In some baptist circles, parents treat their children like unbelievers. The reason for this is obvious. If a child has yet to confess faith, then that child needs to hear the Gospel like anyone else.
Before a child confesses his or her faith, parents feel the need to protect their kids. They may protect them from the world by homeschooling, Christian-schooling, restricting certain freedoms, and so on. Without the Spirit, parents might reason, children cannot be trusted to resist the temptations of the world. So they need a narrow circle of influence until the point of conversion.
What may poke a hole in the argument above is this: often parents will celebrate the conversion of their twelve-year-old child but keep them under the same supervision as before their conversion. The same child, now converted, at eighteen will go to Bible School because some parents worry about the influence of secular education even though the child has become an adult and has confessed faith.
Incidentally, I think home-schooling and private-schooling and Bible colleges can really contribute to a child’s well-being. They are valid options. I hope nobody thinks that I am here attacking these choices. What I am questioning is this: should we parent our children like unbelievers?
I answer no. We should treat them as holy and beloved of God. Whether one is a paedobaptist or credobaptist, in both cases there are ample biblical and theological reasons for treating your child as a holy child. Lest every baptist draw back in horror, please let me give some reasons why I think this is so. After that, if you disagree, then we simply disagree. Nothing more, nothing less!
First, through believing parents, children are made holy
In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul writes of the sanctifying influence believers have on their spouses and children. He writes, “For an unbelieving husband is made holy by his [believing] wife, and one’s unbelieving wife is made holy by her Christian husband. Otherwise, your children would be unclean; yet they are holy.”
If a parent or both parents believe, then their children are holy. It is as simple as that. Well, as long we can agree on the definition of holy.
In sum, the last hundred or so years of scholarship has argued that holiness means “set apart from.” But recent research, as Peter Gentry has shown, calls into question the “set apart from” idea for holiness. Rather, holiness means “to dedicate to” someone or something.
Ambrosiaster (4th ce.), un-influenced by the recent consensus, agrees: “Just as everything sacrificed to idols is unclean, so everything dedicated to God the Creator and done out of belief in him is holy.” In his further comments on 1 Corinthians 7:14, he explains:
Their children would be unclean if they were to send them away against their will, and also if they were to cohabit with others. In that case, they would be adulterers and their children would be illegitimate, and therefore unclean. Instead the children are holy because they have been born of a lawful marriage and because they have been born subject, on the more important side [of the family], to the worship of the Creator.
A believing parent dedicates their child to God. That parent’s dedication of the child entails not a separation from some bad influence but rather a dedication to God. In part, the language here implies that parents dedicate their children to God. Hence they become holy.
Believing parents live Christian lives. They influence their children for good. They teach them good ways to live, the reality of God, and faith in Christ. Anthony Thistelton writes, “If the spouse falls under the influence of the Christian partner’s faith, lifestyle, prayer, and living out of the gospel, how much more shall not the children?”
More could be said at this juncture, but I do not see Paul advocating that parents should protect their children out of fear until their conversion (and even for years after that). I do see a clear confidence in the sanctifying influence of a believing parent.
Second, children have a unique place in Christ’s heart
While the disciples attempted to prevent children from approaching the Lord, “Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these’” (Matt 19:14).
Earlier Jesus had said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 18:3–4).
Minimally, Jesus values children. He plausibly sees their receptivity to instruction as special too since he tells us to “become like little children.” To “such as these,” that is, to such children (and perhaps to those who “become like little children”) belong the kingdom. Their child-like faith finds acceptance in the smile of Jesus.
Children please Jesus. And so I wonder at the logic of thinking about children as bad eggs that parents should keep on a leash until conversion. I wonder if we might wrongly estimate how receptive children are to instruction—especially to parental instruction.
As Paul notes above, through a believing parent, a child is holy. Children apparently can receive holy instruction and at one level embrace holiness.
It may be helpful here to note a reformed distinction between external and internal obedience. External obedience basically amounts to habits. Governments, students, and children can all externally obey commands. We have that capacity.
The problem arises when we consider internal heart change. For a good work to be truly and robustly good, it must both flow out of a good heart—which requires the Holy Spirit.
Relative good still exists. When someone tells the truth instead of a lie, we call that good. But it may simply follow external standards—or follow out of a habit. That is not bad. We can even say it’s good in a generic sense. External obedience then is not something to dismiss.
