From a Reader

I have a 6-year-old and an 8-year-old. We have preached the Gospel of Christ to them and read out of the Bible daily. I am now finding myself in a strange situation. How would you recommend I handle their not being saved? As they reach the age of accountability, we know they will become guilty of sin before God’s eyes and be damned unless they believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.

My dilemma is that I don’t want to sugar-coat their position in Christ, nor do I want to scare them into verbally accepting Christ and not have it truly come from the heart. I know that if I “recommended” they believe on Christ and be baptized, they would do so. However, I fear that it would not be real and would lead them into a life of confusion. Any thoughts concerning this would be greatly appreciated.

Michael Answers

This issue is open to various opinions. I am not sure that there is one answer for all. I have held a singular view from before my children were born until the present, and, despite the various opinions, I will present what I believe with all the conviction that I have practiced these many years.

First, we will examine the Scripture on issues pertinent to the subject.

THE AGE OF ACCOUNTABILITY

What is meant by the age of accountability? It is a reference to that point in a child’s development when he becomes responsible for his own soul, when God holds him accountable, when he will be judged as an adult. The concept that children are not accountable or responsible, even for their “sins,” is based on the assumption that God would not damn a child who is ignorant of his responsibilities. How could God or anyone blame a child for being born into a sinful world? If children are in jeopardy of damnation, a miscarried fetus would also be damned. Unthinkable!

Not all “Christians” believe the same on this point, and there isn’t a lot of Scripture on the subject. We have to admit that there are a few suppositions in our doctrine—in any doctrine on the subject.

But of one thing I am certain (supposition), there is no age of accountability. There is a condition of accountability which occurs in the life of each individual when they have matured to the point of responsible reflection upon their duty before God and their fellow man. I wouldn’t even guess at what age that might occur in respect to any given child. However, there is a maximum age given in the book of Numbers. It is 20 years of age by ancient Hebrew reckoning: that would be 19 years old the way the West reckons age. In their culture, a child was reckoned to be 1 year old at birth. After living one year, he was then in his 2nd year and reckoned to be 2 years old. According to our Western reckoning, that maximum age of accountability would be the first moment one is 19 years old.

You know the story. When Israel refused to go in to possess the promised land, God made them wander in the wilderness for 40 years until all those responsible for their national unbelief died off—“from twenty years old and upward” (Numbers 14:29). And in Deuteronomy 1:39, God described those under 20 years old (19 in the West) as having “no knowledge between good and evil.” Until the completion of their 18th year they were not held responsible for the unbelief of the whole nation.

A child is born with no knowledge of good and evil, just as Adam and Eve were created with no knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 3:22). Even Jesus was born thus, for Isaiah prophesied that the land of Israel would “be forsaken of both her kings” before the child Jesus (Immanuel) “would know to refuse the evil, and choose the good” (Isaiah 7:14-15). In Jesus’ 11th or 12th year, the last king of Israel was deposed. One must be of “full age” in order to “have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil” (Hebrews 5:14).

God was reluctant to destroy wicked Nineveh because of the many ignorant children. “And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?” (Jonah 4:11).

This principle that accountability is in proportion to one’s ability to discern truth is well-represented in the New Testament.

James 4: 17–Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.

John 9:41– Jesus said unto them, If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth.

John 15:22–If I had not come and spoken unto them, they had not had sin: but now they have no cloke for their sin.

Romans 4:15–Because the law worketh wrath: for where no law is, there is no transgression.

Jesus alluded to a special consideration for children when he said, “Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:16). Again he said, “Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, That in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 18:10). Apparently the children who died went into God’s presence so as to gaze upon the Father.

There is much more that can be said. I have offered limited argument for the principle that children are not accountable to God until they grow (mature) into accountability.

The sobering questions for parents are: When are our children accountable, and how do we know when they are? Is it at 12 years of age—the age of Jesus when he went into the temple, the age of the Jewish Bar Mitzvah, as many think? Or, is it at one’s 19th birthday?

I find it inconceivable that God should arbitrarily designate a set date, so that all young men and women become accountable at the first second of time beginning their 12th year, or the 19th year, or at any pre-designated point on one’s calendar. Surely, just as God judges each man according to the truth he holds (Romans 1:18), he would judge the child according to his capacity for holding truth. As I have pointed out in my Romans Commentary, Chapters 1:18—2:11, God judges each man according to his own understanding and for how he has responded to what he knows is his duty. There are as many scales of judgment as there are individuals. Each of God’s judgments are tailored to the individual. So if a child grows into a functional knowledge of good and evil at 6 years old or at 18 years of age, that will be the point of his accountability before God. A child might have a 50% knowledge of good and evil at one point and the next year mature to a 70% and the following year to 95%. But only when the child reaches that place of a fully functioning conscience would he be deemed accountable.

