by Alfred T. Overstreet
The term "age of accountability" is not used in the Bible. Nevertheless, the doctrine of an age or a time when men become accountable for their actions is clearly taught in the Bible. What is meant by this term is that children cannot be accountable for their actions until they have a knowledge of good and evil, until they know to refuse the evil and choose the good.
We know that children are not sinners at birth; for if they were, there could be no such thing as an "age of accountability." If babies are guilty and condemned for the sin of Adam from birth, then there is no room for them to reach a certain age before they become accountable. They are guilty and under God's wrath from birth. However, the Bible teaches that babies do not inherit sin and guilt from Adam. "For the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil..." Rom. 9:11. Jacob and Esau had no original sin; they did not sin with Adam when he transgressed. We know this because they were not sinners while in the womb of their mother, Rebecca. Since the Bible says they had done nothing good or evil up to this time, we must assume that they became moral agents at some later time, after they were born. There are numerous verses like this in the Bible which show the doctrine of original sin to be false, and which also teach, either directly or indirectly, the doctrine of an "age of accountability." Let us look at some of them:
Moreover your little ones, which ye said should be a prey, and your children, which in that day had no knowledge between good and evil, they shall go in thither, and unto them will I give it, and they shall possess it. Deut. 1:39
For before the children shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land that thou abhorrest shall be forsaken of both her kings. Isaiah 7:16
I will not again curse the ground any more for man's sake; for the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth. Gen. 8:21
Deut. 1:39 speaks of the "little ones" and the "children" who "in that day had no knowledge between good and evil." Isaiah 7:16 speaks of a child coming to an age when he knows to "refuse the evil, and choose the good." Both of these texts speak of children coming to a time in their lives when they have a knowledge of the moral character of their actions and know there is evil which they ought to refuse and good which they ought to choose. Neither of these verses gives a certain age at which moral agency begins. This is because there is no fixed age at which children become accountable, since reason will develop earlier in one child than another according to his gifts and circumstances. But when a child's reason has developed to the point that he knows to "refuse the evil and choose the good," he becomes a moral agent and is accountable for his deeds.
This possession of moral knowledge or understanding is absolutely necessary before there can be accountability. A child must know the moral character of his actions before he can be responsible for them.
Some advocates of original sin have objected that the government of God would be unjust if children were made accountable for their actions at a tender age when they would not be able easily to withstand temptation. They have used this objection as an excuse for maintaining the doctrine of original sin. This kind of logic is absurd. For, according to the doctrine of original sin, children are guilty and under the wrath of God from birth, without any probation. It is hard to understand how the advocates of original sin can swallow whole the injustice of being born in a state of guilt and condemnation, and yet quibble over the supposed injustice of becoming accountable at a tender age. This amounts to swallowing a camel and straining at a gnat.
With God, there can be no such thing as a "tender age" in the sense of an unjust age at which children become responsible. God alone knows and is the judge of when a child reaches the "age of accountability." He alone knows the thoughts and the intentions of the heart. And, knowing that God is just, we know that God will not work unrighteousness in this respect. "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?" Gen. 18:25. Those who make this objection seem to feel that God cannot be trusted with what is unknown to us. But he can be trusted. God is just in all his judgments. The accountability or non-accountability of every child is perfectly known to God. He "searches the reins and hearts" of all men. He discerns the thoughts and intents of the heart." He will bring to light the "hidden things of darkness" and judge the "secrets of men" in truth and righteousness.
The advocates of original sin need not fear that God will unjustly make children accountable at too early an age. He can be trusted to judge righteously with the hidden things of the heart. Truth, justice, and equity are the foundations of his throne. I Cor. 4:5, Rev. 2:23, Heb. 4:12-13, Eccl. 12:14, Rom. 2:15-16.
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