I shared the Gospel with my four-year-old son today. It wasn’t the first time, but it felt more complete, more interactive in a way, and it got me thinking about my motives and instincts in telling the old, old story.
Benjamin has always been an inquisitive boy intent on learning everything about a given subject, even before he could speak and would just study the minute facets of every object or mechanism in his sight, but now with his most expansive (and ceaseless) vocabulary, he is a seemingly bottomless pit for knowledge. “Tell me about it!” he says. “Tell me ALL about it! Tell me ALL THE WORDS about it!”
In the van on the way to my friend Beth’s house this morning we were listening to the worship song “Forever Reign” as sung by Shane & Shane (my personal faves). Catching the name “Jesus” in the song, Benjamin asked, “Is this song about when Jesus died?” and I said, “Well, no, this one is more about how much he loves us.” “Tell me about it, Mama! Tell me all about it!”
Okay then. Let’s start at the beginning.
I talked briefly about Creation and then zeroed in on the Fall of Adam and Eve, a story he’s familiar with, striving to use language he understands when getting into abstract topics. It’s one thing to know what happened and quite another to know what it means and how it affects us. When talking about how Eve made the choice to disobey God, I asked him if he ever makes the wrong choice and disobeys even when he knows what the right choice is, and I assured him I do it too. We talked about how Adam and Eve couldn’t stay in the Garden anymore after they had sinned because only perfect people could live there, but they now had sinful hearts and had to be turned away.
I then fast-forwarded to Jesus. I mean, hey, four-year-olds have short attention spans, and this wasn’t a cross-country road trip either. I talked about how everyone has a sinful, yucky heart, how we all make bad choices and treat people wrongly, how we know the right things to do but choose not to do them. We talked about how he fights with his sister, or how I yell instead of speaking kindly. I told him we all have yucky hearts and make bad choices, but Jesus was the only person who ever lived who never made the wrong choice, whose heart was not full of sin. And I told him about how we deserved to be punished for our sinfulness, but that Jesus took our punishment for us when he died on the cross. He let the people who hated him beat him up and hurt him until he died, but how a few days later he came back to life again so we could live forever with him! I told him that our hearts can be clean again if we believe that Jesus saved us when he did that.
I realized at this point that my instincts wanted to kick in in spite of myself. See, I was a child of the 80s and a youth of the 90s, decades in which the prevailing theme in evangelism was the “Sinner’s Prayer”. I see a good number of you shuddering along with me, and others putting up their defenses. Let me clarify something before I move forward. Millions of people have been and are being saved with the help of this tool, and I would be a fool to suppose it has no place. However, I also believe it has been so misused and the Gospel done such a disservice in its explanation (with or without the inclusion of the Sinner’s Prayer) that the prayer has often done more harm than good.
Let me give you an example. Several years ago I was a junior high youth leader and was doing a Bible-overview book study with a couple 8th grade girls. On separate occasions when I was one-on-one with each of them they each asked me how they could be saved. The first time I was completely caught off guard and unprepared for the directness of the question. I froze and defaulted to my churchly upbringing, walking her through a form of the Sinner’s Prayer, though taking care to emphasize the focal point of the death and resurrection of Jesus as the means of salvation (which I believe is unforgivably lacking in too many “Gospel” presentations). When the second girl approached me some time later, I was less startled by it and focused more on explaining the means of salvation by faith and, as I said before, the focal point of Christ’s death and resurrection. When she expressed that she understood and believed the message, I rejoiced with her that her salvation was real and final, not emphasizing any further action necessary to “seal the deal”. (I will happily talk to you all day about the place for repentance, obedience, and the like — so please don’t misquote me as stating those are unimportant — I just do not believe they are tied to our salvation. We are not saved to be saved, we are saved to bring God glory and be used to change the world, and repentance and obedience come into play as we move forward in our walks with the Lord. But that is another conversation for another day!)
