When a Child Says They Want to Follow Christ
As I tucked my nine-year-old son in one night, he looked up at me and said, “Dad, how can I be an ally?” I was confused. I wasn’t even sure if he knew what that word meant, let alone what context he might be using it in. He’s nine, and he’s ridiculously random most of the time. Then, just before I asked him to elaborate, it dawned on me. He was in the middle of a phase, obsessed with everything related to World War 2. In World War 2, the Allied powers included the U.S. He was asking how to be an ally in that sense. I was still a little puzzled, though. “What do you mean?” I asked. Very soberly, he said, “I want to be a good guy. I want to be good.” Because of some very recent Gospel conversations we’d had, it all clicked. He was dealing with an awareness of sin. I reminded him of what the Bible says about being born again, how God gives His people new hearts, and the hope we have that all who trust in Jesus will be completely free from sin one day. And then he asked, “How do I get a new heart?”
“You ask Him.”
We prayed together, and he asked Jesus to give him a new heart and forgive him for his sins. Then he met my eyes with a very “Now what happens?” type of look.
Did he trust Christ? Has he been born again? I’m still not entirely sure. And that’s ok.
One of the most difficult things to navigate in parenting or ministering to children is assessing a child’s profession of faith. A time that should be filled with joy quickly turns into anxiety when the questions begin to enter our minds. “What if they don’t really understand? What if they’re just saying this to please me? What if they end up being one of those all too familiar stories – the adult who thought they became a Christian when they were young and lived most of their life thinking they had their ticket to Heaven punched, only to find out later that they never had a real relationship with Christ at all?”
Once these questions arise, our natural response is to resort to skepticism. We end up approaching the child’s profession with a default of unbelief. While we think this is done from a position of caution and wisdom, it’s usually done from a place of fear. We’re afraid we’ll somehow mess this up, so we play it safe. But is it safe to approach it this way? What are the consequences of encouraging a faith that may not be there just yet compared to that of stifling a blossoming true faith that is there? We labor over the former and hardly ever give a second thought to the latter. We’re terrified we might let an unregenerate child believe they are saved, but we’re perfectly ok running the risk of indirectly telling a believing child that they’re not old enough to have Jesus.
How do we deal with this? What do we do when a child says that they want to follow Jesus? In this article, I have laid out six principles that have helped me in my parenting and my ministry to children. I pray they will help you as well. I’ve also written a related article on assessing Baptism readiness in children that will come out later this week.
- When a child professes faith, encourage faith, not doubt.
As mentioned above, our knee-jerk reaction to a child’s profession is usually skepticism. While being careful and prudent is Biblical, skepticism is not (1 Cor. 13:7-8). When a child professes faith, we should not jump right into “Yay, you’re in because you said the right words!” But we shouldn’t approach the conversation with doubt, either. They’ll read it in your tone. In trying to play it safe and prevent false assurance, you may actually do the enemy’s work for him and cast doubt on a small seed of faith, which is worse by far (Matt. 13:18-23, 1 Cor. 3:6-7).
Faith is not the same for everyone, experientially. Faith is given in various amounts (Rom. 12:3). Some children’s faith will be evident, while others may be fledgling. Both types save because it is not the amount of faith but the object of faith that matters (Matt. 17:20-21, Rom. 10:13). In the initial conversation, try to discern whether the child is seeking to trust Jesus as the object of their faith rather than comparing their expression of faith with yours or anyone else’s.
- An evidence of saving faith is a changed life, but that is not the only evidence—the desire for faith or the desire for Christ can also tell us something about what’s going on in a person’s heart. The Bible says that man, in his fallen condition, is at war with God (Rom. 5:10). He not only doesn’t obey God, but he doesn’t want to obey God (Rom. 8:7). It’s much easier to detect whether or not the child wants Jesus or wants to trust Jesus than it is to try and analyze the authenticity of their faith. I often say, “If you want Jesus, you can have Him” because only those He calls to Himself by the Word and the Spirit will want Him (John 6:37-45). If a child is reaching for Jesus, the Holy Spirit has already preceded your conversation. The desire itself is the evidence that a work has been done or is being done in the child’s heart (Rom. 3:11, Php. 2:13).
