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What is the Age of Accountability?

Much debate surrounds the issue of the age of accountability. When the disciples asked Jesus who was the greatest in the kingdom (Matt 18:1), he sat a child down before the disciples to answer their question (Matt 18:2). It would have been pointless for Jesus to exalt a child to hold the mantle of who belongs in the kingdom if he did not believe that a child is able to become a Christian at a young age.  Jesus believed in childlike faith so much that he required adults to bear a childlike resemblance in their own salvation (Matt 18:3).

While an exact age of accountability is not prescribed in the Bible, statistics show that a large majority of children become Christian between the ages of six and eight.  Barna’s research indicates that what a person believes by the age of thirteen is normally what he or she will continue to believe the rest of his or her life.  On the other hand, parents must be cautious even though many children do convert at an early age. For at least two centuries of its existence, the early church retained no records of allowing young children to be baptized.  Apparently, the first generations of Christians were at least apprehensive about rushing baptism for children.

Is there a moment in a child’s life when he breaches the threshold of being responsible for his sins, or is he born responsible since he is born sinful?  The idea of the age of accountability originated from the tension concerning the concept of original sin. If one believes that people are born into original sin due to the curse of the Adamic nature (Rom 5:12), that person must grapple with what happens to children who die before a chance to understand or accept the gospel message [In the case of children who die at an early age, one view is that those children are secure in heaven. Due to Moses’ inference that children do not know the difference between right and wrong (Deut 1:39), David’s claim that he would one day see his child who had died (2 Sam 12:23), and Isaiah’s prophecy of a time when a boy would understand the difference between right and wrong (Isa 7:15-16), the biblical message seems to indicate an age of accountability and a security associated with children who die before reaching that age. For more information, see Millard J. Erickson’s Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 654-55].

Since the New Testament reveals a need for personal faith for salvation, theologians developed the idea of an age of accountability in an attempt to grasp the intricacies involved with children following Christ.

Some believe that the time when a child truly understands the difference between right and wrong is between 11 and 13 years of age.  Others believe that accountability begins when an individual child is able not only to understand when he or she has done something wrong, but also to understand the consequences of sinful actions.  Many scholars believe that when a child first shows indication of moral consciousness, a child is able to be converted.  Whatever the actual age is, an important thought for a parent to remember is to show concern over a child’s spirituality without pressuring the child’s decision.