Vol. 8, No. 3
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Can one definitively demonstrate through Scripture that babies and young children are not guilty of sin? First, Scripture teaches that a soul is not guilty for the sin of his forefathers (or anyone else, e.g. Adam and Eve, Ezekiel 18:20). Scripture also teaches that a soul makes his debut in this life innocent of sin (Ezekiel 28:15). Further, Scripture teaches that a soul initially knows a state of innocence, during which he is unable to discern between right and wrong (Deuteronomy 1:39). When, however, does a soul pass from a state of innocence to accountability to God for knowing the difference between right and wrong (becoming guilty of sin)? Sin, then, occurs when one violates the law of God (1 John 3:4).
First, we direct our attention to the affirmation that babies and young children are not guilty of sin. Does Scripture teach either explicitly or implicitly that such an assertion is true? One commentator observes that the Bible addresses this subject but very little. "Infant salvation. The belief that those below an 'age of accountability' can be (or are) recipients of the grace of God for salvation; a difficult doctrine, because little is said about it in the Bible" (Karleen). Further, especially Catholic doctrine teaches that everyone is born into this world guilty of the sin of Adam and Eve (i.e., "Original Sin"). Still further, the doctrine of Calvinism, which many contemporary denominations embrace in their creeds, teaches Total Hereditary Depravity (i.e., the original sin of Adam and Eve passes to all their descendants at birth--essentially the same as the Catholic doctrine of "Original Sin").
However, the Bible clearly teaches that sin is not inherited (though the consequences of sins may affect others, including one's descendants, 1 Corinthians 15:21). Souls are only responsible for their own sins, not the sins of others such as fathers or children (Ezekiel 18:4, 20); in the Old Testament, ordinarily one was put to death for his own sins and not the sins of his family (Deuteronomy 24:16; 2 Kings 14:6; 2 Chronicles 25:4; Jeremiah 31:30). Through Adam and Eve sinning, sin entered into the world (Romans 5:12). All the descendants of Adam and Eve have sinned (excepting Jesus Christ, Romans 3:23; Hebrews 4:15). The consequences (rather than the guilt) of sin, namely death, then, visits all humans.
The Bible clearly teaches that souls debut on planet earth sinless. God put a sinless soul into the body of each person born (Ezekiel 28:15); only later does sin blacken one's soul. Since our Holy God gives each person his or her soul, one could only conclude that God puts sinless souls in mankind (Ecclesiastes 12:7; Isaiah 42:5; Zechariah 12:1; Hebrews 12:9). Only afterward, at some point, do souls commit sin (Ecclesiastes 7:29 NKJV).
There is a time in the life of a child when God does not impute sin to him or her. There is a time "before the child shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good" (Isaiah 7:16). "Little ones" have "no knowledge between good and evil," and in the context of Deuteronomy 1:39 were permitted to enter Canaan because God did not hold them guilty of sin when their parents rebelled against God (Numbers 14:3, 26-38). "Since the children had not been partakers of the sinful outbreak, they were spared to obtain the privilege which their unbelieving parents had forfeited" (Jamieson, Fausset and Brown).
Children have the innocence before God that each adult must acquire for entrance into the kingdom of God. Converts to Christianity must "become as little children" (Matthew 18:3). Jesus Christ compared the citizens of the kingdom of heaven to children (Matthew 19:4).
When does a child pass from the state of innocence or achieve the age of accountability? There is no certain age at which every person becomes self-aware to the point of recognizing that he is responsible for sins before God. The age of accountability, then, varies from person to person.
