The Four States of Life

A Sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper

Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying:  when you take the census of the children of Israel for their number, then every man shall give a ransom for himself to the LORD, everyone from twenty years old and above, shall give an offering to the LORD.  (EXO 30:11,12,14)

When little children are first born, they are in a state called “innocence of ignorance.”  By that we mean that they are innocent of any sin because they do not have the knowledge or the opportunity to choose to do evil.  While it is true that little children inherit tendencies to evil from their parents, they do not inherit any actual evils, and therefore, if through some tragedy they die, little children are certain to find an eternal home in heaven – regardless of what religious rituals may or may not have been performed over them or in their name.

On the other hand, an adult who knows the difference between good and evil, and yet consciously and deliberately chooses to do what he knows to be evil for the sake of personal pleasure or gain has made himself guilty of actual sin.  He will, when he comes to the end of his natural life, continue to act in this way in the spiritual world, and will find his eternal home with others like himself in hell – again, regardless of what church he may belong to, or what rituals may or may not have been performed over him.

It is a person’s essential character, or “ruling love” that determines his place in the spiritual world.  This character is built through a lifetime of choices, made freely and with full rational understanding of their consequences.  Since the rational is not yet formed in a child, no matter how naughty he may be, he cannot freely and rationally choose to do evil, and is therefore still innocent in the eyes of the Lord.

It is fairly clear and reasonable to say that the little child is excused by his ignorance, but an adult is responsible for his evils because he should know better.  The question then arises, “at what age do people become responsible for their evils?”   Where do we draw the line?  And how can this knowledge help us in our care of children and young adults?

In the explanation of our text as given in the Arcana Caelestia, the Heavenly Doctrines of the New Church indicate that the line of personal responsibility for sin should be drawn at the state of mental development signified by the twentieth year.  This is because “when a man attains the age of twenty years he begins to think from himself”[1]  This is taught in a discussion of the progression of spiritual states that we go through during our life in the world.  There are four basic states, and the Doctrines define them in the following way:

The first state of life, or the state of infancy, is defined as being from birth to the fifth year.  The Writings have so much to say about this state, and how its development is overseen and protected by the Lord through the angels of the highest heaven so that even in the most difficult circumstances, every child is provided with remnants of good and truth that will provide a spiritual balance to his life to eternity.  During infancy, the interior parts of the mind, which will come into play later, are being formed, but are not yet used.  Only the sensual degree of the mind is used, that is, the infant is only really aware of those things that he discovers with his own five senses.  Certainly, he becomes aware of certain abstract ideas, but his understanding of them is still based in thought from his senses.  The infant knows of God, but has difficulty distinguishing Him from his own father, for example.  Because the infant’s understanding is only from the sensual degree, and from things relatively external, he is said to be in ignorance because true wisdom and true understanding come from the spirit, from truth received in the interior, spiritual degrees of the mind.  Sensual truth, no matter how factual or abundant, is to true wisdom as nothing, and is therefore called ignorance.[2]

The second state of childhood and youth is said to run from the fifth to the twentieth year, and is called the state of instruction and memory-knowledge.  As with the first state, the Writings speak a great deal about the various changes that take place in the mind as it develops in this state, but it is not our purpose to enter into that detail, rather we only note in passing that although a child and a youth learns many things, and even learns how to relate these things one to another in intelligent ways, yet he is not thinking or drawing conclusions from himself, but rather he is borrowing such things from his parents, teachers, and others whom he respects.  He cannot from himself discriminate between degrees of truth, or even between truth and falsities – except with the help and leadership of others.

It is obvious that there is a great deal of difference between a first grader and a High School Senior.  The first grader thinks entirely from others, while the Senior is almost an adult and able to think for himself in a limited way.  What the Writings are trying to teach us here is that there is a long period where the mind has to be fed truths in many forms so that it can build for itself a foundation of truth from which it can base future thought and reflection.  The state does not change on the twentieth or twenty-first birthday like a light that has suddenly been switched on.  The state grows and develops in fits and starts all through childhood and youth.  This is the time of life where a young person can be preparing a learned paper on the Industrial Revolution for school one moment, and the next be down on the floor playing cars.  The unifying element of this state is the fact that for the most part, decisions are made not from self, but from another.  Opinions, too, are borrowed from others, because there has not yet been sufficient life experience, nor have the interior degrees been opened enough to allow true thought from self.[3]  And because the opinions are borrowed and have not been earned by personal effort and softened by life experience, they are strongly held and expressed.

