This spring, I spent some moments remembering my spiritual “birthday”. It’s been a blessing to walk in faith with the Lord Jesus Christ for many years! I was a little child when I repented of my sin and put my trust in Jesus for what He did on the cross, taking sin’s punishment for me, and rising again to give me eternal life. He is my Saviour and my God!
Yes, I was a young preschooler. It’s true that I also don’t think all preschoolers grasp what salvation is. But I also think (and know) that it IS possible and that some indeed do.
Why can a child come to true saving faith? Because the Bible tells me so. And so does God’s Spirit when He comes in – the person him/herself can experience true assurance, hope, joy of God living within him/her at whatever age that new life begins! (e.g. John 3:16, John 5:24, 1 John 5:13-15, Romans 3:22; Romans 10:13, Romans 8:16)
This series of posts (I split them into parts for easier reading) are meant to help Christian parents and ministry workers with children to think about the faith of a child who comes to Christ.
I felt it was important to write about particular concerns or hesitancies that some might have if they hear of a child/young person’s faith and commitment now instead of waiting until they are “older”. This series is meant to offer background for why it is important to share the gospel with any child who wants to listen and why we should encourage each child who expresses a genuine desire and comfort in knowing Jesus personally for themselves!
Responses From Parents
One summer when I was involved with children’s ministry, I was thrilled to hear that one of the little guys who was in our camp program had come to my supervisor asking how to be saved. She had gone through the gospel with him and he had understood and prayed with her. How excited he was to tell his parents!
Sadly, though, his mom was angry because we thought that a four-year old could understand such a matter, that God could be leading him at such a young age. And angry at us because we dared to share the gospel with him instead of just telling him other Bible stories! I don’t doubt that she tried to squash his claim to now have Jesus living within him for she sincerely believed that he had experienced a false conversion and that it could mess him up for when he was “old enough” later.
When, as a little girl, I told my parents that Jesus had just forgiven my sins and was now living in my heart – that He was my Saviour (not just theirs), I remember my parents being gentle and encouraging. I do also remember that my mom was somewhat hesitant at first and so kept asking me periodically what I had remembered about that day when I knelt beside my bed with my sister (who is quite a bit older than I). What had I understood? What had Jesus done for me? What did I really believe? What had happened? (And rightly so – to check what a person, especially one who is really young, understands; and to watch for true “fruit” (which are the results of the Holy Spirit at work in a Christian’s life).)
But I was not scorned or ignored by my godly parents. They carried on, praying for and with me and teaching me more and more about God and His Word daily, as I grew in Him. They continued to bring me into various conversations and encouraged me in my walk with the Lord, as did my other family members and children’s ministry people at my church.
My camp ministry supervisor noticed a new children’s song around that time, and we decided as a team to learn it and teach it to other children who came that summer. The words went like this:
“I may be too little to drive a car,
Or get in a plane and travel far.
But I’m not too little to know that I have sinned,
And I’m not too little to let the Saviour in,
For if I believe and truly receive,
I’m not too little in my heart.”
(Written by “Anonymous”. I’d love to know who wrote this song! I remember the tune and I think there may have been a second verse as well. The year we learned it would have been around 1989.)
The Simplicity of the Gospel
Sometimes, adults can make the good news of God’s salvation so complex and detailed in theological doctrinal explanations that it discourages little ones (and even older people too) from understanding. It’s good for us to remind ourselves what the Bible actually says about the gospel message and also to remember the passages where children are mentioned. God’s plan for salvation remains simple enough that a child CAN understand.
God’s Spirit brings that understanding. It doesn’t take a scholar to learn it enough. It doesn’t take strength of body or speech either. In fact, that kind of wisdom and power can seemingly impede a person from trusting in Christ as his/her God and Saviour! (1 Corinthians 1:26-31)
God’s Word (the Bible) tells us that God wants ALL to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9), that He draws ALL, gives light to EVERY person (i.e. “light” and “drawing” being a sufficient understanding, opportunity to trust Him – I don’t know all about how He does that but the Bible says so and thus I need to trust that He works in each person’s life). (John 1:9, 12:32)
In the Bible, children were invited to come to Jesus. In contrast, some adults were compelled – as if they seemed to need some sort of humbling or persuasion. The faith of a little child simply trusts and can readily “get” the fact that people cannot save themselves or get rid of their own sin. An adult tries to come up with strategies to be in control or try to make themselves worthy enough to at least help God along with salvation by doing something.
But young children don’t often have that in mind.
They see His power in creation. They hear of His power in Bible stories. They can recognize Jesus as the only One Who can save them from sin’s punishment in hell and take them to His heavenly home instead. They can understand what it’s like to see something dirty and get something stained or that it become totally clean. This is part of their common experiences in life. They KNOW they need help on the big stuff! So something as important as eternity and wanting complete peace from God, they don’t as much look to themselves to settle that matter.
Little Children Can…
- can believe in Him (Words of Jesus) – “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin….” Matthew 18:6a NKJV (Someone has correctly remarked, “If Jesus said they can believe in Him, that’s good enough for me!”)
