AGE OF ACCOUNTABILITY
T. PIERCE BROWN
Not long ago in a home Bible study a question arose about what is involved in the expression, “the age of accountability.” Since I usually try to “call Bible things by Bible names and do Bible things in Bible ways,” I first admitted that I do not find that exact expression in the Bible, and thus can not quote a scripture that deals directly and specifically with it. However, I do find in the Bible the idea that a child is born pure and without sin, for “Sin is a transgression of the law” (1 John 3:4). Since the little child has not transgressed the law, I am sure he is not accountable for sin. Also, since Jesus said in Matthew 18:3, “Except ye become converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven,” I am sure we are not to become as little sinners. James also says, “To him that knoweth to do good and doeth it not, to him it is sin” (James4:17). Since the baby did not know to do good, I am sure he is not accountable. But since Romans3:23says, “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God,” I am sure there comes a time when he is accountable. Therefore, he must reach the “age of accountability” at some time, if he is a normal child.
But like many of our man-made expressions that we use to explain a Bible idea, it may be “fuzzy” and need clarification. In that respect, it is similar to other expressions like, “their sins were rolled forward,” which many of us use, and “accept Jesus as your personal Savior,” which most denominations use. Although I have accepted Jesus as my personal savior, I do not know whether that means to the person who may hear it the same as “I PERSONALLY accepted Jesus as my Savior,” or how it might differ from “I IMPERSONALLY accepted Jesus as my Savior,” or whether it means, “I accept the fact that Jesus HAS saved me,” or “I accept the fact that Jesus WILL save me on certain conditions,” or “I accept the idea that Jesus is a PERSON who will save me without any conditions,” or exactly what.
The question that came to me in the Bible study was like this: “Suppose my child, 3 years old, is told to leave the candy alone, and does not. She gets her hand slapped, and thus realizes it is `wrong’ to take the candy. She sneaks and does it behind my back, knowing she will be punished if she is caught. Is she not at the `age of accountability?’ If not, is it proper for me to punish her for her disobedience, since she is not accountable? If so, is she a sinner, and in need of salvation, since she did what she knew to be wrong?”
Since I know of no scriptures which deal directly with that question, my answer to him dealt with the problem of linguistics and semantics in communication, and with Bible principles which can be logically applied. First, we need to recognize that the words “wrong” and “right” are used in several different ways–sometimes without us being aware that we have shifted meanings. We know that if we put the left shoe on the right foot, it may be on the wrong foot, for in that case, the left foot is the right foot to put on the left shoe. So, if a person said, “I put my left shoe on the right foot,” on which foot did he put it? Also, if he put his left shoe on the wrong foot (which would be the right foot) did the fact that he did “wrong” mean that he sinned? Of course, most of us could easily answer that question with a quick, “No.” A similar question would be, “Does a child who learns that it is `wrong’ to take candy sin when she/he does so?” The answer to that question is not “Yes,” or “No,” but “Not necessarily so.” Every parent who has a little child who requests baptism, and every preacher who is asked to baptize such a child needs to understand the principles about which I am now writing.
Two precious little girls, one nine and one thirteen years old, came to me to be baptized. I baptized the nine year old one, but did not baptize the thirteen year old because of my application of this principle.
The nine-year-old said she wanted to be baptized for the remission of her sins. I asked her what she had done. She said, “I told a story, and did not mind my mother.” To see what she understood, I replied, “Lots of little children tell stories, and forget to do what their parents say. Is that so terrible?” She replied, “Yes, sir. The Bible says, `Lie not one to another, seeing ye have put off the old mean with his deeds,’ and `Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.’ So I have sinned against God and need forgiveness.” After further questioning, I had to baptize her. The other girl knew that she had sometimes done the “wrong” thing, and got lost because she turned right when she should have turned left, but had no concept of sin against God, and therefore did not know how to repent. She was perfectly satisfied that if she died then, she would go to be with Jesus, and I had an idea she might. At least I had no authority to baptize her, for I neither found evidence of consciousness of sin, nor of repentance. A dog may be taught that it is “wrong” to chase chickens. But although I treat him as if he has “reached the age of accountability” when he has thus learned, I do not thereby assume him to be a sinner.
So a child may reach the “age of accountability” with reference to a conditioned response in which his parents have taught him that punishment will follow certain actions, and therefore he ought not do those things. But this does not mean that he is at the “age of accountability” with reference to what God wants.
I am persuaded that if we had time and space, we could prove that until a person has a concept of God, and is able to have a concept of what it means to sin against that God, Jehovah God does not hold him accountable for sin. The very widespread idea that a person reaches the “age of accountability” at the age of twelve and thus should be baptized, whether or not he has any concept of sin against God, has no foundation in the Bible.