Apologetics: ə-pŏl'ə-jĕt'ĭks from the Greek απоλоγία Def: The branch of theology that is concerned with defending or proving the truth of Christian doctrines.

The Age of Accountability. . . When Childlike Faith Become Saving Faith?

Written By Esthermay Bentley-Goossen on 04 March 2009

Q: At what age do you think a child is old enough to understand that they are a sinner and what it means to accept Christ into their heart as Lord and Savior?
~ Melissa

In His wisdom, God did not identify a specific moment when a child becomes "responsible" for a spiritual understanding of sin and salvation through Christ. Children mature at different phases and there is no "age of accountability" identified in Scripture. It is unrealistic to use a chronological age as a marker for spiritual understanding and maturity. Here's what the Bible tells us about the spiritual state of all human beings:

"Even from birth the wicked go astray; from the womb they are wayward and speak lies"
~ Psalm 58:3

A six-year old who lies to his mother is just as guilty of breaking God's law as a thirty-five year old who commits adultery. But does the six-year old understand that he is breaking God's law?
Probably not.

Does he understand his depravity before God?
Probably not.

What if the child has already invited Jesus into his/her heart?
The child may have childlike faith, but without a full understanding of his depravity as a sinner before God, he does not have saving faith.

So . . . a four-year old smashing his brother over the head with a toy block is not aware of his unrepentant heart -- or God's righteous judgment -- or justification by faith. But how about a six-year old? An eight-year old? . . . A ten-year old?

The Jews had identified the age of twelve. It was during a Jewish boy's twelfth year that he was prepared for his induction as a full member of the religious community which took place when he turned thirteen.

This is significant. This is the also age when Jesus was taken by His parents to Jerusalem for Passover and later found deeply engrossed in discussion the "doctors" (KJV).
The Greek word for "doctors" is didaskalos, and refers to scripture scholars.

Do you see a wonderful illustration here? Jesus was asking profound questions at this point in his childhood. Questions that would not have come from a four-year old. This then seems to be an age when these kinds of questions begin to be personal in the heart of a child.

Somewhere around the age of twelve, a transition from childhood to adulthood begins to take place. It's not totally dissociated from puberty, where one becomes aware of impulses, feelings, drives, desires . . . and therefore sinful attitudes and passions.

Remember: This age of accountability is not based upon any direct teaching from the Bible.

This time of early- to mid-adolescence does not correspond to a particular age for every child due to differences in personal and psychological maturation AND environment. (Could be age 10. Could be age 16.) When a child is old enough to understand the moral consequences of his or her actions, then he/she is capable of obeying the moral laws of God and can be held accountable for sins. And it is at this point, that a child is capable of understanding and accepting the plan of Salvation.
Salvation is not a "feel-good" experience where we are simply filled with "God's Love."
Salvation is an experience of genuine repentance.
Salvation is not possible until we know we're lost!

It's important to remember that when a child professes faith in Jesus at any age -- regardless of their ability to fully grasp the concept of sin and redemption -- we need to encourage them in ways appropriate to their age and developmental stage.

"Train up a child in the way he should go. . . "
~ Proverbs 22:6

The idea of an "age of accountability" should never undermine our duty as Christian parents to lead our children to Christ because God's Word is clear on this: We cannot save our children. We are all guilty through Adam. Even children . . .

"Just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all have sinned."
~ Romans 5:12

Children, like adults, are accountable for their sins. This is why Paul says that by nature we are all "children of wrath." (Ephesians 2:3) In the case of our children, we trust God for their salvation and are at the same time called to exercise our duty to raise them in the knowledge and fear of the Lord so that when they do reach an age of understanding their child-like faith can become saving faith.

When children do profess faith in Jesus -- in ways appropriate to their age and developmental stage -- we should rejoice while continuing on with our duty:

"Train up a child in the way he should go. . . "
~ Proverbs 22:6

And as they grow, Christian parents need to continue to encourage a child's understanding of salvation.

God inspired John to write these words:

"I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth."
~ III John 4

"Sanctify them through the truth: thy word is truth."
~ John 17:17

And the Apostle Paul writes this:

"So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God."
~ Romans 10:17

In other words, our children need vital exposure to the Word of God. In his second letter to Timothy (who was probably a teenager at the time of his salvation), Paul wrote,

". . . from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work."
~ II Timothy 3:14-17

Note Paul's words: ". . . Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation."

See, simply reading or hearing God's Word will not save us. Salvation requires an awareness of our depravity and a mature understanding of sin, righteousness and judgment before Almighty God.

It is possible that the deeper a child's immersion in Scripture in his early years, the easier the salvation experience will be. . . .

"How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to Your Word.
I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands.
I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you."
~ Psalm 119:9-11

~ Esthermay Bentley-Goossen
©2009 The Heart of a Pastor's Wife

For the entire plan of salvation:
Kids Need HIM
Teenagers Need HIM
Twenty-Somethings Need HIM
Women Need HIM
Men Need HIM

Questions?
Leave a comment
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15 comments:

Joan said...

