The Biblical Age of Accountability (Isaiah 7:15-16 and Deuteronomy 1:39)

The Biblical Age of Accountability (Isaiah 7:15-16 and Deuteronomy 1:39)

Children are innocent until they reach the biblical age of accountability. Isaiah 7:15-16 twice states that until a certain age a baby will not know, “how to refuse the evil and choose the good.” Similarly, Deuteronomy 1:39 says, “little ones…have no knowledge of good or evil.” This post will allow you to read, watch, or listen if you want to learn about the age of accountability in the bible.

Before Adam and Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they could not choose between good and evil. The evidence of this:

Genesis 2:25 The man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.

They had so little knowledge of good and evil they didn’t know there was something wrong with being naked. They ate and then:

Genesis 3:7 Then the eyes of both were opened, and THEY KNEW THAT THEY WERE NAKED. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.

This marked the end of the Dispensation of Innocence, and the beginning of the Dispensation of Conscience.

Adam and Eve Knew It Was Wrong to Be Naked Because of Their Consciences

Romans 2:12-14 discusses two groups of people: the Gentiles and Jews. They both think they are innocent for different reasons:

  • The Jews think they are innocent because they have the law. They thought having the law made them good.
  • The Gentiles think they’re innocent because they didn’t receive the law. They think they are not accountable because they didn’t know better!

Paul wants to convince both groups they are sinners, so they see their need for the Savior:

Romans 2:12a For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law,

These are Gentiles and they’ll perish because they’re sinners. Paul elaborates on this in verses 14 and 15.

Jews Are Guilty Because of the Law

Romans 2:12b and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.

These are Jews who have the law, and they’ll be judged because it’s not enough to have the Mosaic law. The Jews had to obey it. This might seem obvious to us, but it wasn’t obvious to them. Having the law actually made them MORE accountable before God because it gave them the knowledge of good and evil, but they still chose evil. When the Jews received the Mosaic law, it was like Adam and Eve eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Then they had knowledge of good and evil.

Gentiles Are Guilty Because of Their Consciences

The Gentiles didn’t have the law telling them right from wrong, but they did have something else:

Romans 2:14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law.

Gentiles do not have the Mosaic law, but they still obey parts of it. People who have never heard the Ten Commandments or read the Bible still recognize certain things, such as lying, stealing, and murder, are wrong. These people can choose between good and evil. They have this knowledge passed on to them from Adam and Eve. Notice it says “they are a law to themselves.” Their conscience serves as a law for them.

Romans 2:15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while THEIR CONSCIENCE ALSO BEARS WITNESS, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.

These are the two things our consciences do:

  • Accuse us when we choose evil.
  • Excuse us when we choose good.

When Gentiles disobey their conscience, which serves as a law telling them not to do things, they are as guilty as Jews breaking the Mosaic law. Babies don’t have either: the Mosaic law or a conscience to tell them right from wrong.

Babies “Have No Knowledge of Good or Evil” Until They Reach the Biblical Age of Accountability 

In Numbers 14 the nation of Israel rebelled when the 12 spies come back with a report that the enemies in the land were too great for them. God told the people they would not get to enter the land because of their unbelief, but he added something interesting:

Numbers 14:31 But your little ones, who you said would become a prey, I will bring in, and they shall know the land that you have rejected.

If these little ones were as guilty as their parents, why weren’t they judged? Why did they get to enter the land? We aren’t told in Numbers, but when Moses recounted Israel’s history to the nation in Deuteronomy, right before they entered the land, God revealed why the infants were able to enter:

Deuteronomy 1:39 And as for your little ones, who you said would become a prey, and your children, who TODAY HAVE NO KNOWLEDGE OF GOOD OR EVIL, they shall go in there. And to them I will give it, and they shall possess it.

They were able to avoid the judgment their parents experienced, because they couldn’t choose between good and evil. Notice the way it’s worded: it says TODAY they have no knowledge of good and evil. It won’t always be that way. At some point they’ll have that knowledge.

The Famous Sign to Ahaz

Ahaz is the king of Judah and he’s terrified of being attacked by two kings, Rezin and Pekah. God gives Ahaz a sign that within a few years both kings will be dead, so he has nothing to worry about. The sign that God gives Ahaz is one of the most famous in Scripture:

Isaiah 7:14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

Even though the word “you” is singular, it can be used plurally, like if someone said to a group of people, “I am talking to all of you,” which is the case here. In other words, the prophecy isn’t just for Ahaz.

