Age of Accountability

How should a believer respond to a parent who just lost a young child? What should you say to the repentant woman who is struggling with a past abortion of human life? Where do we go to in Scripture to answer the question of “Is my child in Heaven with Jesus or in Hell?” At first, emotions kick in and immediately we want to respond with a comforting “Your child is fully satisfied and healthy in the presence of Jesus.” But, what do we do about other Bible passages that make such a definitive statement hard to swallow? What do we do with Romans 5:12-21, 1 Cor. 15:21-22, and Psa. 51:5 that teach that we are sinful and accountable/guilty (?) from birth? Romans 5:13-14 explicitly states “for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.” The fact that men died, in Paul’s eyes, was proof that his guilt was passed to them. Romans 5:18-19 seems to also affirm that all people are guilty before the Lord as well. “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” When Adam sinned, in some way, all of humanity sinned with him. Scripture teaches we are not only guilty before God because of Adam, but we also inherit a sinful nature. The case is closed-guilty babies equal Hell. Or is it?

I have come to believe after pondering the question for some time that children do not automatically go to Hell because of Adam’s guilt. They receive some sort of pass from Adam’s guilt or culpability because of Christ’s work (notice it’s still through Christ’s work). It needs to be said though that I do not believe they go to heaven because they’re not sinful. I agree wholeheartedly with Michael Horton who remarked, “When evangelicals and fundamentalists assume that infants are pure until they reach an ‘age of accountability,’ or that sin is something outside-in the world or in the sinful environment or in sinful company that corrupts the individual-they are practicing Pelagians.” The Fall of man affects even infants. The Fall of man resulted in seven residual effects for the cosmos: (1) our first parents lost their legal/moral innocence and original righteousness and found themselves the subjects of real guilt and moral corruption (Gen. 2:25, 3:7, 10), (2) the image of God was immediately both fractured and distorted, (3) fellowship between God and man was broke, (4) man’s environment was cursed, and nature’s productivity became impaired by thorns and thistles (Gen. 3:17-18; Job 25:5; Rom. 8:20-22), (5) humanity was judicially condemned and  punished by God (Rom. 5:12-23; Gen. 3:19,23), (6) Adam’s guilt was imputed to all his posterity (Rom. 5:12-23; Psa. 51:5; 1 Cor. 15:22-23), and (7) man’s greatest need is now divine grace (Gen. 3:15). Those effects touch even the youngest among us. My position is not that babies are completely untainted by the stain of sin. Instead it is that God providentially applies the work of Christ to them in his sovereign, good will.

To my fellow Calvinist brothers and sisters, please do not pick up the stones just yet. Know that I am with you on many issues. To those who hold to unconditional election (which I think Scripture clearly teaches), this seems to be a “free pass” to babies and children based solely on an emotive desire of my heart. Hang with me during this blog. I think there is a good biblical basis for accepting that children do not automatically go to Hell when they die before a certain time period in their life. I’ll do my best to use Scripture, some philosophical arguments, and Church history to make the case that it’s more plausible that infants and children do not automatically go to a Christ-less eternity by virtue of their representative Adam. I use the term “plausible” because I cannot make a statement that carries 100% certainty about almost anything. But, does it seem more likely that Scripture teaches children will be with Christ if they die prematurely, yes. I’ll go ahead and admit that there is no one definitive statement regarding this issue. I truly wish there were. Try to be open and satisfied with inferential arguments from the Bible. Below are my arguments I’ve pulled from various books, lectures, and sermons I’ve heard throughout the years.

1. Scripture teaches there is a time in one’s life where they are viewed as innocent or not being able to tell right from wrong.

Scripture paints a picture of children as being not held accountable for their sins. They are not culpable for their actions because they lack the ability to know right and wrong. They are not guilt worthy in the sense that they neither bear the weight of Adam’s sin nor their own. God treats them accordingly.

“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted. (Isa. 7:14-16)”

The context of this passage is judgment. Not the age of accountability. But, within this passage, Isaiah makes a statement concerning the “sign” child. These verses indicate that the Syro-Ephraimite threat will soon pass; it will not last longer than the time it takes for the boy to reach an age where he can determine right from wrong. Maybe this opens the door for an age of responsibility.

