Age of Accountability
By Kathy Overshiner
I know an individual whose child died at the age of twelve. She discussed with me if I thought her son had reached the age of accountability. I assured her that I thought her son was in heaven. Only God knows exactly when an individual arrives at the age of accountability ─ that moment when the individual knows right from wrong, good from evil, and becomes accountable to sin.
Each individual matures at a different pace but there are verses in the Bible that do indicate there is an age of accountability, although the phrase “age of accountability” appears nowhere in the Bible. Personal accountability before God is based upon one’s personal capacity to discern good and evil, right from wrong and to comprehend the fact that one’s choices in these areas are acts of willful rebellion against God and His purpose for one’s life. God does not hold accountable those who are incapable of appropriate responses such as someone with, Down’s syndrome. God is a gracious, loving, merciful Father and certainly would not treat those incapable of discerning the truth with cold, heartless abuse.
Some people have tried to fix a pre-teen theory of twelve to thirteen years of age for the age of accountability. This opinion is based on the fact that when Jesus was twelve he went to Jerusalem to observe the Passover with His earthly parents ─ Mary and Joseph. He said, “Why did you seek me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?” Many believe because He said those words, that twelve is the age of accountability. Jesus was deity incarnate and fully human.
In Luke 2, verse 40 (which is in reference prior to the incident in Jerusalem when Jesus was twelve), Scripture states:
“And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and grace of God was upon Him.”
In Luke 2, verse 52 we learn: “And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor of God and men.”
Jesus was a human child and He experienced the process of physical and spiritual development. He kept growing in wisdom as the grace of God was upon Him. He was perfect in His human nature, developing perfectly as God desired. But the verse says the grace of God was upon Him. Grace means it is a gift given to us that is not earned ─ God’s unmerited favor and mercy given to us.
Then eighteen years passed when nothing was recorded about His life. Somewhere from the time He was twelve and until His ministry began, somewhere in between, Jesus arrived at the age of accountability. I do not interpret that to mean that He was accountable at twelve, as Scripture says the grace of God was upon Him at that time.
Regarding Jewish customs: The Bar Mitzvah ceremony does not appear in the Bible, but the Jewish people give the age of twenty as the time when adult obligations begin. What does Bar Mitzvah mean? Under Jewish law, children are not obligated to observe the commandments, although they are encouraged to do so as much as possible to learn the obligations that they will have as adults. At the age of thirteen for boys and twelve for girls, they become obligated to learn the laws. “Mitzvah” is commandment. The Bar or Bat Mitzvah is a relatively modern innovation not mentioned in the Talmud. The elaborate ceremonies and receptions common today were unheard of as recently as a century ago.
A Bar Mitzvah is not about being a full adult in every sense of the word, ready to marry, go out on your own, earn a living, and raise children. The Talmud makes this abundantly clear. In the Pirkei Avot, it is said that while thirteen is the proper age for fulfillment of the Commandments, eighteen is the proper age for marriage and twenty is the proper age for earning a livelihood. Elsewhere in the Talmud, the proper age for marriage is sixteen to twenty-four. At age thirteen children become accountable for their actions and the parents are no longer accountable. The post-teen of twenty to twenty-one years old is the other well-known belief of accountability and does carry more favor.
In the Hebrew language, a person is considered a child from the ages five to twenty. The word “infant” relates to ages five and under, and the age of twenty is considered to be an adult. A very important point from the Old Testament writings bearing accountability, however, has to do with the cut-off age of those wandering in the wilderness, those who were either allowed to enter the Promised Land and those who were condemned to die in the wilderness.
A brief summary of (Numbers 13; 14:29-35; 32:11-12): Twelve spies were sent out to check the land and ten came back with a negative report while two gave a positive one. Those with the negative reports did not want to go. They rebelled against what God had wanted for their purpose. Because of this rebellion those twenty years and older were doomed to wander in the desert. God allowed all those from nineteen years old and under to go into the Promised Land.
Numbers 14:29-35 – “In this wilderness your bodies will fall—every one of you twenty years old or more who was counted in the census and who has grumbled against me. Not one of you will enter the land I swore with uplifted hand to make your home, except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun. As for your children that you said would be taken as plunder, I will bring them in to enjoy the land you have rejected.
But as for you, your bodies will fall in this wilderness. Your children will be shepherds here for forty years, suffering for your unfaithfulness, until the last of your bodies lies in the wilderness. For forty years—one year for each of the forty days you explored the land—you will suffer for your sins and know what it is like to have me against you.’ I, the Lord, have spoken, and I will surely do these things to this whole wicked community, which has banded together against me. They will meet their end in this wilderness; here they will die.”
