Conversion and Sanctification in Young Children in Christian Homes

by Jan 15, 2016Piety, Theology6 comments

The Family

From: J (used by permission)
Sent: Thursday
To: Mark L. Ward, Jr.

I had a specific question that I wanted to ask you. Feel free to answer this at any time and to any extent that you are able. You mentioned to me once that [one of our respected mutual friends] had told you that he hoped that his children would never know a day that they didn’t trust Christ. It was in the context of our discussion of children who grow up in Christian homes and often don’t remember when they were saved. I wanted to get your thoughts on that, and how that looks as far as my discipleship of my children and how to help them know they are saved so they don’t go through the teenage angst of praying over and over again to be saved.


From: Mark L. Ward, Jr.
Sent: Thursday
To: J

I still feel puzzled by the overall issue. It seemed like a good 75%, maybe more, of salvation testimonies I hear follow an ABC pattern: A) I professed faith at 4, B) I doubted for a good while, C) I got assurance or got saved at some point in my teen years. It’s torturous to listen to sometimes, because it’s torturous to go through. It just doesn’t seem right—why would the process of spiritual birth be so uncertain for so many people?

Neither is it right to presume regeneration in your kids, of course. But the point of [our respected mutual friend’s] comment was not to presume regeneration but to remove some of the cultural weight we’ve placed on the conversion experience. I press for a conversion experience with some people, people who need to repent and whose sins are obvious to all, including themselves. I don’t believe I’ll push for a conversion experience with my kids while they’re young, at least; I’ll ask if they have repented more in general way and if they now trust in Christ.

The issues of sanctification and discipline of kids also puzzle me. I’ve come to believe that a truly righteous act is one done with righteous goal, motive, and standard. But my kids so transparently don’t say “Yes, Daddy” unless they’re induced through fear-of-punishment or love-of-candy-corn. How can I praise them for doing well when I can see so readily that their motives are wrong? I do see times when their motives appear to be right, when they act out of love. But regularly it’s obvious that love is absent or insufficient among their motivations (the apples don’t fall very far from this tree…). I have come to believe that part of my duty to my kids is to drive the foolishness out of them and give them good character and self-control even if they prove to be unregenerated.

Interested in your own thoughts.


From: J
Sent: Tuesday
To: Mark L. Ward, Jr.

You have stated things more clearly than I have heard them stated in the past, and also more clearly than I had formulated them in my mind. I agree with your feeling of general puzzlement. I am particularly puzzled/confused by apparent contradictions, such as teaching children to pray, ask for forgiveness, trust God, etc., when they may not be regenerated yet. But [our respected mutual friend’s] statement, and your elaboration of it, help me.

I agree that I will not mention conversion experiences to my children, only probe their own faith and understanding of conversion and regeneration. The most helpful thing you wrote was the need “to remove some of the cultural weight we’ve placed on the conversion experience.” At times I have almost thought that a false gospel is being preached, the way the conversion experience is emphasized (and the lack thereof is actually taught as a reason to doubt one’s salvation), when in Scriptures, time and again, the only thing ever emphasized/probed/preached is faith in Christ. In an extremely logical, sequential view of the matter, it does make sense to insist that there be a “moment” in time, but I don’t think the process is (always) that chronological or sequential. Just like my children have never not known me (but I am still their father), perhaps they also will never be able to think back to that moment when they first knew God (but he is still their Father). That’s not a good example (or at least not a clear one), since one is not born into the body of Christ with God as father. (Obviously, I believe that conversion is essential to salvation and that no one is born a Christian!) A better example would be a good friend whom I have no recollection of meeting. Yet obviously we met somewhere at some time in the past. (For example, I have no memory of when I first met you, saw you, or spoke to you. Do you?)

In regard to shifting the cultural weight away from the conversion experience, a lot of the responsibility comes down on preachers. When I doubted my salvation in the past, the problem came from hearing clear conversion stories but also and more significantly from hearing statements like, “Why do you not read your Bible/want to witness to people/love God more/sin less? It’s because you’re not saved.” Another statement that always bothered me (it continues to puzzle me) is that you have to believe in your heart and not just in your head. The distinction is invalid, or at least invalid in regard to the way people seem to be making the distinction (obviously there is a difference between understanding the Christian faith and actually accepting it yourself—but that is not what a lot of people mean). Hearing statements like that make already insecure people even more insecure about their salvation. When there is something you have no control over (an experience, or a “heartfelt” faith as opposed to an “intellectual” one), you have no option other than to remain in perpetual doubt—or to fabricate what you think you lack. That’s why I choose the term “false gospel” to refer to preachers who urge audiences to know a time that they were “saved.” Protestants like to say that Catholics ruin Christ’s work by adding to it, even though Catholics believe in Christ, but we need to face the fact that adding an experience or prayer to Christ’s work is no better than (and just as damning as) adding faith in a virgin, baptism, or works.

I also agree with your view of discipline and children’s actions, though I think that children who are regenerated will surprise us from time to time. My 5-year-old is still very sinful, and yet occasionally (to my surprise and pleasure) he does act out of love and nothing else (that I can discern), he does ask for forgiveness of his own accord (without any prompting or external motivation), and he even does speak to God on his own (not as part of any habit or custom). So I don’t know what to think, other than to take at face value that he believes in Jesus like he says he does (and that not based on any conversion experience known to me). If that faith is just the influence of his culture and parents, so be it–he will be able to decide things more definitely for himself when he is more intellectually and spiritually independent.

So anyway, to all that you said, I would simply add, right on. Thank you very much for your thoughts.