When does one reach, as some have called it, "the age of accountability"? The Bible does not give an age of accountability. Some have argued that one is accountable at the age of twelve. Others have chosen different ages, such as eighteen, or even twenty-one. What should be discussed is when does one reach the state of maturity that he is accountable to God for his actions. As one may mature earlier than another, so he becomes accountable earlier than the other. One becomes accountable when he is just that-accountable. The one who does not have the maturity or ability to understand the nature of sin and the need for forgiveness has yet to reach this state. Third, the one mentally deficient to the point he is mentally, intellectually, and/or emotionally like a little child is not a sinner. The reasons for such a person's nonaccountability are the same as for the baby and child. Could such a man obey the Gospel? Not really, for he does not have the ability to do so. He is not accountable, and will not be condemned even though physically he appears to be a mature adult. (Liddell 988-989)
Some people never arrive at an age of accountability due to mental defect. Others who once were accountable to God may no longer have a sound mind, and hence are no longer accountable persons, which if they did not become faithful Christians in the interim while they were accountable, have no more hope than those who died not making preparation to meet God in Judgment.
The "little ones" and "children" of Deuteronomy 1:39 who were not held accountable for the rebellion which kept their parents out of Canaan were aged up to 19-years-old. First, the definition for "little ones" is: "Weaker One, Little One Basically this word signifies those members of a nomadic tribe who are not able to march or who can only march to a limited extent. The word implies the 'weaker ones'" (Vine's). Only persons 20-years-old and upward who rebelled among the Israelites of the Exodus were forbidden to enter Canaan (Numbers 14:29, 31). These were "all the generation of the men of war" (Numbers 26:2; Deuteronomy 2:14). At least in that biblical incident, God exempted as accountable souls everyone under the age of 20-year-olds.
A person has to be consciously able to make a choice to obey or disobey God, irrespective of whether one has been acquainted with the pure Gospel of Christ. Since sin is the violation of God's Law (for us the Gospel), one must have the mental capacity or development to transgress God's Law (1 John 3:4). However, infants and young children do not have the mental development to transgress the Gospel. Likewise, to be accountable for sin one must have sufficient mental capacity or development to purposefully respond to the positive commands of the Gospel (i.e., hear, believe, repent, confess Jesus as Christ and submit to immersion for the remission of sins).
Also, there are those in denominationalism who practice infant baptism. But the Scriptures teach us that the one to be baptized must believe (Acts 8:37; 8:12; Mark 16:16). He must repent of his sins (Acts 2:38). He must confess Christ (Acts 8:37). Thus, baptism is for those who have reached the age of accountability. (Hester 283)
"All people who have reached the age of accountability are the whom-all persons that are able to hear, be taught, and understand the Doctrine of Christ (John 6:44-45)!" (Melson 305-306).
One has greater responsibility spiritually when he or she arrives at an age of accountability. Becoming a child of God after realizing one's accountability to God for his or her sin is the most important decision a soul can make. Even other important decisions in life are relatively insignificant compared to the decision to obey the Gospel (1 Peter 4:17).
We call upon our young people who have reached the "age of accountability" to make the most important commitment they will ever make even though they are not ready to make earthshaking decisions such as getting married, terminating schooling, etc. I have baptized many twelve year olds, but never have I performed a wedding ceremony for such a one, nor will I. Evidently, we are making a clear distinction in the need for understanding "becoming a Christian" and for understanding "getting married" or other such decisions. Becoming a Christian, or making THE commitment if you please, is to be made when one feels he is responsible to God and is therefore lost in sin. Some get to that point earlier than others. (Dale 100)
However, whenever one has the presence of mind that he or she can consciously choose between good and evil, that one is accountable to God for sins. "Every person who has reached the 'age of accountability' and is mentally developed has the choice of doing right and/or of doing wrong" (Hicks 324).
It is impossible for babies and young children to die in sin forasmuch as they are neither capable of choosing to disobey God's Law (for us the Gospel) nor are they able to obey the Gospel (1 John 3:4; Romans 6:17; 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9). We concur with the following statement: "Baptists, Free-Will All who die short of the age of accountability are rendered sure of eternal life" (McClintock and Strong).
Babies will be in heaven. Millions of precious little ones who died before reaching the age of accountability will be in glory forever. Our Lord said of children, "of such is the kingdom of heaven" (Mat. 18:1-4). David spoke of going to heaven to be with his infant child (2 Sam. 12:15-23). (Sain 1133)
Similarly, as Adam and Eve were created sinless, but afterward became guilty of sin, every soul enters the world sinless and only later becomes guilty of sin (Genesis 1:26-27, 31). "The same pattern evident in the fall of Adam and Eve into sin is the same pattern that individuals follow when they reach the age of accountability and fall into sin" (Winton 461).
