The Age of Accountability: Salvation for Infants and the Mentally Handicapped

What is the truth about the age of accountability as it relates to soteriology? The real question behind the age of accountability is most often related to those who are looking for assurance about the eternal destiny of a child who has passed away. Many come to this question from an entirely emotional state seeking to ease their mind and find comfort. Others seek to appeal to the character of God and see the issue as a matter of moral fairness based upon our human understanding of justice and mercy. The real issue is not how we feel or how we think God should act in a particular situation. The real issue is what the Bible has to say about the matter. This is where we will focus our attention.

In order to understand this issue biblically we must first begin with a brief understanding of the doctrine of soteriology. In the interest of time we will cut to the chase. The Bible clearly teaches that all of humanity, including babies, is utterly and totally depraved because of Adam’s fall as recorded in Genesis 3. Paul also makes this very clear in Romans 3. Adams sin is imputed to each of us causing all of us to be judicially guilty before God. Moreover, the Bible is equally clear that our depravity renders us unable to respond to God in and of ourselves. Depravity renders us “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph 2.1). Dead men cannot raise themselves. Jesus confirms this when He states, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him…” (John 6.44 ESV). Therefore, salvation is all of God and nothing of man. It is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, for the glory of God alone.

Before my Armenian/semi-pelagian friends cringe at the notion of God’s sovereignty in salvation, let me assure them that this in no way minimizes the responsibility of man to trust Christ. There is a great tension in scripture wherein the Sovereign God of the universe is the author and finisher of the faith of those who believe, yet men have a responsibility to repent and believe the gospel. While Jesus makes God’s work of regeneration a very clear fact, He also makes very clear that “…when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12.32 ESV). God makes it His point to draw human beings to Himself though the work of the Holy Spirit who has come to “…convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment…” (John 16.8 ESV). Once men are regenerated by the work of the Spirit they are required by God to respond to His gracious call with faith in Jesus Christ (see Rom. 10.9-10). While some would posit that men cannot reject this gracious call, the author of Hebrews indicates men can willfully reject the truth that has been received (see Heb. 10.26-29). Either way there is at least the requirement of belief, or faith, for those who would come to Christ. No passage makes this more clear than John 3.18 which reads, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (ESV).

With this basic understanding of soteriology we can now better answer the question of whether or not all children go to heaven when they die. First, let’s answer the question concerning the age of accountability as it relates to this issue. There are those who state emphatically that there is no age of accountability mentioned at all in the Bible.[1] Some believe that the age of accountability varies from child to child. Yet, others would give an average age of 12 or 13 as the age of accountability.[2] On the other hand, some believe that the bible does imply an age of accountability reaching up to at least 19 years of age.[3] The truth is that an age of accountability is not explicitly stated in the scripture, but the concept of an age of accountability is implied. For instance, God identifies children as “innocent” in passages like Psalm 106 and Joel 3. Moreover, God states in Deuteronomy 1.39 that children “have no knowledge of good or evil” (ESV). While passages like this do not necessarily express a definitive age of accountability, they do imply that such an age exist. Biblically speaking it is plausible for us to conclude that there is some range of age wherein God deems children to be innocent and therefore, safe under His sovereign hand as He extends to them His unmerited mercy and grace until such time as they come to a cognitive understanding of good and evil and are capable of making a volitional choice in light of that knowledge.

Herein, I believe, lays the crux of the matter. Based upon John 3.18, among other verses, the bible teaches that the ability for one to believe is fundamental to saving faith. Dr. Tony Evans states it this way, “faith is the means by which salvation is obtained.”[4] He concludes that, “God would not ask us to do something that we could not do.”[5] How then does God deal with those who lack the mental capacity to believe and/or the available information necessary for them to believe in Christ? The gospel call by God is a command to believe, which presupposes that those who are commanded to believe have the capacity to believe. If, therefore, an individual does not have the capacity to believe then it seems to follow that the same individual does not have the capacity to reject the gospel call either.[6] However, God still has a problem in regard to original sin which has been imputed to all of humanity causing us to stand judicially guilty even in our infancy. The Psalmist states it like this, “I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps. 51.5 ESV). How then can God be both “just and the justifier” if he overlooks the quilt of the sinful? Paul gives us the answer in 1 Timothy 4.10, “For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe” (ESV).

Dr. Evans says that this means “God saves men in two ways; generically and specifically.”[7] God has generically dealt with the original sin of Adam for all men thus rendering the imputed sin of Adam justified in Christ thereby making all men savable. The implication is that men no longer stand guilty before God merely on the basis of original sin, but on the basis of their individual sin. Dr. Albert Mohler seems to agree with Dr. Evans’ assessment of original sin.[8] He points out that original sin does require the need for regeneration, but is not that standard for which men are judged before God.[9] Dr. Mohler states that the Bible clearly teaches that all men are judged by the works they have committed in the body.[10] Thus, he concludes that since infants are “innocent” and have not committed good or evil they are not guilty before God. Therefore, it seems plausible to conclude that God can save children and the mentally handicapped who have not reached the competency to understand good and evil, and who have not reached the mental ability to believe. He can justify them based on that Christ has dealt with the stain of original sin and they stand before God innocent as implied by in passages like Deuteronomy 1.35-39.[11] However, once one reaches the place in life that they understand right and wrong and have the mental capacity to volitionally choose to believer or reject the light which they have been shown they stand guilty before God because of their personal sin.

One final thought. God verifies the truth that children are covered under His general grace through the tragic death of David’s infant son. In 2 Sam. 12.22 we find David has been fasting and praying that God may have mercy and spare his son rather than allowing the child to die. However, God does allow the child to die. Upon the child’s death David breaks his fasting and praying. David makes this declaration after his sons passing; “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept … but now he is dead. Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me” (ESV). This is significant because David was sure of his eternal destiny. He states in Psalm 23.6 that he would “dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (ESV). Therefore, I think it is biblically sound to conclude that until a human being reaches a mental capacity to understand right for wrong and make a volitional choice to believe or reject the gospel that they are declared innocent by the Sovereign Lord and safe in His hand which extends to them mercy and grace sufficient for justification and salvation.

My prayer is that this truth will give hope to those redeemed parents who have lost children in death or who have been deemed worthy to have been given the unique God given privilege to raise and care for mentally handicapped children. May it be used as a tool by the Holy Spirit to lead those unregenerate parents who find themselves in the same situation to come to faith in Christ so that they like King David can have the confident hope that they will go to be with their loved one in eternity.

Soli Deo Gloria,

 

 

[1] McAuthur, John, “The Age of Accountability,” Available at: https://www.gty.org/library/articles/A264/the-age-of-accountability, Accessed July 17, 2017.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Craig, William, “A Reasonable Faith: Age of Accountability – Scriptural or Emotional?, Available at: http://reasonfaith.blogspot.com/2009/06/age-of-accountability-scriptural-or_26.html., Accessed July 17, 2017.

[4] Evans, Dr. Tony, “What about those who can believe,” Available at: https://www.twr360.org/programs/view/id,343041/action,audio/lang,1, Accessed July 20, 2017.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Mohler, Albert, “The Salvation of the ‘Little Ones”: Do Infants who Die Go to Heaven?,” Available at: http://www.albertmohler.com/2009/07/16/the-salvation-of-the-little-ones-do-infants-who-die-go-to-heaven/, Accessed August 11, 2017.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

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