This article is potentially going to be quite controversial, but this is something I have wrestled through and would like to share. Let me begin by coming straight out with it: I do not believe in the doctrine of the Age of Innocence or Age of Accountability.
Whoa. Did you read that right? Go ahead and look back up a line or two and read it again to make sure. Yep, you read it right. I do not believe the Bible teaches the innocence of young children. Allow me to explain why.
All Have Sinned
I have a 10-week old daughter. She is absolutely beautiful; ten fingers, ten toes, big blue eyes, and the most adorable baby smile. She is observant, expressive, calm, and cuddly. She sleeps well and eats well (most of the time), loves bright colors, lights, and toys that make noise. She occasionally fusses, but she is not colicky, and she knows that her mommy and daddy love her and provide for her.
She cannot speak English yet (obviously), so she has never told me a lie. She has a very limited social circle at this point, so she has never betrayed or gossiped or bullied or murdered or cheated or stolen. She is still a long way off from beginning puberty (thank goodness), so she has never lusted.
And she is a sinner.
People get very touchy and defensive when I say something like that. (Or even merely imply it.) How could I say this beautiful, innocent girl is a sinner?
Because she is not innocent.
Our culture has come to define the word “innocent” as simply lacking guilt for an offense. For example, if John Doe is on trial for killing Jane Doe and it is demonstrated that he did not pull the trigger, he is declared innocent simply for lacking the guilt of committing the crime. This is a very useful sense of the word “innocent” – without it, our entire justice system collapses. We are born and raised believing the maxim, “Innocent until proven guilty,” and that has worked very well for our society.
However, we make a mistake when we assume that the biblical sense of innocence is exactly the same as our societal use of the word.
In the Bible, innocence – or righteousness – is so much more than simply not breaking the law. Righteousness also requires perfectly keeping the whole of the law. “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it” (James 2:10). And the law is not only negative commands (Do not murder. Do not steal, etc.), but the law is also positive commands (Keep holy the Sabbath day. Honor your parents. Love God with all your being). And while my daughter has never lied, she also has never kept the Sabbath day holy. While she has never stolen, she also has not loved God with the whole of her heart, soul, mind, and strength. She has not kept all of the law, so she has failed all of it.
Jesus touched on this early on in his Sermon on the Mount. “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees,” he said, “you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:20). This is an upsetting teaching. The scribes and Pharisees, at least to outward appearance, seemed quite righteous in fact. So much so, that Paul describes his days as a Pharisee this way: “as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Phil 3:5, 6). However, just a few phrases later he explains he counts all of that as “rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (v. 8, 9).
Paul makes it inescapably clear in Romans 3: “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (v. 22-26, emphasis mine). And as we all learned on the “Romans Road,” the wages of our sin is death (6:23).
At the risk of sounding like I am splitting hairs, it is important to note that he says all have sinned, not that all above a certain age or cognitive ability have sinned.
This is possibly a very hard pill to swallow. However, it brings us, once again, to a place in our hearts where we are confronted with whether or not we really trust the Bible and submit to its authority in our lives. If we only submit when our “modern sensibilities” agree, then we are not truly submitting to the Word of God, and we risk twisting and distorting it to make it sound nice and palatable to us.
Okay. All have sinned. What is sin? It seems like a very simple question, but it also seems like many people have a difficult time finding the biblical answer to this question. I’ve often heard sin defined as “missing the mark.” While in a sense this is accurate, it is also very limited and somewhat misleading. Simply missing the mark does not have life or death implications; it makes sin sound like it is just little mistakes – you try really hard to be good but sometimes you just miss the mark by accident. It reduces sin to mere human error or youthful indiscretion and removes from it the depth of the offense it is to the God who created us. It also implies that sin is merely an action or, maybe at its deepest level, a wayward thought process or desire.
If this is all that sin is, then the concept of Original Sin is unjust. God himself said that the son will not suffer for the sin of his father and that the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself (Ez. 18:20). It would be inaccurate, then, to say that I or my daughter or you are guilty of the specific defiant act of eating the forbidden fruit that Adam and Eve committed in the Garden of Eden.
So then why do some Christians believe in Original Sin?
Sin is so much more than simply our sinful actions. The Bible speaks of the “sin nature,” “the flesh,” “the old self,” “spiritual death,” and “the world” (see Gal 5:17; Eph 2:1; Col 3:9; and 1 John 2:15). This is sin. Sinful actions are merely a symptom of a much deeper, systemic problem called the sinful nature or spiritual death.
