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.