The Age of Accountability is not a term found in the Bible. However, it is a widely accepted theological teaching supported by many Bible verses and passages. The Age of Accountability deals with the age at which a person is old enough to understand things about salvation. Without such understanding, one is not able to choose to repent and ask Jesus for forgiveness.
Age or Level?
While the term “Age of Accountability” is widely used and accepted, a much better term is the “level of accountability.” “Age” is determined by a number of years of life and gives a set time, but “level” is based on one’s knowledge, understanding, maturity, ability to respond, etc. Such things vary greatly from one person to another and cannot be labeled with a certain number of years. While some might understand sin at a very young age, there are some who never gain the knowledge that makes them accountable (e.g. the mentally impaired). That said, although “level” is a much better term to describe this doctrine, for the purposes of answering this question, I will use the more common term:
The Age of Accountability
This doctrine addresses those who die before they are able to understand personal sin, God’s mercy, God’s grace, who Jesus is, what He has done, and His offer of forgiveness of sins. This doctrine teaches that those who die before reaching the Age of Accountability go immediately to be with the Lord. Those who have reached the age (or level) of accountability are at a point when they can comprehend biblical truths including:
- Who God is — Creator, Lord, Saviour, and King
- The difference between good and evil, right and wrong, based on the moral standards set forth by God in His Law.
- How breaking God’s Law is a sin against God because it is a rebellion against God’s desired will.
When someone comes to a knowledge of those three things, they are able to:
- Experience the sorrow of sinning against a Holy God.
- Understand that sin is punishable by death.
- Understand Who Jesus is and what He did on the cross.
With such knowledge and understanding, one is then accountable to respond to the grace God offers to all people. There are only two responses. One will either…
- Humbly and sincerely repent of sins and ask Jesus for forgiveness, trusting in His finished work on the cross for salvation
- Knowingly and willingly reject the provision of Jesus’ life to pay for one’s sins.
It is not possible to put a specific age number on the knowledge and understanding that brings accountability. Even the level of accountability is only discernible by God and, of course, a person who has knowingly come to such a level of understanding.
A Doctrine of Hope
The Age of Accountability answers questions about the death of a young child, or those who are incapable of understanding their sin and God’s grace (i.e. a pre-born, an infant or a mentally impaired person of any age). For those who are too young to understand, or incapable of understanding, the Age of Accountability teaches that God does NOT condemn them. This is based on the nature and character of a loving, merciful, and just God, and on many verses of Scripture.
Six Scriptural Supports for The Age of Accountability
Let’s consider six reasons from Scripture that support this doctrine. These reasons reveal why The Age of Accountability is a widely accepted doctrine in the church and why this is another great gift of grace from our loving God.
At the death of his infant son, David expressed a belief that his son had gone to Heaven. He also spoke words that reveal he knew he would see his son again one day.
2 Samuel 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.
“I shall go to him. . .” David knew that he would join his son one day, in the place where his son went at death. This clearly illustrates an understanding of the afterlife and begs the question, where would David go to be with his son? In Old Testament understanding there were two abodes of the dead—a place of comfort for those who trusted in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and a place of torment for those who did not. It is reasonable to assume that David believed he would be reunited with his son in the place of comfort for the righteous dead. This place is referred to as Abraham’s Bosom in Luke 16 (Read: Where did OT Saints go at death? Abraham’s Bosom? Where was that?). In addition to knowing that he would one day see his son again, David also found great comfort in this knowledge. We understand this because, after David said he would one day go to be with his son, he was able to comfort his wife (2 Samuel 12:24).
We read in Scripture an example of God sparing the children of unbelieving parents.
After God delivered His people from Egyptian bondage, He led them to a place called Kadesh Barnea where they were to enter into the Promised Land. The Israelites sent in 12 spies to determine what they would face when they entered the land. With the exception of Joshua and Caleb, the spies returned fearful and in doubt of successfully taking the land. Because the nation did not trust Him, God decreed that all of the adult generation would die in the wilderness because of their sin (Number 14:29), with the exception of Joshua and Caleb who were trusting in God.
Take note that the children of the nation were exempt from this judgment of death in the wilderness. They were not held accountable for something they did not understand (sinning against God).
Deuteronomy 1:39 Moreover your little ones, which ye said should be a prey, and your children, which in that day had no knowledge between good and evil, they shall go in thither, and unto them will I give it, and they shall possess it.
In another event, the Bible records that God spared the children of rebellious parents when He judged them. Numbers 16 records the rebellion of Korah, a Levite, and Dathan, Abiram and On, all Reubenites, who together revolted against the authority of Moses and Aaron (both Levites). Their rebellion was an attempt to discredit the authority of Moses, and Aaron’s service as High Priest, so to increase their authority and position. In rising up against Moses and Aaron, the Lord’s appointed ones, they were also rising up against the Lord. Their rebellion was judged by God, when. . .”The earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up, and their houses, and all the men that appertained unto Korah, and all their goods” (Numbers 16:32).
While God judged the men and their families (their houses) by imposing death, we are told that the children of Korah were spared.
Numbers 26:10-11 And the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up together with Korah, when that company died, what time the fire devoured two hundred and fifty men: and they became a sign. Notwithstanding the children of Korah died not.
Yet another verse in Scripture tells us that children born into pagan families belong to God. In ancient times, the worship of the false god Molech included child sacrifice in a burnt offering (by fire). And God clearly said the children of these pagan peoples belonged to Him.
Ezek 16:20-21 “Moreover you took your sons and your daughters, whom you bore to Me, and these you sacrificed to them to be devoured. Were your acts of harlotry a small matter, that you have slain My children and offered them up to them by causing them to pass through the fire?