When God chose the age of 19 in the wilderness, I do not believe that he was stating that none of them reached accountability at a younger age. I believe that 19 was a safe age that was sure to include the slowest developing individual. Perhaps there are those very slow in developing both mentally and spiritually who didn’t reach accountability until their 18th year, while others reach it much sooner.

I have known several adults who know for sure that they understood the gospel and were saved at 4 years of age. From that point, they went on to grow in the Lord and to become witnesses to others. I have no basis to doubt their testimony. However, from experience, I know that there are many 8 and 10 year olds who definitely have not arrived at full moral understanding.

What influences in life determine the rate at which a child grasps a workable understanding of the knowledge of good and evil? Again, we are back in the areas of supposition, for there is not much to go on in Scripture except application of the principles we find clearly stated. I have observed that a child who is raised on good moral teaching and in an atmosphere of Bible teaching, both the law and the gospel, becomes morally and spiritually alert much sooner than does one raised on cartoons. Knowledge of good and evil is surely dependent upon intellectual development, as well as spiritual awareness. A brighter kid who learns more readily will mature in all areas sooner than the intellectually slow child.

I share my reader’s concern. It is a horrible thing for a parent to know that one day his child is going to be in jeopardy of eternal damnation. It is enough to keep one up day and night praying and standing guard. If I knew of a certainty that I had a lost child, I wouldn’t want that child to leave the house in an automobile or swim in a pool or climb a tree, for fear they would die lost.

Now I will share with you my approach to preparing our children to receive Christ at the earliest possible moment of their accountability—so soon, in fact, that the transition is seamless. God asked a pertinent question and then answered it in Isaiah 28:9-10. “Whom shall he teach knowledge? and whom shall he make to understand doctrine? them that are weaned from the milk, and drawn from the breasts. For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little.” I taught my children about the Lord Jesus Christ from the time I taught them to say, “Daddy.” Just as children become aware of a grandparent whom they have never seen, but hope to visit some day, my children were aware that all things beautiful were created by God and that we loved and honored him. Just as children develop a caution for fire, heights, strangers, and contracting disease in a public restroom, my children developed a caution for sin and its awful consequences.

We were not desperate or super-religious. If you had spent a day with us, you would probably not have noticed that we were instructing, “Here a little, there a little.”

“Don’t touch the toilet or the door knob.”

“Watch out for snakes in that old pile of lumber.”

“Don’t ride your tricycle on the sidewalk.”

“Don’t push your sister into the pool.”

“God wants us to love each other. It is much nicer than anger.”

“Don’t lie to me. Lying is a sin, and God wants us to tell the truth. Jesus always told the truth.”

“Those bad men who kidnapped that little boy and hurt him will go to hell and suffer in the fires of hell for ever and ever, unless they repent and trust in Jesus as their savior.”

The children were exposed to adult Bible studies several times each week. But above all, we taught them Bible stories regularly, or read from Bible storybooks. We even had them take turns teaching the Bible stories to the family.

Our conversation was seasoned with allusions to Biblical events and principles. They were raised on a King James Bible, hard work, and lots of laughter and fun.

Now, to address our reader’s concerns: I, too, was aware that my children would do anything I suggested. At any time in their youth, if I had asked them if they would “like to ask Jesus to be their savior,” they would have done and believed anything we asked of them. For that reason, I never approached them thus. Understand me when I say, they believed on the Lord Jesus Christ continually from the time they were old enough to believe anything. There never was a time when they didn’t believe and trust in Christ. As they came to know good and evil in increasing measures, and began to feel twinges of guilt, they already understood that Christ forgives sin completely, and they trusted in that fact to the degree that they were capable of understanding. My 3-year-old expected God to forgive her sins just as Daddy and Mama forgave her. My 6-year-old, who had matured to possibly a 75% knowledge of good and evil, trusted in Christ to the extent that he understood.

Now, I am not suggesting that they were born again at that age, only that they were as repentant and believing as anyone could be. As they approached the moment of a completely functioning conscience—the moment of eternal accountability—they were not rebellious, impenitent sinners; they were believers. So, ideally, the moment they became accountable, their faith in the finished work of Christ ushered them into the kingdom of God. I never knew the exact moment or day that any of my kids got saved. They knew. But it was only afterward that they would testify to us of that final conviction of sin and of their understanding that they were lost without Christ and that his blood was sufficient for all their sin, and then, they fully believed and were born again and knew that they were a new creation in Jesus Christ.

I never felt unrest over their condition. I had confidence that they all had the heart of a believer. But understand, we did not take their salvation for granted. They saw many people get saved. They knew there was a heaven and a hell, a righteous God and a wicked Devil, and that the world was divided into the lost and the saved. They knew that it was their responsibility to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ in order to be saved, and they were never allowed to believe that they would get into heaven on their parents’ faith, or on their Christian upbringing.

“For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the LORD, to do justice and judgment” Genesis 18:19

“And all thy children shall be taught of the LORD; and great shall be the peace of thy children.”  Isaiah 54:13