By Ashley Hooker, Crosswalk.com
Have you ever heard someone say, “they are old enough to know better?” I know I have said that phrase myself and directed it toward my own children. In those moments we have determined an age of accountability for one’s actions.
Society has a way of putting a certain level of accountability on people depending on what age they are. Parents believe their children are able to know right from wrong when they are of age. Even adults are required to understand logic and reason as they live out adulthood. The idea of an age of accountability is acted out in our lives every day. Just look at the court system. There are juveniles and adults committing crimes and a judge must decide how accountable they are for those crimes.
So, what is this age of accountability we speak of? Simply speaking it is the age that you become accountable for the sin nature you possess. A time in your life when you understand there are consequences to your actions.
But let’s discuss this further.
What Does the Age of Accountability Mean?
In respect to Christianity, age of accountability is the concept that children are only held accountable for their sins at death once they reach a certain age. If a child dies before this appointed age, God’s grace and mercy will reign and they will be ushered into the gates of heaven.
Throughout history, there has been the idea that at a certain age, we become responsible for our actions. Before we reach that age, we are not held responsible for our sin. The most popular argument regarding the age of accountability comes from the teachings of John Calvin. His teachings claim that all humans have a corrupt spiritual nature. Our sin nature is a consequence of Adam and Eve’s actions in the Garden of Eden.
Calvin further taught that due to the sin of Adam, even babies are born with a corrupt nature. The only way a baby could be saved is if they are a member of the elect which is a predetermined number of people God decided to save.
Of course, Calvin is not the only person teaching about the age of accountability. Today churches like the Roman Catholic Church, Episcopalian, Methodists, and others practice infant baptism. Baptizing a baby is a way of protecting them if they die young. Other denominations such as Southern Baptists and Mennonites practice believer’s baptism, which means only those who have made the conscious choice to follow Christ are baptized.
At What Age Are We Accountable?
Let me preface this discussion by stating that there is no definitive age written in Scripture. The ages that are mentioned are born out of verses that insinuate them and tradition. Most people will say the age of accountability is at 12 or 13. Their reasoning for this is twofold.
The first reason is that Jesus was twelve when he went to the Temple with his family at the Feast of the Passover (Luke 2:41-42). While he was there, he began teaching proving his understanding of right and wrong. The second reason is that according to Jewish custom, at the age of 13 a male enters manhood. This is celebrated with a Bar Mitzvah.
Other inquiries have led some to believe that twenty is the poignant number. At this age, males are enlisted in the Israeli army. Still, others believe the age of accountability is when a child recognizes their own nakedness. This thought would refer to the fall of man in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3.
Does the Bible Talk About an Age of Accountability?
As I stated earlier, the Bible does not state a specific age at which we become accountable. What it does speak of is how we can come to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Scriptures do speak of a time when we should understand the knowledge of Romans 3:23, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
When we recognize that we are sinners we become accountable. We are responsible for what we know to be truth. Salvation is a gift that comes with responsibility. When we accept the free gift of salvation, we become able to respond to the words of Christ. We are no longer blind to our sin.
In John 9:41, Jesus tells the Pharisees “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.” Jesus is not saying that we all are free from the consequences of sin before we are saved. What he is saying is that your age of accountability should begin when you are no longer blinded by your sin. Christians know the truth and we are accountable and responsible to share that truth with the world.
What Happens to Children Who Never Get the Chance to Accept Christ?
My humble answer is I don’t know. I am no expert in these matters. Some Christians believe that children who are taken at an early age go straight to heaven while others believe God judges them.
The story of David in 2 Samuel 12 tells us that David learns his son with Bathsheba will die. He laments and mourns until the death of his child. Upon the child’s death, David stops fasting and weeping. When asked why he says “But now that he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me.” (2 Samuel 12:23)
David was confident he was going to heaven and that his child was already there. David’s experience and words could lead us to believe that all children go to heaven.
1 John 2:2 states “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” This verse is clear that Jesus died not just for you and me, but for the entire world. The fact that Jesus died for all could allow the possibility that children who do not get the chance to accept Christ on Earth have that payment applied to them also.
There is much discussion about children who do not get the chance to accept Christ whether through death or physical and mental disabilities. The Bible may not be clear about what happens to them, but it is clear that Jesus came to Earth for all of us. He is full of grace and mercy, and He loves the little children. He says, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” When he makes his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, He reminds the chief priests that from the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise (Matthew 21:16)
The age of accountability is not a specific number. It is not found in the teachings of Jesus. Becoming dogmatic about this idea could be harmful to the body of Christ and all the precious children we encounter daily. Maybe we should spend the time God has given us loving, guiding, and teaching our children about Jesus instead of focusing on a number that may never be known. Educating children about sin and God’s biblical response to it will help them reach their point of accountability. The point where they realize their sin and need for grace and forgiveness.
Although we do not have all the answers, we do know what God chooses will always be right. His love and mercy will always prevail.
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/fizkes
Ashley Hooker is a freelance writer who spends her time homeschooling her two children, ministering alongside her husband as he pastors a rural church in West Virginia, and writing about her faith. Currently, she is a contributing author for Journey Christian magazine. She has taken part in mission trips with the NC Baptist Men during the devastation of Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey in Mississippi and Texas. In her local church, she has served on various committees focusing in the area of evangelism along with traveling to West Virginia and Vermont to share the Gospel. Her dream is to spend her time writing and sharing the love of Christ with all she meets.