We know how the prophecy is for others: There was a virgin, Mary, who gave birth to a Son, Jesus. But this verse says his name would be Immanuel, so how do we explain that? Listen to Isaiah 7:14 quoted in the New Testament…

Matthew 1:21 [Mary] will bear a son, and you SHALL CALL HIS NAME JESUS.”…22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet [Isaiah]: 23 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and THEY SHALL CALL HIS NAME IMMANUEL” (which means, God with us). 

The Child Is Named Jesus or Immanuel?

These verses state his name would be Jesus and Immanuel. We know his name was Jesus, but how do we explain the Immanuel title? Immanuel means God with Us. Jesus didn’t fulfill this by being given this name. He fulfilled this by literally being God with Us.

Isaiah said, the Lord Himself will give YOU a sign, referring to Ahaz. Ahaz lived about 700 years before Jesus was born, so how could Jesus’s birth be a sign to Ahaz, who was long dead when Jesus was born? Prophecy often has a future, complete fulfillment, and a near, partial fulfillment. The future, complete fulfillment is Jesus, the true and greater Son born of a Virgin.

The near, partial fulfillment took place in Ahaz’s day. There would have been a young woman who was, at the time of this prophecy, a virgin. She would get married, cease being a virgin, have a child, and name that child, Immanuel. To be clear, there was nothing miraculous about this child’s birth, other than God predicted it.

David Guzik wrote, “Many commentators think this was fulfilled when a young woman in the royal household shortly married, conceived a son, and unknowingly named him Immanuel.” When Ahaz saw this child named Immanuel, he would think of Isiah’s words and be convinced God would deliver Judah. That’s how the child would serve as a sign.

Babies Can’t “Refuse Evil and Choose Good” Until They Reach the Biblical Age of Accountability

Regarding the child:

Isaiah 7:15 He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.

The child can’t choose between good and evil UNTIL He can eat curds and honey, or solid food. What age would a child have to be to eat curds and honey? Whatever age that is, it seems infants can’t choose good and evil before that. The point is made even clearer in the next verse:

Isaiah 7:16 For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted.

Before this child is old enough to “refuse evil and choose good,” the 2 kings Ahaz feared, Pekah and Rezin, would be killed. Clearly, until a child is a certain age it is unable to do two things: refuse evil and choose good. When children can refuse evil and choose good they:

  1. Become like Adam and Eve when they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil
  2. Develop consciences.
  3. Are no longer innocent.
  4. Have reached the biblical age of accountability,

So, What Is the Biblical Age of Accountability?

The obvious question is, “What is the biblical age of accountability? Give me a number!” Wayne Grudem is the author of probably the most well-known systematic theology book. I have a copy and it seems like many other pastors do too:

We must realize that a child’s sinful nature manifests itself very early, certainly within the first two years of a child’s life, as anyone who has raised children can affirm.

Wayne Grudem, “Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine,” Zondervan, May 18, 2009, p 500.

The prophecy in Isaiah 7 supports Wayne Grudem’s position. This chapter takes place in 735BC. Pekah and Rezin both died in 732 BC, when Immanuel was probably two or three, before he could choose between good and evil (before he reached the biblical age of accountability).

Two Other Thoughts About the Biblical Age of Accountability…

First, perhaps the biblical age of accountability changes from child to child because all children develop differently. But the age shouldn’t be bumped up to ten or twelve.

Second, if a child is old enough to be accountable, then it would be God’s character for that child to be able to be saved. Or another way to say it: it would not be God’s character to allow a child to be old enough to be condemned, but not also be saved. And Jesus said as much:

Luke 18:15 They were bringing EVEN INFANTS to him that he might touch them. 16 Jesus [said], “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for TO SUCH BELONGS THE KINGDOM OF GOD.

Notice they’re infants, not older children. We know from the parallel account in Mark 10:16 “[that] he took them in his arms.” They were small enough for him to pick them up. Jesus said the kingdom belongs to infants. They’re able to be saved. How do we explain small children, as young as two, being saved?

We’ve had quite a few infants so I’m not deceived about their spiritual understanding. The solution is that they might not have great spiritual knowledge or understanding, but we’re not saved by spiritual knowledge or understanding. We’re saved by faith, which even small children can have.

