Childhood – A Time For Patient Cultivation

Childhood – A Time For
Patient Cultivation

A Series by Dennis Gunderson – Part 5 of 8

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All too often today, children are put on a par with adults. We live in an age in which, in most modern nations of the world, children and their interests are taken far more seriously than in any previous time. This is certainly true in our country. For this reason, many parents attribute too much maturity to their children.

The fact is a child is very much an unfinished product. Childhood, viewed biblically, is a stage in which parents are patiently cultivating the persons their children are to become. Childhood is a time of preparation and not a time of completion, of immaturity and not of maturity, of seed-planting and not of fruit-bearing. To view things otherwise is shallow thinking about children and about evangelism.

The Scriptures command us:

Train up a child in the way he should go, and even when he is old he will not depart from it. (Proverbs 22:6)

It is unlikely that you will see with finality where a child is headed until his teen years. Only then do you begin to get some sense of how your many prayers, tears, instructions, and reproofs have turned out. Then, when he is free to make decisions for himself, we begin to learn more conclusively the direction he has chosen¾ whether it will be for Christ or this world.

I am not saying there are never early warning signs of a child laying the foundation of a wicked and unprincipled life, nor ever any basis to be hopeful that he is seeking to live in a godly way. I am just saying what any Christian parent knows¾ that ultimately the years in which your children are young and at home is the time for your crying out to God with deep longings as you await the outcome of your prayers with hope and fear. You pray, "Oh, God, cause my children to turn out to be an honor to Jesus Christ, followers of the way of life!" For even after your very best and most faithful discipline, you know that only in maturity will they manifest what they really are.

Hebrews 11:24-26 says volumes about this in its description of Moses in his adulthood:

By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharoah’s daughter; choosing rather to endure ill treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin; considering the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt; for he was looking to the reward.

Only "when he had grown up" was Moses able to see the issues clearly. On the one hand were God’s people with whom he could stand and suffer, and on the other hand were the persecutors, the enemies of God. Choices of right and wrong, which had not been apparent to Moses before maturity, began to crystallize in his mind; and maturity was necessary to make the right choice. Frankly, to think he should have taken a stand before then is not realistic.

In Galatians 4:13, Paul draws certain conclusions about the gospel from an analogy to childhood. He speaks of a child as "held under" commandment, as guided primarily by commands and rules.

Have you ever wondered why, in places such as Psalm 78:18, there is so little emphasis on saving faith and so much about teaching children God’s commandments? Or why the book of Proverbs emphasizes so strenuously that a child learn to heed the voice of authority, respect parental instruction in the way of God, receive correction, listen to his mother, obey his father? Why is this the focus? Why are these the great themes of the one biblical book that concentrates the most on how a father should teach his children?

Further, why is New Testament instruction to children so heavily dominated by the emphasis that children need to learn to obey? When Paul deals with children in the churches in Ephesians 6 and Colossians 3, why doesn’t he say, "Children, believe in the Lord Jesus Christ", ¾ but instead exhorts them, "Obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right"? The answer, of course, is that Paul knows that the major focus of a child in his sphere of life is to learn obedience to parents, and that, in learning obedience is he best prepared to receive Christ. Parents therefore must be patient during this period of their child’s life which is primarily a time of preparation. If we want to see the best results for our children’s eternal souls we would be wise to concentrate on inculcating conscientious obedience in the child. As to a public profession of their salvation, there is time enough, as the child grows older, to observe the direction he is taking in response to your instruction.

There is a suitability of law, commandment, and rules to children. A child’s sphere has a lot to do with law and commandment. We teach our children line upon line, in the hope that as they learn the breadth of the Word of God, they will learn not only disciplined conduct, but will also experience in their hearts the frustration brought about by the laws of God, learning by them what sin is¾ a phase through which God must take every sinner on his way to Christ. "Sin is the transgression of the law." (1 John 3:4)

As we’ve noted before¾ none of this is to say that a child cannot possibly come to faith in Christ as a child or that a discussion of faith is not important; it is just to say that childhood is a time, as a rule, to plan on cultivation and not to expect to see abundant fruit-bearing. The child is learning to obey; he is in a state of development. And thus there should not be so much pressure exerted in our dealings with children to show conclusive public evidence of profession of having come to the Lord in their early childhood years.

