Is an “age of accountability” in the Bible?
Where in the Bible do we find evidence of an “age of accountability” and what happens to babies and very young children who die before they can understand salvation?
First of all, it is important to understand that the time a child becomes personally responsible before God varies from child to child. There is no uniform “age” when this happens, and only God knows the heart and mind of an individual. But God is just, and when that point is reached the child is responsible.
As John MacArthur put it, “God knows when each soul is accountable. God knows when real rejection has taken place; when the love of sin exists in the heart. When enmity with God is conscious and willful. God alone knows when that occurs.”
The Jews believed this time was reached somewhere around age twelve, possibly because we see Jesus at age twelve “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions” (Luke 2:46). But I believe it happens long before this.
Perhaps the clearest indication that this moment exists is found in Isaiah’s prophecy regarding the coming Messiah, “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” (Isa. 7:14) The following two verses are seldom read but both indicate a point at which a child becomes accountable knowing right from wrong.
“He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste.” (vs.15,16).
Do babies who die go to heaven? I believe they do. When David’s infant son died David said,
“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 will go to him, but he will not return to me.” (2 Sam. 12:22-23).
David knew the infant’s soul was safe in the arms of God.
There is also evidence in scripture that with greater understanding comes greater accountability. In Matthew 11:20-24 Jesus denounces the cities in which He had done many mighty works. The suggestion is that because they had witnessed greater evidences of His divinity they were all the more accountable for their rejection of Him.
Similarly Paul writes in Romans 1:18–20 about the accountability the unrighteous have before God because of their knowledge of God in creation,
“…For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”
Finally, James warns “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” (James 3:1).
From these and other scriptures it is clear that the greater one’s understanding of the gospel, the greater one’s accountability before God to respond to it. Conversely then, the less one’s understanding, the less one’s accountability.
In the case of the infant, the mentally challenged, the unborn or the ignorant God is gracious. Their souls are secure in Him.
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