Defending the Age of Accountability

Most Southern Baptists grew up being taught to believe in the “age of accountability” (AoA), as was I. After all, we certainly see this even in our own Baptist tradition as the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message states regarding man “as soon as they are capable of moral action, they become transgressors and are under condemnation.”  However, after going away to college and adopting five-point Calvinism, I became convinced that this was not a doctrine taught in the Bible.  I had been persuaded by my new Calvinistic mentors that this was a “man-made doctrine” created to help ease the pain of those who tragically lost a young child. After leaving behind Calvinism many years later and doing some more thorough study on the matter, however, I have come to firmly believe this doctrine has strong biblical roots.

Though not explicitly set forth in scripture (much like infant salvation which also is not explicitly taught) the principles of AoA are quite plain in the text.

First, the bible is clear that “each of us will give an account of himself to God.” (Rom 14:12)

Can a two-year old baby who tragically dies in a car accident give this accounting of himself to God?  Can the mentally handicapped? Difficult circumstances like these lead us to ponder on such questions as to when one is held accountable for their sins before God.

Scriptures do not speak so much about a specific age[1] but simply to a time in everyone’s life when God’s truth is clearly made known. When a child comes to understand that they have sinned against God and deserve punishment due to their sins, then and only then can they give an account for their wrong doings.  This is why we reference them being as being “accountable” (able to give an account for sin) or “responsible” (able to respond to Christ’s appeal). Some even prefer the “age of responsibility” because it connotes the child’s ability-to-respond of his own volition to the word’s of Christ, after all every one of us will be judged by those very words:

“He who rejects Me and does not receive My sayings, has one who judges him; the word I spoke is what will judge him at the last day.” (John 12:48)

Let us look at some passages in scripture which convey these principles. According to John’s account, Christ indicates that one’s accountability depends, at least in part, upon one’s understanding of sin:

John 15:22: “If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin.”


John 9:41: Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but since you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

Paul, likewise seems to indicate this same principle:

Romans 7:9-10: “I was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin became alive and I died; and this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me…”

Another passage often used to support this principle is the story of King David’s loss of a child. David seems to presume that one day he would be reunited with him:

He said, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, ‘Who knows, the LORD may be gracious to me, that the child may live.’ “But now he has died; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me.” (2 Sam. 12:22-23)

It is also worth mentioning that Jesus spoke of allowing the children to come to him “for such is the kingdom of heaven” (Lk 18:16). And Jesus even uses a child as an example in one of his lessons declaring, “Anyone who becomes humble as this little child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.” Apparently heaven is made up of such, which certainly gives much credence to David’s words and actions after the death of his own son.

Am I meaning to suggest that children do not have the inevitable curse of sin upon them? No, it is only to say that God, in His graciousness, does not hold them accountable while they remain in their ignorance. As recorded in John 9:41, they are not held to account for the sins they did in ignorance. Other passages seem to indicate that God does graciously pass over sins because of his loving patience toward fallen humanity:

“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Rom. 3:23-26)


“Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation.” (2 Cor. 5:18-19)

The AoA principle can also be found in the Old Testament narrative. For instance, when God banned the unfaithful Israelites from entering the promised land he did so based upon age and ignorance:

“Moreover, your little ones who you said would become a prey, and your sons, who this day have no knowledge of good or evil, shall enter there, and I will give it to them and they shall possess it.” (Dt. 1:39)

Likewise, when the prophet Isaiah foretold of the Messiah’s coming he spoke of when a boy “will know enough to refuse evil and choose good,” suggesting there is a time in the child’s life he remains without enough knowledge to make accountable moral choices (Isa. 7:16).

