Holman Bible Dictionary
Accountability, Age of
The age of accountability is a concept not directly mentioned in the Bible. What the Bible teaches about personal responsibility for sin and the nature of salvation compels us to define this concept. Basically, 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. Even 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.
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. This position, however, misinterprets both the biblical doctrine of sin and the ordinance of baptism.
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 ). Clearly, an infant or young child is not capable of such a willful act. At this point, one must be careful not to confuse bad behavior or early signs of willful actions on the part of children with sin. Such behavior does not necessarily indicate that a child has knowingly sinned.
Similarly, the Bible indicates that salvation is a deliberate act of faith on the part of individuals. To exercise this choice, persons must be able to make certain distinctions. They must be aware they are sinners before God and be able to repent of that rebellious life-style. They must be capable of transferring trust to Jesus as personal Savior and Lord. They must be able to understand that their life-styles should be patterned after the example of Christ (Romans 10:9-14 ). Obviously, an infant or young child cannot make these distinctions and cannot be responsible for making such a decision.
There comes a time in the life of each child when that boundary of responsibility to God is crossed. A child invariably sins (Romans 3:23 ) and stands in need of Christ. However, it is impossible to set a particular age when this will occur. Indeed, each child will vary in reaching that time. Various factors influence spiritual maturing. Since children mature at different rates, some will be spiritually aware at a younger age. They also receive a varied religious education because of parents, teachers, and other significant adults to whom they are exposed. Children exposed to television and other modern technology will mature at a faster rate because of the teaching ability of such technology.
Two extremes should be avoided in dealing with the age of accountability. The first is that of encouraging children to make a decision for Christ before they are fully aware of the requirements of salvation. Some parents are so anxious to see their child saved that they push the child into a premature decision. Pastors can also be guilty of yielding to the pressure of parents or other influences in receiving children who have a doubtful understanding of salvation.
The second extreme to avoid is that of rejecting children who want to accept Christ because of preconceived notions about the inability of children to understand the gospel. In dealing with children, one must not necessarily expect an adult vocabulary or the ability to articulate the faith like an adult. A child may understand the concepts without knowing the technical terminology. Careful counseling should be employed to determine if real understanding is present.
It would seem wise to recall that Christ commanded the children be brought to Him (Matthew 18:10 ; Matthew 19:13-14 ). Yet, care must be taken that children “come to Christ” with a responsible understanding.
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A Student's Dictionary for Biblical and Theological Studies: A Handbook of Special and Technical Terms