Question:

What is the age of accountability for a child?

Answer:

The Bible teaches us that each person is held accountable for his own sins. "The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself" (Ezekiel 18:20). Yet, a small child doesn't understand the difference between right and wrong. The child is dependent upon his parents to guide him in doing the correct actions. Such is illustrated by Israel's rebellion against God in the wilderness. Those who were twenty and above (Numbers 14:31) were to die in the wilderness, but some were spared. "Surely not one of these men of this evil generation shall see that good land of which I swore to give to your fathers, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh; he shall see it, and to him and his children I am giving the land on which he walked, because he wholly followed the LORD.' The LORD was also angry with me for your sakes, saying, 'Even you shall not go in there; Joshua the son of Nun, who stands before you, he shall go in there. Encourage him, for he shall cause Israel to inherit it. Moreover your little ones and your children, who you say will be victims, who today have no knowledge of good and evil, they shall go in there; to them I will give it, and they shall possess it" (Deuteronomy 1:35-39). God did not hold the children accountable for the sins committed by their parents. The reason being that they had no knowledge of good and evil.

That phrase is exactly the same one used to describe the tree of the knowledge of good and evil which Adam and Eve partook. Children have no knowledge of good and evil. They, like Adam and Eve when they were first created, are innocent before God. But at some point in time, children grow up. They learn the difference between right and wrong, and with that knowledge comes accountability. In speaking of God's care for the Messiah as a child, Isaiah said, "Curds and honey He shall eat, that He may know to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the Child shall know to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land that you dread will be forsaken by both her kings" (Isaiah 7:15-16).

The Bible doesn't speak of a particular age when a child becomes knowledgeable of good and evil. I suspect that it is because it varies from child to child. Speak to a child of seven about what makes something sinful and you will get broad answers that generally encompasses the idea that Mom and Dad don't approve of it. Speak to an eighteen-year-old and you find not only the concept of right and wrong but that he as an individual must chose between the two. When does the shift occur? I'm not really certain, but I've noticed that it often comes around the time of puberty in many people.

Of course, some never reach the age of accountability. Some are born with mental handicaps that leaves them child-like throughout their lives. Nehemiah speaks of an assembly of those able to understand (Nehemiah 8:2-3). However, most come to understand their responsibility to live right during their teenage years.

"So then each of us shall give account of himself to God" (Romans 14:12

December 19, 2008