When Can A Child Respond to the Gospel?

Few issues weigh more heavily on Christian parents than the salvation of their children. For credobaptists this issue takes on a special significance as we hold to the idea that our children must be converted in order to become Christians.[1] As a result, credobaptist parents and churches often struggle with the question of when a child is ready for the Gospel. While the Bible does not provide a fully-developed treatment of child-development, a careful study of the Old Testament (OT) reveals several presuppositions about the nature of children which can be applied to questions regarding their readiness for the Gospel.

1. Children should be instructed in the Gospel from their earliest days

Within the OT, children are always part of the faith community.[2] As a result, it is not surprising to find that even small children are singled-out as needing to learn to fear the Lord. In Deut. 31:12-13 small children learn such through hearing the recitation of law. In Deut. 6 this occurs through the recitation and display of the Shema to one’s children. In Josh. 4:6-7 seeing stone monuments brings the fear of the Lord about. Clearly, small children are intended to witness the teachings of the faith community. The application of this to the contemporary situation is obvious: parents and churches have an obligation to begin instructing, reciting, and exposing their children to the Gospel and the story of the Bible from birth forward. There should never be a time when a child should not be being instructed in the Gospel.

2. Children should be present at the practices of the church from their earliest days

Not only are children instructed in the faith teachings beginning at birth, they are also incorporated into services and functions of the faith community at birth. For example in Deut. 16:11, Deut.  14:21ff 31:10-13, and Josh. 4:6-7, 21-24, parents are explicitly commanded to bring their children to the festivals and religious services of Israel.

As a parent and as a preacher I am often tempted to remove my children from church services and events. Children are frequently loud, active, distracting and disruptive. Including them in church services feels counterproductive to a quality preaching and praise experience.

While including children in the functions of every service is not required, it is antithetical to the child discipleship process outlined in the OT to exclude children from a majority of church functions.

3. Children’s questions indicate a readiness for the Gospel

As children observe the events of the faith community and are exposed to its teaching, questions naturally arise in their minds. Moses anticipated this when he instructed Israel about the Passover and the Shema. In both instances, Moses told the Israelites that children observing these rituals and teachings will eventually ask questions about their meaning (Exod. 13:14, Deut. 6:21). Within the OT context then, the education and discipleship of the children is, as one OT scholar notes, in “response to the child’s curiosity. [It] even waits for the strategic moments, the receptivity implied in the [child’s] question.”[3] In a similar fashion, Christian parents and churches should be prepared for the questions of their children. Such questions indicate a readiness for the Christian Gospel.

4. Children should be taught the why and not just the what

In the OT, children not only learn the rules and go to the services, they also learn the reason for these rules and rituals. The Shema is a great example of this. The Shema (Deut. 6:4-9) stands as the central faith statement of Israel and the summation of who God is to the Hebrew people. It emphasizes the repetition of both the Ten Commandments (Deut. 4-5) broadly and the confession of the uniqueness of Yahweh particularly to one’s children (Dt 6:7-9). In response to children’s questions about the meaning of these rules and recitations, parents are to tell their children about God’s deliverance from their slavery in Egypt (Dt. 6:20ff). Applying this to a Christian context, as children seek to understand why they have to go to church, why their family has the standards and rules that it does, the appropriate response is the story of God’s deliverance from their slavery to sin.

5. Children are required to understand and respond to God

Since children are to learn the why and not just the what, it is unsurprising that the OT expectation of children is remarkably similar to its expectation of adults. Both are regularly to encounter the polity of Israel through its oral recitation (Dt. 4:9-10, 31:10-13) in order that both young and old will learn of and not forget the divine instruction. This instruction results in both children and adults learning to fear the Lord, to observe the law, and to live long and prosperous lives. Thus, both adults and children are accountable to know (the commandments/polity of Israel), to be (fearing the Lord), and to do (the commands). The same things based on the same motivation.

Proverbs builds on this idea of child accountability in that both children and adults are to pursue wisdom (Proverbs 1-9, esp. 1:5a). This wisdom is manifested in an appreciation for and application of discipline to one’s life. The discipline is something both the young and the wise welcome (Prov. 9:8, 10:17, 12:1, 17:10).

This brief study regarding the OT nature of children reveals several truths which can be applied to our question regarding children’s readiness for conversion. First, children are valid candidates for discipleship and should be part of the life of the church.  Second, while exposure to this discipleship process begins from the earliest age, children self-identify as to when they come to know and understand the significance of the religious rituals of the community through asking questions. Third, it follows that as children are exposed to the teaching of the gospel, they will ask questions as to its meaning. Fourth, these questions and the corresponding comprehension by children would be indicative of a child’s receptivity to the gospel message and conversion. Fifth, children are cognitively and volitionally as capable of being discipled as adults.

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[1] As opposed to our paedobaptists friends who frequently argue that children can be nurtured in such a way that they are never outside the saving love of Christ and his Church.

[2] I believe that my paedobaptist friends incorrectly take such as a mandate for baptizing infants. Still, I think we would all agree that at a minimum such OT teachings indicate that children should be exposed to the teachings of the Christian faith at the earliest ages. For those interested in why Baptists reject the OT practice of circumcision as normative for NT baptism  I would recommend the articles by Stephen Wellum, Shawn Wright, and Duane Grant in the book Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ.

[3] Patrick D. Miller, “That the Children May Know: Children in Deuteronomy,” in The Child in the Bible, ed. Marcia J. Burge (Grand Rapids, MI: William, 2008), 51.