I’m one of those, right or wrong, who cannot believe that a child is born alienated from her/his Creator on the basis of someone else’s guilt. I’m acquainted with the texts used to say they are. It isn’t the texts I quarrel with—it’s the interpretation placed on them. Even John Piper a thrusting and forthright Calvinist no longer believes they are born sinners and alienated from God. Enough on that—Romans 9:11 will do for now.
With evangelicals there’s quite a bit of discussion about when children are ready to give themselves to Jesus Christ. Setting the above aside, we have questions like: “Is my child old enough?” “Does my child know enough?” “Is my child mature enough?” “Does my child ‘know’ what he/she is doing?”
These are all sensible questions and matter a great deal to people who are convinced that there is no covenant relationship with Jesus Christ unless there is a personal commitment of faith by the believer. Being one of those, and since I take the view that infant baptism hasn’t a shred of support from Scripture, the questions above do make sense.
But though they make sense and though they do indeed matter I don’t think there can be a generalized and satisfying answer to the questions. Children are all different! Some mature more quickly than others, some mature in some ways more quickly than others and at the same time more slowly in other ways. Their environments differ; their emotional make-up and their critical experiences differ from each other. Their parents differ and sometimes the parents aren’t able to assess their children’s life-experience. It makes no sense—and everyone knows it—to say, “My child gave her life to Jesus Christ when she was thirteen therefore all thirteen-year olds are capable.” There are too many variables in each life for us to be able to offer blanket and one-fits-all advice advice.
I’m certain we can more easily identify extreme positions than we can offer advice about children we know nothing about. Let me be silly just to make my point. He who says a three-year old child is capable of a faith commitment to Jesus Christ and he who says that a person must be at least eighteen is capable of rendering a faith-commitment to Jesus will have no credibility with us. It isn’t the extremes we have difficulty with.
While I presently judge we can do nothing do determine with precision when this child or that one is ready to give him/herself to Jesus in faith, we can certainly do something about taking seriously a child’s growing sense that she/he is being called by the gospel. It simply won’t do for parents to dismiss a child’s expression that he/she wants to belong to Jesus in a faith relationship.
It may well be that when my child comes saying, “I want to become a Christian” that she is responding merely to some want to do what a friend of hers did—so as not to be left out of anything, don’t you know. Hearing someone say something that frightens her might result in this emotional surge. (Her parents are Christ’s and she has heard something that suggests to her that if she isn’t a Christian she will never see her parents again—no wonder she wants to become a Christian.) List your own illustrations of what I’m getting at.
But there are times when we’re uncertain about motivation even though in our wise love for the child we think she is not yet “able” to say yes to Jesus in trust with the full consent of her heart to enter a saving covenant relationship.
Let’s say, for discussion’s sake, that she’s twelve or thirteen. She’s an ordinary little girl; enjoys life, plays children’s games, watches children’s television programs and sometimes pouts like a little girl when she’s crossed. (Are twelve or thirteen year olds still that “young” that they play with toys/dolls etc,? Shape the illustration as you see fit.)
It would be easy for adults to note all that and conclude that she isn’t “adult enough” to give a heart’s consent and surrender to the Lord (especially if she still sleeps with a doll in bed beside her).
But it’s just as easy to watch adults playing their childish games and draw a similar conclusion. See the programs they watch, note the games they play and how they pout and sulk if they’re beaten or crossed in their desires by a spouse or a boss.
That we wrestle with such questions is a good thing for it shows we’re interested in something vitally important (and a personal commitment to the Lord Jesus is vitally important). We won’t breezily dismiss the questions with barely a thought. Once we come to think that this child’s conscience is awakening, that he/she is coming alive to the message of the gospel and Jesus’ call on her we will not (certainly should not!) airily put her off even if we remain uncertain.
We mustn’t give her the impression that her feelings and thoughts are not to be taken seriously but we’re not to give her the impression that she is an adult. However we work with the matter it can only help her if she knows we’re anxious to give her a hearing and to help her, while we live up to our own responsibility toward her/him as our child. To put her off making a public commitment to Jesus with a few sentences while we’re watching television or heading for work, or wherever, should be avoided under all circumstances but especially if she is repeatedly raising the issue.