Thank you. This is great. Written like a true counselor. I'd always heard 12, but the Jesus in the temple example make that come alive.

Kris said...

remember the jailer who was baptized, along with his whole household, during a night of being taught about Jesus? i have often wondered how old some of those were in his household.

k

Barbara said...

"Salvation is not possible until we know we're lost."

That's absolutely right.
Excellent post. I'm going to share this one with our Sunday School Superintendent.

Denise said...

Awe inspiring post.

Rachel M. said...

Amen! So many people say, "Well, we can't make the decision for our children, so we'll wait and talk about it when they're older." If we wait, others will get to them first, and they may not teach them righteousness.
My parents pushed me toward Christ, by teaching me daily about the Bible, dragging me to church every week, and modeling Christianity all the time. They didn't make the decision for me, but they made certain that I had all the information to make it. I'm so thankful they did!

kalopoieo said...

An understanding of sin, righteousness,and judgment is absolutely prerequisite to salvation. Most evangelical christians don't have this prerequisite knowledge. So how can they teach it to their own children? Most churches refuse to preach it. So what kind of Christians are we sending into the world? Your previous post on mourning sin touched it when you mention the Gospel according to Joel Osteen (ok, I picked up on it - you're good). I'd like to know how many from his congregation are sharing the truth of salvation in their workplaces and homes. Sad. so very very sad. My wife shared with me a case in IL where a neighborhood mother sent her son to VBS and later sued the church because someone told her son that he was a sinner. I don't know the outcome, but my guess is, the church no longer tell children they are sinners. If we're not telling adults, why tell the children? The saving faith of children must start at home and with truly saved parents.
Wonderful post, Estermay.

mholgate said...

Thank you so much for this post! It really answered a lot of my questions and confirmed that my husband and I have been on the right track with our conversations about the topic so far. I am definitely going to read through your post again and study the scriptures you used in my own quiet time.

Blessings,
-Melissa

Betsy Markman said...

Thanks for tackling this tough subject so well. I agree that there's no set age. God knows our hearts.

Please stop by my blog...there's an award there waiting for you.

Michele Williams said...

I agree.... each child is different...great post...

Kate said...

Good post good question. How I wish sin and righteousness and judgment were part of teaching salvation in our church when I was young. Roles are reversed in my family now as I try to prayfully show my own mother that being saved is not the same as being religious. Christian parents do have great repsonsibility.

Laurie Ann said...

Very poignant post, Esthermay. I have been wondering about the age of accountability since my grandchildren were born. I believe it's different for each child, but love your explanation of it and the example you gave regarding Jesus at the temple.

On the other end of the spectrum...my grandmother who has been a strong Christian woman of faith in times past has Alzheimer's. She can't remember to pray. I know God hasn't forgotten her but she seems to have forgotten Him. It's so sad, because she would be apalled were she in her right mind. It breaks my heart. I think she feels His peace from time to time but is, for the most part, like a young child, only not retaining any of it.

Anonymous said...

first time i've been to your blog. what an important topic. thank you i've never seen it put quite this way. the thing that concerns me most with the age of accountability is when sunday school teachers and youth leaders facilitate "salvations" that clearly aren't genuine? my daughter is concerned for her friends who are from unchurched homes. who becomes responsible? the kids or the leaders?
becky

Erika W. said...

Thank you for posting such refreshing honesty. :-) Any four-year-old can recite the sinner's prayer, but it takes the knowledge that comes with age to make it real. I am so glad to have confirmation that we are on the right track with our children- they will make their own commitments when they are ready, and in the meantime, we will talk with them and model for them making a decision for Christ.

Susan said...

Wow, what an enlightening post Estermay!

Thanks for taking time to answer this question the way you did.

Once again I leave your blog giving thanks for you!

The Davidson Den said...

Thank you for this post. We've been faced with "what to do" recently regarding our 6-year old and his wrestling with spiritual questions,etc. One night he said to me, "Mommy, I pray every night for God to help me be good and obedient, but it's not working. I just can't." He seemed genuinely upset with himself and didn't understand WHY God wouldn't "help" him. My husband and I explained to him that our "Helper" is the Holy Spirit and that He lives in those who have fully trusted in Jesus and have surrendered their lives wholly to Him. Of course, he said he wanted to do that right then. We told him we wanted him to understand everything really well before he made any decisions because it was a very serious matter, but we made sure he knew how wonderful it was that God had made him aware of his sinfulness and his need of a Savior. Several weeks passed and just the other day (Monday) he sat down at breakfast and announced that he had "surrendered his life to Jesus" and "asked Him to come in his heart." Really?? we said. And his reply was, "Yeah. Now I can eat the bread and drink the juice at church like you guys." (Our church observes communion weekly.) Ah. Hmm. Now what? Truly, I don't know. I mean, what "rule" does a family go by between the time of "child-like faith" and "saving faith"? davidsonden@gmail.com

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