The Age of Accountability?

Is there an “age of accountability” for children? No, I do not believe so.

The term “age of accountability” has become a theological term in many circles.  According to Theopedia, it is defined to be “that time in the development of a person when he or she can and invariably does sin against God and thus stands in the need of personal redemption through Jesus Christ.” Often contained in this teaching is that there is a certain age, often deemed to be 12 years old though some might make it younger, before which a child either does not sin or at least is not held accountable for his sins before God.

So typically, the doctrine of the age of accountability includes the teaching that the child will not be judged guilty before God. In other words, if the child dies prior to this age, he receives the gift of eternal life (i.e., he goes to heaven). John MacArthur, who states that this doctrine is not clearly identified in Scripture, still concludes without qualification that for any child dying at a young age “that up until that point of real saving faith, God in His mercy, would save that child.”

So what should we think about children, sin, and accountability? Offering biblical clarity rather than emotive responses is vital toward practically viewing and raising our offspring.

All children are born sinful. Because of the fall of Adam into sin, all of mankind has been corrupted (Romans 5:12).  The parents’ sinful nature is passed to their children, as Job rightly observes:

Man who is born of a woman is few of days and full of trouble. He comes out like a flower and withers; he flees like a shadow and continues not. And do you open your eyes on such a one and bring me into judgment with you? Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? There is not one.” (Job 14:1-4)

That babies are not only born sinful but are conceived as such is explicitly stated in Psalm 51:5.  When David confessed his adultery with Bathseheba and murder of her husband, he pointed out the origins of his sinfulness by saying, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me.”  Any observant parent can see the sinful tendencies in their children in their first year.  You do not have to train them to fuss, show anger or be bad, but how hard you must work to teach them to be upright!

The teaching of children’s sinlessness is historically been known as Pelagianism, which was condemned as a heresy at the Council of Ephesus in 431. In explaining our sin-born state, the Westminster Shorter Catechism Q. 18 says that a person’s sinfulness “consists in the guilt of Adam’s first sin, the want (lack) of original righteousness, and the corruption of his whole nature, which is commonly called original sin; together with all actual transgressions which proceed from it.” So when the age of accountability doctrine is used to promote the sinlessness of children, it should be vigorously denied.

If children sin, then they are accountable before God. Children sin. (At least mine do – I do not know about yours! Actually, I do know about yours, not so much from observation but from our common descent from Adam.) By even saying they sin, then we must hold that they are accountable before God. Sin by definition is transgressing the law of God and is punishable according to the Scriptures. “The wages of sin is death” says Romans 6:23. For God to simply wipe their sins away would mean he is unjust. Just because a baby may appear “cute” to us even when he throws a tantrum, God does not necessarily view it that way as he looks at the baby’s sinful heart and disposition.

As such, at the earliest age we must teach children of their sin. Consider how clearly and directly the Catechism for Young Children does this:

Q. 36. What is that sinful nature which we inherit from Adam called?
A. Original sin.

Q. 37. What does every sin deserve?
A. The wrath and curse of God.

Q. 38. Can any one go to heaven with this sinful nature?
A. No; our hearts must be changed before we can be fit for heaven.

That last question leads us to our next, difficult-to-swallow statement.

Children who die do not automatically go to heaven. A belief in an age of accountability would imply that many, many people (for sadly, many children have died throughout history) have received salvation through justification by death, not by faith. Nowhere is this taught in Scripture. Nor do we have some age given, say age 12, where a child dying the day before his twelfth birthday goes to heaven but one dying on that birthday would be judged and condemned.

As difficult as it is to consider, remember that the God of the Bible ordered a flood that destroyed the whole world except for eight people. The angel of death went through Egypt on the night of the Passover and slew the firstborn in each household. As the new atheists repeatedly like to point out, the Lord at times commanded Israel in battle to destroy entire cities, such as Jericho where “they devoted all in the city to destruction, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys, with the edge of the sword” (Josh. 6:21). We must acknowledge that God’s wrath is real and true, tremble before it for all people, including children, and warn all of it.

