Children and salvation
The psalmist exclaims, "children are a heritage from the Lord" (Ps 127:3), a gift of God's grace to parents that they may train their children in the ways of the Lord (Ps 78:5-7). Yet it is often asked: Are my children saved? This question, of course, reaches its sharpest focus in the sad event of an infant's death. Even unbelievers frequently seek some reassurance that their child is with God. What can we say to such parents, whether they be Christians or non-Christians? How are we to view our children's relationship to God?
The teaching of the Bible makes it plain that the children of believers belong to God. They are his children, given in trust to parents for the purpose of nurturing them to maturity in the knowledge of God. In the words of the prophet Malachi, God desires godly offspring (2:15). In the words of the apostle Paul, the children of believers are holy (1 Corinthians 7:14 - the same word is elsewhere translated as "saints'). In other words, the relationship that children of believers have with God under the new covenant is intrinsically the same as that which they had under the old covenant. Abraham's sons were circumcised with the same sign and seal of salvation as Abraham received, in response to his faith in God. Yet the mark of circumcision, indicating the righteousness of faith (Romans 4:11), was applied to Abraham after he believed, whereas it was applied to Isaac before he believed. The continuing pattern of infant male circumcision was therefore a sign of God's prior grace, a sign of the covenant that God would be God to Abraham and his children (Genesis 17:6). The response to this covenant grace required Abraham to raise his children to keep the ways of the Lord (Genesis 18:19). The parents' responsibility was to train in godliness, the child's responsibility was to grow in godliness.
However, the Old Testament portrays many circumcised sons who did not grow up faithful to the Lord. One only has to consider Ishmael and Esau, let alone the sad catalogue of unfaithful Israelites who spurned their circumcision by rejecting God. Belonging to God's family is not merely a matter of being born into the family of God; there must also be the response of faith and obedience to the God who has made them their own. Thus Jesus rejects the boast of the leading Jews of his day, who claimed God (the God of Abraham) as their father. True, they were descended from Abraham, but they had not believed in God as Abraham had. In Jesus' words, their true father was the Devil (John 8:39-47). Yet, if they had continued as Abraham did, in faith and obedience, they would have proved themselves to be true children of Abraham, true children of God. This is the essence of Jesus' warning in John 8:31-2,
"If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."
This episode demonstrates that God deals with his people in families; however, the high honour and privilege of being members of his covenant family requires the response of faith and obedience. The Jews of Jesus' days were not like the Gentiles, who did not know God. The Jews were part of God's family, knowing what God required of them, and it is because of this that their judgment is all the greater (Luke 12:47; Romans 3:1-4). In other words, not all who are of Israel are Israel (Romans 9:6). This may sound confusing, but this is Paul's way of saying that not all who are members of the covenant community are truly God's, even though the language of "belonging to God" applies to them, until their disobedience is evident (Hebrews 6:4-6; 10:26-31).
The application of the above principle to children is as follows. By divine promise, the children of believers belong to God. They are his "little ones", his saints. The challenge for parents is to bring their children up in the ways of the Lord. The potential for parental impediment to this progress is plain in the Old Testament (e.g., Eli and the judgment on his children " 1 Samuel 3:13), and Paul likewise exhorts fathers not to provoke their children to anger (Ephesians 6:4). While the responsibility also rests with the child (Ephesians 6:1), there is a significant responsibility resting upon the parents of those to whom God has entrusted his children. The expected covenant pattern is for children of believers to grow up strong and faithful in the Lord (Proverbs 22:6). There is no reason to expect a "conversion" in such children " as they grow in knowledge, so they grow in grace. We don't expect our children to come to a crisis of faith in recognising that we are their parents, though there will clearly be stages of growth in the knowledge of what a parent is, sociologically and biologically (and ultimately when they become parents themselves!). In the same way, children of the Lord grow in their knowledge of God, in such a way that there was never a time when they did not know Jesus to be their Saviour. Yet we continue to hold before them the challenge of living as disciples of Christ (John 8:31). We treat them as being part of the covenant community from their conception. Our description of them is not dependent upon their first expressing faith, but upon God's gracious promises to be their God. We constantly teach them God's ways, because they belong to God. They, like us, are saved by Christ. Should they die, before they reach the age of being able to articulate their faith, we have every confidence that they are with the Lord. This was the confidence that King David had in the death of his infant, born to Bathsheba: "I shall go to him, but he will not return to me" (2 Samuel 12:23).
What then of unbelievers' children? The Scripture is silent. While it is true that God would be just in condemning all children of Adam, those who are born sinners and share the guilt of Adam's first sin (Romans 5:12; 1 Corinthians 7:14), it may be that God will be gracious towards such children. The best pastoral advice to give to such grieving parents is to encourage them to believe in Jesus. After all, what joy would it be for them to know that their child will be in heaven and they won't! We know that the God of all the earth will do what is right (Genesis 18:25), and we do know that he counts the children of believers as his own. Our best counsel to those who do not have faith, is to encourage them to claim the promises of God: "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved, you and your household" (Acts 16:31).
Glenn N Davies
30 July 2005
Dr Glenn Davies is the Bishop of North Sydney