OceanSide church of Christ
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Age of Accountability
by: Dalton Gilreath
Have you ever done something and failed because you just weren’t ready? I remember taking Calculus II when I was in college my sophomore year. This class was four days per week, an hour and a half long, and started at 7:15 a.m. Math had always come easy for me, but getting up early had not. I may have gone to that class about 50% of the first month, and so, as you can imagine, I fell behind quickly. In fact, I failed the first exam which was unusual for me as I had graduated as salutatorian in high school. I tried to pick up the pace over the next few weeks, but I had fallen too far behind in my studies to catch back up. As a nineteen year old, I just wasn’t prepared for that kind of commitment, and I was forced to drop the class.
Even though all of us will age at the same rate, this is a prime example that shows we do not all mature at the same rate. Some nineteen year olds were mature and responsible enough to commit to that course. In fact, I had a friend in that class who was my same age, and he made it through with an A. Every person mentally grows at different rates and must make decisions based upon their own personal level of maturity. The most important of the decisions we make as we mature is when to be saved. There is no greater commitment for which we need to prepare our young people. When a child becomes accountable for sin, he/she needs to be mature enough to be ready to commit.
The Bible teaches us that accountability for sin comes with a realization of what sin is and that the individual has committed sin. Let’s consider some examples of people becoming accountable for sin in the Bible. As a general example, we recall God’s age of accountability for those in the wilderness was twenty years old (Numbers 14:19). No one was punished to die in the wilderness under that age. However, when we see Joseph in the instance with Potiphar’s wife, he is only around seventeen years old (Gen 37:2) and was not willing to sin against God even at seventeen. We might also consider Josiah who followed God at the age of 16 (2 Chronicles 34:1-3). Notice the Bible says he was a man of God because he followed after God beginning when he was sixteen. He did not seem to be accountable before that age even though his reign began when he was eight. Of course, one of the youngest examples would be that of Jesus who was about His Father’s business at the age of twelve (Luke 2:49). If we are supposed to follow Him as an adult why not follow his example as a youth as well?
The fact is, God does not set a specific age as to when one is accountable for sin. So how do we know when a child is accountable to God? We need to be able to determine three things: (1) Does the child understand what sin is? (2) Does the child have a realization that they have committed sin? (3) Does the child have a desire to receive forgiveness of sin? Let’s begin by considering some important questions we can ask children and ourselves to help us figure out if they have a realization these things:
1. Is the child struggling to sleep at night due to a fear of Hell? Does this struggle or discomfort about Hell continue into the daytime? It is common for children to fear at night, but some move beyond this and are constantly concerned with their soul’s destination.
2. What prompted their decision to want to be be baptized? Was it due to their own meditation or because of a particular instance? For example, many choose to be baptized because they see others doing it around their age. Be careful of the “bandwagon” effect.
3. Ask them what sins they have committed. Are they legitimately feeling guilty about sin in their life? How long does it take them to give you an answer?
4. One of my favorite questions to ask is, “Why don’t we wait until Sunday and do it then?” Or maybe, “What if we just take some more time to think about it?” This will indicate quickly how urgent the child is about this decision. If they do not understand the urgency, they are not ready. A child should want to be saved that instant so badly because they are afraid of what would happen if they don’t. If they don’t express urgency, they don’t understand the implications of not being baptized.
5. One finally suggestion would be to ask the child, “What do you believe would happen if you died right now?” Many times I have received the response, “I would go to Heaven” to which I tell them, “You are exactly right”. A child is not ready to be baptized if they believe they will be in Heaven without it.
Obviously we also need to ask them the basic questions about baptism and repentance. What is repentance? What is baptism? Why do you want to do this? What takes place in baptism? What happens next? However, we must realize that just because children have knowledge of the correct answers here, this does not mean they are ready to actually do these things and become a Christian. They must have a true sense of realization about the sin in their own lives, a sorrowful heart about this sin, and an understanding and desire to live for Christ in the future. They must understand what comes along with this decision: it’s a commitment. All of their decisions for the rest of their lives will be based on their desire to be saved and serve Christ, no longer a slave to sin. I didn’t understand the commitment that came along with the Calculus II class. And I failed. I wasn’t ready. Making a decision to take the class, didn’t make me ready. Our kids have to do more than make a decision to be baptized. They have to understand the implications of that decision and the commitment to Christ.
We must remember that baptism is more than a decision, it is a commitment. This is why so many children get “re-baptized” once they are older. You might compare this to marriage. Can a thirteen year old give you correct answers regarding what marriage must be if you taught her about it? Sure. Would you let her marry then? Of course not. Because you realize marriage is a commitment she is NOT ready to take on.
Yes, it is possible for an eleven year old to be accountable for sin, but the question shouldn’t be about the physical age: It’s about the maturity to make the commitment. If a child decides to be baptized, don’t feel that there is nothing you can do or that you will “discourage” them. Discuss it with them and let others know, so we can all be praying for them. What a blessing it will be when your child makes the decision to put on Christ and both of you are sure that the child is ready and committed!