However, that does not mean there is no hope.

Children dying in Christ are saved. Because the Bible teaches that faith is a gift from God, not a human-generated act, children can be granted faith at the earliest of ages (John 1:12-13; Eph. 2:8-9). Indeed, John the Baptist leaped in the womb in the presence of Jesus (Luke 1:41). The Westminster Confession of Faith acknowledges this truth when it states:

Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit, who worketh when, and where, and how he pleaseth. So also are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word.” (WCF 10.3)

The Canons of Dordt take this a step further in its first main point on election in Article 17. Looking at the promises in God’s Word, it says that since “the children of believers are holy, not by nature but by virtue of the gracious covenant in which they together with their parents are included, godly parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom God calls out of this life in infancy.” Though this statement may need to be qualified some, as we have to be careful not to promise what we cannot ultimately know, offering believing and grieving parents the hope of God’s covenant promises is a proper pastoral response.

Children can believe in Christ at an early age. As the kingdom of God belongs to those who come to Christ as children and to those who become like children to receive it (Matt. 19:13-15), our hope is not in the innocence of the child but in the power and promises of the gospel. So parents should be diligent to daily teach their children of Jesus, believing themselves that he can and will save them. I know so many Christians, including a number of my own children, who cannot remember a day of their lives where they did not trust in Christ. Surely they have grown in new knowledge and experiences with Christ, but they have never known a time without him. What a blessing! And what a Savior!

Thus, rather than put a misplaced hope in an age of accountability, the church should teach their families that they should be raising their children toward an age of responsibility. We must faithfully teach children the great need to believe upon Christ for themselves, increasingly mature and bear fruit, publicly profess their faith in Christ, and learn to serve their Lord and Savior.

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For further thoughts and wrestling on this subject, see Tim Challies’ articles What Happens to Children Who Die?Original Sin & the Death of Infants, and Original Sin & The Death of Infants (2).

9 Comments

  1. Jerri Faris May 22, 2017 at 7:21 pm #

    I find this to be one of the most heart-wrenching topics that women have raised many, many times in the jail ministry I have been involved in for 20 years. Of course, we have to gently teach the truth you write here, Barry, but it quickly becomes an area of “hard truth” that the enemy uses as the “great deceiver”. The joy is in being able to point to the grace of God in Christ and cover again the beauty of Ephesians 2:8-9. One of my greatest comforts in these discussions is to be able to say that I don’t know what happens to every baby that dies so I cannot teach them something the Bible doesn’t teach. I can’t say with absolute certainty that I know anyone’s eternal destiny because I cannot see a person’s heart. (Question: Am I overstating?) For sure, we see evidence and fruit, and we have the great and wonderful hope of the gospel, so when someone proclaims faith in Christ and walks with Him we encourage them in assurance of faith, but oh, we must be so very careful not to give a false assurance. Our comfort is that we know the God who does see hearts, and we know he is always good and just. So, as always, we point people to Him and continue to proclaim how they, too, can know the infinite, personal God who made them and offers forgiveness in Christ. What a privilege!

    • Barry York May 23, 2017 at 4:54 pm #

      Jerri,

      I agree with both your assessment and approach. Give the great promises of the Lord to them but be careful about pronouncing absolutes.

      Keep up the wonderful ministry to the hurting!

  2. brent May 23, 2017 at 9:48 am #

    just to work this out a little further…if the children of believers are included in the covenant via their parents then there must be a point at which that ceases to be, which would lead to a conceptual age of accountability, right? No specific age but, according to the reasoning of this argument, at some point children are now responsible outside of the covering of their parents to respond in faith. I say this fully admitting my limited ability to grasp this issue fully.

