Distinctive Baptist Beliefs:
Nine Marks that Separate Baptists from Presbyterians
Distinctive Baptist Belief #2—
The Age (or State) of Accountability

August 25, 2011

By Dr. Lemke, Provost, Professor of Philosophy and Ethics, occupying the McFarland Chair of Theology, Director of the Baptist Center for Theology and Ministry, and Editor of the
Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.


All denominations that broadly share the Reformation heritage share more beliefs in common than beliefs that differ. This is true of Baptists, Arminians, and Presbyterians/the Reformed tradition – we agree on many more points than we disagree. Like most evangelicals, we largely share the same affirmation of orthodox Nicean Christianity, along with other key beliefs accented in the Reformation — Sola Scriptura, Soli Deo Gloria, Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Solus Christus, the sovereignty of God over all His creation, the security of the believer, the perfect omniscience and complete foreknowledge of God, and the imperative of the proclamation of the Gospel by the Church.

Despite these many points of agreement, it is the points of agreement on which theological discussions tend to focus. In an earlier post entitled “The Middle Way,” I asserted that we centrist Baptists are “the middle way” between Arminians, on the one hand, and Calvinists/Presbyterians, on the other. Since our book Whosoever Will was a critique of five-point Calvinism, I balanced that by listing twelve points of doctrinal disagreement between centrist Baptists and many Arminians. In this series, however, I would like to point out nine points of difference between centrist Baptist beliefs and the Presbyterian/Reformed tradition.

Given my involvement in the John 3:16 Conference and in writing Whosoever Will, some readers might expect me to begin listing the five points of Calvinist soteriology as the main points of difference between Baptists and Presbyterians. It is true that centrist Baptists such as me may disagree on several of these points with persons who imbibe in the Reformed tradition, but it would be inaccurate to say that the five points as popularized in the “TULIP” were the main points of difference between Reformed and Baptist theology, or that these beliefs are foreign to Baptist theology. In fact, the Particular Baptist tradition plays a long and deep role in Baptist theology, and many Calvinistic-leaning Baptists are in good standing with and hold high positions within the SBC.

At any rate, these nine Baptist doctrinal distinctives I will discuss do not include the five points about soteriology. In fact, most of the nine points that I will be addressing were explicitly held by the Particular Baptists in contradistinction from the Presbyterian or Reformed theology from which they separated themselves. These, then, are distinctively Baptist beliefs. The first Baptist distinctive I addressed in Part 1 of this series was a cluster of interrelated beliefs — soul competency, priesthood of all believers, and religious liberty. This post concerns the age or state of accountability.[1]

Distinctive Baptist Belief #2:
The Age (or State) of Accountability

The Presbyterian perspective on personal accountability flows from its conviction about original sin. According to the Westminster Confession, from the sin of Adam and Eve “the guilt of the sin was imputed, and corrupted nature conveyed, to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation,”[2] and “[e]very sin, both original and actual, being a transgression of the righteous law of God, and contrary thereunto, does in its own nature, bring guilt upon the sinner, whereby he is bound over to the wrath of God, and curse of the law, and so made subject to death, with all miseries spiritual, temporal, and eternal.”[3] Infant baptism is a logical corollary of the belief that children are guilty of sin since birth: “Not only those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ, but also the infants of one or both believing parents are to be baptized.”[4]

Baptists have not typically understood the impact of Adam and Eve’s sin in the Presbyterian way. While the Calvinistic Second London and Philadelphia confessions repeat much of the Westminster Confession language as an attestation to the profound impact of the Fall, the focus appears to be placed on actual sins rather than inherited guilt: through the “original corruption” of Adam we are “inclined to all evil,” and from this proclivity we commit “actual transgressions.”[5] More noticeably, both these Calvinistic Baptist confessions delete the affirmation of the Westminster Confession that “Every sin, both original and actual . . . [brings] “guilt upon the sinner.”[6] All standard Baptist confessions of faith point to fallen human nature having a strong disposition or proclivity toward sin. For example, the BF&M affirms that Adam’s posterity “inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin.”[7] However, Baptist confessions tend not to use the term “original sin” by name, and two Baptist confessions explicitly deny it. John Smyth in his Short Confession of 1609 affirmed, “That there is no original sin (lit., no sin of origin or descent), but all sin is actual and voluntary, viz., a word, a deed, or a design against the law of God; and therefore, infants are without sin.”[8] Likewise, the Short Confession of Faith of 1610 affirmed that none of Adam’s posterity “are guilty, sinful, or born in original sin.”[9] The focus is on guilt from actual chosen sin, not inherited guilt. (Some Baptists say they believe in original sin, but by this they mean being born with a sin nature, not the proper and historical sense of original sin as inherited guilt).

