When I was growing up, I often heard references in sermons and Bible classes to an “age of accountability”. According to this idea, there is a definite point in our lives at which we understand the difference between right and wrong, and thus become accountable to God when we sin. This was something that troubled me, because as hard as I tried, I could not find this phrase in the Bible – and “if any man speaks, let him speak as the oracles of God” (1 Peter 4:11). If we are going to preach and teach on something, we must be sure that it is something that is scriptural, and thus from God. If there is indeed an “age of accountability”, what age would it be? Would it be a definite number, or a range? Does the Bible speak on this issue?
Let us first establish some biblical principles concerning sin.
Sin is the transgression (violation) of God’s law (1 John 3:4). The word “sin” is translated from the Greek word harmatia, which means “to miss the mark”. We sin when we fall short of God’s divine standard.
Little children have no sin. David acknowledged that he was “fearfully and wonderfully made” by God, while he was developing in his mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13-16). Although some might point to David’s declaration that “I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5) to show that he was sinful from birth, David was using hyperbole to illustrate the sin-filled world he had been born into, and that he had allowed himself to be influenced by it. We know that children are not born sinful, for “the son shall not bear the iniquity (wrongdoing) of the father” (Ezekiel 18:20). Jesus Himself said that “except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3), illustrating that little children are not sinners.
At some point in our lives, we begin to sin, and will be held accountable for it. Paul stated clearly that “there is none righteous, no not one” and that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:10, 23). Those who sin will face spiritual death (eternal separation from God), for “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23; cf. Isaiah 59:1-2).
Thus, we can see that at some point between our childhood and our adulthood, we sinned by transgressing God’s law, and will thus be held accountable for it. Does the Bible specify an age or age range at which one becomes accountable for our sins? Let us look at some passages from the Scriptures.
20 years old (Numbers 14:29). In Numbers 13, the LORD instructed Moses to send out 12 spies into the land of Canaan, one from every tribe of Israel (Numbers 13:2). 10 of the spies brought back an “evil report”, stating that although the land was “flowing with milk and honey” (Numbers 13:27), the Israelites would not be able to go up against the inhabitants in battle for they were “stronger than we” (Numbers 13:31). Because of this evil report, the Israelites murmured (complained) against Moses, and desired to return back to Egypt (Numbers 14:1-4). Joshua and Caleb were the only 2 spies to urge the people not to “rebel against the LORD”, but to go up in battle against the inhabitants of Canaan (Numbers 14:6-9). Due to the rebellion of the people, the LORD determined that all those that were 20 years old and upwards which had been numbered in the census (cf. Numbers 1) and had murmured against Him would die in the wilderness (Numbers 14:29).
18 years old (2 Kings 24:8-9). Jehoiachin, one of the last kings of Judah, was 18 years old when he began to reign as king. Although his reign was very short (only 3 months), he was described as doing “that which was evil in the sight of the LORD”.
16 years old (2 Chronicles 34:3). Josiah was one of the few “good kings of Judah”. Although he had an exceedingly wicked grandfather (Manasseh) and father (Amon) (cf. 2 Chronicles 33), Josiah was described as doing “that which was right in the sight of the LORD” (2 Chronicles 34:2). He became king at the young age of 8 years old (2 Chronicles 34:1), and in the eighth year of his reign (i.e., 16 years old), “while he was yet young, he began to seek after the God of David his father…” (2 Chronicles 34:3).
12 years old (Luke 2:42, 52). When Jesus was 12 years old, he was in Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover (Luke 2:41-42). His parents found him in the temple listening to the “doctors” (didaskalos – teachers of the law) and asking them questions (Luke 2:46). All who heard him were “astonished at his understanding and answers” (Luke 2:47). At the age of 12, Jesus was described as someone who “increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man” (Luke 2:52).
Dear reader, I am not suggesting that one definitely becomes accountable for our sins at the age of 12 years old, or 16 years old, or 18 years old. Rather, the purpose of the passages above is to illustrate that even at a relatively “young” age, one can understand the difference between right and wrong, and understand what must be done to please God.
I believe we should not focus on the specific age at which our children become accountable to the Lord. I believe we should not pressure our children at church camps by saying “look, so-and-so has gotten baptized – what about you?” We should not be rushing our children to get baptized, because if they are baptized without a proper understanding of Christ’s kingdom (the church), His authority, and the significance of baptism (cf. Acts 8:12), and if they are baptized without understanding that their lives are forever to be committed to Christ, all they are going to achieve is getting wet, not saved.
Rather, we should focus on “training up our children in the way they should go, so that when they are old, they will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). Do you teach them that there are certain things that are wrong to do? Do you teach them that there are consequences for bad behaviour? Do you speak to them often about the God in Heaven who made the sun, moon, and stars, and in whose image we are “fearfully and wonderfully made”? Do you speak to them about Jesus, who, though He was God, suffered as a man and died for the sins of all mankind? Do you speak to them about them about the church that He built, this everlasting kingdom to which the saved are added? Do they see you focusing and honouring God during the worship service? Do you speak to them about the Heaven prepared for those who follow Jesus? Do you speak to them about Hell, the terrifying place of eternal torment prepared for those who sin?
My brothers and sisters in Christ, instead of being focused on whether there is a specific “age of accountability”, let us focus on bringing up godly children and teaching them about God continually, so that one day in the future, their hearts will be pricked, and they will ask:
“What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 2:37).