Childhood Conversion and Age of Accountability (Part 1: Introduction)
I would like to begin a discussion about when a child enters a condition of accountability before God for their personal faith in Jesus Christ. This is an issue that is deeply personal to me. My children are age five, nearly three and coming soon. (Jan 2006). God has called me serve as the Children’s Minister at a Baptist Church. As a general plan for this series I would like to do the following: Discuss some popular ideas on the topic. Compile a nearly comprehensive list of Bible verses on the subject. Develop some guidelines for sharing the gospel with children.
- How I Led My Child to Christ- Inspirational stories from Christian Parenting Today readers http://www.christianitytoday.com/cpt/8g3/8g3022.html some of these are sweet but some are a little disturbing.
- In Safe in the Arms of God, John MacArthur argues that infants, young children and some mentally challenged persons are innocent before God. They do not have the moral ability to distinguish right from wrong. He provides many examples and proof from the Bible to support his premise. He writes: “In certain church circles, the question is often couches in this way, “what is the age of accountability?” The issue is not truly one of “age” but rather of “condition.” I have baptized young people who have told me that they believe they were saved at age ten, or twelve, or eight. There is no one age at which every person suddenly becomes accountable for knowing the difference between sin and righteousness, judgment and forgiveness, and understanding the gospel. All children are unique in their development and exposure to the truth. There is no one age in the Bible at which all children are declared to be “accountable.” Neither is there one chronological age in a person’s life which a person suddenly and automatically knows right from wrong or is capable of understanding God’s plan for salvation.” (MacArthur, Safe in the Arms of God, 2003, page 36.)
- In the one Christian Psychology textbook the authors write, “Children of about age eleven can begin to understand many of the abstract concepts of the Christian faith.” (Meier, Minirth, Wichern, Introduction to Psychology and Counseling, Ratcliff, 1991, page 252.)
- C. Sybil Waldrop in Guiding Your Child Toward God writes, “We want our children to have a genuine encounter with God through Jesus Christ, not a premature external experience of walking the aisle, shaking a pastor’s hand.” (Waldrop, 1985, 105.) The decision to follow Jesus requires a measure of maturity. Being overzealous to give a child assurance of heaven can result in a false assurance. Repentance is a biblical component of conversion. Children must understand the concept of sin before they can honestly ask for forgiveness. Parents must be aware of a child’s natural desire to please their parents. This should not be mistaken for a salvation experience. Parents must remember that they are in authority over their children during this time. Waldrop writes: “Can your child accept the responsibility for his actions, or are you still responsible for them? What choices do you allow your child to make? Can he decide whether or not he goes to church? To school? Can he decide if he will drive the car, get married, buy his own clothes, spend the night away from home, join the army, smoke a cigarette? Why is it then that we think a child is ready to make life’s highest choice when we do not hold him accountable for relatively simple decisions?” (Waldrop, Guiding Your Child Toward God, 1985. page 110.)
- In his book Successful Christian Parenting, John MacArthur offers advise for teaching the gospel to one’s own children. Parents should be thorough, being careful not to soften or shorten the gospel for their children. Simplistic evangelism formulas should be avoided. These often leave out important information. He writes: “Real faith involves understanding and affirming some important concepts that may be out of reach for small children. The sole object of genuine faith is Jesus Christ as He is presented to us in the gospel. How can children exercise true saving faith before they are old enough to understand and affirm essential, objective elements of gospel truth? Saving faith is not blind faith. Real saving faith cannot be ignorant of essential gospel concepts such as good and evil, sin and punishment, repentance and faith, God’s holiness and His wrath against sin, Christ as God incarnate, the idea of atonement for sin and the meaning of the resurrection and the lordship of Christ. The specific age at which the child’s understanding is mature enough to grasp such concepts may differ for each child. (So there’s no reliable way to pinpoint a physical “age of accountability.”) But until the child demonstrates some degree of real understanding and some measure of spiritual fruit, parents should not be quick to regard the child’s regeneration as a settled matter.” (MacArthur, Successful Christian Parenting, 1998, page 50.)
- In Shepherding a Child’s Heart, Ted Tripp argues that the gospel affects how we teach our children right and wrong. He emphasizes the power of the gospel to meet our human situation. As sinners we need God’s work of transformation and forgiveness. This requires more than a simplistic formula for producing children who believe. He writes: “The central focus of parenting is the gospel. You need to direct not simply the behavior of your children, but the attitudes of their hearts. You need to show them not just the “what” of their sin and failure, but the “why.” Your children desperately need to understand not only the external “what” they did wrong, but also the internal “why” they did it. You must help them see that God works from the inside out. Therefore, your parenting goal cannot be well behaved children. Your children must also understand why they sin and how to recognize internal change.” (Tripp, Shepherding a Child’s Heart, 2005, page xxii)