Is My Kid’s Salvation Experience Real?

This past Sunday, as we were discussing the significance of John the Baptist’s water baptism, I touched very briefly on the implications for discussing baptism with our children.

In particular, I cautioned against rushing into baptism in order to provide our children an assurance of their salvation as soon as they make a decision to trust Christ.

I’d like to briefly address this a bit more in this post.

When our children tell us they have “accepted Christ”, we rightly want to celebrate this decision.  We also want to help them find assurance that their decision was real and genuine.  But how do we know if their response to the Gospel was real?  How do we know that they have genuinely trusted in Christ and repented of their sins?  How do we know if they really have new life in Christ or not?

The simple answer is that “only time will tell”.

Many times, parents in these situations will rush to give their child assurance of their salvation. But what’s the rush?  Do we think that if their conversion is real they will somehow lose it if they don’t get baptized right away or if they don’t get some “assurance” right away?  That’s impossible.  If it’s real today, it’ll be real tomorrow, and it’ll be real in a year.  If it’s real when they’re 6 (and yes, I believe that’s very possible), then it’ll also be real and even more apparent when they’re 12.

Let me be clear:  They will not lose their salvation simply because you waited to baptize them, or because you waited to give them other indications of your assurance that they are genuinely saved.  But conversely, we can do harm to them by giving them assurance too soon, if their “decision” was not genuine.  By baptizing them, telling them they’re “saved”, or the like, we can give them a false assurance, and end up inoculating them against the Gospel.

in-oc-u-la-tion – to introduce the causal agent of a virus into the body in order to generate immunity to that virus

Giving false assurance of salvation to children who are not genuinely saved could actually be “immunizing” our children against the Gospel.  We see evidence of this all over the place.

Where are all the children who “accepted Christ as Lord & Savior” in VBS and Sunday School 20 years ago?  Where are they today?  They’re not in the church!  Statistics are overwhelmingly convincing…the 21st century Church in America allows (and unknowingly encourages) false conversions year after year – only to see those children grow up and leave the faith.  How many examples can you personally name?

The reality is they didn’t leave the faith; they were never IN the faith.  But if you ask them today, they’ll say, “yeah I’m a Christian, yeah, I got saved when I was 5, 6, 7,…and I even got baptized, I don’t need to hear about the Gospel.”  What a tragedy!

A sobering question for us is, “Are we doing this today with our own children?”

So, how can you tell?  How can you tell if their decision to trust in Christ is real?

In recent years, in an attempt to determine whether someone is really saved or not (particularly children), we encourage them to say a simple prayer (the “sinner’s prayer”), or we tell them they need to “invite Jesus into their heart”.

The hope with this strategy is that as long as they say those words (and mean them), then we don’t have to do the hard work of actually looking for evidence of genuine repentance and regeneration. All we have to do is know that they prayed a prayer, and asked Jesus into their heart.

The problem with this strategy is that those things simply aren’t in the Bible!

The Bible never says that you have to pray a certain prayer to be saved.  The Bible never says anything about “asking Jesus into our heart” in order to be saved, yet we want to use that with children, and tell them that’s all they need to do to be saved!?  What child DOESN’T want Jesus to be in their heart?  If we’ve told them Jesus is loving and good, of course they’ll want Jesus in their heart, but that doesn’t mean they have any awareness of their own sinfulness and need to trust in Christ and repent.

Likewise, the Bible doesn’t say anything about the need to raise a hand, walk an aisle, get baptized, etc., in order to be saved.  Biblically, assurance of salvation is not based on any of these external symbols.  Our response to the Gospel is simply faith & repentance, and our assurance of salvation is based on how we answer two simple questions:

  1. Whom are we trusting right now for our salvation?  Are we trusting in self to be saved (what I do), or trusting solely in what Jesus has accomplished to save us?
  2. Is their evidence of change, of new life in Christ, and of genuine faith and repentance of sin?

So, how can you tell if your child is really saved?  According to these two questions, a child who has genuinely trusted in Christ for salvation, will continue to trust in Christ for salvation.  If they are genuinely trusting in Jesus’ finished work on the Cross as their only hope for salvation, then they will continue to do so for the rest of their lives.

Likewise, a child who has received new life in Christ will (over time) give evidence of this new life.  Granted, this is difficult to discern in a child.  It’s not as if they were a murderous thief when they were 5, and now we see this colossal change in their life.  Nevertheless, over time, you will begin to see “fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8).  They will begin to show a new and growing affection for God.  They will become more interested in reading their Bible and spending more time in private prayer.  They will become increasingly aware of (and convicted of) their own sins.  They will have a growing concern for their own personal holiness.  These are things that parents will begin to see over time.  It may not be evident right away, but “time will tell”.

So, when our child comes to us and says, “Mom, Dad, I am trusting in Christ for my salvation…I’ve repented of my sins….and I think I’m saved now!” – How are we to respond?

