What is the “Age of Accountability”?

[This week’s posts will be a continuation of a recent sermon at Adventure Christian Church, based on questions members submitted to our leaders. Some answers were not addressed from the stage and will be covered here as a supplement. Check out the live answers here.]


What is the “Age of Accountability?”


The “Age of Accountability” is the age when a child, previously protected by grace, becomes aware of sin and thus becomes accountable for it. The awareness here is not simply an awareness of “what sin is,” although that is a good first step. It is an understanding of the reality and the repercussions of our sins as violations against a Holy God. When children become aware of this reality, they have reached the age of accountability.

If you think about it, our legal system operates in a very similar fashion. When children commit a crime, they are not treated as though they were adults, but treated with grace because they may not have known what they were really doing. However, as they reach a certain age, we begin to hear news reports of minors “being tried as” adults. Thus someone in the legal system is suggesting that this youth fully understood the consequences of his or her actions, and should be held fully accountable for them.

What is that age? Is it 18? What about 13, when Jewish children became (still become) adults? As you might have gathered, the age of accountability varies on a case-by-case basis. Because everyone develops differently, and because this is all about whether an individual has reached that point, there is no definite birthday that crosses one over from original grace to accountability.

Is it biblical?

Explicitly? No. The term “age of accountability” is a term that theologians have coined to describe a concept that IS present in Scripture. In Isaiah 7, there is mention of a child (some say this is a prophetic mention of Jesus), and in verse16, Isaiah says, “…before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good…” This verse suggests that there IS a point at which people gain the ability to discern evil from good.

This passage in Romans 7 is also illustrative of this concept. Paul says that without the Law he would not have known what it meant to sin. But when the law came, or understanding of the Law came, “Sin sprang to life and I died” (Romans 7:9). In the passage Paul talks about greed. It’s not that he had never been greedy, but that he had never known greed was a sin. When he came to understand that fact, he became accountable.

So do we do people more harm than good by teaching them what the Bible says about sin? Do we make them accountable when they wouldn’t otherwise be? I don’t think so. See what Romans 2:14-15 says:

14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law.15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them

Everyone comes to understand the accountability for sin, no matter their faith background. We see in our world certain moral absolutes, and certain things that are always honored as virtues. At some point, our consciences begin attesting to this reality, and we begin looking for answers to that call.

So what?

It can be scary to be a parent in this world. As Christian parents especially, it seems that the world offers contrary views to our own at every turn. We want our children to know Christ, but even with the best of parents in the best of circumstances, there is no promise that our kids will turn out okay. This is important to us for a two major reasons:

  1. For those parents who have lost (or known someone who has lost) a child very early in life, we believe through this doctrine that while that child was not sinless, they will not be held accountable for their sin because they lacked the ability to make moral discernment. This is great news! We can find solace and rest in the fact that God will protect those young souls from punishment.
  2. An important question may arise concerning Baptism. Biblically, baptism is always a practice that believers submit to by immersion. These two things seem to exclude infants from being baptized. This isn’t a post about Baptism, though that may be merited. Suffice it to say that the believer’s immersion baptism that is proclaimed in the New Testament is clearly connected with the cleansing and forgiveness of sin (see Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; 22:16). It would not make much sense to be baptized for the forgiveness of sin without some understanding of sin. Theologian Jack Cottrell puts it this way:”Unless a child understands that he or she is a lost sinner, the immersion in water will be meaningless.” As parents, we should lovingly ask questions without giving our kids the answers, to ensure that they have reached this age of accountability before getting baptized or becoming a Christian.

Even once our children reach the Age of Accountability, we cannot “legislate” Christianity in our homes. We cannot force them to respond to that conscience or to submit to baptism and become a Christian. The most we can “force” is a Christian-looking” moral code. But we don’t want to raise kids that mechanically do the “right thing” but kids who understand our role in relation to God and lovingly trust his “good, pleasing and perfect will.” Our job is to simply lay such a foundation that when our kids reach the age of accountability, they don’t feel alone and scared of a just God, but know how to approach him as their loving father, who’s already made a way for them to be redeemed of their sin.

Thanks for reading!


[Credit where it’s due: I owe much of the thought in this article to Jack Cottrell and his clear theological thinking. If you would like to know more on this topic, click here, and don’t hesitate to visit back often and read his responses to various topics!]

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