“And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad–in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls…(Rom. 9:10-11)”

In this context, Paul is talking about God’s sovereign choice of Jacob over Esau. The text talks about God’s choice of a person before they had done nothing good or bad. There seems to be a time in one’s life where culpability is not enacted.

“You were blameless in your ways from the day you were created, till unrighteousness was found in you. (Ezek. 28:15)”

God is pronouncing judgment upon the prince of Tyre. He compares the prince to an anointed Cherub that was blameless until there was unrighteousness found within him. This seems to imply that there was a time when unrighteousness was not found in him. A time when his or her actual sins (or Adam’s) is not reckoned to them.

“Even with me the LORD was angry on your account and said, ‘You also shall not go in there. Joshua the son of Nun, who stands before you, he shall enter. Encourage him, for he shall cause Israel to inherit it. And as for your little ones, who you said would become a prey, and your children, who today have no knowledge of good or evil, they shall go in there. And to them I will give it, and they shall possess it. (Deut. 1:37-39)”

Moses said the Israelites’ children have no knowledge of good or evil…they are forensically innocent per se. Dr. Page Brooks, a Southern Baptist theologian noted about this passage, “Even with the Hebrew idea of corporate personality and corporate responsibility, these children were not held responsible for the sins of Israel.”

“What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. (Rom. 7:7-11)”

In Paul’s discourse on the relationship between the law and sin, he makes a statement that he was “once alive apart from the law” before the commandment came alive and he sinned. Again, Paul was alive at one point within his life. He was not dead.

“At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me…(Matt. 18:1-5)”

Why would Jesus use an example of a child if the child was just as wicked as anyone else? Some virtue has to exist or this would be a bad example on Jesus’ part.

2. It would seem to be in the character of a loving God to accept children into His presence and not send them to Hell.

The Bible tells us that “God is Love” (1 John 4:8). It would just seem out of character for a loving God to send an infant to Hell for all eternity without the ability to even understand right from wrong. Others will respond with “God is just…or holy…or righteous…or sovereign.” The characteristics and perfections of God should never be picked apart and pitted against each other. God is just and loving. I’m not even sure if God’s justice requires children to be treated the same as fully-aged adults. N.T. Wright has said that “Justice never means ‘treating everybody the same way‘, but ‘treating people appropriately‘, which involves making distinctions between different people and situations.” The context of this quote was not the age of accountability, but it still applies. Furthermore, I am not making my standard of fairness God’s. But, we are made in the image of God and endowed with an internal sense of right and wrong. I believe my sense of justice confirms God’s just character; it does not stand over it or go beyond it.

“Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. (Matt. 18:5-6)”

It seems quite absurd to think that Jesus believes its better to be thrown to the bottom of the sea with a millstone around your neck than cause a little one to sin yet actively punishes a child for all eternity with Hellfire and brimstone. I cannot fathom an aborted embryo (which Christians regard as a life) the size of a pen made to suffer for all eternity.

3. David believed he would see his child after he died.

Ÿ“But when David saw that his servants were whispering together, David understood that the child was dead. And David said to his servants, “Is the child dead?” They said, “He is dead.” Then David arose from the earth and washed and anointed himself and changed his clothes. And he went into the house of the LORD and worshiped. He then went to his own house. And when he asked, they set food before him, and he ate. Then his servants said to him, “What is this thing that you have done? You fasted and wept for the child while he was alive; but when the child died, you arose and ate food.” He said, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept, for I said, ‘Who knows whether the LORD will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ But now he is dead. Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me. (2 Sam. 12:19-23)”

David had confidence that he would see his child one day after he died. Some have said that David and the Jewish people in general did not have a systematic concept of the afterlife and David meant merely that he would go to the grave like his son. This is clearly refuted when one reads Davidic psalms and realizes that David had full intent on seeing God face-to-face when he died.

4. John the Baptist was regenerated from the womb.

“And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. (Luke 1:4-5)”

John the Baptist seemed to be regenerated from the womb. “In Luke’s theology, being filled with the Spirit is consistently seen as an aspect of the Spirit’s work among those who are regenerate (Luke 1:41, 67; Acts 2:4; 4:8, 31; 6:3, 5; 9:17; 11:24).” It is plausible that God would do the same for children that died prematurely so as to negate Adam’s guilt being passed on to them. David even said that “Since my mother bore me you have been my God (Psa. 22:10).” God’s applying Christ’s death to those who cannot believe would seem consistent with His love and mercy.