We have 3 choices:

1. We can rush to give them assurance of their salvation.  We’ve discussed (above) the dangers in this approach.

2. We can be a spiritual wet blanket”  We can say, “No son, you didn’t do that.  Your mother and I still see too much of your sin nature in you….and we seriously doubt that you are genuine in your faith & repentance….we don’t think you are regenerated in Christ….and so therefore, we conclude that you are self-deceived about your salvation…sorry, you’re not a real Christian yet”.

    NO….DON’T DO THAT!!  Although in reality those things may be true of our child, we don’t want to squelch the work of the Holy Spirit on their heart.  We want to stimulate that work, and encourage them to keep moving toward God.

    3. We can encourage them.

      “Great son!  That’s awesome!  You keep on trusting in Christ and repenting of your sins.  That’s just what God wants you to do.   More than anything, we want to know that God has really changed your life….and we can only know that if you keep on trusting and repenting, and acting like a real follower of Christ.  This will show that you have a new heart…and that God has truly changed you….so keep trusting and repenting, and Mom and I will be watching and praying…and as questions come up, we’ll talk about them”.

      You want to be encouraging and positive and sincere.

      What’s the danger in NOT giving them a bunch of assurance right away?  Are we afraid that they will walk away from the faith if they don’t get some assurance real quick?  Listen, if they walk away from the faith it’s because their response (whatever it was) wasn’t genuine and wasn’t real……and friends, if that happens….you don’t want them walking around 20 years later with FALSE ASSURANCE (“Oh, I’m good, b/c my parents said I was saved when I was 6”).   NO…..you want them to remember, “Mom and Dad said that if my response to the Gospel was real…I’d keep on trusting in Christ, and living a life that gave evidence of genuine repentance….well, I’m not doing that….and so I know I’m not saved…and I desperately need the Gospel!”

      May God grant you wisdom as you bring up your children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord….and may He give you discernment as you shepherd his/her soul.

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      5 thoughts on “Is My Kid’s Salvation Experience Real?

      1. This article hits very close to home for me as I have recently had a conversation about just this topic with two of the pastors at our church. Owen made a decision for Christ in December, and Caleb made a decision for Christ in February. I was told by one of them, that he had “never, ever baptized a five year old”, and that HIS five year old would never understand salvation, so he couldn’t see how Caleb could. We had been discussing the subject of sin and salvation with our kids for over a year, and I had seen the “fruit” of his changed life after his decision to follow Christ. So there was no doubt in my mind that Caleb was “saved”. After a follow up meeting with our children’s pastor to “interview” my son, it was clear that he did, in fact, understand (as fully as a five year old can)what sin was in his life, who Jesus was, what He did for him, and why he needed Him.

        I think that the main reason that a parent would have uncertainty of whether their child’s decision was genuine is that we as a nation of parents have abdicated the instruction of our children in our faith to “the church”. How can you know if they understand what sin is, if you never talk about sin with them? How can they understand their inability to be “good enough” for heaven if we are not demonstrating in their lives day to day God’s grace to us and them? Even if they do make a genuine commitment to Christ, how will they grow if we are not teaching them how to do so- Reading the bible with them and helping them to apply what they learn to their lives, praying with them, encouraging them to take all their concerns to their Father in heaven and to thank Him for prayers answered, to repent when they sin, and ask God to forgive again?

        While I agree that many children are led in a prayer with no understanding of the decision they have made, I think many “wither on the vine” for lack of vital instruction and encouragement.

        As parents we walk a fine line with our children’s salvation. Of course we should look for fruit. If the decision is genuine, the fruit will show. But in the same way we would accept the statements from an adult that showed their decision was real, we should accept our children’s testimony as real, and celebrate with them. The scripture is clear. Romans 10:9-10 says, “If you declare with your mouth ‘Jesus is Lord’, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.” Just because their little minds haven’t grown to understand the full depth of the mercy God has shown us, does not negate their ability to, in faith, believe and be saved. I find the exact opposite to be true. They have not lived in this world enough to become jaded. The bible says God is good, so He is. It says He hears those who call on Him and answer them, and so they call to Him with no doubt He will hear them and answer their cry. He is a God who works miracles, so they ask for the miraculous with faith that their God who loves them will answer – and He does!

        Would you say the same phrasing that you mentioned above to an adult who repented and made a decision for Christ? “I’ll be watching and praying for you…to see if God has truly changed you.” I’m not saying that you shouldn’t wait to have your child baptized if you doubt their salvation decision is real. After all, baptism doesn’t save, it is merely a symbol – an announcement of their decision to the world. So waiting a few months will do no harm. I’m saying that we should treat their decision just as seriously as an adult who made the same decision. We are their parents, and our job is to help their faith to grow. Both of my boys came to me when they decided they wanted to give their life to Christ. I knew the searching they had done in their hearts already based on previous conversations we had. It would never have occurred to me to say what you suggested above. I prayed with them. Then I rejoiced with them, my new brothers in Christ, just as I would have done with an adult. And Chris and I continue to teach them, and help them grow in their walk with their Savior knowing that “He who began a good work…will be faithful to complete it.”

