At what age does God hold a person accountable for their sins? Evangelicals believe that all humans have a sin nature. This sin nature was inherited at conception from Adam, and humans have no say in the matter. From conception (or at birth) all humans become sinners. We don’t become sinners, we are sinners. Of course, babies and children don’t naturally understand this, so their parents and pastors must explain humankind’s inherent sinfulness. Children are taught early to understand the difference between right and wrong; that “wrong” is sin. Once these tender ones can parse the difference between right and wrong and know that their sin is an affront to God, they have reached the age of accountability.
Evangelical Calvinists tend to reject the notion of there being “an age of accountability.” No need, since God predestines certain people to be saved, with the rest of the unwashed masses predestined to Hell. There’s not one thing any of us can do to change God’s mind about our eternal destiny. Before the foundation of the world, God determined who was in and who was out. At what age children become accountable for their sin is irrelevant in Calvinistic soteriology.
Some Evangelicals believe that the age of twelve is when children become accountable before God for their sins. There’s no Scriptural foundation for this belief. Evangelicals who believe that twelve is the age of accountability don’t worry as much about their children’s sins. No need. God can’t judge them and send them to Hell until they are twelve.
I came of age in the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement. IFB churches and pastors take a very different approach to the age of accountability. They believe that children are accountable for their sins the moment they understand the difference between right and wrong; the moment they understand disobedience and rebellion, not only against God, but parents, pastors, and other authority figures.
Of course, children learn these things quickly in IFB homes. Sin, holiness, obedience, disobedience, and rebellion are often topics of discussion. The goal is to make children aware of their sinfulness so they can, at ages as young as four or five, understand God’s solution for sin — Jesus — and get saved. Children raised in zealous IFB homes typically get saved when they are young, and then as teenagers, they rededicate their lives to the Lord. While I was “saved” at the age of five, I use my rededication at age fifteen as my salvation date. Was I really saved at age five? I doubt it. I knew very little about the Bible or Christianity — just what I heard from my parents, pastors, and Sunday school teachers. While I certainly could have mouthed the IFB-approved plan of salvation, it wasn’t until I was fifteen that I truly understood what it meant to get saved (and later baptized, called to preach).
Why all this pressure to convert children as soon as possible? First, parents don’t want their progeny to suddenly die without being saved and go to Hell. Second, churches know that if children are not converted when they are young, it becomes increasingly unlikely they will be once they reach an age when they are developing rational, skeptical thinking skills. It’s easy to convince a five-year-old of an upright, walking talking snake. However, teens are not as gullible. Walking, talking snake, preacher? Sure. Early and frequent indoctrination and conditioning are key to keeping children in the church. Hook them when they are young and they will often stay (or move to a different cult that they think is less legalistic).
Churches have children’s church/junior church for two reasons. First, partitioning church services according to age allows children to be segregated from their parents. Kids have fun while being conditioned and indoctrinated with Evangelical beliefs, practices, and ways of life. Parents will not have to mess with their kids during worship services — ninety minutes of freedom from those demons God gave them. (For the record, I was not a fan of segregating children from their parents. Only one of the churches I pastored had a junior church.)
Second, splitting children away from their parents allows trained child and youth workers to use high-pressure methods to evangelize their charges. Scare the Hell out of children, and out of fear of judgment and death, they will pray the sinner’s prayer and get saved! For the record, I think such practices are child abuse.
What did your parents, churches, and pastors believe about the age of accountability? At what age were you saved? Did you get saved more than once? Did you fear as a child dying and going to Hell? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comment section.
Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.
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