Babies “Cannot Discern Between Their Right and Their Left” Until They Reach the Biblical Age of Accountability

God sent Jonah to the Ninevites. They repented and God mercifully forgave them. This angered Jonah who wanted to see them destroyed because of their wickedness. God rebuked Jonah with these words…

Jonah 4:11 Should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons WHO CANNOT DISCERN BETWEEN THEIR RIGHT HAND AND THEIR LEFT?

The phrase “discern between their right hand and their left” is synonymous with choose between good and evil. The 120,000 are not adults, but babies. The adults could discern between their right hand and their left, or God wouldn’t be judging them. They knew better!

Here are a few commentaries making the point the 120,000 are infants…

Consider the way it’s worded in the amplified Bible…

Jonah 4:11 Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 [innocent] persons, who do not know the difference between their right and left hand [and are not yet accountable for sin]?”

Babies Are Ignorant

God wanted the Ninevite children to avoid judgment because they didn’t know better, which is to say they were ignorant. In Scripture, ignorant simply means they didn’t know. When people were ignorant, Paul gave them knowledge so they wouldn’t remain ignorant:

Romans 11:25 (NKJV) I do not desire…that you should be ignorant of this mystery.

Then he explained the mystery to them.

1 Corinthians 12:1 (NKJV) Concerning spiritual gifts…I do not want you to be ignorant.

Then he taught them about spiritual gifts.

1 Thessalonians 4:13 (NKJV) I do not want you to be ignorant…concerning those who have fallen asleep.

Then he explained what happened to those who fell asleep.

Foolishness Versus Ignorance

We almost think of ignorance as the opposite of wisdom, but foolishness is the opposite of wisdom. Foolishness means you have knowledge of the right thing to do, but you choose to do the wrong thing.

Think about the parable of the wise and foolish builders. They both had the same knowledge. The wise builder applied it, but the foolish builder did not apply it. So, they weren’t wise and foolish because one of them had knowledge, and the other didn’t. They were wise and foolish, because one applied knowledge, but the other didn’t.

James 4:17 Whoever KNOWS the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.

It doesn’t say whoever fails to do the right thing, for him it is sin. It could say that. It seems like it should be sinful for us to fail to do the right thing. But instead, the keyword is knows. We must know it is the right thing to do when we fail to do it for it to be sin.

In our vernacular, the word ignorant is offensive. If you tell people they are ignorant, they will feel insulted. But being ignorant can be a good thing. It means you don’t know better, so you’re not held responsible.

This also helps us understand why Adam and Eve could do something wrong before eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil without it being held against them: being naked. We know that was wrong. We could almost wonder why they didn’t get in trouble for it? They didn’t, because they were ignorant. They didn’t know it was wrong, so they weren’t held responsible for it.

God Is Merciful to the Ignorant (Such as Babies)

When babies are yelling, screaming, and throwing a fit, there’s no denying that it’s wrong. We don’t look at that behavior and say it isn’t wrong. But we say babies are not held responsible, because they don’t know it’s wrong. They are ignorant, at least until they reach biblical age of accountability.

If you’re a parent, frequently when you are disciplining your children you are trying to determine ignorance. Did your kids know better? If there is one thing that kids love to be, it is ignorant. When kids are in trouble their three favorite words are, “I didn’t know.”

Kids know that as long as they didn’t know, then they won’t be in trouble. Only the cruelest parents would punish children who didn’t know better.

Examples of God’s Mercy to the Ignorant

Similarly, God is not a cruel parent who punishes his children when they don’t know better.

Jesus’s Mercy to the Ignorant Crucifying Him

When Jesus was on the cross, He prayed God would forgive the people crucifying Him, because of their ignorance:

Luke 23:34 Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for THEY KNOW NOT WHAT THEY DO.”

Jesus wasn’t praying that they would be forgiven for all their sins. But he was praying that they be forgiven for crucifying the Son of God because they didn’t know they were crucifying the Son of God.

God’s Mercy to the Ignorant Jews Who Crucified Jesus

When Peter gave his second sermon in Acts 3, after healing the lame man, he told the Jews:

Acts 3:14 You denied the Holy and Righteous One (referring to Jesus), and asked for a murderer to be granted to you (referring to Barabbas), 15 and you killed the Author of life (referring to Jesus), whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses.

You can’t get much worse than murdering Jesus, but the Jews managed to do just that, because they also got a murderer released. There is no denying that what they did was terrible, but Peter said to them:

Acts 3:17 “And now, brothers, I know that YOU ACTED IN IGNORANCE, as did also your rulers.