        Just wanted to give you my perspective on this since it is such a fresh experience for me.

        • Susan,
          Excellent insight and comments. Thanks for sharing your experience. And before I comment, I just want to say how excited I am to hear of Owen and Caleb’s decision to trust in Christ. I know this is exciting for you and Chris, and I am glad to hear of ya’lls commitment to bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.

          For the sake of clarity, I want to reiterate that I believe it is entirely possible that a 5 year old can genuinely trust in Christ and repent of their sins. I have no doubt about that. I also know it is entirely possible for children to say the words we as parents so want to hear them say, and yet not genuinely mean any of it. I’m not at all saying this is your experience, but I am saying that this happens alot. Honestly, I would be more concerned about baptizing a 5 year old too soon, than I would be about waiting too long. Which of those two errors carries the greater potential for harm with the child? Granted, the parents need to be the primary ones to determine whether it is the right timing for baptism, and pastors should certainly take into consideration what the parents insight is in this regard.

          And you make an excellent point about the parents being the primary discipler of their kids. In fact, I’m much more likely to give greater weight to a parent’s insight into their child’s salvation experience if that parent takes seriously their responsibility to bring their children up in the training and instruction of the Lord. Sadly, this is more of an exception today rather than the rule. If a parent came to me who has not shown the least bit of interest or initiative in discipling their own kids and wanted me to baptize their 5 year old, I would be much more cautious and take much more time considering the spiritual condition of the child than I would with the child of parents like you and Chris, who have demonstrated a sincere commitment to give spiritual watchcare over your kids.

          A personal example here would be my first born son, Awbrey. He expressed a sincere interest in accepting Christ when he was about 6 years old. Susan and I spent considerable time teaching him about the Gospel and our standing before God. After weeks of instruction and prayer, he still expressed a desire to accept Christ, so I led him in a prayer to turn from his sin and trust in Christ. It was a very special and even emotional time…for both of us. Then, we spent a long time discipling him. We spent another 2 years watching his life and seeing how he was doing, and then we baptized him when he was 8. I truly and sincerely considered him saved at that time. Three years ago he confides in me that although he thought himself to have made some kind of spiritual decision for Christ when he was 6, he genuinely believed that the point of his conversion came when he was 13 years old in youth group. He’s convinced of this. So, was he saved at 6 or not? I don’t know. I still think he probably was, but now I have a 16 year old young man who tells me that he knows he wasn’t, but he is now. The grace of God for us is that regardless of “when”…we are confident that he is in fact a regenerated believer in Christ today. The question begs though….what if he wasn’t? What if his “decision” at 6 was self-deception, or him simply doing a great job of doing what Mom and Dad wanted him to do. Regardless, if he wasn’t saved today, then his supposed conversion at 6 was a false conversion. If that had been the case, then we as parents did him a disservice in pouring so much assurance into him at such an early stage. Not sure if that makes any sense, but that experience certainly is helping us give greater spiritual watchcare over our other 3 sons.

          Great question about adults here too. Early on in ministry I was much more likely to simply take someone’s word for their commitment to Christ and desire to be baptized at face value. Since that time I have seen some of the folks I have baptized (and many others whom I have seen baptized over the years), walk away from their faith. I affirm the Biblical doctrine of the perseverance of the saints (which is important in this discussion), and so if those who have walked away from the faith persist in their unbelief, then they were false converts. They didn’t walk away from the faith, but were never IN the faith to begin with. But my actions (and the church) were complicit in their self-deception by not giving enough time and energy in determining whether or not the “decision” was genuine. There is no way to fully filter out those who are false converts (which is another reason why churches must practice church discipline); however, that is no excuse for a church not being careful and intentional about the “candidacy” of those desiring baptism. That being said, I do believe we need to be a bit more careful about younger children given their developmental progress and difficulty articulating their thoughts, emotions, and doubts.

          Thanks for your insights, and thanks for leading the way in your sphere of influence to be the primary discipler of your boys.

      2. excellent blog post!

        As a parent, I agree with everything written. We need to be careful not to give the assurance of salvation to someone, that’s the Holy Spirit’s job.

        Along with this topic comes the subject of the Lord’s Supper and children….

      3. This makes me think back to when one of my children came to me at about six years old and said “I asked Jesus into my heart.” I asked “why”? Answer, something to the effect of “because He loves me and I love Him”. I asked a question about being a sinner and they answered, “I’m not a sinner!” So, I knew they didn’t understand the gospel-their desperate need for a Savior. It came later!

      4. If we raise our children in the discipline and admonition of the Lord and REALLY use the Bible seriously, Raising a hand, signing a card, and ask Jesus into your heart wont be in their vocabulary. Only the Words of Jesus “The time is fullfilled, the kingdom of God is at hand REPENT and BELIEVE the Gospel.” Mark 1:15

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