Christian parents all long for the day when their child professes faith in Christ. We love our children, we labor for their souls, and we desire nothing more than for our sons and daughters to also become brothers and sisters in Christ.
But when your six-year-old turns to you after a family devotion and says, “Daddy, I think I want to be a Christian,” are you prepared to respond? Or when you pick up your child from their first-grade classroom and they say, “Mommy, I trusted in Jesus today,” do you have an action plan?
For some, an action plan doesn’t seem necessary. You take their profession at face value, assure the child of their eternal standing, and call up your friends and family to let them know that another one of your children is “saved.”
But as the primary shepherds and disciplers of our children, you and I must take a more measured approach. The nature of children and the nature of salvation requires it. For the benefit of our children and their eternal standing, we must be ready to respond to a profession of faith with both loving protection and patient encouragement.
There is a danger wrapped up in your little one’s profession. That danger is false assurance. The Bible makes it clear in many locations that not all who profess Christ are indeed Christians. The Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:18-23) teaches that some may respond positively to the gospel but will fall away or prove fruitless over time. Again, in one of Jesus’s most sobering teachings, we learn that some will actually be surprised on judgment day (Matthew 7:21-23). It is possible to profess Christ and not know him.
Does this deny that assurance is possible? Of course not. Assurance is one of the sweetest gifts God gives the Christian (Philippians 1:6). But people who do not have Christ should not have assurance. Therefore, one of the most loving things we can do for our children in the moment they profess Christ is to make sure they understand what they are saying! How many people live their lives in complete rebellion against God’s commands (or even simple passivity against any kind of holy living), yet find assurance in the fact that they “prayed a prayer” when they were six?
It is possible for overeager, well-intentioned parents to assume that their child’s interest in God or appreciation for church shows evidence of salvation. But the act of loving things related to Jesus is not the same as loving Jesus. Unwittingly, we can accept something less than the gospel as grounds for labeling them a Christian and thereby cause immeasurable harm to their souls.
Instead, parents have a responsibility to shepherd their children by testing their profession and watching for fruit. Many adults would benefit from someone helping them to see that trusting in Jesus is about more than “going to heaven” or “seeing Grandma again.” How much more a child, who, by definition, is less developed and more impressionable (1 Corinthians 13:11)? This is why many churches choose to delay baptism until a child is old enough to make a credible profession of faith.
A profession becomes credible when it is clear the child understands and can articulate what they believe, and when their actions evidence fruit resulting from their belief—do they talk the talk and walk the walk? Children can absolutely make a credible profession. The challenge with children is that credibility is often hard to judge until the child is older. Because of the dangers of false assurance, parents of young children are wise to carefully and lovingly guide their children toward an increasing understanding of salvation, trusting that a true profession will prove itself.
Let’s be clear: God can save any person of any age in an instant if they respond to the gospel. A holy fear of false assurance should not diminish a parent’s zeal to see their children become children of God. If our response to a six-year-old’s profession of faith is “We’ll see,” there is a problem. While we do need to carefully avoid giving our child assurance for a flimsy profession of faith, we also need to recognize that even a solid profession of faith in a child will take time to show itself genuine. This should not hinder us from celebrating our child trusting us with their good news.
We should encourage any movement toward Jesus. Is the faith of our six-year-old genuine? At this point, it may be hard to tell. But faith is worthy of celebration. We should desire that our child knows that their profession, if true, is the best news we could get. For this reason, we can respond with something like, “Son, this is wonderful news. If you truly believe what you just said, you are a new creation. You have eternal life with God that starts today. And we are going to continue to talk every day about what it means to follow Jesus because this isn’t the end; it’s the beginning.”
Continuing the Conversation
Whether our child makes a clear profession or not, our goal remains the same: patiently teach while looking for fruit. Fruit is the natural and obvious overflow of what is in a person’s heart (Luke 6:43-45). When assessing salvation, we want to look for the following fruits:
- Is it clear that they understand the gospel, that salvation comes only through the atoning work of Christ and results in a progressively changed life (1 Corinthians 15:3-11)?
- Can they articulate their understanding of the gospel at an age-appropriate level (Romans 10:9-10)?
- Is there evidence of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-24)?
- Do they continue to have a present trust in Christ, not simply a moment in the past they point to (1 John 1:6-7)?
- Do they have the internal witness of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:16)?
If, over time, it turns out that your child may not fully grasp what they think they do, don’t despair. Children, especially children in a Christian home, often have a tenderness towards God, the Bible, Jesus, and church. This is tremendous soil for the gospel to take root, even if it hasn’t yet. It is also probably one of the main reasons most Christians trusted in Christ as children.
A child may or may not understand the weight of the gospel and the expectation Jesus has for His followers. This is why it is so important for parents to help them. We help them by patiently explaining the gospel, day after day, and waiting to see if God bears fruit. And we can trust that, if a seed of faith exists, it will someday clearly and wonderfully become visible.