On the Age of Accountability

Posted: June 19, 2011 in Theologababble

Earlier today the question was posed to me about whether or not babies and those under the Age of Accountability are innocent in God’s eyes. This is my polished-up response:

In its simplest form, the two-fold question is essentially this: (1) is it possible for a sinner to be saved apart from faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ, and (2) is ignorance of the law an excuse for breaking it? As the father of a miscarried baby, please know that I take this area of theology very seriously.

Even if we debate the condition of the human being upon birth, we need but an hour with a toddler to recognize them for the sinners that they volitionally are. My son is a sinner- no if’s, and’s, or but’s. According to the Bible, we are all sinners, and no one is righteous. None.

Now, in answering this question, let’s first see if there is a precedent in the Bible for a baby going to Heaven. As is often mentioned in conversations of this nature, there is the account of David’s son dying as a consequence for David’s sin (so much for fairness, eh?). The issues here are three-fold. One, 1 Chronicles 3:5 shows that David had four sons with Bathsheba, Solomon being the fourth. However, Solomon was conceived during the grieving period over the death of child number one, so we really have no way of knowing just how old David’s first son was when he died. This is validated by the Hebrew word for child used (נַעַר), which is also used in Scripture to denote young men. Therefore, the first issue is that, to my knowledge, the age of the child is never established, making it entirely possible that the child died being older than the infant he is commonly believed to be, effectively negating this story’s use as evidence for the AoA doctrine.

Even if we could establish that the child was indeed a baby, consider the words of David: “Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.” To what is David referring? To Heaven? Hell? What if he is simply referencing the burial site of his son? So my second problem with using 2 Samuel 12 as a basis for the doctrine of the Age of Accountability is the fact that David is vague in what he is implying.

My third problem is this: even if David’s son was a baby, and even if David was referring to seeing his son in Heaven…so what? Is it right just because David says it? Consider the words of King Lemuel’s mother in Proverbs 31: 6-7: “Give strong drink to the one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress; let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more.” Surely not prescriptive theology! The point is that the Bible often records the words of men to record them- not to teach prescriptively through them. Likewise, simply because David may have believed that his infant son was in Heaven doesn’t necessarily make it so. For these three reasons, I cannot use 2 Samuel 12 as a proof-text for promoting the age of accountability doctrine.

As mentioned, Jesus had a soft spot for children (think millstones and cliff-diving). However, coming to Jesus as little children does not mean to come to him picking our nose, fussing a lot, and being quasi-obedient, depending on our temperament. What it means is to rely upon Christ as a child would his or her mom or dad. It’s complete and total dependency, faith, and trust. That is what it means to come to Christ in child-like faith. It does not mean that children are innocent and thus guaranteed admission into Heaven. For them to be innocent, God would have to look at a law-breaker and say “Oh, it’s ok. I’m a loving and understanding God.” Well, He CANNOT do that. God cannot simply forgive sinners (see Proverbs 17:15). When a crime is committed, someone must pay, hence the need for a savior in the first place. I digress, though. The point is that God cannot justify a wicked person unless someone pays. And for God to allow a lawbreaker total freedom because they “didn’t know they were breaking the law,” we would have to turn a lot of Scripture on its head, namely the ones stating things such as, “there are none righteous,” “all have sinned,” “death passed upon us all,” etc. At this point, I have to maintain that there is no Biblical evidence of sinful infants who are ignorant of (1) their sin and (2) Jesus somehow getting a “free pass” into Heaven.

If children are sinners, as I believe the Bible is clear to teach that they are, and the wages of sin is spiritual separation from God, we have to then look at what a person has to do to be saved. In a nutshell, the answer is nothing. To claim that we must add something to the work of Christ on the Cross in order to gain admission into Heaven and have a relationship with God through His Son is heresy. Salvation is all of grace, and not something we merit of ourselves (Eph. 2:8-9).

That being said, as faith is the conduit of our justification, no one will be in Heaven apart from faith in Jesus. Is this faith something God gives? Absolutely. Can He give it to a child? Absolutely. Can He grant repentance to whomever He wills? Absolutely. Does He open hearts in whom He wills? Absolutely. Does He regenerate those whom He wills? Absolutely. When John the Baptist, as a not-yet-born baby, heard that Mary was pregnant with the Messiah, he leapt for joy. Imagine the implications of this! He was full of the Holy Ghost from birth, in such a way as to cognitively know that Mary’s pregnancy was wonderful news. Never underestimate what God can do with an infant!

Thus, to clearly and concisely answer your question, having laid the foundation to my position, I will longwindedly state this: The Bible does not explicitly teach that children are innocent, but rather instead teaches that we as a race are all fallen, sinful, and condemned. The Bible does not demonstrate that those ignorant of God’s Law are excused for breaking it, but rather teaches that God cannot simply justify those who break His Law. Someone must pay, and Jesus was the only payment ever made for sin. God, who is seen to love children, yet also the one who drowned them in the flood, is the one who will determine the destination of those dying in infancy or not yet born.  As we see in the Bible, God is the arbitrator of salvation, and He can without any problems give faith in His Son to a baby of any age, born or unborn. Does He do this? I hope so, and I pray so.

However, if He chooses not to, He is no less just or loving, for He is still just in His punishment of sin and loving in the protection of His character and holiness. I have no firm knowledge that God saved the child that my wife and I lost, but it’s ok. We know that either way, the Judge of all the Earth will do right, and whatever the outcome is, we will worship God for who He is, for how He acted, and for everything else He does. For me, I am content in knowing the character of God, and the fact that He saves any of us demonstrates His love and mercy. It is entirely possible that this is extended to babies; it is entirely possible that it is not. Therefore, I cannot be dogmatic on the issue one way or the other, because God is not dogmatic one way or the other. The destination of babies/mentally ill, etc. is in His hands, and for me that is enough. I will unwaveringly allow for the possibility of this Age of Accountability doctrine, but I cannot unequivocally state it as Biblical truth.

  1. […] you accountable for your willful breaking of His commandments. I have already addressed this issue here and will not rehash old arguments, but I bring it up again because many people use Romans seven to […]

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