Is There an Age of Accountability?
How young can you be to ask Jesus to be your Savior? Can a 3 or 4 year old truly believe?
What happens to babies and young children when they die? Where do I find the age of accountability in the Bible?
I’m going to combine your questions into one answer. I think my answer will help provide a profitable response for both of you.
There is definitely no age requirement for salvation. Jesus Himself declared, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14).
As soon as children are old enough to understand that they have sinned (Romans 3:23), that Jesus died to pay the penalty for their sins (Romans 5:8; 6:23), and that they must place their faith in Jesus for salvation (John 3:16), then they are old enough to be saved.
To say it another way, children may make a salvation commitment to trust Christ as Lord and Savior when they come to the point that they realize that they are not saved.
To put it another way, we are talking about the growth and maturing of the human spirit.
The Bible teaches that we are three-part beings (1 Thessalonians 5:23). We have a body, a soul, and a spirit.
The body is our five senses. The soul is our mind, will, and emotions. Our human spirit is the place where God lives deep within us. It is a place of worship, intuition and communion where we meet with God, Holy Spirit to human spirit.
When our innermost spirit matures to the point of understanding the spiritual issues involved, a decision to follow Jesus as Lord and Savior is ready to be made.
Our human spirit does not come ready to operate. It must be matured.
Moments after his birth, Jesus did not sit up in the manger and say, “What’s for breakfast?”
No, he was a baby. For example, he could not add 4+5 = 9. Jesus is fully God but he is also fully human (the hypostatic union). He learned 4+5 equal 9 as his mind matured and he grew up.
“Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men” (Luke 2:52).
I imagine that as soon as Jesus could talk, Mary was putting him on her knees and explaining to him Psalm 22, the Psalm of the cross. “Jesus, this Psalm is all about you.”
Just as our bodies grow physically as we grow up, so our inner spirit matures as it is cultivated by ourselves and others.
It’s essential that parents cultivate a child’s inner spirit as soon as a child can talk and interact. Reading Bible stories, attending Sunday school, experiencing Christian Fellowship, praying, learning Bible verses and singing spiritual children’s songs are just a few of the ways mom and dad can help mature their child’s inner spirit where God dwells.
Just as we are concerned about a child’s physical health, we must be concerned about a child’s spiritual health.
We must concentrate and focus on helping our children grow in spirit.
Obviously, Jesus’ body, mind and spirit were quickly maturing as he grew up. By the age of twelve we see that his inner spirit was rapidly developing.
Returning from the temple in Jerusalem Mary and Joseph went looking for Jesus when they realized that Jesus was not with them.
“After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard was amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “son why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.
Jesus replied, “Why were you searching for me, didn’t you know that I had to be in my father’s house?” (Luke 2:46-50).
We know absolutely nothing about Jesus’ activities from the age of 12 to 30. Nevertheless, during these silent years, it may well be that his body, mind and human spirit were growing and maturing as he prepared for his three and half years of intense ministry.
The “age of accountability” is a term used by many to identify the age at which a child’s spirit has matured enough so that he/she are ready to become a Christian.
We are defining the moment when a child’s innermost spirit has matured enough to understand the difference between moral right and moral wrong. They are now accountable for their actions.
In other words, we are defining the age of accountability as the time when a child understands the significance between being a Christian and not being a Christian.
It’s obvious from Jesus’ teachings that he certainly believed that children could reach a point where they are ready to be saved.
“Then little children were brought to him for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked those who brought them. Jesus said’ let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these. When he placed his hands on them he went on from there” (Matthew 19:13-15).
“He took a little child and had him stand before them. Taking him in his arms, he said to him, that whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me” (Mark 9:36-37).
Let me answer directly one of the questions that you asked. I think that it is unfair to think that three and four-year-old children can be saved. After all, commitment to Jesus is a lifetime decision. It’s hard to imagine an eight-year-old committing to lifetime surrender to Jesus. Three and four-year-olds don’t have a chance! One of the reasons why so many children grow up to turn away from Christ is because their childhood decision was made too early and was not fully developed.
The preacher was teaching on Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep. The shepherd had 100 sheep, and he lost one. So he left the 99 and went searching for that one lost sheep until he found it (Luke 15:3-7).
Suddenly, I knew that I was a lost sheep. I didn’t know what that meant; nevertheless, I knew that I was one. For the next three days mom and dad helped me understand sin and why I needed a Savior. I made a decision to follow Christ as my Lord and Savior and my commitment has never wavered.
I was seven years old. For sure, I believe that the age of accountability can be reached as early as the age of seven; but usually not.
However, we must be careful as we deal with young children that we don’t push them along before they are ready. A century ago the age of most people who came to Christ averaged 18 to 20 years old. At this age they were quite ready to make a lifetime commitment to Christ.
Unfortunately, I think that we have dumbed down the gospel to what I call, “instant Christianity.” We have instant television, instant TV dinners, instant world-wide communication and instant coffee. Why not have instant salvation where we tell someone that all they have to do is say a little prayer, and raise their hand, and they can be saved?
What we ought to tell them is that following Jesus will cost them their very lives.
By the way, a child does not have to understand all the complex issues that are part of the doctrine of salvation.
Some things are essential. For example, we must believe in faith that Jesus is 100% God, in the validity of the virgin birth, Jesus’ substitutionary atonement for our sins on the cross and that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. If we have those things in place, we have the essentials.
However, when I became a Christian I did not understand the virgin birth. I didn’t even know what a virgin was! It’s okay for these truths to come to be fully understood over time.
The Bible often encourages us to have faith like a child: “He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Mark 10:15).
It is important that adults as well as children understand and successfully navigate the basic issues regarding their age of accountability. The promise of Acts 16:31 is equally true with regard to an adult or a child: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.”
Finally, you asked if babies go to heaven when they died.
While the Bible does not especially use those words, my opinion is that they do. God told David that because of his sin with Bathsheba their baby would die. When the baby died David said, “He can’t come to me. However, one day I will go to him” (2 Samuel 12:21-23). This implies that the baby is in heaven and one day David will be there, too.
Also, I believe that Jesus’ invitation for the children to come to him on earth includes an invitation from Jesus to come to him in heaven.
Dear Lia and Kendall,
I hope that my answer covered your questions. If not, let me know.