In some ways this question is quite theoretical as the vast majority of children grow up to be adults. On the other hand, our answer to this question will significantly change how we minister to children.
If a child does not need to be saved then, our focus will on moral discipline, honouring parents, the history of the church and the character of God. If a child needs to be saved we will focus on the power of the Gospel to save us as the number on theme above all else. We will preach with the fervent hope and expectation that children will choose to respond to Christ for themselves.
Let’s look at this question from a couple of different angles.
Some will think about the original sin that appeared thanks to Adam & Eve – that since that time the propensity to sin has been found in every human being. This is why we never have to teach a child to sin, but their own desire for self preservation and self assertion leads them to sin. This promotion of self over the creator is a demonstration of the depravity of our sinful self.
Others will look at the innocent state of children – they surely would not be judged by a God of love who states that the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these. Children are so cute. No one, not even the most hard hearted person, would judge a baby as guilty of anything except being totally adorable most of the time and a bit tetchy at other times.
The heart of the Gospel is to reunite us with God. The reason we need to reunite is simple – we have rejected the Lord by our sin. If there were any other way that sin could be permanently removed from us, we know that God would have done it. As Jesus prayed in the garden of Gethsemane that if there was any other way ‘this cup would be taken from’ him.
If we say a child is born in sin, then salvation is needed. If we say a child is born without sin and needs to reject God to leave the kingdom, then the very act of sinning is a rejection of their creator. Sin is defined in Romans as disobeying the law (for those who know the law) and as breaking your own conscience (for those who don’t).
And here is the crux of the matter: Where there is sin there is need for a saviour.
Being cute does not get you into heaven. Being made in God’s image does not get you into heaven. Being righteous does. Righteousness is only available through Jesus.
It is easy to want to shy away from talking about sin with children.
It is a strong message to bring to young children.
It defies the modern lie that deep down most people are fundamentally good (while there is good in all, the Bible is clear that ALL have sinned and fall short of God’s glory).
We would rather focus on the positive parts of the Gospel, such as the love of God.
We want to avoid imitating the caricature of hell fire and brimstone preachers.
We want to steer clear of the hypocritical Pharisees who pointed out the sins of others whilst failing to recognise their own sin.
Yet in avoiding the subject of sin we are depriving children of developing a true understanding of the Gospel. The more we understand the depth of our sin, the more we understand the love and grace of God. How much more glorious is our understanding of God’s grace when we realise that our own sin, that we chose to do, causes us to be rejected by God forever, but God in his mercy stepped into our lives to rescue us. Without this understanding the message of the cross is at best meaningless and at worst a demonstration of a barbaric, tyrannical diving being who was even willing for his own son to die.
We preach on sin, because acknowledging our sin is the gateway to accepting Christ’s salvation.
In times past, Christians understood the importance of giving space for the Holy Spirit to convict people of their sins, without rushing in with quick fix prayers. By allowing them to face and wrestle with their own sins, people were able to find the comfort and joy that comes from the forgiveness of God.
Many meetings would have a bench at the front where sinners would come and sit until they repented. This bench was uncomfortable accentuating the discomfort of conviction, upfront as if they were before the judgement seat of Christ and available to any who wanted to sit there at any point during the meetings. IN some revivals people sat there for hours as they wrestled with their sins before God Almighty. This mourner’s bench (or sinner’s bench as some called it) elevated the importance of conviction leading to confession leading to salvation. What a glorious moment it was when the grace of God was poured into a life on that bench, liberating the penitent sinner.
Who would want to deny our children the privilege of owning up to our sin and giving it to God. Children need to hear of God’s love, but they also need an opportunity to respond to this love in the light of their own sin. While it is the work of the Holy Spirit to convict hearts (not the work of a judgemental preacher) it is the work of the preacher to preach the power of the Gospel to overcome sin.
Where there is sin there is need for a saviour. When our children understand that their sin has been destroyed at the cross, the price for their sin has been paid, then they can walk int eh freedom of one who has been redeemed.
Let’s not shy away from preaching the Good News of repentance to children, because in doing so they will be free to embrace salvation from sin. This is surely the primary calling of anyone who ministers to the next generation.
In the ministries we have led we make it a principle to ensure that the Good News of the cross is taught at least once a month, no matter what the main teaching theme for the month is. In the next articles in this series, we will look at the tradition of an altar call and 5 ways we can share the Gospel with our children.