Vol. 11 No. 8 August 2009
By Don Blackwell
Certainly, God views young children as pure and innocent in His sight. In Matthew 18, Jesus said, “Except ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3-4). Jesus here depicts the nature of little children as being the same as that of the heirs of His kingdom.
Undoubtedly, the reason for this pure and innocent status is because of a child’s level of mental maturity. He has not yet developed the ability to reason about what is right or wrong. He doesn’t yet have the ability to understand concepts such as sin, guilt and accountability. One must also appreciate the fact that a young child’s mind is free from the “evil imaginations” that occur in the mind of an older person. Because a child is not capable of understanding or coherently choosing to do right or wrong, he is not eternally accountable for his actions. One can certainly appreciate the justness of God in this.
The Bible, however, does teach that those who have developed adequate mental faculties are accountable in the eyes of God. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10). The question that is often times asked is, “When does this change occur?” When does a person reach this age of accountability?
A specific age cannot be given in answer to this question. Since accountability is related to mental development, maturity and understanding, the answer is dependent upon the individual. Just as some people grow and develop faster physically, the same thing is true mentally. One would imagine that an average 4 or 5 year old would not yet be accountable in the eyes of God, while an 18 year old certainly would. Of course, no set rule can be bound.
So then, how can one know when he has reached the age of accountability? Perhaps the answer lies within the plan of salvation. One who is “old enough” to be accountable and thus to be in a lost condition is also one who is “old enough” to obey the Gospel, and thus to be in a saved condition. By analyzing what is required to obey the Gospel, perhaps we can get a better understanding of when a person has the need to do it.
The plan of salvation requires that a man hear the Gospel and believe it (Romans 10:14; Mark 16:16). It also requires that a man repent of his sins (Acts 17:30). He must confess his faith in Christ (Romans 10:9-10), and he must be baptized in water with the understanding that it is for the remission of his sins (Acts 2:38; 22:16). One who is not old enough or mentally developed enough to hear and understand or coherently react to these terms of salvation is not old enough to become a Christian. It would certainly follow that such an individual does not yet have the need to become a Christian because his mental abilities are such that he is not yet accountable in the eyes of God.