5. Judgment seems to be based upon knowledge and actions.

In Romans 1:18-32, Paul is bringing all the Gentiles under God’s just condemnation. Within his rhetoric, he said that all men as without excuse because they can clearly see and respond to God’s attributes within the creation. They are said to do the following: suppress the truth (vs. 18), know stuff because God has shown it (vs. 19), clearly perceive certain attributes (vs. 20), know certain things about God (vs. 21), know, thank, and honor God (vs. 21), claim to be wise (vs. 22), become foolish in their thinking (vs. 23), and commit idolatry in their hearts and mind (vs. 23). Judgment seems to be based upon the knowledge given and a person’s response to that knowledge. How could God judge someone if they lack the cognitive ability to acknowledge and respond to such a witness? It would truly be wrong to send a man who was blind from birth to jail for not being about to visually describe a sunrise. John Piper said “God only executes this judgment on those who have the natural capacity to see his glory and understand his will, and refuse to embrace it as their treasure. Infants, I believe, do not yet have that capacity; and therefore, in God’s inscrutable way, he brings them under the forgiving blood of his Son.”

The passages that speak of final judgment in terms of actual sinful deeds that have been done (Rom. 2:6-11) do not say anything about the basis of judgment when there have been no individual actions of right or wrong, as with children dying early in infancy. The Westminster Confession of Faith notes in chapter 10:3, “Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated, and saved by Christ, through the Spirit, who works when, and where, and how He pleases: so also are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word.” It could be the case that all infants are elect? It is most certainly the case that babies are “incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word.”

6. God seems to consistently save children of believers.

Wayne Grudem has pointed out that it is a frequent pattern throughout Scripture to save the children of those who believe in him (Gen. 7:1; Heb. 11:7; Josh. 2:18; Psa. 103:17; John 4:53; Acts 2:39, 11:14 (?) ,16:31, 18:8; 1 Cor. 1:16, 7:14; Titus 1:6). These passages do not provide conclusive proof of infant salvation, but they do indicate that God’s ordinary pattern, the “normal” or expected way in which he acts, is to bring children of believers to himself. If God would show such mercy to believers who have children who live, how much more can we infer about children who die prematurely?

7. God beckons children unto himself.

Jesus says three times within the Gospels to “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.. (Luke. 18:16-17; Matt. 19:13-15; Mark 10:13-16)” It would seem inconsistent on Jesus’ part to want the little children to come to him because the kingdom is theirs’ but punish them in Hell when they actually come to him proverbially by way of death. Is the kingdom of God their’s as long as they’re alive?

8. Unconditional election possibly allows for God to elect infants irrespective of their decision.

God can save whomever he wants (including infants) apart from express, conscious faith in Christ. God can elect and impute Christ’s work to anyone without their volitional move toward him because faith is, in some sense, a gift of God (Phil. 1:29; Eph. 2:8-10; Acts 13:48; John 6:37; Rom. 9:15-18; 2 Tim. 2:25; John 1:13; 1 John 5:1). I think because of the doctrine of election, the door can be opened a little further for the salvation of infants who die young. What is election? Election is a work of God before the creation of the world in which he chooses some people to be saved; not on account of any foreseen merit in them, but only because his sovereign good pleasure (Deut. 7:6; Neh. 9:7; Hag. 2:23; Acts 13:48; Rom. 8:28-30, 9; Eph. 1:4-6). I will grant that this is not the normal flow of things in regards to salvation. People hear someone preaching or sharing the gospel and God saves them through that proclamation (Rom. 10:14). But, this does not mean God is constrained or always has to act that way. John Calvin in the Institutes of the Christian Religion noted that God can occasionally endow babies with his knowledge while recognizing this is not the typical way things occur. His argument exists within a chapter on paedobaptism but his thoughts are certainly relevant to this discussion. The theologian wrote:

