Many in the Church believe in what is commonly referred to as the age of accountability. They hold that an infant is not capable of willful sin until they reach an age where their wills become developed, and they gain an understanding of right and wrong. At this point they are now morally accountable to God for their actions. I agree with this position, and would like to explore a few passages of scripture which I believe teaches this concept.
Before we begin however, stop and consider; have you ever known an infant to steal, tell a lie, murder somebody, worship an idol, blaspheme, commit adultery, etc? Common sense tells us that an infant is incapable of these things. How can an infant, who has no understanding, who is moved by instinct when hungry, tired, or uncomfortable, intend in his or her heart to commit one of these sins, thus incurring guilt? As this child grows older, we begin to see tantrums, disobedience to simple parental commands, and so forth. At some point, this child will reach a point of moral accountability before God. At what age they reach this point we have no way of knowing, but before this moment comes, they are under the grace of God
We can gain some insight from the words of Jesus in Mark 1:14,
But when Jesus saw it, He was much displeased, and said unto them, Suffer the the little children to come unto Me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God. (KJV)
Little children have an innocence about them. As I stated above, an infant, even a small child, has not yet transgressed. That is not to say there is no sin nature, for the Bible teaches us that through the disobedience of Adam, sin entered the world, and has affected all men (Romans 5:12, 19). However, this does not mean that we are guilty of Adams sin, nor does it mean an infant who dies will go to hell for Adam’s sin. This passage of scripture teaches us that sin entered the world, and death through sin, because all have sinned. In other words, we have all given in and transgressed for ourselves. We are guilty for our own sin. Adam started it, sin entered the world, and we all fall into it. Here we see Jesus blessing these little ones, and teaching us that to such belongs the kingdom of God. He sees no taint of sin yet in these little ones.
Under the old covenant sacrificial system, we see provision being made for the unintentional sins of an individual, or the nation. A sin might be committed in ignorance (without knowledge). It was only when that sin became known, that the person was required to make the proper sacrifice, as an atonement for his sin (Lev 4:2,12-14, 22-26). While the sin was unknown, there was grace; it was when the individual became aware of the sin, that it had to be dealt with. This shows us that God deals gently, and is full of mercy, to those who sin without knowledge. He makes a distinction between unintentional sin, and sin that is willful. Now if an individual was made aware of a sin committed in ignorance, and chose to ignore it, or to persist in it, that person would retain his guilt. He would find no forgiveness in this case.
We also see a glimpse of God’s mercy in the book of Jonah. God asks the Prophet, “Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?” (Jonah 4:11 NASB) What is implied here is that there were 120,000 individuals in this city who had no real knowledge of sin. They were not morally accountable yet, and for this reason, God sought to spare this city, even though it was a very wicked city. Once again, we see God showing mercy to those who were not yet accountable for their actions.
We discover a principle of mercy in the book of Romans. Paul, in teaching the righteousness of faith, states that the law brings wrath, but where there is no law, there is no transgression (Romans 4:15). In the next chapter, in explaining how sin entered the world through Adam, he states that until the law sin was in the world: but sin is not imputed when there is no law (Romans 5:13).
When our first parents sinned, there eyes were opened (Gen 3:7). The Lord God Said,
Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil. (Gen 3:22a KJV).
Though we have no written law from this point until the time the law was given to Israel, man was accountable to God for violating the light that he had been given. This is why Abel was accountable for the murder of Cain (Gen 4:1-17), and why the world was accountable to God in the days of Noah (Gen 6:5-7). This is why Sodom and Gomorrah were judged by God and destroyed. They were accountable to God for violating the revelation of God that they had received through creation (Rom 1:18-32), and through their own conscience (Romans 2:14-16). However, an infant who has not yet experienced an awakened conscience, is not morally accountable to God. They have no light to sin against. In this sense, there is no law, and consequently, no transgression.
Paul applies this principle to himself when he states that apart from the law he was once alive, but when the commandment came, sin revived, and he died (Romans 7:9). There was a point in the Apostle’s life when he had no discernment of right and wrong; his conscience had not yet been enlightened. However, when that time came, the law worked all manner of coveting in him. Without the law, sin is dead, but with a knowledge of right and wrong (the law), it now brings death (Romans 7:8-9). The individual has now become morally accountable, as he or she now has an understanding of right and wrong, and is now in need of the Savior, to cleanse the soul of its guilt before God, and to set the prisoner free from the power of sin that has taken hold of his or her life. Prior to this point, there is no need to baptize this infant for the sake of its salvation. The mere act of infant baptism does not save, and cannot regenerate. God, who is righteous and just, in His mercy, does not hold such a one accountable for something it is incapable of doing.