The Age of Accountability: Rethinking Children and Salvation

Welcome to another session of the Children’s Ministry Think Tank. This is a monthly feature where we discuss controversial or difficult topics related to children’s ministry. Our responses are just a starting point, we encourage you to share your views in the comment section below.

What About the Age of Accountability?

What do you teach about concerning a child’s condition (sometimes called age) of accountability for responding to the Gospel? How would you counsel a parent who is concerned about a preschool aged child who seems disinterested in learning about Jesus? If you had to estimate (and you do), what is the chronological age that most children become fully accountable for their decision about Christ?

Response from Jared Kennedy

Some Christians and Christian traditions maintain that Scripture teaches an “age of accountability” before which young children are not held responsible for sin and are not counted guilty before God. But several Bible passages indicate that children (even before they are born) have a guilty standing before God and a sinful nature so that they not only have a tendency to sin, but God views them as sinners (Psalm 51:5; 58:3; Ephesians 2:3). Experienced parents know that children do not have to be taught to do wrong. It is their natural inclination to disobey, to lie, and to manipulate.

This is one of the strongest motivations for Christian parents and Christian churches teaching the gospel to their children from the youngest age. We teach about Jesus because children need Jesus as their savior from sin. As one famous preacher said, “The gospel is meat for men but it is also milk for babes.” But kids don’t always want to hear about Jesus and trust him. When a preschool age child isn’t interested in learning about Jesus, there isn’t necessarily a cookie-cutter answer, but here are some areas I’d explore with the parent: (1) I’d encourage the parent to examine his or her own heart. Does mom and/or dad get excited about Jesus and learning from his Word? Do they regularly pray and read Bible stories together with their family? Young children often look to and follow their parent’s example. Perhaps a parent has a satisfying relationship with the Lord, but it is private and not shared with the child. Invite the child into your relationship with Jesus. (2) I’d ask the parent whether or not he or she talks about sin with their child. Does your child know that when she disobeys you, she is also disobeying God? Do you just talk about your child’s misbehavior (taking a cookie, hitting his sister, not sharing), or do you talk with him about the heart attitudes and motivations that lie behind that behavior (greed, pride in performance, selfishness)? When our children have a more honest view of the extent to which sin is rooted in their hearts, they will be more likely to look for and respond to Christ—who provides pardon and provision for that sin. (3) Most importantly, I’d pray with the parent, and I’d encourage the parent to pray. Salvation is ultimately God’s work in the child’s heart. May God have mercy on our kids and help them to repent from sin and love Jesus.

As I stated above, I cannot justify an “age of accountability” from the Scriptures. John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb (Luke 1:15). Since salvation is God’s work in a person’s heart, it doesn’t require any particular level of cognitive understanding or behavioral response to be present and real. Growth in faith is certainly evidenced by understanding and behavior, but it is not earned (or merited) by them. Faith is more than a decision, it is a gift from God. So, my age estimate is somewhere around conception. :)

Jared Kennedy is a husband, a father, and the Director of SojournKids (http://sojournkids.com), the Children’s Ministry of Sojourn Community Church in downtown Louisville, KY.

Response from Nicole VanderMeulen

I apologize if you’re already tired of me saying this, but the Lutheran theology in which I stand strongly believes that it’s more about God choosing us (and he has, all of us!) and not about us choosing him. It’s all about the grace. If your child is disinterested in church or Jesus or anything else you find essential, well God forgives them for all of those things too!

That is not to say that we shouldn’t be concerned about our child’s development regarding their Christian education and faith. Each child is uniquely wonderful and will develop at their own pace. Each one of us learned to walk, talk, ride a bike, sleep through the night, read, and do about a billion other things all at a very different rate in a plethora of different ways, most of which could all be considered “normal”. I don’t think children’s understanding and accepting of Jesus is different than any other developmental milestone. Why can’t we just celebrate the special and unique gifts each child brings to our village, rather than worrying or trying to force faith?

My other thought is that I know many, many adults who question their relationship with Jesus and hit bumps and potholes along their faith journey. I actually find this healthy and not of concern. To fear and to question and to wonder and to doubt are all means for growing in faith. Why would we expect our children to be any more firm or certain than most adults can be? The concept of Jesus and the news of the Gospel is VERY abstract knowledge for a child (and still for many adults too!) to comprehend. I think expecting this type of understanding from a child is inappropriate and will only set us up for disappointment. Instead, I encourage telling children over and over about God’s unending love for them and showing them the care and community that comes with membership in a Christian family. The rest will come.

The educator in me would say that if your preschooler isn’t interested in learning about Jesus, than you should re-examine the teaching strategies being used. I don’t think I’ve met a child yet who is truly disinterested in learning about Jesus if the information is presented in a fun, engaging, age-appropriate, diverse manner.

