I have always been told that there was an age of accountability in scripture, meaning that children who die before a certain age are automatically saved. I've even heard a preacher quote Romans 7:9 saying when we become aware that our sin separates us from God, sin is "revived" in us and then we are held accountable to God from that point. Is this viewpoint correct?
The Bible never teaches that there is an "age of accountability." The term never appears in the Bible nor does the concept in any form. Furthermore, scripture never suggests that children are born without sin or that they cannot be held accountable for sin because they don't understand or recognize it. Ironically, the Bible teaches exactly the opposite idea: every person is accountable to God for their sin at every age.
For example, Paul teaches:
And the Psalmist wrote:
And David testified concerning himself:
Notice how consistent scripture is on this point. Paul says that unbelievers are deserving God's wrath by "nature" not because they reach a certain age. David says in Psalm 51, he was "conceived in iniquity," meaning he was born with a sin nature from the start. He also said that his sin was ever before him, meaning there was never a time when his sin was not present in his life.
Furthermore, David declares that God is blameless when He judges us for that sin, because sinful men deserve judgment. There is no escaping the reality of our sin from birth and our accountability before God. Age has nothing to do with it.
The Psalmist says in Psalm 53 that no one does good and everyone is evil. Furthermore, when God looks down upon mankind, He finds no exceptions to this rule. No one - no adult nor child - is "good" before God. As Jesus Himself said:
So, Scripture teaches all humanity have gone astray. No one does good, not even one. Then Paul teaches every human being is born as a child of wrath. We are by nature sinners. Someone once said that we are not sinners because we sinned; we sin because we were born sinners, so our sinfulness is not something that develops later in life or that convicts only after a certain age. It is something we have at birth because it is in our nature to sin.
These passages (and many others) teach the universality of sin. We are born into Adam's sin nature and our nature condemns us from our first breath. Furthermore, the Bible never provides an exception to this fundamental Biblical principle. If there were an exception to the principle of the universality of sin, we should expect the Bible to call it out plainly and explain it explicitly, since something so important and so contrary to other teaching would require careful explanation. Instead, the Bible is utterly silent on any exceptions.
As Paul wrote:
More importantly, if it were possible for God to overlook the sin of even one child and permit that child to enter into heaven apart from saving faith in Christ, then why should any person have need to confess Christ? In fact, if entrance into Heaven were possible apart from faith in the sacrificial atonement of Christ, then God need not put His Son to death in the first place. Instead, He could have forgiven everyone's sins apart from faith in the same way He is supposedly overlooks a young child's sin.
Clearly, this is not only illogical but unbiblical, since scripture tells us that faith in Christ is required and is the only way to Heaven:
The pastor you mentioned proposed that Romans 7:9 taught an exception to this principle, but it does not teach an exception, and we can see this clearly when we read the verse in its full context.
Paul begins this chapter in verse 1 by stating that the Law has jurisdiction over a person as long as they are alive. By jurisdiction, Paul means the Law has the authority to condemn us and judge us for our sin. Notice Paul says this power exists "as long as he lives." All men stand condemned by the Law for their sin from the first day of life. The condemnation of our sin doesn't wait for some later day of accountability; on the contrary, we are condemned all our lives.
Secondly, Paul says if we hope to escape the Law's condemnation, we must die to the Law, because the Law's jurisdiction only ends when we die. In verse 3 Paul uses an analogy to illustrate his point. Like a married woman who can only remarry after her husband dies, we must die to free ourselves from the Law so we can then be free to be married to Christ. Our spiritual death is accomplished on our behalf by Christ, since by His death we were considered to die to the Law and be freed from its jurisdiction.
Then Paul asks in v.7 if the Law itself is the source of our condemnation? Paul says no. The cause of our condemnation was our own sin. The Law was merely the instrument God used to reveal our sin to us. For example, until we learned from God's Law that coveting was a sin, we couldn't understand that we were sinning when we coveted.
Therefore, the Law condemns us only in the sense that it reveals our sinfulness to us. Notice, coveting was always a sin; we just didn't appreciate the fact we were sinning until God's law taught us. The Law cannot be said to be the cause of our sin and condemnation. We were always sinful and always condemned, but we just didn't know it.
Before we discuss verse 9 specifically, let's ask has Paul been talking about children in this passage? Has he described any exceptions to the principle that all men are condemned for their sin? Has he suggested that dying before a certain age will save us from the punishment of sin? Has he alluded in any way to an age of accountability?
Clearly, the answer to all these questions is no. Therefore, as we approach verse 9 we must guard against "reading in" any context other than the one Paul himself is teaching. Paul has been consistently arguing that sin and condemnation are universal, and the Law was God's instrument to reveal our sin. He has never varied or departed from this line of argument.
From this point, we are now ready to understand verses 8-11. In these verses, Paul teaches using the example of a sinner who doesn't know God's Law. Paul says that apart from (a knowledge of the) Law, sin is dead. What does Paul mean?
