“Some people were bringing little children to Him so He might touch them, but His disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw it, He was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to Me. Don’t stop them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.’” —Mark 10:13-14
The most important decision your child will ever make is to follow Jesus. While we as parents long to see our children make that choice and pray earnestly to that end, we also want to know that they are making it with as much understanding as they can for their age.
As we worked with our own four children, with children in Sunday Schools and Vacation Bible Schools, and sought the counsel of godly parents who had gone before us, we began to realize that there were some important concepts our children needed to understand.
When a child is born, his parents are in many ways like God for him. When you think that God is the one who provides for us, protects us, loves us unconditionally and set our boundaries for us, that is what parents do for their children. And so, in your child’s earliest years, you are developing his understanding of what it means to have someone who loves him who does those things for him. What are the attributes and actions of God that your very young child will begin to learn in his relationships with you?
Forgiveness. God tells us that he removes our sins as far as the east is from the west. When your child disobeys and you have dealt with it, it is done. If he does the same wrong thing tomorrow, deal with it again. But once it is dealt with, don’t keep bringing it up to him. God does not do that with us.
Consistency. God is the same yesterday, today and forever. He keeps his word. Your child needs to know that your yes means yes and your no means no. His whining should never work! If you say no, think before you say it, and then stick with it. Your child should see a consistent response from you for his behaviors.
Boundary setter. God in his Word sets boundaries for us to live by, because he loves us and knows what is best for us. In the same way we set loving boundaries for our children. Just as we submit to God, we should expect obedience from our children, knowing that the boundaries we set for them are because we love them and know what is best for them.
Unconditional love. God promises that he will never leave us or forsake us. Our children need to know that no matter what they do, we will always love them and be their parents. This does not mean that we excuse or tolerate disobedience. It does mean that we deal with them in a straightforward way, setting and enforcing godly standards in their lives while offering loving forgiveness for their transgressions.
Our culture has created its own definition of love, which in many cases depends on the behavior of others toward me and how they make me feel. God’s love does not depend upon my behavior or upon feelings, for which I am thankful. In John 3:16 we see that God showed his love by giving himself even unto death for me, for the purpose of leading me to godliness and a holy life. In the same way we are to love our children, dying to ourselves in order to demonstrate consistency, boundary setting, forgiveness and love to them, not for the purpose of always giving them what they want but for their goodness and righteousness. This is how we show God’s love to them.
Can a parent do all of these things perfectly every day? Of course not. We live in a fallen world, and even though God’s Spirit dwells within us to convict us, guide us and empower us to live ever more godly lives, we still fail. Children seem to be blessed with very understanding hearts and seem able to overlook and even accept our frailties when they know that we are doing our best to follow God and raise them in a way that pleases him.
What are concepts that a child needs to understand for him to make a decision to follow Christ?
Sin. Your child needs to know that sin is disobeying God. He will learn this more easily if he knows the boundaries you have set for him and that disobedience to you has consequences. The first verse we ever taught our children was John 3:16; the second was Ephesians 6:1. As your child begins to understand what sin is, he probably will not need to repent about robbing a bank. But if he understands that when he disobeys you he is also disobeying God, and that that is sin, then he can begin to see that he needs to deal with God about his disobedience as well as with you.
Disobedience is not just a “bad choice,” it is sin. Your child may not need to repent about a bad choice; he will need to repent about sin.
Repentance. There is a difference between being sorry that you are caught in a sin (regret) and being sorry you committed the sin (repentance.) As you pray for your child and as God deals with his heart, this is a difference that your child needs to learn. Repentance is not just sorrow for sin, it is also a turning away from the sin with a desire to let the Holy Spirit help us to choose godliness in the future. Even if your child seems to demonstrate repentance, will he sin again? Do you? Just as God forgives and seeks to move us as adults ever closer to himself, so he will with your child.
Lordship. We don’t have lords in America, so this may not be as easy a concept for your child to grasp. We used the word “boss” with our children. Did they want Jesus to be the boss of their lives, to try their best, with his help, to obey him and follow him?
As each of our children, in turn, chose to ask Jesus to be their Savior, I always prayed that God would give me some assurance that they were understanding as best they could the decision they were making. With each of them, I was amazed and grateful to hear, within just a few days, them discussing a spiritual concept in such a way that I knew their insights had to be from the Holy Spirit in their lives. And with each child we realized that although the work of our earnest prayers for his salvation might have been completed, there was still much work to be done over the years, as we began the process of discipling these very important new young believers. As our children now are following God in their early young adult years, we can echo the words of 3 John 4: “I have no greater joy than this: to hear that my children are walking in the truth.”
—Betsy Owens is a mother and the wife of Waylan Owens, dean of the Jack D. Terry Jr. School of Church and Family Ministries and associate professor of church and family ministries at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.