Peter allowed them to feel less guilt, because even though they did something terrible, they didn’t know they were doing something THAT terrible.

God’s Mercy to Paul Because of His Ignorance

Paul was terrible to Christians before his conversion. Stephen’s stoning must be one of the darkest moments in the New Testament. That is when we are introduced to Saul before he became Paul:

Acts 7:58 They cast [Stephen] out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul…Acts 8:1 And Saul approved of his execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles…3 Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.

Saul was a monster. He destroyed families by ripping men and women out of their homes and throwing them into prison simply for being Christians. But later he described his actions:

Acts 26:9 “Indeed, I myself thought I must do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth.

Not only did he not know what he was doing was wrong, he thought what he was doing was right:

1 Timothy 1:13 Though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I RECEIVED MERCY BECAUSE I HAD ACTED IGNORANTLY in unbelief,

Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul said God had mercy on him because he acted ignorantly.1

God’s Mercy to Babies Who Haven’t Reached the Biblical Age of Accountability

Babies are the picture of ignorance (unable to choose between good and evil). If people receive mercy for being ignorant, nobody could receive more mercy than babies. We can be confident God won’t judge babies who perish before reaching the biblical age of accountability.

God Is Less Merciful to the Knowledgeable

In Matthew 10:1-15 Jesus sends out the 12 apostles. Then:

Matthew 10:15 It will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.

What “town”? The town that rejected the 12 apostles when they visited. Jesus says that it will be worse for that town than Sodom and Gomorrah.

How could a town be worse than Sodom and Gomorrah? What would a town have to do to receive punishment worse than theirs? Fire rained down from heaven and destroyed them. You almost can’t imagine worse punishment.

Did they receive worse punishment because they were worse than Sodom and Gomorrah? From a human perspective, no, in that they did not seem to engage in the wickedness that Sodom and Gomorrah engaged in. But from a heavenly perspective, yes, because they were visited by the very apostles of Jesus Christ, which gave them high accountability and knowledge of good and evil…but they wouldn’t repent.

Matthew 11:20 Then he began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent.

What would give people high accountability? Wouldn’t it be seeing Christ’s mighty works or miracles? Absolutely! So, Jesus says to those unrepentant cities:

Matthew 11:21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you.

Tyre and Sidon were notoriously wicked, but Jesus said they would receive greater mercy than Chorazin and Bethsaida—which never engaged in as much wickedness as Tyre and Sidon—because they knew had greater accountability.

Matthew 11:23 And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. 24 But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.”

Again, we’ve got the wicked city of Sodom, yet God said it will be more tolerable on Sodom than on Capernaum. Christ never visited Sodom, preached there, and performed miracles there. For a city to experience all that means it has immense accountability and then to fail to repent is to bring on immense judgment.

Babies Are Innocent, But We Are Not

Until babies reach the biblical age of accountability they:

  • Are innocent
  • Don’t have consciences
  • Can’t choose between good and evil

But this isn’t the case for adults. Most of us have heard lots of Bible teaching and sat through many sermons. We are knowledgeable, so our accountability is high. You might expect me to say, “So you better refuse evil and choose good.” Basically, you better try harder.

Yes, we should strive to be faithful, but no matter how hard we try, we still fall short:

Romans 3:23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,

The solution is for us to humble ourselves, repent, and look to Christ to be saved.

  1. Hebrews 3 discusses Israel’s rebellion in the wilderness and also shows that God lacks mercy for those who are not ignorant:

    Hebrews 3:9 [God said, “In the wilderness] your fathers put me to the test and saw my works for forty years. 10 Therefore I was provoked with that generation, and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart; they have not known my ways.’ 11 As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest.’”

    They heard the gospel (Hebrews 4:2). They had every reason to believe. They were accountable. They should’ve known better. But they chose unbelief, and it’s this unbelief that gave them evil hearts. This is why God was what provoked with that generation [to] wrath. God discusses their rebellion in verses 10 and 11, and then says:

    Hebrews 3:12 Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.

    If any of them were unbelieving, it’s because they had an evil heart. This is interesting, because if we think of the word evil, we’re usually quick to think of actions or behaviors. We don’t usually think of unbelief as a characteristic of having an evil heart, but their hearts were evil because of their accountability. They saw God’s works for 40 years and had high accountability. When they rebelled on the border of the Promised Land at Kadesh Barnea, it revealed the evil of their hearts. If they hadn’t seen so much they wouldn’t be considered so evil.

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