Is there an 'age of accountability'?

There is one theme which permeates the pages of Scripture from beginning to end. This theme is that of salvation. From the opening chapters of Genesis, the stage is set. God created everything, including man. Adam and Eve were placed in the Garden of Eden and God Almighty was in relationship with them. Something happened though, all of that changed. There was one rule given to Adam and Eve—do not eat fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. When this one rule was broken, so was the relationship between God and humanity. There was a punishment which had to be satisfied; for the rule also contained a consequence if broken. With the disobedience of Adam and Eve, sin entered the world and marred the relationship of the creation with the Creator.

Salvation is the plan of action God implemented in order to restore that relationship. Jesus Christ, God himself, put on the flesh of humanity and died upon the cross. His death paid the price for our sins and paved the way for the gift of salvation. The Scriptures make all of this plain. There is no person not stained from sin: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). This creates a very real problem for us. Without forgiveness for our sins we are doomed to eternity in hell; we are unable to enter the presence of our Holy God in our present sinful state (1 Corinthians 6:9). The Bible further makes plain the way we receive this forgiveness is “if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). Therefore, salvation is a willful participation of one’s self with the death of Christ on the cross. In doing so, we are counted as righteous before God because Christ accomplished what we are unable to do.

Anyone reading the whole of Scripture cannot, in good conscience, come away with any other understanding of salvation. It is the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8) found only in Jesus Christ (John 14:6, Acts 4:12) that grants salvation to any person that would accept him as Lord and Savior (Acts 2:38, Romans 10:13).

Even though this is clear, there is a point where this causes us trepidation. It causes us to question if this is how salvation always works. Tragedy is often the source of much questioning concerning God and the Bible. So it should be no surprise that tragedy is what brings about this question. The death of a child is a tragedy, which to the grieving parents, cannot be eclipsed by many others. During this time of loss, our hearts and minds often turn to the fate of that child—to his/her eternal destiny.

While this seems at first glance a simple question to answer, it is somewhat difficult. One reason for this is that Scripture does not explicitly address the eternal destiny of the unborn, infants, and young children. Another reason is that Scripture is clear the unborn, infants, and young children are not innocent either. For example, Psalm 51:5 explains that we are sinful from conception, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” Psalm 58:3 also articulates this, “Even from birth the wicked go astray; from the womb they are wayward and speak lies.” Romans 3:23, quoted above, as well as many other Scriptures substantiate the clear teaching that humanity is in a state of sin from conception and as such, doomed to eternal punishment in hell unless one accepts Christ. I’m sure you are beginning to see the problem at this point. How can the unborn, infants, and young children accept Christ?—they cannot talk nor can they understand their need for salvation. This is where the point of contention lies.

The answer to this question and the teaching which surrounds it is often referred to as “the age of accountability.” This phrase refers to the belief that God does not hold us morally accountable for our sins until we reach a specific age. This is not uncommon though. For Jews, this is associated with Bar mitzvah. This is when Jewish children are held accountable to Torah. When Amish children reach sixteen they enter into “Rumspringa;” a time when they are allowed to decide if they are going to remain in the Amish church or leave for the world outside their community. Once the decision is made though, the children are held accountable.

The question remains though, does God grant a continuance per se? One method of answering this is to simply assert that they are in heaven. This answer, however, is simply a sentimental attempt at resolving the problem at hand. It is born out of what we want concerning these little ones; we want them to be in heaven. It completely ignores Scripture and lacks even an attempt at seeking an answer there. A second manner of answering this is that they are doomed to eternal punishment in hell. This answer is unsettling; although it attempts at drawing in the biblical understanding of our sinful state. A third vein claims that only those children who have been baptized will enter into heaven, but this answer places too much importance of the act of baptism. So what is the answer to this question?

Considering the understanding of how salvation normally works, it is important to first look at how it might be possible for the unborn, infants, and young children to be forgiven of their sins without cognitively accepting Christ. The atonement is of premier importance. Christ’s death on the cross was the atoning sacrifice sufficient for the forgiveness of sins for all of humanity. First John 2:2 describes this succinctly, “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (cf. 1 Peter 3:18; Romans 5:15; 2 Corinthians 5:19; Heb 9:26; John 1:29, 12:32-33). In other words, Christ paid the price for all sins to be forgiven; however, that forgiveness is applied to us individually as we accept Jesus as Lord and Savior recognizing that we are unable to atone for our sins as he has.

