I lived for four years in a country that believed that children are incapable of sinning until they reach the age of 13. At that point a child is an adult. If male, he is circumcised, if female she is of legal marriage age. At thirteen one becomes responsible for his actions before God, and thus children are often allowed to act however they want, with minimal discipline.
Here in the United States, we typically do not consider a child morally neutral until their teen years, but by accepting our culture’s premises we often believe that children are born inherently good, and if we give them the option they will usually choose the moral high ground. Wrapped up in this conundrum is the Christian question of the age of accountability. Is there one? At what point does a child know that he is disobeying and therefore accountable, morally, to his decision?
If you are a parent, you know that your child willfully chose defiance well before he or she was able to speak, and if you discipline then you probably slapped some infant fingers. Have you seen this video? It is hilarious, but informative all at once:
I do not know the age of these children, but they are quite small. They know that they are supposed to be napping, but instead one tempts the other and they both disobey by playing. Suddenly their father walks through the door and they both drop like flies, pretending to be sleeping.
Did their parents have to teach them to disobey? Or to cover up their disobedience through deception? I am confident that these children can not yet talk, but they are cognitively aware of the expectation, their choice to rebel and their desire to cover up their disobedience!
So the question is, are they sinning? Is there an age of innocence where they are not held responsible for their willful choices?
The Bible is strangely silent on the subject. If you check your concordance for the “age of accountability”, it is not there. All that we do know is that the Bible makes it extremely clear that we are all born with a sinful nature.
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
And in sin my mother conceived me.
– Ps 51.5
David says that we were conceived in sin. He was not saying that his mother got pregnant out of wedlock, or from an affair. We know that David was the youngest of many brothers from an intact family. What he meant was that from the very moment of conception he had sin in his heart. He was wicked. He was confessing both his sinful acts and the fact that he was helplessly sinful and incapable of changing his nature on his own.
When Adam was created, he was made with a nature that was like God’s in the sense that he thought he could be his own god. This is the sinful nature: a nature that chooses to glorify self and do whatever it wants, instead of obeying what God wants. Thus, when Adam gave in to temptation, he sinned the first time and when that first rule was broken, death entered the world as the punishment. And because of Adam’s disobedience, we are all born guilty.
For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.
– 1 Cor 15.21-22
Romans is a meaty book that you really need to study in it’s entirety to grasp the depths of the arguments made, but part of the stream of logic is that Adam made everyone guilty for sin, and in the same way, Jesus made redemption possible for everyone by dying. Adam was a type of Jesus. The bad type. He brought death to everyone. Jesus offers life to everyone:
Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned…
– Rom 5.12
So it is our nature to sin. We sin because we are sinners. Can babies sin? Yes. They can. And they do. And unfortunately, everyone who has ever raised a child can attest to the fact that children never had to be taught how to lie, to bite, to steal, to be selfish, to whine or to disobey, but they did have to be disciplined and taught how to tell the truth, be kind, share, listen and behave.
Is there, then, a season of grace for these sinners who do not even yet have a vocabulary to understand the Gospel message? As I said earlier, the Scripture is silent on the topic, and it is extremely dangerous to build any belief system on logic around the silence. What we can know, however, is that God is good and He is trustworthy, and when we love Him we must ultimately be concerned about His glory and honor and we must trust that He will do what is right.
Have you lost a baby to miscarriage or tragedy? Know that you can trust God to do what is right (Gen 18.25).