In these days of reluctance to accept personal responsibility for anything, it is especially appropriate to examine one’s accountability to God, including when that accountability begins. It has always been the case with God that individuals bear personal responsibility for sins and do not inherit the sins of others. “The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him” (Ezekiel 18:20). Jesus established a principle that they who have the capacity to understand and to comply with Divine Law and do not comply are guilty of sin (John 9:41). It has always been the case with God that individuals who bear the guilt of sin must turn away from or repent of that sin to avoid eternal, spiritual ruin. “Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, saith the Lord GOD. Repent, and turn yourselves from all your transgressions; so iniquity shall not be your ruin” (Ezekiel 18:30).
First, who is accountable to God? Young children are not accountable to God for their conduct; children do not inherit the sin of Adam and Eve or anyone else (Ezekiel 18:20). Children are born innocent and without sin, suitable examples for imitation in this regard; Jesus used a small child as an illustration of what our Lord’s disciples had to become to enter the heavenly kingdom (Matthew 18:2-6). Besides having no sins of which to repent, babies and young children lack the mental capacity to respond to the Bible’s plan of salvation. How can an infant discern the written Word of God and derive belief (Romans 10:17; John 8:24)? Babies and young children are unable to fathom what it means to repent (Luke 13:3). Children cannot make the good confession of Jesus as Christ based on comprehension of the biblical evidence (Acts 8:37). Youngsters are not the candidates the Bible envisions who are amenable to the command to be baptized (Acts 10:48).
The age of 12, though, as a rough number, is often thought to be about the time children usually become accountable for themselves. In part, this may be because Luke 2:40-52 records that our Lord at age 12 participated with his parents in “the feast of the passover” in Jerusalem, plus because of the additional events surrounding our Lord being left behind and conversing with the “doctors” of the Law on the same occasion. Also, under Judaism, boys could marry or make religious vows at 14-years-old and girls at 12-years-old, both only with parental permission, which parental permission was required until both boys or girls were 21-years-old (“Adult Age,” McClintock and Strong Encyclopaedia). New Manners and Customs of Bible Times states that a Jewish boy was considered entering manhood at age 13 and at 13-years-old could be counted as one of the ten males required to constitute a synagogue.
In the context of John 9 where Jesus healed a man blind from birth, fearful parents appearing before the Pharisees deferred response to their son who they said was “of age,” John 9:21-23. Adam Clarke notes that the “of age” could refer up to 30-years-old, which is when the Jews considered one fully an adult. The formerly blind man of John 9:21 was old enough to be legally and religiously responsible for himself, but the specific age of this person cited in Scripture is indefinite. Age alone is not a suitable benchmark to ascertain when someone is accountable to God as we are individuals who each develop at our own paces.
Persons, irrespective of their chronological ages, who have always been mentally incompetent, are not accountable to God for their actions. Persons who irrespective of age have always been children in their minds are innocent souls for the same reasons babies and small children are not guilty of sins — they cannot understand the Word of God, develop faith, repent, profess Jesus as Christ and consciously submit to baptism. However, persons who have become accountable souls and afterward due to injury, disease or agedness do not have the same innocent status of babies if the now accountable souls did not obey the Gospel and faithfully practice Christianity when they were accountable. All, excepting children and those who have always been children in their minds commit sins. “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
Children and adults who have the capacity to comprehend the guilt of sin are accountable to God. When a person consciously desires to live for Christ and to share the joys as well as the hardships of the Christian faith, he ought to seek the removal of his sins through the blood of Christ (1 John 1:7). When a person consciously realizes that he cannot escape damnation if he ignores the “great salvation,” he ought to obey the Gospel (Hebrews 2:3; 5:8-9). When a person consciously chooses to be disobedient to parents (Romans 1:30) or God (1 Peter 2:7-8) he is guilty of sin as an accountable person.
What are the consequences of accountability to God? Accountable souls who comply with Divine Law enjoy blessings in this life and anticipate unspeakable joys in the world to come. First, those who become Christians enjoy the forgiveness of past sins (Romans 3:25). Second, everyone who becomes a Christian and continues to practice Christianity faithfully can legitimately anticipate an eternity in heaven with God (2 Timothy 4:8).
Accountable souls who do not comply with Divine Law do not enjoy the special blessings in this life reserved for Christians and cannot anticipate a pleasant eternal habitation. Christianity fosters the greatest manifestations of love, hope and fellowship this world affords (Philippians 2:1; 1 John 1:3; Titus 3:7). Eternal torment is reserved for disobedient souls.
“And to you who are troubled rest with us, when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power” (2 Thessalonians 1:7-9).
The transition from child to adult is difficult physically, psychologically, emotionally and spiritually. Each person develops at his or her own pace. No one else can ascertain when a child has made that transition in comprehension from child to adult respecting the guilt of sins. Eventually, though, individuals and others sense that this transition is past and we are mutually accountable to God for our sins. Whenever we realize that we are lost in sin is precisely the time that we need to repent and serve God.
Ask yourself this question, “If I were to die suddenly today, where would I wake up in eternity — in the custody of a loving God, or in torment at the hands of an angry God?” If the latter is the case, and you have never been baptized to remove your past sins, seize the moment and respond this hour. “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned” (Mark 16:16). If the latter is the case, and you have become an unfaithful or an erring Christian, seize the moment and respond this hour. “Repent therefore of this thy wickedness, and pray God, if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee” (Acts 8:22). “…be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life”