Third, parents can train their children, and their children can resist certain temptations
So far, I suspect you have nodded along with me. Here, I wonder if you might raise your eyebrows. Can a child resist temptation without confirmed faith? I answer: yes. Of course they can.
Almost anyone can resist temptation to some degree. Drawing on the above distinction, without the Spirit, no one can avoid hating someone in their heart; they can avoid murder though. The external and internal obedience distinction proves helpful here, I think.
Whatever else it means, a child who is holy can receptively follow his or her parent’s leadership. They can tell the truth. They can learn to enjoy beauty. They can affirm God’s existence. They can listen to their parents and so identify what is truly good.
The reality of total depravity means that humans can think and will but do so poorly. Believing parents can think and will well. They can identify the good and choose to do it. They can see clearly. Children, since they rely on their parents, can in fact receive these judgments (not on their own or due to their nature) from their parents.
During a child’s tenure under a parent’s watchful and loving wing, they can externally identify and choose various good ends which their believing parents help them see. Children also have a sense of innocence that adulthood robs us all of.
Can a child overcome internal temptations? I think parents can guide their tender hearts to sometimes do so. But even believers know that on this side of the resurrection, the flesh will always vie against the Spirit. More so, this must be true of children who do not have the Holy Spirit indwelling them.
The Spirit’s influence on the child is however there and real through a believing parent; but the Spirit’s influence does not exist within the child.
So in limited ways, children can learn to desire and choose good. But ultimately, they need to confirm their own faith and receive the Holy Spirit for the sake of perseverance until the end.
That should not dissuade parents from educating their holy children in the ways of the Lord. They can learn to desire what is good and hate what is evil. Parents can do much to show the pleasantness and goodness of the Gospel.
That leads to the fourth point.
Fourth, the Gospel is for all of life
We should think less about the moment of conversion (without ignoring it) and more about baptizing our children in the Gospel at all times. The Gospel is for all of life since the Christian life revolves around making Christ present in us by the Holy Spirit (e.g., Gal 2:20).
The Good News is not just about a moment of conversation. Besides, even the Great Commission tells us to make disciples not merely converts. Deepening discipleship fulfills the Great Commission.
And moving away from a single-moment conversation focus to seeing the Gospel, that is, Jesus’s life as being what life is about changes how we approach parenting. It means that we can live with the confidence of being in Christ who lives in us.
We worry less about the consequences of everything that we do; and more about the identity that we have. We live in Christ and let him worry about the effects of that life.
Our children will see this reality in our lives. They will see our lack of (irrational) fear. They will see Christ present in us. They might even ask, is that dad who lives or Christ who lives in him?
In other words, whatever else parenting is, if we are in Christ, then all of our parenting will necessarily be Gospel-drenched. It just has to be if we live the Christian life as we ought to live it.
In this sense, even if our child is a believer (or not one), we treat them the same. We live in Christ. And we emphasize the need for Christ to live in them. That defines how we live now and will forevermore! So out with an overly specific concern about conversion and in with a continual movement of Christ in us.
So much could be said here, and I recognize that I have followed a pattern of minimal interpretation of scriptural passages and their meanings. It is worth noting that paedobaptistic Christians likely find the above argument as obvious. I want to add that one does not have to baptize children to recognize that children are holy or have a special place in Jesus’ heart.
I do think though that some baptist persons have unfortunately described their children as lumps of coal waiting for conversion. Not so. God loves what he creates, and he loves children. We should love ours for who they are as humans in God’s image and as our biological kin.
Yes, we want them to confirm their faith. Yet that should not change how we treat them. They are holy because of us. They are loved for who they are. They see (or should see) Christ in us. We can guide them morally, albeit admitting that only the Spirit can change their hearts. We can remove any impediment from their receiving the Gospel by living a Christ-centered life.
We can live and talk so that they see Christ in us as our primary marker of being and identity. That means they will see and know that the Gospel is for all of life. And in the mystery of Providence, they will then see you as an eikon of the Word and Spirit whose spiritual will constantly shine into their hearts.
Every day we are Moses coming down from the mountain. Every day we are transfigured before their eyes as if at Mount Tabor. And so they see, and we pray that they believe.