The “age of accountability” refers to the time when a young person becomes responsible to God for his sin.
I recently read that “in the USA, nearly 85 percent of people who make a decision for Christ, do so between the ages of 4 and 14.”1 This is what is called the “4/14 Window,” a term coined by Dr. Dan Brewster. Brewster was referring to the research of Dr. Bryant Myers which reports the finding. Further, George Barna’s research seems to support this stat by saying
the probability of someone embracing Jesus as his or her Savior was 32 percent for those between the ages of 5 and 12; 4 percent for those in the 13-18 range; and 6 percent for people 19 or older. In other words, if people do not embrace Jesus Christ as their Savior before they reach their teenage years, the chance of their doing so at all is slim.2
But this got me thinking: does 4 sound a little too young for someone to make a decision to become a Christian, given all that is involved?
Is there an age that is right for a child to become a Christian? Should parents push their young children to become Christians before the children are truly ready, whether motivated by the fear of hell or the desire for righteousness? When is a child truly ready to make a personal decision to become a Christian? When is a child too young to follow the Bible’s plan of salvation, and when is he old enough? Are children even in need of a savior at that early point in life? At what age does God count sin against a child, triggering the need for salvation?
These questions and more surface when parents consider the timing of when they should baptize their children. No parent wants to see his or her child die separated from God. Let’s just say it is extremely high on the list for God-fearing parents to see their children become saved.
Even though as of yet I cannot find a Bible verse that says directly when a child is old enough to need and receive salvation in Christ, I believe there is an answer to this controversial question. Sometimes when the Bible does not specifically address a question of ours, we can still arrive at an answer through gathering the available wisdom and knowledge of Scripture. We can put 2 and 2 together and feel confident about it.
In arriving at an answer, we need to gather various bits of understanding that of themselves may not seem to address the question at hand. These include things concerning the nature of God, the law of God, the law of sin, the human will, and the age of accountability.
Phew! Did I lose you on all that? I hope not. Keep reading…
The Nature of God
Our journey begins with who God is by nature. God’s very own nature is the foundation of why we need a savior in the first place. God is holy by nature, which means he is separate from sin and thus cannot be united with sin. This is why it is impossible for God to sin. Good for him. Bad for us. God’s holy nature is such that it expresses itself in wrath against the sinner. The end result for the one who has sinned (which is everyone, by the way (Rom. 3:23)) is eternal separation, unless he has a savior to pay that penalty for him.
So the point here is that the reason why anyone becomes a Christian and becomes saved is so that he can spend eternity with a holy God, and not end up separated from God because his sin was never forgiven. Eternal consequence is the obvious motivation of why a parent would want his or her child to become a Christian.
The Law of God
So there is a holy God, and that holy God is a lawgiver. Humans become aware of who God is through various ways. One main way is by the fact of God’s creation (Rom. 1:18-20). Another main way is through understanding the inspired Word of God (such as in the Old Testament Law of Moses, or in the New Testament commands and teachings of Christ). It is the breaking of God’s law that is the beginning of sin.
The Law of Sin
The Bible defines sin as “lawlessness” (1 John 3:4). This means that when we break the law of God, we sin. If God has given us a command and we break it, we have sinned against God. The law of sin is such that it produces death (Rom. 6:23). We then need a savior.
But wait, we can’t miss this next part. In Romans 5:13, Paul says:
sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law.
If I do something in America that is legal but would be considered illegal under a law in Russia, I would not be guilty of it as if I were under Russian law. Similarly, if there were no law whatsoever in America, I would not be guilty as a law breaker even if I did things that were evil. Why? Because sin is not counted where there is no law.
Paul goes on in verse 20 to say:
Now the law came in to increase the trespass
The more laws there are, the more we know what is right and wrong. And the more defined right and wrong become. And we become more and more conscious of it. And with this, there is more potential to break a law because there are so many and we then can feel temptation.
Continuing in Romans 7:7-11, Paul says:
If it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.
The law of sin is such that sin is only counted and only has power through the breaking of a command of God. In other words, apart from the law, sin lies dead. Sin can only exist in the context of a command, because sin happens when a command is broken. So, if there is no law command, then there is no possibility for sin, in breaking that law command.