Why did God allow those nineteen years old and under to enter the land?
Numbers 32:11-12 – “‘Because they have not followed me wholeheartedly, not one of those who were twenty years old or more when they came up out of Egypt will see the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob— not one except Caleb son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite and Joshua son of Nun, for they followed the Lord wholeheartedly.’”
Deuteronomy 1.39 – “And the little ones that you said would be taken captive, your children who do not yet know good from bad-they will enter the land. I will give it to them and they will take possession of it.”
The previous verse would seem to be a very clear statement with regard to the age of accountability. Some would say it is only for those people at that time. Children are children though, no matter what time period we are in. And God is the same today as was He was back then.
Psalm 102:27 – “But you remain the same, and your years will never end.”
Hebrews 1:10-12 – “In the beginning, Lord, you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment. You will roll them up like a robe; like a garment they will be changed. But you remain the same, and your years will never end.”
God’s law set the age for military service at age twenty. The people in Israel must choose only those who are twenty years old and older. (Numbers 1:3 and Chapter 26:2) Atonement money (Exodus 30:11-16) was taken from the sons of Israel. This contribution of atonement money was taken from a select group. Each person twenty years old and over would give a contribution to the Lord. Why were those nineteen years of age and under exempt from pay atonement money? Because God saw that they had not reached the age of “accountability.” Josiah was a righteous king (eight years old) and reigned thirty-one years (2 Chronicles 34:1-2).
This eight years of age does not prove accountability, as for in his eighth year of reign while he was still a youth, he only began to seek the God of his father, David, and in the twelfth year of his reign he began to purge Judah and Jerusalem of the Asherim; carved images, and molten images. Josiah grew more mature in seeking God at the age of sixteen, but he didn’t begin to act out his growing understanding until the age of twenty. Josiah proves a post-teen theory rather than the pre-teen theory.
Now in scientific and medical research, scientists are finding out in adults that their anterior or prefrontal parts of the brain perform a lot of executive functions or thinking functions: planning, goal-directed behavior, and judgmental insight. Those who are in their teen years are still in the process of developing the prefrontal lobe of the brain, which is a major influence on one’s emotions, judgment, and decision-making.
Comparative brain scans of both adults and teens show that in an adolescent brain, the relative activation of the prefrontal region is less than it is in adults. This is considered significant in determining maturity and accountability. Child development specialists agree with the age of twenty in regard to the cognitive curve. From ages six to ten years old children are learning facts, soaking up details of information like a sponge.
From ten to fourteen they are developing logic and from fourteen to eighteen they are developing reason. Children learn from their parents. When toddlers hear, “No, no,” that does not necessarily mean they understand the “no” and they certainly do not understand that what they are doing is really wrong. They just learn that parents say, “no” for some reason, and along with the “no” comes the punishment.
They associate the “no” and punishment after so many repeats (conditioning), but they do not understand what they are doing is wrong. I look at my years of growing up and know that I certainly was not capable of understanding the difference from right and wrong, and the accountability to the purpose of God. When I was six, through others teaching me, I became aware of Jesus being important but I had no understanding what that all meant. I knew Christmas was associated with His birth. When was ten, I became curious and started looking in the picture books about God and creation but I did not comprehend the meaning of all of it.
At thirteen I started reading the Bible and learning about God through Sunday school, but I still did not comprehend the concept of what all I was reading. I did things as a child that I had no idea were wrong or why the consequences of it were wrong — but as an adult, I came to understand what was wrong and started understanding why. The understanding of the difference from right and wrong became evident when I was past twenty. Even things I did at age twelve or eighteen, I know now were wrong and why, yet back then I had not figured out the logic or reason. After I turned twenty, my entire thought process started changing and I never repeated anything I did before I was twenty.
This does not mean that parents should be slack in teaching and training their children about our Lord Jesus Christ when they are still under twenty years old. They should take them to church because while they are still immature when they are very impressionable and they will become curious about the Lord. Even though God has exempted children from judgment, He has not kept them from His blessings. Allow the children to come to Jesus as Jesus did because curiosity develops first before a true understanding develops. God in His righteousness will always be perfectly fair in His assessment of accountability to each and every one of us.
Proverbs 22:6 – “Train a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not turn from it.”
Ephesians 6:4 – “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.”
What must we all do to be saved?
Acts 16:31 – They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved — you and your household.”
(Pete’s comment: This is an article a member sent me that dates back to 2012. I reached out to the folks at Rapture Ready, but they are not able to contact the original author. I just wanted to say upfront, that this is one of the best articles on the subject, eclipsing and exponentially expanding on my own thoughts on the subject. Since this topic seems to come up quite frequently, I thought it should be included here for future reference.)