For parents who value the salvation of their children above and beyond everything else, there’s nothing more pleasing than to hear a child say, “Daddy/Mummy, I want to be saved”. Yet, precisely because the eternal welfare of their children is so important, parents can so easily – in all sincerity – respond in a way that leaves their child with a “false profession” of salvation, rather than the real thing.
Acknowledging that every child, family and circumstance is different, and that these matters call for earnest prayer, heavenly wisdom and humble dependence upon God, this article seeks to provide guidance in relation to handling these eternally significant parent-child interactions.
Pitfalls to be avoided
Many parents, whose child asks for the first time “How can I get saved?”, think that the immediate goal of the encounter is to get him or her to pray and “ask the Lord to save them”. So, after asking why a daughter wants to be saved, and having heard that she is “afraid of being left behind when the Lord comes”, or “doesn’t want to go to hell”, a few questions might be asked and a few verses may be read before the point is reached where the parent says: “Would you like to pray right now and ask the Lord to save you/give your life to Christ/ask Jesus to come into your heart?”1
Parents, by prompting or inviting a child to “pray and receive Christ”, are venturing onto very dangerous ground. Dad and Mum, you are not the Holy Spirit, and do not know the exact condition of your child’s heart at this critical point. How do you know that your child is truly convicted by the Holy Spirit? Are you sure your child not only understands his or her sinfulness, but is truly aware of being lost and helpless? It may all be just an emotional response to a fear of parents disappearing.
But what could possibly be wrong with a child praying and asking the Lord to save them? Doesn’t the Bible say “Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Rom 10:13)? Certainly, but this should never be presented as “The Bible says all you have to do is ask the Lord to save you”. This gives a child the impression that a prayer saves. We must understand that the ‘call’ of Rom 10:13 issues from a believing repentant heart. The next verse in the chapter says “How shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed?” The verse is not outlining a mere verbal act; it is describing the heart-call of faith from a soul convicted by the Holy Spirit. Note the other verbs that accompany the ‘calling’ in Isaiah 55:6-7 – “Seek ye the LORD while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near: let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the LORD, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” All you have to do is call?
Referring to Romans 10:13 (“Whosoever shall call”) A.W. Pink says, “Now, does this mean that all who have, with their lips, cried unto the Lord, who have in the name of Christ besought God to have mercy on them, have been saved by Him?…The writer well remembers being on a ship in a terrible storm off the coast of Newfoundland. All the hatches were battened down, and for three days no passenger was allowed on the decks. Reports from the stewards were disquieting. Strong men paled. As the winds increased and the ship rolled worse and worse, scores of men and women were heard calling upon the name of the Lord. Did He save them? A day or two later, when the weather changed, those same men and women were drinking, cursing, card-playing!” Which just goes to illustrate the fact that many souls fervently desire to be saved from hell or from being ‘left behind’, who have no desire to be saved from sin.
Another parental pitfall to be avoided is engaging in overly persuasive explanations of salvation, hoping that the penny will drop and your child’s eyes will be opened. Parents are not helping their children by endlessly illustrating ‘how to be saved’ with ever more dramatic and elaborate explanations. To quote A.W. Pink again: “[Most Christians think that to see someone saved] all that is needed is to bring before a sinner a few verses of Scripture which describe his lost condition, one or two which contain the word ‘believe’, and then a little persuasion for him to ‘accept Christ’, and the thing is done. And the awful thing is that so very, very few see anything wrong with this – blind to the fact that such a process is only the Devil’s drug to lull thousands into a false peace. So many have been argued into believing that they are saved. In reality, their ‘faith’ sprang from nothing better than a superficial process of logic.”
Mr Pink has in mind what transpires at ‘evangelistic church services’, but his words are equally applicable to parents dealing with their children. He goes on to refer to people who, “anxious to win another soul to Christ”, pull out their New Testament and read 1 Timothy 1:15. “The worker says, ‘You are a sinner’, and, his man assenting, he is at once informed, ‘Then that verse includes you’. Next, John 3:16 is read, and the question is asked, ‘Whom does the word ‘whosoever’ include?’ The question is repeated until the poor victim answers, ‘You, me, and everybody’. Then he is asked, ‘Will you believe it; believe that God loves you, that Christ died for you?’ If the answer is ‘Yes’, he is at once assured that he is now saved. Ah, my reader, if this is how you were ‘saved’, then it was with ‘enticing words of man’s wisdom’ and your ‘faith’ stands only ‘in the wisdom of men’ and not in the power of God! (1 Cor 2:4-5)”.
