This year I have had the joy of hearing dozens of testimonies. I’ve started a new part-time job as a chaplain at a theological college, and one of the things I’ve found really encouraging is hearing the stories of how the students came to faith.
I grew up in a non-Christian family, but the majority of the students have come from believing homes. Most of them can’t pinpoint an exact day, or even a year, when they turned to Christ. The students’ stories have highlighted to me the way that God has been pleased to use the consistent faithfulness of their parents to grow them up into their faith. It brings to mind the pattern Paul mentions in 2 Timothy of the sincere faith which first lived in Timothy’s grandmother Lois, and in his mother Eunice and now in him (2 Timothy 1:5).
A prayer I often hear prayed for a newborn is that ‘they won’t know a day where they don’t follow the Lord’, and this is something I pray for my own children too. But how should we treat children in believing families? Are they little non-Christians to be evangelised? Should we consider them unregenerate until they make a verbal confession of faith? Or should we count them ‘in’ until they prove they’re ‘out’?
In the final article of this series, we will address the issue of when children decide that they want ‘out’ of our Christian faith.
Children in the Bible
From the beginning of the Old Testament, God included children as part of his covenant community. Abraham was given a covenant for him and his offspring, and the youngest partakers (at least the boys) were to be circumcised at just eight days old (Genesis 17:10–12). Exodus 12:25–27 describes how the Israelites were to involve their children in the ceremony of the Passover to point them to God’s great rescue of his people. In Deuteronomy we read how the Israelites were to bring their children up soaked in the words of God (Deuteronomy 11:18–20). Later in the book we see children were to be included in the public reading of the law (Deuteronomy 31:12–13).
When we move to the New Testament, we see that Jesus validated the importance of children and taught that the kingdom of heaven is theirs as well (Matthew 19:14). Peter’s sermon at Pentecost specifically declares that the promise of the Holy Spirit is ‘for you and your children’ (Acts 2:39). In Acts we see whole households come to faith (Acts 16). When Paul wrote to the Ephesian church giving instructions for Christian households, he specifically addressed some of his teaching to children, considering them to be members of the church (Ephesians 6:1–3).
The weight of this biblical evidence convinces me that children of believers should be counted as a part of the household of God along with their parents. They are treated as a part of the community of faith they are being raised in. That’s why I treat my kids as Christians, even as we talk with them about the need to own their faith. As the saying goes, ‘God has no grandchildren’, but having Christian parents and belonging to a church community puts a child in the best possible place to develop saving faith.
Children and their development
Looking at how children develop affirms the wisdom of treating our children as Christians. In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul speaks of the difference in the way that children understand things. He writes: ‘When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me’ (1 Corinthians 13:11). This fits with the modern research into the way children learn. They are not just mini- adults. They move through stages of development that affect how they understand concepts, form opinions and make sense of the world around them. As such, the way we talk to children about the gospel needs to be age-appropriate and repeated over time in increasingly complex ways as their understanding and maturity increases.
This explains why, according to the statistics, growing up with one or both parents who are active Christians is the best predictor of adult faith.1
What no parent can know
There was a Christian parenting book doing the rounds about ten years ago that was very popular. It had an appendix in the back that I found incredibly sad. It had a range of potential parenting situations and the ‘ideal’ responses to the children neatly divided into two categories: ‘If she/he isn’t a Christian’ and ‘If she/he is a Christian’. It covered all ages of children. For the non-Christian child, every disciplinary response concluded with a statement about God’s coming judgement and the phrase ‘but you can turn to him today’.
This type of approach relies so heavily on our ability to ‘know’ our child’s heart. I think there can be a real danger in seeing our role as parents as somehow eliciting a confession of faith from our children to convince ourselves they are ‘in’. Of course, as Christian parents our deepest desire is to see our children own their faith and persevere in it. But we need to be reminded that their coming to faith is only ever a work of the Spirit and not something that can be contrived or guaranteed by a certain level of devotion and faithfulness in our parenting.
The truth is that none of us can really know anyone else’s stance before God. We can have indications by their words and the fruit they display, but that is something that will only be revealed on the last day. We can take comfort in the wisdom of Proverbs, that if we train up a child in the way they should go they will not depart from it (Proverbs 22:6). We can prayerfully keep committing our children to the Lord and asking him to give them genuine saving faith. But we shouldn’t be overly concerned to get them to pray a certain prayer or say a certain set of words to convince us of their conversion.
What we believe
The biblical model would see us treating our children as Christians. The language we can use with our kids is that of ‘this is what we believe’. Children learn alongside us as our apprentices. Bringing your children up in the training and instruction of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4) is something that happens over many years and hundreds of conversations. It’s not the equivalent of an altar call at a one-off evangelistic service. It’s not appropriate to expect three- or four-year-olds to have a conversion experience (although God can bring anyone to faith at any age!). A more realistic—and indeed biblical—expectation is that they will gradually grow into the faith you are modelling and teaching.
Treat your children as fellow believers. Certainly, pray for your children to be among God’s chosen ones, taking every opportunity to share the word of God with them and speak about your own faith. Certainly, talk to them about the need for every person to keep repenting and putting their trust in Jesus to save them. But also bring them up as Christians, knowing how to pray and read the Bible and share God’s love with others. Bring them up as members of God’s family, involving them in the life of your church as much as you are able.
The next two articles in this series will explore how we can include our children in the family of God through the sacraments of baptism and communion.
I am praying that each of your children and mine will one day share the testimonies I have heard this year: that they grew up always believing, never knowing a day apart from the saving grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.
 Bellamy, J 2018 Becoming a Christian: Key Influences on Faith Formation and Church Attendance, Report on Questions Commissioned by Anglican Youthworks in the 2016 National Church Life Survey, Anglicare, Sydney.
Jocelyn Loane is married to Ed, and together they have five children. They have been serving in full-time ministry in a variety of contexts since 2008. They are a part of Naremburn Cammeray Anglican Church.
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