So too, the prophet Ezekiel seems to strongly indicate that guilt was not imputed from one’s parents, which would seem to contradict the idea that all people are born guilty for the sins of those who have come before him:

“The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.” (Ezek. 18:20)

For a complete systematic proposal which covers both a Biblical and historical survey of this issue, I highly recommend Dr. Adam Harwood’s book, “The Spiritual Condition of Infants.” Harwood concludes,

“Those who claim that infants inherit sin and guilt are faced with the following inconsistencies in their viewpoint: First, it would be inconsistent for God to hold infants guilty of the sin of another person (Adam) because he states that he holds people responsible for their own sin, not the for sin of another person (Ezek. 18:20). Each of us will give an account of himself to God (Rom. 14:12). We will not give an account to God of our parents or grandparents or even our furthest descendants, Adam. Second, because the Scriptures indicate that God judges people for their sinful thoughts, attitudes, and actions, it would be inconsistent for him to judge infants to be guilty of sin solely based on their sin nature.”

[1] Some believe the age of accountability could have been around 20 years old because this was the age when young men in Israel became accountable to serve in the army of Israel (or Ex. 30:14 mentions the census only counting those 21 years and older). Others believe the age of accountability to be around 12 or 13 due to this being the age when Jesus went up to Jerusalem with his parents and was found in the temple discussing the Law and asking questions. This was also the normal age for being received into Judaism as a “son of the law,” which would make him a full member of the religious community.

Some have even speculated that when a child begins to recognize his or her own nakedness (as exemplified by Adam and Eve did in the garden after their sin) it may be an indication they have reached the age of accountability.

58 thoughts on “Defending the Age of Accountability

  1. Excellent Article!!
    i am reminded of the parable of the talents – – To whom much has been given, much will be required”.

    Some interesting things to note:
    Neuroscientists have done extensive studies on the conceptual capacities of little children.
    For example, kinder-garden children were told a theoretical word: “MOOF” which, they were told, is defined as using a sponge to clean up spilled water.
    The instructor then spilt a puddle of water on the table, and started to clean it up with a sponge, and asked the child “What am I doing”
    The child stated “you are MOOFING”

    This proves that children’s brains are complex enough to conceive rules of language simply by exposure, and without schooling.

    On the other hand, Neuroscientists also indicate that certain synaptic linkages required for a child to accurately comprehend blame, are not developed until approximately 7 years of age. This is why small children of divorced parents quite often blame themselves when the family structure is shattered, and conceive of themselves as inferior persons. Mommy or Daddy don’t love me….there must be something wrong with me.

    The **TRUE** god of the bible, surely loves the little child much much more than you or I ever could!
    What kind of love is it, when a father throws his child into the fire of Moloch – or into an eternal lake of fire?
    Especially when the child doesn’t have a brain developed sufficiently to accurately comprehend blame.

    Great Article Dr. Flowers!!
    Blessings!! :-]

    1. Super great article. I have always believed a child could not be held responsible for the things he did before reaching some level of comprehension of his actions/behavior,and thus, a commensurate measure of accountability.

  2. Always good, Leighton to bring up this subject now and again! Thanks. Reformed theology really struggles with this one, since there are so many multitudes that die without their conscience reaching maturity to confirm Adam’s sin on their own. I think the verse you pointed to from Paul – Rom 7:9 is to me the clearest reference to that time before the conscience is awakened by the law and sins willfully on its own and becomes condemned, dead, separated judicially from God’s mercy until it is presented through His enlightenment later (John 1:9).

    I would add the maxim of Paul’s from Rom 5:13 – that sin is not imputed where there is not law! Adam’s personal sin/guilt is not imputed until the law comes to confront the individual mature conscience. And for an inference of an age of accountability, how about Jonah 4:11 – And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and [also] much cattle? – and for infants being viewed as “safe”/innocent in God’s site, how about Ezekiel 16:21 That thou hast slain MY children, and delivered them to cause them to pass through [the fire] for them? – and – Matthew 21:16 And said unto him, Hearest thou what these say? And Jesus saith unto them, Yea; have ye never read, Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise?

    1. So if accountability is acquired through true understanding, should consequence of your actions be acquired likewise? For example, does a person who was raised without a relationship to god be exempt from accountability until they are personally guided into faith, regardless of their physical age?

  3. why then allow a child to live to the age where they are accountable and condemn themselves to hell?

      1. Your the one who claims an age of accountability. The fact that they are created would give them the gift of being libertarian free moral creatures from your view….your point is moot….so an aborted infant is innocent (always would not be my view but i believe some infants are elect) and also a libertarian free moral agent. The aborted child never sins, is killed, goes straight to heaven to be with The Lord. That seems much better than allowing that child to live until their age that they are accountable and thusly condemning themselves……..Do you ever think these things through?

      2. quote:
        “The aborted child never sins, is killed, goes straight to heaven to be with The Lord.”

        This is a question I’m not very familiar with, concerning the “Reformed” view, but Isn’t it true that Augustine’s doctrine of original sin stipulated that sin is transmitted from parents to child via the inception process? That would mean that an aborted child would go straight to damnation. But perhaps the Reformed view on original sin has mutated away from that Augustinian position?

      3. Br. D. – Quotes can be found in Augustine that unbaptized infants that die don’t go to heaven… but I don’t think Augustine could bring himself to say they went to hell…thus the idea of Limbo was theorized and accepted… a kind of senseless state!

      4. Thank you Brian!
        I didn’t know that. Is that consistent with CORE Calvinism today?

      5. Thanks Brian,
        I wonder if the author of that article realized the contradictions.

        At one point the articles mentions the “invisible church” doctrine, in which it is held that some members are not saved. – quote “the distinguishing doctrine of which rather by suspending salvation on membership in the invisible instead of in the visible Church”

        At another point in the article, reformed thinkers held: -quote “birth within the bounds of the covenant is a sure sign, since the promise is “unto us and our children.”

        How does that make sense?
        If no-one in the church is guaranteed to be elect, then it follows that, “unto us and our children” is no guarantee either. So those believers who are deceived by god into believing they are saved, are also deceived into believing their children are saved also.

        But then it contradicts itself again: -quote: “Accordingly there are many — adults and infants — of whose salvation we may be sure”
        WHAT? How does that square with Calvin who asserts everyone’s individual salvation is held within the secret counsels of god.

        And then:
        -quote “but of reprobation we cannot be sure; such a judgment is necessarily unsafe even as to adults apparently living in sin, while as to infants who “die and give no sign,” it is presumptuous and rash in the extreme.”

        Notice in this statement the words “give no sign” which is obviously a part of Calvinist thinking.

        This logically implies that within the lives of Calvinist church members it is assumed there are “signs given”.
        And this coincides with social psychologist Erich Fromm, who wrote in “escape from freedom” that Calvinists quite naturally were involved in interpreting their thoughts, choices and actions as HARBINGERS of their future fate, either to damnation or to salvation.

        And that this quite naturally produces a works righteousness, which is the natural byproduct of internal anxieties. Hyper activity and religious fervor act as “signs” which allay ones worries about being damned, and even give the individual a sense of self manufactured assurance.

      6. Thanks Brian,
        Always appreciate your patience and wisdom!!
        I think its becoming increasingly clear to me that Calvinists have two urgencies.
        (1) To align themselves with a cosmology framed by determinism, which functions as the template for the rest of the building
        (2) To align themselves with scripture, whose language overwhelmingly represents a cosmology framed by indeterminism

        Elijah would call this “Halting between two opinions”.
        And I think it readily explains the massive amounts of double-think we observe.

      7. I hold the view that God can save whom He wishes….that regeneration itself is not bound to the proclamation of the gospel, so from there God can regenerate someone at conception or in the womb….as i believe is the case with John the Baptist. So if an infant is of the elect they will be saved.

      8. Thanks for explaining further your view, Chris. Even if regeneration can be given without there first being a personal response to the gospel, would it not be appropriate to say that God has tied regeneration to the gospel in the sense that regeneration is the promise inherent in the gospel that can be trusted, and God responds in faithfulness to that promise He made when He sees that trust?

      9. Regeneration is monergistic and not tied to the gospel in my view. The gospel is necessary for conversion, but regeneration is the monergistic work of God (jn 1:13) and is completely up to Him and His good pleasure as to when this occurs….if ever. conversion is, in a way, synergistic. It includes an aspect of mans will (jn 1:12), we believe, we receive, and so on. I believe that faith is a gift of God (eph 2:8-9) but that gift is still our faith that we place in Christ.

      10. Thank you for the reply, Chris… the revelation faith given in God’s enlightenment of each soul a few times, is a gift. The ability to stay alive after one’s first sin is also a gift, but included in that is the image of God which has the ability to place trust in what is presented. John 1:4-13 clearly states that God presents light to each man, and he must receive it before getting the right to the new birth. His reception of that light through repentance and faith is not the necessary cause of the new birth, but it is a condition the God responds to, according to His revealed will, and He monergistically gives the new birth to that one who has received His light.

      11. Chris writes “The gospel is necessary for conversion,”

        Thanks for this post Chris.
        If I have it correct, Calvinists consistently state the gospel (or more precisely, the preaching of the gospel) as a MEANS to an END.
        Do you find that to be a commonly held position throughout the various arenas of Calvinism?


      12. There are various views held by calvinists, as there are various views held within the traditionalist camp as well as the arminian camp. Most calvinists would say, scripturally i add, that the gospel IS the power of God unto salvation. That being said, yes, most calvinists would see the gospel as a means… not sure of a means to an end though. We don’t nullify the necessity of sanctification so to just say one needs to believe and the end is assured is somewhat fallacious while at the same time holds truth. We wouldn’t claim that the conversion of the gospel should be seen in light of “once saved always saved” but more in line with the gospel should be seen in the light of perseverance in that those who overcome may partake of the waters of life freely.

        Sanctification would be another point in our being saved that has a synergistic aspect to it. Although we would affirm that the good works we do are the works of Christ done through The Spirit, we still do these works freely and willfully. This suggest an act of mans volition and as such suggest a synergistic aspect.

      13. Thanks for that informative response Chris.
        I think END in this regard could refer to god’s PLAN.

        So in the case, for example, god wants the gospel to be preached to person X, whom god has not elected, so that god can use it to magnify person X’s damnation. Then in that case, the preaching of the gospel would be god’s MEANS to his END which is to magnify person’s X’s damnation.

        Alternatively, in the case, for example, god wants to bring person X to salvation, whom god has elected, then god would use the preaching of the gospel as the MEANS to the END, which in this case would be the salvation of person X.

      14. I don’t disagree with that. I think its a ver flattened out view though.

      15. Thanks Christ,
        I tend to be pretty analytical in my thinking and sometimes in different environments I find people putting up with me because of it. :-]

        Can you explain what you mean by flattened out?

      16. Just that, although what you put forth contains truth it lacks how these things come to be. To say that th preaching of the gospel could condemn or save is true but that doesn’t tell me much in how you believe that happens. I just believe clarity in what we believe is crucial to these discussions in order to properly represent the other side. thats all…

      17. Thanks, I wasn’t actually representing what I believe…. I was interested to know more about Calvinism.
        And I appreciate the opportunity.

        When I described how I understand MEANS to an END can be conceived in Calvinism, what I described seemed to me to be highly consistent with the language structure of John Calvin himself.

        So I’m not sure what you mean by “it lacks how these things come to be.” can you explain what you mean by that?

      18. just that there is more to salvation than just believing. thats all….so if we would say that conversion is the end then i could agree with the gospel is a means to an end….truth be known i probably agree with what you said anyway.

      19. Thank you Chris, and I heartily agree, there is more to salvation than just believing….excellent good point there.

        Since we understand, that god carries out his plans, and in that process of god doing so, we see god utilizing things (like the gospel), as a MEANS to an END, would you also agree, that, the MEANS to an END, can actually be seen as a divine-model or divine-pattern?

        br.d :-]

      20. Brian, you and i would disagree on the interpretation of John 1:12-13. Nothing there suggest that “being born of God” is post faith. Can you show me in the passage how that is supported in the grammar? I can save you some time and tell you now it is not. I would point you to 1 John 5:1 but I know your response there and also find it lacking. 1 John 5:1 may be in the context of showing that one is a believer but that doesn’t negate the syntactical relationship found in the verse. To be consistent with the other 2 times that syntax is used in 1 John we would need to recognize the significance of having being born of God coming before believing.

      21. Thank you for the reply, Christ. Receiving is clearly before being made a child of God by the new birth in John 1:12-13. Believing is mentioned as necessary to become sons of God in John 12:35-36, and as necessary before receiving life in His name in John 20:31. Thank you for conceding that John is describing a born again individual in 1John 5:1 as continually believing that Jesus is the Christ. This does not negate that such faith could/should exist before the new birth, and 5:10 confirms that acceptance of the testimony about Christ does exist before.

      1. the command is irrelevant. if you could send 1000s of people to heaven by condemning yourself would that be a good thing? if not is Paul more loving than you when in Romans 9 he wishes himself accursed for his peoples sake?

      2. Hi Chris! Welcome to this blog. Looking forward to your future interactions. Commands from God are never irrelevant! And Paul wishing to be accursed is not a breaking of any command of God that I am aware of. But, of course, Paul’s expression of his feeling was Christlike, for Christ not only wished to become accursed for the salvation of all, but did so… and also became a guarantee of the salvation of all the infants that God permits or causes to die in infancy.

        God did specifically command the killing of infants in a few instances in the OT… but His overarching command is against murder… and we should trust Him and obey Him in this matter. The same is true in trusting that He will be just in all His judgment in anyone’s future destiny.

      3. But i really don’t like discussing this…….I just wanted to point out the huge problem, and that would be that out of necessity this view makes abortion the biggest filler of heaven…..ever… would hands down put more souls in heaven than the preaching of the gospel. If your fine with that….thats on you. Myself, I can’t affirm that nor never will……

      4. I hadn’t connected with that and recognized its significance until you mentioned it.
        Thanks Chris, for that post! :-]

      5. Not just abortion, but miscarriage… And it is God’s permitting of abortion or causing of infant death that is probably filling heaven with more souls than those who are personally receiving Christ through personal faith and then experiencing the new birth, imo.

      6. That would be logically consistent with the core premise that **ALL** things ( without exception ) are decreed from the foundation of the world ( millennia before the creation of man)

        But there is another implication for those who are >= a theoretical age of accountability.

        Calvin insisted:
        – quote “In this church there is a very large mixture of hypocrites, who have nothing of Christ but the NAME and OUTWARD APPEARANCE…..even those to who he [god] holds it [salvation] as a savor of death and as the occasion of severer condemnation….He causes those whom he ILLUMINES ONLY FOR A TIME TO PARTAKE OF IT, then he……FORSAKES THEM …..and strikes them with even greater blindness”

        Here is where we see Calvinism’s doctrine of UNCERTAIN CERTAINTY.
        Every Calvinist can only HOPE and function AS-IF he is one of the elect.

        The Calvinist interprets Jesus’ as saying “MANY” are damned, and “FEW” are elect.
        What percentage of believers within the Calvinist fold fall into the category of the “MANY”?
        That knowledge is held behind a veil of secrecy which god holds within himself.

        What SPECIFICALLY does the Calvinist trust god for then?
        That god may be deceiving him as one: “whom god is illumining only for a time, to partake of salvation…as a savor of greater condemnation…to be eventually forsaken and stricken with greater blindness.
        And that god deceives-condemns Calvinist believers this way to show his unlimited power.

        It would then follow that “THE MANY” Calvinists are now, or soon will be, trusting god, while they enjoy their eternity in the lake of fire.
        This makes me wonder why Calvinists don’t write praise songs, praising god for their future damnation.
        (i.e., If one seeks to be logically consistent)

      7. I don’t claim that a command from God is actually irrelevant to us but that in this particular discussion it is irrelevant to my point….

