For a number of years, I led the altar service in a children’s church for 5-7 year olds. Each week it was my responsibility to pray individually with children who had responded that they wanted to receive Jesus as their Savior. Over time, I noticed a pattern in the types of responses I would get after asking the question, “have you ever sinned?”
- There was often one child who shook their head and said no, they had never sinned.
- There was another who was glad to tell me about other people’s sin. (“My brother hit me.” “My cousin stole cigarettes from Walmart.”)
- Another detailed their own sin as if I were a priest and this were a confessional. (“I held up this finger at my brother.”)
- And there was often one who just nodded their head yes, without any explanation.
At what age can a child be saved? Although the Bible is our objective source of truth, this is a question upon which the Bible is largely silent. There is no passage of scripture that explicitly answers this question. So what do we do when we have questions the Bible doesn’t overtly answer? I think we look for clues in Scripture, and we make some conclusions based on what we know of human development and the nature of God.At what age does a child become accountable for their sin?
Mankind is born with an inherent tendency to sin. (See Psalms 51:5, Genesis 8:21.) But a tendency to sin is not sin itself. Sin is a choice to disobey. It is deliberate.The Bible is full of examples of people who chose to sin. It is, in contrast, short on examples of people who unknowingly stumbled into it.
If sin is a deliberate choice, then an infant, while born with the sin nature, is not yet capable of sin. But eventually, at the point when a child chooses wrong over right, they become guilty of sin.
In looking for clues in Scripture, it appears that this age, what is commonly referred to as “the age of accountability,” may occur quite early in a person’s life. For example, in 2 Chronicles 34:1-3, we are introduced to Josiah, who was eight years old when he became king. “He reigned in Jerusalem thirty-one years, He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord. . . ” An honest interpretation must conclude that the statement, “Josiah did what was right in the eyes of the Lord,” includes the earliest years of his reign. At eight years old, he was already able to do what was right in the eyes of the Lord.
Another clue is found in Isaiah 7:16. The passage is a prophecy of the coming of Christ. Verse 15 says, “He will eat curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right.” Curds and honey was the food of small children. An implication is that the coming Christ was capable of rejecting the wrong and choosing the right while still quite young. And although the passage is a prophecy about Jesus, by extension perhaps we should wonder if humans in general are capable of choosing right from wrong while still quite young– young enough to be eating “kid” food?
But the question is still one of degrees. A two-year old may deliberately choose to disobey her parents, but human development shows us that she doesn’t fully understand the consequences of her choice. Will God give her over to the consequences of sin when she wasn’t really aware of the gravity of her choice? What about a five-year old, who looks at his parent with defiance in his eyes and deliberately disobeys? Will God hold him accountable when, by all appearances, he knew he was being defiant?
I don’t have an answer. At some point, every individual will reach a point beyond which God will judge the sin. We just don’t know for sure when that is. God’s love is fierce. But his justice is also unwavering. Sin has consequences, but the entire Bible is the story of how He wants to free mankind from those consequences. He alone balances the two aspects of his character. The decision of when to hold a child accountable belongs to Him.
At what age is a child capable of receiving salvation?
Salvation requires that a person acknowledge their sin and make a personal choice to accept Christ as savior. It requires an act of faith and an act of intellect. Logically, it would appear that children are capable of receiving salvation when they are capable of both.*
An understanding of human development reveals that this age must vary from child to child. Each child develops at a different rate, so every child will reach this point at a different time in their lives. It is not dependent on their age or their grade level in school. It is dependent on their maturity level. Any attempt to assign a fixed age to the “age of accountability” is not supported, either by Scripture or by developmental psychology.How can a parent or teacher gauge when a child is old enough to receive salvation?
Again, without a clear answer, this is question which requires some discernment. Going back to the 5-7 year olds responding to an altar call, I believe that there are some clues to their readiness in their responses.
The child who denied he had sinned was clearly not ready yet. Time, more teaching, and the conviction of the Holy Spirit was what this little one needed. Nevertheless, I was still glad to pray with him and I used his response as a teaching opportunity.
The child who was quick to tell me about the sin of others may have been ready, but in that moment his attention was not focused on his own heart. With some redirection, maybe he would be ready to acknowledge his own sin and choose forgiveness. Sometimes he just wasn’t there yet. Again, I didn’t turn him away. I prayed with him and left the state of His salvation in God’s hands.
It’s hard not to be amused by the serious words of a 5-year detailing her sin- especially when she wants to show you which finger she showed her brother. But this is actually a good sign. This child is confessing. And although she doesn’t owe me her confession, the most compassionate response I could give her is to listen to her, to give her the chance to make a personal decision, and reassure her that she is made new in Christ when she does.
Finally, the child who answers the sin question with a nod.- a simple acknowledgement, is likely at the moment of her salvation. Her child’s confession belongs to God. She is demonstrating a readiness and a genuineness of heart that leaves me no doubt that even if she doesn’t fully understand yet, she has made a personal decision to follow Christ.
The bottom line is that we don’t know. We don’t know when God will hold a child accountable for their sin. We don’t know at what point the child is capable of making a life-altering decision. It is different for every child. But with the child’s eternal future at stake, it is dangerous to assume that we know whether they have reached that point or not. Why not keep offering every child the chance?
*Please come back next week for Part 3 of this series: “Children and Salvation: Faith vs. Understanding”