A wretch like me

Only those whose “eyes have been opened” to the light of Christ rejoice to have their deeds exposed. It is baffling that our whole society knows and apparently loves the hymn “Amazing Grace.” What are people thinking of when they sing, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound / that saved a wretch like me”? The man who wrote the hymn was a slave trader who came to see the wickedness of his activities. Most of those who sing the hymn today know nothing of this background. It is startling to hear it robustly sung by people who are so imbued with today’s talk of self-esteem that one can’t imagine them identifying themselves as wretches. A chasm of incomprehension has opened up between the awe of the old slave trader who knew that he had been redeemed by Christ in spite of himself and the contemporary notion of a generalized sort of spiritual self-improvement. The joy of the hymn writer is specifically that of being released from the burden of sin. His gratitude is “for the means of grace and for the hope of glory.” The link between the confession of sin and a prevenient state of blessedness, however poorly understood today, remains indissoluble.

–Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion, 170.

On childhood conversions: measured responses

When a pygmy anarchist makes a claim to salvation the knee-jerk response tends to move in one of two directions…

The foremost desire of all Christian parents must be the salvation of their children. So it’s more than a little ironic that a paedo-profession of saving faith will often produce more hand wringing than hand raising. How do we navigate the murky and mystical waters of childhood conversion?

Nothing I write on this topic is from the vantage point of proven expertise [You should preface all of your posts with this disclaimer. -Shive]. My wife and I are still frantically trying to figure out this parenting thing which, as Christians, includes the goal of leading our children to Christ. Two of our kids profess (and give evidence of) saving faith and we’re actively waiting on the other four. But I think I’ve thought about this enough to arrive at some informed opinions since our personal experience is also supplemented by an inordinate number of nieces and nephews, friends with similar parenting experiences, and dabbling in our children’s ministry at church.

A few qualifications are in order. First, most of what I share is drawn from personal experience. That is, I’m not offering a definitive guide to child evangelism as much as contributing to “the conversation.” Second, while I can’t find a minimum age requirement for salvation, for a number of reasons I think early elementary is the floor for childhood conversions. Third, I’m all but assuming that, like me, many Christian parents devote so much time and effort to leading their little reprobates to living water that they’re caught flat-footed when the parched beggars actually begin to drink.

So what do you do when your little mini-me announces that he “asked Jesus into my heart.”?

Offer encouragement but leave room for discernment. When a pygmy anarchist makes a claim to salvation the knee-jerk response tends to move in one of two directions: (1) naive acceptance — “if the kid said it, it’s gotta be true!”Incidentally, childhood professions are one of only two scenarios in which a doctrinaire Southern Baptist becomes a practitioner of name-it-and-claim-it theology* (2) jaded skepticism — “Until the kid can pronounce and explain propitiation he has in no way entered into the kingdom of heaven!

But both of these responses need to be tempered by Scripture. On the one hand, not everyone who claims (or appears!) to be alive is actually alive (Mk 4:17-19, contra #1). On the other hand, the bar for entering the kingdom has been set very low (Rom 10:9-10, contra #2)–low enough for a child to clear. Even the wisest parent isn’t omniscient so we ought to be wary of assuming too much one way or the other.

Exactly how we spiritually encourage our children even as we attempt to discern the genuineness of their claims will vary depending on the family and the individual child. However, I think we can make some general statements that would be applicable and relevant across the board. I’ll consider these in a future post.

In the meantime, feel free to share any comments or questions on this topic that you’d like to see addressed.


*The other scenario occurs when the eligible bachelor assures the gorgeous Christian girl that he too is a Christian in the absence of any bona fides

Shouldn’t ‘coming to Christ’ involve Christ?

World magazine recently ran an interview with Brian Ivie, the director of Drop Box. Overall the interview [subscription required] is pretty encouraging but I couldn’t shake the feeling that the title to the interview–The Drop Box director on coming to Christ–assumes details that the story lacks.

Warren Cole Smith, the author and interviewer, mentions Christ in his introduction and in a question (i.e. “Did working on this film lead you to Christ. . .?”). For his part Ivie states “I became a Christian while making this film” and that “What I didn’t expect is that when I was going to go make a film about saving Korean babies that God was going to save me.”

But Ivie never actually speaks of coming to Christ.

Ivie speaks of “sacrificial” love but doesn’t mention the one who made the sacrifice. He points to the Father’s love but the Father’s Son–the embodiment & demonstration of the Father’s love–never gets so much as a nod.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that Ivie isn’t a Christian. I know the published form of an edited interview isn’t a true test of a man’s salvation. I just find it strange that in an interview that purports to survey one man’s journey to Christ, the reader never learns of the subject closing on Christ!

No one reads The Odyssey without expecting to read of the hero reaching his destination and reuniting with his true love. No, we expect that we’ll hear of Ithaca and Penelope because that’s where the author says Odysseus is going. We could assume that the character makes it in the end but at what cost?

