Question: At what age do children become accountable for sin?


This is a good question that has troubled many parents. What do you do when your ten- year-old child wants to be baptized? Should he be baptized even when it is obvious he does not understand what he is doing? Is it right to discourage these desires? How do parents make this difficult decision? Does the Bible offer any assistance?

Some Misconceptions

There are a few misconceptions, the first of which is the idea that there even is a set “age” at which individuals become accountable for sin. Each child is different and age is not a precise indicator of maturity. I have known eleven-year-old children who had a better grasp on God’s will than many adults.

Another misconception, perhaps the most troublesome, has to do with the popular but erroneous doctrine of inherited sin. This Calvinistic belief is promoted in many popular but tainted Bible translations. The New International Version has at Psalm 51:5, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me,” clearly contradicting other easily understood passages like Zechariah 12:1, Acts 17:29, and Matthew 18:3 which teach that God forms the spirit in man, we are the offspring of God, and in order to enter heaven we must be converted and become as little children. The Bible and trustworthy translations of it do not teach inherited sin (see also: Ezekiel 18:20; 28:15; Romans 9:11; Job 14:1).

The Bible Indicates a Point of Accountability

The Bible affirms that we must walk by faith and not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7), without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6), and faith comes only through the hearing and the correct understanding of God’s Word (Romans 10:17; Acts 8:30). Until an individual is capable of understanding God’s will and walking by faith, he is not accountable for sins.

In Isaiah 7:14-16, Isaiah, prophesied of the Christ child, “… Butter and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good. For before the child shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land that thou abhorrest shall be forsaken of both her kings.” Even the Christ child had to grow to an age of accountability.

Furthermore, concerning the “children” of the exodus, Moses said, “Your children, which in that day had no knowledge between good and evil, they shall go in thither, and unto them will I give it, and they shall possess it” (Deuteronomy 1:35-39). In other words, the children were not deprived the promised land as were the adults for the simple reason that they were not capable of making the necessary distinction between right and wrong.

The Bible clearly recognizes the innocence of children and acknowledges a point at which they become accountable to God for their actions.

How do you determine when children are at that point?

Following are some suggestions to consider:

1. Are they capable of worshiping God in spirit and Truth (John 4:24)? This is the responsibility of all Christians. Are they still playing with toys and coloring during worship? Nehemiah 8:1-3 speaks of men, women, and those (children) who could hear with understanding listening attentively to the reading of the Law. Can the child do this?

2. Do they only consider the idea of baptism when provoked by certain events? Unfortunately, many Bible camps and youth events are allowed to produce an environment of strong emotionalism around a baptistery. Often, individuals are driven to the baptistery solely because of heightened emotions. It ought to be emotional, but it must be more than emotional!

3. If the child died today, for what sins would he be accountable to God? Is the child mentally able to recognize and account for personal sin (2 Corinthians 5:10)? Akin to this is the personal change that must take place when he rises to walk in newness of life (Romans 6:4). How would his life need to change?

4. Does his understanding of the plan of salvation go beyond an ability to recite it (Hear-Believe-Repent-Confess-be Baptized)? Does he understand what he is reciting? Can he comprehend that baptism is for the purpose of having sins washed away (Acts 2:38; 22:16)? Does he understand the nature and oneness of the church to which he is seeking to be added (Acts 2:47; Ephesians 1:22-23)?

By no means do we want to discourage their tender, genuine, and honest hearts. Still, we do them a great disservice when we assume they are ready and we do not take the time to study with them and make sure they are.