by Hexon J. Maldonado
As the pastor of a church, I get this question quite often. Throughout my years of ministry, I have had to interview countless children for baptism. Most times it goes well, but sometimes not so well. Parents are always somewhat anxious. They want to believe their child is saved. They hope their child is saved. They would love to see them get baptized but hope they won’t choke during the interview.
At the same time, parents can often be concerned about discouraging their child, about squelching their enthusiasm. If the child says he or she is saved and wants to be baptized but then we don’t allow him or her to be baptized or take the Lord’s Supper, will that not put a bitter taste in their mouth? Is it not better to extend grace than to err on the side of caution? Would it not be better to allow them to be baptized and to take the Lord’s Supper in the hopes that will allow them to feel a sense of belonging and ultimately draw them closer to God? As we wrestle with these questions, and questions like these, there are several biblical truths to keep in mind.
Children Are Little Humans
Yes, I know it’s hard to believe that your little snot-nosed-curtain-climber is just a miniaturized version of yourself but it’s true. Children from the moment of conception are fully made in the image of God (Gen 1:27). To be made in God’s image means that all the attributes and qualities found in God are found in us but on a finite level. Children, no matter what age, are fully human and fully made in God’s image just as adults are. They may be less mature and less intelligent due to lack of experience and education, but fully human and fully bearing the imago Dei nonetheless. This means then that we should expect nothing less from children than we would expect from adults who profess faith in Christ.
Minimally, children, like adults, should be able to express what they believe about Christ and why they believe when they die, they will enter heaven and not hell. They may not be able to articulate their faith with the same depth and complexity as adults would, but all the same basic elements should be there. For this reason, when I interview children for baptism, I avoid yes or no questions to determine the genuineness of their faith in Christ. I usually begin by asking them why they want to be baptized? What I want to hear is not as important as what I don’t want to hear. If the child says they believe this is something that Chrisitians should do but cannot articulate why that is what they believe, I use that as a teaching opportunity to explain to them the meaning and purpose of baptism. However, what I don’t want to hear is an answer which indicates they believe baptism somehow saves them or is necessary for salvation or will somehow help them get into heaven or that they are trusting in baptism to some degree for their salvation. Any answer which implies any of the aforementioned is a nonstarter.
Assuming we get past that first question, I then like to ask why they believe when they die they will go to heaven. This is where things get sticky. Often the answer they give is, “Because I believe in Jesus.” To which I reply, “That’s great, but what does that mean? What is it about Jesus you believe that makes you think you will go to heaven?” Many times this question is met with a blank stare. I can tell by their eyes what they’re thinking, ‘I thought that was the correct answer. What is it about Jesus I believe that makes me think I’m going to heaven? I have no idea what the pastor is asking me.’
This is not a gotcha question. Rather if someone, anyone, of any age, has heard and understood and believed the good news of Jesus Christ, if they believed they are saved and that Christ saved them, they should have no trouble explaining that and how that happened. For example, if a person were saved by being pulled from a burning building, unless they were unconscious, they should have no trouble explaining how that happened. If the building was dark and smokey, they may not get all the details correct, but they would still be able to articulate on some level how it is they are now standing outside the building alive. ‘I was in my room and it was dark and smokey and a firefighter picked me up and carried me out the front door. At first, I didn’t know it was a firefighter or that we were going out the front door because it was dark and smokey but once we got outside, I could see we were in the front yard and that it was a firefighter carrying me. And that is how I got saved.’
When a person, adult or child, is asked the question: ‘So you’re saved and on your way to heaven; please explain to me how and why that happened?’, if all they can say is, ‘I believe in Jesus’, there’s a problem. Minimally, I look for a child to say something like, ‘I’m a bad person because I’ve done bad things, and Jesus died on the cross to take the punishment for the bad things I’ve done, and I believe that. I believe Jesus died on the cross for me and for my sin and that is why I am going to heaven.’ If an adult or child cannot explain how or why God saved them, how they got out of the burning building, then very likely they have not been saved.
The problem, however, is that some children can pick up on the language of their parents or Sunday school teacher or pastor. This is especially true of children who grow up in Christian homes. They sit and listen to adult conversations or testimonies or Bible lessons and they can pick up on the right words to say, the right answer. They know what is supposed to be said when asked, ‘Please explain to me how and why God saved you?’ This is where the conundrum for parents begins. Is my child truly saved or are they simply repeating what they’ve heard and been taught?
Since children are little humans made in God’s image in need of a savior as we are, then we should expect to see in them what we would expect to see in any adult whose heart the Holy Spirit has taken hold of and whose eyes have been opened to the glory and beauty of Christ.
A Love for God and the Things of God
When Jesus was asked what is the greatest commandment in scripture, he cites the Great Shema from Deuteronomy 6:5 (Matt. 22:37), “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” To understand what it means or what it looks like to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, we simply need to look at what comes next in Deuteronomy 6, “And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” Loving God with all our heart, soul, and mind means teaching God’s word diligently to our children and talking about God and the things of God when we sit in our house, when we walk by the way, when we lie down, and when we rise up. It means our entire life is driven by and revolves around God, knowing God, and glorifying God. We should see this in our children, if they are truly saved.
