A handful of modest little applauds went off in the church library that doubled as our classroom. Sheepishly, I made my way around the long wooden table that divided the third and fourth graders into blue and white Bibles on one side and lace adorned Bible covers on the other. By the time I arrived at the side of my Sunday school teacher, I was all set for the big moment. Then, out of the box it came! With the disengaged enthusiasm of my nine-year-old psyche in full swing, I took hold of a beautiful cross shaped salvation trophy made out of the finest gold plastic. A quick prayer latter, I stepped through sliding partitions the separated us from the sanctuary and freely began to daydream about my plastic toy soldiers as the services first hymns sprang to life.
Sadly this was neither my first nor my last false public profession of faith. Having been a relatively accomplished liar and thoroughly exposed to religion, I singlehandedly concocted a childhood spirituality that justified the fears that many godly parents bring to the discussion of Deuteronomy 6 and 11. What happens when we are too successful?
Concerned About Things Going Too Well
If you are like most godly parents, you faithfully strive to live out the Shema by demonstrating the gospel through your words and actions. Everywhere you go, you proclaim the glories of Christ day-in and day-out. And now as Moses predicted, your children are responding to your godly testimony by expressing interest in the gospel! Praise the Lord! These little guys and gals talk about loving Jesus and of praying for forgiveness. You are ever so excited about each demonstration of faith. But you are also afraid that you could be giving your smiling child a fake “Get out of Hell Free” card that will potentially push this unredeemed heart further away from the gospel. Consequently, you are left wondering if you should break out the salvation trophy (ice cream party and all) or if we should ship our little lady off to a nunnery for a ten year all-intensive baptism class. Thankfully, we do not have to judge our children’s motives and stamp them “saved” or “lost.” As J.C. Ryle notes, the Holy Spirit is the one who “changes, and renews, and sanctifies, and purifies” (p. 25). As Christians parents, we are called simply to discern fruit of our child’s spiritual life. Below, I have created three questions that will help us understand our child’s heart.
1. Does Our Child Mentally Grasp the Gospel?
Several years ago, I worked with a four-year-old who could enter children’s church with a quick rundown of that day’s bulletin inconsistencies and errors. Not surprisingly, this little guy also asked a good number of questions about the Bible (and snack time), expressing a real curiosity about Jesus. Because of his intelligence and curiosity, I could have easily led him through the motions of repentance. But at that time, his words would not have indicated a heart change. He still thought of Jesus as living in the world of Spiderman, and Marvel Comic book heroes. Lacking an accurate understanding of the historical Jesus, he could not yet repent and embrace Christ. A child cannot believe in something he doesn’t know. As Art Murphy notes, “Praying the right words doesn’t make a [child] Christian if he does not understand what he is saying” (Murphey, p. 82). Before we affirm our child’s salvation experience, we need to determine if the repentance was founded on the accurate understanding of the gospel. Just as the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8, a child (and an adult for that matter) who is ready to repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ should be able to: 1) Explain the gospel in his/her own words, 2) Express a love for Jesus, 3) Demonstrate a sorrow for sin 4) Distinguish between salvation and baptism (Ibid. 74). Although the Holy Spirit is not bound by human guidelines, children typically develop the mental maturity to pursue saving faith between the ages of 7 and 8.
2. Does Your Child Do More Than Talk?
Jesus very clearly says, “Not everyone who says to me Lord, Lord will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Mat 7:21). In modern terms, we could say “not everyone who prays the sinner’s prayer or who walks down an aisle, or who asks a lot of questions is a Christian.” While we should get excited when our children pray for forgiveness, we must remember that good words do not equal salvation. As Art Murphy reminds us, “Understanding the basic terms of salvation does not mean a child has experienced it” (Ibid. 74). This was my problem in a nutshell. As a child, I understood truth. Being a fan of Awana, I mastered the art of reciting the gospel. But my life had not yet been touched by the power of Christ. I fought with my siblings, had a few grade school cheating scandals, and was too lazy to clean my room even when offered the promise of a Lego pirate ship. Thankfully, my parents were not fooled and continued to press me on my faith. We too must encourage our children upward and onward from their profession of faith. Paul says in Ephesians 2:10, “For we are his workmanship created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” If our child is truly saved, this little soul will do good works. The radical life changing effects of salvation are not optional or reserved for adulthood. Before we vindicate our child’s conversion, we must see if she has the complete package. Does our child do good works? Does he treat his siblings with love and grace? Does she honor and respect your parental authority? The writer of James powerfully reminds us that,
Faith by itself, if it does not have works is dead…You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe-and shudder” (James 2:17,19)
3. What Kind of Fruit Does Your Child Usually Produce?
In Mathew 7:17, we read, “A healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit.” If our precious 4 foot gymnast is a believer, we will see her develop a life characterized by, “fruit keeping with repentance” (Matt. 3:8). Generally speaking, she will be selfless, kind, and obedient to her parents. Now at times, she will still get upset, snap at her brothers, and mutter a cruel word or two. The apostle John says if we claim to be sin free we are liars (I John 1:8). We should not be surprised that our believing child still sins. After all, we too struggle with the faith. Therefore, we must not be too quick to question our child’s salvation, frustrating the little person “with our doubt” (Martha Peace, p. 27). Instead of looking at the snapshots of our child’s life, we must examine, as Dr. Scott says, “the habitual day-in and day-out lifestyle (the movie-strip film of one’s life)” (Ibid. 27). We are looking to see if our child has built his/her spiritual life upon the foundation of Christ or upon the foundation of expedient compliance. When the winds of adversity slam against our little soul’s spiritual home in the form of a bully, or of an unjust umpire, or of a nagging sister, we will get insights into our child’s heart. Does he respond with grace, loving words, and compassion? Be encouraged. Does he respond with anger, harsh words, and mean spirited judgment? Be concerned. As Dr. Scott notes, “Parents should not be convinced of their child’s profession if the child is not for the most part persevering in the faith and obedience to God’s commands” (Ibid. 27). The fruit of your child’s life will tell you much about the seriousness of his faith. Jesus reminds us that,
The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45).
So What Now?
How do you handle your little guy or gal who makes numerous professions of faith? We preach the gospel and challenge our children with truth according to their spiritual fruit. As J.C. Ryle says, “Give them the Bible, the whole Bible, even when they are young” (Ryle, p. 25). We help our children understand that the Christian faith is not contained in an emotional bedside moment but spans the depths of life (Phil 3:12-14). And if at any point (even post baptism), they fall away from the faith, we continue to preach the gospel. As Dr. Scott concludes:
Bottom Line, we should encourage each spiritual step that a young child makes without assuming or assuring salvation…Whether you think them saved or not keep teaching all the marvelous elements of the gospel to them. And by all means disciple them if they profess to know to be a Christian (Ibid. 27)