The Age of Accountability

The Age of Accountability

 by Ben Overby

The Bible is clear in teaching that we are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). Therefore, to suggest we are born sinful, is to say that God is sinful.  We know that God is sinless, therefore, when we begin our journey in this world we are safe (spiritually), due to our sinless condition. We remain safe until we sin. When this occurs we are separated from the presence of God. The Bible teaches that all have sinned (Romans 3:23). The question this article will look at is, at what point do people become accountable to God for their actions? We often speak of this as "the age of accountability". At what age does the safe child become a human at the verge of committing an act that will cause his or her spiritual death? 

Can it be that one day a person could do a thing which would have no spiritual ramifications, and the next day do the same thing, and die spiritually? What are the variables that will determine whether an act is sinful or merely child's play? I have found that there is no easy or quick answer to the above questions. There is no set age at which it can be determined that an individual is accountable for his actions. In fact there are some who, regardless of age, never become accountable for their actions.         

As a parent, the answer to these questions becomes more urgent. I have talked to several parent's about this subject in the past, and they share a real concern, as to when and how to determine the "age of accountability".  Unfortunately, there has been very little written that is helpful concerning this subject.   I will approach the subject by looking at what I consider to be the variables, applicable to this discussion. They are:

  1. The emotions,
  2. Knowledge,
  3. Motivation, and
  4. The conscience.


The first step in understanding our accountability to God for our actions is to develop some understanding of emotions.  We, like our Creator have the ability to experience emotions. John 3:16, teaches that God "loves," Psalms 5:5-6 indicates God "hates", and Deuteronomy 32:22 indicates God can be angry.

There is some difficulty in describing God as a being Who experience's emotions, because of God's perfect nature. We must be careful to understand the use of anthropopathism's when describing God. There are times in Scripture when certain passions are ascribed to God but only as a matter of accommodation.  God's "emotional state" (I'm using that in an accommodative manner) is constant, predictable, and is perfectly qualified by His omniscience, which eliminates spontaneity that we as humans experience. We, like our Creator, have the capacity to "feel" the passion of love, hate, and anger.  The difference, and it is an enormous difference, is that our knowledge does not perfectly qualify the way we feel about things. 

A definition of human emotion is; "an affective state of consciousness in which joy, sorrow, fear, hate, or the like, is experienced, as distinguished from cognitive and volitional states of consciousness: usually accompanied by certain physiological changes, as increased heartbeat, respiration, or the like, and often overt manifestation, as crying, shaking, or laughing." This definition suggests that emotional states often can and will displace our volitile state. This means that our emotions can completely remove us from the capacity to act as we “will" to act. I disagree with that definition. I believe that since we are made in the image of God, there always remains the possibility, even under the most severe emotional strain, to act freely. The Bible teaches us that we are not to be mere creatures of passion. Our emotional state is to be controlled. Several of the original commandments dealt with the necessity of keeping passions under control.  We are instructed not to murder, commit adultery, steal, or covet our neighbor's possessions. Therefore, it is evident that part of maturing to the "age of accountability" has to do with being accountable for acting on passions that could have been controlled. 

Anyone who has ever watched little children play has seen how strongly their behavior is dictated by their emotions. One child might desire the toy of another child.  He may even take by force the toy from the other child.  Although these are actions that latter in life will be coveting and stealing, the child has not sinned. The child has not sinned because his knowledge is limited. Purely passionate responses are expected with children, though they must be corrected through discipline.

Considering emotions, someone has said that one's emotional state is the sum total of all of his or her experience's coupled with the manner in which a situation is perceived. An illustration of this is seen in the emotional state of one who is giving a speech before a large group for the first time.  Because this person's experience is limited, there will normally be a great deal of anxiety which will manifest itself with increased heart rate, sweaty palms, shaking, and a dry mouth. Most people will perceive such a situation as an occasion to fear and avoid.  But after a person develops experience in speaking publicly, the perception of the event begins to change. The physical reaction will be one of control rather than being controlled by the emotion of fear. Thus, the experience gained coupled with the new perception dictates the emotional state.  

