Upon the death of his sickly baby boy, David expressed his confidence that they would be reunited. “He shall not return to me,” he said, but he affirmed that “I shall go to him” (2 Samuel 12:23). His baby was now in Heaven, and some day David would be there too. David went to Heaven because he was saved; the baby went to Heaven because he was safe. Just as we need to know how sinners are “saved” from their sins, we also need to understand that there are people who will escape the wrath to come because they are not accountable for their sins, and therefore “safe.”
David, Saved by Faith in the Saviour
We cannot doubt that David was a saved sinner. We know this great lover of God was a sinner because he confessed to being one. “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5).
But David was a saved sinner. He wasn’t going to Hell for his sin, even though he deserved (as we all do) to go there. He was saved from the penalty of his sin the same way penitent sinners have always found salvation: through faith in the Saviour. Men who lived before Jesus came were saved by faith in the coming Saviour, just as today they are saved by faith in the Saviour who has come. Old Testament believers knew of the Saviour by the prophecies that promised Him, just as we know of Him through the New Testament Scriptures. David clearly had his faith in God’s promise of salvation. “He only is my rock and my salvation…” (Psalm 62:6).
David was going to Heaven because he was saved. And he said that he would be going to where his infant son went when he died. The child went to Heaven because of a consistent divine principle that individuals are not responsible for sinning when they are not sufficiently aware of the laws they have violated. In other words, although human beings are sinful from their conception, they are not accountable for their sins until they are old enough to be aware of them.
The Generation Who Entered the Promised Land
This principle is very clear in the judgment on the unbelieving generation of Israelites who died in the wilderness. God said, “Surely there shall not one of these men of this evil generation see that good land, which I sware to give unto your fathers, save Caleb…because he hath wholly followed the LORD.” Then Moses, as God’s spokesman, said, “Joshua the son of Nun, which standeth before thee, he shall go in thither: encourage him: for he shall cause Israel to inherit it” (Deuteronomy 1:34–38).
Then the servant of the LORD made this statement: “Moreover your little ones…which in that day had no knowledge between good and evil, they shall go in thither, and unto them will I give it, and they shall possess it” (Deuteronomy 1:39).
The generation that refused to obey God because of their unbelief was not allowed to enter or possess the Promised Land, but was doomed to die in the desert. However, their children, who were not old enough to be held accountable for the sins of the nation, were allowed to go in. Now the age of responsibility for this sin was set at twenty (Read Numbers 14:26–35), much older than the age at which a child would become accountable for his sins as a whole, but the principle is nevertheless made clear by this incident. The children under twenty were not held responsible for the particular sin of rebellion that was committed that day in Kadesh.
Ignorance and the Law
In the ordinances of the Mosaic Law under which Israel was governed before Christ, a clear distinction was made between sinning willfully and sinning as a result of ignorantly breaking the Law. Although certain responsibility was placed on the Israelite to know the law and certain guilt was assigned to him when he became aware that he had sinned (read Leviticus 5), ignorance of the law was a factor in determining how the wrong would be rectified. The concept that knowledge determines responsibility was definitely written into the regulations regarding trespass offerings.
Teachings of Christ
The Lord Jesus taught that knowledge will determine the extent of responsibility at the judgment when He said, “And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell: for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I say unto you, That it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee” (Matthew 11:23–24).
Jesus said that Capernaum, the headquarters of His ministry, which had witnessed so many of His miracles, was more responsible for its sins than the vile city of Sodom was for hers. The reason was its greater knowledge of the truth. Therefore its punishment will be more severe. Again knowledge determines responsibility.
In another place, Scripture records Jesus saying, “And that servant, which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required” (Luke 12:47–48a).
Accountability in Romans
Right in the heart of the epistle to the Romans, the Apostle Paul deals with the question of accountability for sins. He is giving the testimony of every man when he describes in chapter 7 the time when he became accountable, and condemned with the death penalty for his sins.
“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 [lust]. 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” (Romans 7:7–10).
It is the Law of God, impressed upon the mind either through the conscience (Romans 2:11–16) or by the testimony of Scripture, that makes the developing child accountable for his sins. Before he understands the basics of the Law, he is “alive,” unaccountable for his sins and not subject to the penalty of eternal death. When the Law came into his consciousness, he “died” in that he became accountable for his sins and subject to sin’s wages. When he knows right from wrong, and realizes he has done wrong, he is no longer safe, and must turn to Christ in order to be saved (Romans 3:10–26).
This moment of realization is highlighted in Isaiah 7:16, where the prophet speaks of the time when, “The child shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good.” The Book of Jonah also focuses on the age of accountability in its final verse (4:11), where it speaks of the mercy of God in not destroying the city of Nineveh when so many there were children, “That cannot discern between their right hand and their left.” The concept of an age at which a child becomes responsible is found throughout the Bible.
David is in Heaven today because he was saved by faith in the Saviour. His baby boy is also in Heaven because, in the plan of a loving and merciful God— who does all things well—he died while he was morally and spiritually safe.