Is There A Biblical “Age of Accountability”?

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Recently for Rambling Ever On I dealt with the hot-button issue of “What About Those Who Have Never Heard of Jesus?” This topic really gets people in Christianity talking because it creates a head-on collision of one obvious fact about the world—that not everyone has heard of Jesus—with a crucial piece of Biblical theology: Jesus is the only way to God. Trying to think through that collision and maintain that God is fair in how he judges people makes for some lively discussion and debate. 

You can read that article here.

Yet as a result of my thoughts on that topic a side conversation invariably comes up when I bring it up in public: What about an age of accountability?

This is a fair question. I lean toward believing there are no exceptions to the “Jesus is the only way to God” truth in terms of people from remote villages or really any place where the Gospel is not shared. Yet, if I am inclined to not believe in exceptions in this way, can I believe that a 1-month old baby who has minimal cognitive and moral development would go to Hell if he or she died?

Logic, of course, guides me to believe that a baby or very small child being accountable to God for their sin is perverse. Yet, I have chosen to follow the Bible wherever it leads because it has proven that often human logic can fail us because humans are fallible (for example, it may sound logical that since “God is love” that he would not eternally punish people, but biblically this is not so).

So the question is: does the Bible speak to this? I think in some sense it does. Not nearly as clearly as I would like, but I gave up a long time ago trying to get God to do what I think he should. Yet, I want to look at five passages that I think help guide me to being satisfied that up to a certain age, people are not held accountable for their sin in terms of being judged by God for it.

 

Isaiah 7:16-17

He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste.

I have a very specific aim in this article so I will not be dealing with the bigger meaning of this passage. But suffice it to say that it sounds like God is saying that there is a point in this child’s life where he is too young to choose right from wrong. That sounds, especially in Old Testament vernacular, like choosing to follow God. At the very least it speaks to a developed morality, but I think it’s closer to the former. I have heard parents and child experts tell me that children have a concept of right and wrong at a very young age. But the idea of choosing right as in choosing God is something more complex and involves higher order thinking, self-awareness and a developed biblical morality1. The Isaiah verse sounds more like this.

 

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.

This is basically the same as the previous verse except it expands the thought to include all the children of Israel, instead of just one child. This is a crucial point of hermeneutics to me–that just because something was true for one person in the Bible does not mean it is true for all people everywhere2. But the broader the application of any truth in the Bible, the more easily I can believe it is a truth not confined by time or culture or specific circumstances. This verse speaks to many children who are too young to know good from bad, contrasting how the adult Israelites rejected God and could not enter the Promised Land. Again, this sounds like God didn’t hold small children accountable for the sins of their community because they were too young to know better3.

 

Romans 9:10b-11a

When [Isaac] married Rebekah, she gave birth to twins. But before they were born, before they had done anything good or bad, she received a message from God.

Bringing up Romans 9 in the context of any theology discussion is like bringing up Donald Trump on Facebook. Yet the fact that God through Paul here acknowledges here again that these two unborn children had not done good or bad leads me to believe that children are protected from judgment by God while in the womb. To say it one way, they are not “saved” but they are “safe’4.

 

2 Samuel 12:22-23 

David replied, “I fasted and wept while the child was alive, for I said, ‘Perhaps the Lord will be gracious to me and let the child live.’ But why should I fast when he is dead? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him one day, but he cannot return to me.”

David here seems to say that he will one day be reunited the baby Bathsheba lost, presumably in Heaven. The hermeneutical danger here still stands; Just because David says something here doesn’t mean it is an eternal truth, or even true at all. Yet, when somewhat obscure Bible passages remain without contradiction in the rest of Scripture and align with basic human logic and our sense of fairness, then I am more inclined to believe they are true for all people everywhere. I have little struggle believing God probably used David here to communicate an important truth about babies that are lost as Bathsheba’s was. Wise people I know have used these verses to comfort grieving parents and I think they do so with integrity.

 

Matthew 19:14

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

I’ll be clear again: I do not think passages like these seal the deal on an age of accountability, but that they may support it. I am not 100% positive about what Jesus meant here other than I am sure he is saying that to follow him you have to take on the humility of a child. Yet is he saying something else? Is he wanting these little children to come to him because they have nothing in them to keep from him, that older children and adults do, i.e., sin and rebellion?