Continuing with the above illustration: who is it that has a greater responsibility to deliver a more polished, clear, and effective speech? The more experienced individual has the greater responsibility. He has had the opportunity to develop the emotional control necessary in delivering a more effective speech. This person is in a since accountable for the outcome of his speech. The person speaking for the first time is really not accountable in terms of his being ineffective. I believe this illustrates the role emotional maturity plays in one's accountability spiritually.

Children who take toy's and desire someone else's things have not sinned because they have not developed the necessary emotional control to bring about accountability. When we consider one's accountability for actions, we must consider the emotional maturity of that individual. Because of this factor, it is impossible to determine a precise age that fits all people in all situations. People mature at different rates, emotionally.


We've already touched on another variable in this equation: knowledge. When we speak of experience and it's effect on one's emotional state, we are really talking of knowledge. Knowledge is defined as "acquaintance with facts, truths, or principles, as from study or investigation; general erudication."  There is knowledge we gain from experience (science) and knowledge gained thru contemplation (philosophy). There is particular knowledge that is able to save our souls (II Timothy 3:15). Hopefully, children will be taught the scriptures and develop that necessary knowledge. 

Attaining a certain level of scriptural knowledge does not indicate that one has reached the "age of accountability." Many children can tell the story of the gospel and even cite verses concerning salvation. Young children can often understand that obedience is essential to eternal life. Yet, simply having this information does not make a person accountable for his actions. In order for one to be accountable for the knowledge they possess of right and wrong there must be the capacity to reason correctly.

I'm speaking of one's ability to look at acquired facts and other various information, and competently arrive at conclusions based upon this information. This has to do with the area of knowledge known as contemplation. A child can recite facts regarding the gospel, but cannot conclude that envying, for example, will constitute the breaking of God's law and cause an unrepentant soul to be lost for ever and ever.  A person develops reasoning skills throughout life.  It is when one matures to the point of reason that he or she is accountable for the knowledge they have acquired. In fact the Catholics refer to the "age of accountability" as the "age of reason."

Before I move into the next variable, which is motive, let me say something about moral knowledge. It is not necessary that a person be taught the Scripture's in order to have an understanding of moral right and wrong. If that were the case, all those who have never heard the Scriptures, do not have the capability to know right from wrong and, therefore, cannot sin. This we know to be incorrect because as Paul said in Acts 17:30, God commands all men, everywhere to repent.  Well, if a man in the deepest jungle of Africa has never heard of God, what does he have to repent of? Quite simply, if he has transgressed God's law, he is lost. Stealing and murder are the same thing in any culture; that is, they are moral transgressions.

Although positive law requires special revelation, i.e., how to worship, the plan of salvation, etc., moral law does not require special revelation. The Gentiles, who were without the Law of Moses, had a law unto themselves in which they were accountable. They could know what was morally right and what was morally wrong.  Romans 2:15 teaches that, even without knowledge of any written law, we have a law that is within our hearts. 

So then, concerning knowledge, little children may acquire it, yet not be accountable unto it.  Knowledge must be coupled with the ability to reason, emotional maturity, and as we will now see, be guided by our motives in order for one to be accountable for actions.

Motives and Conscience

We are driven by our motives. If someone want's to quit smoking they must develop the motivation to quit smoking. No person has continued the habit of smoking against his will.  Motive and will are synonymous, at least so far as I can tell.  Motive defined is; "something that prompts a person to act in a certain way or that determines volition; incentive." A person who has not reached the point in his life where he is able to direct his motive or will is not yet accountable for actions.  It seems that a very important question in this discussion is: how are motives developed?  

The foundation for our motives is our passion and our knowledge.  A child can understand the command "Stay out of the cookie jar!" A child can understand the threat of punishment for violating this command. Therefore, the child is accountable for disobeying the command, and is justly punished. A child may desire a cookie; yet, that desire can be overcome by the fear of punishment.  His motive is thereby directed by both emotional (desire), as well as knowledge of the punishment. The child might choose to disobey and eat the cookie.  If that is the case, the decision is made based upon the desire for the cookie and in spite of the punishment that is sure to come.