- can be believers (Titus 1:6)
- can, in childhood, understand Scripture for salvation (2 Timothy 3:15)
- can set their hope (trust) in God (Psalm 78:4-7)
- can hear the voice of God’s Spirit and respond to it (1 Samuel 3:10)
- can do what is right in the sight of the Lord (2 Chronicles 34:1-3)
- can talk to God Himself (no age limits mentioned in Scripture) about anything that concerns them
- would be included as one of the “whosoever/anyone” (e.g. John 3:16)
It is also important to remember that if a child has doubts, it might not be an indicator that he or she has not experienced salvation yet. And doubts are no reason to tell them to wait until they are older to order to understand. The very fact that they express a doubt shows that they are able to comprehend such a concern and thus able to comprehend their sense of need for the Saviour!
Anyone who is saved, young or old, can have doubts (sometimes known as a “testing of faith”). But, the remedy remains the same for the young as it does for the old – to trust Christ and be assured of salvation based on the Word of God.
Verses such as 1 John 5:13-14, Romans 10:13 are good to share with children such as when you ask them if they sincerely meant trusting in Christ as their Saviour from sin, if they asked God Himself to come into their life to change them and be with them forever. If you truly called on the Lord, then you can be sure that, according to the Word of God, He heard you and will do what you have asked. His will is always for someone to be saved!
The Importance of the Word of God
How or why can a child know how to be saved?
They get to know how the same way any of us can know how.
As mentioned above, we don’t have to complicate things.
God’s way is better than a traditional scholar’s way of ‘scrutinize child development, present knowledge, drill, test, graduate with a certificate’. Instead, His way remains simple and sufficient –
All that is necessary is the Word of God and the Spirit of God together making known to the individual of his or her need of the Saviour and that person responding back in faith!
God’s Spirit looks after the aspect of bringing the person understanding (a.k.a. drawing a person to Himself. giving them understanding).
We are privileged to be God’s workers, together with Him (1 Cor. 3:9 KJV, 2 Cor. 5:17-6:1, 2:14, Matthew 28:18-20, Acts 1:8) and sent by Him, to spread the Word of God, the knowledge of Christ – to tell people what the Bible says. It’s like we’re sowing seed and God causes this kind of seed to grow in understanding within a person.
Salvation doesn’t need to take many years of doctrinal training for an adult to understand his/her need and respond to God, nor does it need to take many years for a child. Do not be afraid if the child is young but too young to grasp many of the big words or in-depth details yet. (You can read more about tips for counselling under the heading near the bottom about “False Versus True Conversions”.)
Your role simply is to teach them the Word of God and encourage them to respond to the gospel in faith. It isn’t your role to make decisions for them – salvation is an individual matter between each one and God. (I write more about this point in part 2.) But it also isn’t our role to know their heart as to determine “if” they are “old enough” to hear the gospel message – God knows the heart, you don’t.
So, I say to Christian parents and ministry workers – entertaining stories, completing a certain amount of written doctrinal lesson fill-in blanks, training of good habits – these things are not actually necessary for a child to be saved, to understand salvation and begin a relationship with Jesus, to be assured of everlasting life! But that which IS critically important is that they hear the Word of God!
- Are you telling and explaining the Word of God to them in your conversations and in your lessons? Or are you ignoring the Bible’s gospel message until “they are older”?
- Are you tiring yourself with trying to “make the Bible relevant” so that the message is harder to see or obscured? Or are you resting in God’s goodness and actually telling the Bible’s message which is already relevant “to all generations”?
If you sow the Word of God, you can trust that He WILL use it and enable people to understand it. Keep sowing that kind of seed!
Here are some verses to remember:
“Seek the LORD while He may be found; call on Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the LORD, and He will have mercy on him, and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon. “For My thoughts are not your thoughts neither are your ways My ways,” declares the LORD. “As the heaves are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts. As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is My word that goes out from My mouth: It shall not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”” Isaiah 55:6-11 (NIV’84)
“Through Him you believe in God, Who raised Him from the dead and glorified Him, and so your faith and hope are in God…For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring Word of God. For, “All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever.” And this is the Word that was preached to you….Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it, you may grow up…” 1 Peter 1:21-2:2 (NIV’84)
“For their is no difference between Jew and Gentile – the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on Him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How, then, can they call on the One of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without a preacher [lit: a proclaimer of divine truth]? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring the good news [gospel]!” So then, faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” Romans 10:12-15, 17 (NIV’84, NKJV)
“For this reason we also thank God without ceasing, because when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also effectively works in you who believe.” 1 Thessalonians 2:13 NKJV
Examples of Individuals
Below are just a handful of examples of commitments to Christ before the age of 18. Perhaps some of my readers will find their own stories share some similar things (besides sharing in the same gospel) with these:
- Jim Elliot made a profession of salvation around the age of 6 years old.
- Elizabeth Elliot trusted in Christ around the age of 5 years old, followed by a definite commitment at age 12.
- Corrie ten Boom asked the Lord Jesus to forgive her sins and come into her life at the age of 5.
- Matthew Henry’s conversion to Christ took place before he was 11 year old.
