Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Q&A: age of accountability

This is a post designed to answer deeper theological questions. I've asked Facebook friends to post questions for discussion. I'll make a humble attempt to explore these questions from a biblical perspective.

Q: Another question for when you get around to it: Age of Accountability. It doesn't appear to be very supported biblically (that I can see), yet I really want to believe it. However, if it is true, could you justify abortion as being the loving thing to do since it doesn't allow for the baby to not believe in Jesus. Is it all a mute point because God elects those He will? -- Jennifer Benton
A: Jennifer, I appreciate this question because it's not just about salvation. It's about what we think about God. Is He just and fair? How do we reconcile the exclusivity and necessity of Christ with the inability of some (infants) to exercise conscious faith?
Before we get to the answer, let's talk methodology. When I am confronted with a theological question, I start by asking "What do I know for certain?" As I draw conclusions about what I know to be true, I begin to establish boundaries for which the answer to my larger question will have to fit. Let's try this on your important question.
1. I know for certain that all people are sinners [Romans 3:23, Psalm 51:5]. It's a human condition that is our nature--inside us. That is, I'm not a sinner because I commit sins; I commit sins because my fundamental nature is sinful.
2. I know for certain that sin separates all people from God [Romans 6:23, Psalm 15]. The holiness of God cannot tolerate the contaminating and compromising presence of sin. Only a holy person can enter the presence of a holy God.
3. I know for certain that Jesus Christ is the only way for a person to be saved [John 3:16, Romans 5:8, Acts 4:12].
4. I know for certain that goodness, mercy and justice are part of God's character [Psalm 136]. Everything that God does will correspond to His character.
5. I know for certain that David had expectations of seeing his infant child again [2 Samuel 12:22-23]. When the eight-day old boy died, David remarked, "I will go to him, but he will not return to me." David believed that he would "go" to be with his son. This text is used by some to hint at a special dispensation for children.
So, as I read the Scriptures and declare what I know for certain, I conclude that the right answer must address human need, not dilute the necessity of Jesus, maintain the character of God and allow for David's hope to come true. At this point, I have "staked" the boundaries of a plausible answer.
In the context of these boundaries, I bring two other theological ideas. The first one comes from Romans 1. Paul writes that God's general revelation (knowledge of God through nature, human conscious and providential acts) persuades people of the reality of God and His righteous demands. But all people, having received this revelation, "suppress the truth of God" [Romans 1:18]. This rejection is what makes them guilty. If this is true, we could conclude that an infant does not possess the capacity to "know" God through nature, perceive through their conscious or delight in the providential acts of God. Unable to accommodate this general revelation, they are not personally guilty. This does not mean that they are not born with a sin nature; It simply suggests that perhaps they are not personally culpable.
An age of accountability [the Jews recognized age 13 as a marker] would be the time when a child has the ability to learn, perceive, discern and decide. At that point, the child is morally accountable to God. I have wondered if this is what Paul meant in Romans 7:9, "Once I was alive apart from law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died." At one time, he was alive [safe] because he had not received the requirements of the law [before he could understand good from bad]. But, once he was able to understand, sin was awakened as a force for disobedience in him. So, in regards to this first idea, I believe the Bible does hint at an experience of personal responsibility which leads to our guilt before God.
This, of course, does not relieve a person--no matter how young--of the sin nature that resides in them since birth. While a baby may not be able to comprehend the providential kindness of God enough to reject it, they are nonetheless sinners. For this, a second theological idea is presented. In 1 John 2:2, John writes, "[Jesus] is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world." I personally believe that John  is writing from the perspective that Christ's death is beneficial, not only for his readers, but for many others far beyond the scope of their cities and homes. However, his statement highlights the completeness of Christ's atoning sacrifice. There is power in the cross and the sacrifice of Jesus. So, perhaps, [perhaps!], the substitutionary work of Christ is specially applied to an infant who doesn't have the capacity to understand truth yet. If this were true, we wouldn't say that God just "let's some people off the hook." Rather, we uphold all of what we know to be true: the need, the guilt, the necessary sacrifice of Jesus and the mercy of God.

To your question on abortion: I would never condone abortion as an answer to any theological dilemma. Somehow, the condition of man, the mercy of God and His command not to murder must be able to be supported with a conclusion that validates each. perhaps my answer above helps.
I hope this response, while not definitive, helps us to appreciate the deeper theological issues while considering a response that is plausible given what we know to be true.


Muneeb said...

Hey David,

Good concise explanation. Another text that I believe is pertinent to the conversation is Mark 10:14 (and other parallel passages). These little children are affirmed as having received the kingdom of God yet couldn't have had a strong grasp of the gospel.

David Daniels said...

Muneeb, thanks for your reference. I often use this in a general discussion of the topic. However, I have difficulty with the Greek ton toiouton ["to such"]. It seems that Jesus is using children to represent the KIND of response necessary to enter the Kingdom [simple, humble, joyful, etc.], not necessarily suggesting that all children have a special place. I take my cues from v. 15 where Jesus seems to restate Himself---this time focusing on a childlike attitude--by saying, "anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God LIKE a little child will never enter it."

All to say, I think the verse is part of a larger discussion [as is Psalm 116:6], but I'm not yet convinced that Jesus was intending to say anything more than the Kingdom of God must be approached in a childlike way.

Bo said...

Wow, David! What a rich answer. We are so blessed to have you as our pastor and blessed by your wisdom.