Evaluating the Hearts of our “Church Kids”

By | February 20, 2024

Christian parents have the responsibility and privilege to bring their children up “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:1–4). One of the challenges—perhaps the most difficult—is teaching our children not only to obey, but also to love God.

Children who grow up in Christian homes and churches are somewhat similar to children who grew up in the covenant community of Israel. Jewish parents were to circumcise their sons at eight days old as a sign of the covenant between God and Israel. They were to love God themselves and teach God’s word to their children.

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deut 6:4-9; cf. Deut 11:18-21)

God also required that each Israelite born into the covenant “circumcise” his heart through personal faith evidenced by love for God and obedience to his word.

And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord, which I am commanding you today for your good? Behold, to the Lord your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. Yet the Lord set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day. Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn. (Deut 10:12-16)

As New Testament believers, with the law having been put aside (cf. Gal 3:23–29), we are not required to circumcise our sons. The New Testament does not require any rite that places our unbelieving children in the “church community.” Only a believer with a credible profession of faith and repentance is baptized and added to the church in the New Testament.

And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit”. . . . So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. (Acts 2:38, 41-42)

The difference between the Old Testament covenant community and the New Testament church is clear. But the similarities in bringing up children in both of these contexts are notable. In both, parents love God, and they teach their children about God and their responsibility to love and obey him as well. Children must then individually respond to God in love and obedience.

Our children are taught to believe that the earth is round, that George Washington was the first president of the USA, that a noun is the name of a person, place, thing, or idea—and they believe it. Our children are also taught to believe that God made them, that Jesus came to earth as a baby, and that Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead—and they usually believe that too.

Our children go to church with us weekly. They may help their parents serve in the church. They memorize Scripture. They are taught to obey, to be kind, to read their Bible. . . to look like a Christian. But they too must “circumcise their hearts.” They must not just believe what they’ve always learned is true; they must love the One who is the truth.

Many of our children have mentally and verbally assented to the truths of the Gospel (e.g., God is Creator, I am a sinner deserving punishment, Jesus lived the perfect life I could not, and Jesus died for my sins and rose from the dead) from a very young age. But are there any indicators that can clue us in to our children’s love for the Lord beyond this necessary belief in the Gospel?

Obviously, all believers must continue to persevere and grow in sanctification for their entire lives (cf. 2 Pet 3:18; Jude 20). But what about our children who are in our homes now? What if they want to be baptized? Does the Bible give us any guidelines by which we can try to gauge true conversion, especially in children and young people?

What does the New Testament tell children? The apostle Paul directly addresses children one time (in two letters) in which God tells children that they are to obey their parents.

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” (Eph 6:1–3)

Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. (Col 3:20)

Nearly any child can be forced to “obey.” Children can do the things they are told and not do what they are told not to do. But a child who loves God will progressively grow in true obedience to parents—generally quick to obey (without the persistent eyeroll, sigh, or stomp) because he or she desires to please the Lord. This child (though certainly not perfectly) will show honor for his or her parents through facial and vocal responses, as well as actions, in an increasingly God-pleasing manner.

The Proverbs give more clues as to what a wise child may look like. A wise person is one who fears the Lord (cf. Prov 1:1–7), so when we see our children exhibiting growing wisdom, we may be seeing true love for the Lord.

One oft-repeated characteristic of a wise son is that he listens to his parents.

A wise son hears his father’s instruction, but a scoffer does not listen to rebuke.(Prov 13:1)

Many Proverbs speak to listening and hearing (cf. Prov 1:5, 8-9; 4:1-14, 20-22; 5:7, 11-14; 7:24; 8:32-34; 12:15; 13:1; 15:31-33; 19:20; 23:9, 19, 22). Though children may respond differently when hearing loving instruction or rebuke (especially at different ages), often a parent can discern when these words are being truly heard and not tuned out, willfully ignored, or scornfully received.

When these instructions to listen are paired with John’s words in the New Testament, an additional criterion can help us discern our children’s hearts.

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:8–10)

Most children have the tendency to deny that they have done wrong (actually, don’t we all?!). “It’s not my fault!” But John says that this repeated insistence that we have not sinned reveals a heart that doesn’t truly hold to the truth. As our children listen to our rebukes and increasingly admit and confess their sins, we can have more confidence that their hearts truly have grabbed hold of the truths that their minds believe.

With salvation comes freedom from the power of sin (cf. Rom 6). For children, key sin issues often revolve around obedience and response to their parents. But any sin that a child struggles with (e.g., unkindness, selfishness, lying, stealing) will have less of a hold on a child as the child grows in his or her true faith.

Along with John, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (3 John 4). May all of our children love God with all their hearts and walk in the truth which they have been taught.


Photo by Samantha Sophia on Unsplash


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