The most important thing you can do for a child is to teach him or her the good news about how to be right with God, how to be forgiven of sin through the person and work of Christ. Over the years, many have asked me, “How can I explain the gospel to children in terms they understand without toning down the hard demands of Christ? Must a child understand Jesus’s lordship to be saved?”
Certainly children are limited in their ability to understand spiritual truth, but so are adults. Very few people intellectually understand all the gospel truth at the moment of salvation. Fortunately, the essential truths are basic enough that even a child can understand. Jesus Himself characterized saving faith as childlikeness (Mark 10:15). True belief is not a function of advanced intellect, sophisticated theological understanding, or complex doctrinal knowledge.
Children old enough to be saved can grasp the concept of coming to Christ with an obedient heart, and letting Him be boss in their lives.
When sharing the gospel with a child, here are a few points to keep in mind:
(1) Remember that repetition and restatement are especially helpful. Give the gospel simply and briefly, but don’t assume the first positive response means they got all the truth they need to know. Continue explaining and expanding your explanations. Too many ministries to children equate every positive response with a real conversion.
(2) Use Scripture and explain it clearly. Even with children, God’s Word is the seed that produces life (1 Peter 1:23). Don’t use approaches that give gospel outlines with no Scripture. Only the Bible can speak with authority to the human heart—including a child’s heart.
(3) Understand the inherent danger in any outline or prefabricated presentation: they tend to follow a predetermined agenda that may bypass the child’s real needs or fail to answer his or her most important questions.
Finally, remember that the issues in salvation are the same for a child as for an adult. The gospel is the same message for every age group. The great British preacher of the last century, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, correctly observed:
“We must be careful that we do not modify the gospel to suit various age groups. There is no such thing as a special gospel for the young, a special gospel for the middle-aged, and a special gospel for the aged. There is only one gospel, and we must always be careful not to tamper and tinker with the gospel as a result of recognizing these age distinctions. At the same time, there is a difference in applying this one and only gospel to the different age groups; but it is a difference which has reference only to method and procedure.” (from knowing the times [Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1989], 2)
Children must be able to understand that sin is an offense to God’s holiness and that they are personally guilty (though because of their limited experiences, most kids obviously won’t have as deep a sense of personal guilt as adults). There’s nothing wrong with telling children about hell and God’s wrath. Children do not have a difficult time grasping such concepts. They understand punishment for wrongdoing and are capable of understanding that Jesus died to take the punishment for the sins of others.
They need to be told that Jesus expects to be obeyed, and they will understand even better than some adults that trusting Jesus means obeying Him. The importance of obedience needs to be emphasized repeatedly, even after the child makes a profession of faith.
The Bible is very clear in emphasizing that parents—particularly fathers—are to bring up their children “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). Teach your children to respect you and to pay attention to the biblical truths that you teach. Be accurate and clear in your explanation of God’s Word, remembering that instruction is not just verbal. It’s also non-verbal by the way you live your life before their watching eyes.
Cultivating godly children in an increasingly evil world sometimes seems like an impossible responsibility. At least that’s what you might conclude if you listen to some experts. Many parents and parents-to-be have been intimidated into thinking they can’t possibly lead, love, and nurture their children in a way that pleases God—at least not without lengthy training seminars, strict methods, and complex programs.
While the world may have changed, God’s Word hasn’t. Effective, godly parenting is not only possible, it’s well within reach of anyone willing to understand and apply what God says on the subject.
If you are looking for resources to help you, consider the folllowing:
Widely known for his thorough, candid approach to teaching God’s Word, John MacArthur is a fifth-generation pastor, a popular author and conference speaker, and has served as pastor-teacher of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California since 1969. John and his wife, Patricia, have four grown children and fourteen grandchildren.
John’s pulpit ministry has been extended around the globe through his media ministry, grace to you, and its satellite offices in Canada, Europe, India, New Zealand, and Singapore. In addition to producing daily radio programs for nearly 2,000 English and Spanish radio outlets worldwide, Grace to You distributes books, software, audiotapes, and CDs by John MacArthur. In thirty-six years of ministry, Grace to You has distributed more than thirteen million CDs and audiotapes.
John is the president of the master’s college and the master’s seminary, and he has written hundreds of books and study guides, each one thoroughly biblical and practical. best-selling titles include The Gospel According to Jesus, The Second Coming, Ashamed of the Gospel, Twelve Ordinary Men, and The MacArthur Study Bible.