The following is Part 2 of a conversation I had over email with Dr. Eric Johnson, Professor of Pastoral Care at Southern Seminary. Over the past year, I've gotten to know Eric personally and greatly appreciate his friendship. If you missed it, here's Part 1 of our conversation. Doug:
I fully agree with conversion, in a sense, being a life-long process (and the new birth being the beginning of this process). And I like how you brought out the idea that children can only grasp a simpler reality of their sin and how this deepens as they age.
One more question: How do you interpret the verses where Jesus holds up children as an example of the way we adults must come to him? And how does this mesh with what you said about a simpler, superficial grasp of reality? Again, I quote Spurgeon:
How the blessed Savior turns the tables and says, “Say not, the child may not come until he is a man, but know that you cannot come until you are like him. It is no difficulty in the child that he is not like you. The difficulty is with you, that you are not like the child.” Instead of the child needing to wait until he grows up and becomes a man, it is the man who must grow down and become like a child. (BTW … I’m getting these quotes from a great little book called, Spiritual Parenting, by Spurgeon.)
Dr. Eric Johnson:
There’s something so precious about childhood that Spurgeon is tapping into. But surely Jesus isn’t suggesting that children are to be emulated in all ways? He’s using children as a metaphor, alluding to some features of childhood (their relative innocence, trustfulness, dependence, and so forth) and suggesting that in adulthood, there is the necessity of us returning to something like that in spite of our more advanced capacities. But we wouldn’t want adult Christians to be like children in every way. Children can be petty, that can’t grasp the big picture of things, they don’t know as much, they tend to think and experience life in all-or-nothing categories. Overall, maturity is a good thing; it is a created/spiritual good that glorifies God and it results in a genuine advance in human life.
My overall concern is doxological, that is, since God created us for his glory, we are to consider how that glory is manifested through human life. I would argue that adults have a greater capacity to glorify God, because of the enhanced capacities to do so that emerge in adulthood. Consider, e.g., a 7-year-old child singing a worship song in a children’s choir. It is precious and God receives glory (“out of the mouth of babes”!). But the child does not have the capacity to deeply “enter in” to the words. In contrast, consider the 30-year-old who has suffered a great deal and is painfully aware of his sinfulness and also of God’s holiness and then of Christ’s love and compassion for him, dying on the cross. For that person to praise God in that song, mindful of all these complex realities—doing so as a little child—is to do so with a greater depth of heart, perhaps with bittersweet tears of joy, so that the older person is able to glorify God more, is able to be an image of God more fully, than the child. We might consider this the existential quality of Christian faith that in part is what distinguishes adults from children.
Well said. I agree. I was just curious how your mind wraps around these ideas of personal agency and conversion as it relates to little children. Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions!