • BrianJ said

      I kind of like this reading: that the idea of infant baptism just bothered Mormon so much that he threw out a sort of exasperated condemnation of it. “If babies needed baptism then, then, well, then God is so mean that he just isn’t even God!” Or something like that.

      • Karen said

        Yes, I think there’s something of that going on here. Sometimes we have to take what is said as a person-to-a-person emotional comment, and not a set-in-stone rigid statement of doctrinal fact. I think some lines in conference talks get taken out of context and used that way too.

  10. garyherdsman said

    As I understand it, little children are exempt from baptism not because they are ignorant and incapable of choosing it, or because they haven’t been taught, but because they are inherently pure. Even those adults who never hear the gospel are still subject to law. The only ones that are “without law” are those without the capacity to be accountable.

    Furthermore, the requirement for salvation is not as much about the ordinance as about being born again. If you are never subject to spiritual death, then you don’t need the ordinance, and God is still consistent. In Jesus’ own case, he technically wasn’t subject to spiritual death, but he understood sin and repentance, and was accountable, and so chose to be baptised as an example to all other accountable people.

    Velska, interesting point about God changing his mind in the case of Abraham and Isaac. You could argue that with God’s foreknowledge that he didn’t change his mind at all, but just did what he planned to do based on his understanding of what Abraham was going to do. But I think this is another topic.

    • BrianJ said

      The problem is that I don’t agree that children are pure. Little babies, yes, but not children. By age 3 at least they know how to be mean and selfish, and by age 6 they can be downright cruel. I think they’re plenty impure by the time 8 rolls around.

      And then there’s the covenant side of baptism that Kirk brought up….

      • garyherdsman said

        I know what you mean, I have two monsters myself. But Moroni states that “little children are whole, for they are not capable of committing sin.” So while they may be capable of doing naughty things, they do not understand sin and repentance, and are therefore not accountable for their actions. And if you can’t sin, then you are spiritually pure.

        My query is why 8 years old is the cut-off. I don’t think that all children magically acquire that maturity and understanding at midnight on their eighth birthday. But evidently the Lord has set that mark and Christ’s mercy extends the Atonement to all prior to that age.

  11. Robert C. said

    I esp. like Clark’s comment in #8—very nice….

  12. BrianJ said

    Garyherdsman: “they do not understand sin and repentance, and are therefore not accountable for their actions.”

    But I contend that younger children certainly can and do understand sin and repentance to a sufficient degree to be held accountable for their actions. Do they fully understand the consequences of lying, bullying, etc.? No, of course not. (Neither do adults, really.)

    “My query is why 8 years old is the cut-off. I don’t think that all children magically acquire that maturity and understanding at midnight on their eighth birthday. But evidently the Lord has set that mark and Christ’s mercy extends the Atonement to all prior to that age.”

    That’s the problem I see too. And the solution is to either believe that there is some “magical” transformation that happens on the 8th birthday (something you and I both reject) or to accept that children do sin long before baptism is required of them.

    So, going with that second option, we’re faced with additional problems; first and foremost is: how does Christ’s atonement “cover them” and not cover others—like 40-yr olds—who aren’t baptized? How can the sins of a 7-yr old be ignored while the sins of a 70-yr old require baptism? I think the simplest solution is to uncouple baptism from sin altogether. The act of baptism is no longer about being cleansed from sin, rather it is entirely about making an outward sign of a covenant; Christ doesn’t want kids making covenant promises, so they are exempt—and 8 yrs is chosen as a somewhat arbitrary number (good enough in most cases).

    • GaryH said

      I did a quick browse through the topical guide and found a few interesting passages…

      Mosiah 3:16 And even if it were possible that little children could sin they could not be saved; but I say unto you they are blessed; for behold, as in Adam, or by nature, they fall, even so the blood of Christ atoneth for their sins.

      D&C 29:46-47 But behold, I say unto you, that little children are redeemed from the foundation of the world through mine Only Begotten; Wherefore, they cannot sin, for power is not given unto Satan to tempt little children, until they begin to become accountable before me;

      Moses 6:55 And the Lord spake unto Adam, saying: Inasmuch as thy children are conceived in sin, even so when they begin to grow up, sin conceiveth in their hearts, and they taste the bitter, that they may know to prize the good.

