The Age of Accountability and Baptism

The Age of Accountability and Baptism
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Thursday, April 29, 2010 at 2:24pm

QUESTION: Have you written anything that particularly addresses the age of accountability and the baptizing of children? I have heard many discussions lately concerning: “Is the child not accountable one moment and then accountable the next? Must the child reach the state in which he is lost, for whatever length of time, before he can be baptized? Must he go out of the kingdom in order to come back into it again?” What do you think?

REPLY: On the age of accountability as such, see my book, “The Faith Once for All,” pp. 189, 191-2, 366. Paul discusses it from his own perspective in Romans 7:7-12; see my commentary on Romans for that passage. Also, I wrote a FaceBook note earlier on this general subject (around October 30, 2009).

This inquirer asks, “Is the child NOT ACCOUNTABLE one moment and then ACCOUNTABLE the next?” The answer to this question is YES. That is the whole point of the concept of “the age of accountability.” Children begin life in the womb under the redemptive power of the grace of Jesus Christ. Because of his representative status, Adam’s sin WOULD have engulfed every human being in the consequences of his first sin, including depravity and condemnation from conception onward (Romans 5:12-19). However, by God’s design the atoning work of Jesus Christ totally counteracted the power of Adam’s sin. Thus instead of being born in some form of “original sin” of whatever severity, every child is born (as it were) wrapped in the protective cocoon of “original grace.” This is the main point of Romans 5:12-19. All children are thus born pure, free, and innocent. In their early years they are NOT ACCOUNTABLE for the wrong things they learn to do; they are in a saved state thanks to the original grace of Jesus Christ. They are not accountable because of their lack of understanding of God, law, and sin. A key verse in Romans 4:15, “But where there is no law, there also is no violation.” Law itself, of course, is everywhere; this verse must mean “where there is no UNDERSTANDING of law.”

In Romans 7:9 Paul says, “I was once alive apart from law.” This was the time when he was still under original grace; the law’s curse did not apply to him. But then he says, “But when the commandment came, sin became alive and I died.” In my commentary I say that this statement “refers to the coming of the commandment into the consciousness of the child, the time when he first understands its full significance as a commandment OF GOD with eternal condemnation for disobedience.” With the coming of this understanding, the child’s protective cocoon of original grace disappears, and he enters the state of spiritual death (“and I died”).

Thus the main element in attaining the age of accountability is when a child comes to understand what it means to be living under a divine law code and thus to be responsible for breaking God’s law and to be under the penalty of hell. This is a transition that occurs in the life of every child who lives long enough, no matter what kind of home or religious environment he is born into and reared in. A child growing up in a Christian home, of course, has a great advantage, since he is exposed not only to God’s law but also to the gospel of Jesus Christ. But here is a crucial point: knowing who Jesus is, loving Jesus, wanting to follow Jesus — such things have nothing to do with the age of accountability. These attributes are wonderful and lead to salvation, but they are a response to the GOSPEL; whereas the age of accountability is a consciousness of how one is related to the LAW. Gospel responses (including baptism) must follow the consciousness of law and sin in order to have any genuine meaning.

This is why we do not (or SHOULD not) baptize a child until he reaches the age of accountability, in spite of the difficulty of discerning when that moment occurs in a particular child’s life. If we truly believe that baptism is “for the forgiveness of sins” (Acts 2:38), then it is meaningless to baptize someone who is already in a state of forgiveness—which children are, as long as they are under original grace. To entertain the idea that a child can be baptized before the age of accountability means that we would have to come up with some other reason or rationale for baptism as such, which opens the door to adopting the Zwinglian faith-only approach to baptism and ultimately leads to infant baptism itself.

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The Age of Accountability and Baptism — 4 Comments

  1. Dr. Cottrell:

    This is Chris again from Lebanon OH. Where do you stand on baptizing kids between the ages of 6 – 10 or 11. My personal opinon is that children of this age:

    1. Do not have sin for which they are being held accountable
    2. Cannot be disciples. Are not mature enough to be disciples. They are not old enough to make Jesus Lord of their lives and truely understand the committment to a lifetime of submitting to the Lordship of Christ. (self denial, making fishers of men, carrying one’s cross, understanding sin and the seperation from God, etc, etc, etc…)

    My belief is that it isn’t until the age of 13 or 14, at a minimum, when a young person is mature enough to understand these things and make this personal committment to become a Christian and get baptized. To be “born again” and kill your old self, your old self must first be in “the dark” and “have sin” and be “seperated from God” – I don’t think kids younger than 13 or so are in this position spiritually.

    I really look forward to your thoughts. Thanks you.

    • Most of my thoughts on the subject are already stated in the essay here. I think it is a mistake to make a hard-and-fast rule about baptism that uses age as the determinant. I think you are right, that many children are baptized way too young, without a valid and mature understanding of what is involved. This certainly applies to the age group, 6-10, as you say. But there may be exceptions; I would want to allow for that. I do think it would be arbitrary to set a minimum age, especially 13 or 14. Each case must be decided on an individual basis. Again, you are right to encourage us to make sure the child is mature enough to understand what’s at stake, and also mature enough to make a genuine commitment.

  2. Dr. Cottrell,

    In your post “The Age of Accountability and Baptism”, you state “the main element in attaining the age of accountability is when a child comes to understand what it means to be living under a divine law code and thus to be responsible for breaking God’s law “. How do you qualify this statement? If a child is not exposed to scripture, how are they aware of God’s law? I realize that no one can deny that God exists (Romans 1:21); however, if the accountability comes with the knowledge of the law, how can one be accountable for something they do not explicitly know? I would go as far to say that there are adults, who are not aware of scriptural mandates, so how can they be deemed accountable?

    I appreciate your consideration of this question!

    Grace & peace,


    • Jake, you ask, “How are [children] aware of God’s law,” if not exposed to Scripture? You need to read the full context of Romans 1:21, especially the whole section of 1:18-32, plus the parenthesis in 2:14-15. The law code for which everyone ultimately becomes accountable is the one written on the hearts of all human beings. This, plus Romans 1:21, is why even the pagans are “without excuse” (1:20). All of this happens even without a knowledge of the Bible. I seriously recommend that you read my commentary on Romans 1:18-3:20.

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