by Jessica Wempe
Picture a wee bitty person that fits in your shirt pocket. Recite a magical prayer and this little person will whisk all your worries away. Got the picture? If so, you have some idea of the confusion we unwittingly bring upon our children. The Grace movement promotes a clear gospel message, but do we use that same clarity when we share the gospel with children?
Some Stumbling Blocks
Before I address some of the potentially confusing gospel presentations we give to children, please understand that I realize many have come to believe in Jesus for eternal life in spite of these methods. But, we need to make a sincere attempt to present the gospel as clearly as possible. God is certainly able to work through our imperfections, but of course we want to avoid any stumbling blocks to the gospel.
Ask Jesus into Your Heart
“Ask Jesus into your heart.” These are the five little words most commonly heard in a gospel message for children. There are several reasons why these words cause great confusion for little ones. John 3:16 is the “flagship” verse for the gospel. As you well know, it reads, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” This is the gospel, and obviously the truth of faith alone in Christ alone which brings eternal life is well supported throughout Scripture.
Nowhere in Scripture is anyone told to “ask Jesus into your heart”—this is an expression we created because it sounds simple and child-like. But these are not biblical terms. Do we have to quote Scripture? Not necessarily (though it’s not a bad idea), but we do need to use language that communicates biblical truth. The gospel tells us to believe in Jesus to receive eternal life. Believing is not asking; it’s being convinced something is true. Of course a child who asks Jesus into his heart could be a believer; but it is his believing that saves him, not the act of asking and that is important for him to understand.
A second problem with the ask-Jesus-into-your-heart method is a basic child development issue. Until roughly the age of 12 (this varies as children mature at different rates), children are concrete thinkers and find figures of speech difficult to understand. They tend to tie their thoughts and ideas to their tangible experiences and believe everything we say literally.1 Should you say that Bill Clinton has a silver tongue; an eight year old is not thinking “That fellow is a smooth talker.” She’s thinking, “I wish he would open his mouth wide enough for me to see!” Likewise, when you tell them to ask Jesus into their hearts, they are generally not thinking of some deep theological nuance. Rather, they are imagining a tiny Jesus literally setting up camp in their hearts.
The Magic Words
Probably the second most common gospel appeal—and this one too is confusing—is to encourage children to pray some sort of “Sinner’s Prayer.” It is perfectly appropriate to pray with a child after they have believed in Jesus for eternal life, but the child should not believe that the prayer is what saves. How many people do you know who prayed the “Sinner’s Prayer” five or six times in their lifetime because they weren’t convinced that it really “took”? If a child understands that eternal life is given to all who believe, you alleviate needless worry in his or her life. You don’t have to say a magic prayer to be saved—you have to believe.
Another point of confusion with the “Sinner’s Prayer” is that when a child (or an adult for that matter) views the prayer as the cornerstone of his conversion, he is often looking for some kind of huge metamorphosis to mark his entrance into the Kingdom—he expects to feel different. Although salvation can certainly result in the drastic and sudden transformation of a person’s life, a child who has the gospel more clearly explained has great confidence because she knows that her salvation is based solely on the grace of God and her conviction that the gospel is true.
Don’t despair! There is a simple, clear way to share the gospel with children—the same way you do with adults.
When I share the gospel with children, I tell them the same thing I tell everyone with whom I share the gospel, “God loves you so much that He sent His Son Jesus to this world long ago. The Bible promises that whoever believes in Jesus will live forever in heaven with Him. And the great thing about the Bible is that it’s always true!”
When we repeatedly articulate a clear gospel to the children in our lives, we will see children who are certain of their eternal destiny because their security is based not on an invitation, nor on a prayer, but on the very promise of God.
1. For more information on cognitive development, see the work of Jean Piaget. Specifically, his book, The Origins of Intelligence in Children, describes his extensive research on the progressive stages of thought children experience. For an easier read try, Understanding Piaget: An Introduction to Children’s Cognitive Development, by Mary Ann Spencer Pulaski.