There’s nothing wrong with showing your anxious son some gospel verses, explaining the way of salvation, and praying for him and with him. But care is needed. Parents are influenced by the blood relationship, and it is easy for the heart to rule the head. The fact is, the logical and clever explanations of persuasive parents might well be able to give their children the light of logic, while failing to give them the life of the regenerating Spirit.
For example, a parent may seek to illustrate the atoning work of Christ by putting a Bible on his own right hand. “This is your sin. See, it’s resting on you. It’s taking you down to hell. Do you know what God did at the cross?” And then, as Daddy swaps the Bible slowly over to the left hand, he says, “See, God took your sin and put it on the Lord Jesus when He died on the cross. Can you see that? So, where is your sin now?” “Oh,” says Johnny, “I never saw it like that before.” A parent may open John 3:16 and get the child to read it. “Now, we’re going to read that verse again, but this time I want you to put your name in every time it applies to you. So, let’s read it: ‘For God so loved… Johnny’ …good, keep going; ‘that He gave His only begotten Son that if…Johnny…believes in Him, Johnny should not perish but have everlasting life’.” “Oh, I see it,” says Johnny.
By such methods you might successfully produce the “aha” moment you are looking for, but still stop short of salvation. To quote Mr Pink again: “At no point does Satan use his cunning and power more tenaciously, and more successfully, than in getting people to believe that they have a saving faith when they have not. The Devil deceives more souls by this one thing than by all his other devices put together”.
Yes, we can trust the Lord to guide us as we deal with our children and we should not be fearful to present the gospel simply and plainly to them, and urge them to be saved, but at the same time we must not step over the line and move into the realm of human ingenuity and fleshly persuasion that is one step ahead of the Holy Spirit. Caution and discernment are called for at every turn.
Parents need to be prepared to walk away, time after time if necessary, rather than “press for a decision”. The tendency to push children into something unreal has led to unspeakable heartache and disappointment in many cases.2 Reality is worth waiting for. Nothing can equal the parental joy of watching God genuinely at work saving children and transforming their lives in a way that only He can, but we need to remember that salvation is between the child and God. The aid that parents can offer is very limited; the danger of rushing or hindering a divine work very real.
It is in the nature of some children to be impatient and to want a quick fix. If they are still “shallow ground hearers”, they’ll be looking for a short cut to get salvation sorted and get on with life. So the challenge is, do we trust the Lord enough to leave Him to save our children, after we have prayerfully sought to point them, from the Bible, to the person and work of Christ? Remember what happened when Abraham and Sarah decided they couldn’t wait any longer for a child? Ishmael was born; and the rest is history.
One final thing before moving from ‘pitfalls’ to ‘principles’. There is sometimes a danger of children becoming too anxious and overwrought about salvation. Excessive panic over the thought of judgment, hell and the Lord’s coming can render it virtually impossible for a child to think straight. In such highly emotional and exhausting situations, parents should seek to calm things down through, for example, the steady and peaceful reading of scripture or of gospel hymns. Some children are deeply sensitive and require very gentle, patient and wise handling.
Principles to guide parents
Parents cannot save their children, and nothing Dad and Mum can do will ever merit salvation for them, but there are a number of ‘instrumental means’ that parents can employ and that God is pleased to use in the salvation of families.
Parents should earnestly and daily pray for their children’s salvation! Praying for others’ salvation is a scriptural thing to do (Rom 10:1). It was a touching moment when Hannah presented her young child Samuel to Eli the priest with the words “For this child I prayed” (1 Sam 1:27). Hannah, unable to produce children, had earnestly prayed for a boy and God had miraculously granted her request. Let us ever remember that salvation is a miracle – a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit – and let us therefore surround our children with fervent evangelistic prayer.