Whatever the child does, he does because he wants to do it. A little baby, who does not understand language or the threat of punishment, cannot be held accountable for eating that which is forbidden. Such a child is incapable of controlling his passion for food.  As an infant grows into a toddler he develops the capacity to make the choice to obey the cookie command or disregard it.  The child then becomes accountable to his parents for his actions. I believe this serves to illustrate the role of will or motive in determining accountability. When a person has spent years developing emotionally and has learned what is right morally and what is wrong morally, they then have the necessary requirements of a free moral agent.

Let's look at the example of sexual sin. A young male becomes aware of his sexual drive. This young male may be tempted with some form of homosexual activity.  He would know immediately that this is unnatural according to Romans 1:26-27. I believe that he would know that it would be wrong morally to engage in such activity. He would have to violate his conscience.  What this young male does is going to be determined by his motive. He is like the child eyeing the cookie jar. The same variables exist, passion and knowledge, only now the stakes have become higher. The punishment is spiritual death. This person does not have to commit the sin, although the choice is before him. He has had a lifetime developing emotionally, while acquiring knowledge, and now he must choose between passionate lust or follow the moral light. More simply put: a choice exists between good and evil. A person does not have to understand that a reward is available for sinlessness in order to develop motive to overcome sin.  The knowledge of the unnatural act of homosexual activity, which can be perceived in nature, is enough of a deterrent to bring about accountability. The same would be true with any sexual sin: theft, lying, murder, etc. One must violate his moral conscience in order to commit one of these acts.

Therefore, in order for one to be accountable for sin, he must have reached the point in life in which he can choose between moral good and evil. The very same choice was before Eve. She wanted to be like God; yet, she knew that to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil would be in violation of God's positive law. She had the power to eat or not eat. In her judgment, the desire to be like God was greater than the prohibition made by God. She did exactly what she wanted to do. She had the maturity to control her emotional desires and the ability to reason as to the consequences of violating God's prohibition. She knew that it would be displeasing to God. In order to sin she had to violate God's command and go against her own conscience. In violating her conscience and breaking God's law she encountered guilt.

It is my belief that at the point in which one becomes consciously aware of moral good and evil they are accountable for actions. This can occur at different ages. The conscience will develop at a faster rate for those who have been given moral guidance all of their life. I do not believe that one will fully understand they have reached the age of accountability until they experience the guilt that always follows the violation of ones conscience. This is the law that is written on our hearts (Romans 2:15). 

This guilt is not the same thing as shame. Shame can be experienced by one who is not yet accountable. As parents and teachers we must see the difference between shame and the remorse that proceeds from guilt. A child who has done something that should not have been done, but only feels shame, is not accountable for actions and should not be encouraged to be baptized or washed of sins that do not exist.

In Conclusion

What is the "age of accountability?" It is probably an idiom that needs to be thrown out of our vocabulary.  The term "age" seems only to confuse an already complex question.  What needs to be considered is: at what point has one matured to the level that he will be accountable for his actions. The physical age of an individual is not entirely relative to the discussion.  As a parent, what I have learned from this study is a few basic principles that will help me in instilling in my children the right motives.

It is inevitable that both of my sons will at some point sin. When they experience the guilt of that sin, they need to know what to do about it. In order for them to make a sound decision to obey the gospel, they must have a thorough understanding of the reward for doing right and the punishment for doing evil.  When the time comes, the decision will be theirs. They will face a decision of monumentous proportion. At some point the devil will come for their souls.   Like Adam and Eve, and all but One after them, they will do something which is opposed to the will of God.

When they first feel the pains of guilt, I hope they will be motivated to accept the gift of salvation. In one sense, I feel helpless as a father because my desire is to protect and shelter them from all that would cause them harm. Thankfully, God feels the same way and has done everything that I cannot to provide a way of escape for my children. One thing is for sure, they will do precisely what they want to do.