Another way to think of this is in terms of a cold. You do not have a cold because you cough. You cough because you have a cold; it is merely a symptom of a deeper, systemic problem. Rather, you have a cold because you have a virus.
We are not sinners because we sin. We sin because we are sinners. Spiritually, we inherited a genetic disorder. But to take it further, sin is not merely a disease; the Bible describes it as death. That is, we are sinners because we are spiritually dead.
When Adam and Eve defied God in the Garden, a curse fell on creation. Now when a human being is born, they are not born perfect in a perfect world. They are born into a fallen world under the curse of the sin nature (Rom. 8:18-25). In other words, they are born spiritually dead. From the very beginning of their lives, human beings are now predisposed to defy and rebel against God. This is the sin we inherited from our parents in the Garden.
Take my 10-week-old daughter, for example. She knows how to communicate very effectively when she is hungry. Every few hours throughout the day, she will start rooting around, trying latch on to anything within reach to see if milk will come out of it. She may get a little fussy. When she does this, I know that she is experiencing hunger and letting me know that she is ready for me to come nurse her, and being a loving mother who would not let her beloved child starve, I do. Every time.
But sometimes (about once a day), she goes from content to starving in 0 seconds flat. Instead of calmly rooting and fussing to let me know she is hungry, she throws an all-out tantrum. “I am hungry NOW and YOU are not feeding me fast enough!!!” is what she communicates with her screams and cries. She is frantic and does not trust that I will provide her needs. It takes her several minutes to calm down enough to latch on effectively and start eating.
At an even deeper level, she does not trust that God is able to provide for her needs through me. She is afraid she will be hungry forever, and she is unhappy about it. No, that is a generous way to put it. More accurately, she is angry about it and lashes out. Scripture has something to say about fits of rage. It is not pretty. (See Galatians 5:20.)
Where did she learn this? If she was born innocent, she had to pick it up somewhere, right? She has not been around anyone in a fit of rage in the ten weeks of her life.
“But she doesn’t know any better!” you might object. Perhaps. But sin does not require comprehension of guilt. Why else would God command the Levitical priesthood to offer daily and monthly and yearly sacrifices for the sins of the people – both known and unknown? (See Leviticus 4, for example, and note the phrase “realizes his guilt.” The guilt is already there when the act is committed; the sinner does not become guilty only upon awareness.) Think about it this way: has anyone ever hurt you or sinned against you and been completely unaware of any wrongdoing on their part until you brought it to their attention (if you ever did)? Is it not possible we do this to God more than we think we do?
But what about the “let the little children come to me” passages (Matthew 19:13-15; Mark 10:13-16; Luke 18:15-17)? Does not the kingdom of God belong to such as these? Yes, it does. But why? Children do not merit the kingdom of heaven because of their innocence. Rather, they are completely dependent and must rely on their caregivers for everything in life. The kingdom of heaven belongs to those who realize they have nothing to offer and must depend fully on their Father for their every need.
The Logical Problem
So the Bible teaches the culpability of all of humanity – including young children and the proverbial tribe on an island somewhere that has never heard the gospel. Many people choose to ignore this and choose rather to believe that their ignorance merits God’s mercy.
The problem with this is the logical conclusion that there is more than one way we can be saved, which is in direct contradiction with Scripture (see John 14:6 and Acts 4:12). The doctrine of the Age of Accountability or the Age of Innocence teaches that we are saved either by grace through faith in Jesus Christ or by dying young enough or ignorant enough (until we are old enough to be accountable at which point we lose our salvation until we get saved again). Forgive me for this, but the logical conclusion of that teaching is that abortion and infanticide are the most effective means of evangelism available to us. If I can guarantee that all of my children will be saved, would it not be worth it to risk hell for myself by breaking the command not to kill? Would that not be the most loving thing I could do for them?
Yes, that thought process is sick and demented. Anyone who actually believes we should murder our children in cold blood like this should be locked in a very small padded room somewhere. Anyone who actually acted on it should… well, let’s just say I am politically conservative on the issue of capital punishment.
My point is that this idea is not biblical. Neither, then, can be the doctrine that logically leads to it.
So is all hope lost? What if I miscarry? What if there is a horrible accident, a devastating disease, an evil man who takes my child while she is still young before she is able to profess faith?
