Acts 2:38 is a verse I have heard quoted thousands and thousands of times in my lifetime. “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (NIV) When I place this scripture beside all of the conversion accounts in the New Testament and the meaning of the original Greek word for baptism, two things become clear. Baptism by immersion for the remission of sins is clearly a command and the person who is baptized must understand and be capable of repenting.
In Christian circles, the age when a person is capable of understanding sin and repenting of it so they can be baptized for the remission of their sins has become known as the “age of accountability”. Unfortunately, the Bible doesn’t give us a specific age when this accountability kicks in, although it does tell us it exists.
Recently, I found the most interesting scripture while I was reading my Bible. “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste.” (Isaiah 7:14-16 NIV Emphasis mine.)
Clearly this is a prophecy about Jesus, the coming Messiah. What to me is really interesting is the part I italicized. Evidently, even Jesus had a point in his childhood when he did not know enough “to reject the wrong and choose the right”. In fact the verses go on to imply, Jesus reached that age earlier than most (if not all) because he was still eating curds and honey when he reached that “age of accountability”.
While I could not find a definitive answer for what ages curds and honey may have been eaten in ancient Israel, one has to assume it was before the age of twelve when Jesus went to the Temple with his parents. Obviously, Jesus had mastered the ideas of right and wrong by then, as he demonstrated his understanding to those teaching in the Temple.
So what does all of this mean for our kids? How do we know when they have reached the age of accountability? When should we be worried they aren’t showing any interest in becoming a Christian? What is the “age of accountability”. Only God knows the exact answers for each of your children. Over time though, I have noticed some patterns (some of which these scriptures confirm) in children which may help you guide them more confidently towards committing to a life as a productive Christian.
- Children are not born knowing right from wrong. If Jesus, the Son of God was not born knowing right from wrong, I seriously doubt anyone else has been born knowing the difference. Your baby cannot “repent” and does not need to be baptized for the remission of sins, since he/she doesn’t know right from wrong.
- Children must first be trained by their parents and then accept and internalize that training. Training in right and wrong is best provided by godly parents. It is so important you spend a lot of time teaching your children what God does and does not want from them. At some point each child begins to truly understand what it means to choose wrong over right and the implications.
- At some point in time each child will truly understand he/she has sinned and his/her sins have separated him/her from God. As a parent, this is where it gets tricky. You can’t read your child’s mind or see into his/her heart. You can only base your actions on what your child chooses to share with you. Sensitive children may appear to understand sin and separation, when actually they have merely been scared by a sermon or movie. Other children may appear to be caviler about their sins, when actually they are just afraid of asking you some question they need answered before baptism.
- The age of accountability probably varies from child to child. I can’t point to a specific scripture other than this one in Isaiah which implies there may be different ages. Common sense though will tell us some children are much more introspective and mature than others. Some children have disabilities which will prevent them from ever truly understanding the difference between right and wrong. As much as we worry, ultimately only God and your child will know when your child has reached the age of accountability.
- The age of accountability may be radically different from what your culture dictates. In my country, teens aren’t allowed to make important decisions without the support of a parent until they are eighteen and in some cases twenty-one years old. Other cultures allow marriage between the ages of fourteen and sixteen. Judaism has historically said children of the age of twelve are capable of being responsible for their own faith and faith development. Ultimately, only God and your child know when the accountability begins and that age may vary drastically from what your culture dictates.
- Remember the equation recognize, repent, ready and react. For your children to be accountable for their sins and ready for baptism to become a Christian they need to have mastered a few things. They must be able to recognize sin in their lives. They must be capable and willing to repent of those sins, they must be ready to say they are willing to commit their lives to Christ and they must be willing to be baptized for the remission of their sins.
- Your child may be accountable for his/her sins and not be ready to commit his/her life to Christ. This is so very scary for a Christian parent. You know exactly what this could mean for your child. The temptation is to guilt or nag him into baptism and then breathe a sigh of relief. Unfortunately, if your child is not ready and willing to declare he wants to be on God’s side, all of the baptisms in the world won’t “work”. Baptism is ultimately about the heart of the person being baptized. If your child doesn’t love God or want to follow and obey Him, he’s just being dunked – not baptized.
- You will need to have many, many conversations with your children to help them through the accountability process. Conversations about God, about right and wrong, about sin, about obedience, about what your child thinks and feels about God and God’s commands. These conversations should begin at age appropriate levels as soon as your child can understand speech. They should be frequent and ongoing. Listen as much or more than you talk. You want your child to reveal his heart so you can help mold it towards God.
- Some children will need tough talk while others will need reassurance. You can see this modeled in the New Testament by Jesus and the Apostles. You may have a very mature and tenderhearted child who wants to be godly so badly, she is actually fearful she cannot keep her promises to God. You will need to reassure a child who feels this way God understands we will continue to sin and will forgive us – that is the purpose of baptism. Let her know the important thing is for her to always try her very best to follow God – even if it isn’t always perfectly. Other children will need a little tough talk. If you have a child who is irresponsible, who dodges work and commitment, who loves breaking rules and claims ignorance, you may have a child who wants to “play” as long as humanly possible before committing to God and a godly life. I don’t believe in scaring a child into baptism, but you may need to have many firm discussions about responsibility and accountability before your child is ready to commit his life to God.
- Don’t be afraid to ask the questions your child needs to be asked. Parental fear can often turn into parental inaction. I have seen parents so afraid they would cause their child to reject God, they refuse to bring up the topic. Don’t be afraid to ask your child what he/she is thinking about baptism or what questions she/he has about baptism or God. Don’t be afraid to ask what your children think about what they read in the Bible or hear in sermons or in Bible class. Asked in loving ways, questions will help you guide your children, not turn them away from God.
- Don’t be afraid to study the Bible and baptism with your children. We have even created a free baptism study with a leader guide to help you. The leader guide explains how to use the study with a child who is obviously ready for baptism and with children who may not yet be ready. It even tells you how to help your newly Christian child begin to grow her faith as a baby Christian.
Don’t let the fear of not knowing the exact age your child is accountable for his/her sins drive you to fearfully and unnecessarily baptize an infant or push a very, very young child into the baptistry or allow a much older teen con themselves and you into thinking they won’t be responsible to God for their choices until well into adulthood. Start having discussions with your children about God and baptism from a young age. Ask lots of questions. Pray and encourage your child to pray for wisdom about when to make the decision. Then have faith in God to help you mold your child’s heart towards Him. You may find the age of accountability is more obvious than you realize.