Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Childhood Conversion

As one who is in the process of adopting three kids, I have been thinking long and hard about presenting the gospel to my children -- especially since learning that Philippe, at age 7, professed his belief in Christ. Now, I know that he and his sister are in a Christian-run orphanage in Haiti and are taught from scripture on a daily basis, but I wasn't there when this happened, so I really don't know what was said to him before or after that profession.

As you can imagine, all sorts of questions have been running through my mind: How can Christian parents know that they are getting through to their kids? What do they do when their young children make a decision to follow Christ? How can they be joyful about such a decision while remaining cautious that they don't foster deception?

Jim Elliff has written an excellent article on the subject. What follows are some of the highlights. On the topic of conviction, he writes:
    Conviction is the work of the Spirit in bringing sin and the necessity of Christ home to the child's conscience. Jesus said that the Holy Spirit convicts of sin, righteousness (that is, that there is only one righteousness and it is found in Christ), and judgment (see Jn. 16:8-11). In looking for conviction, we should avoid any preconceived ideas about how many tears or how much agony is appropriate and keep in mind that conviction is God's tool to bring your child to a hatred of sin. God alone knows what it takes. That there must be conviction in the preparation for salvation is, however, a bedrock truth. It is in the development of conviction that the parent can play a most significant part. By carefully laying out the law (the demands of God on the conscience), by explaining the consequences of breaking that law, and by continually emphasizing the exclusivity of Christ in delivering the child from those consequences, the parent cooperates with the Spirit in this special preparation of the heart.
On revelation:
    Young Samuel ministered before the Lord (1 Sam. 3:1), but did not yet know the Lord (vs.7) before the Lord "called" him. The reason is that the Word of the Lord was not yet revealed to him (vs. 7). Eli in this case did help Samuel to know that it was the Lord who was calling the boy, and gave him the proper response, which might indicate a place for the parent's intervention in interpreting events. When Paul preached Christ's cross in Corinth he said that to some it was foolishness and to others it was a stumblingblock, but it was the power of God unto salvation to the called (see 1 Cor. 1: 22-24). Here he is speaking of the effectual call of the Holy Spirit rather than the broader call of the preacher (i.e. "Many are called, but few chosen" Mt. 20: 16). This is another way to discuss this issue of revelation. One convert said, "Christ became as irresistible to me as my sin had been before." Observation and counsel are important here, but you cannot play God's part. Your child is not just signing a contract because he wants to close a good deal, but is meeting a person who has the power to reveal or not reveal. "Seek the Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near..." (Isa. 55:6)
On regeneration:
    We have put a paradigm of exact dating on most conversions so that we tend to force whatever is happening in the child into a moment in time which he or she can remember, but the reality may be far more difficult to ascertain. For instance, my child has often prayed at night about his soul. I encourage this and often remind him and the other children, "Don't forget to talk to God about your soul before going to sleep." What I am looking for is not whether or not he has said some words in the right way that supposedly "bind" God to give him salvation. No, what I am looking for, and what he is looking for, is a changed life. He is looking for the signs of being made a "new creature" in Christ.

    When we speak of assurance, we are speaking of that which we know because the evidence is clear. This is the heart of First John and the other passages dealing with this subject. The way to tell if you are a Christian is not to look at the sincerity of a decision, but to look at the change in the life. As far as I can tell, there is no teaching in the Word which says that you can be sure that you are a Christian by looking back at an historical conversion experience. "These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life..." (1 Jn. 5:13, emphasis mine). What things? Those tests which make up the content of the epistle. In other words, one's assurance should be based on discernible factors which can be tested.
On correcting our mistakes:
    Leaders and parents must consider the benefits of returning to a better method of dealing with the souls of our children. To give assurance on the basis of praying a prayer or some other outward, immediate sign is sealing many in deception and makes them harder to reach in their adult years. Any casual look at the disparity between the rolls of our churches plus the numbers of supposed converts who do not even find their way on to our rolls against the actual changed lives being produced, should cause us to do some very serious thinking. In the manner of our great grandfathers who often exhibited such reasonableness and biblical wisdom, we should return to a method that both allows our active and vigorous pursuit of our children's salvation, while at the same time protects against large scale deception.
Every Christian parent will want to check out the entire article.

Feel free to share your thoughts on this weighty issue. Training up a child in the way he should go (Proverbs 22:6) is a frightfully important task, one that should not be taken lightly.

3 comments:

Gordan Runyan said...

Thanks for these thoughts. I am sometimes concerned that we (Reformed) are rougher on our kids than we are on any other Christians.

You teach them truthfully and consistently, yes, of course. But I think we need to approach the question of whether or not they're really saved with the same sort of grace that we grant to our Christian brethren. Specifically, I think we can sometimes come at our own much more pessimistically and suspiciously than we'd get away with regarding our other brethren.

With our brethren in the churches, we accept their profession of faith if nothing we know of in their lives blatantly contradicts that profession. It's difficult for us to grant this same charity to our own kids, probably because we're more naturally concerned about their state.

I'm not arguing with the post at all, but simply adding that as we train up our children, we ought not let our belief in Total Depravity overpower our belief in the grace of God in the Gospel of Christ. Causing undo despair is no better than fostering false assurance. In fact, the former is worse in that it can only be committed against one of Christ's "little ones."

Thanks for letting me add my two cents.

Lee Shelton IV said...

I once ran into a guy who really wanted to drive home the point that his kid (who couldn't have been more than two years old) was totally depraved. We had never met him before, and when my wife and I introduced ourselves we commented on how cute his kid was. He turned and playfully poked at his son and said, in quasi-baby talk, "Yeah, but you're just a little sinner, aren't you? A little sinner with a black heart."

Creepy. We kind of laughed nervously and backed away. I saw that as the perfect example of how not to talk to your kid about the need for salvation.

Steve Scott said...

Greetings. First, we have a few similarities. We have three children; 7, 3 and 1. The oldest two are adopted. We'd love to adopt from Haiti, if possible, and I've visited there.

You ask some important questions. I'm not going to tell you how to do things (we don't even know each other), but I've more recently resigned myself to not knowing for certain about their "conversion" for a great many years. I've seen too many cases of others around me where God's grace silently worked in the background while the parents had given up all hope, and some that seemed so perfect only to have apostasy come quickly in adulthood.

We're not placing emphasis on "profession" as our American theology has instructed us, but daily living. Ours have said numerous times and in numerous ways that they believe in Jesus, the resurrection, etc., but if we did hear a "profession", I would use it as a positive thing that could be a basis for encouragement, and maybe a gentle reminder. But I also know that Simon the sorcerer professed to the apostles, was baptized, and well, we know the rest of the story. Several decades of love and wisdom are what I hope my wife and I are able to surround them with. Just my 2c US adjusted for inflation. I wish you wisdom. :)

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