One group says that salvation happens at a point in time. Very specific place. Very specific time. Very important milestone.
Another group says that being able to pin point a specific conversion experience is unimportant. A family should raise their child as believers, and as long as they embrace the faith they are taught, they should be regarded as a Christian. There's no special prayer or place or time, just a heart committed to Jesus...
In my post I talked about the kind of "baggage" I see as potentially resulting from each approach as well as some of the strengths that could be found, but today I wanted to take a look at what the Bible says about these "methods." It's easy to get caught up in what we've been taught our whole lives and unintentionally hold more tightly to a tradition than what God's Word teaches us on an issue. I'm feeling a little inadequate to put "deep theology" into regular ol' words, but I think it's so, so, so important that I'm going to give it a shot. Here goes!
SO...What exactly does Scripture say about all these methods we often prescribe to?
Welp, not a whole lot. You'd be hard pressed to find a "sinner's prayer" OR an infant baptism OR much of any kind of neat and tidy "method" advocated in Scripture.
BUT Scripture makes it VERY clear what salvation is and means and, oddly enough, I think there's a lot of confusion in the church about this "basic" of the faith.
Okay, so would you like to go to Bible School 101 for like 5 or 10 minutes and think through this with me? (I promise it's not hard, though perhaps unfamiliar for some? There might be a few "big" Bible words, but I promise I'll explain them if they happen to be new to you.)
Here's what I see to be the main confusion boiling down to: Is salvation at a point in time or not?
Um...yes. (Don't you just love when questions like that get answered like this? :)
Both are true... Hence, in my opinion, the two main approaches we find within the Church. Each one kind of emphasizes a different piece of the puzzle, but the thing is, they're all important.
What in the world am I talking about? Let me explain. I believe the Bible clearly describes 3 elements of salvation. Here's a quick look at them and quite a bit of Scripture to make my point... maybe some good "quiet time" reading for today or tomorrow? I truly believe that understanding salvation in the way the Bible describes it, clears up so much of the confusion.
So, what are the 3 elements? Well, "tenses" might be an easier way to describe them: past, present and future... or for the big words... 1) Justification, 2) Sanctification and 3) Glorification.
Let's take a look at each one (and I promise it has an impact on the practical outworkings of presenting the gospel to our children, or I probably wouldn't even be writing this post). Before we do, if you're skeptical that the Bible sometimes speaks of salvation as a past event or a current event or a future event, here's a couple of passages you could check out (they're not the only ones on the subject but a couple that I thought were helpful): 1 Peter 1:3-9 and 2 Peter 1:3-11.
Here are some thoughts broken down by point:
1. Justification. Justification is basically the fact that those who trust in the work of Christ stand before God as a righteous person, not because of their own awesomeness, but because of Jesus' righteousness. A great passage that shows salvation as a past experience is Romans 3:21-26.
Let's say I die tonight. I know, lovely.
I've either come to an understanding that Christ's death on the cross took my place or I don't. I'm either a Christian or I'm not. I'm his child or I'm not. I can't fall into the category of a "kind of" a Christian or an "almost" Christian. Once I'm dead, it's a done deal. Okay, seriously, I know it's morbid, but hang with me...
Whether or not I can pin point a date, time and location of my salvation, logically speaking, I'm never "on the fence" with this issue. I'm either a child of the King or I'm not. I don't think God allows "middle of adoption" deaths. Meaning, I think the Holy Spirit could begin working in my heart and God would preserve my life until I came to a point of understanding the truth of the gospel, if that makes sense.
Whether it's consciously noted or not, I believe it's safe to say that justification happens at some point in time to every believer. I DON'T think that it's imperative that a person be able to pin point this time, but I think it can be argued that the Holy Spirit opens our spiritual eyes to the truth of the gospel and we pass from darkness into light; from death to life.
And I think this is why there is a group that advocates and encourages a prayer or a conversion to mark that point in time when they felt the Holy Spirit bring them to that point...
2. Sanctification. Once we've been justified, we grow as a Christian, which is known as sanctification. A family that raises their child in the church that doesn't place an emphasis on the "point in time" salvation experience might acknowledge that a person's justification happens at some point, but often they believe with their whole heart that God will or has brought them to salvation (and some even argue that they are a believer as part of God's covenant just by being born into their family). However they land where they're at, growth in their relationship with the Lord takes front and center.
I think it's so important that as parents we are clear that justification is an imperative starting point in this thing. There is no sanctification without justification (or minus big words - there's no growing in Christ until one has understood and embraced what Christ's work has done for them first).
But sanctification isn't just the "next step" after salvation... it's part of salvation! Look at Acts 26:16-18. Verse 18 says we are "sanctified by faith." We often say we're saved by faith (and think only about it in terms of justification described in the previous point), but this shows that sanctification has a part too... and that our growth as a believer isn't by our works, but also by faith.
Or is it?
Look at 1 Thessalonians 4:3-7. This short passage gives a list of "rules" for holy conduct in order to be sanctified, something that just about anyone would acknowledge would take some effort to achieve. Effort = work in my book... but hang on skip over to the next chapter. 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24 says that God does the sanctifying... hmmm.... beautiful mystery. I love that God is so much smarter than me. :)
So this "growth in Christ" (sanctification) is described in Scripture as
-a part of our salvation
-a work of God
-and the time period when we "work out our salvation" in the day to day life. (Philippians 2:12-13)
Now to the last section...
3. Glorification. Ooohhh!! This part's exciting! This is when our life on earth ends and our salvation is realized. Not to say that it wasn't a sealed deal, 100% gonna happen and life changing prior to this, but here's where we get to experience the unrealized aspects of salvation that we've been longing for prior to this. We get to experience perfection! Sinless, glorious freedom! Our bodies will be redeemed and it's the culmination of the Christian's hope! Romans 8:18-30 describes it well.
All 3 elements are part of our "salvation experience." It's just the reality of what it is. When we stop after the first part, we miss out on the whole picture. When we ignore that the first part is necessary, we can end up being moral people who claim to be Christians without truly understanding the gospel. Obviously the generalizations I've made don't perfectly describe any denomination, church or family. I'd like to think my family has adopted a fairly healthy balance between the two and focus more on what Scripture says than any tradition we've been accustomed to, but it can be easy to slip into those mindsets that have been ingrained in me. Thinking through what Scripture says has been the most helpful and influential step I've taken as I ponder the best approach as I seek to lead my children to Christ.
Tomorrow I'll take a look at some very practical tips that I've found helpful when it comes to sharing the gospel with children.
Part 1 - Salvation and Kids: To Convert or Not Convert? That is the Question
Part 3 - Salvation and Kids: 5 Important Things to Consider When Presenting the Gospel to Children
Salvation and Kids: The Most Important Prayer
A big thanks to my college best friend, who also happens to be a seminary professor, Alyssa Walker and her husband Kevin for their input on this post. A lot of the thoughts and passages above were as a result of her very thorough response to a discussion we had about my first post in this series.
And by chance if I've royally confused you, here are a couple of related articles articulated by some people who are much smarter than me!
We Have Been Raised But We Stink
The Necessity of Good Works and Sanctification