Age of Accountability, Immanuel, and Isaiah 7
Q: I’m bothered by the concept of “Age of Accountability.” Where did this term originate? I’ve seen references to Isaiah 7:16 supporting the premise that there is an age before which a child is not held morally accountable. I see this verse as a reference to “Immanuel,” not “all” children. Can you enlighten? Also, if there is an “Age of Accountability,” can’t this be used as an argument against infant baptism?
A: The concept of accountability has long lurked in Christian (and Jewish) theology. Young children may recognize that individual deeds are right or wrong, or that certain thoughts or words should or shouldn’t occur. However, their judgment seems mainly to consider the right and wrong of their individual actions, not of their entire state of being. In other words, a child often knows that he is doing wrong but cannot recognize that his entire being is wrong in God’s eyes.
However, due to physical changes in the brain, mental changes also occur in most people between their twelfth and fourteenth years. We become capable of introspection — the ability to look more deeply at ourselves and to analyze who and what we are. It’s then that we see more clearly the depth of the fallen nature that pulls us into sinful thought, word, and deed. It can also, however, be a time when we rejoice even more in the gift of salvation through Christ, since we see more clearly how much we need it.
As for the “Immanuel” connection, many think that the Lord was operating on two levels. The ultimate fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 is in the birth of Christ to the Virgin Mary. We know this because the Lord tells us so in the words of the evangelist (Matthew 1:22-23).
Yet this prophecy was also for a sign to Ahaz, who would be long dead before Jesus was conceived. A more immediate and intermediate fulfillment (a type or a precursor to the coming of Christ) could be in Isaiah’s marriage, where he “went to the prophetess, and she conceived and bore a son. Then the Lord said to me, ‘Call his name Maher-shalal-hashbaz [The spoil speeds, the prey hastens]; for before the boy knows how to cry “My father” or “My mother,” the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away before the king of Assyria.’ (Isaiah 8:3-4)”
Assuming the normal “age of accountability” at the twelfth year, this becomes a prediction of judgment by the time the boy reaches his “Bar Mitzvah.” This comes out to about 721 BC, after the destructive campaigns of Shalmaneser V and Sargon. By 721, Damascus was forsaken (captured by Assyria in 732) and likewise Samaria (which fell in 722).
Chapters 7 and 8 show that the Lord predicted even more wrath visited upon Judah after the fall of Israel, especially since Ahaz continued to distrust Him. In fact, Ahaz would contribute directly to these judgments by engaging “the razor that is hired, (7:20)” that is, future Assyrian king Sennacherib. He thus engaged in a futile attempt to pay “protection money,” buying an insurance policy that failed him (2 Chronicles 28:21).
Getting back to the ultimate fulfillment in Christ, we know that as God, He was perfect, neither denying good nor doing evil. Yet according to His human nature, He still grew in the normal way (Luke 2:40, 52). He went through the regular process of physical, mental, and emotional development but unhindered by sin. Instead, He was constantly “in favor with God and man.” He grew up the way God intended for all mankind to grow.
However we examine this, it still doesn’t remove the need for infant baptism. Indeed, it should spur us to do just that, for if our children don’t recognize their own sinfulness, how will they truly know and desire their salvation? While some claim that God doesn’t number the trespasses of the young and so infant baptism is useless, there’s nothing in Isaiah 7 that supports that idea. We bring them to the gift before they know they need it.
Our children don’t develop as did Jesus. They aren’t always “in favor with God and man,” but are often sullen, rebellious representatives of the Old Adam. Holy Baptism for our children is one of God’s best weapons against their growing up outside the faith and defenseless against the devil, the world, and their own sinful natures.
Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.
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