The Age of Accountability

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.

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Objections to Infant Baptism

There are those who hold to the necessity of infant baptism. They use several scriptures to support their position. I would like to take a look at these passages of scripture however, and see what the Bible really teaches us on this subject.

To begin, I would like to point out that the New Testament pattern for baptism involved repentance and faith. It was a conversion experience whereby an individual turned from sin to Christ, being baptized into Christ, identifying with His death, burial, and resurrection. Therefore, one is led to see that only those who have repented of their sin, and placed their trust in Jesus Christ for the salvation of their souls, are fit candidates for baptism.

There are numerous scriptures that link repentance and faith with salvation, and baptism as well. Jesus began His public ministry preaching repentance (Matt 4:17). He declares that unless one is born again, of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God (John 3:3,5). He issues the great commission, commanding us to teach all nations (translated in the NASB as make disciples), baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In Mark’s gospel Jesus states that the one who believes and is baptized shall be saved (Mark 16:16). Belief in Christ was the baptismal requirement for the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8:36-37), and Peter required his listeners to repent and be baptized for the remission of their sins (Acts 2:38). Once again, is there any solid scriptural evidence that would lead us to believe that God requires repentance and faith from an infant? Is this something that an infant is capable of? Can an infant understand sin, repentance, and surrender to Christ? These are honest questions that we must ask ourselves as we contemplate this issue.

Those who hold to infant baptism look at the “household” baptisms found in the book of Acts, as proof that the Apostles baptized infants. There are those who teach that only “first generation” converts need to be baptized, their children are then baptized as infants. But is this scriptural?  Let’s take a look at these instances as recorded in Acts. 

Acts Chapters 10 and 11 record the conversion of Cornelius and those assembled in his home. We read in Acts 10:2, that Cornelius was a devout man, and one that feared God with all of his house. Nowhere in this verse do we see mention of who made up his household, or what there ages were. What we do know is that he was a God fearing man, along with his household. Even if there were children, even infants in his house, as well as the other households we will look at, we would still understand that it was a God fearing household, or a believing household, in spite of the fact that there were those within it who did not have the capacity to fear God, or believe in Christ. When we look at a godly family and say, “That is a Christian home,” we should understand that we mean those who are capable of repentance, faith, and obedience to Christ, even though infants may be present in that home.

The Bible records that Peter preached the word to those assembled in the home of Cornelius. As he preached, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word (Acts 10:44). At this, they baptized them in the name of the Lord. The proof: they had evidenced the reception of the Holy Spirit. When we read this passage, we do not have to make a great leap to understand that those who heard the word, responded to it, thus receiving the Holy Spirit. The conclusion of the early Church was that ” God has granted the Gentiles repentance unto life.” (Acts 11:18).

Next is the household of Lydia, a woman who worshiped God (Acts 16:14-15). When she heard Paul’s preaching, the Lord opened her heart, to attend to the things spoken. The Bible records that she and her household were baptized. It makes no mention however of who made up her household, or their ages. It is mere presumption to assume that there must have been some infants baptized along with Lydia. How can we be certain that she was the only one who believed? Again, the scriptures are silent in this case, however, there is ample proof found throughout the New Testament, that belief is necessary for baptism.

Paul also baptized the Jailer at Philippi, along with his household (Acts 16:29-34). When he asked “What must I do to be saved?” Paul replied that he must believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and he would be saved, he and his house. I would hope that we understand this to mean that if he believed, he would be saved, and if others in his household believed, they would be saved as well. I find no evidence in scripture to support that if one believes in Christ, his entire house is saved as well. He is baptized along with his entire household. Again, no mention of who makes up this household; no mention of infants or children. We can only guess at their ages, as the Bible is once again silent. This passage closes by telling us that this man rejoiced, believing in God with all of his house. I take this to mean that everyone in his household believed, thus they were baptized.

Paul also baptized the household of Stephanas (1 Cor 1:16). Once again, we have no record of who made up this household. We do discover however, that they were the first fruits in Achaia, that is Paul’s first converts there. We also see that they were addicted to the ministry of the saints (1 Cor 16:15). In other words, they were active in Christian service. If we try to make this passage “prove the presence of baptized infants within this home, we must also be consistent, and say that these infants were addicted to the ministry of the saints as well. 

We have the example of the household of Crispus, a believing household (Acts 18:8), who were baptized (1 Cor 1:14), as well as many other believing Corinthians. This passage shows us that it was the practice of Paul to baptize those who believed. Nothing at all is mentioned, in this passage, as well as in the other “household” passages that we have looked at, concerning the practice of infant baptism. There is absolutely no plain scripture dealing with the idea of baptizing first generation believers along with their children. Sadly, we seem to be baptizing those who we have never been commanded to baptize, and we are not baptizing those whom Christ has told us to baptize. 

Those who practice infant baptism like to point to circumcision and God’s covenant with Abraham, to show that we must baptize babies. (Gen 17:9-27). The idea is that baptism has replaced circumcision as the sign of the covenant, but it is performed in the same way, on infants. Circumcision was the sign God gave to faithful Abraham. It was to be carried out on all males born into the nation of Israel, when they were 8 days old. These infants did not need to repent or believe to receive circumcision, it was theirs by virtue of the fact they were born into the nation of Israel. As a sign, it pointed to the circumcision of the heart, the removal of the sinful nature. It also served to separate the nation from the other nations around them, and to identify them as God’s chosen people. However, we must remember that the act of circumcision was performed on the male child at his birth into the physical kingdom of Israel. Baptism under the New Covenant represents the new birth, the entrance in to the spiritual kingdom of heaven. It is not performed at natural birth, but at the new birth. You must be birthed from above into the kingdom of God to receive baptism. Nicodemus struggled with the concept of the new birth, and in much the same way, people today struggle with this idea of the necessity of infant baptism as well (John 3:3-12).

In conclusion, the bible clearly teaches that one who is to be baptized must be repentant, must profess faith in Christ, and must be born again. There is no plain teaching or example found in scripture backing the practice of infant baptism. We dare not elevate the precepts of men above the sound teaching of Jesus Christ, or that of the Apostles found within the pages of the inspired word of God.