2. Gospel preaching
God has ordained that His gospel be preached (Mark 16:15). The word the Lord used for ‘preach’ in Mark 16:15 means ‘to herald’ (Gk. kerusso). By using this particular word, He was indicating that evangelism is to be conducted first and foremost by public preaching. Public preaching was, is and always will be the best and most suitable method for communicating gospel truth. Why? Because, in preaching, the Word of God is in full unobscured view; the spirit of the message is conveyed directly (eye to eye); the rational mind and conscience are engaged, and the tone of the method fits the content of the message. Parents should therefore ensure that their children sit under the preaching of the gospel on a regular basis. A weekly gospel sermon would be a bare minimum requirement, but arranging for your children to sit through concentrated series of gospel messages over periods of weeks is the most effective and ‘instrumental means’ God has been pleased to use over the centuries in the salvation of souls. And not just ‘any preaching’. Biblical, searching, earnest preaching of man’s ruin in sin, God’s remedy in Christ and man’s responsibility to repent and believe the message.
3. Parental protection and discipline
In the parable of the sower, the Lord Jesus mentioned a number of things that “choke the Word of God”. He highlighted “the cares of the world”, the “deceptiveness of riches”, and the “desire for other things” (Mark 4:19). Family situations vary, and often one parent is saved while another is not. Perhaps parents are saved later in life when their children have already grown up. But when it is in the power of parents to control what is allowed in the home and in the lives of their children, they would be wise to do all in their power to keep out things that “choke the Word”. Nothing will more successfully render the word of God ineffective in the lives of children than allowing them access to TV, Netflix, rock music, computer games and social media. The home, and the child’s bedroom, ought to be safe places where God and His Word are prominent and where the environment encourages the Word to take root. Everything in your house should be geared towards the salvation of your children, including parental discipline. There is a vital link between a child’s attitude to parental authority and its attitude to Divine authority. Parents who do not insist on first time obedience and whose children are allowed to get away with cheek, back chat and sulking, are teaching them to disrespect authority. If a child can ignore parental commands with impunity, is it likely to develop a tender conscience and display a softness towards the Divine command to “repent and turn to God” (Acts 26:20)?
4. The Bible and gospel literature
The Word of God needs to be all pervading in the Christian home. The Bible should be opened and read daily with the family. What the Bible has to say about everyday situations in the home, in School and in society should be expressed. Gospel tracts, booklets and books should be freely available, such as God’s Way of Salvation by Alexander Marshall, Light for Anxious Souls by George Cutting and Around the Wicket Gate by C.H. Spurgeon.
Instead of the child’s bedroom walls being adorned with football players, rock stars and other ‘celebrities’, at least one complete and substantial gospel verse should be on display among other suitable pictures and posters. Here are some suggestions: Isaiah 53:5, Romans 5:6, 5:8 and 1 Peter 2:24. You will not be able to find this kind of text in the average Christian Bookshop, nor on Amazon, so print out a verse and frame it yourself.
5. Scriptural directions
When children ask about salvation, they will often frame it in terms of “How can I be saved?”. It is easy to get hung up on the ‘method of faith’ rather than pointing them to the ‘object of faith’, the Lord Jesus Christ. So, rather than majoring on the ‘how’ of salvation, speak about the ‘Who’ of salvation. Direct your child’s thoughts to Christ. Avoid focussing on what the child thinks he or she has to do (believe, ask, call etc.) and instead focus on what Christ has done. Salvation is not something the child does; it is the child resting on the work of Another!
What if your child says they are saved? What should parents do? Here are a few pointers:
First, ask your child how they have been saved. Probe their story. If your child’s experience is clearly nothing like a Biblical conversion, don’t be afraid to gently but clearly tell him or her so. If a child’s whole story amounts to nothing more than, “I was afraid the Lord would come and leave me behind, so I asked the Lord Jesus to save me and I know He has”, parents need to be clear that this is not salvation. There should be, in every child’s story of conversion, clear evidence of two things: conviction of sin, and a personal appreciation of Christ, the One who died for sinners on the cross and rose again. If these are missing, by all means encourage your child by saying, “It’s great to hear that you are thinking about being saved”, but then explain what real salvation is and tell them you will continue to pray for them to be saved. Unless a child has been awakened to their sin and need, and can indicate how the Holy Spirit has opened their eyes to the sufficiency of Christ and His work to meet that need, parents should be wary. There is nothing to be gained from saying, “Well, rather than discourage our child we accepted their profession and now we are waiting to see fruit.” Why be happy with less for your children than you have for yourselves?
