While pondering and studying the idea of nakedness as a symbol, and covering ourselves with the atonement of Christ (e.g., Adam and Eve receiving a covering through the sacrifice of an animal), I came across a set of scriptures that include a principle that I have never heard taught that challenges my entire thinking regarding repentance and baptism. I synthesize it this way:
We are responsible to repent and bring an acceptable offering before the Lord when we learn that we are guilty of sin, even if we transgressed ignorantly.
Previously, I had believed that we were not held accountable for transgressing in ignorance. This would include, for example, a child that had not reached the age of accountability being held unaccountable. I’ll come back to this is a second. Let’s first look at the “lesser law” as seen in Leviticus (highlights added):
And if the whole congregation of Israel sin through ignorance, and the thing be hid from the eyes of the assembly, and they have done somewhat against any of the commandments of the Lord concerning things which should not be done, and are guilty; When the sin, which they have sinned against it, is known, then the congregation shall offer a young bullock for the sin, and bring him before the tabernacle of the congregation. (Leviticus 4:13–14)
When a ruler hath sinned, and done somewhat through ignorance against any of the commandments of the Lord his God concerning things which should not be done, and is guilty; Or if his sin, wherein he hath sinned, come to his knowledge; he shall bring his offering (Leviticus 4:22–23)
And if any one of the common people sin through ignorance, while he doeth somewhat against any of the commandments of the Lord concerning things which ought not to be done, and be guilty; Or if his sin, which he hath sinned, come to his knowledge: then he shall bring his offering…. (Leviticus 4:27–28)
And if a man eat of the holy thing unwittingly, then he shall put the fifth part thereof unto it, and shall give it unto the priest with the holy thing. (Leviticus 22:14)
Or if a soul touch any unclean thing…. Or if he touch the uncleanness of man, whatsoever uncleanness it be that a man shall be defiled withal, and it be hid from him; when he knoweth of it, then he shall be guilty. (Leviticus 5:2–3)
All these appear to indicate that we are guilty (and held accountable) when we learn that we had previously sinned; that we are not excused from repenting and bringing an offering (broken heart and contrite spirit) just because we sinned ignorantly.
It seems that the more I pray for knowledge and understanding, the more I learn and the greater the burden becomes. Oye. This is peculiar in that this example clearly demonstrates that the greater burden has the potential of reducing a much greater burden. Wow.
Let’s now return to little children. As best as I can tell, Mormon’s epistle to Moroni may be interpreted in two ways (highlights added):
Listen to the words of Christ, your Redeemer, your Lord and your God. Behold, I came into the world not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance; the whole need no physician, but they that are sick; wherefore, 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; and the law of circumcision is done away in me. And after this manner did the Holy Ghost manifest the word of God unto me; wherefore, my beloved son, I know that it is solemn mockery before God, that ye should baptize little children. Behold I say unto you that this thing shall ye teach—repentance and baptism unto those who are accountable and capable of committing sin; yea, teach parents that they must repent and be baptized, and humble themselves as their little children, and they shall all be saved with their little children. And their little children need no repentance, neither baptism. Behold, baptism is unto repentance to the fulfilling the commandments unto the remission of sins. 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! Wherefore, if little children could not be saved without baptism, these must have gone to an endless hell. Behold I say unto you, that he that supposeth that little children need baptism is in the gall of bitterness and in the bonds of iniquity; for he hath neither faith, hope, nor charity; wherefore, should he be cut off while in the thought, he must go down to hell. For awful is the wickedness to suppose that God saveth one child because of baptism, and the other must perish because he hath no baptism. (Moroni 8:8–15)
Interpretation 1: “little children are whole, for they are not capable of committing sin” means that while they may break a commandment (some interpret this as transgression), it will never be counted as sin. Ever.
Interpretation 2: “little children are whole, for they are not capable of committing sin” means that while they may break a commandment (some interpret this as transgression), it will never be counted as sin so long as they are “little children” and remain uncountable.
The latter can be reasonably argued simply because the context of this entire thought is about little children when they are little children. There is nothing here about the transition from being unaccountable to being accountable, or from being in a state of ignorance to a state of knowledge.
It seems that Interpretation 1 has been used as a basis from which to extrapolate/infer that the Savior will not hold anyone accountable for that which they do not know, nor will anyone ever be held accountable for their actions until taught the law and commandments. Leviticus seems to contradict this. Using Leviticus as a basis, the burden of repentance when learning the gospel and doctrine of Christ is much greater than I have previously thought and changes entirely the gravity of the baptismal ordinance. The implications are great. For example, this gives an entirely different perspective to the responsibilities we have to teach the gospel and doctrines and rid our garments of the sins of those who would otherwise have sinned in ignorance, but who will eventually be held accountable along with us.
Returning one last time to little children, Even if Interpretation 1, above, is correct, I can’t help but wonder if there is any downside to preferring the fail-safe position of Interpretation 2. Meaning, let us presume a person above the age of accountability needs to understand that when they learn a law, they have the responsibility to repent of any prior violation of the law. So then, why not show a child who is about to be baptized what that might look like and how to proceed from there, not to overwhelm them, but to help them apply the atonement of Christ, to begin to rejoice and to know the sweetness of being cleansed from the sins of the world through the blood of Christ, and to learn to sing the song of redeeming love?
Note: there are two related themes that I avoided because I don’t believe that either conflicts with what is represented in Leviticus, above: ridding garments of the sins of others (e.g. 2 Nephi 9:44; Jacob 2:2; Mosiah 2:28; Mormon 9:35); and holding parents accountable for not teaching their children (D&C 68:25). Nevertheless, there may be something else in our body of scriptures that conflicts with this; I don’t yet know what that might be.