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The Age of Accountability

We (Christians) have consistently been told that all children who die before they reach an age where they can understand about personal salvation (an age of accountability to God) that they go to heaven. I have prayerfully searched the scripture, all references, for anything regarding children, infants, family, brother, sisters, mothers, fathers, salvation, etc. Nothing could I find to support the argument, even though it does refer to passages where the whole family was saved (I believe in two places) and Christ Himself says to His disciples not to stop children coming to Him. Though nowhere can I find these ideas where accountability and instant infant/child salvation have any relationships, though salvation tied to the family maybe classed as having some scriptural basis.

The destiny of babies and young children who die has troubled many people over the years. We know that they have been born with a sin nature and that salvation is through faith in Jesus Christ. On one hand, they must need a Saviour because of the sin nature. On the other hand, they cannot be saved because they have not believed in Christ. But, if this be so, does this condemn all babies who die to hell? Surely, this cannot be. There must be a better solution. I believe there is.

First, we must realize that the One in charge of our children's destiny is God. As Abraham said, "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?" (Genesis 18:25). We can rest assured that our gracious God will have a just and loving solution to this problem. We need only look for it.

The standard teaching for this is found in a double doctrine. First, that children are not responsible for their own sins until they reach an age of accountability. Second, that those children under this age of accountability, though not saved in the standard way, are safe in the arms of Jesus. This is a workable and sensible doctrine in and of itself, but is it supported by scripture or is it just a manmade answer with no proof? I admit that there is not one single scripture that defines the age of accountability or the concept of young children being safe though not actually saved. However, I believe the doctrine has solid support in scripture and what follows is that support.

  1. King David gives us a important proof in his life and actions. Because of an adulterous relationship with Bathsheba, she had given birth to a son. God, in judgment on David, told David that his son would die. David fasted and pleaded with God for the life of the son. David's servants were so worried about him, that they feared to tell him when the child died. Yet, when David discovered the fact, he washed, changed his clothes, and sat down to eat. When the servants expressed their surprise, he responded, "While the child was yet alive, I fasted and wept: for I said, Who can tell whether GOD will be gracious to me, that the child may live? But now he is dead, wherefore should I fast? can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me" (2 Samuel 12:22-23). David knew God and knew he would be with Him. But he also knew that he would see his son there. This is an encouragement to every parent who has lost a child.
  2. Three of the gospels record Jesus scolding the disciples for trying to keep the children from bothering Jesus. In Mark 10:14, He says, "Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God." I realize that Jesus used children as an example of humility in coming to Him (Matthew 18:2-6). This may partly be the case here. However, He says that of such [children] is the kingdom of God. Evidently, they are in the kingdom of God because it is made of such. This matches perfectly with the confidence of David in seeing his son.
  3. In Matthew 18:10, Jesus states, "Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, That in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven." The little ones have angels in heaven that always behold the face of the Father." In Hebrews 1:14, angels are defined as "ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation." I believe that in their childhood they belong to God. Those who die will have a place in heaven.
  4. Of course, none of this solves the doctrinal problem of how a child with a sin nature and without trusting in Jesus as Saviour can go to heaven. I am going to go out on a limb here and teach something that I have considered for a long time. I do not believe it will mislead into error in any way but I want to be careful with this teaching.

When Christ died on the cross, He died for the sins of the world but He also died to satisfy the sin problem. I do not have the time here to get much into the distinction between sin and sins. Simply speaking, sins refer to the individual sins we commit while sin deals with the sin nature itself. The Bible teaches that Christ died for all men. Yet we know that all men are not saved. I believe that He solved the sin problem by satisfying God's wrath. That is why He can potentially offer salvation to all men. But men also commit sins. Not only do they have a sin nature, they continually break the law of God. These sins are willing. Therefore, they require an act of the will in order to receive forgiveness.

But what is the condition of babies? They have not sinned willingly, therefore they have not committed sins. Their only guilt is found in Adam's guilt and in their sin nature. Christ took care of the sin problem in becoming a second Adam without sin and conquering sin on the cross. Since children have not willfully committed any sins, they are not lost in our understanding of the word.

But, is there any biblical evidence for this approach? I believe there is. In Romans, chapter seven, Paul speaks of the effect the law had on him. In one critical passage, he states, "For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died. And the commandment, which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death." Paul grew up studying the law. He was brought up at the feet of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), one of the great teachers of the law. So whatever the experience described here, it had to occur when he was very young because he speaks of a time that he was without the law.

What, then, was his condition without the law? Paul says that when he was without the law, he was alive. Then, when the commandment came (that is, when he understood the commandment against lusting - Romans 7:7), sin revived and he died. I believe this is a description of Paul passing from a state of innocence into a state of personal accountability to God. He realized what sin was and that he was guilty. Up until then, he was alive. At that point, he died. He was not saved before, but he had not yet died to God either. If he had physically died before this spiritual death, he would have gone to be with God because he was alive to Him. He belonged to God until his willful sin separated him from God. This is the condition of every baby. They are alive unto God until they die in sin.

Though what follows is experiential (not a proof), I have seen evidences in young children that made me believe that they were alive to God in ways that we do not understand. My own son as a toddler prayed long loving prayers to God when we allowed him to say grace at the table. Then, one day, it just stopped. It was as if he no longer had that relationship. Thankfully, he got saved later and is serving God today. But I have seen indications of this in other children. They are not separated from God as we are. They have never sinned in the way that we do as adults. They have a sin nature and that is obvious. But they initially do not understand the willfulness of their actions.

I do not try to define the age of accountability, but I think it is there. And I am confident that those children who die in the womb, in infancy, or as very young children, will be in heaven to meet us when we arrive.