Back to my 8th graders. One day some time later as I had them both together for our study, it came up in conversation that they had both accepted Jesus, and they were each surprised to hear it from the other. They described their experiences to each other, and then the girl who approached me first, with whom I had “prayed the prayer”, said, “Well, mine was better because I prayed.” Uh-oh. I had to apologize for misleading her and tried to explain that the prayer didn’t save her; Jesus did. I said that the prayer wasn’t necessary, it’s just a way for us to express our faith to God but doesn’t determine whether or not the faith is there.
So I got to this point in my conversation with Benjamin this morning, and I found myself envisioning this day from an overhead view, reminiscing with him years from now about the day he accepted Jesus, telling my Christian friends and family about how I walked him through it, the great joy and accomplishment I would feel in knowing my child had understand and accepted the most important message he would ever hear.
I actually asked him if he wanted to pray and talk to God about it, and he said yes. So I asked him if he wanted to tell God about how he knows he makes bad choices and has sin in his heart, and he did that. He prayed about how he wanted to live forever in Heaven with Jesus. Then I said, “Do you want to talk to God about how you know you can be saved?” Crickets. “Do you want to tell God about how you know you can go to Heaven because Jesus died on the cross for you?”
“No,” he said, “I don’t want to talk about that.”
Why push it? I said to him, “That’s okay, buddy. You don’t have to talk about that. Do you want to tell me why you don’t want to talk about it?”
“Okay, buddy, that’s just fine.”
I realized what a pride issue the “moment of salvation” thing is for me as a parent, and maybe other parents could relate. And not only pride, but also our own self-assurance. We want to know our children are saved, and we want to know it with a concrete experience and a concrete time and date that we can look back on. It makes us feel good. It makes us feel safe.
Does that mean that children his age can’t understand the Gospel, can’t have a clear and definite moment of comprehension and acceptance shared and recognized by their parents, or can’t be saved with the inclusion of a “Sinner’s Prayer”-type experience? Of course not!
I was saved when I was three. I was at church looking at the famous painting of Jesus knocking on a door, and it just clicked. No one (besides God) was involved in that moment. I just got it, and I received it. I actually believed for years that there was a variation on that painting in which the door was designed as a heart, painted pink and heart-shaped, and it wasn’t until I was much older that I realized that that variation doesn’t exist, I had just visualized it that way as a three-year-old in whose mind the concept had just come together. I knew almost nothing, but it was enough. The Gospel is infinitely profound yet profoundly simple.
I want my children to have no doubt about this: their salvation is contingent on the death and resurrection of Jesus, not on anything they could ever do. God forgive me if I ever put it in their minds that his love for them or acceptance of them is hinged on their choices, good or bad. It is firmly hinged on his goodness, his justice and holiness, and his profound and bottomless mercy, all of which have their center on the historical, actual factual event of his death and resurrection. I can no more undo his love for me than I can undo what he did.
I would love to be part of my children’s “Aha!” moments as the reality of this glory settles into their hearts. To be honest, they may not even recognize the moment for what it is when it comes. Despite my heart-shaped-door moment at the age of three, I had several occasions throughout my childhood and youth in which I felt the need to pray for forgiveness and salvation again and again, just in case it didn’t “take”. I didn’t stop this cycle until it sunk in that my salvation was not hinged on my sincerity or even my complete comprehension — my salvation was done, because “It is finished!” (John 19:30) Nothing more is needed. Now we move forward into the life to which he’s called us.
After my conversation with Benjamin he quickly proceeded to get into a fight with Carolyn in the back of the van, and I asked him, “Benjamin, are you making good choices right now?”
“Mama, I’m sorry! Mama, is my heart black now? How do I make my heart pink again?”
“Oh, buddy,” I said. “First of all, when I said our hearts were yucky I didn’t mean they were really black, just that they are full of sin, that we want to make bad choices even when we know better. But I want you to understand that if you believe Jesus saved you when he died on the cross for you, then you never have to worry about your heart being yucky again. He cleans it and saves you forever. Your heart can never be yucky again.
“That doesn’t mean we won’t still make bad choices. It just means that it doesn’t change how he loves us or how he sees our hearts. We can just ask him to teach us to make the right choices, but we can know that no matter what, we are clean, and we will live forever with Jesus because he saved us.”
And that, folks, is the stuff of life. May it never stop being fresher to us than the day before.