Age of Accountability

My daughter Caitlyn's baptism at St. John's Ev. Luth. Church - Chicago, IL in 2004
My daughter Caitlyn’s baptism at St. John’s Ev. Luth. Church – Chicago, IL 2004

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God though our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us (Romans 5: 1-5).

The words of St. Paul in the fifth chapter of Romans could not be clearer. St. Paul assures the Roman readers of his epistle, and us as well, that it is not through any deed we do with our hands that God forgives our sinfulness, but through faith in Christ Jesus, the Son of God.

Some Christian denominations teach that children are not accountable for sin until they reach what some have called an “age of accountability”. This means, briefly stated, that children are not morally accountable until they are capable of moral action. In other words, some Christians believe that children, until they have matured to the point that they can make a conscious moral decision to sin, are not guilty of sin.


This view of baptism highlights a debate among Christian denominations regarding sin – what sin is, who is guilty of it, and how that guilt is remedied – going back to the time of the Reformation, and even earlier. Is there such a thing as original sin, and does God hold mankind accountable for it? What role does mankind play in his own redemption, if any?

The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23).

Most people, even non-Christians, are familiar with some aspect of the concept of sin. It is general knowledge, albeit at a rudimentary level, that the Bible says man should not sin – do bad things – and that he should instead do good things. Along with that, it is generally understood that if one sins, God becomes angry and punishes that person for sinning; if he does good, God rewards him for his good works…at least that is how our popular, secularized culture has streamlined the teaching of this important Biblical concept. God, who has told us in his word that he is holy, cannot, by his very nature, tolerate sin (Leviticus 19:21; Psalm 5:4-5; Isaiah 6:3). And, as St. Paul quite bluntly writes, God punishes sin harshly. The wages of sin is death. So who, exactly, is guilty of sin?

Confessional Lutheranism teaches that Scripture presents two aspects to sin – original sin, and actual sin. Actual sin is a fairly simple concept to understand. It is defined as every act against a commandment of God committed by a person in their thoughts, words, or actions. Original sin is the total corruption of mankind’s nature, which we have inherited from Adam, through our human parents. Lutherans maintain from Scripture that all people are sinful from the beginning of their existence because of this corruption of their human nature. In other words, when Adam and Eve willfully disobeyed God’s command not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden, man’s nature was irreparably damaged and corrupted, and mankind’s perfect relationship with God was broken (Genesis 3).

The Bible tells us that, when they ate the fruit, “their eyes were opened”. Their disobedience resulted in the breaking of the union they had with God. This act of willful disobedience – this actual sin – corrupted the very nature of man, as evidenced by the “opening” of their eyes. This episode is commonly referred to as the Fall of Man. Because Adam willfully chose to turn away from God and disobey him, this inclination to flee from God was inscribed on mankind’s nature and it was passed on to Adam’s descendants like a disease. From that point onward, all human beings would be tainted by Adam’s sin. Our hearts, from birth, would be inclined to turn away and flee from God. The book of Genesis records this idea in chapter eight:

And when the LORD smelled the pleasing aroma [of Noah’s sacrifice], the LORD said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done (Genesis 8:21).

God here acknowledges that mankind’s nature is no longer in the state it was when God created Adam and Eve. Mankind is now, after the Fall, inclined toward evil, and away from him. This corruption of our nature, this inclination toward evil, has left all mankind spiritually blind and dead and, because of it, we are enemies of God. The sinful mind is, therefore, hostile to God, and is utterly incapable of submitting to God’s law (Romans 8:7). Consequently, since we all are inclined toward evil, this inclination in us causes us to commit all kinds of actual sins – thoughts, words, and deeds contrary to God’s commandments (Matthew 15:19; James 1:15; 4:17).

Some Christian denominations do not view this inclination of the human nature away from God, called “concupiscence” by theologians, as sin in and of itself. Many teach that this inclination to evil will eventually cause a person to sin, at which point they will be guilty of sin. Some even go so far as to say that it is inevitable that all people are bound to eventually commit acts of sin, due to this corruption of the human nature. If this is true, however, it means that there is a time after a person is born, and before they are morally accountable, when they are sinless – not guilty of sinning.

By its very definition, though, this inclination toward evil and away from God in our nature means that we, due to our nature, lack the fear, love, and trust in God that he commands. Scripture says that the human heart is in this dreadful state from birth (Genesis 8:21; Psalm 51:5). If that fear, love, and trust in God is lacking in the sinful human nature, it is lacking in the sinful nature of all human beings, regardless of whether they are one day old or 100 years old. The fact that children die shows that they are subject to sin just like adults since, as St. Paul wrote, the wages of sin is death. The Bible does not teach that there is an age of accountability. Instead, it teaches that the whole world is held accountable to God (Romans 3:19) (Engelbrecht, 2009). Echoing St. Paul’s charge that no one is righteous (Romans 3:10-18), the Lutheran reformers described original sin as “the absence of original righteousness”:

We deny to human nature the ability to fear and trust in God…original sin contains these diseases: ignorance of God, contempt for God, not having fear and trust in God, the inability to love God. These are the chief faults of human nature because they conflict with the First Table of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:3-11; quoted from Ap II 14.), (McCain, Baker, Veith, & Engelbrecht, 2005).

