On Childhood Salvation

Andy Hynes, at SBC Voices, has an interesting approach to passing on the faith to our children. He advocates focusing on repentance and faith (those Baptists often skip baptism for some reason).

What do you think? What about Jesus’ teachings here? the apostles’? What do you think of the current state of evangelizing children? Advice?

I see parents today leading young children, who do not have a proper biblical understanding of essential concepts, into a “moment or decision,” that has more ownership by the parent than the child.   Something like this happens…

Child: I want to ask Jesus in my heart.
Parent: Great, why do you want to do that?
Child: I want to be a Christian and go to heaven.
Parent: Okay, let’s pray to ask Jesus to come into your heart.
Parent: Repeat after me…

At that moment absolute RELIEF fills the parent, with the “assurance” that their child is now saved! They come down front, talk for a brief moment with a staff member, and then, to a standing ovation, they are presented as having been saved.  We run them through the baptismal waters to symbolize death and new birth…something a young child can comprehend?…

There was indescribable relief that came over my heart when I grasped the depths of the above truths.  My focus was turned toward pointing my sons to biblical ideas and not traditional concepts.  God removed from my hands the burden of convincing my oldest son who is now 6 to “get saved.” I cannot make my sons pursue repentance and faith.  What I can do is confuse them, and after all it is not about me.  Pointing my sons to Christ comes through spending time teaching them what the Bible actually says, and not what has traditionally been thought.  I am no less a “witness” for Christ to my sons than I am the tribal chief in the bush of Africa!

Instead of asking our kids, “Do you want to be saved, or do you want to ask Jesus into your heart,” let’s not ask them anything, but rather teach them all the truths of the scripture, and specifically those relating to repentance and faith.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Adam O

    We do video introductions/testimonies for everyone that gets baptized in our church. And as excited as I am to see children taking first steps in following Christ (even as I did when I was 7ish), I dread those videos every week because of the…interesting…things that the young folks (and some of the older folks too) say. It makes for some uncomfortable moments, certainly. I know for me, the struggle is between my sinful tendencies to judge and be cynical, and the grace-filled truth that we don’t need perfect theological understanding to belong to Christ. Even still, be interested to hear folks’ thoughts on this complex praxis issue.

  • Josh

    How does this fit in with the gospel is the story of Jesus and Christological focus? Focusing on repentance and faith seems more of the Romans soterian gospel to me.

  • http://www.nateweatherly.com Nate W.

    The only way to introduce children to Christ is to be Christ for them. If we step into their world, feel things with them that they feel, and give ourselves to them as Christ did for the church they will know Him. My parents weren’t perfect and I have spent a lot of time “unlearning” the gospel I “accepted” when I was 3.5 years old, but when I finally, fully believed that I was known and yet also loved in Christ I could look back and see that I had always known that in the love of my parents. The god I know now looks very much like them, though the doctrine I was taught may look quite a bit different.

  • Amanda B.

    I made a decision for Jesus at an extremely young age, actually apart from direct adult intervention. One day during a car ride, I informed my Christian parents that I had asked Jesus to come into my heart. They then had a long conversation with me to make sure I actually understood what that meant–including that I was willing to live for Jesus, and do what He asked of me, no matter what, for the rest of my life.

    We could split hairs about the theological correctness of the term “asking Jesus into your heart”. We could point out that no one in my family had a particularly full idea of the gospel. But twenty-four years later, I can testify that it stuck.

    Can kids grasp the concepts of the gospel, at even a young age? Absolutely they can. Will they have *perfect* understanding of the *full* implications of the gospel? Probably not–but I’d venture to say the same is true of grownups.

    Can kids make a genuine, deep decision to follow Jesus at a young age? Definitely. Does it “seal the deal” to simply pray a sinner’s prayer at an altar call? No, of course not–but that’s never worked for adults, either.

    In my view, the problem is not that we evangelize children, but that we water down the message so much that we’re not actually evangelizing them at all, and barely discipling them afterwards. The gospel is not, “You don’t want to go to hell, right?” It is a much fuller and richer message–but it’s one that I fully and firmly believe kids can understand and put their hope in. It sounds like this author has given up on pushing an altar-call decision in favor of embracing *actual* Christianity, and if that’s the case, I have nothing whatever to argue with.

    I always find it ironic that, despite Jesus saying we need to come to Him as a little child, we (as the big “C” Church) find it easy to argue about whether or not little children can meaningfully come to Him.

  • Paul W

    I think for our family the primary way in which Jesus has been intentionally introduced to our son is through our daily family worship time. Our family worship normally follows a basic pattern which includes Scripture reading, prayer, and singing along with seasonal variations which may or may not include lighting candles and burning incense. During this time we nearly always remind him of his baptismal identity in Christ by asking two foundational questions.

    Q: Who are you?
    Answer: A child of God.

    Q: What does it mean to be a child of God?
    Answer: God loves me and that I belong to him.

