The age of accountability is the idea that a child is not accountable to God before he or she reaches a certain age. If you have read the Bible, you know that this belief is not found anywhere in scripture. Where did this idea come from? I have yet to find a direct answer to that question. In my opinion, I think the idea of the age of accountability got started when certain Bible scholars refused to believe in the doctrine of election.
What are some arguments for the age of accountability? One writer believes the age of accountability is the age of twenty. He writes:
I believe that we may know exactly what that age is, and it is Biblical. Here is how I arrived at my conclusion. Consider the following passages:
'Because they have not followed me wholeheartedly, not one of the men twenty years old or more who came up out of Egypt will see the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob- (Num 32:11)
In this desert your bodies will fall—every one of you twenty years old or more who was counted in the census and who has grumbled against me. (Num 14:29)
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. (Deut 1:39)
By harmonizing these three verses, I believe we can infer that:
1. There is an age (at least there was among the Israelites in the desert) before which a person did not know good from bad.
2. This age was the age below which children were allowed to enter the promised land.
3. That age was 20 years of age.
Okay, that may sound like God is showing Himself merciful to men before the age of 20, but the way I read these passages is that God is showing His judgment to those of a certain age when they left Egypt up to this point in Biblical history. Remember the generation that was wandering the desert, except for Joshua and Caleb, were not allowed to enter the Promise Land. The previous generation doubted God quite a bit during their wilderness wanderings. I am still wondering what the passage in Deuteronomy has to do with the age of accountability.
Another argument is the age of twelve. Why twelve? It was the age that Jesus was when he was separated from Mary and Joseph then found later in the temple "sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers" (Luke 2:46-47). Yes, Jesus was twelve when this happened, but He was also God Incarnate. To say that because Jesus was twelve gives proof to the age of accountability is simply pulling straws. Jesus was God in the flesh who was also a perfect child as well as a perfect teenager. He was tempted every way we are yet was without sin including his childhood years.
One article that I read years, which I spent time looking for it but could not find it, even had passages from Jeremiah that affirmed the age of accountability. As I recalled, the passage in Jeremiah did mention salvation, judgment, or an age. Once again, I will have to locate that article if it still on the web.
We have seen support for the age of accountability, but does the Bible really support it? Sure the passages mentioned above might give us some evidence of it, but the Biblical answer is no. There is no support for the age of accountability in the Bible.
Now we have to address the elephant in the room, what about a child who dies before receiving Jesus? This question, I believe, is why some have adapted the age of accountability. I have even asked this question myself after witnessing the funeral of a 20-month baby girl a few years ago. John Piper was asked this very same question, which he did address in an interview that was conducted eight years ago. The following is an excerpt from that interview:
Why do you believe that infants who die go to heaven?
I believe it not because of a sentimental notion that babies aren't participants in the Fall. They are. Babies are participants in original sin.
The question is whether God has a way to cover their sin even before they have a chance to believe. Babies are not mentally able to put faith in Jesus yet, at least not in any terms that we ordinarily understand. And so I think that God provides another way to cover their sin.
I base my belief that God does not condemn babies who die on Romans 1:19-20:
For what can be known about God is plain to them [that is, to mankind] 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. Therefore, they are without excuse.
The "therefore" at the end says that mankind would seem to have an excuse if they had not seen clearly in nature what God is like. And so, because I don't think little babies can process nature and make conclusions about God's grace, glory or justice, it seems they would fall into the category of still having an excuse.
The way I see it is that God ordains, for his own wise purposes, that at the judgment day all the children who died in infancy will be covered by the blood of Jesus. And they will come to faith, either in heaven immediately or later in the resurrection. And God will not condemn them because he wants to manifest openly and publicly that he does not condemn those who did not have the mental capacities to put their faith in him.
Piper, as well as other scholars, believe that a child, especially an infant, are giving grace because they have no way of knowing that Christ died for their sins. This is the belief that I hold. This is the hope that I have. I can't imagine God holding a baby accountable for sin when he/she cannot comprehend the truth of the gospel. Our God is a God of grace and mercy. He has compassion on whom he has compassion.