Children clearly have a part in God’s kingdom, as evidenced in part by the fact that Jesus himself rebuked the disciples for not allowing children access to him (Mark 10:13-16; Luke 18:15). Not only that, though, being born in the flesh, children have a sinful human nature. Having a sinful human nature and the “lack of original righteousness” that comes with it, they need the forgiveness that Christ offers just as an adult does. They receive that faith and forgiveness, as a gift, through baptism.

Baptism removes the guilt of original sin. However, the material, as they call it, of the sin (concupiscence) remains. He also adds that the Holy Spirit, given through Baptism, begins to put to death the concupiscence and begins to create new movements within a person, (Ap II 35; McCain, Baker, Veith, & Engelbrecht, 2005).

Scripture tells us that all people are sinful from the time of their birth, “…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24). Christ distributes this grace to us in the sacrament of baptism. The psalmist also tells us:

Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me (Psalm 51:5).

Those that would argue that children are not sinners but are righteous and innocent, and that as long as they have not achieved the use of reason they will be saved in this innocence without baptism, not only reject the idea of original sin, but also teach contrary to the Word of God.

Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? (Mark 8:37).

In asking this question, Jesus makes it painfully obvious that there is nothing that we can give to ransom our soul from damnation. There is no other pathway into God’s righteousness than the one he has given us, and that is faith in Christ Jesus. This is the idea that St. Paul echoes in verse six of Romans chapter five when he writes, “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.”

St. Paul describes us as “ungodly” and “powerless”. Because of our sinful disobedience, we are ungodly. When Adam and Eve knowingly chose to disobey God, in order to obtain knowledge they sinfully thought God was denying them, human nature was corrupted. Our parents had lost the ability to know and please God, and this corrupt nature has been passed on to us.

Jesus, however, “spoke plainly” (Mark 8:32) to his disciples about how he would pay for humanity’s sinfulness:

He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again (Mark 8:31).

Jesus lays out God’s plan of salvation to the disciples and they, yet again, fail to understand it. Peter has the dubious distinction of rebuking the Savior later in this passage from the Gospel of Mark. Doubtless the disciples, who, at least at this point, saw Jesus as a political Messiah who would lead the revolt against Roman oppression, were greatly shocked to hear Jesus say that he must be killed and rise again after three days. St. Paul, again in the fifth chapter of Romans, sums up Jesus’ teaching:

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him (Rom 5: 8-9).

The blood of Christ shed on the cross has justified us. We did not participate in Christ’s saving work one bit. There was also no time in our life when we were righteous – free from sin. God’s demonstration of his love for us happened, as St. Paul wrote, “While we were still powerless.” There is nothing we have to offer, no work we can do, to merit God’s forgiveness. God has given us forgiveness as a gift, and he sends His Holy Spirit to us to create faith in our hearts and enable us to do works that please him – not in order to earn his grace – but to glorify his most holy name.

You know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect (1 Peter 1: 18-19).

Through his suffering, death and resurrection, Christ has triumphed over death. He has acted as mankind’s substitute, taking the punishment for sin that mankind deserved. Because of Jesus’ sacrifice, we have been given the gift of eternal life.

God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Scripture tells us that God wants all men to be saved. There is no age limit set in the Bible for Baptism or salvation. All people from birth need the new life God offers in Christ. St. Paul writes, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ,” (Romans 10:17). Adults who can hear and understand that spoken or written word receive the faith promised by the working of the Holy Spirit, when and where God wills. Praise be to God that he has also provided a means for his grace to reach all people, even infants, in the Sacrament of Baptism. For God has connected his promise of redemption in Christ with the waters of Baptism, and through Baptism, in a way that human minds cannot conceive, he delivers that word to infants by the same Holy Spirit. However, many reject the Word and resist the work of the Holy Spirit. On Calvary’s cross Jesus, God in human flesh, stretched wide his arms to embrace mankind. Do not turn a blind eye to his sacrifice and a deaf ear to his call – what He did, He did for you, and for all mankind, young and old.

Works Cited

Engelbrecht, E. A. (2009). The Lutheran Study Bible, English Standard Version. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

McCain, P. T., Baker, R. C., Veith, G. E., & Engelbrecht, E. A. (Eds.). (2005). Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. A Reader’s Edition of the Book of Concord. Saint Louis, MO, USA: Concordia Publishing House.

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