If you listen to much pulpit preaching, chances are good you have, at one time or another, heard a speaker who mentioned or alluded to an “age of accountability.” Questions are thus raised, “What is the age of accountability?” and, “What does the Bible teach about this so-called age of accountability?”
A little research on the question will reveal that the verbatim phrase, “age of accountability,” is found nowhere in the Bible. This should make the serious Bible student a little cautious. If we want to “speak where the Bible speaks,” then it helps if we can, as much as possible, use the terminology of the Bible to teach the lessons of the Bible. Too much paraphrasing and rephrasing can lead the unwary into difficulty and wrong assumptions.
That being said, there are two things the Bible does teach that we can be certain of.
The first is, we must each individually give an account to God on the Day of Judgment for the deeds we have done in the body, both good and ill. This is attested to multiple times in the Gospel of Christ (cf. Acts 17:30-31, Romans 14:12, 2 Corinthians 5:10, Hebrews 4:13, 1 Peter 4:5). It is because of the judgment of God that salvation is necessary and thus men are commanded to repent of their sins and turn to Christ for the forgiveness of their sins. Without such salvation, men are going to be held guilty of all their sins, and perish eternally (cf. John 8:21, 24).
The second thing the Bible teaches is that God does not hold young children to be guilty of sin. Or, to be more specific, God’s word teaches that young children, when they die will not be lost; instead they will be in heaven with the saints. Jesus said concerning young children, “to such belongs the Kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:14b; ESV; cf. Matthew 18:3).” More pointedly, when his newborn son died, David, an inspired prophet of God, declared concerning the child, “Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me. (2 Samuel 12:23; ESV)” Unless one believes that David was planning on going to torment, then we must conclude that David understood his son to be with God. Such an understanding is further complemented by God’s instruction to Ezekiel that the child does not bear the guilt of his parents and will therefore not be punished for the sins of his parents (cf. Ezekiel 18:20).
Sin, the Bible teaches, is something men do. It is a breaking of God’s law (cf. 1 John 3:4). And young children have neither the opportunity nor the understanding to consciously break God’s law. Paul observes concerning Jacob and Esau, unborn and in the womb, “they had done nothing either bad or good (Romans 9:11).” Concerning His own Son, God predicted, “For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted. (Isaiah 7:16; ESV)” Jesus, partaking of our nature, had to learn how to choose between good and evil. It was not something He was born with. If this was true of Christ, surely it is true of all men. We have to reach a level of maturity sufficient as to make a competent choice between right and wrong. When a person talks about an “Age of Accountability,” what they are really talking about is an “Age of Sufficient Understanding.”
The Bible does not tell us exactly when a child passes from one condition of awareness to the other. That such a transition does happen seems obvious from the scriptures, but those who have known more than one child in their lifetime should understand that each child matures at a slightly different rate from others, and this is possibly why God does not lay down a hard and fast rule for His people in this regard.
We might observe that whereas God spoke of Jesus learning how to choose between good and evil, the New Testament indicates that by the age of twelve, Jesus was of sufficient awareness to know that He needed to be about His Father’s will. For this reason, some give “twellve” as a rule-of-thumb age for when we might expect a child to be accountable, spiritually, for his actions. But, again, God did not specify such, and, we further note, knowing that Jesus was aware by twelve does not actually tell us anything about His awareness at eleven, or ten, or nine. We need to always be careful not to legislate where God has not concerning spiritual matters.
In the end, it is a matter we have to leave to God’s judgment, and in faith, trust God to make the right decision in each individual case. Our responsibility is not to pass judgment on such things. Rather, our responsibility is to do simply teach what God has taught us to do. We should be teaching all men, regardless of age, so that they will have the opportunity to obey as soon as they can. Likewise, for ourselves individually, when we know and understand what has been commanded, we must understand that such an understanding means that we should be seeking to obey, knowing that we will be held accountable for our choices.
If you are desiring to learn better how to fulfill God’s will in your life, the church of Christ invites you to worship and study with us, at 234 Chapel Drive, Gallipolis, Ohio. Likewise, if you have any questions or comments, we invite you to share them with us at chapelhillchurchofchrist.org.
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ.