Many church-goers grew up being taught to believe in the “age of accountability” (AoA), as was I. After all, we certainly see this taught in my 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 for the 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 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 of their wrongdoings. 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.”
 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. https://bible.org/question/what-does-bible-say-about-age-accountability
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.