The Age of Accountability

by Ronald W. Leigh, Ph.D.
Image of Bible and cross
April 1, 2014
Copyright © 2000 Ronald W. Leigh
Bible quotations are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.
—————————————— Contents ——————————————
A. What is accountability?
B. What are the prerequisites of free choice?
C. Do we have real options with regard to salvation?
D. Is there a period when a young child is innocent?
E. At what age can a child distinguish right from wrong?
F. What happens to children who die before the age of accountability?

The Bible states clearly that we are accountable to God.

Paul said that

we will all stand before God's judgment seat. ... each of us will give an account of himself to God.  (Romans 14:10, 12)

Jesus said that

... men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken.  For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.  (Matthew 12:36)

The writer of Hebrews said

Nothing in all creation is hidden from God's sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.  (Hebrews 4:13)

Speaking of pagans, Peter said that

... they will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.  (1 Peter 4:5)

But what about young children, are they accountable?  Although the Bible does not speak directly on this subject, it does provide instruction on some related issues.  In addition, we can gain some perspective on the subject if we consider the nature of accountability with its connection to freedom of choice and knowledge, and if we examine the mental and moral development of the child.

A.  What is accountability?

To be accountable means to be responsible for what one does, and thus subject to judgment or punishment. But accountability and responsibility are based on freedom.  Where there is freedom, there is accountability.  Where there is no freedom, there is no accountability.

Choices and actions are positively related to each other.  On the one hand, when a person has freedom of choice, we expect certain behaviors in certain circumstances.  If those expected behaviors do not occur, we hold the person accountable.  On the other hand, the person who is not free to choose is also not required to act, nor is he held accountable when he does not act.  Thus, accountability sits on the foundation of freedom of choice.

B.  What are the prerequisites of free choice?

For a person's choice to be truly free, three things must characterize that choice.  (1) The person must have a real alternative.  (2) The person must understand the information relevant to the choice.  (3) The person must not be coerced.

(1) Free choice is always a choice between real alternates.  The individual must be free to select from two or more viable options.  Alternatives that are merely theoretical, or would only be possibilities in different circumstances, are not real options at all.

(2) Free choice always includes adequate information.  The individual must know certain things that pertain to the decision at hand.  Misinformation or lack of information disables free choice.  The fact that knowledge is a prerequisite of accountability is taught in the Bible.

Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."  (Luke 23:34)

If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin.  (John 15:22, see also John 9:41)

Since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.  (Romans 1:20)

Where there is no law there is no transgression.  (Romans 4:15)

Before the law was given, sin was in the world. But sin is not taken into account when there is no law.  (Romans 5:13.)

Anyone . . . who knows the good he ought to do and doesn't do it, sins.  (James 4:17)

(3) Free choice is negated by coercion.  Imagine a situation in which someone is holding a gun to your daughter's back and intends to kill her unless you do as you are told.  Such coercion overrides your freedom and imposes someone else's will on you.  For adults, it may take a rather drastic situation to qualify as coercion.  But a young child can be coerced (manipulated) much more easily than an adult.  A young child still confuses fantasy and reality.  Also, he lacks the ability to reason, analyze a situation, weigh alternatives, and predict outcomes.  Also, he has many psychological needs and is therefore quite vulnerable to many forms of manipulation.  Thus, the child can be manipulated even by a loving parent who is unaware of how much power he has over a child's thoughts and actions.


These three prerequisites of free choice lead to further questions.  The first prerequisite, alternatives, raises the theological issue of election (see section "C" below).  The second prerequisite, adequate information, prompts us to search the Bible, psychology, and our own experiences for clues to the mental and moral development of a child (see sections "D" and "E" below).  And the third prerequisite, coercion or manipulation, forces us to examine our methods of child evangelism.  (For a discussion of child evangelism, see Effective Christian Ministry, chapter 15.)

C.  Do we have real options with regard to salvation?

Can we really accept or reject Christ?  The Calvinist would quickly affirm that election (the selection of believers) is God's and God's alone.  In other words, in the final analysis God chooses and man does not.  But the Bible teaches otherwise.  While this subject is far too complex to be treated here, a few passages are cited below as a reminder that, when it comes to salvation, man's choice (man's faith or belief) does make the difference.