      The rough conclusion I draw from these scriptures together is thus: All children inherit the curse of Adam, in that they are fallen and naturally susceptible to sin. But the Lord prevents Satan from tempting them until they are eight years old. So prior to this time, the only sin they commit is what is conceived in their heart, for which they are not put at fault. Just as the Atonement redeems man from physical death, which he is subject to by no fault of his own, so it also covers the inherent sin in children which they commit simply by their fallen nature, and not as a result of choice in response to temptation.
      The age is set at eight because by then all children are accountable, and God being the consistent God that he is, set one rule for all, that no-one would be tempted before age eight, despite the fact that by then they all undertand sin and repentance. So the only magical event at midnight on their eighth birthday, is that Satan is free to tempt them, making them instantly accountable for sin, subject to repentance, and worthy of baptism for the remission of sin.

  13. RuthS said

    People who study child development understand that children are not little adults. Sometimes it seems like they understand things that they don’t because they have a vocabulary that they have memorized and know how to fit it into certain contexts. This makes it look like they are more advanced than they are. Often what is happening is their responses are simple stimulus response kinds things rather than real understanding.

    I would like to add D&C 93:38-40 to this discussion. Here it tells us that the spirit of man was innocent from the beginning. That changed when Adam fell, but being redeemed from the fall the returned to their infant state, a state of innocence before God. It is important distinguish what is innocence before God and some other kind of innocence. It is possible to act in normal childish even mischievous or mean ways and still be innocent before God. It is not until the wicked one takes away light and truth by encouraging disobedience, etc. that they are no more innocent. That is why it is important that they be taught to recognize the truth and light. If they are taught and choose to be disobedient then they are accountable for those sinful actions.

    Most children have matured enough in their understanding by the time they reach the age of 8 to be able to make choices and not just react to stimuli in their environment.

  14. Tim said

    Great conversation Brian.

  15. Justin said

    So, if I understand Mormon’s argument correctly:

    If little children weren’t alive in Christ [justified without need of baptism] from the foundation of the world,
    then God would be a partial/changeable/respecter of persons — b/c many children have died without baptism.

    So his modus tollens is valid — but the question is, is it sound?

    I somewhat like Brian’s [#12]:

    I think the simplest solution is to uncouple baptism from sin altogether. The act of baptism is no longer about being cleansed from sin, rather it is entirely about making an outward sign of a covenant; Christ doesn’t want kids making covenant promises, so they are exempt—and 8 yrs is chosen as a somewhat arbitrary number (good enough in most cases).

    To answer Brian’s question:

    How can the sins of a 7-yr old be ignored while the sins of a 70-yr old require baptism?

    Sin = offense. You have either offended God or both God and man. God is not offended by the actions of children. As a parent I can think of many examples of behaviors that I do not find fault with when my children do them to me, that I would find fault with should another adult do them to me.

    This is basically what Garyherdsman’s said at [#10]: “Moroni states that “little children are whole, for they are not capable of committing sin.” So while they may be capable of doing naughty things, they do not understand sin and repentance, and are therefore not accountable for their actions. And if you can’t sin, then you are spiritually pure.

    Also, in response to why 8 years old [as opposed to 7 or 9], D&C 68:25 seems to suggest that the number is more about the number of years it should take parents to instruct their children than it is about the age of the child. This is why I would disagree with RuthS [#13]: “Most children have matured enough in their understanding by the time they reach the age of 8 to be able to make choices and not just react to stimuli in their environment. Research indicates that even teenagers are not fully developed in their ability to predict consequences that will result from choices they make — [ever think, “Didn’t you know that that would happen?”, well they probably didn’t].

  16. Robert C. said

    I like te idea of decoupling sin and baptism, though I think D&C 29:46ff undermines the motivating idea that children can sin.

    Perhaps we need to think about sin more in terms of violating covenants and less in terms of doing something we know better than to do….