From: Mark L. Ward, Jr.
Sent: Now
To: Both of you blog readers
A little cadenza: I’m confident that my friend J is not saying that conversion is unnecessary, only that a discernible conversion experience isn’t. It’s great to have one, and I’ve seen them come in dramatic—and lasting—fashion. I agree with him, because I myself am unsure about my conversion experience(s). Mine, such as they were, were a profession of faith and a change of heart with ten-plus years in between.

I posted this informal email conversation as, I think, a set of important questions asked by young parents in the spiritual trenches. Neither of us spent the time talking through Bible passages; we were assuming them. But my mind as a credo-Baptist goes to 1 Cor 7, where Paul says that children are “sanctified” by having even one regenerated parent. If that’s true with one regenerated parent, then there must be something especially sanctifying about having two. Kids in credo-Baptist families are “sanctified,” even if they’ve never been baptized.

Would any reader care to share his or her thoughts? Extra points if you do what we admittedly didn’t, namely point rigorously to Scripture. There are also probably some obvious bibliographic black holes that should be filled in here, too. Who has written on this, in the Baptist tradition in particular? I know I should know, but I’m drawing a blank. Perhaps a Baptist systematic theologian such as Strong?

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  1. Wesley Allen

    This conversion experience conversation has farther reaching impact than just our children as well. For walking with those outside the faith as they come into it, what we mean by “conversion” has a significant impact on how we talk to them and how they think about their journey. I am of the conviction that “on-the-spot” conversions are extremely (EXTREMELY) rare. As you both emphasized, our own conversion experiences aren’t as simplistic as one would assume by the U.S. church’s narratives. Nor do I think they are meant to be.

    We like to draw a hard conversion line, but it’s not so easily traced out in the fog of predestination, calling, justification & sanctification, and ultimate glorification (Rom 8:30). If anything, for the sake of evangelizing, we ought to be honest about what conversion actually looks like. I think the scriptural imagery of marriage is very helpful in that regard. If I were honest, when I married my wife, I had no idea what that meant. At some point, we were introduced. Then I got to know her a little bit. Then we dated for a time. At some point I decided, “Okay, I’ll commit to this.” I made a covenantal vow to God before his church knowing that I wasn’t really sure what was ahead, but whatever the case, my identity from that point forward would include “married to Sarah” until the day one of us were to die. The past 10 years, I’ve learned more and more what it means to be married to her–so much so that, looking back, it’s easy to think, “Was I REALLY married to her on day one? Certainly not like now!” I tell her every day that I love her and every day that has deeper meaning. God willing, in 50 years I will think the same about today. And so it is with conversion and sanctification. At some point, we all commit ourselves to Jesus as Lord, gracious for his merciful forgiveness, eager for the future, identity forevermore tied to his name. And from that point on, we will always look back and say, “I may have become a disciple of Christ then, but certainly not like now!”

    Have you read Gordon T. Smith? His Transforming Conversion and Beginning Well discuss this in great depth. Anywho, that’s my conviction at this point.

  2. dcsj

    Hi Mark,

    Big topic… not a lot of time.. a few bullet points:

    1. I don’t think sanctification in 1 Cor 7 = salvation; it is a setting apart because of exposure to the gospel, direct contact with the gospel, that children in completely unconverted couples will not experience (I don’t think you would disagree, but thought this a needed clarification)

    2. I am uncomfortable with the “Reformed-ish” view of children never knowing a time when they didn’t trust Christ. It seems this is a dangerous way to think. Rather, I want my children to *know* they are sinners, that they cannot save themselves, that they must call on Christ for salvation.

    3. I am against pressuring children for a decision. I want them to fall under the conviction of the Holy Spirit and come to me (or another trusted teacher) with their concerns about their soul. Teach the need of salvation, yes, teach the means of salvation, yes, but don’t pressure for a decision. I am glad to say that raising children in that environment produced five converts in our family, at different ages, but with clear cut adult testimonies of faith in Christ.

    4. There is nothing wrong with struggling for assurance. We need to come to a full understanding of what it means to have faith in Christ. We can’t see Christ, we can see that our profession of faith does not produce moral perfection automatically, so what are we? We have to come to an understanding that our salvation doesn’t depend on us, it depends on God. Are we depending on God? Yes or no. If I have called on him in faith, God is obligated by his word to save me. It doesn’t depend on my performance or the quality of my faith, it depends on Him who has promised. I’m probably not explaining this point that well, but one of my favorite characters in Pilgrims Progess is someone called Little Faith. He makes it because of his saviour, not because of his own strength.

    Hope that helps, wish I had time for more

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

    • Mark Ward

      1. Completely agreed.

      2. Understood. I want them to *know* they’re sinners, too.

      3. Amen. My parents modeled this well.

      4. My wife struggled deeply with assurance in very unhealthy ways as a teenager. I never knew her like that. You and I would have to talk at greater length to see if we’re differing at all here.

  3. dcsj

    On number 4, I agree that there is an unhealthy kind of struggle. I’ve read Edwards Surprising Work and think that he fostered that kind of soul-numbing agony.

    We can chat more about it sometime though. I do appreciate what is being said here, nonetheless!

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  4. Jeremiah Zabal

    I’ve never heard anyone talk about this – specifically the (over)emphasis on the moment of conversion. Wesley’s “was I really married back then?” comparison rings true for me.

  5. mlward

    I picked up Gordon Smith’s book Transforming Conversion, and I’ve made it through precisely two pages today… But he already suggested something helpful to me: that revivalism, which is largely responsible for the language of conversion used by evangelicalism, was focused on a different cultural situation than the one we now have. We were a professing Christian culture in the 19th century; now we’re not. Anyway, if I get some good stuff I’ll try to report on it.


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