I believe in childhood conversion

I saw this tweet the other day from someone saying that they don’t believe in small children around about the age of 5 converting through asking Jesus into their lives.

It was an interesting statement for me to read because I still clearly remember that day, it was the 20th April 1980, sat on an uncomfortable bench close at then end of the evening service praying with my dad. And I can testify to the reality of that day.  I know there are people who would want to suggest it was just a bit of childhood brain washing and I didn’t really know what I was doing but I’m the guy who was there and would happily challenge them on that. This person is not arguing that but rather that it isn’t needed because the child already believes in Jesus.

The tweeter helpfully clarified since that they were not doubting that it could happen and that they too had prayed to receive Jesus as a 4 year old. Rather, they were arguing that they didn’t believe it must happen. That’s a slightly different argument. It is also worth me stating at this point that I don’t believe that everyone must be able to pinpoint the exact date and time, regardless of age and background. For some people there is the dramatic moment they remember, for others there’s the knowledge that they once were not in Christ but now they are.

I thought it might be helpful to do two things here. First of all to say a little bit more about my own experience and then to have a look at what Scripture says.  I think that this may shed a little bit more light on what happens when someone doesn’t have that kind of conversion experience as a child brought up in the church.

On the Sunday in question, we’d sat through the church evening service as was normal. I remember very little about the service itself apart from two things. First, a lady from the church gave her testimony. In my childhood mind she was incredibly old although given she lived many years after she probably wasn’t in reality much older than I am today!  I think that she taught my sister in Sunday school, hence she got our attention.  The second thing I remember is that my sister and my mum headed off down to the front of the church at the end of the sermon. I asked my dad what they were doing and he explained that my sister wanted to ask Jesus to forgive her sin and to come into her life. I immediately responded “but then I need to do that too. Do I need to go to the front of the church?” My dad responded “no, you can talk to Jesus anywhere.” So I did, there and then.

Now before that day, I had been in church pretty much every Sunday. My mum would read the Bible and tell us Bible stories and I prayed each night.  I knew there was a God, I knew about Jesus and I would say that I loved him.  There was something called “Decision Sunday” when our church particularly encouraged people to “make a decision for Christ”.[1] So on one level I must have heard people talking about repentance, forgiveness, being born again, conversion etc. Yet up until that point it had not registered in my conscience. I was hearing something new and I was alert to the fact that this was something I needed. Specifically, I was alert to the problem of sin and my need for forgiveness.

Now what does the Bible say?  Here is Jesus talking to Nicodemus:

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again[b] he cannot see the kingdom of God.”[2]

And here is Peter preaching at Pentecost

“And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”[3]

The second quote has often been truncated down to the bit which says “the promise is for you and your children” as a justification for infant baptism. However, note here two points. The first is that the quote talks not just about “your children” but also to “all who are fore off.” Secondly, the specific promise is for forgiveness to those who repent and are baptised echoing the prophetic words from Joel quoted in verse 21.

And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”

The promise Peter describes is not of some mystical inclusion of children in the new covenant because they were born to the right parents but that they along with the Gentiles could hear the good news proclaimed to them and call on God for salvation.

The other thing to notice here is that in both cases, the audience was Jews with some possible god-fearing Gentiles thrown into the mix in Acts. In other words, these were people who would have been brought up from childhood to believe in the one true covenant making, covenant keeping God. They were not unbelieving pagans. Yet, they were being asked to do something distinctive and different here. They were being asked to confess that they were sinners, that they needed rescuing, forgiving, reconciling to God and to receive the Holy Spirit.

I think that helps us to consider what happens with childhood conversion. Incidentally, I don’t see the distinction here between a five year old praying to “receive Christ” or someone at 10, 15 or 18.  What we are describing and witnessing is an awakening to the Gospel which goes beyond a general awareness of God and means that the person calls on God’s name in trust and repentance.

This takes us to the situation of those who cannot pinpoint an exact date and time.  I think that we have taken this thing called “the sinners prayer” and formulised it into a essential.  Scripture doesn’t give us a set form of words and a set way of responding -well beyond that we are to be baptised.  I’ve found it helpful to encourage people to use those words or similar to give focus to their response. However all that Scripture calls for is heart belief and verbal confession. 

Therefore, we cannot be prescriptive of what is involved.  Yet what we see in childhood conversions is a move to conscious awareness of sin, of the need of Jesus to save and the desire for his presence through the Holy Spirit in your life.  That may all come together in a single moment or there may be a growing awareness and if the latter, then it may not be possible to remember a time when you were not aware and hadn’t responded to that need. Usually though when someone cannot pinpoint that date there is still a point when they publicly affirmed that belief whether through baptism or in a paedo-baptist context through confirmation or such like. 

So, whilst I don’t believe that you must be able to remember a specific day when you said the sinner’s prayer, I do believe that “you must be born again.”

[1] I’m describing things here not assessing every theology or practice!

[2] John 3:3.

[3] Acts 2:38-39.

* The picture at the top is of Sunbridge Road Mission where I grew up and made that profession of faith.

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