Our Children and Conversion

This post is part of the to whom do they belong: children in the covenant series (click to view the other posts in this series).

There are several testimonies of God’s people found in His Word.  Some are dramatic; some not so dramatic; but all of them are precious showing forth the sovereign grace of a mighty and merciful God.  As a pastor and as a father, one of my most common prayers to our Father in heaven is that the children in our midst - whether they be mine or my brother’s and sister’s at Trinity Grace Church - would never know a time that they didn’t know Jesus Christ.  My prayer is that their testimony would be that as Timothy’s, who “from childhood (had been) acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15).  What a privilege for this young boy to be raised in a home where the true and lively faith was passed down from one generation to the next.  From his grandmother Lois to his mother Eunice to young Timothy – a deep and indwelling faith in the Lord Jesus.  Another testimony recorded in Scripture that is quite wonderful as well is found in Luke 1:15.  It is the testimony of John the Baptist, “…and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.”  Much like Timothy’s, it’s not dramatic, but yet, it’s precious.  And then there’s David.  A man who the Scripture says was a man “after God’s own heart” - even with all his failings.  He says in Psalm 22:9 speaking to the Lord, “Yet you are he who took me from the womb; you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts.  On you was I cast from my birth, and from my mother’s womb you have been my God.”  Again, there was no dramatic conversion but a quiet, sovereign work of God in the life of one of His children.

And then, of course, there was Paul.  Paul was a persecutor of the church; a persecutor of Christ and yet Jesus met him on the road to Damascus and turned his heart of stone to a heart of flesh.  God, in His grace, drew this arrogant sinner to Himself and saved him.  This was, indeed, a dramatic conversion. 

I know of no Christian who would argue that Paul was any “more saved” than Timothy, or David, or John the Baptist.  I know of no Christian who would argue that Timothy, David, or John the Baptist would need to produce for others a knowledge of a time that they didn’t know Jesus and then a time that they did know Jesus.  I know of no Christian who would argue that Timothy, David, or John the Baptist would need to give evidence of their conversion to show that, in fact, God had worked in their life. 

And yet, it is the sad testimony of the church today that, in practice, this is exactly what we expect from our covenant children.  We expect testimonies like Paul’s rather than testimonies like Timothy’s, David’s, or John’s.  Following the revivalistic tendencies of such men as Gilbert Tennant of the 18th century too many in the church would insist that a “true” Christian would inevitably know a time or the times when they were not.   Too often, children in the covenant are practically being taught exactly opposite of what we propose to teach.  I am not denying the reality of the need of the work of Christ in the heart of sinners.  But I would argue that we do not know when that time is – and it could be at any age.  It’s interesting that a verse commonly used to promote the need for conversion is Matthew 18:3, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn (convert) and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  But notice who Jesus says they are to become like – they are to become like, they are to convert to, as it were, children.  They are to become like children because “to such belongs the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:16).  Of course, this was bigger than just the children for Jesus says in verse 17, “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”  This pointed beyond the children to the way in which the kingdom was to be accepted.  And yet, in order for this to make any sense, the children were accepting it – in fact, they were coming as infants, helpless, bringing nothing, but completely dependent on Christ.  Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God” (v. 16).  It is as if we in the church are saying to our children, “We acknowledge that you are children and that you are coming to Jesus, but we want you to convert and become like little children before you come.”  This is confusing to our children.  It’s as if we are telling them they must do what’s already been done for them.  I have responded sinfully, out of anger, to my children.  At one such time I made the error of saying to one of my children, “you need to know Jesus!”  Saying to him, “You need Jesus would have been completely appropriate.”  For after all, we all do!  But that’s not what I said, “I said, ‘You need to know Jesus.’” And not in the sense that we all do but in the sense that an unbeliever does – and my child knew exactly what I meant.  His face fell – I crushed his spirit.  His face said it all – it was if he was saying, “Daddy, what do you mean?  I do know Jesus!”  We call our children to Christ; we call them to obey; we call them to believe; but we call them as covenant children. 

Jesus says in John 3:5, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”  Certainly, there must be new birth!  But to insist that this new birth is dependent upon or somehow necessitates a dramatic conversion experience is to abandon the sovereign grace of God in the salvation of his people.   To insist upon a conversion experience is to deny the testimonies of Timothy, David, and John the Baptist.  It is to deny covenant theology.  It is to deny the promise of God that is to you and to your children.  And it is to deny the power of the simple means of grace that God uses to bring about the passing down of the faith from one generation to the next.  Charles Hodge says concerning revivalistic thinking and can be applied to this issue, “The ordinary means of grace become insipid or distasteful. ...Perhaps however the most deplorable result of the mistake we are now considering is, the neglect which it necessarily induces of the divinely appointed means of careful Christian nurture. ...Family training of children, and pastoral instruction of the young, are almost entirely lost sight of. We have long felt and often expressed the conviction that this is one of the most serious evils in the present state of our churches.” 

Dear Christian parents – regardless of our theological traditions, we all, and our children, are completely dependent upon the mercy of God in Christ Jesus.  May this be a call and a reminder to us all – diligently teach your children (Deuteronomy 6); train them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4); teach the Scriptures that are able to make one wise unto salvation (2 Timothy 3:15); and emphasize the gospel of Jesus Christ for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes (Romans 1:16). 

This post is part of the to whom do they belong: children in the covenant series (click to view the other posts in this series).