Q: #6. What is the "Age of Accountability?"
By: Steve Shirley
A: The Age of Accountability is a term that is used to describe the age at which a person is responsible or accountable to God for his or her actions and sins. The Bible says that we are all born sinners (Isa 48:8)(Ps 51:5)(Job 14:4)(Prov 20:9)(Eccl 7:20), but it also shows us that some people (i.e. children or mentally handicapped) are unable to truly distinguish between good and evil (Deut 1:39)(Rom 9:10-11)(Isa 7:14-16)(Jonah 4:11)(Jn 9:41). I believe this also applies to having the ability to willfully and consciously accept or reject Jesus Christ as the payment for sin. Until a person is fully able to distinguish between good and evil, and understand that they need to confess that they are a sinner and trust in Jesus to pay for their sins, I believe that the Bible shows that we are not held accountable before God. Jesus appears to be saying this very thing when He said to the Pharisees in (Jn 9:41), "... If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth."
We also have an example in (2 Sam 12:14-23) where David's infant son had died and David believed his son was with God and he would see him again one day, saying in (2 Sam 12:23) "But now he is dead, wherefore should I fast? can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me."
How old do we have to be before we are held accountable before God? I believe in the case of mentally handicapped people, they most likely live their whole lives without being accountable since they never can distinguish between good and evil and understand that they need Jesus. However, in the case of a child, I believe that only God truly knows the age at which each individual child's mind has the ability to make a willful decision based on true understanding. This would obviously differ with each child since children mature at different rates.
Interestingly though, a Biblical case can be made that God may not hold a child accountable until they reach the age of 20! The Old Testament gives us several examples of this possibility:
No offering for atonement needed to be made until a person was 20 yrs old (Ex 30:14-15).
No one was allowed to enter the Promised Land because of their sin against God (except Joshua and Caleb who trusted God) except for those under 20 years of age (Num 14:29)(Num 32:11).
The significance of the age of 20 is also shown in that no one under 20 was counted in the census or could go to war (Num 1:3-45)(Num 26:2,4)(1 Chr 27:23)(2 Chr 25:5) nor could any Levite work on the temple unless they were at least 20 yrs old (Ezra 3:8).
In Jewish culture, it has generally been understood that a child becomes responsible to God at the age of 12 or 13, and they have a ceremony to mark this occasion in a child's life. This may be a reason why an age of accountability isn't more clearly outlined in the Bible since it would have already been common knowledge among the Israelites. Jesus going to the Temple at the age of 12 (Lk 2:41-52) might be an example that this is a possibility.
Don't all of us, who are now adults, remember how smart we thought we were as teenagers, and now, looking back, we see how often we made foolish and immature decisions and we really didn't understand as much as we thought we did? Maybe, God sees the same thing.