Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology

Is there an age of accountability?

by Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

May 5, 2020

The age of accountability is conception. There is no time in a human being’s life when he or she is not accountable to God. Really, the idea of an age of accountability arose in the 19th century and the 20th century amongst non-Calvinistic Protestants who were attempting to address the issue of infant mortality and explain on the basis of Arminianism and freewill why all children who had been unable to exercise their own unaided faith by freewill didn’t go to hell. That’s really where the idea of an age of accountability came from. And of course, Reformed theology has never had to have recourse to that in order to answer the question. The age of accountability is conception. We’re all accountable.

An Age of Discretion

Now, what every Reformed person will realize is there is an age of discretion. There’s an age of discernment. At some point in a person’s life, as you mature, you begin to understand the faith in an adult way, and frankly, that’s different for everybody. Jonathan Edwards was walking in the woods and having deep experiences of the love of the triune God when he was five years old, but that is not the typical case. Interestingly, over the course of Reformed history, the age at which children regularly made professions of faith—and you can find this in Presbyterian circles, Dutch circles, Baptist circles, Congregational circles—over the course of the last 300 or 400 years, the typical age of a public profession of faith would have been somewhere between 14 and 18 years old.

Now, in our age, our time, that age has gotten younger. We have seen covenant children—that is, children who grow up in Christian homes—making a profession of faith at an earlier and earlier age, and there are lots of reasons for that. But it’s not because the age of accountability is changing, and it’s not because the age of discretion is changing. There are other things that are going on there.

God’s Promises to Believers and Their Children

But what’s important for us to understand when we think about our children is not that there’s some magical age before which they’re OK, and then after that magical age, their soul is in peril. What’s important for us as believing parents to understand is that God has made a promise to believers and their children. And what believers want to say to their children is: “Here is the promise of God. You must trust in Christ alone for your salvation as he is offered in the gospel.” And believers say to their children, “Become what you are. Embrace the promises that have been made to you in the covenant,” because it’s so clear from Acts 2 that God makes promises to believers and to their children in the New Testament, just like he made promises to believers and their children in the Old Testament. And so what believers want to say to their children, instead of looking for a magical age of accountability, is: “Embrace the promises of God that have been made to you in Christ.”

And very frankly, the age at which a child is going to understand that is going to be different. Calvin in Geneva—if you read Hughes Oliphant Old’s amazing work, The Shaping of the Reformed Baptismal Rite in the Sixteenth Century—Calvin in Geneva developed a catechism. And that catechism was used to determine when a child really understood the gospel, when a child understood enough of the faith to make a profession of faith. So I would point Christian parents to the idea of an age of understanding and discretion rather than to an age of accountability as you think through how to approach your children about the faith.

Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III (MDiv, Covenant Theological Seminary; PhD, University of Edinburgh) is the Chancellor & CEO of Reformed Theological Seminary, the John E. Richards Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology, and the President of RTS Jackson. He has authored, co-authored, edited, or contributed to numerous books.

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