An Age of Accountability?

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

 

3 thoughts on “An Age of Accountability?”

  1. >>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

    Hi John. This does not seem right to me.

    1. The whole argument of Romans 5:12–21 is grounded in the oneness of all sinners in Adam and the oneness of all the justified in Christ. Only these two categories exist.

    You seem to be saying that infants are not sinners in Adam, but are merely constituted members of a race of sinners, thus innovating a third category? What is the distinction between being a sinner and a member of a race of sinners? Is that distinction really in the Text?

    2. Romans 5:19 “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners….” Paul is saying here that by Adam’s sin all his progeny (v12) are constituted sinners. All men/infants are made sinners in Adam. The apostles entire argument collapses if this is denied.

    3. Romans 5:18 “Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men….”

    This text seems to flatly assert what you flatly deny. All stand before God condemned, in the first place, for the sin of the race’s head, Adam. Certainly, we all bear responsibility for our own personal sin. But 5:18 presses hard the unpalatable truth that not only are we all constituted sinners in Adam, but all are likewise condemned, in the first place, for Adam’s sin as well.

    One man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men. That’s what the Word of God says. It’s black and white. There’s no shadow of uncertainty here, no want of clarity, no alternative construction. We either meekly receive God’s own testimony or we parse it and pare that testimony down until God gets in line with what is obviously common decency. But then we have a god and God is no more…and that is not tolerable.

    I understand this poses TREMENDOUS pastoral problems in dealing with infants who die in infancy. What spiritual comfort to offer grieving parents who suffer such a hideous and painful circumstance I, frankly, do not know.

    But I am not prepared to alter the Word of God for the sake of a manufactured consolation.

    Like

    1. Kevin, thank you for your thoughtful comments. I do not dismiss them out of hand, and I know there are many good folks in the Calvinist/Reformed tradition with this view of original sin, and I respect that, although I believe it to be incorrect, and note that there are only a few verses in the entire Bible, mostly here in Romans 5, that have spawned the doctrine of “original sin”. Moreover, I believe what is often misunderstood is that the subject of sins and guilt, and imputation of either sin or righteousness, ends at Romans 5:11, and from there on through the end of chapter 8, the subject dealt with is the principle of “sin in the flesh” on the one hand, and “justification of life” on the other (which is distinct from being justified by faith from our sins). I don’t innovate a third category with regard to infants, as they are sinners by identification and have an innate conscience, but imputation of Adam’s guilt is a myth, I believe. In the same way, Christ’s righteousness is not imputed to believers, or then it would be on the basis of Law, which He kept perfectly. We are reckoned (same word as imputed) righteous by faith, declared so, on the basis of Christ’s death and resurrection, not on the basis of His perfect life.

      Paul’s argument doesn’t collapse when viewed in this way, because he isn’t trying to establish guilt any longer: he had finished with that. But now he begins in 5:12 to establish the badness of the carnal nature, which all self-conscious, responsible humans voluntarily subject themselves to, as slaves to a master (Romans 6:12-20).

      Chapter 5:18 may seem to be a difficulty to what I would teach, but in the translation you used, it is indicated that the sin of one man leads to condemnation, but we still don’t have imputation or guilt here, only racial bearing and tendency. J. N. Darby in his critical translation, which is even more accurate than the ESV, renders it “by one offence towards all men to condemnation”.

      It would indeed be very difficult to comfort grieving parents were a dead little child actually seen by God to be as guilty for Adam’s sin as Adam himself was. But “of such is the kingdom of heaven.”

      I would welcome further discussion on this.

      John Kulp

      Like

      1. >>…Christ’s righteousness is not imputed to believers,
        >>or then it would be on the basis of Law, which He
        >>kept perfectly. We are reckoned (same word as imputed)
        >>righteous by faith, declared so, on the basis of Christ’s
        >>death and resurrection, not on the basis of His perfect life.

        Here we are in substantial agreement 🙂

        I keep telling my Reformed friends and acquaintances that the “active obedience” of Christ has nothing to do with our justification, but they won’t hear it. They assume that we’re all under the Law of God, that we’re all condemned by the Law of God and that we must have a Law righteousness in order to have peace with God. And then, of course, they teach that Christ kept the Law perfectly, achieved a perfect Law righteousness and imputes that perfect Law righteousness to all who trust in Him.

        One problem…

        The NT clearly makes a distinction that the Reformed just refuse to acknowledge:

        “All who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law, and all who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law.” Romans 2:12

        The Law or Old Covenant bound only the Jews. Gentiles were not party to that Covenant and hence, did not sin against the Law. Gentiles were NEVER under the Law (except those very few who accepted circumcision and united with the Covenant people). Romans 1 teaches that Gentiles sin against natural revelation not special revelation; against the Light of Nature not the Law of God.

        So I am with you on this:

        God is pleased to reckon righteousness to all who trust in His son Jesus Christ (Romans 4), but that righteousness has nothing WHATSOEVER to do with the Son’s perfect Law keeping.

        Together, we are, on that score, but I remain OPPOSED to your view on original sin 🙂

        Lord willing, we can return to that crucial matter next week.

        Be well.

        Like

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