  • Pepy

    I recall what NT Wright says of his own experience: Wright was born in Morpeth, Northumberland. In a 2003 interview he said that he could never remember a time when he was not aware of the presence and love of God and recalled an occasion when he was four or five when “sitting by myself at Morpeth and being completely overcome, coming to tears, by the fact that God loved me so much he died for me. Everything that has happened to me since has produced wave upon wave of the same.”

    Amos, Michael ‘Mike’ (12 February 2003), “Our friend from the North”, Northern Echo.

  • Deets

    I find the concluding remark, “let’s not ask them anything, but rather teach them all the truths of the scripture, and specifically those relating to repentance and faith,” close but just slightly off target.

    I don’t ask kids for that kind of commitment. I know that kids will do just about anything to please adults, and “inviting Jesus into their hearts” really pleases adults. What does that mean to a child? What does any of the stuff we say to coerce decisions mean? It is all too abstract for most children and some adults. In that I agree with Hynes.

    However, where Hynes misses the mark is in focusing on the truths of scripture, repentance and faith. Certainly we teach these things to kids, but the real focus should be on Christ and reconciliation. Repentance and faith are child-centered responses to the scripture. Paul W seems to address this correctly.

    As for repentance and baptism, we should hold those dear and share our testimonies with our children as examples. We should talk about our repentance and decisions in the first person. We should share stories of others who have chosen to follow Christ in his Kingdom in the third person. But we should be careful of putting pressure on a child by asking “Do you want to repent? Do you want to be baptized?” I think we should use the story of Philip and the eunuch as an example. Clearly explain the stories and the path, but leave the child room to say, “Why can’t I be baptized?”

  • Jeff Y

    Child: “Mom, what shall I do?” Mom: “Ask Jesus into your heart.” So, those children who received the parents word, asked Jesus into their heart.

    Jews on Pentecost: “Brethren, what shall we do?” Peter, “Repent! And be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” … So, then, those who had received his word were baptized.

  • PLTK

    I do think children can make real commitments to Christ AND that far too many parents push their children into making “decisions” and being baptized because of their own fears. As Deet (7) says, children love to please adults and some/many child conversions may be more due to that factor than any real decision on the child’s part. I have to admit to not seeing many child baptisms are much different than infant baptisms. Related to this, I am cynical when in my current church it seems that the majority of adult baptism testimonies include something along the lines about making a decision when they were a child and then wandering into the ways of the world during their teenage or young adult years and finally returning when they are older. Statistics on young adults leaving the church indicate there are a lot of those child decision makers who never return.

    What does that mean for me as a parent of 9, 7, and 5 year old children? For me, talking with the kids about what being a follower of Jesus means, modeling for them, encouraging them to deepen that relationship, but not pushing them to say “magic words” or be baptized. We don’t allow our children to do communion, although if my oldest daughter approached us about it on her own, we would be open to talking with her in more depth about baptism and communion.

    My husband is from an Anabaptist tradition where baptisms and formal testimonies were a huge event in their lives and rarely took place before 16 or even 18 years old, so this is huge for him. Even though we aren’t in that tradition ourselves, I do note that in this church those who do this rarely leave their faith as adults.

  • http://Housholder.msites.com David Housholder

    I would like Andy Hynes to expand what he is suggesting when he writes “Pointing my sons to Christ comes through spending time teaching them what the Bible actually says, and not what has traditionally been thought.”

  • T

    This discussion reminds me of the shift I am still in about what the root gospel really is. To say it another way, when I offer someone “the gospel,” is it enough to offer them a person, Jesus, for them to trust, or do I need to offer some version of the mechanism of salvation? From Scot’s book and many other influences, I am increasingly convinced that in sharing the gospel we are to offer a person to be trusted with everything, as he is the good shepherd and redeemer of everything. But that is a difficult shift for someone like me who has a hard time breaking years of training in thinking of the gospel as a formula of salvation that must be understood and then trusted. When I tell someone about Jesus and resist the legalistic urge to give the formula, I still wonder if I’ve shared “the gospel” because the idea that the mechanism is the gospel has such deep ruts in me.

    So what does all this have to do with children? I hope it’s somewhat obvious. People often ask, when asking if a child can be “saved,” if a child can understand the plan/mechanism of salvation which we ask them to trust. (e.g., can they really understand sin and its consequences and hell and redemption, etc.) I think this is a moot question. The question ought to be whether they can understand a person well enough to trust themselves to him or her, specifically a person they cannot see. I think we can see how this might change our thinking regarding children in the faith.

    Part of the confirmation, in my mind, of this line of thinking is that it begins to make sense of how Jesus can lift up the faith of children. For evangelicals, unlike Jesus, it’s repeatedly a question of what children can understand which belies our conception of the gospel in mechanical terms, as opposed to Jesus, who says we should look at the faith of children as our model, because they excel at trusting themselves to others.

    Our thinking about children and when they come to “faith” will be influenced strongly by whether we think the gospel we ask people to trust, at its base, is about a mechanism or a person.

  • Percival

    Well said T !
    The door to salvation is not how much we understand but in whom do we trust.

