Infant Salvation: The Age of Accountability
All right. I believe we are now ready, after considerable preparation, to start looking at this concept critically. We have hopefully removed any impediments to study and gathered the necessary resources (see the Theological Investigation series here, here, and here), grounded ourselves in a good, basic understanding of original sin (as I wrote here), and have resolved not to fall into certain heresies and false doctrines (which can be read here).
Why the delay? Because it is critical that we do this correctly. Our answer to this question will determine our response to those whom we will minister. We cannot afford to misstep. If we do misstep, it must be from what we genuinely believe Scripture to teach rather than because we’ve been sloppy and unprepared in our study. As such, we will in the next few posts examine the verses or perspectives used in support of this doctrine. We will examine the passage or perspective, its strengths, and its weaknesses. Let us begin today with the first, major position that affirms infant salvation: the Age of Accountability.
What is the “Age of Accountability?”
It is commonly believed and taught that there is an age at which children become responsible moral agents. That is to say, before a certain point in a child’s life, that child cannot be held as guilty of committing sin. This is because there is no conscious understanding of good and evil, right and wrong, sin and holiness on the part of the child.
This is to be contrasted with our heretical position (see the links above) that holds the innocence of children when they are born. This position, instead, agrees that children are born with the taint of original sin. Rather than a child being innocent of moral corruption, a child is innocent of actual sins committed. There are a couple of Scriptural indicators of this position:
Deuteronomy 1:39: “And the little ones that you said would be taken captive, your children who do not yet know good from bad—they will enter the land. I will give it to them and they will take possession of it.” This verse is the command of God that the children of the rebellious Israelites would be the ones to inherit the promised land, not their parents. The children would not be held responsible for the sins of the parents, by virtue of their inability to distinguish between right and wrong.
Isaiah 7:14-16: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. He will eat curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right. But 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.” In this messianic prophecy, Isaiah states that there will be a time when Jesus Himself will not be able to distinguish between wrong and right, and that a time would arrive when he would know consciously what was right and wrong.
These verses state that there is a time in a person’s life when one is unable to tell the difference between good and evil. Advocates of the affirmative position believe this means that until a child understands the difference, God cannot hold them guilty for sinful acts committed, because they are not sins consciously committed.
The foundation of this idea is based on Romans 2:5-11, where it is clear that we are judged by God on the basis of our works. That is, when we die and face the judgment seat, God is not going to ask us, “Have you accepted Christ as your Savior?” but rather, he will ask, “Did you keep my commands? Did you love me with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; and did you love your neighbor as you love yourself?” The only answer any person could possibly give is “No, Lord, I am a complete and utter failure before you.” Some of you are about to object that I’m leaving Jesus out of it. Well, I can and do, because the passage in Romans is very clear about it — Jesus does not affect that judgment…yet. So hold your horses and bear with me.
What is clear is that since a baby has no consciousness of sin, no understanding of right and wrong, then by extension they cannot be judged guilty on the basis of their works, because there are no sinful acts committed yet. They would be judged innocent. But that begs the question: Is sin still sin if you don’t know that it’s sin?
Advocates of this position have no choice but to say sin is not sin if one does not know that it is sin. This is an absurd position. Stealing is still stealing, murder is still murder, failure to worship God is still failure to worship God. We would not excuse a criminal on the grounds that he/she did not know the law. “Ignorance of the law is no excuse,” it is often said. Paul wrote that the sins he committed in ignorance were still sins (1 Timothy 1:13). Other verses (Ephesians 4:18; 1 Peter 1:14) equate ignorance with being in a sinful state. It matters not if you know what you do is wrong, it is still wrong. Why? Because the rightness or wrongness of an action is not determined by you and me, but by God. Sin is sin whether we know it or not. Interestingly, this also applies to the “mental incapables” argument, often lumped in with infant salvation.
So it is clear that this argument cannot be used to support an age of accountability. The only thing we can say about this argument is that it deals with morally conscious adults, not infants, and as such we do not know how God deals with an infant.
But to focus on the texts themselves, we find an error in the thinking of those advocating an age of accountability. Nowhere do these verses state that God does not assign guilt, neither do these passages state that God cannot assign guilt. Such a statement is an eisegesis, not an exegesis. Eisegesis, for the laypeople among my readers, is reading one’s own bias–including worldview, tradition, philosophy, wishful thinking, what one would like to be true, etc.–into the passage of Scripture one is interpreting. Exegesis involves letting the text speak for itself, as apart from the personal bias and inferences of the interpreter as possible (in keeping with our principles of theological investigation). Dr. Chad Brand introduced me to a principle that has created much simpler ways of reading Scripture; namely, “we do not have to infer” a reading of Scripture when Scripture does not support such an inference.
Allowing the text to speak for itself reveals that in the Deuteronomy passage, God is saying that the children of the Israelites of the Exodus will not be held responsible for their parents’ rebellion after the 12 spies were sent into the land. It does not say that God will not count them guilty of all sin committed before reaching moral consciousness. Such a position has been inferred by those who wish to make this passage say what they want it to say. And we do not have to infer this position from the passage. It is a logical leap to say that because the children are not guilty of the rebellion at the river, therefore they are not guilty of any sin committed before they understand right and wrong.
Given the above discussion, we do not need to examine Isaiah 7:14-16, as we can see that the affirmative position is an inference from this verse rather than the clear teaching of the passage. The clear teaching of these passages is simply that there is a point in a person’s life at which one becomes morally conscious, before which there is no moral consciousness.
However, this position is the strongest argument for infant salvation, since it is obvious that the works of such a one with no moral consciousness are not considered willful sin. And without a clear indication of how God deals with this in an infant, we must be silent as Scripture is silent. But I think it has been made very clear that Scripture does not teach an “age of accountability.”
Next time we will look at the argument of Infant Regeneration.