2. Children who are born again are still children.
Remorse and repentance are certainly things we should look for when a child professes faith (Rom. 2:4). Still, if a child professes what seems to be a genuine faith, then the next minute begins acting like their usual rambunctious and even disobedient self, that doesn’t automatically discredit the profession. Every child who has been born again is still a child. Their brain development, temperaments, behavioral habits, etc., will all change over time. The Holy Spirit will work according to His own schedule. To expect every wild child the Lord saves to have all their behavioral problems solved instantly is an unreasonable expectation (Php. 1:6).
- Looking for some drastic “moment” can also be unreasonable. Someone who has lived 20 years of rebellion will have a much more obvious conversion than a ten-year-old. Don’t focus on looking for a moment. Instead, look for a desire to have Christ. That desire will look different in a child than in an adult and even vary greatly from child to child.
3. The first conversation after the profession is simply evangelism.
- All you need to do is share the Gospel with them in a way they can own. “Has Jesus saved you? Do you want Jesus to forgive you? Do you believe that He loves and wants you?” At this point, you're looking for a sign that they believe this. Not just that He can forgive and save them, but do they believe that He will forgive and save them? The idea is, “This is what God has promised you; do you believe He will do it?” If they do, they are saved. That is what saving faith is. This is really effective if you can show them verses with their own eyes and have them read them aloud. Let them see what God has said, not just what you say, and then urge them to believe what He has said.
4. Use “if / then” language.
- Most of the time, it’s best to use conditional statements with optimism in your tone. “If you want Jesus, if you want to turn from your sins, and you believe that He will forgive you and receive you, then you’re saved.” That’s a conditional but categorical statement. Kids understand these kinds of statements. They live every day hearing, “If this, then that.” You don’t have to make a ruling. You don’t have to tell a child that they are or are not saved. The truth is, if they have trusted Jesus, they are saved. Simply tell them that!
5. Sometimes faith needs to be fostered.
For whatever reason He chooses, sometimes the Holy Spirit takes His time in drawing people to Christ. We only need to look at the disciples’ journey to faith in the Gospels to see this (John 14:8, 16:30-31). I reflect on my testimony and can trace God’s working in my heart, leading me to faith for at least a year before I gave in, or rather before the Lord overtook my resistance. The child you’re ministering to may be on the edge of trusting Christ but may not have made that leap yet. If they’re in this spot and you don’t have confidence that they fully believe yet, you can still be assured that the Spirit is doing something. It is not in their fallen nature to get to this place on their own.
- When you see God doing something, foster it by affirming what’s happening. Use that conditional language and encourage them to believe His Word.
6. Know the barriers.
The enemy lies to kids just like he lies to adults. “Jesus won’t accept me. He won’t forgive me. He won’t hear me. He doesn’t care about me. Etc.” Use scripture-based affirmations to counter these lies and disarm the enemy.
- Jesus has promised to accept all who come to Him (John 6:37, Matt. 11:28-30). He’s promised to forgive all who come to Him (1 John 1:9). He hears all that call on Him (Ps. 145:18-19). He cares enough to die for the one who comes to Him (Rom. 5:8).
1. If a child responds to a truthful presentation of the Gospel, believe the child, and don’t doubt them until they give you a reason to. Don’t default to doubt.
2. Have realistic expectations of a converted child. They’re still going to be a child.
3. Use the Gospel in the initial conversation to confirm their belief in the Gospel, not belief in their belief.
4. Use if / then language to encourage and affirm without giving false assurance.
5. Be ok with faith that needs to be fostered. You don’t always have to discern what the Lord is doing. If He’s clearly doing something, feed it.
6. Look for what the enemy is doing to try and “snatch away the seed that was sown” and disarm him.
It’s rarely easy to assess faith in a child, especially one being raised in a Christian home. Don’t let the difficulty cause you to respond in fear and skepticism. If the Gospel is true, and it is, then believing it is the most reasonable thing that a person can do. When a child presents you with a simple, common sense “Of course I trust Jesus” profession, I would encourage you to, at least, consider believing them.
Nick Judd is the Kids Pastor at The Journey Church in Lebanon, TN. He is also the co-host of the "Everyday Apologetics" podcast. Nick is passionate about growing people in their knowledge of the Word of God and in their ability to defend it in the midst of a culture fighting against truth.