Further, in light of this observation about what to expect of childhood, should it be surprising that we find children so commonly reluctant or unable to express their views about spiritual truth confidently and boldly? More often than not, even naturally talkative children become quiet when asked to speak about conversion, profess their faith, or state even in the simplest way what they believe about spiritual matters. In such situations, children often seem to feel they are "over their heads."

The Proverbs inform:

It is by his deeds that a lad distinguishes himself, if his conduct is pure and right. (Proverbs 20:11).

Therefore, learning right conduct should be a predominant aim of a child as well. Expressing himself clearly with conviction about what he believes and why he believes it will usually come much later.

It is most apparent from Scripture that children depend upon parents to instruct them, to tell them what is right. (See Psalm 78:46; and Proverbs 5:7, 7:24, et al.) They look to us to fill them in, not the other way around. They are not accustomed to telling us what they believe; they are reluctant, for the most part, to state with precision and firmness what they believe. Most children instinctively know this about themselves, and that is why they get so tongue-tied when they are put on the spot concerning their views on important issues or matters of religious conviction.

This difficulty, as has been stated before, poses one of the greatest problems church leaders have when a parent asks them to hear his child’s profession of faith: often the child is unable to put his thoughts into words at all. Or if he does say a few words, he does not say anything which amounts to a meaningful expression of what he believes. How can we baptize and assure such a person? We must require more than this. We can be kind and enthusiastic about whatever has been learned, but not more.

You may say, "What do you mean we must require more? I think you’re expecting too much! They can’t express themselves as clearly as an adult." Ah! You see that is exactly my point! I agree, they are not capable of doing that. And since they cannot, will you ask your pastor to baptize someone who cannot make a clear profession of faith for whatever reason? If they cannot say enough to make it reasonably clear that they know the Lord, in the terms that God describes true disciples, then we must in prudence wait until they can. We have no warrant from Jesus Christ to baptize anyone who, for whatever the reason, cannot make a profession of faith, even if that reason is that they are children and can for the time not adequately express themselves.

Bear in mind, I am not saying such a child is necessarily still dead in his sins; but I can only say that we do not have sufficient evidence to know the state of his soul, and must therefore wait patiently until he can express his faith with more boldness, precision, and certainty .

Read Romans 10:9-10:

…that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved; for with the heart man believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.

We cannot dispense with requiring a credible confession in deciding whom we will baptize, for any reason, issues of maturity included. Yet this is what is most often missing; ¾ children offer little or no viable confession of what they believe. I have considerable doubt as to whether we are wise or even realistic to expect such a confession from them. Wouldn’t it be wiser for us to cease the hurry to baptize them, (or the emphasis on getting out of them some sign of their believing), and instead be content that they are learning the truth of God’s Word, while we are praying that He will burn it into their hearts?

Yet it is common for a pastor to be challenged by parents as to why he refuses to baptize a child, even when the child says nearly nothing in answer to the pastor’s questions about his beliefs. He may answer almost every question with, "1 don’t know; I’m not sure." When asking a child to tell what has happened to his soul what God has done for him I have received the answer "I’ve been saved" or "I asked Jesus into my heart" or "I started to trust God." When one is asked to tell me what that meant, often no answer can be given at all; or when asked the way to tell a friend about receiving eternal life, a child at best may say, "I guess I’d tell him to believe in God." Is this enough of a profession for baptism?

Perhaps some pastors do ask for too much, I personally have yet to meet one. I do know though, of instances in which pastors have been accused of expecting extensive theological statements from children, when in reality all they sought, and would have been delighted to hear, was even the least statement¾ something!¾ in the child’s own words, about the grace of God or trust in Christ’s death for them. But hearing no such thing, they felt compelled to wait until the child could say more.

Yes, we must all earnestly urge children to come to Christ. But I add this warning: if you pressure a child about publicly professing Christ as a way of proving that he has a work of grace in his heart, it will often become a pressure he cannot emotionally bear, and he often will then make a profession, not because he has become a believer, but in order to please you. It is obvious to all that children have an intense desire to please the adults they respect.

Instead we as parents, teachers, and pastors should keep them from getting anxious about a public profession. We must guard against their making a profession merely to win the acceptance of either you, the church, or their friends. We must rather continuously emphasize to their minds that the only acceptance of any eternal consequence is acceptance with God through Christ. This leaves unresolved only one last issue¾ the possibility of a child who does clearly articulate a profession of faith. Could there be such? Certainly! I have heard some children give a most credible profession and have baptized them. The next chapter is an attempt to suggest what criteria ought to be sought in coming to that conclusion.

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