John makes the alternatives, and the basis for condemnation rather clear.

Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son.  (John 3:18)

Similarly, Paul discusses the salvation of individual Jews, speaking of some as being saved (branches grafted into the olive tree) and others as being lost (branches broken off the olive tree).  Again, the basis for inclusion or exclusion is rather clear.

They were broken off because of unbelief . . .  if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in (Romans 11:20,23)

And when God pronounced the curse on Adam, he began by stating the cause.

To Adam he said, "Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, `You must not eat of it,' "Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.  (Genesis 3:17)

Also, notice Paul's use of the word "because" (Greek: οτι), establishing a cause-effect relationship, when he refers to the Thessalonian believers.

. . . on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed. This includes you, because you believed our testimony to you.  (2 Thessalonians 1:10)

For a more extensive discussion of freedom of choice, see the paper Calvin and Arminius.

D.  Is there a period when a young child is innocent?

Since accountability is based on freedom of choice, which in turn is based on adequate knowledge, the question of a child's innocence is actually a question about the extent of a child's knowledge.  Therefore, in this section we will deal with the question:  Is there a period when a young child does not understand right and wrong?

Moses refers to such a time before the age of accountability when he describes some of the Israelite children as

your children who do not yet know good from bad (Deuteronomy 1:39).

Also, Nehemiah tells how the Jews, after returning from captivity, make a binding committment to separate from their heathen neighbors and follow God's Law  (Nehemiah 10:28-29).  The people making this committment includes

all their sons and daughters who are able to understand  (verse 28, italics added)

The obvious implication is that there were some sons and daughters (presumably the younger ones) who were not able to understand.

Although these passages do not establish how long a child remains in this state of innocence, they do establish that such a state exists.

The prophet Isaiah, in the process of attempting to comfort Judah, uses the developmental stages of childhood, both (1) moral and (2) linguistic, to frame his inspired predictions about the destruction of Judah's enemies.

(1) In Isaiah 7:14-16 the Lord gives Isaiah a prediction about a boy (Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz) who will be born of a young woman (Isaiah's wife).  This is part of a timed prediction which states that two nations (Syria and Israel, which had formed an alliance against Judah) would be destroyed within just a few years.  The time frame on which the prediction is based involves the time from before pregnancy to the point in the boy's early childhood "when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right."  The passage does not indicate the exact age of the boy when he attains this knowledge of good and evil.  Nevertheless, there must be some period of innocence in the boy's infancy and early childhood, or the passage would make little sense.  For a more complete discussion of Isaiah 7:14 and its relation to Matthew 1:22, see the paper "Fulfill," Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew 1:22.

(2) In 8:4, speaking of the same boy, Isaiah says that Damascus and Samaria will be ruined by Assyria.  Here the time frame runs from the birth of the child to the point at which the child can say "My father" or "My mother."  (Note that it is not just "father" or "mother," but "My …", which may imply a level of understanding beyond the immediate family, as discussed in the next section.)

Neither of these passages explicitly state at what age these developmental milestones occur.  Apparently, it was assumed that most people already had a pretty good idea approximately when they take place.  Of course, different children attain various linguistic abilities at different points in their development.  Similarly, we can expect that the age of accountability is attained at different ages by different children.

Observations by today's parents also support the notion that there is a time period in early childhood when the child is truly innocent.

E.  At what age can a child distinguish right from wrong?

What do we mean by the phrase "distinguish right from wrong"?  We are not referring merely to a child's ability to grasp what pleases or displeases his parents.  Children understand that very early, perhaps as early as one or two years of age for many children.  But distinguishing right from wrong requires that the child understand that there is some standard outside of the immediate family, which determines right and wrong even for his mom and dad as well as for him.  When the child is only one or two years of age, his grasp is limited to the immediate interpersonal situation with its psychological dynamics.  His behavior is governed by a preference for comfort rather than pain, so his parents can use various psychological or physical means to influence his actions.  In other words, the child can be effectively socialized -- he can learn to get along in his society, particularly his limited society, his immediate family.  But the ability to distinguish right from wrong will not come for a few more years, when the child has more experience and insight.  At some point he will understand that there is some objective standard of right and wrong, which applies equally to him and all other children and all adults.  His understanding will probably be rather simplistic and legalistic at first, but he will have a basis for making truly moral decisions.

