Is There an "Age of Accountability"?
A phrase one might sometimes hear a person use when talking about whether someone is old enough to be baptized and become a Christian is the phrase “age of accountability.” Such a phrase does not appear in our Bible. There are times we might use phrases which are not actually found in the Bible to express a Biblical concept. It is good to be remember such can also be dangerous at times (1 Peter 4:11). When using a phrase not contained in the Bible, it is important to try to arrive at a correct understanding of how the phrase is being used. In my experience, people use the phrase, “age of accountability,” to refer to a point in a person’s life when their maturity has reached a point where they can understand the concepts of sin and lust and be capable of committing a sin (James 1:14-15). Let’s spend some time considering what the Bible teaches about when a person becomes accountable and capable of sinning.
There are some in the religious world today who claim a person is born in a lost state inheriting the sin of Adam. As a result, infants are sometimes sprinkled with water in an effort to to remove the guilt of Adam’s sin which they had supposedly inherited. The Bible plainly teaches children do not inherit the wickedness of their forefathers (Deuteronomy 24:16; 2 Kings 14:6; Ezekiel 18:4, 20). The Bible does not paint the picture of newborn babies being guilty of Adam’s sin. Instead, the Bible depicts little children as pure and innocent. Jesus said, “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, NKJV). Jesus is certainly not saying one needs to be guilty of sin like a little child in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. Rather, little children are free of sin. Again Jesus said, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:16, NKJV). Jesus was not saying the kingdom of heaven will be composed of people guilty of sin. Therefore, little children are not guilty of sin. 1 Corinthians 14:20 says, “Brethren, do not be children in understanding; however, in malice be babes, but in understanding be mature” (NKJV). We are not being encouraged to be guilty of malice but rather babes are free from malice being innocent. David’s newborn son who dies is pictured as going to the place where David longed to go (2 Samuel 12:23). When people in the New Testament were baptized, they were people who were capable of hearing, believing, repenting, and confessing Christ (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:37-38; 8:12-13, 35-39; 16:30-34). These are things a child at certain ages is incapable of doing. If such children are lost, the New Testament does not provide a way for them to be saved!
The Bible teaches there is a point in one’s life where they become guilty of sin having previously been innocent. In Ezekiel 28:15 it is said of the king of Tyre, “You were perfect in your ways from the day you were created, till iniquity was found in you” (NKJV). Obviously, there was a point in his life when he was innocent and then a time came in his life when iniquity was found in him. Paul describes sin’s entrance into his life in this manner, “I was alive once without the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died” (Romans 7:9, NKJV). When Paul was born, the law of Moses had already been given. Yet there was a point in Paul’s life when he was incapable of understanding the law and thus, “was alive once without the law.” When Paul reached a point when he was capable of understanding the law, the commandment came and because he violated the commandment he sinned and died. Other places in the Bible refer to a stage in life when: 1. People “have no knowledge of good and evil” (Deuteronomy 1:39, NKJV). 2. Before one, “shall know to refuse the evil and choose the good” (Isaiah 7:16, NKJV). 3. When people, “cannot discern between their right hand and their left” (Jonah 4:11, NKJV). Such people have not yet reached a state where they are accountable because they cannot understand the law of God yet.
When it comes to discussions about what is sometimes called “the age of accountability,” I don’t think it is possible to assign a specific age as human beings to when another person becomes accountable to God. Of course, there are ages where it is obvious a person has not yet reached such a stage of development, e.g., a little baby who cannot talk, etc. There are also ages where it seems obvious a person has reached a point of being accountable to God based upon their ability to understand certain concepts, etc. However, for me to pinpoint a specific point in time for every individual would be difficult as people sometimes mature at different rates. Hopefully these thoughts are helpful when it comes to understanding when a person becomes accountable and thus needs to be baptized for the remission of their sins (Acts 2:38), etc.