  17. BrianJ said

    “Perhaps we need to think about sin more in terms of violating covenants and less in terms of doing something we know better than to do….”

    But then no one could be baptized for the remission of sins, by definition.

  18. kirkcaudle said

    Lots to think about here. I don’t really have anything to add at this point, but I am thinking. I like the way Justin put together a couple of Brians thoughts in #15 though. I also like Robert’s idea of thinking of “sin more in terms of violating covenants” than simply mere actions by humans without covenant.

    Not really sure yet how to put all this together, but we are coming up with some nice puzzle pieces.

  19. RuthS said

    Brian 17

    “Perhaps we need to think about sin more in terms of violating covenants and less in terms of doing something we know better than to do….”

    But then no one could be baptized for the remission of sins, by definition.

    The remission of sins is not limited to former sins. It also covers future sins that are repented of. That is why we are only baptized once. The remission of all our repented of sins is the Lord’s part of the baptismal covenant. When we take the sacrament we are witnessing that we are holding up our end of the bargain.

    • BrianJ said

      I understand this differently, fundamentally. I believe that the remission of sins can only come by the Holy Ghost, as Nephi explains in 31:17 “For the gate by which ye should enter is repentance and baptism by water; and then cometh a remission of your sins by fire and by the Holy Ghost.” Thus, I believe that the reason re-baptism is unnecessary is that any sin remittance that occurs post-baptism comes via the Holy Ghost—just as any sin remittance before or during baptism also comes only via the Holy Ghost. Incidentally, this is referenced in the sacrament prayers: “…that they may always have his Spirit to be with them.”

      (My reluctance to accept “future remission”—or “future” anything—is best left for a very different thread.)

      • RuthS said

        I think we might agree about future sins inasmuch as baptism is not permission to sin. I’m not sure I understand what you are saying about the Holy Ghost is pertinent to infant baptism. But, with reference to logic in your original question I am looking at Moses 6:59-62. If we put that together with the other things we have been taught about the infant state being one of innocence with verse 62 which says “This is the plan of salvation unto all men, through the blood of mine only Begotten, who shall come in the meridian of time.” Then baptism is the way a person is born again by water v. 59 then cleansed by the spirit etc. then v. 60 tells us we keep the commandment by the water so everyone who has sinned is commanded to be baptized in order to be spiritually reborn and have been from the beginning. To then require baptism of babies would be a change in the rules. It would be a change in the plan of salvation as explained in the book of Moses. An understanding of justification and sanctification as explained in Moses is helpful, I think, in coming to an understanding of these issues which are not nearly as simple as they first appear.

        Anyway, I have found this a most interesting and stimulating discussion. Baptism is a deeper subject than it is generally thought to be. Thanks for the opportunity to think about it.

  20. Robert C. said

    Brian, for good counter-points.

    Will infants be baptized in the Millenium when they grow up? I’m thinking of some Mormon (folk-)doctrine regarding the chance that parents will have to raise their kids who died in infancy during the Millenium. If so, perhaps it’s not so much that infants don’t ever have to be baptized, just not while infants.

    Of course it’d be quite a stretch to say this was Mormon’s understanding, but perhaps he was simply recognizing and wrestling with a tension regarding the theology of baptism and the question of infants…?

    • BrianJ said

      I like what you imply: Mormon didn’t fully understand what he was talking about. If that was the case, then we shouldn’t expect his logic to flow step-by-step.

      And yes, the Millennial question brings up a good possibility.

  21. kirkcaudle said

    Robert, that (Millennial baptism) was one of the things I was getting at when I made that comment, “Even if children die at the age of three would they not still need to receive all the same ordnances as everyone else?” (#7).

    I just have a hard time believing that some people that are born onto earth do not have to have this saving ordinance every performed at some point. Do any of you temple/genealogy people know if we do proxy baptisms for those that died before the age of their accountability? The answer to that question should shed some light upon the topic at hand, at least for me.

    Also, I have a hard time believing that every single person in the entire history of the world that died before the age of eight is going to be exalted. To my knowledge that is the doctrine. Now, I am not at all disputing the doctrine, but it is hard for me to understand how that could be the case.