I stop short of saying I’m certain he is saying that. But that it is possible. Jesus loved children and it appears without a disclaimer and without commands like “repent” and “believe”.

 

I close by saying that I have a hard time believing there are exceptions to coming to God through Christ for those who are in remote villages where there is no Gospel presence precisely because verses like Acts 17:26-30 appear to preclude those exceptions. They seem to be making the point that “You cannot be excused because of where you live.” But small children are different biblically. They go the opposite way–that they can be too young to know right from wrong and to choose to follow God. For that reason, I believe in an age of accountability.

What is that age?  I have no idea. I know of some children that began following Christ at the age of 3. I will guess that in cultures with less Christian presence the age is probably higher than in places where children go to a Gospel preaching church three times a week essentially from birth.

But at the end of the day, I think human logic and God’s justice in the Bible on the issue are square. And that is enough for me for the moment. I will keep thinking and keep searching on the issue. I hope you will too.

 

 

 

  1. In other words, I can believe a child learns much more quickly that it is bad to touch something when they are told not to, than they can learn that there is a God, that we are sinners and that Jesus died to reconcile us to him.
  2. For example, I do not think putting out a fleece to test God as Gideon did is something for all people in the US in 2017 to practice
  3.  And while I will not add it as its own entry because I am still not sure I agree with it, some interpreters believe the comment in Jonah about the Ninevites not knowing their right hand from their left is about the children without a developed morality that God was showing compassion to. This would go beyond even Israel to a Gentile people, meaning its application lying outside of time and culture would be more likely.
  4. I realize that if you adhere to some form of Calvinism these verses probably don’t support my thesis at all since the thought is that God chose them independently of anything other than His good will. Yet I go a different way–God didn’t choose them according to good or bad but according to His promise, eventually realized in Jesus Christ, and which still leaves room for human choice. But this article is not about this argument and if you’d like more you can read this or I always recommend Brian Abasciano’s book Paul’s Use of the Old Testament in Romans 9:10-18 and Robert Picirilli’s Grace, Faith, Free Will.

Gowdy Cannon

I am the pastor of the bilingual ministry of Northwest Community Church in Chicago. Our church is intentional in trying to bring English and Spanish speakers together in worship and community. My wife, Kayla, and I have been married two years. I teach ESL (English as a Second Language) classes to adult immigrants in my community. I am, at times, a student at Moody Theological Seminary in Chicago. I love The USC (the real one in SC, not the other one in CA), Seinfeld, John 3:30, Chic-Fil-A, Dumb and Dumber, the book of Job, preaching and teaching, and arguing about sports.

10 thoughts on “Is There A Biblical “Age of Accountability”?

  • October 20, 2017 at 4:19 pm
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    My concern is you have not presented the counter-arguments in that side debate that would lend itself to say God may have made provision for those in remote villages who have never heard of Christ. The other choices seem to be both more Scriptural in nature and more logical, I am not sure why you believe them to be a violation of “Jesus is the only way to God.”

    Reply
    • October 21, 2017 at 10:14 am
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      I am not sure what you are saying. I have provided Scripture for everything I have argued. A two month old is an exception to the “Jesus is the Only way” because of what I’ve written above. Remote village people are not because of what I wrote last time and reiterated briefly above (Romans 1:18-20; 2:14-15; Acts 17:26-30). Scripture bends, in my understanding of it, to an age of accountability. It bends against an “excuse of location”. If you disagree with that, please state more plainly what the disagreement is.

      Reply
      • October 23, 2017 at 12:00 pm
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        It is a little difficult to bring everything discussed there a few months ago back to this page so I will include a link to the article on Facebook where most of the discussion occurred. But here are the big arguments:

        1. Posted by you in response: “To be clear I do not for one second believe that the very moment Jesus died that all of a sudden there was a worldwide accountablity to his message, but at some point we have to acknowledge what Paul was saying as true. Unless we understand “every” like the Calvinists. (Just kidding. Sort of.)”