The Westminster, Second London, and Philadelphia confessions all allow for the divine election of “infants dying in infancy” and persons “who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word.”[10] The Second London and Philadelphia confessions, however, delete the Westminster Confession’s allowance for infants to be baptized, asserting instead that only “those who do actually profess repentance towards God, faith in, and obedience to, our Lord Jesus Christ, are the only proper subjects of this ordinance.”[11]

The age of accountability is a key but often overlooked Baptist doctrine. It is presupposed by the concept of soul competency (because soul competency is required for a person to be “of age” to make a life commitment), and is propaedeutic to other Baptist beliefs such as believer’s baptism (because baptism is only for those capable of some understanding of the basic rubrics of Christianity and to believe consciously in Christ as their Lord and Savior, not infants who lack these capacities), the gathered church (because it assumes all church members are believers), and religious freedom (because a free church requires voluntary membership rather than virtually automatic membership at birth in a state established church). All three BF&M statements assert that “as soon as they are capable of moral action” they become “transgressors” and are under condemnation.[12] While it may be more of a “state” of being accountable rather than an “age” of accountability (apart from mentally challenged individuals) this state of accountability is normally associated with a “coming of age.” No specific age is given; it is assumed that individual children mature at different paces from each other. By affirming the age of accountability, Baptists deny that children are guilty upon birth, and so deny the need for infant baptism. Only those who are of age for moral accountability are capable of recognizing their own sinfulness, the first step toward salvation in Christ. One cannot be born into the church by physical birth, although a Christian upbringing clearly affords wonderful opportunities for young people to grow up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.  However, children are not saved by their parents’ confession. Each person must make his or her own profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord; children are not included in some broader involuntary covenant.

Some contemporary Presbyterians such as R. C. Sproul, Jr. reject the notion that children below the age of accountability who die go to heaven. Sproul, Jr. chided Billy Graham for comforting the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing (which included many victims from a children’s day care center) with these words: “Someday there will be a glorious reunion with those who have died and gone to heaven before us, and that includes all those innocent children that are lost. They’re not lost from God because any child that young is automatically in heaven and in God’s arms.” Sproul insisted that since we are born guilty of original sin, and infants have no opportunity for justification by faith, they have no real hope of salvation.[13] He accused Graham of advocating “a new gospel – justification by youth alone.”[14] Sproul’s position may not represent all Presbyterians, but his article was infamous in quickly setting the record for letters to the editor, not a single one of which affirmed Sproul’s position. In sharp contrast with the general view of Presbyterians and the more extreme view of Sproul, Jr., Baptists have always believed that since infants are not yet capable of actual sin, they go to heaven.[15]

[1] The next article in this series is “Baptist Distinctive #3: Believer’s Baptism.” If you would like to preview the entire series, you can see the larger article from which these posts are drawn, plus responses from three theological perspectives, from a paper presentation for the a conference sponsored by the Baptist Center for Theology and Ministry at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. You can see them at Steve Lemke, “What Is a Baptist? Nine Marks that Separate Baptists from Presbyterians,” Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry 5, no. 2 (Fall 2008):10-39, available online at http://www.baptistcenter.com/Documents/Journals/JBTM%205-2_Baptists_in_Dialogue_Fall_08.pdf#page=11.  It is posted in this blog format in SBC Today to facilitate discussion on these issues.

[2] Westminster Confession, Art. 6, par. 3.

[3] Ibid., Art. 6, par.6.

[4] Ibid., Art. 28, par. 4.

[5] Westminster Confession, Second London Confession, and Philadelphia Confession, Art. 6, par. 4 in each confession.

[6] Westminster Confession, Art. 6, par. 6.

[7] BF&M, Art. 3.

[8] John Smyth, Short Confession of Faith in 20 Articles, Art. 5.

[9] A Short Confession of Faith (1610), Art. 4.

[10] Westminster Confession, Second London Confession, and Philadelphia Confession, Art. 10, par. 3 in each confession.

[11] Second London Confession, Art. 29, par. 2; Philadelphia Confession, Art. 30, par. 2.

[12] BF&M 1925, 1963, and 2000, Art. 3.

[13] R. C. Sproul, Jr. has disputed this understanding of his article cited here, both in his comments below in response to this article, and in an article in his own blog at http://rcsprouljunior.blogspot.com/2011/11/ask-rc-do-all-those-who-die-in-womb-go.html. He asserts that my comments about his article do not accurately represent his position, so we have added his comments at his request in the interest of fairness. Sproul is obviously the best authority on what Sproul actually believes, so we appreciate this clarification, though it gives no clear answer to the question of the eternity destiny of young children who die. However, we encourage the reader to examine Sproul’s comments in his earlier article in World magazine referenced in this article (the entire article is copied in Ron Hale’s comments below) to determine the clearest reading of that article (whatever his actual current beliefs), and whether that article and his recent blog post are saying the same thing in content and in tone. However, back to the theme of this article, we continue to affirm Billy Graham’s position with regard to the younger children killed in tragedies such as the Oklahoma City bombing (and his obvious affirmation of the age of accountability), and the fact that Sproul’s ambiguous answer could be much clearer if he were to affirm the age of accountability which, as a Presbyterian, he does not.  Again, for the purposes of this article, it is Sproul’s rejection of the age of accountability (and his inability to answer the question of the eternal destiny of younger children who die) that make the point of this article as being a key difference between Presbyterians and Baptists.

[14] R. C. Sproul, Jr. “Comfort Ye My People—Justification by Youth Alone: When Does Comfort Become Confusion?” World (May 6, 1995).

[15] See Daniel L.Akin and R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “Why We Believe that Infants Who Die Go to Heaven,” available online at http://betweenthetimes.com/2009/07/24/why-we-believe-children-who-die-go-to-heaven-2.