A Conversation with Dr. Eric Johnson About Personal Agency and Childhood Conversion

The following is Part 1 of a conversation I had over email with Dr. Eric Johnson, Professor of Pastoral Care at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.  Dr. Johnson also studied child development and psychology for his PhD work at Michigan State University.    Doug:

After reading your article on personal agency, a question arose about this particular section under responsibility and accountability:

Confession is very important (and only mature persons can do it well) because it is supposed to be a deep acknowledgment that no one else is to blame for what I did; only I am responsible for what I did. Something like confession must happen for a mature adult to become a Christian; they must own that they are sinners. Because young children and mentally impaired people have certain mental limitations, they have difficulty understanding how they are responsible for what they do.

Here’s my question: Are you saying that it’s not likely for a child to be converted because he or she cannot really come to a proper understanding of his or her own sin and thereby confess it in the deepest sense? Do these mental limitations as you say keep a child from understanding his or her sin and trusting Christ as their Savior?

I agree that we grow in self-awareness and that God is in the developmental process, but I also agree with Spurgeon’s words here and I wonder what your thoughts are:

Talk not of a child’s incapacity for repentance! I have known a child weep herself to sleep under a crushing sense of sin. If you would know a deep, bitter, and awful wrath of God, let me tell you what I felt as a boy. If you would know joy in the Lord, many a child has been full of it as his little heart could hold. If you would want to know what faith in Jesus is, you must not look to those who have been bemuddled by the heretical jargon of the times, but to the dear children who have taken Jesus at his Word, believed in Him, loved him, and therefore know and are sure they are saved.

We grow less rather than more capable of faith: every year brings the unregenerate mind further away from God and makes it less capable of receiving the things of God. No ground is more prepared for the good seed than that which as yet has been trodden down as the highway, nor has been as yet overthrown with thorns. Not yet has a child learned the deceits of pride, the falsehood of ambition, the delusions of worldliness, the tricks of the trade, the equivocation of philosophy; so far, the child has an advantage over the adult. In any case the new birth is the work of the Holy Ghost, and He can easily work on youth as on age.

Thoughts? I am eager to learn from you!

Dr. Eric Johnson:

Great questions! And far be it from me to challenge Spurgeon!

I believe God deals with each of us according to our capacity, so I think a child can be saved if they surrender their whole life to the Lord with as full a faith “as their little heart could hold.”  That’s a great phrase.

But along with the greater simplicity that Spurgeon is pointing to --in fact one of the reasons for it--is a simpler, more superficial grasp of reality, including the reality of my sin and my obligations to God. Soren Kierkegaard suggested that true Christianity is characterized by “inward deepening,” so that, as people develop and grow older, they deepen in their understanding of themselves, God, sin, and salvation. So children who were truly converted at age 6 or 7 should be expected to go deeper in their teenage years, so they should have a deepening of their sense of conviction for sin at points during those years, based on their fuller understanding of what’s involved. In that sense, conversion is actually a life-long process, and should not be seen as a once-for-all event (though being born again is the beginning of this process.  Reaction?

Part 2 coming soon ...