Many he certainly has called and endued with the true knowledge of himself, by internal means, by the illumination of the Spirit, without the intervention of preaching. But since they deem it very absurd to attribute any knowledge of God to infants, whom Moses makes void of the knowledge of’ good and evil, let them tell me where the danger lies if they are said now to receive some part of that grace, of which they are to have the full measure shortly after. For if fullness of life consists in the perfect knowledge of God, since some of those whom death hurries away in the first moments of infancy pass into life eternal, they are certainly admitted to behold the immediate presence of God. Those, therefore, whom the Lord is to illumine with the full brightness of his light, why may he not, if he so pleases, irradiate at present with some small beam, especially if he does not remove their ignorance, before he delivers them from the prison of the flesh? I would not rashly affirm that they are endued with the same faith which we experience in ourselves, or have any knowledge at all resembling faith (this I would rather leave undecided);  It is instructive to take not of Calvin’s careful restraint and sense of proportion in the previous few sentences. With respect to the question of the manner in which elect infants dying in infancy are saved, Calvin, while presupposing their need and the Spirit’s supply of regeneration (see note on section 18), makes no definite assertion concerning the presence or absence of faith in them. This position of indecision (as Calvin terms it) is commendable, precisely because it does not presume beyond the teaching of Scripture. but I would somewhat curb the stolid arrogance of those men who, as with inflated cheeks, affirm or deny whatever suits them.

It is reasonable to assume that if God can give small bursts of his knowledge to infants, he can fully save them if they die. In fact, I’m of the persuasion that the Calvinist has a better case than the Arminian for believing in some sort of time of moral accountability when if the child dies, they are covered by the grace of Christ. The Arminian’s claim that salvation rests on the decisive will of man (in the end) precludes those who cannot make such a choice. The Calvinist affirms that people’s choices are a result of God’s effectual calling wherein he breaks their hearts of stone and allows their wills to be restored enabling them to accept the Gospel. The Calvinists that affirm that God elects, regenerates, and saves all babies (all being elect) have no problem with God extending grace to them to circumvent Adam’s judicial guilt that was imputed to all of humanity by virtue of his covenant headship WITHOUT their decisive volitional efforts (belief). It would be all of grace from A to Z. The Arminian has to deny some teaching of Scripture to believe in an age of accountability. Calvinists do not.

9. Child sacrifice was an affront to the Lord because the children belonged to Him.

One of the vilest acts recorded in scripture is child sacrifice in which a pagan believed that the sacrificing of his son or daughter placated a deity. This is one of many practices the Israelites were warned against. Worshiping false gods led to debase and dehumanizing actions. Occasionally and tragically, when an Israelite leader abandoned the covenant, this practice followed. The Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary noted, “The practice of offering children as human sacrifice was condemned in ancient Israel, but the implication is clear in the OT that child sacrifice was practiced by some in Israel (2 Kings 21:6; 23:10; 2 Chron. 28:3; Ps. 106:38; Jer. 7:31; 19:4-5; Ezek. 16:21; 23:37,39).” The prophets do not just record this in a blasé fashion as if it is an accepted norm—they condemn the practice. Of relevance for the present discussion are Ezekiel’s condemnations of the practice. In an extended allegory concerning Israel’s unfaithfulness, Yahweh asked, “And you took your sons and your daughters, whom you had borne to me, and these you sacrificed to them to be devoured. Were your whorings so small a matter that you slaughtered my children and delivered them up as an offering by fire to them? (Ezek. 16:20-21).” Whose children were they? They belonged to the Lord. Again in chapter 23, the prophet said, “For they [Israel & Samaria] have committed adultery, and blood is on their hands. With their idols they have committed adultery, and they have even offered up to them for food the children whom they had borne to me. (Ezek. 23:37)” While this does not give us a full-fledged doctrine of an age of accountability, it does indicate that those children sacrificed to false gods belonged to the One True God.

10. Early Church Fathers believed children were innocent early in life.

I quote early Church Fathers instead of present day theologians for a specific reason. These are the people, time-wise, who were closest to the Apostles and Jesus. That matters when we read their works. They seemed to believe there was a time when children were considered innocent. It was not until the time of Augustine that the hard view on original sin became dominant. There also seems reason to believe that Augustine held such a view on Adam’s sin so as to support the practice of infant baptism (also for biblical reasons).

