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.

Travis Agnew is a Christian, husband, father, pastor, author, blogger, and religion instructor.

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3 Comments

  1. Greg Deal

    Very engaging blog post, Travis. I appreciate your willingness to address spiritual questions many pastors shy away from because they worry that provoking thought on matters of faith causes unnecessary internal spiritual strife. But I feel addressing such strife causes you to take inventory of your relationship with God and on what foundation it was erected. I’ve wrestled with this, too. You worry if you rush children at an early age — even if they profess to understand sin is disobeying God (which is clearly defined and not open to interpretation) and is not “doing something bad,” (which is very open to interpretation and dangerous moral relativism) — that it’s something they’ve committed to memory and not to heart and thus can’t truly understand the need for forgiveness as a bridge back to God across a divide separated by sin. But, then you worry if you wait too long they might walk away from the door they’ve been shown and never return to knock. And then there’s the whole movement of re-baptism, where some feel they have lived through pain, felt God work and want to make a heart-felt immersion as a testament before the body of Christ about a faith they say they didn’t comprehend as a child. I was sprinkled at a Methodist church at 12 because I felt, at the time, I fully understood what I was doing. But I was 19 when I was struck by the realization that there is a choice outside the insulation provided by a Christian upbringing. It feels like that is a “real choice” after you are exposed to counter-beliefs  — one between obeying God or ignoring him. Was I walking with God and truly born again at 12 and just reinforcing my beliefs with a non-insulated choice at 19, or was my real choice and full understanding of my decision at 19 the moment of rebirth? I don’t know what God would say, but I know that even though I felt right at 12, I didn’t feel God’s presence and hand until 19. I look back at the event at 12 and think more of the ceremony than the personal symbolism I truly comprehended at 19. But if God knows your heart, who besides Him knows if the 12 event was spiritually relevant to me at the time and became refined at 19? Cameron is about to turn 8 and has a very deep understanding of not only the Christian tenets, but, more importantly, how they work within the world, sometimes to the point that he sees, comprehends and analyzes them and then meditates on it with Christ-like, deep spiritual contemplation, and them months later reveals that understanding while just passing through an adult-level spiritual debate. Everything tells me he’s ready, but I barely remember 8 years old, much less be able to say that any commitment I made then was a true matter of the heart. It then leads me back to maybe the most ignored subject of all within the Bible: Predestination and “the elect.” I wonder whether the P-word nullifies this debate if God already has chosen his family. By the way, I would love to see you tackle moral relativism in a future blog posting. It seems like it is becoming so common that many Christian churches are finding this dangerous philosophy casts a wider net. You see it every day, too. Ask 10 people on the street to define morality, and I bet you get more humanitarian responsibility replies than ones based on the clearest Biblical-based commands and teachings. 

    • Great stuff, Greg. Really insightful points! It’s a careful line to walk for sure.

      And I’ll see what I can do about that moral relativism.

  2. The wages of sin is death ( Romans 6:23).

    The fact that children die shows that they are subject to sin just like adults. The Bible never mentions an age of accountability. Instead, it teaches that “the whole world (is) held accountable to God” (Romans 3:19), Psalms 51:5, Eph. 2:3.

    Gary
    Luther, Baptists, and Evangelicals

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