Horrible pride veiled in great humility

While this quote from John Flavel (1628-1691) speaks of coming to Christ in conversion, I wonder if there might also be some application to the Christian who needs to repent of ongoing sin:

I pity many poor souls upon this account, who stand off from Christ, dare not believe because they want such and such qualifications to fit them for Christ. O saith one, could I find such brokenness of heart for sin, so much reformation and power over corruptions, then I could come to Christ; the meaning of which is this, if I could bring a price in my hand to purchase him, then I should be encouraged to go unto him. Here now lies horrible pride covered over with a veil of great humility: Poor sinner, either come naked and empty-handed (Isa 55:1; Rom 4:5), or expect a repulse.

-John Flavel, England’s Duty

The “sinner’s prayer” in Pilgrim’s Progress

God be merciful to me a sinner, and make me to know and believe in Jesus Christ; for I see, that if His righteousness had not been, or I have not faith in that righteousness, I am utterly cast away. Lord, I have heard that thou art a merciful God, and hast ordained that Thy Son Jesus Christ should be the Savior of the world; and, moreover, that Thou art willing to bestow Him upon such a poor sinner as I am. And I am a sinner indeed. Lord, take therefore this opportunity, and magnify Thy grace in the salvation of my soul, through Thy Son Jesus Christ. Amen.

Recommendations for parents who want to disciple their kids

I think one of the reasons “ask Jesus into your heart” remains such a popular staple in home discipleship is that many parents feel ill-equipped in the spiritual arena. After all, if you can’t cogently share “the gospel” with the kids the temptation to fall back on church lingo is immense. We instinctively recognize the benefit of lingo-learning discipleship: (1) it “simplifies” the message by reducing it to a soundbite (2) the lingo is so self-explanatory that even a child can understand it (3) the lingo method is widely accepted by churches in the continental US.

But there is help for parents who desire to do more than just throw around some Christian slang in the hope that it sticks. First let’s affirm that the Scripture–in conjunction with the preaching/teaching ministry of your local church (of which you’re an active member, right?)–is the primary source for equipping you to evangelize & disciple your children. But building on that foundation I would highly recommend two books:

What Is the Gospel? (Greg Gilbert) This read is for any Christian but parents need it because you can’t explain the gospel to your children if you’re not certain of it yourself. I was so appreciative of the book when I read it that I’ve since bought additional copies to give as gifts.

Big Truths for Young Hearts (Bruce Ware) I can’t recommend this book enough. It’s essentially a theology book for kids which is read aloud by the parent with their kids. Each chapter concisely covers a specific topic–God, man, salvation, the church, etc–and includes review questions to reinforce the reading.

Any other helpful resources you’d recommend?

Should kids ‘ask Jesus into their hearts’?

I’m moving more & more to answer “no” on this question. It’s not that I think children are unable to genuinely respond to the gospel but that that particular expression is ambiguous–sometimes dangerously so–on a point where clarity is essential. If you’re a parent whose child has already “asked Jesus into his/her heart”–praise the Lord! Press on in wisdom as you disciple them and exercise discernment as you affirm evidence of their conversion. What I offer here is simply a brief explanation for a shift in my thinking as a parent which is starting to shape my ministry as a pastor.

A little background. My wife and I were talking about baptism for a couple of our kids. She was confident that their profession of faith represented a genuine conversion. I was more hesitant. As a pastor’s kid myself I grew up in the church & have seen firsthand how social conditioning can be erroneously interpreted as conversion. I didn’t want to make that mistake with my kids. Still, I’ve come to recognize that my wife has exceptional insight into the lives of our children so I was a bit perplexed at our differing assessments. Her sage advice: talk to them. Brilliant!

I’ll spare you all the talking points but I found that when I asked our kids questions like “What is a Christian?” or “How is a person saved?” almost inevitably the answer had something to do with asking Jesus into one’s heart. Pressed further, the explanations varied greatly in terms of why someone should/would ask Jesus in or how that invitation secured salvation. Following on these family interactions here are some of the reasons that I think the “ask Jesus into your heart” lingo needs to be retired:

  1. It lacks a “biblical pedigree” (i.e. chapter & verse).
  2. It requires no real grasp of the gospel message.
  3. It fails to articulate our need of a wholesale exchange–His righteousness for our unrighteousness.
  4. It says nothing of repentance.
  5. It emphasizes the (subjective) sincerity of the heart rather than the (objective) certainty of Christ’s work.

I don’t doubt that the phrase has been & will be used by genuine converts. Further, I wouldn’t argue with the claim that the expression need not signify ignorance of the gospel message or an inability to articulate it. But when it comes to the salvation of a soul surely we want to do more than give someone the benefit of the doubt. In light of eternity that may be no benefit at all.

‘His compulsion is our liberation’

You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. I did not see then what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms. The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape? The words compelle intrare, compel them to come in, have been so abused by wicked men that we shudder at them; but, properly understood, they plumb the depth of the Divine mercy. The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation. [emphasis added] –C.S. Lewis, Surprised By Joy