“In of that aspect of the association of body and soul which We have now to consider, we maintain that the puberty of the soul coincides with that of the body, and that they attain both together to this full growth at about the fourteenth year of life, speaking generally, — the former by the suggestion of the senses, and the latter by the growth of the bodily members; and (we fix on this age) not because, as Asclepiades supposes, reflection then begins, nor because the civil laws date the commencement of the real business of life from this period, but because this was the appointed order from the very first. For as Adam and Eve felt that they must cover their nakedness after their knowledge of good and evil so we profess to have the same discernment of good and evil from the time that we experience the same sensation of shame. Now from the before-mentioned age (of fourteen years) sex is suffused and clothed with an especial sensibility, and concupiscence employs the ministry of the eye, and communicates its pleasure to another, and understands the natural relations between male and female, and wears the fig-tree apron to cover the shame which it still excites…” Tertullian (c. 210, W), 3.218,219.

“He said to me, “Be simple and guileless, and you will be as the children who know not the wickedness that ruins the life of men…” Hermas (c. 150, W), 2.53.

“Those, doubtless, who do believe God, and who have continued in His love; as did Caleb [the son] of Jephunneh and Joshua [the son] of Nun, (Num. 14:30) and innocent children who have had no sense of evil.” Irenaeus (c. 180, E/W), 1.502.

“Infancy is still yet innocent and unconscious of worldly evil.” Cyprian (c. 250, W), 5.434.

“If only a just judgment were the cause of the resurrection, it would of course follow that those who had done neither evil nor good — namely, very young children— would not rise again; but seeing that all are to rise again, those who have died in infancy…” Athenagoras (c. 175, E),2. 156.

I think based upon the fact that there are Scriptures that talk about a time of forensic innocence in a person’s life, God’s loving character, David’s hope to see his son again, John the Baptist being regenerated from the womb, judgment being based on knowledge and acts, Scriptures teaching concerning election, statements about child sacrifice, and the testimony of the early Church we can say children go into the presence of God when they die young. Can I make a definitive statement about a specific age (the Jewish people may have believed it was 13 or even 20…Exo. 30:11-16; Num. 14:29-31)? No…Scripture does not allow such a statement. But, I can remember in my own life that I was a very young child when I realized that my actions affected others and life was not a video game. The world was a dangerous place where death and pain existed right alongside peace and joy. After that moment, I felt I was accountable. Something within my heart quickened and I realized that I had responsibilities and accountability to someone outside of myself. Anyone reading this, rest in the peace that “the Judge of the earth will do right (Gen. 18:25).” While not denying children are sinful, it seems wise to marvel at the inner light of the children around us. There’s a glorious tension found within them. R.C.H. Lenski said

“As the flower in the garden stretches toward the light of the sun, so there is in the child a mysterious inclination toward the eternal light. Have you ever noticed this mysterious thing that when you tell the smallest child about God, [he or she] never asks with strangeness and wonder, “What or who is God – I have never seen Him,” but listens with shining face to the words as though they soft loving sounds from the land of home. Or when you teach a child to fold [his or her] little hands in prayer that [he or she] does this as though it were a matter of course, as though [it was] opening for [the child] that world of which [he or she] had been dreaming with longing and anticipation. Or tell them, these little ones, the stories of the Savior, show them the pictures with scenes and personages of the Bible – how their pure eyes shine, how their little hearts beat.”


6 responses to “Age of Accountability

  1. Good post bro! Well thought out and I totally agree with your conclusion that the Holy Spirit has led you to through Scripture. I had to wrestle with this issue about a year ago myself.

    • Thanks Matt. It’s a tough question but I have come to a conclusion I think Scripture supports and teaches. It’s such a tough issue but one that is so relevant.

  2. I agree with you on this man. You brought up unconditional election, and I think that actually plays into this subject. God is not taken by surprise who is going to die at an early age. Though this thought may seem morbid, it would seem as though God takes these children home that they might not see spiritual death. Perhaps, they would have not come to know Him, had they lived, yet for the purpose of His election, He did not allow them to come under condemnation for their sins. It is comforting to know that God has a purpose for everything, even the death of young children.

    I saw someone posted this verse earlier: Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. (Isaiah 49:15). Even in cases of abortion, God remembers His children although they are considered to be useless to certain people..

  3. And I gotta add, in reference to your point #6 about children of believers consistently being saved, that seems to be a supporting point for infant baptism, but of course that is a different subject…

  4. Pingback: Some Q&A on Romans 5, Original Sin, & Guilt | Austin's Blog·

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