The Age of Accountability in the Bible

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The age of accountability refers to the time in a person's life when he or she is capable of making a decision whether to trust Jesus Christ for salvation.

In Judaism, 13 is is the age at which Jewish boys receive the same rights as a full-grown man and become a "son of the law" or bar mitzvah. Christianity borrowed many customs from Judaism; however, some Christian denominations or individual churches set the age of accountability much lower than 13.

This raises two important questions. How old should a person be when he or she is baptized? And, do infants or children who die before the age of accountability go to heaven?

Infant vs. Believer's Baptism

We think of infants and children as innocent, but the Bible teaches that everyone is born with a sinful nature, inherited from Adam's disobedience to God in the Garden of Eden. That is why the Roman Catholic Church, Lutheran Church, United Methodist Church, Episcopal Church, United Church of Christ, and other denominations baptize infants. The belief is that the child will be protected before it reaches the age of accountability.

In contrast, many Christian denominations such as Southern Baptists, Calvary Chapel, Assemblies of God, Mennonites, Disciples of Christ and others practice believer's baptism, in which the person must reach the age of accountability before being baptized. Some churches that do not believe in infant baptism practice baby dedication, a ceremony in which parents or family members pledge to raise the child in God's ways until it reaches the age of accountability.

Regardless of baptismal practices, almost every church conducts religious education or Sunday school classes for children from a very early age. As they mature, children are taught the Ten Commandments so they know what sin is and why they should avoid it. They also learn about Christ's sacrifice on the cross, giving them a basic understanding of God's plan of salvation.

This helps them make an informed decision when they do reach the age of accountability.

The Question of Babies' Souls

Although the Bible does not use the term "age of accountability," the question of infant death is alluded to in 2 Samuel 21-23. King David had committed adultery with Bathsheba, who got pregnant and delivered a baby that later died. After mourning the baby, David said:

"While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept. I thought, 'Who knows? The LORD may be gracious to me and let the child live.' But now that he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me." (2 Samuel 12:22-23, NIV)

David was confident that when he died he would go to his son, who was in heaven. He trusted that God, in his kindness, would not blame the baby for his father's sin.

For centuries, the Roman Catholic Church taught the doctrine of infant limbo, a place where unbaptized babies' souls went after death, not heaven yet a place of eternal happiness. However, the current Catechism of the Catholic Church has removed the word "limbo" and now states, "As regards children who have died without baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites...allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without baptism."

"And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world," says 1 John 4:14. Most Christians believe the "world" Jesus saved includes those who are mentally unable to accept Christ as well as those who die before reaching the age of accountability.

The Bible does not emphatically support or deny an age of accountability, but as with other unanswerable questions, the best one can do is weigh the matter in light of Scripture and then trust God who is both loving and just.

Sources: qotquestions.orgBible.org, and Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second Edition.