It was inevitable. A pastor can’t preach on sin—the doctrine of hamartiology was the focus of my message Sunday—without dealing with depravity (both total and utter). And any discussion concerning depravity eventually leads to someone asking about the age of accountability. Such was the case Sunday. In fact, of the six questions texted in during the service, half were concerning this: What happens to babies when they die, and is there an age of accountability? Or does depravity doom us all from the start?
While I personally prefer to call it a “stage” of accountability, primarily because we grow in our moral understanding and responsibility (and subsequent culpability), let me be clear: the Bible gives no definitive age as to when children are accountable. However, the Bible is clear that all are born in sin (Psalm 51:5), and that we have inherited guilt and sin due to the fall (Romans 5:12, 19). Furthermore, we all will give an account one day to God (Rom. 14:12, Heb. 9:27). So the real question is, at what point does a child reach responsibility? And prior to that, do they go to heaven?
Let me share where I land on that, then give several links to helpful articles, even from others who disagree.
Regarding when a child reaches responsibility, I plant my feet in Romans 1:19-20 as the basis for saying that when one is able to clearly perceive God’s invisible attributes, thus producing an awareness of “answerability,” they are rendered excuseless.
“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. Therefore, they are without excuse.”
Universally, mankind has been without excuse ever since creation because that very creation reveals God’s invisible attributes. Individually, the process and point of his invisible attributes being “clearly perceived” is something I believe happens progressively over time, not at an actual age. That’s why I refer to it as a “stage.” Parents and pastors should be aware this is always occurring with the little ones in their physical and spiritual families, and children reach this awareness at different ages and times. There is no set, prescribed numerical age in the Bible.
What about those who never grasp this awareness? I personally believe, then, they are not without excuse, using Romans 1:19-20 again as the basis for my reasoning. This would mean that even those beyond the age of a child who cannot grasp God’s existence and authority and their resulting moral responsibility and culpability are, in my opinion, of those whom God will save in some manner still consistent with his gracious covenant yet unknown to us in regards to exactly how.
Of course, one must necessarily wonder how this cooperates with the doctrine of total depravity. “Aren’t we all born in sin and guilty before God?” Yes! But I think, using yet again Romans 1:19-20, that total depravity in essence at birth can exist even before total depravity is evident by action after birth. We are born in sin and under wrath, and eventually left without excuse as our awareness of God and responsibility to him surfaces and increases. It is always there potentially, but it is only seen actually as our understanding and responsibility grows. So, in my opinion, total depravity does not rule out the existence of a “stage” of accountability.
Finally, David’s words of encouragement and comfort in 2 Samuel 12:21-23 provide a strong reason for me to believe God does act in this way. When he lost his child, David stated, “I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.” I consider this to be a statement about something greater than just David’s personal and particular situation. It indicates how God operates with those who cannot perceive him. I find David’s assurance to be timeless and victorious, words inspired by the Holy Spirit for us in our day as well.
It is important to remember that this is just one view—personal, but not uncommon—and that many true believers hold to different views on this subject. Historically, three stances are usually in view:
- All babies are elect and thus immediately translated into heaven, awaiting Jesus’ return and the finishing of his work of cosmic redemption.
- God chooses some babies for heaven and the rest are left to spend eternity in hell.
- All babies are reprobate and thus immediately translated into hell upon death, awaiting the final eternal judgment for their sin nature inherited from Adam.
Below are some links to further reading, helpful history, and deeper insight from trusted others.