If the boy is persistent and anxious (that will be determined by those who are in the position to know) even if the parents are still in doubt, it might be best to set the wheels in motion for the child’s self-giving to the Lord who is graciously drawing the boy and calling him into the grand adventure. Once all who love the child and are in the position to know best [at least better than anyone else] think the time is right for him/her to render a faith commitment of themselves to the Lord Jesus the following suggestions might be useful.
What I have to say from this point is not meant as some “this is how it should be done” outline but some suggestions as to the direction I think we could go if we’re to act wisely and well in an area where sensitive parents and children have questions like those above.
But I offer the suggestions with seriousness and if you take them to be useful perhaps you could have discussions with others about them, looking for weaknesses or strengths and drop me a note.
I think the young girl should be told how wonderful it is that she is going to become Christ’s covenant child because He has loved her all her life.
I think he should be told he is going to make a solemn and joyous meeting with and commitment to Lord and that he must prepare for it.
I think the church leaders should be consulted and asked for input on what can be done to make this momentous event memorable and substantial.
I think a period of time (maybe four to six weeks, for perhaps thirty minutes a session) should be set aside to bring the lovely matter to a conclusion.
I think a room in the meeting-house (or a home other than his/her own) should be committed to which the child travels “to prepare” herself/himself to meet the Lord.
I think the parents and select people should be there to make the child aware that his/her purpose is being taken with the joyful seriousness it deserves.
I think a curriculum should be devised for such occasions that includes foundational truths about God and the gospel and the Body of Christ into which she/he is being brought and received by the Lord Jesus who will come to live in them by His Holy Spirit.
I think it should be announced to the entire assembly in the presence of the young person what she/he is doing in preparation to give his/her life to the Lord, and the assembly should be asked to pray for and encourage this person at this special time. If screens are used for announcements, the names and perhaps pictures of those who are in preparation for such a glorious event could be kept in the minds of the congregation—parents and young people.
I think when all this heart preparation is done and the time has come to immerse this young person into a faith-union and covenant relationship with the Savior & Lord Jesus Christ that it should be done in the presence of the entire assembly.
I think that his/her first engagement in Holy Communion at the Lord’s Supper should be underscored perhaps by having them come to the front to be served first.
Other things, little things, could be done to emphasize “the magnitude of the moment.” (Discussion with creative women teachers might be especially beneficial on such occasions. I say women only because in my experience they are more attentive to class-creativity than men.)
The room at the appointed time could have his/her name put on it and the time appointed. The night before the morning of baptism could be made a special evening in the home, some people appointed for the purpose could call him/her and commend them to God. Congregational leaders and teachers might visit and speak God’s name in blessing on the young people. Perhaps women who will continue in a teaching capacity with the young girl might be especially appropriate.
The object of it all is to focus the mind of the young person and the minds of the parents and the assembly on what is happening. My own view is that the “salvation” and “initiation” (?) of young people in this situation is taken far too lightly, off-handed almost, and where that occurs it’s tragic.
Perhaps a document could be created and framed marking the grand occasion, and an opportunity for the entire congregation to sing its welcome could be recorded and given as a gift. It’s nice to imagine such a person, when many years have passed, being able to look back on such a momentous occasion with joy and contentment and saying, “After that experience there was no going back!” It must be made joyful, but but the faith commitment is made to One who says, Follow Me!”
There is more than one benefit to such a period of preparation (however it is structured). Once completed, we would know that this child wasn’t simply expressing a momentary and passing emotional desire that rose out of fear or merely wanting to do what some other young person did. We will know that this child’s coming to Christ in a covenant commitment mattered not only to the young person. When this boy or girl is buried into Christ’s death and rises again in Christ’s resurrection everyone will have had the opportunity to hear again cries around the cross, the rumbling of a great grave stone and the good news, “He is not here. He is risen just as he said.”
` (Holy Father, help us to help one another to take younger persons seriously in such seriously WONDROUS situations.)