Monday, August 28, 2006

Age of Accountability?

Is there such a thing as an age of accountability? Were you ever taught that there is an age of accountability? It is interesting how many times I heard this phrase thrown around as I was growing up. The folks over at the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals had given a brief biblical answer to to the question, "Is there an Age of Accountability?" Because I was having difficulty getting the link to work, I just pasted the article below. I highly reccomend reading the article as well as thoughtful consideration to the biblical passages the article cites.

Is There an Age of Accountability?
Is there an age at which children become accountable for their salvation? Prior to this age, is it true that children are not morally responsible and that if they die they are immediately transported to heaven? Does this mean that until the age of accountability is reached we have no reason or duty to instruct children in the faith? Many evangelicals teach these things, often drawing the line at age 12 or 13, since Jesus was 12 when he accompanied his parents to the temple (Lk. 2:42).The first question to ask is whether the Bible teaches this doctrine. The answer is that no age of accountability is found in the Bible. Quite to the contrary, the Bible says that we are all accountable for all our sins. Psalm 58:3 says, “The wicked are estranged from the womb.” A six-year-old is guilty of breaking God’s law when he smashes his brother over the head with a toy block. No exceptions are noted in Scripture to the rule of Ezekiel 18:20, “The soul who sins shall die.” Supposed ignorance of sin is not an excuse, since all transgression of God’s law is sin, whether knowing or not. One passage that is used to teach that God does not hold children accountable is Deuteronomy 1:39. Here, Moses explains that while the exodus generation was denied entry into the Promised Land because of their sin in the desert, their children would be allowed to enter. “As for your little ones… who today have no knowledge of god or evil, they shall go in there.” But Moses’ point was not that the children were innocent of all sin because of their immaturity; they were innocent of their parents’ sin and so would not be punished with them. Other passages used to teach an age of accountability similarly fail to carry the weight assigned to them.Moreover, we are all guilty in Adam. Romans 5:12 says, “Just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” Paul explains, “One trespass led to condemnation for all men” (Rom. 5:18). The point is that we are guilty in Adam, our federal head under the covenant of works. Children, like adults, are accountable not only for their own sins but for Adam’s. This is why Paul says that by nature, we are all “children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3).When are children accountable to believe on Jesus and thereby be saved from their sins? The only biblical answer is “As soon as possible!” At increasing ages, they should exercise a faith suited for their ability. As they grow in nature, they should grow in grace, with their profession of faith being adorned by increasing evidences of spiritual life. As soon as possible and as appropriately as possible, our children should be led to Christ by their parents – through God’s Word and through prayer – and the church should assist through pastoral care, godly examples, prayer, and faithful teaching.But how can an infant exercise saving faith in Christ? I would agree that an infant cannot understand the gospel and cannot exercise saving faith. David’s claim in Psalm 22:9 is best taken as poetic license: “You made me trust you at my mother’s breast.” Any idea of infant faith serves only to evacuate the word “faith” of its biblical meaning. But according to 2 Samuel 12:23, infant children of believers who die will go ahead of us to heaven. How can this happen, if infants cannot believe? First, we do not have to explain but merely to proclaim the teaching of Scripture. Second, traditionally Reformed Christians hold that such children are elect, and are saved by Christ apart from faith because they are never in a situation where faith is possible: they pass from infancy (where faith is not possible) to the presence of Christ (where faith is not necessary). (The same is true for retarded and other impaired children). They are an exception to the biblical doctrine of salvation through faith alone, and one for which countless believers are grateful to the Lord.The unbiblical idea of an “age of accountability” can only undermine our parental duty to lead our children to Christ. Many churches today do not even allow children into the worship service, since there is no point and since they considered a hassle to the parents. What an offense this is to the Lord who called for the little children to be brought to him (Mt. 19:14)!Finally, let me point out that no parent is able to save his or her child. In every child’s case, we trust the Lord for the salvation and we are called to exercise our duty to raise them in the knowledge and fear of the Lord. When children profess faith in Jesus – in ways appropriate to their development state – we should rejoice while continuing with our duty. As they grow older, we should prayerfully labor to see more mature expressions of faith. All our children who die in infancy or who die professing Christ with a faith agreeable to their age and ability, have gone directly into heaven, because of the grace of God who numbered all their days and brought them safely to heaven in Jesus Christ.
Rev. Richard Phillips is the chair of the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology and senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church Coral Springs, Margate, Florida.Visit the Question

What has been your experience with the idea of an age of accountability?
What are you thoughts about the article?

(HT: Russ)


Russ said...


Thanks for the HT and congrats on the baby on the way! My wife and I have a 6 month old daughter and head over heels!

Nice blog.


Melissa said...

Just a quick comment:
It sounds like you are actually adressing two questions. 1) Is there an age at which children are not held responsible for their actions 2) Does belief in this idea mean that children will not be taught the gospel until they are older.

The first one does not necessarily lead to the second one. I grew up in Baptist churches which believed in an age of accountability, but would have never neglected children's spiritual education or removed them from a worship service. They were teaching them the gospel before they could even talk.

Practially, both ideas have a similar outcome. Traditional Reformed might say that a infant who is born to believing parents and dies goes to heaven because of election. Most SBC churches would say that the baby is in heaven because it was incapable of exercising faith.

One passage that seems to address it, even if it doesn't define it, is when King David mourns for the death of Bathsheba's son. He said, "He shall not return to me, but I shall go to him." David seemed to have faith that his son was in heaven, for whichever reason he would have understood. <><

Tara said...

Wally and I have discussed this in the past. My experience has been similar to Melissa's. I understand and follow the reasoning of the article, but I do have a couple of questions:

Couldn't a baby of non-believing parents be "saved" because he or she was apart of the elect, or is this a special blessings reserved for believing parents?

What about aborted babies or miscarried babies? Having never been actually born, would they go to heaven? I don't think this was addressed in the article. What do you think?

Freddy T. Wyatt said...

The instances of scripture addressing this are slim. However, 2 Samuel 12:23 does seem to imply what Phillips argues for in the article. I think consistent with Phillips' argument would be the understanding that all infants (children of believers or not) and all aborted and miscarried babies in the mystery of God's providential grace are of the elect and just as Phillips agrued immediately enter into the presence of God.

tara said...


That is how I have explained it in the past and understood it enough to believe myself . . .

I am SO glad that God is so much bigger than my understanding . . .