Well, we know from Paul's earlier teaching in Romans 5:12-14 that the penalty of sin existed even before the giving of the Law to Moses. Paul said death reigned from Adam to Moses, so the penalty of death didn't depend on a knowledge of the Law. Men were still condemned for their sin even before they understood God's standard for holiness.
So when Paul says in Romans 7:8 that apart from Law, sin is dead, he can't mean that sin doesn't carry a penalty before we know the Law or that our sin isn't counted against us. This viewpoint would contradict Paul's earlier teaching in chapter 5.
Rather, Paul is speaking in the first person from the perspective of a person who is ignorant of their debt before God. Before the Law was revealed, I couldn't appreciate my jeopardy before God. Sin was "dead" in the sense that it was unappreciated, and my conscience enjoyed a false sense of security, thinking myself alive when I was actually spirtually dead.
Once the Law was reveal to me, however, sin "became alive" to me. My conscience became aware of my sinfulness and I came to understand my condemnation before God. Therefore, Paul says in verse 9 that I "died," meaning I lost my false sense of innocence.
Paul is not suggesting that a person becomes accountable for sin at a later point in life as a result of learning the Law. On the contrary, he is teaching that we were always under condemnation for sin (see Romans 5:12-14 again), but our awareness that we were condemned before God was brought to life through our knowledge of the Law.
We can see even more clearly that this was Paul's meaning in v.13. Paul asks rhetorically if the Law is the source of our spiritual death and eternal judgment? In other words, Paul is asking the very question your preacher proposed: did the arrival of the Law result in my condemnation and was it the cause of my penalty?
Paul responds may it never be. Paul specifically denies your pastor's viewpoint when he wrote that the Law is good and holy, and therefore it was not the cause of our eternal loss. The cause of our condemnation was our sin, and the Law was merely given to reveal our sinfulness to us.
From this truth we must conclude that children are accountable for their sin just as adults, and everyone is accountable without respect to their degree of awareness of their sin. In fact, if we were to interpret Romans 7:9 to mean that a lack of knowledge of the Law is an excuse before God, then what do we conclude about the millions of people who lived and died before the Law was given to Moses? And what about a person today who lives in an isolated place and has no access to read the Law of God? Are they accountable for sin?
The Bible says that all men are accountable for sin and all have sinned, with or without knowledge of the Law:
Paul shuts the door on any argument that presumes ignorance of the Law will save us from judgment. There is no excuse of ignorance available to men of any age.
Therefore, since the reason for our eternal death is our own sin (and not our knowledge of the Law), then all men are under the curse of eternal death from the first moment of life, since all men are born sinful in the likeness of Adam. Our condemnation before God is not a function of our awareness of our sin or of the Law; it is the consequence for having been born sinful.
Unfortunately, some have ignored these truths of Scripture and have chosen to teach as doctrine a precept of man (see Matthew 15:7-9). We might ask why your preacher (or others before him) felt the need to invent the concept of an age of accountability? What problem were they trying to solve that couldn't be solved by scripture alone?
The answer is your pastor was trying to account for what happens to children who die too young to profess faith in the Gospel, and he did so because he didn't understanding how saving faith arrives in the first place.
Those who teach an age of accountability invariably also hold that salvation comes as the result of an act of human will to accept Christ. They maintain that when a person professes their belief, only then does God respond to the person's decision by delivering His Holy Spirit (i.e., first comes a personal decision to choose to believe, then comes the Spirit and salvation).
This view of salvation is commonly called the "free will" view, because it holds that men are saved by their willful choice to believe in the Gospel. The "free will" perspective leads to a dilemma that necessitates an invention of the "age of accountability," for how else can we explain God's treatment of young people who haven't the chance to make a decision?
Simply put, the invention of an age of accountability was an unfortunately, unnecessary and unbiblical response to a problem that was itself created by an equally unbiblical "free will" teaching of salvation.
The Bible gives a very clear and very different answer to this question. The Bible's answer centers on a proper understanding of the way ALL men are saved in the first place. The Bible solves this dilemma in the right way, by correcting the false presumption of free will salvation.
In truth, the Bible teaches that salvation occurs in a very different way.
First, the Bible teaches that no man seeks for God:
Furthermore, when we existed in our natural, flesh state as an unbeliever, we were spiritually hostile toward God and we could never subject ourself to God's decrees.
Most importantly, the Gospel message itself is incomprehensible to an unbeliever:
Even when Jesus walked the Earth and demonstrated the truth of His claims to be the Christ, yet still people did not accept His testimony. Jesus Himself taught that those who are not His cannot accept His testimony:
The Bible teaches in these passages (and many others) that the natural man (i.e., an unbeliever) is spirtually opposed to God, does not seek for God and is incapable of understanding spiritual truths. Biblically speaking, there is no such person as a "seeker." It is spiritually impossible for an unbeliever to seek the true living God, and even when the truth of the Gospel is presented to an unbeliever, they will always reject it since it cannot be accepted by the natural man, according to Paul.