The Human Will and the Knowledge of God’s Law
But how could Paul say he was “alive apart from the law”? Are we to believe that Paul, before he understood what coveting was and that not coveting was a command of God, never did what would be considered coveting? Are we to believe Paul never did anything that God’s law considers sin before he understood it as sin? Of course not.
Paul is saying he was alive because the law was not yet applied to him, or he was not yet under the law and accountable to God for it. This could be because he was too young to truly understand it, or he was truly ignorant of it. The point is once he truly understood it, he was accountable. And when he willfully and knowingly broke a command, he sinned and died.
Can you see that it is possible for a person who does not understand the law of God to unknowingly do something that would otherwise mean breaking it, yet escape accountability to God for it? Even though he breaks a command of God, though unknowingly? Would anyone say a mentally handicapped person is “sinning” when he behaves badly, and that he will be held accountable to God for his “sin,” even though he does not understand what that means or that he has sinned against a holy God? Of course not. Apart from the law, sin lies dead.
Another example is when a person commits a crime who is found to be legally insane when on trial. Does he suffer the same penalty as if he were sane? No. He is not held to the same standard.
Let’s consider Adam and Eve for a moment. They were only guilty of sin when they broke a direct command from God that they fully understood. As far as we know, the only command God gave them was concerning the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Are we to think that Adam and Eve never did anything before that direct command that would otherwise be considered a sin? How about running around naked? They were unashamed and innocent in the matter before their eyes were opened to the law of sin.
Once their eyes were opened and they gained the knowledge of good and evil by breaking a direct command of God, they knew they were naked. They covered their nakedness and hid from God because they were afraid and ashamed. It is also possible they thought of other things they had done that they now understood to be wrong, with an awakened consciousness to good and evil, righteousness and sin.
The Age of Accountability
So Adam and Eve were only held accountable for their actions when they were given a law command that they broke. Before the command of God came, they were sinless because you can’t break a command that does not exist. You also can’t break a command that you do not know about or truly understand…
…or that you are just too young to understand.
So, back to our original question. When is a child ready to become a Christian? When he truly understands and grasps that he has broken the command of a holy God and is now in need of a savior. This means he truly understands the basics that God is holy, has given a law, that he has broken it, must now pay the penalty of death (eternal separation, hell, etc.), and needs Jesus. Until he comes to these realizations and can truly gasp them, he is “alive apart from the law.” When he comes to the realization and understanding of God and his own breaking of God’s law, he can then say, “when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died.” This is the age of accountability. This is when God will hold him accountable for his sin.
Does this knowledge, understanding, and thus accountability begin at 4 years old, as the stat quoted at the beginning assumes? How about at 6 years old? How about at 8? 10? 12? 13? When do you remember truly understanding and knowing that you sinned against a holy God and thus needed a savior? Almost everyone I have talked to about this says it was not until they reached the onset of adolescence and puberty that they began to really understand they were willfully doing wrong against God.
Adolescence describes the teenage years between 13 and 19 and can be considered the transitional stage from childhood to adulthood. However, the physical and psychological changes that occur in adolescence can start earlier, during the preteen or “tween” years (ages 9-12).3
A great case could be made that in general accountability to God begins somewhere in adolescence. Accountability to God likely starts at this time because it is when childhood begins to be left behind. Adolescence is the time when young people truly begin to understand what responsibility is. It is when they make real decisions for themselves and understand consequences.
Since young people at different ages can come into a maturing realization of who God is, what his law is, and what sin is, it is a parent’s responsibility to recognize when the child is there. Some indicators of someone who is entering the age of accountability are: mental maturity of self and God, responsibility, understanding consequences, understanding there is a holy God who has a law, and that they sinned when they broke it.
Children who are not quite there yet, if they die, will go to heaven, because they are alive apart from the law. The challenging part for parents is recognizing when the child has moved into accountability. The God-fearing, praying parent will know when this time has come.
1 Dan Brewster. www.compassion.com/multimedia/The%204_14%20Window.pdf. Last accessed 05/27/2014.
2 George Barna, Transforming Children into Spiritual Champions (Ventura, California: Regal, 2003), 34
3 www.psychologytoday.com/basics/adolescence. Last accessed 05/28/2014.