Secondly, beware of excitement. The hearers in the parable of the sower who “received the word with joy” proved to be false. When a child has found true rest in Christ there is more likely to be a sense of rest and relief, than one of buzz and euphoria. In any case, if too much fuss is made, and a profession turns out to be false, it makes it much harder for a child to be genuinely saved at a later date, because of potential loss of face and embarrassment.
Thirdly, avoid talking about feelings. Asking “How do you feel?” implies that salvation is determined by subjective feelings. Many children, even though genuinely saved, will initially struggle with assurance. “It seems so simple. How could I be saved so easily after all my past struggles? Is it really true that I am saved?” Children can easily take their eyes off Christ and start focussing on themselves. Keep their focus on what God says, and His promises in the Bible.
If you have reason to believe a real work of salvation may well have been done in your child’s heart, tell him or her that you are pleased to hear the news; but emphasise that salvation is a matter between them and God and they need to examine the foundation well to make sure that they have what is real. They should be encouraged to read the scriptures and pray, and continue to attend gospel meetings, which provide an opportunity to compare what they have with what the Bible teaches, to make absolutely certain it is genuine.
Even in a child of 10 there will be signs of salvation. No, salvation doesn’t change a child into an adult, but it does change a sinner into a saint. Look for evidences beyond those conscious acts of ‘expected Christian behaviour’ like Bible reading, prayer and meeting attendance. One telltale sign is how a newly saved child listens to the gospel. It is never a good sign when a profession of salvation comes ‘out of the blue’, without a child having shown any tendency to listen well to the preaching of the gospel – and then, soon after the profession, stops listening well, almost as if they no longer need to listen now that they are ‘saved’. Real salvation changes a good listener into a better listener. Saved children will have an interest in the gospel, and will display a knowing understanding and appreciation of it when it is preached. They will also start to show a concern for the salvation of others. As puberty comes, and the teenage years unfold, the reality of salvation will become clearer in so many more ways
The concepts outlined in the above article will perhaps become clearer to the reader through the lens of a real life testimony of a child’s conversion. The following anonymous but true story took place in the UK in the 21st century. It may provide practical insights into the unique struggles sometimes faced by children brought up in Christian families:
“The concept of salvation first gripped me, temporarily at least, at the age of 10, while attending a month long series of gospel meetings. I don’t recall the exact words of the preacher, but one evening it just hit me: ‘This message applies to me. I am a lost sinner and I need a Saviour.’
“I don’t remember having any more such thoughts until a couple of years later during another period of gospel preaching. It was then that I first began to seriously search for salvation. The family I came from took seasons of gospel preaching seriously. Normal events like sleepovers and family fun nights were suspended (thankfully I didn’t own a smartphone as a child). Each evening, once the preaching was over, I was taken straight home to allow the impact of the message the opportunity to have its maximum effect. We grew up without TV so my distractions were minimal.
“Heading home one night I plucked up the courage to tell my Mum I wanted to be saved. Neither my Mum nor my Dad was the type to push me into a prayer or put words into my mouth. They just pointed me to Bible verses that explained the truth about my sin and the finished work of Christ for sinners on the cross.
“At that time I spent a few days in my bedroom pretty much constantly reading my Bible, and some gospel tracts and my hymn book, trying to find salvation. I kept reading and reading hoping salvation would pop out of the pages. I think, in my blindness, I imagined that if I read enough verses and prayed enough prayers, that would surely persuade God to reveal salvation to me. However, the Bible says that salvation is ‘not of works’ (Eph 2:8). ‘Works’ include anything outside of trusting solely in the person and work of Christ. Looking back now, I can see that I had fallen into the trap of actually turning reading the Bible and praying into a kind of ‘ritual’ – a subtle form of good works if you will – to try and impress God and convince Him to save me. I was sincere, but sincerely wrong.
