The Age of Accountability is that time in the development of a person when he or she can and invariably does sin against God and thus stands in the need of personal redemption through Jesus Christ.^[1]^

It is a controversial theological notion held by many Christians that for the purpose of salvation, a person is covered by God's grace until mature enough to understand and thus be responsible for obedience to God's moral law. It is one of the things that must be of great concern to Christian parents who love their children.^[2]^

Proponents understand it to be the non-depraved status (innocence) of infants, preadolescent children, and persons who are incapable of recognizing or assuming personal responsibility due to developmental, mental or emotional disability. Essentially, anyone who has not reached a sufficient level of abstract reasoning is considered covered by this grace. John MacArthur concludes that up until a point of real saving faith in a child's life, God in His mercy would save that child if that child should die.^[3]^

Some opponents believe that infant baptism provides salvation to those unable to choose.

Traditional concept

The concept is not directly mentioned in the Bible but stems from individual church traditions. However, the Bible teaches personal responsibility for sin and the nature of salvation. This raises questions about when a person becomes capable of understanding sin and the nature of salvation, thus becoming answerable or accountable to God for sin.

Non-chronological

It is not tied to specific chronological age since rates and ages of development naturally vary from person to person. It is affected by a variety of social and environmental factors including television and movies, video games, influence of parents, teachers, and life experiences.^[4]^

Arguments from Scripture

Proponents hold that infants, pre-adolescent children, and certain disabled children cannot be spiritually depraved. Similarly, the Bible indicates that salvation is an intentional act of faith on the part of individuals. To exercise this choice, persons must be aware they are sinners before God and be able to repent of that rebellious lifestyle. Evangelical Christians and others believe that persons must be capable of transferring trust for their salvation to Jesus as personal Savior and Lord. They must be able to understand that their lifestyles should be patterned after the example of Christ (Romans 10:9-14). Those who advocate the doctrine of an age of accountability believe that since an infant or young child cannot make such distinctions, they are not held responsible for personal since until they are capable of making such a decision.^[1]^

Proponents further point to the prophet Ezekiel who, after contrasting the behavior of a father with his son, stated: “The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son” (Ezek. 18:20; cf. vss. 2-19).^[4]^

Under the Old Testament, the Jews recognized that children could not be held personally accountable to the law of Moses. They set the arbitrary age of twelve as the year when a child assumed adult status in religious matters.^[1]^

Jesus, Himself, is understood by many to have demonstrated the spiritually safe condition of children when He stated: “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). Jesus followed up this declaration with a comparable observation: “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:14).^[4]^

Paul the Apostle, in pointing out that God preplanned to bring Christ into the world through Jacob rather than Esau, stated that the decision was made prior to the birth of the boys: “[F]or the children not yet being born, nor having done any good or evil” (Romans 9:11, emp. added).^[4]^

Counter arguments

Historically, some groups of Christians have believed that an infant is born with an immediate responsibility for sin. This view suggests that children inherit the guilt of the sins of those who have lived before them. Infant baptism has been the usual prescription for this innate sin.^[1]^ Classical Calvinistic teaching claims that all humans have inherited a corrupt spiritual nature due to the sin of Adam in the Garden of Eden. This doctrine generally is referred to as “total depravity.” Not all contemporary Calvinists agree with the following conclusions regarding infants and children:

Calvinism further maintains that, due to this inherited spiritual depravity, babies are born with a corrupt nature. Babies, therefore, are born depraved and, by definition, are in a “lost” state. The only way for babies to be saved is for them to be one of the elect—a predetermined few whom God arbitrarily decided to save while condemning all others. Hence, free will does not enter into the question of salvation. The Calvinist maintains that people cannot choose to receive salvation from God. They are in a lost condition due to their corrupt spiritual nature, and do not have the ability even to desire salvation, let alone to attain it.^[4]^

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Several biblical passages are often cited to refute the concept of an "age of accountability":

  • "Even a child is known by his actions, by whether his conduct is pure and right." (Prov. 20:11, NIV)
  • "For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy." (1 Cor. 7:14, NIV)
  • "Even from birth the wicked go astray; from the womb they are wayward and speak lies." (Ps. 58:3, NIV)
  • "Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me." (Ps. 51:5, ESV)

Effects of culture on morality

The Bible teaches clearly that persons are responsible for their own actions, not for those of their ancestors. Sin is a willful act of rebellion against God on the part of an individual (Romans 3:9-18).^[1]^ Current culture is characterized by a tendency to evade responsibility for one’s action. Lawbreakers blame parents, genes, and society for their actions. But the Bible teaches that every accountable human being will one day stand before God and give account for his or her own actions. “For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ” and “each of us shall give account of himself to God” (Romans 14:10,12).^[4]^

Resources

  • Swindoll, Charles R. et al. Understanding Christian Theology. Nelson Reference & Electronic. 2003. ISBN 078525032-8

Endnotes

  1. ? ^1.0^ ^1.1^ ^1.2^ ^1.3^ ^1.4^ Timothy Boyd. "Accountability, Age of." Holman Bible Dictionary. Web:Holman Bible Dictionary 24 Nov 2009
  2. ? Tommie Spurgeon. "The Age of Accountability?" America and Israel in Bible Prophecy. Web:<http://www.americaisraelprophecy.com/theageofaccountability.html Age of Accountability> 24 Nov 2009
  3. ? John MacArthur. "Scriptural basis for the 'Age of Accountability'." Web:<http://www.biblebb.com/files/macqa/70-17-5.htm John MacArthur> 24 Nov 2009
  4. ? ^4.0^ ^4.1^ ^4.2^ ^4.3^ ^4.4^ ^4.5^ Dave Miller. "The Age of Accountability." Apologetics Press. Web: 24 Nov 2009