Can Children Understand Deep Spiritual Truths?
by Chris Knobloch
(an excerpt from Chris’ seminar series The Gospel for Juniors: Not a Junior Gospel)
“I could never talk to a group of children! It’s too intimidating!” I’ve heard these words dozens of times. At first, I just thought it was weird. What’s intimidating about kids? I’m bigger than them! I might even be smarter than them! But having now spent so much time talking with boys and girls, I think I may actually understand the intimidation a little better.
If you are anything like me — a guy who thinks kids are great, thinks Jesus is wonderful and thinks those things belong together in their own personal relationship — than your intimidation may stem from this nagging fear: “Are the kids grasping what I’m saying? Or is it going right over their heads? I mean, after all, I’m an adult! If I don’t bring it down to their level, these kids will totally miss what the gospel is all about!” Are you with me?
Now, before I go any further, let me clarify. I am not saying that making deep spiritual truths more accessible by using an age-appropriate vocabulary is a bad idea. For example, instead of talking about the perspicuity of the gospel, I might just rephrase it by talking about how the gospel is clear and easy to understand. However, if I thought it might actually help drive a point home, I might actually use the word perspicuity — as long as I can take the time to explain its meaning. (By the way, Webster’s says if something is perspicuous it means it is easily understood. Don’t feel bad if you didn’t know — I had to look it up.) My contention is that most of the difficult language surrounding deep spiritual truths has been placed there by people — not by God himself! As we try to wrap our minds around the enormity of who God is and what He has done, we tend to exhaust our vocabulary in the attempt. But that does not mean that God’s truths as He has laid them out in scripture are unattainable by children.
I think that sometimes in our zeal to be understood by children, and because of our own misunderstanding and forgetfulness of how a child’s mind works, we can water down the truth God has given, and instead of simply delivering the gospel to children, we invent our own “Junior Gospel”. But that is a mistake. Let me show you what I mean through a few examples, and as you hear them, keep this verse in mind.
Romans 1:16-19, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be know about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.” (emphasis added)
1. Children do not have “Junior problems”. Several years ago, while conducting a Vacation Bible School, I met a little boy about age 9. Let’s call him Zane. Zane lived with his mother and several younger siblings together in a house with another single mom and her children — all younger than him. At 9 years old, he was already the man of the house. To make matters even more confusing for a little boy whose father was absent and whose broken home was full of younger children from two different families who looked up to him, his mother and the other single mother declared themselves to be lesbians. Zane’s problems were just as big as any I’d ever had. Adults deal with sickness, divorce, pain, death and loss. So do children. And 1 Peter 5:7 was written for them just as much as for any adult — “casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” Zane came up to me one day with a question about something he had heard me talk about. “Uncle Chris? When was God born?” I explained that God was never born — He has always existed! The look on his face told me that he was feeling what I always feel when I contemplate God’s eternity — something akin to a headache! “I know it’s hard to understand”, I said, “Even grown-ups can’t fully comprehend this because we just have little human brains and God is not human — He’s God!” At this point, Zane — the boy with very grown-up problems — did not respond the way many grown-ups would. He didn’t doubt the truth of what was being said simply because the information was outside his full comprehension. No, he accepted it as the truth. Even though his world was a confusing one, the incomprehensible concept of the eternity of God was not too big a truth for him to believe. A year later, I was in the same church and Zane approached me. “Uncle Chris? Remember when we were talking about how God was never born? I’m still thinking about that!”
Me too, Zane.
2. Children are not “Junior sinners” who are “Junior saved”. It doesn’t take a new parent very long to discover the sin nature present in their precious little child. The manifestations of anger, pride or envy may be a little different, but the root problem is the same. Romans 3:23 was not a “written for ages ______ and up” advisory. No, it says, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
The year was 2006 and I was conducting my first Vacation Bible School for God’s Helping Hands. It was my second day — a Tuesday. I remember this because on Monday we had encouraged the kids to bring a friend the next day, and lo and behold, sitting a few feet away from me on my left in about the third row was a new boy. Part way through the day, we took a 15 minute break. I had just given a gospel presentation and had invited any children with questions to come and talk to me. As most of the children scattered, this boy approached me. I learned that his name was Devin and he was nine years old. As we got into conversation on the gospel he had just heard, I, trying to ascertain where his understanding of God was, asked, “Devin, have you ever asked Jesus to save you from your sin?” He responded, “I’ve never even been to church before.” Being rather new to this type of one-on-one interaction (I still don’t consider one-on-one to be an easy thing) my mind began to spin. Never even been in a church? Where do I start? “Devin,” I asked, “do you know who Jesus is?” Wide-eyed through glasses, he met my eyes. “No one’s ever told me the true story…” Now, how did he know that? Note that his answer wasn’t “No” or “Yes”. He recognized that whatever he had been told or however the name of Jesus had been used around him, it wasn’t the truth! How could he know the difference? Clearly, some greater Agent was at work here. The Holy Spirit was tugging on Devin’s heart strings. I, on the other hand, was panicked. I now had about ten minutes before the whole boisterous bunch of boys and girls rejoined