April 15, 2021

Is There an Age of Accountability?

Nathan W. Bingham & Derek Thomas
Is There an Age of Accountability?

Some Christians say that there is an “age of accountability,” an age at which young children become guilty of sin. Is this true? Today, Derek Thomas considers what the Bible teaches about this subject.


NATHAN W. BINGHAM: I'm joined this week by Ligonier Teaching Fellow Dr. Derek Thomas. So, Dr. Thomas, is there an age of accountability or discretion in the Bible?

DR. DEREK THOMAS: Nathan, this is very important question, and as a pastor for decades and more, I've been asked it many, many times, particularly on occasions when a young child has perhaps passed away or in cases where teenagers are beginning to rebel and so on, so this raises the whole issue.

Is there an age of discretion or an age of accountability"which would be the term more often used"and is it in the Bible anywhere, and what is the relationship of infants who die in infancy? So let me take the Reformed answer to that question to begin with. And let's go to the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 10, "Of Effectual Calling," and they make two exceptions to effectual calling. And one is elect infants who die in infancy. And then another exception"basically those whom we would call special needs, who are incapable of understanding the gospel"though it is often read in a different way that this is an open door to the person on the island far away who's never heard of Jesus, that he too will be saved. And that's not what they were talking about. They were talking about mental incapacity.

But why would the Westminster divines say "elect infants"? Because theologically, that's not saying anything at all. Of course, the very nature of election means that they're going to be saved, whether they're infants or adults or whatever. And the fact is that the Belgic Confession doesn't use the word elect. They are quite explicit saying that all infants who die in infancy. And my understanding of the Westminster Assembly's delegates is that all"or if not all, most"of the delegates were of the opinion that all infants who die in infancy go to heaven.

And remember that in the seventeenth century, more infants died than survived. John Owen had eleven children; ten of them died in infancy. So, this was a huge pastoral problem then. And, of course, it is a massive problem today for parents who lose their children, whether that's in the womb by miscarriage or whether they're stillborn or maybe they die of some disease or other. In the seventeenth century, it was a very common thing.

The text in Scripture"which the Westminster divines actually don't refer to in the proof texts" is for me David's statement about his own illegitimate son from Bathsheba. When he died, David laments in Samuel and says, "I will go to him, but he will not come to me" (2 Sam. 12:23). Now, you can read that on the surface level and say that David was simply saying he was going to join him in the grave, but most interpreters will say that David was saying something more than that, that there was some linkage of faith that suggested an afterlife. It's the Old Testament, so it's not explored or expanded upon. But that to me"and if you add the whole issue of covenant theology, that God in covenant desires not only to be our God, but the God of our children, me and my seed principle"for me, I am happy enough as a pastor to say it is my understanding, although Scripture doesn't explicitly say so, that children who die in infancy"and think of the millions of abortions for example, millions and possibly billions by now"are actually in heaven. And I'm perfectly happy as one as committed to the inerrancy of Scripture to say that.

The issue of accountability, of course, arises in churches where the primary issue is the freedom of the will. And therefore, it's ill-advised and illegitimate to talk about the freedom of the will for a two-week old baby. And therefore, until they manifest that will"I've seen young babies manifest a will for sure of stubbornness and anger"but a cognitive, rational expression of that will, and you're talking maybe eighteen months or two years or three or four years. And I think in those free-will churches, the issue of accountability then becomes a theological dogma that they cannot be held accountable.

And that's of course not the biblical position, because the biblical position is that all infants inherit original sin. For us as Presbyterians, I baptize a child who's just months old who cannot speak, cannot express his will, but they are so guilty of sin"Adamic sin"that they could go to hell. And baptism is the outward expression of a covenant promise, that includes parents and children. It doesn't regenerate, but it points to the gospel, because even these little infants, angelic as they often seem to be, are still guilty of sin that could send them to hell, unless that sin is covered by the blood of Christ.