What the Bible Says About the “Age of Accountability”

At what point does a child become personally responsible for his or her actions before God? This is not just an academic question; as I see it, your answer will affect how I choose to discipline my children. I know that we're all born with an inherited sin nature, but I'm not sure what the Bible teaches about the "age of accountability?" Is it right to think of childish selfishness or defiance as "sin" in the full sense of the word? Where can I find some scriptural guidance on this subject?

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Biblical passages such as Isaiah 7:15 and 16 seem to indicate that there is such a thing as an “age of accountability.” Unfortunately, Scripture gives us no guidelines for determining exactly when a given child crosses that decisive threshold into adult life. Dr. John MacArthur comments:

There is no “age of accountability” identified in Scripture as such. There is nothing in the Bible that says, “Here is the age and from here on you are responsible!” I think the reason for that is because children mature at different paces. That would be true from culture to culture, and from age to age in history.

So the Lord in His wisdom didn’t identify a specific moment. God knows when each soul is accountable. God knows when real rejection has taken place; when the love of sin exists in the heart. When enmity with God is conscious and willful. God alone knows when that occurs.

(Find the full article through the website of “Grace to You.”)

We’re not sure what you meant when you suggested that our answer to this question might have important implications for your choice of disciplinary measures in the home. As we see it, the doctrine of the “age of accountability” was never meant to be applied in this way. It’s a purely theological consideration. It has its place as such. In particular, it can provide comfort and reassurance to parents who have endured the loss of an infant or a very young child. But it doesn’t alter the fact that discipline must always be gauged and geared to the individual child’s temperament and stage of development. Besides, as Dr. MacArthur has indicated, a parent can never be sure at what point the “age of accountability” has been reached. When it comes to practical parenting, our advice is to tailor your approach to fit the needs of the immediate situation.

The need for genuine discipline doesn’t usually arise until about midway through the child’s second year. At this time, boys and girls become capable of understanding what you’re telling them to do, and as a result they can very gently be held responsible for their behavior. A firm “no!” or a mild slap on the hand can be effective in certain situations. On other occasions it may be far more helpful to mandate a brief “time out” (two or three minutes at the most) or take away a favorite toy for a short period of time. Through the next 18 months, you will gradually establish yourself as the benevolent boss if you can consistently mean what you say and say what you mean. A firm but loving approach is generally the best policy in every phase of the child-rearing process.

If you feel it would be helpful to discuss these ideas at greater length, call us. Our counselors will be happy to discuss your questions with your for a free over-the-phone consultation.

 

Resources
If a title is currently unavailable through Focus on the Family, we encourage you to use another retailer.

The New Dare to Discipline

Referrals
Christian Research Institute

Insight for Living

LeeStrobel.com

Articles
Becoming a Christian

Christian Worldview

The Age of Accountability

Copyright © 2011, Focus on the Family.

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