A Hunger and Thirst to Know God
If our children are saved, there should be a hunger to know God in all his fullness. The psalmist writes: “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (42:1-2). We often excuse our children’s disinterest in God and in the things of God as a lack of maturity. However, all humans from the moment of birth display an interest in the things they delight in that bring them happiness. The six-month old infant held in his mother’s arms will turn his head toward his mother’s breast knowing where food comes from and knowing that it makes him happy to eat. My children, ages 5, 7, 11, and 13, are very interested in watching cartoons and playing video games to the point that I never have to encourage them to do these things; they are always asking to do these things. When my wife needs to run to the store for something, often one or all of them will ask to go with her because they love their momma and want to be with her. When humans love someone or something, they have a natural interest in that person or thing. They desire to know that person and spend time with them or they desire to spend time engaging in that particular activity. When children display a disinterest in God and in the things of God, a disinterest in reading God’s word, in praying, in worshipping, in talking about God and the things of God, a disinterest in attending church or Bible study, there’s a problem.
A Desire to Commune with God
Mark Dever once rightly remarked that “we should pray so much in our church gatherings that the nonbelievers get bored. We talk too much to a God they don’t believe in.”[i] A universal sign of unbelievers is a disinterest in talking to God. Prayer is boring. It is uninteresting. There is cause for concern when children do not display a desire to want to talk to God—a desire to pray. When we love someone, we desire to spend lots of time talking with them. I remember the days of being in high school and talking to my high school sweetheart on the phone for hours (who is now my wife), and today just as back then, I still enjoy sitting with her and talking with her. I still enjoy getting to know her, understanding her, and learning more about her. True, many Christians struggle to pray as much as they know they should or would like to, but no Christian struggles with having a desire to pray and enjoying it. A desire to commune with God is the most basic fundamental shift in a person’s life once the Holy Spirit has made them alive in Christ.
Remorse Over One’s Sins
We read in Acts 2 that after Peter had presented the gospel to the crowd that “when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’” (v.37). They were cut to the heart. They were grieved by their sins. They recognized they were sinful creatures in need of a Savior, and they understood that Christ was that Savior. The person who has been made to see their own sin by the power of the Holy Spirit and how their sin grieves the heart of God will no longer have a desire to live in sin. What brings joy to God brings joy to our own heart, and what grieves the heart of God, grieves our heart. Not that we are driven by legalism or shame or the fear of disappointing others (such as our parents), but that sin, all sin, both large and small, grieves us because of who God is and because of what Christ has done for us. Regarding sin, the Scottish minister, Andrew Bonar, insightfully stated: “It is not the importance of the thing [the sin], but the majesty of the Lawgiver, that is to be the standard of obedience.”[ii] In other words, what grieves the believer is not the sin itself, not the behavior in and of itself, but the fact that all sin is cosmic treason against our Creator.
Signs of Spiritual Transformation
When a person becomes born-again, this means the Holy Spirit brings their dead souls to life (Eph 2:4-6), opens their eyes to the glory of Christ (2 Cor 4:3-6), and then immediately begins to transform that person’s character into the image of Christ (2 Cor 3:18). The result is that the evidence of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit will begin to manifest itself in a life lived out in obedience to God’s word. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). And the apostle John says, “And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1 Jn. 2:3-6). According to God’s word, the evidence of a child truly knowing Christ and being in a saving relationship with Christ is a desire and willingness to “walk in the same way in which [Christ] walked.” This is not to say that Christians never sin. It is to say that the true believer demonstrates an evident pursuit of holiness.
Trusting in God’s Sovereignty
But why does any of this really matter? Is it not better to err on the side of grace rather than law? Here are two reasons why it matters. This is where trusting in the sovereignty of God in salvation makes all the difference. If our child is saved and has truly been regenerated, nothing we do or say will change that. Nothing will deter them from God, from worshipping God, from knowing God. At some point their salvation will become evident, then we should allow them to partake in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. If our child is saved and we postpone baptism and the Lord’s Supper, no harm will be done.
However, if our children are not saved and we baptize them prematurely, they will go through life believing they are saved because they were baptized and said the right words, all the while barreling toward eternal destruction. If we allow our children to participate in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, we will cause eternal, irreparable harm. Not because our lack of discernment and protection will send them to hell (God is sovereign in salvation), but because we will contribute to making hell that much hotter for them and possibly making their lives here on earth that much more difficult for them. This is particularly true when it comes to the Lord’s Supper.
In 1 Corinthians 11, after providing instructions on the Lord’s Supper, the apostle Paul then provides a warning for those desiring to take the sacrament. “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (vv.27-30). By “unworthy manner” he certainly means unbelievers taking the Lord’s Supper, but he also means believers who take the Lord’s Supper with unconfessed and unrepentant sin in their heart and lives. The point, however, is that when unbelievers take the Lord’s Supper, they eat and drink God’s judgement on themselves, which can result in illness or even death.
No parent would deny that is the duty of parents to protect their children from harm. To allow them to partake of the sacrament without being certain of their salvation (as best as we can tell), it either to not care or love our children or is a denial of the authority and trustworthiness of God’s word.
What then are parents to do? First, pray for the salvation of your children daily. Second, read and teach God’s word to your children daily, i.e., family worship. Third, bring them to church and Sunday school weekly that they might hear and be taught God’s word regularly.
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