        I responded: “I suppose when we acknowledge that Gowdy it becomes too fluid for me. You say that “at some point” we have to accept this particular rendering, but no one is actually willing to do that now. I doubt Kris would say the second after the resurrection there was worldwide accountability that hinged on the obedience of the church. Or perhaps he would say that, I don’t necessarily want to put words in his mouth, but you have stated that you don’t believe that “for one second.” I would ask, at what point do you think it did happen then? And if we are doing that, aren’t we the ones making the judgment call?

        We do this on other things to, however. You gave the example of the age of accountability. Also, what if a person has special needs? So we, in an effort to put together all the things we know/believe about God to be true start carving out all of these exceptions. Thus, Paul’s edict becomes “God commands all people everywhere to repent” but He doesn’t really mean kids who aren’t old enough to know what they are doing, or those with special needs, etc. Would it be a big stretch to assume that if we are willing to go that far that we could also be open to the possibility God has made provision for those who have not heard, but “feareth him, and worketh righteousness.”

        “What if we look at this from the top. What if there were a doctrine of accountability overall. You have already omitted people who are not old enough to understand and those with special needs. And you do so with, as best I can tell, very limited DIRECT biblical evidence. You choose to fill in the blanks with things we have substantial evidence about, and that is the character of God. You just can’t imagine God dooming a 2 year old to eternal punishment for dying before they could really understand. Perhaps God has a standard here that we can’t clearly and easily define. I mean, even in the age of accountability, you don’t have a definite line to draw, right? When is this child accountable versus this child? I suppose I am saying, perhaps we should leave some room for the sovereignty of God in this picture? And you are willing to do so with children and those with special needs, why not with those who have not heard?”

        2. Scriptural interpretation/basis for an alternative:

        In 1 Corinthians, Paul says he would prefer people not to be married if they can help it because it distracts you from the work of God. In Psalm 127, we are told blessed is the man with a quiver full of children. In Proverbs 18, we are told he who finds a wife finds what is good and receives a blessing from the Lord. These are just a few illustrations of nuance in Scripture. It is not a contradiction if you take the whole context together. I believe you can more fully argue from the whole of Scripture of the system regarding ignorance being in place for those who have never heard. I am just curious why we seem willing to take limited biblical evidence for A, but refuse to consider it for B, especially when we admit we are the ones drawing the lines for B.

        Acts 10:34 Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism 35 but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.”

        Mike Feist gave the biggest points in that discussion in my opinion.

        https://www.facebook.com/groups/81731686472/permalink/10155575662246473/

        C. Conclusion

        Truthfully, this is one of those things we all leave in God’s hands regardless of how we feel about it. It doesn’t change the commands we’ve been given or that we should be obedient to them.

        Reply
        • October 23, 2017 at 1:58 pm
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          Let me see if I understand and can state my points of disagreement.

          1. I don’t know at what point Acts 17;26-30 came to be applicable to the whole world. It’s impossible to know and a fruitless endeavor of speculative theology. I do know it is almost certainly applicable now in 2017. It devalues the point to believe it would not be applicable after such a long amount of time. It devalues words and their meanings.

          2. I’m not going to conflate the excuse of age vs. the excuse of location. They are two separate topics to me. For the first I see Scriptural reasons to believe in excuse; for the second I see almost nothing and nowhere near enough to undo the truth behind verses like Acts 17:26-30. Again, what is the point of Acts 17:26-30 if some people based on their locations are exempt? Again, language is devalued.

          I have tried to speak to where the two intersect breifly above because there is no Bible I’m aware of to speak to it deeply. But I would be fine saying it is logical (though not Biblical) to believe that I was accountable to Jesus at 7 years old while people in remote villages aren’t accountable until they are teenagers. But that is wholly different than excusing every person because there is no Gospel presence.

          3. I don’t think my evidence for age of accountability is very limited in its directness. It’s just ambiguous enough that I’m not going to go to the wall over it but it’s pretty solid.