    If this is the case then on one level or another go must “ordain” each of these death to come at the time they come. Thus, ensuring exaltation of that spirit. If this is true, what does that say about free will? It seems strange to think of a spirit coming to earth and through no choice of his own being killed by his mother at 3 days old and then going straight to heaven. It is a feel good story, yes. But how can we square that doctrinally for every single person that has died before the age of eight throughout history? That is A LOT of very valiant spirits. In fact, throughout most of the history of the world most kids DID die before the age of eight! I think it would then be safe to say a good 30% (at least)of the world’s historical population is going to heaven simply by age of death, without baptism.

    Again, I am not trying to be flippant. I honestly do not understand this doctrine at all. It just seems to me that under this logic it is possible that more spirits could be saved without baptism then with baptism.

    Not sure if any of this makes sense…perhaps this is why Mormon was so confused???

    • GaryH said

      Infants are not baptised or confirmed by proxy in the temple and neither do they receive an endowment. They are only sealed to parents.
      It’s a good point about the huge number of souls that go direct to the celestial kingdom.

  22. kate said

    Baptisms are not done for those who died before the age of eight in temples, only sealing ordinances.

  23. Robert C. said

    Yes, Kirk #21, previously I simply didn’t have eyes to see the implications of your comment #7, not having thought about this deeply enough. “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” Thanks, Brian and others, for the push to remedy my previously-shallow meditations.

  24. KirkCaudle said

    Robert, nice to hear a little Buddha thrown into this conversion :) However, I hope I was not meant to be the teacher in that context. Many of you on this site (and elsewhere) are much greater teachers (intellectually and spiritually) than I.

  25. NathanG said

    I think GaryH’s reply in 12 points out some important scriptures. I particulalry like Mosiah 3:16 passage:
    And even if it were possible that little children could sin they could not be saved; but I say unto you they are blessed; for behold, as in Adam, or by nature, they fall, even so the blood of Christ atoneth for their sins.

    So, hypothetically, what would have happened if there had been no atonement? Would all little children have been lost? This passage suggests that yes they would. Physical death would need to be overcome for starters, but what about spiritual death? It sounds like a spiritual death is inherited as well. If Christ is able to give a freebie to all of us to overcome physical death, I don’t have any major qualms with him saying if you die before 8, you also get a freebie for this inherited spiritual death. I agree, they are capable of being quite mischievous with some degree of understanding that they are doing something wrong. I can see it in my two-year-old’s eyes that she knows when she is misbehaving.

    Another thought I had while reading through the responses is what is repentance. There’s talk about repentance on a single action basis. I stole the candybar and my parents make me return it, apolagize, make up for it somehow, and ask God for forgiveness. Has a place, but probably is missing some more important point. There’s also a repentance that encompasses discussions like change of heart and purification where we redirect our focus from a carnal, sensual, or devilish direction towards Christ. This could even entail switching your allegiance from a mortal king to an eternal king (which is how I read the change of heart King Benjamin’s people attained). For children, 8 could be an appropriate time where they can begin to recognize that their allegiance really needs to be to Christ in a very infantile state. So if any of this is true, baptism is unto repentance as it marks a conscientous change from following some fallen orientation to Christ and infants are not capable of it.

    At the very least, raising the question makes us grapple with sin, accountability, and baptism. I’m sure my understanding is miniscule at best.

    • GaryH said

      Good post NathanG.

      Can children sin or can’t they? Mosiah 3:16 seems to say both. Also from D&C 29, why are children “redeemed from the foundation of the world” if they cannot sin? Or does the “wherefore” imply that they cannot sin BECAUSE they are redeemed?

      The way I understand it, Christ’s atonement covers all sins and transgressions, willful or otherwise, no matter who committed them and at what age. He then set the terms for the application of that atonement: a freebie for those who are not subject to temptation and therefore not accountable, and the covenant of baptism (encompassing repentance, the change of heart, etc) for those who are, both of which are consistent with God’s unchangeable sense of justice and mercy.

      The net effect is that children cannot truly sin because they are already redeemed.

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