Discerning Your Child's Spiritual State

by Mike Phay August 2, 2017

As you speak with your child about Jesus, God’s Word, and their relationship with God, there are several biblical values that should frame your approach to this ongoing conversation.  Oftentimes, parents are intimidated to have spiritual conversations with their children simply because they doubt their own competence.  They fear that they will get it wrong.  Christian parents often tend to take the minimalist route, which is easy and requires no college degree: Let’s just get our child to “pray the prayer” to “accept Jesus into their heart.”  That done: success!  My child’s eternal destiny is secure, and we can return to life as normal.  But God has called and equipped Christian parents for something more.

This simplistic approach with your child is missing the deep importance of the parent/child relationship: God has given you to your child as a leader, mentor, teacher, and disciple-maker.  These kinds of everyday spiritual conversations should be a part of your life rhythm with your child.  As God commanded the Israelite parents in regard to His commandments:  “You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” (Deuteronomy 6:7)

The following are some biblical values and guidelines that may be helpful in the discerning work of guiding your children to Jesus, especially around the key moments of conversion and baptism.

Guiding Biblical Values

  • Curiosity and eagerness do not necessarily equate to spiritual life.  Children are insatiably curious learners.  Childhood is an imaginative and creative time.  It is also a stage of life when motivation comes through reward & punishment.  For these reasons, words & reality do not always align for children.  This causes difficulty in our discernment of the heart of our children.  Children will tend to say what they think you want to hear, including the ubiquitous “sinner’s prayer.”  For example, my 4-year old daughter will dutifully (and joyously!) declare “Jesus died on the cross for our sins!” as a response to any question asked when the Bible is open at our dinner table.  She can enthusiastically parrot the correct response to the wrong question: as parents, we encourage and correct with gentle guidance, because she is eager, curious and learning.  Eagerness & curiosity are the happy marks of healthy children everywhere; they are not necessarily trustworthy markers of spiritual life.
  • God’s Word must be central in your conversations with your child.  God has sovereignly designed that faith comes by hearing the Word of God (Romans 10:14-17).  You can have many spiritually-oriented and deep conversations with your children without ever bringing God’s Word to bear.  But the response that you are looking for in your child’s heart is not a response to your wisdom, but to God’s Word.  Keep the Bible open and in front of you.  The fruit that you and your child will reap from these types of Word-centered conversations will be eternal.
  • Be prayerfully attentive to God’s work in your child’s heart.  Parents should take comfort in the fact that the primary work of salvation in a child’s heart is the work of God. The nature of new birth is God’s sovereign election of individuals (John 15:16; Ephesians 1:4; Acts 13:48; 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14; Revelation 17:8), brought to fruition through the Spirit’s movement and work in a dead heart (John 3:8; Ezekiel 37; Acts 2:39; John 10; Ephesians 2:1-10).  For parents, there is a call to prayerful and dependent attentiveness in looking for signs of the Spirit’s movements in a child’s heart.  God has been at work in your child well before you were even on the scene (Psalm 139:13-16; Ephesians 1:3-6).  Be on the hunt for His grace in the heart and life of your child.
  • Call for but do not force a response.  Do not be afraid to call your child to profess faith or to follow Jesus in baptism if you believe that your child is ready.  Conversely, do not be afraid to have your child wait if they are not ready.  Allowing a child to respond to God in His time is more important than your own (possibly idolatrous) need for assurance that your child is on the right track.  You must be careful that your eagerness does not overcome a child’s readiness.  Seek to carefully and sensitively take a posture of responsiveness to the movement of the Spirit rather than one of forceful initiation, as you patiently allow the Spirit to work faith in your child rather than inadvertently lead your child to a place where God is not leading. Discernment and relationship are key.  There are several ‘Discernment Helps’ lined out below.  If one or several of these are lacking - or even more strongly, a child is resistant to the Gospel or to outward proclamation - then wisdom would caution against any pressure to reap where a crop is unprepared for harvest.
  • Take into account both the mind and the heart.  It is important that your child understand the truth of the Gospel and be able to articulate it in their own words.  Nevertheless, this articulation is not enough, as the responses that you are looking for in your child must be both intellectual (mind) and emotional (heart).  See below for more clarity on the affectional response of faith.

