By Johnnie C. Godwin
Contributing Columnist, B&R
Editor’s note: Part one of a two-part series.
I got saved when I was 7 years old. It was on the sixth stanza of “Just As I Am”— which just has five stanzas. On a Sunday night, our pastor extended the invitation until I finally quit waiting and said yes to God and confessed Christ as Lord and Savior. I was saved and baptized.
At what age does God hold a child accountable for his/her sin? Thousands of children all over the Southern Baptist Convention are going to Vacation Bible School and accepting Christ as Lord and Savior this summer. Then they get baptized as a picture of that salvation and further enter into a covenant relationship and become church members. Why would I ask such a question about age of accountability? The answer is because others wonder about the same question, and many pastors and even some theologians don’t have a biblical and experience answer to the question.
Salvation’s age and stage of accountability. Is a baby born sinful and condemned to hell unless he repents? Is the divinely designed act of marriage, sexual intercourse, and procreation in itself sinful? The answer to both questions is no. God gave the gifts of marriage, sexuality, and childbearing before man sinned (Genesis 1:27-28). God would never design or give a sinful gift. If a child is understood to be sinful at birth, the condition is one he did not choose.
So, what does Psalm 51:5 mean in saying, “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5, KJV)? Many people hold to an interpretation of that Psalm 51:5 that would say a baby inherits sin, or has sin of mankind “imputed” to him, or is born with a sinful disposition. I don’t believe any of that. If a person of sound mind lives to an age or stage and condition God only knows choose his will instead of God’s will, that person chooses to become a sinner. Further, every single person who lives to that age or stage or accountable condition chooses to sin. And the Bible makes it very plain that all have sinned and continue to come short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23; Isaiah 53:6). And when anyone doesn’t trust in Christ as Lord and Savior and as God’s only Son, that person remains unsaved (John 3:16-18).
I don’t have a doctrine about the age of accountability. But I have had a salvation experience and a growing awareness about the whole matter of salvation. Further, II Samuel 12:21-23 shows that David quit grieving over his infant, sick son when the son died. David explained that further grief wouldn’t bring the son back but that he would be able to go to the son. In Mark 9:34-36 Jesus took a little child and told the disciples that those who welcomed a little child like that was, in effect, welcoming Him. Some have said that babes are safe but not saved. God knows.
Life experiences about childhood salvation — and growing older. This year in Vacation Bible School, it came time to explain how to repent of sin and to openly confess one’s trusting of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. A leader in VBS had one 9-year-old of another ethnic background respond in so many words: “I would kinda like to become a Christian, but first I would like to know what specific sin I have committed.” How to mature to ask such a question. And how wise of the mature leader to gently lead the boy on into a salvation experience and public commitment.
On a recent Sunday, we sang words from “Rescue the Perishing.” One of the stanzas speaks of, “He is waiting, Waiting the penitent child to receive.” What does a child have to be repentant of? The boy I mentioned in VBS did well to wonder that. And at age 7, what did I have to be repentant of?
Let me put what I’m saying in the form of a question Kenneth Chafin asked us in an evangelism class: “How many of you got saved before age 15?” Most of us in the large class held up our hands. Then he asked, “How many of you have done most of your sinning since age 15? Most of us had to hold up our hands. Did we have nothing to repent of at age 7, age 9, or until age 15? Probably, we did have sins to repent of. But somewhere along the journey, we had come to learn about Jesus and turning our lives completely over to Him eternally in trust and commitment. This part of salvation tends to be stronger in younger converts than the sinful actions and need for repentance. But as we grow older, we tend to get a better and fuller grasp of the seriousness of sin and the many facets of it.
But that doesn’t mean we didn’t get saved at a younger age or stage when we gave God in Christ all that we knew to give Him. To say it another way, a child may make a salvation commitment to trust Christ as Lord and Savior when he comes to the point that he realizes he isn’t saved. His church or parents’ salvation didn’t save him. The child realizes that he needs to make a personal response of receiving God’s love and grace in a personal commitment. After the child is older, he may realize that he’s sinned more and knows more of what to repent of than he did as a younger child. But when he did come as a child, he came simply and humbly and trusted in God to save him with all that he knew to offer God. That’s what happened to me. Later, at age 15 for me, I felt a seizing of God come upon my life with a call to preach and for me to say yes to him. Like, Jonah, I offered excuses and delayed; but I couldn’t get away from that calling of God. So I repented of my sin again and said yes to God! I didn’t get saved again or need to be baptized again. I just matured in my salvation. God forgave me again and led me to follow Him for the rest of this life. And I’m still saying yes to God.
Whether your experience is like mine or not, I’ll get you some more about the age or stage of accountability in my next column. God knows when He saves a person. But it’s extremely important for each person to know what it means to be born again (which John wrote his gospel to clarify). And it’s extremely important to know that you have been born again: saved! ‘Til next time!