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.