  • Glenn

    I attend a church where the policy is to not baptize any child until the age of 15. This decision was made years ago based on the understanding that one does want their child to make a decision of their own accord and to understand the Christian faith and the way of life they will follow. It’s far from perfect, but I do see more young adults taking full ownership for their faith as they make the transition from high school to college and adulthood.

  • DMH

    What T #11 said.

    Also, I tend to think that a the decision made by a child in a believing home is to “opt out” of the faith, not into it. A child in an unbelieving home would perhaps be different.

  • Josh T.

    T #11, that’s awesome.

  • Tami M

    I think I’ve had more trouble letting my 6 year old granddaughter grow in her faith and her understanding thereof in a child-like manner. Just like teaching her about her body and sexuality, when she asks a question, I give her the answers she’s seeking. And I quit pushing it and prodding it and trying to shape it into the image I want. I just let her grow. Her understanding is pretty good for a six year old but it is still childlike. I can only pray, as I have for my children and other grandchildren, that He really meant it when He said I could trust Him to bring to fruition what He starts.

  • David P Himes

    My grandson was baptized at six years old, at a Baptist summer camp. At the time, I was disappointed, because I was confident that at his age, he did not understand the implications of his baptism, but rather was just copying examples of what he’d seen and doing something he knew would make his parents happy.

    My grandson is now 15, and was baptized again. I’m more confident he has a better understanding. Complete understanding? Probably not, but sufficient understanding. Few, if any of us has complete understanding of the implications of our salvation at the time it occurs.

  • http://timmillerblog.wordpress.com/ Tim Miller

    I grew up in a church where I was always worried about whether or not I was good enough to go to heaven if I died. I was afraid of death. When I was finally introduced to Faith and Grace my reaction was anger. Why didn’t anyone tell me this stuff?

    We need to introduce children to our Loving God as early as possible. We need to tell them about faith and grace as soon as they can grasp those concepts, which will be different for every child.

    For years I have tried to live in such a way that I give everything I know about myself to everything I know about God. That is a model that we can encourage kids with.

    At the same time, I know many children who don’t know for sure that God is their friend forever, and the sooner we can help them understand that, the more joyful their life will be. And hopefully obedience to Him will follow as their love grows.

  • Elizabeth

    I think ‘T’ put it very well – good thoughts.

    I also think there is some merit to what DMH said about ‘opting out.’ Way back in 1847 Horace Bushnell wrote in his book ‘Christian Nurture’ that children in Christian homes should grow up in an environment where they always know themselves to be children of God. I don’t know enough about Bushnell’s book to vouch for or dispute this point of view – but it makes sense to me and it has been the experience of a number of Christians I know (i.e., they can’t point to a moment of salvation – they grew up always knowing of God’s love and trusting Jesus).

  • dopderbeck

    For me, this is a central reason why I just can’t be an evangelical Baptist-type anymore. The failure to baptize infants into the community of the Church is a tragedy. From Israel to the NT to the early Church, children were initiated into the covenant community through circumcision and then through Baptism. The pressure to drive children and adolescents to singular “decisions” distorts both the family and the Church.

  • T

    David,

    I’m in agreement with you, but am still conflicted, mainly at just an emotional level now, though. Adult-only conversion was at the heart of the SBC paradigm for the whole faith. But I think your brief argument is a very good one for me as I complete my transition. Anything other arguments that you found especially persuasive? Thx.

  • dopderbeck

    T — for me, arguments from history are very persuasive. Very early on, the Church began baptizing infants. There is a heavy emphasis on baptism in soteriology from the Patristic period forward. Early on the Church opposed the Donatists who insisted on re-baptism of Christians who recanted during persecution. The Magesterial Reformers did not gainsay the importance of baptism, though they viewed it differently in the economy of salvation. The radical reformation’s ana-baptist (re-baptism) practice truly were “radical” in this respect.

    Now, to engage this question historically is to enter (for me, anyway), a really tough territory: the nature and role of baptism remains one of the key divisions today between many Protestants and many non-Protestants, because how one views baptism relates to how one views the Church. Of course, some Protestants, particularly those connected with the Magesterial Reformation — Lutherans, Calvinist-Reformed, Anglicans, and Methodists — have a sort of middle-ground covenantal-sacramental view of baptism, which is closer to but still differs from the Catholic and Orthodox views (which also differ from each other particularly in respect to “original sin”).

    Anyway, for me, the realization that the radical “Baptist” view of baptism I received is neither historically nor on the whole Biblically supported, nor pastorally helpful for families with children, leads me to a bit of a crisis about Protestantism generally. I suppose I could land in the Methodist camp. It implies huge and fundamental issues of theological method and ecclesiology.

  • DMH

    In the context of a believing family the whole positive decision thing just seems odd. It’s almost like pressuring the child to make a decision regarding their parents; “Do you know your parents love you? do you love them? do you want to identify yourself with your parents?.. then stand up and tell the world!” It’s the natural state of things to know and love/be loved by Jesus. there may be “struggles” later on as the child grows and separates from the parents and seeks their fully adult identity but that’s a different thing than the kind of decision we’re talking about here (IMO).


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