Jay Younts on why the gospel matters for your toddler:
Parents who view presenting the gospel as primarily information transfer will lack a sense of urgency. I do not mean that this parent is unconcerned about the spiritual condition of his child. He may be deeply concerned. However, seeing the presentation of the gospel as transfer of information means waiting for when the child is willing to engage in this transfer. The parent who sees the presentation of the gospel as one of search and rescue will have an immediate sense of urgency. Thus, even before the toddler can speak, he will be interacting with parents who see the gospel as the most important reality of life. This child will hear his parents passionately talking to others about the gospel. He will hear his own actions explained in terms of his need of the gospel even before he can articulate a response. He will see and hear that his parents are driven by truths that transcend the temporal. This is the process outlined in Deuteronomy 6. The very thoughts of God, revealed in Scripture, are graven into the hearts of this toddler's parents. These parents are gripped by God's call to rescue the lost. This mission defines these parents. This is an immense blessing to our toddler. He is being raised by parents whose mission in life coincides with God's purpose for each day. That purpose, at least in part, is to bring honor to his great name through the rescue of the lost.
Practically this toddler will hear often of the wonder of Jesus Christ. His parents will see his sin as an opportunity to present the gospel to him and not merely to correct his behavior. He will live in a home that is focused on the wonder of a God who forgives sins. This focus leads to joy. Joy comes from the reality that Jesus is our effective and loving high priest. Living for the gospel means living with joy.
So, when this toddler spills a cup of milk because he is still learning how to handle a cup, he is not scolded. His parents speak lovingly and reassuringly to him. They help him learn to handle the cup with more precision. He knows that he is more valuable than spilt milk. He is lovingly disciplined when he sins, but he is also lovingly embraced when he acts like a 2 year old. He is on the road to knowing what it means to be loved and being secure. The gospel matters to his parents. In time, Lord willing, the gospel will also matter to him.
I'm getting ready to head out with my good buddy Lisle on a 6th Grade Retreat this weekend. The theme of our retreat is CHANGE. That one word pretty much encompasses what's going on in the lives of kids at this age. Lots of changes, inside and out! Zits, Braces, and hair in weird places! What an awkward time. Wanting to be liked. Wanting to fit in. All of these changes can lead to confusion and frustration. That's why we need a change of the heart first. And when we become a new creature the change process has only begun. Justified by grace and then sanctified by grace until we reach glory. Please pray for this weekend. And yes, that's me as a 6th grader on the left. One book Lisle and I recommend for parents during these awkward years is The Space Between by Walt Mueller.
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.
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 ...