It is an old question among Christians: Is there an “age of accountability”, or a point at which a developing child becomes personally accountable before God for disobedience and sin? Some have suggested the twelve-year mark has some significance with respect to maturity and accountability because of the account of the Lord Jesus hearing and asking questions of the doctors of the law in Luke 2. A few have insisted that the age of accountability is 20, for that was the threshold of personal accountability for refusing to enter into the land of Canaan upon the report of the spies in Numbers 14. Some religious traditions deny the concept altogether, on the ground of their teaching that even infants are guilty of Adam’s transgression.
Before commenting on when a child might become accountable and therefore guilty, we ought to touch on the subject of guilt and imputation (reckoning) of sin. When God imputes sin to a man’s account, or charges man with sin as guilty of it, that man faces condemnation for that sin, for taking his own way in conscious disobedience to the God who has creatorial claims upon him. But God is so merciful that He only reluctantly imputes sin to man, and we can see this in II Corinthians 5:19: “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them.” The blessed Lord’s request of His Father for His people while He was being nailed to the cross was a manifestation of His merciful attitude toward them: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Even Moses’ action of breaking the tablets of stone bearing the ten commandments (Exodus 32:19) was directed of Jehovah in order to show His people mercy, since the entrance of His holy Law into such a scene of wanton idolatry would have necessitated imputation, and therefore immediate and complete judgment for their sin; but God is “slow to anger” (Nehemiah 9:17, etc.).
Now some Bible teachers hold that Adam’s transgression was imputed to the whole of the human race, including young children, and they make statements like: “A man sins because he is a sinner”. They point to Romans 5:12-19, where Paul writes that “by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners”. However, just because a child is constituted or appointed a member of a race of sinners by birth does not mean he will be condemned for the sin of that race’s head, Adam. In this very passage, and quite contrary to the teaching that Adam’s sin was imputed to us at conception or birth, we read that “all have sinned”. This very definitely connects individual responsibility to the condition of the race as under condemnation, showing (I believe) that there is no imputation of sin and no individual condemnation until there has been conscious, willful sin against God.
Keeping in mind God’s merciful hesitance in imputing or reckoning sin, which would result in condemnation, we may learn much from Jesus’ testimony as to the practical moral innocence of our little ones. “Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto Me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven”, He said, and “put His hands upon them, and blessed them” (Matthew 19:14; Mark 10:14-16). These children were no doubt affected by the fall of Adam with its consequences of death, disease, and an innate conscience of good and evil. However, they had evidently not yet doubted or spurned the goodness of God toward them, nor developed the guile in their hearts (by squelching conscience or despising commandments) that would render those hearts “deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9; Romans 7:9).
The Lord Jesus spoke a parable in Matthew 18, after His words of acceptance and approval of the little ones, whose angels (their spirits) always behold the face of the Father in heaven. “If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?” (v. 12, ESV) Just before He posed this question, he spoke of His mission to “save that which was lost”¹, in the context of the little children He valued so highly. Children need a Savior, for they are part of a fallen race, and part of a groaning creation, but it is only after they willfully go astray and leave that place of nearness to God “on the mountains”, that they need to be sought, found, and brought back to God by the Shepherd of their souls.
On the cross of Calvary, the “Savior of the world” has already completed the infinitely effectual work of redemption, by which He will “[take] away the sin of the world”, and “reconcile all things to Himself”. God’s desire and plan was to remove the curse of sin from creation and to bring it into a state of reconciliation and peace in a coming day of millennial glory, when heaven will open and form a connection with a cleansed earth . How could we not then view little children as “safe”, of whose kind is the kingdom of heaven? For “Jesus Christ the Righteous . . . is the propitiation . . . for the whole world”.² Everything has been done for their temporal safety and blessing. What a blessing it is when our children and grandchildren go directly from being safe to being saved without straying far!
At what age or stage of development does a child go astray and lose that safe and blessed status? Is it when there is the first sign of conscience working after some disobedience? The Lord alone knows. But I would suggest it does not hinge entirely upon the successful inculcation of the knowledge of right and wrong, nor on the possession of a sensitive conscience, for even those who are limited mentally may exhibit evidences of conscience, and yet be incapable of responsible action.
I will venture no further specificity on a subject already so fraught with conjecture, but my meditation on this matter has caused me to better appreciate this aspect of the kindness of our God: How slow He is to impute sin to a person’s account, but how quick and how willing He has always been to impute righteousness³ to the account of all who simply believe!
¹ Contrast this with “to seek and to save that which was lost” in Luke 19:10.
² John 4:42; John 1:29; Colossians 1:20; John 1:51; Revelation 21:9 – 22:5; I John 2:2 (JND)
³ Genesis 15:6; Romans 4