The third state, running from the twentieth to the sixtieth years, and, according to the Heavenly Doctrines, called adolescence, young manhood, and manhood.  The key thing that distinguishes this third state from the previous one is that this is the state in which a person first begins to really think and act from his own knowledge, choices, and preferences.  It is during this state that the person develops the self-confidence to step away from the beliefs and attitudes that he has acquired from his family, teachers, and friends.  It is unfortunate that the young person does not always do this gently, easily, or with consideration for the feelings of those on whom he has depended for so long.  On the other hand, it does appear that the conflicts that are characteristic of this age actually serve the important use of helping both parent and child realize that the time has come for the child to leave home and begin his own life, the conflict serving to ease the pain of separation by pointing out the absolute necessity of it for the mental and spiritual health of both parent and child.

A characteristic of this state is the rejection of matters of faith that are from others in favor of one’s own faith.  Even so, this third state is called a “state of intelligence”[4], because the person is thinking from himself, and is able to discriminate between truths, and to form conclusions about his life.  These things then become his own, and it can finally be said that such a person has genuine faith, for until he begins to think from himself and for himself, the faith that he has is not his own, but from another.  Historical faith is not a real faith, because the faith is in the person who taught it, not in the truth of the matter itself.  Such discrimination and thought only comes when the interiors of the mind are opened towards heaven.

This is a key idea.  While we are in the world, our external senses are filled with the things of the world, but we can turn our minds away from the things of the world to spiritual things, thus opening our minds towards heaven.  In proportion that we turn towards heaven for knowledge and inspiration, and for guidance in the choices of our earthly lives, in the same proportion light will flow in from heaven and we will become intelligent and wise.  This is done in so far as we turn away from the loves of self and the world, and instead try to live our lives in use to the Lord and to the neighbor.[5]

0   The fourth and last state is known as the wisdom of old age, and continues from the state represented by the sixtieth year to eternity.  In this state the person has resolved most of the issues about what is true, and what is false in his own life, and is now far more concerned with willing and living according to the truths that he knows, for such a life is what it truly is to be wise.[6]

0   Having looked at the qualities that distinguish the four main states of life, we can now return to our original question, which was “when does a person become spiritually responsible for his actions?”  Clearly not in the first state, for an infant cannot think beyond the sensual, and therefore cannot understand the spiritual consequences of his actions.  The second state, being a state of learning and thought from others also precluded spiritual responsibility, for when a person is in this state he is thinking and acting not from his own character, but from the things he had learned from others and is simply imitating.  Such actions do not have eternal spiritual consequences.

But by the third state, when the person finally begins to take the things learned from others, to challenge them in his life, and to begin to make them his own, can see spiritual consequences and act from his own character.  Therefore he is spiritually responsible and accountable.

The third state is one where the truths of faith and the goods of love can be set in order and disposed by the Lord.  Also, because of the quality of this state, it says in the Word, “from a son of twenty years and upward every one that goes forth into the army” (NUM 1:3), for by “the army” are signified truths disposed in this order – that they do not fear falsities and evils; but repel them if they assault.

Children and infants are not able to go forth and battle against evil in the same way, because the goods and truths that they may have not been set in order by the Lord, and they do not have the rational degree of the mind opened by which they can use the truths of the Word which they know to dispel evil and falsity.  The Lord does not permit anyone who does not have such a defense to be let into true spiritual combats, although everyone experiences temptations to some degree in preparation for this state.  Because a person cannot be allowed to have spiritual combats until he comes into his own judgment, therefore he cannot be held spiritually accountable for the things that he does from ignorance or immaturity.

This is why it is taught in Numbers that when the children of Israel murmured against Jehovah those “twenty years and upward” were condemned to die in the wilderness without entering Canaan (NUM 14:29, 32:10-11), for they signify those who are in a state of intelligence such that they can discriminate, conclude and judge from themselves.  Therefore, they are blamable for their evil.[7]

As parents, we have only about twenty years to do all that we can to assist the Lord in preparing the minds of our children to be truly intelligent, to be spiritually responsible for their own actions, to be able to discriminate between good and evil, and to know to choose the good.  And then we watch with fear and love as they begin to live their own lives, making their own decisions, doing things differently than we would have done them – and we would have them do.  We want to protect them from the errors that we ourselves made at their age – but we can’t really, for it is essential, for the sake of their own spiritual development, that they move out of the childish state of thinking from parents and teachers into the mature adult state of thinking for themselves and taking spiritual responsibility for their actions.  We need to remember how important this state was to our own development, and even more, we need to remember that the human mind is represented in the Word by a “house,” and the Lord tells us that He “builds the house” and that those who would seek to do it without His help and guidance, will “labor in vain.”  AMEN.


