Dr. Steve Lemke serves as Provost of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He also holds the position of Professor of Philosophy and Ethics. His article on the “Age of Accountability” was originally published in January 7, 2010 issue of the Louisiana Baptist Message. Dr. Lemke is a good friend and has articulated a doctrine that seems to be taken for granted in today’s younger pastors. Dr. Lemke gives a very reasonable argument and Biblical foundation for this doctrine.
The doctrine often called the “age of accountability” is one of the most foundational Baptist beliefs, yet it is also one of the least understood beliefs. All three Baptist Faith and Message statements (1925, 1963, and 2000) assert that children are not morally accountable until “they are capable of moral action” (Baptist Faith and Message, Article 3). We all know that individual children mature at different rates than do others, so it is difficult to establish a specific age at which all children become morally accountable. It is therefore more accurate to speak of a “state” of being accountable rather than an “age” of accountability. However, apart from mentally challenged individuals, this state of accountability is normally associated with a “coming of age” sometime in adolescence. The life transition from childhood into adolescence and early adulthood is recognized with some form of celebration in almost every culture. In Jewish culture, this coming of age is celebrated at the age of twelve or thirteen with bar mitzvahs (for boys) and bat mitzvahs (for girls). While this recognition is prompted by age rather than personal spiritual maturity, the term “mitzvah” literally means “one to whom the commandments apply.” After their mitzvah, children are held to be morally responsible for their own actions and accountable to follow the Jewish law. This coming of age is hinted at in Jesus’ life in His visit to the temple in Jerusalem at the age of twelve (Luke 2:41-50).
Although the phrase “the age of accountability” is not mentioned specifically in Scripture (as is the case with other doctrines such as the Trinity), there is scriptural warrant for this belief. Perhaps the best biblical support for the “age of accountability” is in Jeremiah 31:29-30 and the parallel passage in Ezekiel 18:14-21, which makes clear that we are only accountable under the new covenant for our own sins, not those of our parents –
Now suppose he has a son who sees all the sins his father has committed, and though he sees them, he does not do likewise. . . . He practices My ordinances and follows My statutes. Such a person will not die for his father’s iniquity. He will certainly live. . . . But you may ask: Why doesn’t the son suffer punishment for the father’s iniquity? Since the son has done what is just and right, carefully observing all My statutes, he will certainly live. The person who sins is the one who will die. A son won’t suffer punishment for the father’s iniquity, and a father won’t suffer punishment for the son’s iniquity. The righteousness of the righteous person will be on him, and the wickedness of the wicked person will be on him. Now if the wicked person turns from all the sins he has committed, keeps all My statutes, and does what is just and right, he will certainly live; he will not die. In those days, it will never again be said: The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge. Rather, each will die for his own wrongdoing. Anyone who eats sour grapes-his own teeth will be set on edge” (Ezek. 18:14-21, HCSB).
Further support for the concept of an “age of accountability” comes from the fact that nowhere in the New Testament is the baptism of a baby or infant described. In every case, it is adults who come to faith in Christ. Evidently, then, moral accountability and salvation by faith are applicable only for those who are capable of moral discernment.
Not only does the Bible teach the “age of accountability,” but we know it is true because of other core doctrinal beliefs. The Baptist belief in personal soul competency before God presupposes morally competent believers, not infants. Likewise, the Baptist belief in a gathered church of believers presupposes that each member is a born again Christian who has made their own personal profession of faith in Christ. We believe in congregational governance because we believe the Holy Spirit is within each true believer to prompt and to guide.
It is believer’s baptism, however, that provides the most significant reason to affirm the “age of accountability.” Believer’s baptism is a core belief of Baptists (there’s a reason that we are called Baptists!). The early Baptists were called “Anabaptists” because they believed that the infant baptism they had received was unscriptural, and they were baptized again upon their profession of faith in Christ. The denial of infant baptism has been a defining issue for Baptists throughout their history.
Infant baptism was one of the key doctrines that separated the Calvinistically-inclined Particular Baptists in England from Presbyterians. The Particular Baptists modeled their Second London Confession (1689) and the nearly identical American version, the Philadelphia Confession (1742), after the Westminster Confession (1646) which, though written for the Church of England, was and is affirmed by almost all Presbyterian fellowships. The Westminster Confession had asserted that children were guilty of sin upon birth, and therefore the children of believers should be baptized as infants to remove original sin (Westminster Confession, Articles 6 and 28). The Second London and Philadelphia Baptist confessions, however, delete the affirmation of the Westminster Confession that “Every sin, both original and actual . . . [brings] “guilt upon the sinner,” (Westminster Confession, Article 6). The Baptist confessions also delete the Westminster Confession’s allowance for infants to be baptized, asserting instead that only “those who do actually profess repentance towards God, faith in, and obedience to, our Lord Jesus Christ, are the only proper subjects of this ordinance” (Second London Confession, Article 29; Philadelphia Confession, Article 30). Baptists have never believed that one could be saved by physical birth or by the faith of their parents. Each person must make a personal profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord in order to be saved.
Baptist confessions tend not to use the term “original sin” (it is in none of the versions of the Baptist Faith and Message), and two early Baptist confessions explicitly deny it. Baptists do believe that we children of Adam “inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin,” but it is not until we become “transgressors” ourselves that we come under guilt and condemnation (Baptist Faith and Message, Article 3). So while we believe in an inherited sin nature, we do not believe in inherited guilt. It is the belief in inherited guilt that leads those in the Reformed tradition toward the necessity for infant baptism.
These beliefs about inherited guilt have significant implications for the spiritual status of infants who die. Presbyterians such as R. C. Sproul, Jr. reject the notion that children who die before the age of accountability who go to heaven. Sproul chided Billy Graham for comforting the parents who lost a child in the day care center in the Oklahoma City bombing by the famous evangelist saying that there would be a “glorious reunion” with these children because they were not personally guilty of sin. Sproul insisted that since we are born guilty of original sin, unless the infants were elect and responded in faith, they had no hope of salvation. He accused Graham of advocating “a new gospel – justification by youth alone.” While all Presbyterians may not agree with Sproul, his article is infamous it set the record for letters to the editor of this journal, and not a single one of these letters affirmed Sproul’s position. Baptists have always believed that since infants are not yet capable of actual sin, they go to heaven.
As a person who has lost a stillborn child, I can tell you that this issue of the “age of accountability” really does matter. Baptists need to be more conscious of this crucial doctrine.
 R. C. Sproul Jr., “Comfort Ye My People—Justification by Youth Alone: When Does Comfort Become Confusion?” World (May 6, 1995), also available online at http://highlandsstudycenter.org/article/comfortYeMyPeople.php.