I can’t put an age on accountability for the Gospel, because I truly believe our relationship with God is a journey, not a moment or a single prayer, or day, or year. Our faith is ever-changing and I think that is healthy for all ages.

Nicole VanderMeulen serves as the Children’s Ministry Coordinator at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in Renton, Washington. She is a regular lesson plan contributor for our website.

Response from Wayne Stocks

By God’s providence, the Bible does not give a specific age at which an individual is accountable for the knowledge of their sin and their decision to accept or reject Jesus Christ as their savior. There is ample evidence in the Bible that children who die before this “age of accountability” do in fact go to heaven. Indeed, people like Charles Spurgeon have postulated that, because of this, the streets of heaven may well be populated more by those who died before this age of accountability than those who attained a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ after the age of accountability.

The age of accountability is different for all children, but I think we can define it as the age at which a child is capable of knowing and understanding that they are a sinner, recognizing that they needed a savior, understanding that Jesus Christ is Savior and Lord, and realizing that we are saved only by the grace of God and not by virtue of anything we can do. Only God knows what that age is for each individual child. Despite that, Tony has asked us to estimate the chronological age at which children become accountable for their decision about Christ. I will hedge just a bit, and answer the question this way: I think that by the age of twelve most children will have reached the age of accountability. I also believe many children actually reach it earlier than that (sometimes much earlier). In Jewish tradition, a boy became a man and entered adulthood at age 12. This is consistent with Jesus’ age when his parents brought him to the temple and he was found in deep theological conversations with the teachers of his age. Mary was a young woman (likely middle school aged) when the angel Gabriel appeared to her and told her she was pregnant with the Son of God. I think all of this points to somewhere around 12 or so as a “maximum” age of accountability for most kids.

As for a minimum age, I think that kids are definitely capable of accepting Christ and fully comprehending that decision at a much younger age than twelve. I am not entirely sure what the floor is, only God knows! In short, I’m with Charles Spurgeon on this one who wrote in the book Come ‘Ye Children:

“I will not say at what age children are first capable of receiving the knowledge of Christ, but it is much earlier than some fancy; and we have seen and known children who have given abundant evidence that they have received Christ and have believed in Him at a very early age.”

I think it is imperative as parents and Children’s Ministry workers’ that we never let our preconceived notions about whether or not a child is old enough to accept Christ stand in the way of the Lord’s work. I think as many times as a child wants to make a profession of faith or “ask God into their heart,” we should encourage that. We may not know at that moment whether or not they have attained to saving faith, but God does. In my own experience, my eight year old son prayed of his own volition (really God’s but by his own I mean without human prompting) several times from age four until age seven for Jesus to come into his heart and be his Lord. That said, when he was filling out the form at our church to be baptized several weeks ago, he knew exactly which date it was (to the day) when that prayer “stuck” and he became part of God’s family!

Finally, when it comes to encouraging parents of preschool aged students who seem disinterested in learning about Jesus, I would just encourage them to keep trying, be patient, pray and trust in the Lord. All children are different. If your child doesn’t like being “taught” about Jesus, find a good story book like the Jesus Storybook Bible and read it to them. If they don’t like being read to, there are great video resources out there. If they like games, there are good game resources out there. Just don’t give up. Keep modeling what it looks like to live for Jesus and they will eventually become interested. Finally, while as parent we must fulfill our duties to pass along our knowledge of the Lord as laid out in Deuteronomy 6, we must also remember that the outcome and timing of everything in our children’s lives belong to the Lord.

Read more from Wayne Stocks on his blog “Dad in the Middle”.

Response from Brenna Phillips

Q: What do you teach about concerning a child’s condition (sometimes called age) of accountability for responding to the Gospel?

There is no age of accountability about when a child (person) responds to the Gospel. A person can make a faith decision at any age in which he understands.

Q: How would you counsel a parent who is concerned about a preschool aged child who seems disinterested in learning about Jesus?

Preschoolers develop and mature at different ages and stages. As an early childhood teacher, I see 3-5 year olds learn at different levels and in different ways. Some 3 year olds students can write their names and letters of the alphabet. Others struggle to simply identify their written names. They learn differently at different times. Early childhood teachers continue to teach using different methods and preschoolers develop and learn all along the way. Therefore, Christian education teachers and parents must continue to teach preschoolers about Jesus using different teaching methods. They may seem disinterested but they are listening and comprehending the message on their own levels. Little tidbits of information are connecting in their minds. Through relationships with those preschoolers, teachers and parents will hear them say something and repeat something that they have heard and learned.

Q: If you had to estimate (and you do), what is the chronological age that most children become fully accountable for their decision about Christ?

