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I’ve been taught that there is a certain age (perhaps 12 or 13) before which a child either does not sin, or at least they are not held accountable for their sins. Is this biblical?

Thanks for your question. And it’s great that you read the Bible. It is the great standard of truth against error. This said, I don’t see an age of accountability taught in Scripture. Rather, what I see is that from birth all mankind stands guilty before God. Let’s look briefly at some Scripture.

Paul writes in Romans 3:23, "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." This seems very clear and all-inclusive; all are sinners, even children (cf. Jer. 17:9; Eph. 2:3). We all have inherited Adam’s sin nature (cf. Rom. 5:12-19). (Please see "How are original sin and imputed sin different?") Psalm 58:3-4 says, "The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray from birth, speaking lies. They have venom like the venom of a serpent, like the deaf adder that stops its ear." Since we all are born with a sinful nature, all are wicked from birth. When do the wicked go astray? The psalmist says they go astray from their very birth. They are so evil that their conduct is described as having "venom like the venom of a serpent." With the exception of Christ who was born of a virgin, children are full of poison; that is, dead in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1). In such a condition they can’t and won’t glorify God (cf. Rom. 8:7-8). Since this is a child’s condition, how can anyone assert that they are saved? This would be unscriptural.

David writes, "Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me" (Psa. 51:5; cf. Job 14:4). Proverbs 22:15 teaches us a child's heart has a tendency to do wrong. But why? Jeremiah tells us "the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?" (Jer. 17:9). Jesus says "from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery" (Mark 7:21). And Paul says there are none who are without fault (Rom. 3:10). Proverbs goes further saying, "Even a child makes himself known by his acts, by whether his conduct is pure and upright" (Prov. 20:11). Clearly, children do in fact sin. And all sin must be judged (Matt. 16:27; Acts 10:42; Rom. 2:16; 14:10, 12; 2 Cor. 5:10; Heb. 9:27).

Some people will often cite Matthew 19:14, Mark 10:14, and Luke 18:16 saying God is compassionate with children and therefore does not account their sin to them. Yes, God loves children, but he also loves adults. And these oft cited verses aren’t saying that all children are absolutely holy and righteous before a holy God. Paul even calls them unclean and unholy, stating they must be sanctified by a believing parent (cf. 1 Cor. 7:14). Notice the phrase "for to such" in the texts. Also notice the phrase "like a child" in Mark 10:15 and Luke 18:17. Jesus is using children as an illustration of all genuine Christians, an analogy exemplifying the God-given humility of believers (cf. Luke 18:14).

Arguing from a position of God’s love doesn’t help those who ascribe to an age of accountability. While God is good (Jas. 1:17) and his very nature is love (1 John 4:8), he sovereignly rules the universe he created in such a way as to bring himself maximum glory — his very name (cf. Psa. 106:8; 1 Sam. 12:22; Isa. 43:6-7; 48:9-11; 49:3; Ezek. 20:14; Rom. 9:17; Eph. 1:4-6). God is also holy (1 Sam. 2:2) and just (Psa. 89:14; Col. 3:25), so it stands to reason that God’s love for his glory motivates his wrath and justice against sin. While he receives no pleasure from it (Ezek. 18:23, 32; 33:11; cf. Isa. 55:6-7), as the just judge (Gen. 18:25) and the only sovereign, he must judge all sin (Prov. 24:12). Otherwise, he’s not truly God. His wrath in eternal judgment is part and parcel of his divine love in its final working against sin, and for his very name’s sake (Rom. 9:17; 11:33-36). Therefore, it is in love that God judges all sinners — including children.

There are some who use 1 John 3:4 to support an age of accountability. This verse tells us everyone who sins breaks the law. However, they reason that if there is no knowledge of the law then children, in their innocence, can’t be held accountable for their sin. But Romans 1:18-20 teaches that man doesn’t need the knowledge of the law to be held accountable for violating it. Even Adam in his original sin broke all ten of the commandments before they were written. (See "What commandment(s) did Adam violate in the Fall? below.) According to Paul, even those without the law will be without excuse when standing before God on the day of judgment (cf. Rom. 2:12). Even unintentional sins must be atoned for (cf. Num. 15:28).

Others refer to Deuteronomy 1:39 which says, "And as for your little ones, who you said would become a prey, and your children, who today have no knowledge of good or evil, they shall go in there. And to them I will give it, and they shall possess it. They say, "See there? Children have no knowledge of good or evil." However, for the proper interpretation of the verse, I suggest reading its entire context. This text is saying that the children in question had no knowledge of the sins of their fathers, meaning they had no literal part in the previous rebellion of their fathers in the wilderness. God is not saying these children were sinless! That would be unbiblical (cf. 1 John 1:8-10). What's more, if children are completely innocent, why did God command the death of infants in Scripture? (Deut. 20:13-18; Josh. 6:17ff.; etc.).

Let's look again at the MacArthur quote in your question: "… that up until that point of real saving faith, God in His mercy, would save that child." Although you didn't note the context of this quote, there is some unclear language here, particularly "real saving faith" as opposed to "God in His mercy, would save that child." God saves all his people, whether adult or child, in his mercy. There is only one way of salvation and that is through Christ (cf. John 14:6). The Spirit himself gives new birth (cf. John 3:3, 5, 7) whether child or adult. Chapter 10.3 of the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) teaches, "Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated, and saved by Christ, through the Spirit, who works when, and where, and how He pleases: so also are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word." So, while we may not observe a profession of faith in an infant like we do in adults this side of eternity, we understand the Spirit works when, where and how he pleases. And since there is only one Lord and only one faith (Eph. 4:5), the salvation of an elect child is the very "real" salvation spoken of in Scripture. It’s just as real as an elect adult’s.

God is the owner of all souls (Ezek. 18:4), and we must naturally ask how a man can be justified before God (cf. Job. 25:4; Rom. 5:1-2; 8:1). Whether they are infants, children, or adults, God justifies only his elect (Eph. 1:3-4; Rom. 9:11). He has mercy on whom he will have mercy, and compassion on whom he will have compassion (cf. Rom. 9:15-16). There is only one way of salvation (John 1:4; 10:9; 11:25; 14:6; Rom. 5:1-2; Eph. 2:18; Heb. 10:20; 1 John 5:20). Christ alone saves his people (cf. Luke 19:10; John 6:37; 10:28; 1 John 4:2).

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