The Age of Accountability?
What is It, and is it Biblical?
Every time a baby, or a young child dies, it is a tragedy. There is just something heart- wrenching about seeing a little child who does not reach full maturity, and isn't able to have all of the experiences of life the majority of us take for granted. But most of us are comforted by the fact that, although they weren't able to have a life on this earth, they are now safe in the arms of Jesus, and enjoying real life that will have no end.
It is almost universally agreed by Christians that infants at birth, and very young children, are unable to comprehend right from wrong. They can't know that they have broken God's holy law. And they certainly are unable to understand the concept of Jesus' substitutionary death on their behalf, nor His burial and resurrection, and therefore cannot be held morally accountable for their sins. Therefore, if they die, they will be taken to heaven. This is what has come to be known as the "age of accountability."
Also included in this age of accountability are those who are mentally handicapped, or have the mind of a child. There are some people whose minds never become capable of understanding the concepts of good and evil, or Jesus' death on their behalf. For instance, I have worked with people in an adult foster care home who had the mind of a 6 month old. These people were in their 30's at the time, but had to be diapered and fed just as if they were a baby in a cradle.
I. Arguments Against the Teaching
As I said, most Christians would say that people like this will be in heaven when they die. However there are those who think that this idea is totally unscriptural and based solely upon emotion. Their reasoning is that because the idea that God would send infants to hell seems utterly repugnant, man has invented this concept of an age where children become morally accountable. There are some very hard core Calvinists that would even say that only the elect infants are going to heaven. The non-elect won't make it.
The question is: Is there Scriptural evidence for the age of accountability? Or are we just reading into the Bible that which we want to be there? From my studies of God's Word I believe that, while we cannot be completely dogmatic where Scripture doesn't elaborate, there is ample evidence to show that the Bible substantiates this belief.
II. What the Teaching Isn't Saying
Before we begin, I am in no way saying that children are born without a sinful nature. Romans 5:12 says that through one man, sin entered into the world. We are all sinners by nature. And Psalm 51:5 tells us:
"Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me."
Children and infants need salvation, like anyone else, and when they die, it is the blood of Jesus Christ that saves them. But they are incapable of making a choice either for or against Christ, so God in His mercy, saves them if they die in that state.
III. Evidence for the Teaching
Scripture doesn't use the phrase: "age of accountability", just like it doesn't use the term "Trinity." But that doesn't mean that the concept is not there. We can glean the teaching of Scripture from several passages.
1. To begin with, in the Old Testament, children are called innocent. The Hebrew word for innocent is referred to as "not being guilty" Literally, it means "taken to a court of law and found not guilty." An example of this is the babies who were offered to the false god Molech and made to pass through the fire. They were referred to as innocent (Jeremiah 19:4-5).
2. When the children of Israel, being lead to the promised land, were punished for their unbelief and told they were'nt going to get there, God made an exception. The children, 20 and under would go into the land. And this is what the Lord said:
"Moreover, your little ones, who you said would become prey, and your sons, who this day have no knowledge of good and evil, shall enter there, and I will give it to them and they shall possess it."
Notice how the Lord says that they have no knowledge of good and evil, which is another way to say that they are innocent.
3. In II Samuel 12, after David loses his infant son, as a result of his sin with Bathsheba and his murder of Uriah, he states: "Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me (23). David assumes that he will see his son again. That would not happen if the baby were eternally lost.
4. One of the greatest evidences which points to an age of accountability, comes from our Lord Jesus Himself. Let's hear what He says:
"Permit the children to come to Me; do not hinder them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all." (Mark 10:14,15).
"Truly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Whoever humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heavenn. And whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me; but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea." (Matthew 18:1-6).
"See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven continually see the face of My Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 18:10).
Later, in the same passage, after telling the parable of the lost sheep, he says of the children:
"So it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish" (18:14).
Infants, small children, and the mentally handicapped are loved by God. And they are not saved because they aren't sinners, or for any other reason other than the fact that Jesus Christ died for them and it is the Father's will that not one of them will perish. God in His sovereignty knew who would die early. He also knew who would be mentally incapable of understanding the gospel. And He did whatever was necessary to apply the blood of Jesus Christ to their account. There is a poem that sums up what we've tried to say in this article. It was an epitaph on a grave in St. Andrew's Church in Edinburgh, Scotland. The author writes:
- "Bold infidelity turn pale and die;
- Beneath this stone four sleeping infants lie.
- Say, are they lost or saved?
- If death's by sin, they sinned
- For they are here.
- If heaven's by works in heaven they can't appear.
- Ah, Reason, how depraved.
- Revere the Bible's sacred page.
- The knot's untied:
- They died; for Adam sinned.
- They live; for Jesus died.