      8. We’ll just have to disagree that it’s irrelevant. Thanks for the response.

    1. You raise this conundrum as if its unique to the situation of a child before the age of accountability. Indeed, it is not. Its the same chance you take when you choose to conceive a child. One could make your same argument in that instance even from a Reformed perspective. Why conceive a child when that child may not be elect? It is better to not have been born at all than to spend eternity in hell. I turn the question around on you. Why would you ever choose to conceive a child knowing they may not be part of the elect and may suffer in hell for all eternity. Unless you were given a special revelation from God that he/she would be a member of the elect, you are taking the same gamble you accuse those who believe in an age of accountability for children.

    1. Thank you for this post!!

      Per your recommendation, I took a look on Amazon for Dave Armstrong.
      I see he has a bunch of books.

      In your reading of him, do you recall him observing how Calvinism has a large amount of double-think in it?
      If so, I would be interested in reading his detailing of that.

      br.d :-]

      1. Thank you Deacon John!
        Yes, I’ve posted excerpts from Gracely’s book here.
        I’ve also posted exact same quotes from a number of authors all reiterating the same thing – Calvinist language is double-talk.

        Huge thanks!! :-]

  4. I tend toward the last statement. When children are ashamed to be naked, it is an indication that their conscience and accountability have awakened.
    I have eight children. Only one is ashamed to be naked. He’s the oldest. He’s 12. His actions and words also reveal a moral maturity that seems to coincide with the timing of his newfound modesty.

    1. Would that mean that that child has now become accountable for his sin and is now in a state of damnation outside of Christ whereas before that he was completely innocent? Im trying to understand the thought process here because i understand the emotion but it just doesn’t seem like anyone who pushes such a view has really thought about the implications……

      1. Hi Chris,
        Can you be more precise when you say “pushes such a view”?
        What precisely, is the view you are seeing as not well thought out?

  5. Thanks Leighton. This question really helps take the debate out of the theoretical and into real life situations.

    As a side, on open theism, do you have the details of the Phil J note you received regarding compatibilism and hard determinism? Just came up on S Storms blog. (Sorry, did not know how to contact you, outside of the blog.)


    1. Hi Doug, that note on campatiblism and hard determinism sounds interesting.
      Is it somewhere easy to find on the web?


  6. Question for Dr. Flowers:
    How do you interpret psalms 58:3 in light of this article?

    1. Welcome Creepingsancy! I noticed Leighton has not responded yet… so I hope you don’t mind if I jump it with some thoughts. Psalm 58:3, like all Psalms is poetry and we must be careful about basing dogma on poetic passages in Scripture since they are open to more subjective interpretation. There should be clearer statements in teaching passages of Scripture that then can find confirmation in poetic verses.

      But that being said – I don’t think anyone has actually heard a baby speak a lie the first day out of the womb! 😉 And I am guessing that even a Calvinist has to admit this verse would be true of both elect and reprobate alike in their theology. So the verse is only confirming, imo, that in our human nature, because of Adam’s sin, there is at least a propensity towards sin from birth. I think Rom 11:32 states clearly that God allows that propensity/nature to be confirmed in disobedience… but then it also clearly states that He has mercy on everyone, which I take to mean to draw them to an opportunity of repentance and faith.

      The first act of wickedness, from/after the womb, happens when the conscience is mature enough to be confronted by the law of God, which could be called “the age/moment of accountability” which I think Paul is pointing to in Rom 7:9.

    1. Hey Mike, you can generally find the format for citing a blog post in chicago or MLA style depending upon what you’re using.

  7. What if a child is raised without any religious influence? Due to the accountability judgement being forgiven until they are of an age that they truly understand the consequence of the actions, are they exempt until they have a spiritual awakening or push in the direction of the holy spirit? Given this, if they die without knowledge, what happens to their eternal soul?

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