“After a few frustrating days I made a profession of salvation. I read John 3:16 and I told myself, ‘Well…I do believe Jesus died for me. So I just must be saved then. I can’t seem to find anything else. Yes…that must be it. I am saved’.
“Of course, I wasn’t really saved, no matter how much I tried to persuade myself. I was effectively trusting in how much belief I could muster in a well-known Bible verse. But how could I ever know if I had believed enough? In any case, I had mistaken true saving faith in Christ for mere ‘assenting to a fact about the gospel’. But the verse does not say ‘whosoever believes about the Son’, nor does it say ‘whosoever believes in his own believing”. It says, ‘whosoever believes in Him‘. But my focus was on me and my believing, not on Christ and His atoning work for my sin.
“Anyway, I told my Mum I was saved. She said, ‘Well…tell me what happened’. I’m glad now that my parents took the time to make genuine enquiries, rather than accept the first thing I told them. Where might I have been now if my little story had been rubber stamped and broadcast to all and sundry? After I had recalled my experience, my Mum asked me, ‘Haven’t you always believed that Jesus died for you? What’s so different this time?’ This simple but poignant question completely took the wind out of my sails. The fact is, nothing was different. I had just grown weary of searching and had opted for a shortcut. I had basically made up an empty claim of being saved because I was frustrated and impatient. My profession of salvation evaporated almost as quickly as it had arisen!
“A year later, I attended another series of gospel meetings. Once again, during the second week, I recommenced my Bible reading and praying, hoping I would find salvation. One evening I spoke personally to one of the preachers and he very kindly explained salvation to me using a few illustrations and demonstrations. Using some items that were to hand, he said, ‘Let this represent you in your sin…and this represents God who is holy. This is Christ in the middle who came in between you and God and He bore sin on the cross for you’.
“He made salvation sound so simple, so logical. I had never seen and heard it explained so clearly. The thought occurred to me, ‘Perhaps I’m saved’. I felt I had seen something I had never seen before. It all seemed to make sense. Later that evening I tried to retell the preacher’s simple explanation to my parents, but somehow, as I did so, I was neither able to convince them nor really convince myself of my salvation. The fleeting bit of clarity I thought I had received seemed to have gone away. The truth is, all these years later, I can hardly remember what I thought I saw. Anyway, I was still in the dark, and my parents left me to think it over some more and pray about it.
“The next day my Dad asked me if I still thought I was saved. Once again I knew that nothing had really changed. I still seemed as confused as I always had been. I just had to admit that I had nothing. Looking back now, it’s obvious to me that I wasn’t saved. Yes, I had tried to accept and hold onto a logical explanation of the process of salvation. But I was trying to believe for salvation much like I studied maths at School. 2 + 2 = 4. Me and my sin + Christ’s work on Calvary = salvation. But salvation is not a matter of ‘accepting the logic of the cross’. It’s a personal experience of a hopeless and helpless sinner resting all on Christ for salvation.
“Another few months went by. Another series of meetings came around! Another search commenced. I was determined this time to keep searching until I was saved. As the meetings drew to a close I went through another week of turmoil, constantly reading the Bible and tracts, and praying for salvation. I didn’t know what else to do. Surely if I kept searching I would find salvation somehow.
“The meetings ended and I was still in my sins. But I couldn’t stop thinking about my need to be saved. I dreaded the thought of going back to School still lost and perhaps never getting saved. A funeral I attended the next day served to impress on me the need of salvation even more. I cried as the Christians sang ‘Face to face with Christ My Saviour’, knowing I could not really sing those words. I was lost and on the way to hell.
“I listened to a few sermons online over the weekend to try and get more help. One sermon pointed to the words repeated three times in the book of Hebrews; ‘Today if you will hear God’s voice, harden not your heart’. I felt that God was telling me that this is urgent, and now is your day to be saved.
“The next day was a Sunday. I attended a few meetings, one of which included a gospel sermon. I listened intently, but seemed to get no more light. That night I went to my bedroom to think. I decided not to read my Bible or any gospel tracts. I guess I felt there was no point. I had tried the same thing many times before. I just felt completely lost and helpless. Sitting on my bed I decided to leaf through a book by George Cutting titled Light for Anxious Souls to see if there was any light for me.
