Throughout history Christians have wrestled with the question of whether Scripture teaches an age of accountability for salvation.
Some theological traditions argue for a specific age of accountability for infants and children, while others do not. Those who do assert a child isn’t responsible for the transmission of Adam’s sin to the human race until they reach a certain age.
Most Christian traditions teach that children enter the world fallen due to Adam’s sin, but some argue children are not guilty before God until they knowingly disobey God’s commands. If the child dies before reaching that age, he or she receives salvation based on Christ’s finished work. Once the child knowingly sins, however, they become accountable for their actions and have reached the age of accountability. At that point, salvation comes through conscious, active repentance and faith in Christ.
A related question is the status of those who are unable to respond due to the loss of various mental capabilities by no fault of their own.
How ought we to think about these questions?
Five Biblical Truths
As with any theological question, we must turn to God’s Word for answers. Although Scripture is not exhaustive in answering every question we may ask, it is true and sufficient revelation (Ps. 19:7–14; 2 Tim. 3:15–17). Since no passage explicitly teaches an age of accountability, my reflections on this issue draw from a number of biblical truths.
Here are five points to consider.
1. Scripture teaches twin truths, related to our sin and responsibility before God, that we must hold in tension.
As our covenant head, Adam represented the entire human race and in his disobedience brought sin into the world (Rom. 5:12–21). As a result of Adam’s sin, all humanity is guilty and corrupted, which leads to both spiritual and physical death (Rom. 3:23; 6:23; Eph. 2:1–3).
Although in Adam we stand under God’s judgment, we are also individually responsible for our sin (2 Cor. 5:10). On the final day, no person will be able to say they were unjustly condemned or will be able to blame Adam for their guilt. All humans are under God’s righteous judgment due to Adam’s sin and ours. The difficulty arises in applying the latter truth to infants or those who have limited capabilities due to living in a fallen world.
2. God rightly demands obedience and devotion from each of his image-bearers, but those with more revelation are more accountable.
Sin is a failure to meet God’s absolute demand, and we knowingly disobey. Yet Scripture speaks of a greater accountability for those who know more of God’s revealed will (Matt. 11:20–24; Rom. 2:17–25). All people have the knowledge of God in creation and conscience—and this is enough to condemn us (Rom. 1:18–32). But those who have greater knowledge through God’s special revelation are even more culpable.
3. Christ alone accomplishes our salvation and acts as our Redeemer.
By obeying God’s law for us as our new covenant head and paying for our sin as our substitute, Jesus secures our redemption. By grace through faith in Christ alone, we are justified before God. Apart from Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, there is no salvation.
This is true of Old Testament saints as well as new. By grace through faith, old covenant saints believed God’s promises that pointed forward to Christ (Gen. 15:6; Gal. 3:16). Thus Jesus Christ is the ground of salvation for all of God’s elect, and in normal circumstances we receive the benefits of Christ’s work by grace through faith in him. As applied to infants or those without full mental capabilities, if there is salvation for them, it’s never apart from Christ alone (John 14:6; Acts 4:12). The question hinges on the issue of conscious faith.
4. Under normal circumstances, we only benefit from Christ’s work by repenting of our sins and trusting in him.
So what about these exceptional cases, such as infants or others who lack the capacity to believe? Scripture doesn’t explicitly address the issue; it only offers hints that God shows mercy in these cases. Appeal is often made to texts such as 2 Samuel 12:23, where David says he will go and be with his infant son who died. Yet it’s not a definitive text teaching infant salvation. Nevertheless, when all these “hint” texts are investigated and coupled with the truth that the Judge of all the earth always does what’s right (Gen. 18:25), we can unequivocally affirm—and take comfort—that our triune God, who is gracious, merciful, and just, will do what’s right in every case.
Although there is no explicit biblical text that teaches an age of accountability, in light of all these truths I don’t think it’s unwarranted to agree with many Christians past and present that in these “exceptional” cases, God will demonstrate his grace and mercy in Christ alone. Yet given the lack of explicit teaching in this regard, our greatest hope is to entrust ourselves to God, who always does what’s right for his own glory.
5. While a combination of these hints and other truths leads us to find comfort in God’s mercy in the exceptional cases, we must not allow it to drive us beyond Scripture in ‘normal cases.’
For example, some Christians appeal to exceptional cases to justify salvation in normal cases of people who never hear the gospel. This is an illegitimate conclusion.
Or perhaps a Christian parent wrongly reasons it best not to tell their child the gospel, lest they bring condemnation upon them. This too is illegitimate. God commands us to teach our children the gospel as we entrust them to his gracious care. We must diligently teach our children God’s Word, praying he will open their hearts and grant them repentance and faith.
Even though the Bible doesn’t always explicitly answer our questions, it never fails to lead us to rest in the triune God, in whom all answers are found—our God who is for us and not against us in Jesus Christ.
- What Happens to Those Who Never Hear the Gospel? (Matt Smethurst)