Children belong to God. God calls them innocents in Jeremiah 19:4, “Because they have forsaken me, and have estranged this place, and have burned incense in it unto other gods, whom neither they nor their fathers have known, nor the kings of Judah, and have filled this place with the blood of innocents.”
Although children are born sinful creatures, they are not responsible in the same way as those who sin with knowledge of who God is, and with the understanding that all sin is a rebellion against God. The doctrine of the Age of Accountability teaches that those who do not understand sin against God and the gospel of saving grace in Jesus Christ are given the Lord’s mercy and grace.
All the threats of Hell in the Bible are reserved for unregenerate people who sin knowingly. They will not inherit eternal life:
Galatians 5:19-21 Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like. . . they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.
Revelation 21:8 says, “But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.”
This next reasoning is more controversial and is presented for your consideration and study. It is based on sin not being imputed where there is no knowledge.
Because babies, young children, the pre-born, and the mentally impaired are unable to attain the knowledge of God and His Law, they do not have a knowledge of sin. Therefore sin is not imputed, as it is to those who have knowledge.
Romans 3:20 Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.
Romans 5:13 (For until the law sin was in the world: but sin is not imputed when there is no law. . .)
This does not mean that children are born without a sin nature. We know that every person who enters this world has a sin nature. We also know that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23).
Let’s read the broader context and the complete parenthetical which contains the verse that supports this reasoning.
Romans 5:11-17 And not only that, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation. Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned; (For until the law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who had not sinned according to the likeness of the transgression of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come. But the free gift is not like the offense. For if by the one man’s offense many died, much more the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abounded to many. And the gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned. For the judgment which came from one offense resulted in condemnation, but the free gift which came from many offenses resulted in justification. For if by the one man’s offense death reigned through the one, much more those who receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.)
This reasoning focuses, once again, on God’s mercy being given to those who are unable to understand God’s Law. We know it is God’s Law that reveals sin (Gal 3:24). And while “sin was in the world,” and “sin is not imputed when there is no law,” the consequence of sin, death, still reigned ” over “those who had not sinned according to the likeness of the transgression of Adam.” What is meant by “according to the likeness of the transgression of Adam?” Adam sinned with knowledge (1 Tim 2:14) and, therefore, a necessary response of repentance and trust must be made to receive the saving grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Again, this reasoning is controversial. However, it does support that where there is no knowledge, sin is not imputed for the damnation of the soul. Yet physical death still exits. Consider these verses for yourself and check the Scriptures.
Finally, Jesus repeatedly spoke of young children inheriting the Kingdom. These are such beautiful words of love, mercy, and grace. I believe that they assure us of the heavenly destiny of babies, young children, the pre-born and the mentally impaired:
Matthew 19:13-14 Then little children were brought to Him that He might put His hands on them and pray, but the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven.”
Mark 10:13-16 Then they brought little children to Him, that He might touch them; but the disciples rebuked those who brought them. But when Jesus saw it, He was greatly displeased and said to them, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God. Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it.” And He took them up in His arms, put His hands on them, and blessed them.
Luke 18:15-16 (NKJV) Then they also brought infants to Him that He might touch them; but when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. But Jesus called them to Him and said, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God.”
Matthew 18:1-5 (NKJV) At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me.”
There are some who will dispute this doctrine of the Age (or Level) of Accountability…and that’s okay. This is not something Christians should argue about. Remember, it is God who saves sinners and there remains much mystery about how He does so. The Age of Accountability is not a core doctrine in the Christian faith. However, in my personal belief, I truly believe that my two brothers, one of whom died in the womb and the other who lived only a few hours, are both in Heaven. I also believe that childhood friends who died at five and seven, along with my two nephews who drowned with a simple, but incomplete, understanding of Christ at ages eight and nine, are all with the Lord in Heaven. You might think that I believe this because I want to believe it, and you are partially right. I do want to believe that I will see them in Heaven. But that’s not why I believe in the Age/Level of Accountability. I believe it because I know, from my own personal experience, the love and mercy of our gracious God, and there is much in the Bible to support this doctrine. Therefore, I believe with all my heart that God’s love, mercy, and grace is extended to those who are incapable of repentance on the basis of age or level of understanding. One day we will know for certain, but until that time we can trust that the Lord is good and His ways are perfect.
Gen 18:25 …Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?
Deu 32:4 He is the Rock, his work is perfect: for all his ways are judgment: a God of truth and without iniquity, just and right is he.
I encourage you to search the Scriptures and come to your own understanding about the eternal destiny of babies, young children, the pre-born, and the mentally impaired. Take comfort, knowing that in all deaths Jesus is present, He desires all to be saved, and He will bring us through the sadness, pain, and suffering of the deaths of those we love.
Comments received from Don, a friend of the ministry:
I have a theory on the age of accountability based on something you cited concerning the Children of Israel, their wilderness experience, and the conquering of the Promised Land. I believe the age of accountability (for those who can believe…in other words for whom there is no mental handicap) is 20. I have two main reasons for this.
1. Those who were 20 and over were held accountable for their rebellion and unbelief, and would die in the wilderness. Num. 14:29.
2. Only those who were 20 years old and older were considered “able to go to war”. Num.1:2-3
As we can see, God’s formula for accountability and responsibility was very clearly defined. Those 19 and under were not held accountable for judgment (spiritual death) or responsible for war (possible physical death). I think it is very possible that our immutable God may still have those numbers and principles in mind when it comes to accountability and responsibility for the decision of repentance and faith, which is obviously the deciding factor for eternal consequence.
The age of “under 20” as the age of accountability is, of course, simply a reasoned theory. We cannot know for certain, but we do know and trust that God’s “age of accountability” is just.
Response from Reasons for Hope* Jesus:
Thank you, Don! We think your reasoning is very biblically sound and expands on the understanding of God’s sparing the “under 20s” among the untrusting wilderness wanderers. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.
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