“I came across a section that focussed mainly on the work of Christ on the cross. Half way down the page Mr Cutting quoted a line from a hymn: ‘His own wounds in heaven declare, the atoning work is done’. It seemed as if I got a bit of light on salvation as I read these lines. I started to ponder and think about ‘the work being done’. The thought occurred to me that I should have another read of the verse that had hung on my bedroom wall since early childhood. I had read it many times before but had never really grasped what it meant. It was Isaiah 53:5.
“I began to read the verse very slowly, putting each sentence into simpler language in my head. ‘He was wounded for my sins. He was bruised on the cross for my sins. The chastisement for my peace was on the Lord Jesus.’ Those three sentences shed no more light. However, as I read the last sentence of the verse – just six words – something about the sacrifice of Christ on the cross came to me for the first time.
“I read, ‘With His stripes we are healed’. These were my thoughts. ‘With His stripes’ – that means Christ’s death. ‘We are healed’ – that means I’m saved. Suddenly, in a moment, I was saved – without consciously trying to believe or trying to trust. It just dawned on me in that moment that it was Christ’s death on the cross that saves me, and nothing more. I remember whispering out loud, “So, it’s just the fact that Christ died that saves me”.
“The word ‘are’ in the sentence was so helpful to me. The verse didn’t say, ‘through His stripes we might be healed if we read and pray a lot’. Neither did it say “through His stripes we might be healed if we really try to believe it”. It simply said ‘through His stripes we are healed’ and that was it; nothing more and nothing less. Yes, I had always known that Christ’s death on the cross would save me (if I did my bit and believed it hard enough!), but I had never grasped that His work alone saves. Before, I would read the Bible and gospel tracts searching for ‘the missing piece of the jigsaw’ that would make me saved. I kept thinking, ‘Well, since I do already believe everything, but I am not saved, there must be something else’. But the night I got saved, I understood that ‘the jigsaw’ – excuse the expression – was completed 2,000 years ago in the work of Christ on the cross. I had just not rested my helpless soul there. I had blown the balloon of ‘my believing’ up so big that I couldn’t see the cross. I had desperately ‘tried to rest’, all the while not realising that trying and resting are opposites.
“At first I was unsure if I was really saved. Was that it? In all my struggles and efforts over a number of years, how could I have so totally and completely missed the whole point? I began to read some other well-known Bible verses just to see if they sounded any different to me, now that I was saved. I came to John 3:36, a verse I had always struggled with before. I always used to stumble at the word ‘believe’. ‘He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life’ was how I used to read it. For the first time, the emphasis came to me thus: “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life”. My focus wasn’t on ‘what I had to do’ but on the Person in the verse – the Lord Jesus – who had died on the cross for me. The whole the verse centred on Christ! How had I missed that before? That was when I knew I was saved. The Bible says it – it must be true!
“I crept down stairs to tell my Dad. Hesitantly I said, ‘Dad, I think I’ve got saved. But it wasn’t what I expected. It was just so simple’. He questioned me about what had happened. Was I sure, and how was I sure? I told him the story. I told him that the Bible says ‘with His stripes we are healed’, so I know I am saved. The Bible says it’s through Christ’s death and nothing more. That’s it.
“A deep joy flowed in my soul when I was saved. It wasn’t excitement so much as a profound sense of relief and peace. It was and is a ‘settled knowing’ that is actually quite hard to put into words. All I know is that “with His stripes I am healed”. Nothing more is needed – nothing less will do.”
May the Lord be pleased to bless this testimony to every reader, along with the principles outlined in the foregoing article.
Michael J. Penfold (firstname.lastname@example.org)
- None of these expressions pass the test of Scripture. Parents would do well to stick to Biblical terminology when dealing with the salvation of their children and speak about “trusting Christ” (Eph 1:12), “receiving Christ” (John 1:12), “coming to Christ” (Matt 11:28) and “believing on Christ” (Acts 16:31).
- Barna research indicates that, in the USA, only 30% of young people who grow up with a Christian background “stay faithful to church and to faith throughout their transitions from the teen years through their twenties”. That’s a 70% drop out rate. A mere 17%, of the 70% who leave, reconnect on some level when they have children of their own. False profession is a significant factor in this ongoing tragedy.