How Do We Discern If A Child Is Saved?
Having a very thoughtful five-year old I wrestle greatly with the question in the title. My son has maintained for a while that he is a Christian and he says a lot of right things. (For instance, he has some renown for being a preacher among his peers.) I don’t want to hinder him or give him the impression that he isn’t saved when he very well may be, but I certainly don’t want to unnecessarily give him a false sense of assurance about something so great and so important, and I say emphatically that there is nothing more important than the salvation we have in Jesus for God’s glory. This especially weighs heavy on my mind and heart because not only am I a father but I am a pastor with a church loaded with young families who have little children who are inquiring about Christ and baptism and being a Christian and going to heaven. I want to be and I want parents to be zealous for the salvation of their children but I also want to make Christian children and not “children of Christian parents” to loosely quote Richard Dawkins. (The self-professed world’s most famous atheist)
Admittedly, I am cautious but I believe it to be a caution that is grounded in the Bible. 2 Corinthians 13:5 says, “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves that Christ Jesus is in you – Unless you indeed fail the test?” The book of John is the gospel of belief unto eternal life (96 times the word belief is used – John 20:30-31), but the book of 1 John is the epistle of knowing that you have eternal life. “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.” The book of 1 John was written to help us know if we truly are saved unto eternal life by believing in Jesus. (1 John 5:13)
Of course there might be something to be said for the fact that the scriptures that I have referenced are intended for people who are thought to be Christians. But I still think it is wise for us to have some sort of way to evaluate the readiness of those we love and shepherd so as to not give them a false sense of something they really don’t have. Because again, there is nothing more important than the salvation we have in Jesus. I wonder how many people today would have told the Rich Young Ruler that he was saved when the fact is that Jesus let him walk away without affirming that he was saved or objecting to his walking away and this to a man who asked, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 18:18-27) Obviously, Jesus didn’t think he was ready and he let him walk.
None of us are Jesus and can completely discern the heart of a person the way He did, but what is our prayerful strategy in light of verses like Matthew 7:21 that says, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven will enter.” There must be some indicators or signs that would help us discern whether we should affirm others to be in Christ. We would not want those we love to think they have the certainty of heaven because they thought they were Christians only to find out they never knew Jesus.
I say again that I write this with my own sons in mind and the many others we have baptized and will baptize because of their profession of faith in Christ. I write this wanting us to be glad and full of joy when someone calls upon the name of the Lord to be saved. I write this wanting to be biblical and helpful, not discouraging. I write this because it is too important to be haphazard about so great a salvation. I write this wanting to help others “so that you may know that the ones they love have eternal life.” 1 John 5:13
So I offer some help of a couple of dead guys who have been very helpful in my life through the years. These are men that I consider to be heroes in their own time and continue to be heroes for many in our time because of their perseverance in advancing the gospel without wavering. Each of these men were very successful by the standard of the Bible and I suggest strongly that we pay attention to the fact that they had a set of principles by which they sought to understand the authenticity of God’s work in saving people through Jesus. Here is what both John Newton and Charles Spurgeon had to say about signs that accompany salvation or marks of true conversion.
Newton was a former slave trader, a contemporary of William Wilberforce and perhaps most notably the writer of the hymn, Amazing Grace. In the following letter from 1799, Newton is writing to describe signs that accompany salvation. Newton says:
“First a broken and a contrite spirit. This is indispensably necessary, for by nature we are full of pride, and God resisteth the proud but giveth his grace only to the humble. Second, a simple and upright spirit free from artifice and disguise. It is said of the blessed man, whose sins are forgiven, in his spirit there is no guile. He is open and undisguised. Thirdly, gentle gracious tempers. If a man like a lion takes my medicine he presently becomes a lamb. He is not easily offended. He is very easily reconciled; he indulges no anger; he harbors no resentment; he lives upon forgiveness himself and is therefore ready to forgive if he has aught against any. Fourthly, benevolence, kindness, and an endeavor to please in opposition to that selfishness that is our natural character. Fifthly, a spiritual mind that is the beginning of life and peace, a weanedness from the world and its poor toys, and a thirst for communion with God through Christ.” (John Newton; From Disgrace to Amazing Grace, By Daniel Aitken, pp. 340-341)
As helpful as I find Newton to be I find Spurgeon to be even more concise and therefore helpful. Spurgeon was the pastor of a church in London in the 1800s and is known by many as the Prince of Preachers. Through his preaching and the ministry of the church there were thousands who came to know Christ as their Lord and Savior. There were apparently so many that Spurgeon sent out messengers to check on those who inquired about spiritual things such as following Christ. In dealing with a person who testified that he had come to know the Lord the messenger looked for three marks of true conversion.