So how can anyone believe and be saved??? Scripture seems to teach that it is impossible. As the disciples asked:
God saves those who cannot (and will not) save themselves. The way God saves sinners according to the Bible is very different from the process taught by "free will" proponents. In the Bible, the process of salvation begins not with a message or a human decision but with an act of God. What is impossible for us to do by our own decision or will, God is prepared to do on our behalf. This is the true Biblical definition of grace.
First, the Bible says that our salvation was something God determined to make happen. God's will - not our own - determines who will be saved. Paul says this most clearly in Romans:
Our salvation does not depend on us "inviting Jesus into our hearts," as some might preach. God doesn't wait for our invitation, because no man ever extends such an invitation. As Paul teaches, our salvation does not depend on a man choosing God (i.e., the man who wills) nor does it depend on our personal efforts to accomplish good works (i.e., the man who runs).
Instead, our salvation depends entirely on God's decision to show us compassion and elect us to saving faith. As God Himself said, He will have compassion on whom He will have compassion. His mercy and compassion don't rest on our will or effort. The decision to save is solely God's alone.
Paul repeats this truth in Ephesians:
It was the kind intention of God's will that resulted in us having been chosen for salvation even before we were born - even before the foundations of the Earth were laid!
Next, Scripture teaches that our salvation process begins with a work of the Holy Spirit. Consider these passages from Scripture:
The process of salvation begins with the baptism of the Holy Spirit, which is the moment the Holy Spirit comes upon us and quickens our hearts to hear the Gospel and believe the testimony of Christ. Without this work of the Holy Spirit, we would never accept the things of God, as Paul said. Since the Holy Spirit must be present and working in our hearts BEFORE we will come to faith, we understand that God must act first in choosing to send us His Spirit so that we will receive the Gospel.
In Matthew 16, Jesus taught this same truth to the Apostel Peter following Peter's famous confession of faith, telling Peter that his faith was something given to him by God.
Paul also teaches this truth in Ephesians:
Paul teaches that our faith was a gift of God. Our ability to believe in the Gospel was the result of God's gracious work through the Spirit, so that we could never boast that our salvation was the result of our decision or will or sound judgment, etc. We believed in the Gospel because we were made to believe by the Spirit. Glory be to God!
Following the Spirit's work in the heart, a person then responds in faith. First, the person comes to an understanding and acceptance of the Gospel recognizing their changed spiritual perspective. Next, they profess their faith publicly. Lastly, they obey Christ's command and are baptized. These are all expected human responses to the spiritual change God produces in the heart by His Spirit.
Having established how we are saved, we can now understand the disposition of children who die at an early age. If salvation is not an act of human will (or intellect) but is solely dependent on God's grace and mercy, then we must conclude that anyone can be saved at any age. Even an infant can be given the gift of faith by God's Spirit, and regardless of the child's age or their inability to express their faith publicly, they are still believing.
Scripture gives us proof of this possibility. First, we have the example of David again:
Isn't that remarkable? David confesses that he was made to trust in God (or believe) while he was still a nursing baby. In fact, David says that he was cast upon God from birth. David's account in the Psalms tells us that God is capable of producing faith in someone even while they are too young to hear and understand the words of the Gospel, much less express their faith to someone else.
Because our salvation is accomplished through a spiritual understanding (not by an intellectual understanding), salvation doesn't require that our brain have developed to any specific degree. It is purely a work of God by His Spirit in our spirit.
Next, consider the example of John the Baptist:
Like David, the parents of John the Baptist were promised that their son would receive the Holy Spirit even before he was born. Paul teaches in Romans 8:14 that the leading of the Holy Spirit is evidence that we have become children of God by faith. Therefore, John the Baptist became a child of God while still in his mother's womb!
If it were true that salvation necessitated a person have the will and intellect to understand and receive a Gospel presentation, then how do we explain the experience of John the Baptist? How could the angel say that John the Baptist would receive the Holy Spirit before he was born? Are we to assume that John heard and understood the Gospel while in the womb?
Clearly, the answer is no. Rather, we must conclude that the process of salvation is not dependent on human understanding. It is in entirely God's hands, and He is capable of granting the gift of faith and thus saving infants if He chooses.
Sadly, men didn't need to invent an answer to the question of what happens to infants who die. We didn't need the false teaching of an age of accountability. Instead, we only needed to understand the way God teaches that He saves men: He intervenes mercifully into our sinful lives and grants us new life by His Spirit thereby making us new creatures in Christ.
Since we know He can do this to anyone at anytime, then we can rest in the confidence that children are not outside His reach nor without His grace.
For a more detailed exploration of these matters, we recommend you read Wrestling With God.