Most Christian parents want nothing more than for their children to know Jesus Christ. For years I read several scriptural passages that informed my approach to parenting. For example, Deuteronomy 6:7, in the context of the commandments that God gave to the Israelites after their exodus from Egypt, says “Impress them [the commandments] on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.”
Proverbs 22:6, in my understanding at the time, put a great deal of pressure on parents, for it said, “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.”
Such passages convinced me that my children’s commitment to Jesus was squarely a function of how I trained them. Only if I did my job well would my children “not turn from” the way they should go. What pressure! I had better get this Christian parenting thing right!
Is it really all on you?
But is a child’s eternal relationship with God truly a function of parental or caregiver teaching? Some parents work with their children from a young age, reading from the Bible, praying with and for their children, exposing them to multiple church activities and functions, ensuring they attend camps and mission trips, exposing them to passionate and gifted youth ministers, only to see their children dismiss Christianity as adults.
In my ministry of some 30 years, much of it focused on working with children and adolescents, I have been approached by numerous “model” Christian parents who harbor guilt and shame because despite having faithfully followed all the “right” childrearing principles, their children reach adulthood with no interest in developing a relationship with Jesus.
Early in my ministry I would have concluded that such parents had not done a good job of bringing up their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4). No matter how devoted they had been, I would have thought, if they had truly done their jobs, their children would automatically grow into committed Christian adults.
Research shows that many who enter a committed relationship with Jesus did so before the age of 13. George Barna’s research in 2004 (www.barna.org) indicates “that nearly half of all Americans who accept Jesus Christ as their savior do so before reaching the age of 13 (43%), and that two out of three born again Christians made that commitment to Christ before their 18th birthday.” Barna’s research also shows that “among Christians who embraced Christ before their teen years, half were led to Christ by their parents, with another one in five led by some other friend or relative.”
Parents clearly have an important role, but that does not change the fact that faith is a personal matter, one that all individuals must decide on for themselves.
The words of Paul in 2 Timothy 3:14-15 are of interest in this context: “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” Parents clearly have an important role, but that does not change the fact that faith is a personal matter, one that all individuals must decide on for themselves.
At what age can children begin trusting in Christ?
Many Christians believe that children must be a certain age before they can truly understand the gospel message of Jesus. In my early ministry I was convinced that pre-adolescent (and even adolescent) children were not mature enough to make a commitment to Jesus. I expected young people to be of a certain age, and even then, I emphasized their need to “produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8). I couldn’t imagine a child even knowing the full ramification of what “repentance” means.
What is repentance? Several years ago, my wife shared an experience with me regarding a time when she was working with relatively young children in a children’s ministry. She said that when a small boy, around the age of 6, was asked about his commitment, he simply said, “I choose God.” Wow! What more needs to be said with respect to repentance?
One of the great moments of my life was watching one of my sons, early in his teen years, kneeling with a friend and taking communion. It was a moment I will never forget. Could it be real? Could it be lasting? He seemed too young.
The will and work of Jesus
Peter says in 2 Peter 3:9, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” This is the same Peter who said in Acts 15:11, “We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
Grace is the work of Jesus, not the work of parents. Parents are flawed. We make mistakes. But grace covers those mistakes. Grace says, “In spite of mistakes, I love you and will redeem you.” Timothy adds, “This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:3-4). Jesus’ work is a work of grace, and it is a work that is alive in all people, including our children.
We want to know that our children have a committed relationship with Jesus, and we are perplexed or even disturbed when we do not see evidence of such a relationship. But we can rest in the fact that not only is God patient with all, he wants all to be saved. Jesus is patient. His timing is different than ours.
Parents have an important role to play in teaching their children about an enduring relationship with Jesus. But a child’s choices are not completely dependent on how well parents teach them.
God wants our children have a relationship with him. He is at work in them, and he is patient in that work. That doesn’t diminish the importance of our instruction of our children. But it should give us pause to trust our children to God instead of fretting over them ourselves. Our role as parents is only one small part of the picture. Jesus’ role as Redeemer is what really matters.
What should we do?
Given this, it is the responsibility of adults to follow the biblical admonition to teach our children and to bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Can we know with certainty that our children will have the deep, abiding, intimate relationship with God that we pray for? No, we can’t. But thank God it doesn’t depend on us.
What we can know is that God loves our children unconditionally, that Christ has included them in his atoning and redemptive work, that he will never cease to work with them and will never let them go. As a parent, I can think of no better assurance than that!