Age of Accountability

For those of us who practice believer’s baptism, there is a corresponding belief that children are safe until they reach an age of accountability. Admittedly, the phrase, “age of accountability,” does not occur in scripture, but I believe the concept does. Age may also be a misleading word. It may imply that I can pick a number — say age 12. Rather, I think it indicates a period of maturity when discipleship, belief, and repentance can take place, and there may be some who never reach this stage in life.

First, I reject the idea that we bear the guilt of Adam’s sin. Ezekiel 18:20 makes this clear: “The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself” (ESV). This means we are not sinners at birth. For a full discussion, other passages would have to be examined, but I think the point of Romans 5:12-21 is to say that Adam’s sin had consequences for all, so that Paul can also say, Jesus’ one act of righteousness can have consequences for all.

Second, children grow in all aspects of life including spirituality. This was true even for Jesus: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.” (Luke 2:52, ESV) Just as I cannot expect fine motor skills in small children, there are some intellectual and spiritual abilities that have to grow and mature as well.

Third, the Bible gives an example of children not being accountable. Out of the adults only Caleb and Joshua were going to enter the Promised Land because of the response to the spies’s report, but note what is said about the children: “And as for your little ones, who you said would become a prey, and your children, who today have no knowledge of good or evil, they shall go in there. And to them I will give it, and they shall possess it.” (Deuteronomy 1:39 ESV)

Fourth, Jesus says the kingdom belongs to children, which would indicate their acceptance by God: “but Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.’” (Matthew 19:14 ESV)

Fifth, the Bible indicates an innocence that is awakened to sin and guilt: “I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died” (Romans 7:9, ESV). See also Ezekiel 28:15 and Isaiah 7:14-15.

Finally, even those who practice infant baptism have some concept of an age of accountability in that they do not expect the same participation as an adult until the child reaches “the age of reason,” to borrow a phrase from the Council of Trent. This is evidenced by confirmation.

I think it is more consistent with the evidence of scripture to maintain a believer’s baptism and acknowledge that children are spiritually safe until they mature to where they can do the things of conversion: discipleship, belief, and repentance.

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