Are Children “Born Christian”?
What’s your favorite Sunday School song?
Did you grow up singing “This Little Light of Mine?” Do you still love to scream “BIBLE!” at the end of “The B-I-B-L-E?”
How about “Father Abraham?” Who doesn’t love to see a whole room of children and volunteers spinning, nodding, and flailing by the last verse? But have you ever stopped to consider the lyrics? “Father Abraham had many sons, many sons had Father Abraham, I am one of them, and so are you, so let’s just praise the Lord.”
It strikes me that these lyrics assume a lot about a room of preschoolers. Because unless your child is Jewish and claiming physical descent from Abraham, Ephesians 2:12 tells us that without Christ we are “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise.” When we lead our preschoolers to sing this song with gusto, are we careful to first verify that what they are saying is true?
Or consider another popular, fun song: “The Lord’s Army.” We have our children mimic marching, riding, and shooting, declaring themselves in the Lord’s Army. But have we made sure our kindergartner is not actually fighting for the other side? Because before Christ, our kindergartner is in fact an enemy of God (Rom. 5:10).
Does this seem harsh? While these songs are not inaccurate—assuming they are sung by believers—we must be cautious in how we communicate them to our children. Our tendency to encourage any child in a Christian home or Sunday School classroom to sing them speaks to a potential blind in our discipleship. That is: we can tend to assume the gospel rather than declare it.
How Do We Assume the Gospel?
We assume the gospel when we convey the benefits of Christianity without the requirements. We do this when we tell our children that “everything will work out,” when in fact this is only promised for believers. Or again, when we assure our children that God will answer their prayers when Scripture gives no promise that God will answer the prayers of unbelievers.
If your child has made a clear, believable profession of faith and their life bears the fruit of a Christ-follower, then you should absolutely encourage them to claim and love every promise of God. But I am concerned that in our communication with children, we are often unclear about the necessity of believing the gospel to participate in these promises.
An example of this might be using “we” language when reading a Bible story: “Gideon was fearful, and we know that God helps us when we are fearful.” Instead, until it is clear that the child is a Christian, I encourage you to say something like: “Gideon was fearful, and so he relied on God’s strength. And if you put your trust in God’s strength, which he gives through Jesus, he will help you to obey him also.”
Sunday Morning Evangelism & Discipleship
I think we do this, in part, because of the way we organize our worship services. Because the church is made up of believers, worship leaders rightly lead the congregation to sing “Great is your faithfulness, Lord unto me.” There might be unbelievers present, but the worship is geared toward the Christ-followers. Similarly, one or more application points of the sermon might apply to nonbelievers, but the primary message should be directed toward believers.
This is not the case, however, in a Sunday School classroom or even a family devotional. Children do not come to these activities on their own. They are brought by their parents. Therefore, we cannot assume that children in Christian settings are actually Christians! We need to realize that in discipling children, our work is highly evangelistic.
What Problems Come from Assuming the Gospel?
Maybe you think I’m being a curmudgeon by not giving more grace to these simple children’s songs. But my aim is not to just be a theological snob. My goal is to lovingly remind us all that assuming the gospel, even in fun and playful settings, will lead to problems downstream.
What problems could assuming the gospel lead to? It can cause:
- Children to assume that church participation equals salvation, and to then claim Scriptural promises that do not apply to nonbelievers.
- Teenagers to grow up “Christian,” only to fall away in college. Much to the shock of family and friends, the teen rebels when he or she is out from under a parent’s watchful eye.
- Nominal, or church-going nonbelievers. These individuals can be faithful members of the church and pillars in the community. Yet, they are critical, angry, and unrepentant. They rarely pray or read the Bible, and they are all too willing to undermine the pastors by spreading gossip.
We cannot completely avoid these scenarios, but we can help. We can be faithful to declare to all children the necessity of repentance and belief for participation in any of God’s promises. Each of these people could have been helped if they were told that being born into a Christian home is not the same as being born-again.
Helping Our Children
We talk a lot about the alarming statistics regarding churched teens dropping out after high school. But maybe many “Christian kids” weren’t Christians to begin with. Maybe they grew up with an affection for the things of God because they associated them with family, fun, and the familiar. And because their parents, pastors, and Sunday School teachers didn’t press them too hard once they made a “profession of faith,” they assumed they were okay. But without genuine spiritual renewal (John 3:3), when the allure of this world beckoned, they all too willingly followed.
We cannot ultimately stop our children from growing up and turning away from God. Only God can change hearts. But we can do everything in our power to make sure that the choice to trust in Christ is clear from the earliest ages.
How do we do that? Well, we remind them that we are trapped in the domain of darkness, and that he alone rescues us so that we can actually fight for the “Lord’s Army” (Col. 1:13). We remind them that it is only by God’s grace, through Jesus, that we experience the blessings of God’s covenant with Abraham (Rom. 11). We make it clear that repentance and faith are necessary to claim any promise of God. When they go through hard times, we read them passages like Romans 8:28 and remind them that this passage is “for those who love God;” if they have trusted in Jesus, they can know that God is using trials for their good.
We help our children by declaring the gospel, rather than assuming it. In that, we love them by saving them from a frustrating life of Christian affiliation without spiritual renewal.