The answer to this question is a grey area. There is no age of accountability when children (people) become fully accountable in their decisions about Christ. The Scripture does not speak about accountability ages. God holds a person accountable when he/she is totally woo’ed by Him in making a decision. Believing and accepting Christ is as easy as A-admit, B-believe, C-choose and a person is instructed to come to Christ with faith as a little child. When a person comes to understand and make a faith decision, then he is held accountable. There is no set age for this accountability.

Brenna Phillips is Children-Family Minister at Mission Fellowship Church in Middletown, Delaware, and teaches preschool students at an early childhood learning center.

Response from Terry Delaney

As a children’s minister, I specifically teach first through fifth grade in Sunday School using a master teacher approach where I teach one lesson and then the children break down according to age into a smaller group setting for discussion and application with other teachers. I challenge the children all the time with their sin and that they must respond in repentance (yes, I use the “big” words with explanation as to what they mean) and trust in what Christ did for them.

My kindergarten kids were taught about sin last year with the Children’s Desiring God curriculum. At first, my teachers did not like it much, but have seen the fruit of their teaching this doctrine to kids so young in that the children are beginning to view things through a biblical lens rather than “what Johnny and Susie does.”

Regarding counseling parents whose children “seem” disinterested, I exhort them to continue teaching their children diligently (Dt. 6:7) and that the Lord will bless their efforts. Usually, I can counsel the parents to avoid the multitude of distractions in a child’s life (television and video games) and help them to set up a time of family worship each evening for five minutes or so. To a person, they have said that making these slight changes radically changes their children’s attitudes in most every area.

I believe that a child becomes fully accountable for her decision for Christ when she is fully aware of right and wrong. I also believe that the parents should be teaching their children about sin from day one and that Christ never sinned yet He died so that we could be forgiven of our sin. Whenever I discipline any child, I explain to them that what they did was sin and that Christ died for that sin. This has a lasting effect on the child in that they now begin to see just how sinful their hearts really are (Jer. 17:9) and how gracious our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ truly is.

The way I see it, the world–and the prince of this world–begins an onslaught on our children from day one. We must be on the defense from day one teaching our children the realities of the spiritual warfare that is taking place. Many parents underestimate their children’s ability to understand and discern, but as a parent of four, I can honestly tell you that they are sponges and they soak in more than we can imagine. It is up to us as the parents to keep Christ before our children at every possible moment and do so until they or we shall leave this earth.

Terry Delaney is a regular contributor to our blog and also edits a website about Christian Book Reviews.

Response from Charlie Wallace

The notion of an “age of accountability” is a topic that has been debated for years. Paedobaptists (those that baptize infants) do not discuss this topic as frequently since they typically hold to the same basic belief as Calvin:

“If any of those who are the objects of divine election, after receiving the sign of regeneration (baptism) depart this life before they have attained the years of discretion, the Lord renews them by the power of his Spirit, in a way incomprehensible to us as he alone foresees will be necessary.” (Godfrey, Robert W. John Calvin, Crossway: Wheaton, IL, 2009, 104).

This however, only occurs for the elect – those children who God has chosen to redeem before the foundation of the world. In this way, baptism of infants confirms that they are part of God’s covenant people.

If, however, you believe that God has not chosen some to salvation before the foundation of the world, and are a devout credobaptist then the age of accountability becomes an issue. What do you tell a parent whose 3-year old dies in a tragic accident? Does the child go to Hell? On this issue, I would argue that there is a profound difference between one’s original sin that has been inherited from Adam and one’s willful and disobedient sin that a child, or person, commits. We are held accountable by a just and righteous God for the sin that we commit when we are mentally capable of understanding it. (The same would hold for those who hare mentally handicapped, etc.)

For a parent who is concerned about their child’s sinful behavior, at whatever age, I would tell them to (1) pray earnestly and frequently that the Spirit will convict their child of their sin, (2) continue to do their part as the parent in teaching their child about Jesus, and (3) rest in the comfort of knowing that God is providential and sovereign. Depending on your view of God he either knows what will happen to your child, has deemed what will happen to him, or perhaps both! Whatever God’s role, it is completely holy and good because he is God and our notion of what is fair and just comes from our being made in His image. Unfortunately, our child’s salvation is one thing that parents cannot control. As much as we would like to, we can’t.

As far as the age that a child becomes cognizant of their sin, I would say that there exists a wide range. I have counseled 5 year olds that were broken-hearted about their sin and knew they needed Jesus for salvation. I have counseled 10-year olds that were clueless. Like adults, children come to the Lord at different times in their lives. Our job as pastors and parents is to pray that they will come to faith – and come to faith as soon as possible.

Charlie Wallace is the Children’s Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Columbia, SC. He is a regular contributor for our blog. You can read more from Charlie on his blog titled First Kids.

What Do You Think?

This is one of those issues that is not going away. Leave your response to my question in the comment box below. You can also interact with the points made by different writers.