The concept of the “age of accountability” is that children are not held accountable by God for their sins until they reach a certain age and that, if a child dies before reaching the “age of accountability,” that child will, by the grace and mercy of God, be granted entrance to heaven. Is the concept of an age of accountability biblical? Is there such a thing as an “age of innocence”?
Frequently lost in the discussion regarding the age of accountability is the fact that children, no matter how young, are not “innocent” in the sense of being sinless. The Bible tells us that, even if an infant or child has not committed personal sin, all people, including infants and children, are guilty before God because of inherited and imputed sin. Inherited sin is that which is passed on from our parents. In Psalm 51:5, David wrote, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” David recognized that even at conception he was a sinner. The sad fact that infants sometimes die demonstrates that even infants are impacted by Adam’s sin, since physical and spiritual death were the results of Adam’s original sin.
Each person, infant or adult, stands guilty before God; each person has offended the holiness of God. The only way God can be just and at the same time declare a person righteous is for that person to have received forgiveness by faith in Christ. Christ is the only way. John 14:6 records what Jesus said: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, except through Me.” Also, Peter states in Acts 4:12, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.”
What about babies and young children who never attain the ability to make the personal choice to believe in Jesus? Some believe that those who die before reaching the age of intellectual or moral accountability are “automatically” saved by God’s grace in Christ. The reasoning is that, if someone is truly incapable of making a decision for or against Christ, then that one is extended God’s mercy. Charles Spurgeon held this view: “I rejoice to know that the souls of all infants, as soon as they die, speed their way to Paradise. Think what a multitude there is of them!” (C. H. Spurgeon’s Autobiography, Vol. 1, ch. XVI, “A Defence of Calvinism,” Passmore and Alabaster, 1897, p. 175).
The Bible does not directly address an age of accountability. One verse that may speak to the issue indirectly is Romans 1:20, “Since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” According to this, mankind’s guilt before God is based, in part, on a rejection of what can be “clearly seen” of God’s existence, eternality, and power. So, what about children who have no faculty for “clearly seeing” or reasoning about God—wouldn’t their natural incapacity to observe and reason excuse them from judgment?
The age of 13 is the most commonly suggested for the age of accountability, based on the Jewish custom that a child becomes an adult at the age of 13. However, the Bible gives no support to the age of 13 being a set age of accountability. The age at which a child can distinguish right from wrong and becomes capable of choosing Christ likely varies from child to child.
With the above in mind, also consider this: Christ’s death is presented as sufficient for all of mankind. First John 2:2 says Jesus is “the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” This verse is clear that Jesus’ death was sufficient payment for all sins, not only the sins of those who come to Him in faith. The fact that Christ’s death was sufficient for all sin would allow at least the possibility of God’s applying that payment to those who were never capable of believing.
Some see a link between the age of accountability and the covenant relationship between the nation of Israel and the Lord. In that dispensation, a male child was brought into the covenant through circumcision, which was totally out of his control, being performed on the eighth day after birth. No other requirement was imposed on him (Exodus 12:48–50; Leviticus 12:3).
The passage cited most often in support of an age of accountability is 2 Samuel 12:21–23. The context is that King David committed adultery with Bathsheba, with a resulting pregnancy. The prophet Nathan was sent by the Lord to inform David that, because of his sin, the Lord would take the child in death. David responded by grieving and praying for the child. But once the child was taken, David’s mourning ended. David’s servants were surprised to hear this. They said to King David, “What is this thing that you have done? While the child was alive, you fasted and wept; but when the child died, you arose and ate food.” David’s response was, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, ‘Who knows, the Lord may be gracious to me, that the child may live.’ But now he has died; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.” David’s words might indicate that infants who die are safe in the Lord. David could have simply been referring to the fact that his child was in the grave, but he seemed to be comforted by the knowledge. The peace he felt suggests that he believed he would see his baby son again (in heaven).
In conclusion, it is possible that God applies Christ’s payment for sin to young children and others incapable of faith, but the Bible does not specifically say that He does this. Therefore, this is a subject about which we should not be dogmatic. God’s extending grace to those who cannot believe would seem consistent with His character. It is our position that God does apply Christ’s payment for sin to babies and those who are mentally handicapped, since they are incapable of understanding their sinful state and their need for the Savior. Again, we cannot be dogmatic. Of this we are certain: God is loving, holy, merciful, just, and gracious. Whatever God does is always right and good, and He loves children (Matthew 19:14).