While many believe the Scriptures do not have much to say on this topic, there is much to glean from the pages of the Bible. The starting point is Jeremiah 31:29-30, “In those days people will no longer say, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ Instead, everyone will die for his own sin; whoever eats sour grapes—his own teeth will be set on edge.” The prophet Jeremiah was writing about the new covenant. This is different from the old covenant God made with the Jews. In that covenant, the Law was the mediating factor in the relationship between God and his people. The new covenant is different because it was to be a law written on the hearts and minds of the people rather than stone tablets and parchment. It was to be a relationship. That our hearts desire is to please the God whom we love, not to follow a set of rules. We enjoy the new covenant and under this new covenant every individual is responsible for their actions before the Lord—whether that be for good or for bad. A lengthy passage in Ezekiel expounds upon this understanding, but ends with a clear point that is salient to the discussion at hand. “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked?” declares the Sovereign LORD. “Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” (Ezekiel 18:23). God does not derive any pleasure from sending the wicked to hell; instead, he finds pleasure in people repenting and placing their trust in Jesus. The problem still remains though as this passage bolsters the position that there must be an acceptance of salvation, a willful repenting from one’s sins.

The Old Testament book of 2 Samuel contains much of David’s life as the king of Israel. It also contains one of David’s biggest failures as king. He commits adultery with Bathsheba and has her husband murdered to cover up the resulting pregnancy. Part of David’s punishment is the death of that child conceived by the adulterous relationship. When the child becomes ill and during the entire time of the child’s illness, David fasts, weeps, and prays for the child. However, when the child dies, he gets up and goes on with life. This bewilders his attendants and advisers. David explained his actions by stating,
“While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept. I thought, ‘Who knows? The LORD may be gracious to me and let the child live.’ But now that he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me” (2 Samuel 12:22-23, emphasis added).
David clearly believed that he would be reunited with his child in the presence of the Lord. He doesn’t go into detail about why he believes this, there is just a simple trust in the Lord at this point.

Jesus, however, is not so silent on the matter. The parable contained in Matthew 18:10-14 is very illuminating:
“See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven. “What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost”
Immediately preceding this parable, Jesus has a young child come and stand among he and the disciples (as a visual aid if you will). In his words to the disciples he makes it clear that God does is not willing that any of these should be lost. A similar passage, Mark 10:13-16, explains that the disciples were actually attempting to prevent children from “bothering” Jesus. This upsets Jesus and prompts him to chastise the disciples with his statement in verses 14-15, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” So we have two statements by Jesus Christ. The first is that God is not willing for any child to be lost. The second is that the kingdom of God belongs to children. Combining these two statements by Jesus with David’s statement, it becomes clear that God makes a way for the unborn, infants, and young children to enter heaven.

This is clearly an act of God’s grace (Romans 5:15, Ephesians 2:1-10), because the child has not done anything to deserve it. What then does this mean in terms of judgment? That is an important question because Scripture is clear that mankind will face the judgment of God. It means that there has to come a point in one’s life where God does hold us accountable for our sin. Otherwise, we quickly fall into the heresy that everyone will eventually make it into heaven. This is a teaching that is refuted by an overwhelming tide of Scripture which explains there is an eternal punishment for the wicked and eternal life for the righteous.

Where does this point exists? At what age do we become accountable? The Bible does not establish a specific age. Rather, one’s ability to understand the basic problem of sin and the need for salvation determines accountability before God (Romans 1:19-20; Acts 28:23-31). Therefore, a specific age cannot be established. This is especially true considering that every person mentally matures at a different rate. Likewise, I think this gift of God’s grace also extends to the mentally handicapped (at least those unable to reach this stage of understanding). Since there is no specific age established in Scripture nor is there any passage which expounds upon this matter in depth, we must be careful not to make this a dogmatic doctrine upon which we judge one’s position to be heretical or orthodox. Rather, we must simply trust God. For as Abraham exclaimed, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25). Consider Psalm 116:5 as well, “The Lord is gracious and righteous; our God is full of compassion.” The evidence from Scripture indicates that God extends his grace and mercy to the unborn, the infant, the young child, and the mentally handicap in order to bring them into eternal life—and we must trust God as the righteous judge, the Creator of the universe.
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