    • Barry York May 23, 2017 at 5:02 pm #

      Brent,

      I’m more comfortable with the language of Westminster than that of Dordt on this point. I included the latter because we should point them to the covenant promises but, as I indicated, be careful of making ultimate promises of a child’s eternal state. A child growing up “being in the covenant” should be understood as being under the means of grace in the church, not necessarily being elect.

      Thus, I would say there is not even a conceptual age of accountability as children are always accountable before God. We could say that as they grow they become increasingly accountable, however, as they learn more and more of the gospel.

  3. Michael May 23, 2017 at 11:02 am #

    “Because of the fall of Adam into sin, all of mankind has been corrupted (Romans 5:12). The parents’ sinful nature is passed to their children […]”

    If I understand your post correctly, you are saying that “all of mankind” is born guilty of sin, being corrupted and having a sinful nature. This guilt is passed on from parent to child.

    A significant problem of this teaching is that it denies the full humanity of Jesus Christ (just as He was fully divine). If all mankind is born guilty of sin, and Jesus was not born guilty of sin, then Jesus was not fully human.

    Jesus may look like a human, act like a human, and think like a human, but He lacks the guilt and sinful nature that supposedly plagues every human since Adam. And this idea that Jesus wasn’t fully human is Gnostic heresy.

    Jesus would not have been “made like his brothers in every respect” and thus not sufficient for propitiation for our sins. (Hebrews 2:17)

    This doctrine of transmission of sin guilt to one’s genetic offspring also flat-out contradicts scripture. The prophet Ezekiel is clear that a man dies for his own sin, not his father’s sin. The doctrine taught by this post directly contradicts Ezekiel, teaching that many babies spiritually die for their father’s sin, specifically Adam’s. I don’t care how ingrained a teaching is in church tradition. If tradition teaches that the son suffers for the iniquity of the father, this disagrees with scripture and undermines one of the primary tenets of the Reformation, sola scriptura.

    “The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.” (Ezekiel 18:20)

    • Barry York May 23, 2017 at 5:13 pm #

      Michael,

      You do understand me correctly up to the second paragraph. After that, I would humbly submit that I believe you draw wrong conclusions.

      The only way that sin can be removed from sinful humanity is by the power of the Holy Spirit. That is why the angel told Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). The Westminster Shorter Catechism explains it this way.

      Q. 22. How did Christ, being the Son of God, become man?
      A. Christ, the Son of God, became man, by taking to himself a true body and a reasonable soul, being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost in the womb of the virgin Mary, and born of her, yet without sin.

      So the original sin ordinarily passed from generation to generation was overcome by the power of the Holy Spirit.

      Regarding the passage you quote from Ezekiel, certainly a child cannot be held guilty for the particular sin of a parent. But that is different than saying the nature of the parent is passed to the child. Just as children are born with the genetic traits of their parents, so sadly they are inherently born with our sinful natures as well.

  4. Matthew May 23, 2017 at 11:55 am #

    I thought I posted this earlier, but I think it timed out.

    When Dordt says “the children of believers are holy, not by nature but by virtue of the gracious covenant in which they together with their parents are included, godly parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom God calls out of this life in infancy,” is it saying that those baptized as infants into the New Covenant only are covered as elect?

    What does that mean for Baptist children?

    I don’t want to make the first question sound like I’m talking about works righteousness, I’m not, I just don’t know how else to phrase it.

    • Mark May 23, 2017 at 2:49 pm #

      Because election doesn’t depend on our actions or choices but on Him who calls us, denomination and baptism don’t have any influence on the salvation of a person. Whatever we believe about how we come to faith, if we’re saved, we’re elect. I think the main point of WCF and Dordt is that those who die in Christ are saved, and elect parents can safely trust their covenantal God to care for their children’s souls. (Yes, even Arminian believers get to be elect. 😉

    • Barry York May 23, 2017 at 5:16 pm #

      Matthew,

      In addition to what Mark said, please see my answer to Jerri and Brent above.

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