Q&A: Age of Accountability

Age of Accountability


Is there an "age of accountability"? If so, how would you define it?


The "age of accountability" is a concept that appears in some Reformed arguments (it is part of the "old Princeton" view), as well as in many non-Reformed arguments. It is generally considered to be the age at which God begins to hold a child accountable for his or her actions, such that the child is capable of committing sin that God reckons to the child's account.

There is some merit to this position: For one thing, those who have been given greater "light," that is, who have more knowledge of right and wrong, are judged more severely when they sin. One place we see this principle is in Romans 7:7ff. where Paul teaches that knowledge of the Law causes us to sin more (cf. Rom. 3:20: "Through the Law comes the knowledge of sin"). Correspondingly, those with no knowledge of the Law whatsoever do not sin as greatly. Second, those who sin unwittingly or unknowingly are less culpable than those who sin knowingly or defiantly (e.g. Num. 15:22ff.; Josh. 20:1-9). Certainly the younger a child is, the more he or she lacks knowledge of what is and is not sin, so that at least some of the bad things he or she does are done without the knowledge that these things are sins. This also reduces the culpability of children. Third, God himself seems to show compassion even on the children of unbelievers on the basis of their ignorance. We see this in Jonah 4:11 where God explains his compassion on Nineveh partly in terms of the fact that there were more than 120,000 people who did not know their right hand from their left. Probably, this should be taken as a reference to children who are too young to distinguish between right and left.

While I agree that the culpability of children is much less than that of others in light of these points, in my opinion the argument does not seem sufficient to demonstrate that children have no sin or guilt whatsoever. For example, even though Paul teaches that knowledge of the Law inspires sin, he still believes that those who do not have the Law are sinners who will die without the Law (Rom. 2:12). Further, in the places in Scripture where people are less guilty because they lack knowledge, they still bear some guilt, and thus must still repent,render an offering for it, etc. (e.g. Lev. 4:2ff.; Num. 15:22ff.). Moreover, while God spared Nineveh with its children, he elsewhere commanded the deaths of infants (Deut. 20:13-18; Josh. 6:17ff.; etc.).

It is my understanding that there is no "age of accountability," per se (unless we place it at the moment of conception). Rather, it seems to me that in Scripture all people start with guilt and accountability by virtue of Adam's imputed sin. Each person then gradually increases his guilt and accountability as he grows in knowledge and understanding.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.