This is a difficult question and one on which the Bible is silent. It would be unwise to be uncompassionate. It would be unwise to assume that all children lost at a young age are condemned. So what can we glean from Scripture on this matter? How do we approach this question with compassion and grace while remaining true to what the Bible has to say about our guilt before the holy, pure, righteous, and just Judge of all creation?
Let us consider how it is that we are saved. This may seem like a silly question, but are we saved by our innocence? Scripture is clear that we are not, as there is no one who is good besides God alone (see Luke 18:19 and Romans 3:9-20). So how is it, then, that God is able to declare us righteous without making himself a liar by calling us something we are not?
This is the crux of the gospel. Our sin against God deserves justice. In fact, God would not be holy or just or righteous if our sin was not punished. So he sent his Son. Jesus Christ lived a perfect, sinless, holy, pure, righteous, innocent life. The Son of God not only did not sin, but he kept and fulfilled all of the law perfectly (see Matt 5:17; Heb 4:15; and 1 Peter 1:19). When Jesus died on the cross, he took all of our sin and placed it on himself – remember how the priests in the Old Testament laid their hands on the head of the sacrificial lamb and placed the sins of the people upon the animal? Our sin was transferred onto Jesus, and God poured out all of holy and just punishment on Jesus for that sin so that we do not have to receive the punishment (2 Cor. 5:21).
But the gospel does not end there. We are not saved just because our sin was removed from us. That is only half of it. When Jesus uttered “it is finished” and gave up his spirit, his righteousness – all of his perfection and innocence and purity and holiness – was transferred to us. This is atonement. When we say we are washed in the blood of the lamb, what we are saying is that the righteous blood of the Lamb without blemish covers us. Think about the Passover. The blood of the lamb covered the doorposts, and the angel of death that came in judgment passed over the household. The lamb received death, so the firstborn in the house did not have to. When God comes in judgment, he sees the blood of Christ covering us, and he passes over – seeing only the blemish-free righteousness of Jesus. We receive the righteousness that is Christ’s, and we receive the benefits of that righteousness.
We did not and cannot earn this. It is purely a gift of grace. God in his love chooses to lavish the grace on us and gives us the faith to trust in Him for it (Eph. 2:8, 9).
Is he not able to do this for infant children? For the mentally handicapped? Of course he is. Does he do this for every single one? I do not know. Here Scripture remains silent. But in faith I believe he does and he can for, at the very least, some – especially for the children of believing parents. If God in his wisdom and goodness and providence chooses to place a child in the home of a believing family that proclaims the gospel daily and lives it out in front of them, could he not also give the gift of faith to that infant child or mentally handicapped child out of his grace in a way we do not fully understand?
I admit there may be instances where God does not choose to show grace. This is true also for adults. Scripture is clear that we are without excuse before God (see Rom. 1:20). Our sin deserves death, and it is not unfair or unjust of God to allow a sinner to die in their sins. In this case, I trust that God is good and that he will be glorified. Who am I to question him (Rom. 9:20)? Yet, I emphasize again, that in faith I trust that in his goodness and mercy, God can and does give saving faith at least to some infants – even if we cannot understand how or see the fruit of it until they are old enough to profess faith with their mouths.
Scripture must inform our experience, not the other way around, but perhaps my own personal experience can briefly illustrate how this is a possibility. By the grace of God I was raised in a godly home by Christian parents who proclaimed the gospel to me and to my sister and lived out their faith every day. I honestly do not remember a day of my life when I did not believe in Jesus and trust him as my Savior and Lord.
My earliest memory is from when I was in a preschool at 3 years old. We were in a large circle around a support beam in the middle of the room playing some kind of game. Even in that memory, I already had faith in Jesus, even though it would be a few more years before I publicly professed faith in front of a congregation. God brought me to faith before I even began to form long-term memories.
So now, in faith, I trust that God is able to save my daughter. We proclaim the gospel to her every day. We live out our faith in our home day after day after day. And I am confident that God, by his grace, in his perfect timing, will bring her to saving faith. I look forward to that day in confident hope, joyfully knowing it may even already have happened.
To God alone be the glory.
I know this is a very personal topic. I would love to hear how you have wrestled with it and what you have learned from Scripture. I welcome gracious challenges in areas where you think I may be unbiblical. I am bound by Scripture and will submit to it no matter what. However, as a disclaimer, I do reserve the right not to publish any comments that are ungracious. I respect disagreement, but let our disagreement be seasoned with salt and spoken in love and grace toward each other with the goal of building one another up in love, not of winning an argument or furthering an agenda.