This past Sunday, I met with a group of parents and their children for the Student Baptism class at Sojourn Midtown. One thing we talked about is a question that is often raised by conscientious parents: "How do I encourage my child to trust Jesus without giving false assurances?"
In Matthew 28:18-20, the call is “Go! Make disciples. Baptize them.” In order to fill this command, we must call our kids to respond to Christ. Parents should speak freely to their kids about responding to Jesus—repenting, trusting, obeying, and making a decision to follow him.
At the same time, it is important to help our children see that it's not their responsiveness thats make them a Christian. Christians come to Jesus in faith, not by works (Ephesians 2:8-9). Just like us adults, kids can deceive themselves into thinking that good works or religious practices can save them. So, we shouldn't assure kids that what they do (even when it is praying a sinner’s prayer for mercy or asking Jesus into your heart) guarantees they will go to heaven. Praying a prayer or doing good works does not secure a child's salvation. As much as we want to assure our hearts with things we can manipulate (our knowledge, emotional experiences, prayers, or our works), these things offer no lasting hope.
So how do we encourage kids to respond to God’s call while avoiding false assurances?
(1) Boldly teach children about their sin. Charles Spurgeon once said, “We must not flatter or deceive children by teaching them that their nature is good. Rather, we tenderly teach children about their failures—pointing out the specific sins to which children are prone (greed, pride in performance, lying, disobedience, etc.). Our goal is to be tender but true. We pray that the Holy Spirit will use the truth to bring conviction to the child’s heart and conscience, and ultimately to give the gift of faith.”
(2) Focus on what Jesus has done to save rather than what a child should do. In children’s ministry, we often emphasize the ABCs: (A) Admit you are a sinner; (B) Believe in Jesus; and (C) Confess faith in Him. There is nothing wrong with this (see Romans 10:9-10) so long as we make clear that salvation is not about what we do but about what Christ has done. If we only talk to kids about what they should do, we run the risk of confusing or discouraging them. When a child becomes aware of their sin, they may become introspective and worry, “Did I do enough? How can Jesus live in my heart when I still get so angry?” What Jesus has done for us is the most important thing—so much more important than what we do. He saves us. We do not save ourselves. We must teach kids to look outside of themselves to the love and forgiveness that comes because of what Christ has already done for them (Galatians 2:20). For this reason, I prefer a gospel tract like Billy Graham’s Steps to Peace With God or my Are You Close to God? that emphasizes what Christ has done outside of us over the ABC method. Another helpful resource is Marty Machowski's booklet, Leading Your Child To Christ, pictured above. As Octavius Winslow wrote, “One simple believing [look at] Christ will produce more light and peace and joy than a lifetime of looking within ourselves for evidences and signs of grace.”
(3) Call kids to respond. Call them to decide. We must be clear that the call to respond is not the gospel. But we also must be clear that a response is necessary. The Scripture calls all people to believe. So, you don’t have to wait until you know that a child is saved in order to call them to respond, or call them to make a decision.
Rote--a child's ability to repeat back stories, verses, and biblical truth without thought of meaning.
Recognition--a child's ability to recognize biblical concepts that have been taught before
Restatement--a child's ability to express new concepts in his own words and to relate them to a biblical worldview/system of thought.
Relation--a child's ability to relate biblical truths to life and see an appropriate gospel response/application.
Realization--a child's ability and desire for putting gospel applications into action in his daily life.
(4) Recognize differing levels of responsiveness in young children, and encourage them to take the next step. Christian educators, Larry Richards and Gary Bredfeldt, outline five levels of biblical learning (on the right). This outline reminds us that children typically learn the language of faith before their faith is fully realized. That's normal. Worship pastor Bob Kauflin has written, "Younger children, who may not know God yet, may still participate enthusiastically in various external forms of worshipping God. As the Holy Spirit enables them, they will become increasingly aware of their sinfulness before God, accept His gracious gift of forgiveness through the gospel, and be included among those who will forever be growing in their love for and worship of God."
(5) Give children gospel assurances. Avoiding false assurances doesn't mean not giving assurances altogether. Children should be taught that Jesus alone saves, and they should be assured that they can bank on him. We should feel free to assure children that Jesus will save them if they trust him. We should freely invite children to come to Jesus and keep coming to him for their whole life. Should children be led to memorize, recite, or sing Bible passages that give personal assurance--passages like Job 19:25-26, Psalm 23:1, Psalm 42:11, Galatians 2:20, or Romans 8:16? Absolutely yes! Leading a child to memorize these assurances is not the same thing as giving false assurances, because these words are the very words of Christ. What do we do if we hear our kids assuring themselves with one of these passages? Rejoice! And encourage them, "Keep on believing! Keep on believing!"
(6) Finally, there is no reason to pressure children for commitments, because the pressure is off. We can trust that God is already at work kids’ hearts. Our responsibility is to faithfully teach the gospel to them and leave the results to the Lord. Sometimes we’re tempted to pressure children, because we feel that getting them saved is our responsibility. It is not. Salvation is God’s work (2 Corinthians 5:18-20; Ephesians 2:8-9). Give children an opportunity to respond, but trust God to work in the hearts of his children to bring them to himself through faith, in his time and in his ways.