What is the Age of Accountability?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Saturday, October 31, 2009 at 12:21pm
QUERY: How can we tell when a child reaches the “age of accountability”?
ANSWER: The word “accountability” raises two questions: a) Accountable FOR WHAT? and, b) Accountable TO WHOM? The obvious answers are: accountable FOR SIN, and accountable TO GOD. Thus the age of accountability is that point when a child comes to the understanding that he or she is a sinner before God and faces the penalty of eternal punishment.
The key word is “understanding.” For there to be sin, four things are necessary: (1) the existence of law; (2) the existence of a Creator-God as the source of the law; (3) created free-will beings who are responsible for keeping the law; and (4) a knowledge of and understanding of that law on the part of these beings. Once a child understands the essence of this combination of things, he or she is accountable to God and under condemnation.
Paul summarizes the process of reaching this understanding in Romans 7:7-12 (NIV). He says that “apart from law, sin is dead,” and that he himself was “alive apart from law” (vv. 8-9). This describes his status before accountability. Sin was dead in his consciousness, i.e., it was not a factor in his relation to God. As a child he was alive to God, in a state of original grace and in a right relation to God. But then, “the commandment came” (v. 9), especially the commandment “Do not covet” (v. 7). This means it came into his consciousness as a command of God having eternal condemnation for disobedience. The result is stated in v. 9: “sin sprang to life, and I died.” I.e., sin came to life in his heart, and he died spiritually (Eph. 2:1). That was when he crossed the line into accountability.
Thus the key to the age of accountability is the child’s understanding of his sin as a violation of God’s law. NOTE: THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT: it has no necessary connection to the child’s knowledge of Christ. Just because a child knows about Jesus and loves Jesus does not mean he or she has reached the age of accountability. A right understanding of law and sin MUST PRECEDE true conversion and a proper response to the gospel.
All of this is directly related to the question of when a child is ready to be baptized. We must not forget that baptism is the moment when God has promised to bestow salvation FROM SIN. Unless a child understands that he or she is a lost sinner, the immersion in water will be meaningless. I am deeply concerned to see many children coming for baptism apparently lacking this understanding. Years ago I was in the audience when a little girl about six years old answered the invitation. The minister asked her why she wanted to be baptized. In her sweet childish voice she intoned, “Because I love Jesus.” A couple of weeks ago a church newsletter reported that two children had been added by baptism. One said that he made the decision “because he wanted to show that he believes in God.” The other said she decided to be baptized “because she wants Jesus in her life.” These answers leave me wondering if these children had really crossed the line of which Paul speaks in Rom. 7:8-9; and if they had, I am left wondering if they really understood the Biblical significance of their baptism.