The idea of an age of accountability is the notion that there is an age before which young children are not responsible for sin, and therefore are not counted as guilty before God, so that if they die prior to this age they automatically go to heaven. And the question which is often asked is: What is this age? How old must a child be before he is charged with guilt?
Now, most people who accept the notion of an age of accountability are reluctant to specify a particular age. Instead, they see it as a relative matter that depends upon the growth of an individual’s moral consciousness—his ability to know right from wrong; to understand the consequences of moral behavior; and to reason from general moral principles to specific situations; etc.
Some suggest that this normally takes place around the age of 12 or 13. And sometimes they will point to the Jewish practice of Bar Mitzvah for support of their position. Others suggest that the age is younger, around 7 or 8.
The Scriptures, however, teach that human beings are guilty even from the moment of conception. David says,
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,This agrees with what Paul says in Ephesians, that we are “by nature children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3). By nature.
and in sin did my mother conceive me (Ps. 51:5)
Someone might ask: But how is this possible? How can we be sinners by nature? How can we be guilty of sin, even from the moment of conception? Paul tells us in Romans 5 that “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12). The context shows that God regards all men to have sinned in Adam’s transgression. In the following verses he says,
One trespass led to condemnation for all men (v. 18)When Adam sinned he lost his original right standing with God and he suffered the corruption of his whole nature. And this fallen condition is passed down to all of his descendants. We ourselves were born into the world in a lost and fallen state because of Adam’s transgression. To borrow David’s expression, we were brought forth in iniquity.
By the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners (v. 19)
A similar idea is expressed in Psalm 58:3.
The wicked are estranged from the womb;So what happens to infants when they die? Can they be saved before they are old enough to understand and believe the gospel? Well of course they can! God can do whatever he pleases, including working in a saving way in the lives of infants. Remember that John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb (Lk. 1:15). As theologian Wayne Grudem says, he was “ ‘born again’ before he was born!”
they go astray from birth, speaking lies.
This is what also lies behind David’s statement in Psalm 22, when he says, “From my mother’s womb you have been my God.” And let’s remember that in the Gospels Jesus blessed even the infants that were brought to him. So that even little babies are capable of receiving spiritual blessings from Christ, in spite of their lack of intellectual development.
God, in fact, makes many promises to believing parents to the effect that he will save their children. If a Christian parent has a child who dies in infancy, there is every reason to believe that the child will be in heaven with Christ. This why David said, concerning his deceased infant son, “I shall go to him, but he will not return to me” (2 Sam. 12:23). He expected to see him again, to be reunited with him in heaven.
As little ones grow, their moral consciousness develops, and their accountability increases. Jesus said,
The servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required (Lk. 12:47-48).Notice that even the one who does not know is held accountable. I think we may conclude that there is a progressive accountability as a child’s moral consciousness develops, but there is never no accountability. So if you are looking for an age of accountability, look for it at conception.