          4. I don’t take “limited evidence” for A and not B. The evidence for “A” (age of accountability) is above. What is the evidence for B (exclusion of all who have never heard)? Acts 10:34-35? I see that as extremely weak evidence to contradict all the passages that say men are without excuse and that Jesus is the only source of salvation. First, it’s one pair of verses. Theology must be built on a plurality of verses. Secondly, there are several verses in the Bible that on the surface seem to teach salvation by works, like Luke 13:24. And we interpret them in light of verses that are easier to understand. I don’t get from Peter’s comment that “Hey, people who have never heard of Jesus are OK as long as they fear God and do what is right.” He seems to be talking more to the universality of savlation as opposed to only Jewish salvation rather than anything about whether a person must accept Jesus. I absolutely get from the passages above that “Hey, children aren’t old enough to understand salvation.” And the idea comes up several times.

          Reply
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  • October 23, 2017 at 4:45 pm
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    In response to your number 4, that was but one verse and it is far from the only one that discusses this idea. My reply was long enough without going into all of them, but I suppose I may have to. You said the following in this thread:

    “Both in Acts 17 and Romans 3 Paul says God “overlooked times of ignorance”. There was a huge paradigm shift. Now, from Acts on, all people must repent. there are not exceptions (at least not in knowledge of God sense). In OT times there was understandable ignorance, but no so today.”

    Gowdy, I truly love ya and pray for you but I hope you are not purposefully misrepresenting what I am saying as being “one verse.” If you are, go back to what you said then. Acts 17, Romans 3 can answer your question as to how things were handled in the Old Testament.

    “26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’[b]”

    ALL nations, the WHOLE earth. And he did this so they would seek Him and perhaps reach out for him and find Him, though he is not far from any one of us. Doesn’t that mean that everyone in the whole earth could reach out for God and find Him? If not, what does it mean?

    In Paul’s day there were entire continents with people he and every other believer knew nothing about. And even if they did there was no method of travel to those places. Perhaps one reason you don’t want to try to put a date on when we moved from a system of ignorance to a system of obedience is how far out that date would be?

    Once again brother, love you and what you guys do. I disagree here but I don’t know exactly where I fall on it either but I do believe we need to avoid drawing the lines as much as possible.

    Reply
    • October 25, 2017 at 9:20 am
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      I’m not trying to misrepresent you. I am trying to figure out what your argument is. So far, for the exception to “There are exceptions to people being accountable to Jesus” I have read one verse. That will never be enough to change my mind. There are many verses that explain that men are without excuse and that Jesus is the only way to God. There are many verses that explain that children are not accountable for their actions to God in a infal judgment sense when they are in the womb or very young.

      Your verses in Acts 17 cannot be separated from vs. 30-31 so they are very much in support of what I’m saying. To get from Paul’s sermon there that “There may be some people who have never heard of Jesus and and so they will be excused if they just reach out to God” completely misses the overall point, which comes to a head in 30-31, in my opinion. “What does it mean?” you ask? It means that people need to repent to God through Jesus. What does that mean for those who’ve never heard? I dealt with that in well over 1,000 words before. At minimum ten pieces of theology seen together give me an idea. But not as clear an idea as say, “Jesus is resurrected and so we can live after death.”

      I don’t know how far out the date would be. That is what I have been saying over and over and over. The Bible wasn’t even written down for decades after this sermon. The people Paul was speaking to were accountable to Jesus because he was telling them. Everyone else has been accountable at some point between then and now.

      Reply
      • October 25, 2017 at 9:23 am
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        I also do not get what you mean by bringing up the difference between OT and NT. I dealt with Romans 3 and Acts 17 before. The difference between the two is Jesus. He is the reason why God no longer overlooks sin. If we are going to deal with why God overlooked sin before and not now, the issue of being accoutnable to Jesus is at the core of why. Both passages seem to say that very clearly.

        Reply
  • October 23, 2017 at 5:00 pm
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    To put it another way, I really think Arminians in general need a better way of explaining this. To a Calvinist this can come down to their being elect or not to greatly simplify their teachings. But Arminians could benefit from a better doctrine of accountability over all that doesn’t include our judgment as much as the current system does.

    Reply
    • October 25, 2017 at 9:45 am
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      I don’t really even approach this from an A vs. C manner but just based on what I think the Bible teaches. It’s not my judgment any more than any interpretation I have on any Bible passage is. There is an avalanche of “No one is excused based on being a Gentile” theology in the NT. I can’t escape that and so far I have not read or been exposed to much Bible that contradicts what I have written on this issue.

      Reply

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