Discernment Helps

The Bible clarifies for us how the Spirit moves in people and how a true response of faith will be flavored.  Below are some tips that are helpful in a parent’s work of discerning their child’s heart in relation to the look and feel of biblical conversion & faith in Christ.  Stay attentive to the Spirit moving in your child’s heart in response to the Word of God in the following ways:

  • Gospel Sorrow:  Have you seen or discerned in your child a sorrow for and brokenness over their sin?  There is a point in the life of every true believer when they recognize sin not just as an idea, but as a personal affront against a holy God.  Gospel fear drives an individual to repentance and a desire for forgiveness.  With children, this will most often be perceived as a brokenness for their sin(s), articulated in their own words, and often accompanied with tears.  This is good and healthy as children are confronted with their own sinfulness.  The opposite of Gospel Sorrow is any response such as defensiveness, blame, deflection, or anger when personal sin is confronted or opposed.  (Psalm 51:17; Matthew 5:3; 2 Corinthians 7:10)
  • Affection for Christ:  The Gospel calls us to a love and devotion for Christ that are over and above all other loves and devotions (Exodus 20:3; Matthew 22:37-38).  This is opposed to several possible responses that we might see in our children, including a mere intellectual assent to truth, or a reward/punishment response (fear of Hell, desire to please, etc.).  A reverent Fear of God is right and good (Proverbs 1:7; Psalm 19:9; 1 Peter 2:17). Thankfully, the Gospel takes us through a simplistic fear to a deep love and sincere affection for Christ, the object of our faith (1 John 4:18).  Parents should be looking for affectional clues in their children, giving evidence to their love for Christ.  This may sound like delight, love, satisfaction or longing.
  • Discernible Fruit:  Good fruit is the outward, discernible result of true, biblical faith (Matthew 3:8; 7:16-20; John 15:3-5,8,16; Romans 7:4; Galatians 5:22-23; Philippians 1:9-11; James 2:14-26). When considering fruit, we begin to take note of a child’s behavior, which can be tricky.  Although all children are born sinners, some are naturally more obedient than others.  This may be the result of the regenerating work of the Spirit in the child, common grace given through a pleasant or gentle disposition, or a heightened desire to please. Another issue with discerning fruit in children is a lack of time or life experience, especially with very young children.  Even if regeneration, repentance, and faith have taken place, they have simply not had enough life duration to “prove it” through the fruit of faith.  A further complication arises in the fact that as children grow, they often ‘naturally’ overcome or grow out of certain behaviors.  In other words, they mature.  Thankfully, parents usually know their children best and through time and prayerful attention can often discern the difference between merely good behavior and the true fruit of repentance. 

Guiding Questions

The following are several questions to help guide conversation as you (1) discern your child’s heart of faith, and (2) help your child tell their story (testimony) of God’s grace in their lives.

  1. When did you realize that you needed a Savior?  [Acts 2:37-38; Romans 3:23; 6:23; 1 John 1:8-9]
  2. What do you believe God did for you to forgive your sins and give you eternal life?  [John 3:16; Romans 5:6-11; 1 Corinthians 15:1-4; 2 Corinthians 5:21]
  3. What does Jesus mean to you?  [This is the affectional, heart question: Psalm 36:7-9; 37:4; 63:1-8; 73:23-26; Philippians 3:7-11]
  4. What does it mean for you to put your faith in Christ?  [Matthew 26:28; Acts 2:37-38; 10:43; Galatians 2:17-21; 3:22; Colossians 1:13-14][Note: With this question, you are attempting to help your child articulate their trust in Jesus Christ alone for the forgiveness of their sins and for the fulfillment of all His promises to them, including eternal life.[1]
  5. How do you intend to live out your faith in Christ?  [Matthew 28:18-20; John 14:15,21; 15:10; Romans 6:17-18; James 2:14-26; 1 Peter 1:13-16] [Note: With this question, you are attempting to help your child articulate their intention - with God’s gracious help - to obey Jesus’ teachings and to follow Him as both Lord & King.]

Notes

  1. ^ Questions 4 & 5 are adapted from “Preparing Young People for Baptism: Mentor’s Guide,” by The Elders of Bethlehem Baptist Church (Children Desiring God, 2001 & 2011), pp. 33-34.