- Philip Henry (Matthew Henry’s father) was saved at age 13 but, given his church culture, it wasn’t acknowledged until age 16.
- Amy Carmichael accepted Christ as her Saviour at the age of 13 or around age 15/16. (The difference could be in how some might interpret a first-time steps of personal faith versus reassurance or more complete understanding of the gospel.)
- Isaac Watts trusted the Lord Jesus as his own personal Saviour at the age of 15.
- Mary Slessor as a child, before the age of 11 (ref. pages 11-12)
- Steve Green trusted Christ as his Saviour at the age of 8.
- Robert Cottrill put his faith in Jesus Christ at the age of 7.
- Harry Ironside believed in Jesus as his personal Saviour, instead of just knowing about Him, at the age of 14.
- Frances Ridley Havergal knew God’s forgiveness and committed her life to Him at the age of 14.
- Philip Bliss did not remember a time when he did not love the Lord but he made his public confession of Christ at the age of 12.
- Billy Graham made his decision for Christ at the age of 16.
- Ruth Graham Bell (Billy Graham’s wife) personally understood salvation as a young child. She also may not have known the details of age/date. And while interesting to know about, these specifics are NOT important, despite that this list you’ve been reading gives ages in order to give examples that young lives can come to Jesus as their personal Saviour and Lord.
- For many years of my (Joy’s) own life, I did not know my “date of salvation” either. Of course I was curious to know that tidbit of info too, but what really mattered, was NOT the age and NOT the date. My mom used to say that she didn’t remember her “date” either (and that my grandpa, who had been orphaned, had to pick a birthdate for an immigration record but didn’t know exactly when he was born). But she knew she WAS born AND that she was born again! (Mom committed or recommitted her life to the Lord after a revival tent meeting service – it didn’t matter whether it was a first-time or a subsequent time – she knew God knew and that from then onwards, now she knew for sure too!) I say I “didn’t” know (past tense) the date when Jesus came into my life to save me. Below tells more of my testimony:
- I can still remember things like that it was a school day because I had to wait until my sister came home to ask her my question about how to become a Christian. I don’t think there was snow on the ground, I clearly remember I was 3 years old, and that she read through one of the orange/black/white tracts from Child Evangelism Fellowship we had around our house to help her explain the gospel to me. I remember praying to the Lord with my sister and printing my name on the tract after I had been saved. (Note: I’m saved by faith, not because I printed my name on something or repeated a prayer meaninglessly. I know I meant what I said to Jesus.)
- I vividly remember the change I experienced – I had been very afraid that Jesus would return before I was ready and I used to run out of the living room if certain stories from Children’s Bible Hour were being played on our record player because I wanted to ignore thinking about my sin and Jesus knowing all about me. (For a bit, I purposely skipped parts on the records instead, scratching some fairly badly.) In my thoughts, I knew that it wasn’t enough for my family to be Christians or for me to regularly attend a good church – I needed Jesus to be my own personal Saviour because hanging onto other Christians wouldn’t work at all. I wanted to have Jesus take away all my sins because He was the only One Who could since He had died and rose again for me. I wanted to truly belong to the Lord to have Him with me always. I wanted to follow Him. Since the time when He came into my life that day, God gave me His instant peace and assurance including that if Christ should come back in my lifetime or when I die, I would go to be with Him.
- Many years later, just before my wedding, I was surprised to hear that my mom had been doing some spring cleaning and had found my sister’s old diary from that year. On March 26, Carolyn had written that “Today…I led my little sister to the Lord…”
And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them.
But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”
And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them.ESV
False Versus True Conversion Experiences
(Part 2 deals with this major concern more. The Lord willing, that webpage will soon be posted and will be linked at the bottom of this page.)
Here are a few notes from things I’ve gathered and/or taught about this:
True repentance and faith isn’t only a feeling (emotional experience) after saying a prayer. (Yes, there is emotion because we’re people made with emotions. But a true conversion commitment is more than just emotion.)
Consider these points when counselling any person about salvation –
- Did the person only want to not want judgment for sin (e.g. hell) or did the person desire to get rid of sin itself (i.e. to not displease the Lord but instead really want to be and do all that God wants)?
Ask the person “why” he or she wants to come to Christ.
2. Did the person want to just get “fire insurance” and end up in heaven someday or does he/she really want a personal relationship to know Jesus Christ and to be close to Him always, including all throughout this life and into eternity?
For example, you might ask him or her for “how long” or “how much” does he or she want to be following Christ.
3. In other words, “what” has the person understood about Christ’s offer of salvation to him/her and “what” has been his/her genuine response to that offer? For example, has the person understood what these words mean…. ?
- wages of sin or punishment/consequence of wrongdoing
- death, life
- perish, hell, heaven
- God, Jesus
Ask – Have you done anything that God calls wrong? If the person doesn’t readily understand that, they need to take some time to realize that point before they can understand that they need a Saviour from sin.
- If the child admits to this point with understanding, continue on.
- But if the child does not admit his or her own sinfulness, let them think about this point until its grasped some time later. It might be soon. Pray for or with the child to ask God to help him or her understand.
Part 2 (link to be announced here)