I will never forget a few years ago when the ladies from our church, who had recently returned from a women’s conference, were telling me that my wife was the talk of the conference. That alone surprised me because, though she was part of a panel Q & A discussion at the women’s conference, my wife tends to be quiet when it comes to speaking in public. So why was she the talk of the conference? It was because of her answer to a question concerning how to raise your children with the Gospel. Her response on the one hand caused quiet giggles among the ladies of our church who know her but sent shock waves to the ladies who did not. She said that we(husband and wife) present the Gospel and then in order to get the right response out of them we have our children say the “Sinner’s Prayer”.
The Scripture clearly teaches that children are a blessing from the Lord(Psalm 127:3-5) and as stewards fathers are to raise their children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord(Ephesians 6:4). Or as the King James says, in the “nurture and admonition of the Lord”. No I am not a proponent of King James only.
There are two extremes you are to avoid when it comes to the Gospel and your children. This should be of no surprise since our natural tendency is to be people of the pendulum. The one extreme is to assure your children when they profess faith that they are saved and that they should never doubt that. The second extreme is to condemn or dismiss any profession of faith by saying that they still possess a heart of stone, not a heart of flesh.
Extreme #1: Assure any profession of faith
Why is this one extreme to avoid? Let me give you a few reasons.
First of all, whether a child or an adult, a profession of faith doesn’t necessarily automatically constitute a possession of genuine saving faith. Genuine saving faith is manifest by the fruit of good works(Galatians 5:6; Ephesians 2:10; James 2:14-26). Assurance of eternal life(1 John 5:13) is based upon obedience(1 John 2:3-5) and love for other Christians(1 John 2:9-11; 3:10-15; 5:1). Children are sometimes too young to demonstrate faith in good works evidenced in obedience and love for believers. And even if they do, their motives are skewed. Therefore there is no guarantee that their faith is genuine. That is not to say that God cannot save a child at a young age. Here we are talking about you as a parent granting them assurance.
Secondly, there is the danger of false assurance. You definitely do not want your child to grow up with the notion that they are saved simply because they are part of a Christian family or said the “Sinner’s Prayer” or even if they say they say they truly believe when God might not have yet caused them to be born again(1 Peter 1:3).
Furthermore, the issue of assurance is the work of the Holy Spirit(Romans 8:14-16). That does not mean of course that you cannot teach your children through the book of 1 John that was written for the specific purpose of assurance. It simply means not to overemphasize objective assurance with your children.
And finally, your children want to please you. You may not think that they do especially when they disobey you regularly and you begin to wonder “Whose child is this?” When it comes to the Gospel and their response to it, your children know that it would please you when they respond positively to the good news. After all, having told them about sin, the wages of it, the reality of hell, the person and work of Christ, why wouldn’t they respond with a yes to your invitation? In their innocent minds, they are thinking that if they can get the assurance that they are escaping hell and guaranteed heaven from their parent, then they are in. So their motives for their profession may be skewed by their desire to please you, rather than making a profession of faith based upon the realization of their sinfulness before God and that Christ is the only Savior to embrace. That is not to say they cannot understand those truths of sin and the Savior, but here we are talking about their heart’s motive.
“As I noted earlier, too many people whose hearts are utterly cold to the things of the Lord believe they are going to heaven simply because they responded positively as children to an evangelistic invitation. Having “asked Jesus to come into their hearts,: they were then taught never to examine themselves and never to entertain any doubt about their salvation. ”
John MarArthur(Faith Works: The Gospel According to the Apostles, p. 209)
Extreme #2: Condemn or dismiss any profession of faith.
Why is this the other extreme to avoid? Let me count the ways.
First of all, a profession of faith, though not necessarily guaranteeing a possession of faith, could mean that God is at work in their young minds and hearts. He may be drawing them(John 6:44). When you, as their parent, condemn or dismiss their profession, you could be missing out on the opportunity to further explain the Gospel and to see the small yet definite workings of the Spirit of God in the life of the child that God gave you.
Secondly, God may have saved your child. Your rebuttal is that if God saved my child he or she would be obedient. Granted obedience is a mark of genuine salvation(1 John 2:3-5). But let me ask you, “Do you always obey the Lord?” Of course not. Growth takes time.
And thirdly, succumbing to this extreme is to not understand that your child’s conversion will not be the same as someone who has not grown up in a Christian home. That is to say, it may not seem as drastic, but it may come more quietly. Nonetheless, that in and of itself does not mean it is not genuine.