us, and the opportunity for individual conversation would be gone! Sending up a silent prayer for guidance, I took a deep breath and plunged in, beginning in Genesis with fellowship with God being destroyed, the continuing need of all men, the promise of a Savior and the fulfillment of the promise in Christ. Part way through my “speech”, I had one of those “out of body” moments. I heard with my ears the words coming out of my mouth, and I thought to myself, “This is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard! Who could believe (especially the way I am presenting it) that God would reach down to man in this way — and that it would work!” I felt so inadequate. And I was — and am still. But as I looked at Devin I realized anew His strength in my weakness (2 Cor. 12:10) for there he was, enthusiastically nodding his head as the truths of God’s Word penetrated his heart. And when I asked (rather timidly, I’m afraid) if he wanted to ask Jesus to forgive him of his sin and accept Jesus as his Savior, he said yes! Fervently and, I believe, genuinely, he spoke to God in a way that all people must come to Him — as a child in need. You could see the difference in him! I asked Devin if he would be able to return to the VBS for the following three days. He said he didn’t think he would be able to return at all. And he didn’t. And although that church supplied him with a Bible and sought to keep contact with him, from that day to this, I myself have never seen Devin again. This incredible experience taught me — among other things — these two important things. 1. Always take the opportunities the Lord provides to share the gospel. Don’t just wait until you are presenting the actual story of the crucifixion and resurrection. Don’t just target the day when you have the greatest number of children present, or wait to give the gospel as the pinnacle of some climax to which you’ve been building. You never know when there may be a Devin in your audience. You never know what the Holy Spirit is going to do. And that leads me to the second thing. 2. When a child is saved from sin, the aren’t “junior sinners” — they are sinners. Period. They are spiritually separated from God and a child that has the capacity to understand right from wrong and make choices to accept or reject the proffered salvation must do so to be made right with God. And when they do make a decision for Christ, they are not “junior saved” — they are saved. Period. Devin had as much right as the most seasoned Christian to sing with the hymn writer, “Down at the cross where my Savior died / Down where for cleansing from sin I cried / There to my heart was the blood applied / Glory to His Name!”
3. Children do not have a “Junior Holy Spirit”. The Scripture teaches that the Holy Spirit is a “bonus gift” given as an earnest or guarantee of all of the promised benefits of belonging to God. (Eph. 1:13-14) It is He who guides us into all the truth. (John 16:13) We as believers are, in the Holy Spirit, “sealed unto the day of redemption.” (Ephesians 4:30) These truths and promises are extended all who have been reconciled to God through salvation. Including children. In other words, they have the same Holy Spirit working in their lives as any grown-up. And the Holy Spirit doesn’t wait until they are 13 or 18 or 21 to get to work. He begins immediately.
When our oldest daughter, Kylie, was 3, we had a conversation that firmly cemented in our minds the power of the Holy Spirit in young hearts and minds. We were driving in our mini van and my wife, Amber, and I were having a very in-depth conversation about a discussion in which we had (somewhat accidentally) become embroiled. We had been together in a debate on social media with an individual about the subject of abortion. The debate had turned philosophical and had, at last (and as I find they always do), to the big question upon which every moral issue hinges: Is there a God? Of course, the debate ended as you might expect, with both sides being more firmly ensconced then ever in their respective positions because debate is not really designed to change the minds of the debaters, but rather to influence the minds of the onlookers. Anyway, I suddenly realized that our 3 year old was listening to everything we were saying. “Kylie”, I asked, “do you know what we’re talking about?” “No…” “Well,” I explained, “there are people in the world who do not believe that there is a God.” Well, for a little girl who grew up in our home, this was rather shocking news! She took in the information and the ride grew quiet until I thought we had all moved on from the topic entirely. But after a few minutes, her tiny voice broke my reverie with this astonishing statement: “But…everyone knows God…because everyone obeys the law! When the light is red, they stop; and when it’s green, they go!” I was flabbergasted. In a child’s terms, she had articulated what’s called the Moral Argument for the Existence of God which basically says that people naturally understand right from wrong because there is a natural Moral Law. And furthermore, if there is a Moral Law, it doesn’t happen in a vacuum — there must be a Moral Law Giver. The illustration was so good that I wrote a puppet script based on the concept. But who was guiding her into all truth? Who was growing in her the burden of love for the lost that we heard in her prayers? She had been given the Holy Spirit — not a “junior” version — and He was immediately working in her life!
Are you discouraged in your spiritual interactions with children? Do you feel like your lessons are falling on deaf ears? Perhaps you feel as I often do — inadequate to deliver God’s Truth in a way that is understandable. Take heart! For although we should always be striving to be even better communicators, in the end, it’s God who works in the lives of people — including boys and girls — to draw them to Himself and to grow them in faith. And when a child is saved from sin, it’s not a temporary inoculation that requires a booster when they are grown. It’s not a trial version salvation that requires the full version download later on. It’s salvation, full and free and those truths, deep though they be, are, in the hands of the Holy Spirit, simple enough even for a child.
[For more information about the live seminar The Gospel for Juniors: Not a Junior Gospel please contact God’s Helping Hands or write to Chris Knobloch at firstname.lastname@example.org]