God made man upright. When God created man and placed him in the garden of Eden, he was in a state of innocence until the day that he transgressed God's law (I John 3:4). Likewise, when a child comes into this world, it is in a state of innocence until it reaches the age of accountability and transgresses God's law. The Bible does not teach the idea of original sin, or total hereditary depravity. This is one of those "inventions" sought out by man. Little children do not inherit sin from their parents. The Calvinist teaching of original sin, or total depravity, is false. (Vick 184)
"When our children reach the age of accountability, they are just as responsible as anyone else before God for their actions" (Patterson). Every person who has the ability to know the difference between good and evil is accountable to God for his or her sins. "According to plain Bible teaching, every person is both free and responsible from the time of his coming to the age of accountability (knowing good and evil, Deut. 1:39) until the time of his death (except for times he may be of unsound mind)" (Warren 1).
Neither parents nor children will cease to fret over the age of accountability, but both parents and children need to urgently contemplate that obeying the Gospel is the most important decision of one's life (i.e., more important than selecting a marriage partner, selection of a college or one's lifelong occupation).
God has always desired that mankind turn from sin to righteousness, and he provided the sinless Christ as a sacrifice for our sins (Ezekiel 18:21; 1 Peter 2:24). Salvation from sin is available to those who will accept it on God's terms (John 3:16; Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38). Erring Christians can also obtain salvation from sin in their lives through Jesus Christ (1 John 1:7, 9).
Dale, John W. "Problems of Youth." Eternal Truths. William Woodson, ed. CD-ROM. Henderson: Freed-Hardeman College, 1980. 100-105.
Hester, Guy. "Acts on the Warpath: Its Refutation of Denominationalism and Evangelistic Oversight." The Book of Acts. Vol. 1. Curtis A. Cates, ed. CD-ROM. Memphis: Memphis School of Preaching, 1984. 277-284.
Hicks, Tommy J. "Whosoever Will." Lessons in Lyrics. Curtis A. Cates, ed. CD-ROM. Memphis: Memphis School of Preaching, 1998. 318-332.
Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Commentary. CD-ROM. Seattle: Biblesoft, 1997.
Karleen, P. S. The Handbook to Bible Study: With a Guide to the Scofield Study System. CD-ROM. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.
Liddell, Bobby. "Forgiveness." Sin and Salvation. Vol. 1. Curtis A. Cates, ed. CD-ROM. Memphis: Memphis School of Preaching, 2004. 971-1012.
McClintock and Strong Encyclopedia. CD-ROM. Seattle: Biblesoft, 2000.
Melson, Richard. "All Are Amenable to Christ's Law." Jesus Christ: The Gift of God's Grace and the Object of Man's Faith. Curtis A. Cates, ed. CD-ROM. Memphis: Memphis School of Preaching, 1992. 302-309.
Patterson, Max. "According to the Bible, Parents should Teach their Children to Love and Obey the Truth." Spiritual Sword 15.4 (1984): 16-17.
Sain, Paul. "Heaven: Eternal Home of the Saved." Sin and Salvation. Vol. 1. Curtis A. Cates, ed. CD-ROM. Memphis: Memphis School of Preaching, 2004. 1111-1148.
Vick, Ben F., Jr. "God Hath Made Man Upright; But They Have Sought Out Many Inventions." Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon. Curtis A. Cates, ed. CD-ROM. Memphis: Memphis School of Preaching, 1994. 178-189.
Vine's Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words. CD-ROM. Nashville: Nelson, 1985.
Warren, Thomas B. "According to Calvinism, No Person Is Ever Really Free Nor Responsible For Even One Moment." Spiritual Sword 8.3 (1977): 1.
Winton, Bob. "First and Second Adam." The Book of Genesis. Curtis A. Cates, ed. CD-ROM. Memphis: Memphis School of Preaching, 2001. 441-464.