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. Every person on this planet is born with a "sin nature" (but we are not "born sinners"). At practically the first moment possible, all people will use their God given "free will" to sin (notice the choices a small child makes). We continue making sinful choices throughout our lives. However, the Bible 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."
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.