Many people accept the doctrine of the Age of Accountability but among leaders who advocate for this there is little to any agreement and most will throw up their hands and say, “The Scriptures are silent” adding something about it being “when the child can understand.” Others set arbitrary dates or ages based on when the average child seems to be able to come to asking Jesus into their heart.
But the Scripture isn’t silent about this topic — it’s quite clear. It’s not called “The Age of Accountability” in the Bible, but it’s definitely talked about in two specific contexts. And what is amazing to me as I have studied this is how concretely the stages of development fit into the picture of the maturing child as they grow towards the age of accountability.
I also want to preface with saying that the age of accountability has nothing to do with when a child is able to have a relationship with God or invite Jesus to enter their hearts and lives. That can happen as young as it happens. In fact, we are told that we must come to Jesus “as a little child” and that “the Kingdom of God is like a little child”. Starting a relationship with God is different, however, from arriving at the age where God holds us accountable for our choices and our sins.
After much careful study and searching of Scripture I believe the age of accountability to be 21. As I mentioned, there are two specific Biblical texts that speak to this. The first is after the Exodus when the Israelites refused, out of fear and a lack of faith, to enter the Promised Land. God declared that all those 21 and older had to die before the next generation could enter the Promised Land-and for this they wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. Everyone 21 and older was held accountable for the sin of disobedience and a lack of faith. Everyone 20 and under was not. The second is found in the regulations surrounding the sin offering which was given each year. The man who was the head of the household was required to offer the sin offering on behalf of himself and his sons until the age of 21 at which point they were responsible for offering their own annual sin offering. Until that age the father was accountable before God for their sins, after that age it was the son himself who stood accountable.
At this point many will bring up the Bar Mitzvah and the idea that in Jewish culture a boy became a man on his 13th birthday, marked by the Bar Mitzvah. This is true, but it does not change the conclusion. While the boy became a “man” he was more an “apprentice man” and the primary care for him was turned over to the father with whom he apprenticed in the family business and from whom he learned what it means to be a man. He was not expected at the age of 13 to know what it meant to be a man, or to make the right choices as a man.
In fact, the word “child” in Hebrew applied to those between the ages of 5 and 21. The word “infant” was for those under 5 who were still nursing and after 21 they were an “adult” or a “man”. Paul draws a distinction between being a child and a man when he says, in 1 Corinthians 13 that when he was a child he thought, acted and reasoned as a child, but when he became a man he put away childish things. In Jewish culture there was a healthy expectation that a young person was still “in training” and the person in the role of disciple was not expected to surpass the master at a young age.
I mentioned what I have learned about the conclusions of child development experts and how amazed I was that their conclusions matched so well with the learning curve I saw in the Bible, so let me share now. From 6 to 10 years of age children are learning facts-soaking up details and information like sponges. From 10-14 they are developing logic and from 14-18 they are developing reason. It actually takes a full 18 years for a child to grow up! Until they become a man, they continue to think and reason and ACT like a child!
One thing that really stood out to me was the meaning of the word “chastisement” and when it would be most appropriately applied in our parenting. It is commonly translated “correct” and it does mean that, but it means so much more. It carries with it the connotation of “come let us reason together”. If the stages of child development as listed above are correct, that means this can’t be done until the child is in adolescence! We can’t reason “together” until we can both reason.
God created our children-He developed these stages and set them in motion for each child. Until 5 our children are babies. Then they become social sponges who are completely aware of what we are modeling and all that we tell them. This moves into their development of logic as they make the connections between actions and their consequences. They learn by doing. They have to make mistakes so that they can learn from them. We have to guide them as they do this so that they don’t make mistakes they aren’t ready to handle and learn from. And then they begin to reason-to ask what it all means. During this stage we must be present to reason together-to continue our teaching as we help them think through their actions before they are chosen; to help them work through and learn how to determine for themselves the possible outcomes of behavior. Then we turn them out into the world to be accountable for themselves and their choices.
God’s desire is to have relationship with them long before this time comes. In fact, the Bar Mitzvah is when a child stands before their community and commits himself to the faith of his fathers as he has been taught it. As with so much of life-this commitment precedes full understanding of what the commitment means. We speak our marriage vows before we learn what it means to be married-no matter how much preparation we have put into the decision to marry. We give birth and then learn what it means to be a parent. And, I believe, this is what Jesus meant when he said we must come to Him as a little child. We must accept Jesus and His atoning sacrifice without logic, without reason-just on faith!
Does this mean we can’t expect appropriate behavior from our children? Of course not! Appropriate behavior should be taught from birth. As children are able they will behave appropriately in different situations and with different issues. What it does mean is that we need to adjust our expectations of our children and when they can be held accountable for their own choices-when we stop being the one accountable for making sure they succeed.
Our culture doesn’t just push independence; it pushes premature maturity. The number one hindrance to gentle discipline is an unrealistic expectation of what a child is capable of at a given age. People expect obedience from 1 year olds, 4 year olds, even 10 year olds and become frustrated with their child and themselves as parents when children don’t perform according to their wishes. But expanding our view of childhood to run until the age of 21 gives us a more realistic window-a more gradual turning over of the accountability for being successful. If we don’t expect logic from a 5 year old or reason from a 12 year old we can respond to them with much more grace.
The important thing is that we take advantage of this window of opportunity in our children and disciple them. We must grow them up and discipline (teach) them; we must chastise (correct) them and we must reason together about what is good and just and right. We must not spare or lay aside our responsibility to be the authority in our children’s lives and properly parent them. We must train them up in the way they should go so that when they are old they will not depart from it. And we must model for them what appropriate behavior looks like-not expecting more from them than we are willing to put forth ourselves.
A person younger than 21 who does something wrong is being childish. A person over the age of 21 who does something they know to be wrong is being a fool. The use of the word “fool” in Scripture is never used of a child. It is understood by the Biblical authors that you can’t expect something from a person that they are unable to give-so “fool” is reserved as a title for someone who has been trained to know better but still chooses to do wrong.
Some “experts” go so far as to say that the first time a child does something wrong it is childishness, but once you have corrected them and they do it again it becomes foolishness. This idea is not at all supported by Scripture! There is one verse in the Bible that many use to apply all of the verses about fools to children. It is Proverbs 22:15, “Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him.” Many will argue, based on this verse alone, that children are fools and deserving of the mandate in Proverbs 26:3, “A whip for the horse, a bridle for the ass, and a rod for the fool’s back.” But this interpretation shows a clear misunderstanding of the verse-whether studied in English or in the original Hebrew.
What took me so long to get to studying this verse was that it appeared to be a cornerstone of the punitive discipline arguments and yet something about the verse had never set right with me. As I dug into it I figured out what that was. The explanation I had always been given for the meaning of the Proverbs 22:15 verse was, basically, this, “Children’s hearts are full of foolishness and they must be spanked to stop their misbehavior.” Perhaps you have also heard that teaching.
But that is not what this verse says, and definitely not what it teaches. Look at the words, “Foolishness is bound.” It is foolishness that is bound, not foolishness that is binding! Foolishness, or the propensity to do what we know not to do-or our human propensity to sin-or our sin nature!, is bound up and given no power in the heart of a child. Remember, the word na’ar, translated “child” applied to everyone from youth to young adult. And the “rod of correction” is the “shebet” used to “correct”-the parent’s authority to teach and correct and reason together-which has the power to drive foolishness far from a child.
Far from being an indictment against children and a command to spank, this is a verse of promise and hope. It means, if you take advantage of the time that your child is young and not yet accountable for their own actions, and during that time you properly exercise your authority to teach, correct, and disciple your child, you will be able to drive foolishness far from your child. You don’t have to raise a fool! It means, you have the ability to raise a child to be an adult who KNOWS better and CHOOSES TO DO better.
I believe it’s not an individual thing and it’s not about *us*–rather, I believe it’s an age at which the Lord chooses to hold one accountable for having made a commitment to Him by then or not. I don’t believe it has to do with “getting saved” but with actually being held accountable for your sins or not. If you are not saved by that time then your sins are applied to you. It is after this time that I believe there is a place for some aspects of decision theology. If you have embraced the Lord and salvation has been applied to you before this time then you are fine and accountable for nothing. I think that the age of accountability gets confused when linked to salvation as a “moment of salvation” and I don’t think that is right. God gives us enough time to do this awesome task of parenting. Thanks be to God who fashioned us in our mother’s womb, and knows us, and loves us and has realistic expectations of us. Even in the amount of time we have to properly raise our children there is much grace.