“There are Christians who can give day and hour of their conversion, but the great majority do not know exactly at what moment they were saved. The effects of the act are plain, but the act itself was done in the quietness of God. Such, very often, is the experience of children brought by Christian parents. It is not necessary that all should pass through agonies of soul before being saved; there are those to whom faith comes peacefully and easily through the nurture of Christian homes.”(emphasis added)
John Gresham Machen(Christianity and Liberalism p. 140-141)
Having discussed the 2 extremes to avoid, now we turn to the way you ought to raise your children with the Gospel. Let me give you 4 watch words that will serve you well like a pair of lighthouses guiding you through the sometimes fog of parenting.
Watch Word #1: Clarity
As a parent always make sure you clarify the different aspects of the Gospel, whether it be the gravity of sin or the work of Christ. Also clearly explain the proper response to the Gospel, repentance and faith(Acts 20:21). The following will assist you as you seek to clarify the Gospel to your children.
- Who God is – Holy, Just, Creator
- Who Man is – Sinner(Romans 3:23; 6:23)
- Who Christ is- Lord and Savior(John 14:6. Acts 2:36; 4:12; Romans 10:9)
- What Christ has done – Crucifixion and Resurrection(1 Corinthians 15:3-5)
- What should man’s response be – repentance and faith
“Don’t soften the parts of the message that sound unpleasant. Christ’s blood, the cross, and atonement for sins are at the heart of the message. If we bypass such topics, we’re not giving the full gospel. Don’t tone down the deman for surrender. Christ’s lordship is not too difficult for children to understand. Any child who is old enough to understand the basic gospel is also able by God’s grace to trust Him completely and respond with the purest, most sincere kind of surrender.”
John MacArthur(Faith Works: The Gospel According to the Apostles, p. 209)
Clarity involves thoroughness. When you are thorough with the Gospel it keeps it from becoming obscure to your children. Remember that at the same time your child doesn’t need to understand every aspect of soteriological(the doctrine of salvation) truth in order to be saved. That comes with maturity in the faith. They do need to understand what is germane to the Gospel in order to be saved, such as the holiness of God, the gravity of sin and its consequences, the perfect work of Christ, and what it means to trust in Christ alone. Again seasoned pastor John MacArthur provides godly wisdom and biblical counsel.
“Should we streamline or abbreviate the message when we teach children the gospel? There is no biblical warrant for that. Certainly we need to use terminology they can grasp and be clear and patient in communicating the message. But when Scripture talks about teaching children spiritual truth, the emphasis is on thoroughness. … Remember that the primary factor in any person’s coming to Christ is not how much doctrine he or she knows. The real issue is the extent of God’s work in the heart. Even the most mature believer does not comprehend all of God’s truth. We can only begin to fathom the riches of God’s word in this present life. Full understanding of eery aspect of the Gospel certainly is not required for salvation.”(emphasis added)
John MacArthur(Faith Works: The Gospel According to the Apostles, p. 208-209)
Watch Word #2: Encouragement
Short of granting your child the assurance of salvation, something as we said previously only the Spirit of God can do, encourage them every time they tell you that they believe in Jesus. Don’t brow beat them that they are still unsaved because of their disobedience.
Watch Word #3: Consistency
Your faithful consistency to regularly lead family worship and teach your children the truths of the Gospel is essential in instructing them in the Word, which is the imperishable seed by which they must be born again(1 Peter 1:23)
Watch Word #4: Patience
If God opens their eyes and changes their hearts so that they believe in Him with genuine saving faith, it will be in His time. Don’t push their conversion. Be patient and allow the Holy Spirit to use your nurture in the Word of God.
“…we must eschew the quick, easy response and teach our children patiently, consistently, faithfully over their developing years. Encourage every step of faith as they grow.”(emphasis added)
MacArthur(Faith Works: The Gospel According to the Apostles, p. 210)
Recently, at the end of our family worship, our youngest daughter said to me that she believes that she is a sinner and that she believes in Christ. Then with those large cute eyes that can cause the most hardened heart to melt, she looked at me and asked, “Am I in? Am I in?” So I pulled out my knightly sword, we held an official family ceremony and I took my sword tapping it over each of her shoulders dubbing her a Christian now and forevermore. To use NoCo language:HENNO. Rather, to clarify her understanding of sin I told her that to believe you are a sinner involves believing that you are guilty before God(James 2:10) and believing that you deserve to be punished by God in eternal hell for your sins. Then to encourage her professed faith in Christ I said with enthusiasm in my voice, “Great, keep on believing in Christ alone.”