“One, had the person, knowing himself to be a sinner and unable to do anything toward saving himself, gone to God, begging for mercy, and had he entirely trusted his soul to Christ, believing in the saving merit of His death upon the cross? This individual experience of the soul with God was the unalterable and basic necessity, and without it there was no recognition of the person as truly converted. Two, had the person entered into newness of life, experiencing a change of affections, victory over sin, a love for the Word of God, and a desire to win others to Christ? Three, did he or she possess a basic understanding of the doctrines of grace, recognizing that salvation did not begin with himself or his own will, but with God’s choice and God’s action, and that God, who saved him, would keep him through time and through eternity?” (Spurgeon; A New Biography, By Arnold Dallimore, pp. 80-81)
My synopsis of Newton and Spurgeon and their evidence concerning salvation would be this:
- A person must realize that they have sinned against a perfect God and they must exhibit conviction about their sins. For a child that may look a lot different than it does for an adult but certainly all children come to the point of understanding that lying, backtalk, disobedience, etc. is a violation of God’s perfect standard. If a child has no concept of sin or feels no sorrow for sin then they cannot be saved because sin against a holy God is the supreme problem in every person’s life that separates them from God. Romans 3:23; Ephesians 2:1-4
- Salvation is by faith alone in Christ. Faith in Christ is accomplished by repenting and believing. We don’t get saved by doing good deeds, going to church, or being baptized but rather by trusting in Christ alone and His work of paying for our sins on the cross. True salvation produces fruit and works but is not the result of them. There must be a head and heart understanding that God sent Jesus, who is both God and man, to do for us what we could and cannot do for ourselves, which is pay for sins and give an alien righteousness that is credited to us by grace through faith. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
- There will be a persevering change in a person’s desires, actions and affections. For a child that might look different than it does for an adult and we should keep in mind that becoming like Christ is a process, at least in the practical and progressive sense of sanctification. But if we are saved the Spirit will produce in us a desire to obey and our lives will display an incremental move toward Christ-likeness. (See Edward’s Quote Below) That’s why I think it is wise and healthy to wait for a short time, or perhaps even a longer time, before we baptize children. It gives us a chance to see the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives and in the mean time we reassure them and have confidence that we aren’t withholding salvation from them because it is not baptism or even a prayer that is necessary for salvation but repentance and believing in Jesus. 1 John 3:23-24
My sons want to do everything their daddy does and I am thankful that God would let me be a model for them to point them to Jesus, but I don’t want them to be a Christian because that’s what daddy is. I want them to be in love with Jesus because He is the only answer for sin and the only way to God and life eternal. So join with me in being zealous for the salvation of our children and others, but let us also be prayerfully cautious and biblical that we don’t make converts of ourselves instead of followers of Jesus Christ. There is a difference and the price is eternity.
IS A PRAYER NECESSARY FOR SALVATION?
I believe a prayer is not a necessary prerequisite to being saved. There is no command in the Bible that says we must pray to receive Christ in order to be saved. What is shown repeatedly in Acts for example as necessary is repentance and believing in Christ. A prayer is helpful as a sort of spiritual marker to reflect on for confidence and a person may be saved at that point, but the case may very well be that they were saved prior to their praying since the Bible says the necessary thing to do is call upon the name of the Lord which is really just another way of saying, repent and believe. Additionally, if a prayer is necessary a lot of people in the gospels and Acts must not be saved since it only says they repented or believed or both. I think all this indicates is that what is important is faith that results in spiritual fruit.
JONATHAN EDWARDS ON BACKSLIDING AND PERSEVERANCE
“True saints may be guilty of some kinds and degrees of backsliding (Think David in 2 Sam. 11), may be foiled by particular temptations, and fall into sin, yea, great sins; but they never fall away so as to grow weary of religion and the service of God, and to habitually dislike and neglect it, either on its own account or on account of the difficulties that attend it.” (Col. 1:21-23; 1 John 2:18-20; Hebrews 3:6,12-14 – Bible References are mine.)