It would seem that two very important abilities must come at the same age, namely, distinguishing right from wrong and understanding the gospel.  On the one hand, the child cannot understand the gospel before he can distinguish right from wrong, for the concept of sin is basic to a proper understanding of the gospel.  Indeed, the very concept of being saved, as well as the significance of the death of Christ, both lose their meaning if sin is left out of the picture.  On the other hand, there is an obvious problem if the child can distinguish right from wrong before he can understand the gospel, for this would imply that there is a period of time during which the child can be guilty but cannot grasp the gospel in order to be saved.

Many leading psychologists (including Eric Eriksen, Robert Havighurst, Jean Piaget, and Lawrence Kohlberg) agree that a child's ability to tell right from wrong begins to function quite early -- perhaps during the late preschool years or very early school years.

If the psychologists are correct, and if the age of accountability occurs at the same time a child is able to grasp the gospel, it seems reasonable to think of the age of accountability as occurring somewhere around ages five or six for many children.

However, the age at which any particular child becomes accountable will vary greatly based on both internal and external factors.  It might occur earlier if the child is precocious and the child receives clear and consistent instruction in right and wrong.  On the other hand, it may occur later due either to the child's slower mental development, or due to influences from parents or society which confuse the child's understanding of right and wrong or of the gospel.

F.  What happens to children who die before the age of accountability?

Some hold that all children who die before the age of accountability are saved because they have not knowingly committed sin.  Others hold that they are lost because they carry the sin nature and have never accepted Christ.  While the first view would be more comforting to bereaved parents, the fact is that the Bible does not clearly state either of these views.

Some of those who hold the first view appeal to 2 Samuel 12:23 where, after David's son died, he said "I will go to him."  They feel that David was referring to heaven, where his son had gone and where he would later go.  But the context (particularly the question "Can I bring him back again?" and the statement "he will not return to me") favors the idea that David was referring to the one-way passage from life to death.  In other words, when David said "I will go to him" he was merely indicating that he, too, would die (but his son would not return to life).

Buswell offers the following thoughts about children who die before the age of accountability.

We have ... a great many passages indicating God's care for children.  We may safely trust his loving care....  On the other side of the picture, we have positive statements declaring that there is no salvation apart from faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.  [Here Buswell quotes John 3:36;  Acts 4:12;  and 1 John 5:12.]  To harmonize these two lines of truth, I postulate (and I frankly state that it is but a postulate, yet in harmony with, and not at all contrary to the Scriptures) that the Holy Spirit of God prior to the moment of death, does so enlarge the intelligence of one who dies in infancy (and I should make the same postulate to cover those who die in imbecility without having reached the state of accountability), that they are capable of accepting Jesus Christ.  (James O. Buswell, A Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion. Vol. 2. Zondervan, 1962, p. 161-162)

While it is necessary to point out that Buswell makes the above comments in the context of discussing elect infants (elect according to a Calvinistic understanding), his notion of an enlarged intelligence certainly harmonizes with the individual's need for a certain level of understanding before being able to make a decision to receive Christ as savior.  It should also be pointed out that there would be no conflict with any basic scriptural doctrine if the enlargement came immediately after death rather than before.

Since accountability depends on knowledge, those who suffer mental retardation do not become accountable as early in life as others.  Their age of accountability is delayed until they are able to understand right and wrong and the gospel message.  For those who never reach the age of accountability, it seems fair to assume that God would treat them in the same way he would treat children who die before the age of accountability (as Buswell suggests in the above quotation).

Can accountability be lost?  What happens to a person's accountability when he experiences either a gradual process of increasing senility, or sudden trauma or disease affecting his mental abilities?  If it is reasonable to assume that an individual's accountability is based only on the period when he has adequate mental abilities, then it would also seem reasonable that accountability can in fact be lost.