1st Lesson:  LEV 27:1-8

Now the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, {2} “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘When a man consecrates by a vow certain persons to the LORD, according to your valuation, {3} ‘if your valuation is of a male from twenty years old up to sixty years old, then your valuation shall be fifty shekels of silver, according to the shekel of the sanctuary. {4} ‘If it is a female, then your valuation shall be thirty shekels; {5} ‘and if from five years old up to twenty years old, then your valuation for a male shall be twenty shekels, and for a female ten shekels; {6} ‘and if from a month old up to five years old, then your valuation for a male shall be five shekels of silver, and for a female your valuation shall be three shekels of silver; {7} ‘and if from sixty years old and above, if it is a male, then your valuation shall be fifteen shekels, and for a female ten shekels. {8} ‘But if he is too poor to pay your valuation, then he shall present himself before the priest, and the priest shall set a value for him; according to the ability of him who vowed, the priest shall value him.  Amen.

2nd Lesson:   Mat 21:23-46

Now when He came into the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people confronted Him as He was teaching, and said, “By what authority are You doing these things? And who gave You this authority?” {24} But Jesus answered and said to them, “I also will ask you one thing, which if you tell Me, I likewise will tell you by what authority I do these things: {25} “The baptism of John; where was it from? From heaven or from men?” And they reasoned among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ He will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ {26} “But if we say, ‘From men,’ we fear the multitude, for all count John as a prophet.” {27} So they answered Jesus and said, “We do not know.” And He said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things. {28} “But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go, work today in my vineyard.’ {29} “He answered and said, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he regretted it and went. {30} “Then he came to the second and said likewise. And he answered and said, ‘I go, sir,’ but he did not go. {31} “Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said to Him, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you. {32} “For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him; but tax collectors and harlots believed him; and when you saw it, you did not afterward relent and believe him. {33} “Hear another parable: There was a certain landowner who planted a vineyard and set a hedge around it, dug a winepress in it and built a tower. And he leased it to vinedressers and went into a far country. {34} “Now when vintage-time drew near, he sent his servants to the vinedressers, that they might receive its fruit. {35} “And the vinedressers took his servants, beat one, killed one, and stoned another. {36} “Again he sent other servants, more than the first, and they did likewise to them. {37} “Then last of all he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ {38} “But when the vinedressers saw the son, they said among themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and seize his inheritance.’ {39} “So they took him and cast him out of the vineyard and killed him. {40} “Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those vinedressers?” {41} They said to Him, “He will destroy those wicked men miserably, and lease his vineyard to other vinedressers who will render to him the fruits in their seasons.” {42} Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone which the builders rejected Has become the chief cornerstone. This was the Lord’s doing, And it is marvelous in our eyes’? {43} “Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it. {44} “And whoever falls on this stone will be broken; but on whomever it falls, it will grind him to powder.” {45} Now when the chief priests and Pharisees heard His parables, they perceived that He was speaking of them. {46} But when they sought to lay hands on Him, they feared the multitudes, because they took Him for a prophet.  Amen.

3rd Lesson:  AC 10225.

From a son of twenty years and upward.  That this signifies the state of the intelligence of truth and good, is evident from the signification of “twenty,” when said of a man’s age, as being a state of the intelligence of truth and good.

That “twenty” denotes a state of the intelligence of truth and good, is because when a man attains the age of twenty years he begins to think from himself; for from earliest infancy to extreme old age a man passes through a number of states in respect to his interiors that belong to intelligence and wisdom.

The first state is from birth to his fifth year; this is a state of ignorance and of innocence in ignorance, and is called infancy. The second state is from the fifth year to the twentieth; this is a state of instruction and of memory-knowledge, and is called childhood and youth.  The third state is from the twentieth year to the sixtieth, which is a state of intelligence, and is called adolescence, young manhood, and manhood.  The fourth or last state is from the sixtieth year upward, which is a state of wisdom, and of innocence in wisdom.  Amen.


[1]AC 10225:1

[2]See AC 10225:3

[3]See AC 10225:4

[4]AC 10225:5

[5]See AC 10225:5

[6]See AC 10225:6

-360[7]See AC 10225:11

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