God gives parents the holy calling of raising children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. Our most important work is to help them understand the gospel so they might trust in Jesus and be saved. But most Christian parents face a major question: How do we discern whether or not our kids have truly come to Christ?
Parents tend to run to two extremes. Either we get excited that our kids are showing interest in the gospel and pronounce them Christians too quickly, or we’re so afraid of a false profession that we go a long time without treating them as a believer.
Though we can never know beyond a shadow of a doubt if our child has actually trusted Christ, we can see evidence that points to a genuine conversion—even if it looks different from an adult one. Here are five questions we can ask as we attempt to discern a child’s conversion.
1. Do they know they need a Savior?
Awareness of sin—and of the need for a Savior—is an absolute necessity in conversion. While a child will not have years of drunkenness or debauchery to be ashamed of, he will know he has sinned and needs to be forgiven.
When your child tells you he wants to become a Christian or starts talking about baptism, ask what prompted him to think about it. Draw out of him, in his own words, whether he feels conviction for his sins and knows he needs a Savior. Unless he’s convicted of his sins, a child can’t know he has a problem from which he needs rescue.
2. Do they understand Jesus’s death and resurrection?
If your child shows awareness of and conviction for sin, begin to talk to her about Jesus. You aren’t looking for a discourse on the hypostatic union or penal substitutionary atonement. Does she know Jesus is the Son of God? Does she believe he is real and lived the perfect life we could never live? Can she articulate the basic facts about his death and resurrection? In her own words, can she tell you what Jesus did for her? As she talks about him, do you see an awareness that she grasps and loves this work at a heart level?
3. Do they believe they’re saved through repentance and faith?
Our family recently read about the woman who touched the hem of Jesus’s garment and was healed (Luke 8:44). Jesus said her faith made her well. I talked to our daughters about salvation being by faith alone. They are growing up in a Christian family, and they can’t remember a time when they weren’t going to church and hearing the gospel. I reminded my daughters that none of those things makes them a Christian.
You must make sure your children get this: “For by grace you have been saved through faith and that not of yourselves” (Eph. 2:8–9). Good works or baptism or faithful church attendance don’t make them a Christian; repentance and trust in Christ does.
4. Do they show signs of new life?
Signs of the Spirit’s work in your child’s life are not as evident as they might be in an adult. Your 6-year-old isn’t going to have a testimony like a man with a notorious past, but a child’s salvation is equally miraculous. If they have trusted in Jesus, your children have been born again, and the Holy Spirit indwells them. They will show evidence of conversion.
True believers grow in conviction of sin, compassion for others, and display the fruit of the Spirit. Fruit will appear in childlike form, but it will grow in converted children nonetheless.
5. Are their decisions coming from external pressure?
The invitation system, a pressure-packed VBS or kids camp, and friends being baptized can pressure your child to make a profession of faith without actually grasping the gospel. In Baptist churches, children sometimes ask why they can’t take communion and hear, “Because you haven’t been baptized yet.” In their minds the solution seems simple, “Then let me get baptized so I can take communion.”
You can never be certain your child has pure motives for wanting to follow Christ, but you should examine any outside forces exerting pressure on them. Ask what made them start thinking about Christ. Do they merely want to take the bread and cup or did the meaning behind communion draw them to Jesus? Do they merely want to please you or their youth leader, or do they want to obey and follow Christ?
Show Them Jesus Is Better
Children don’t undergo a physical change when they come to Jesus, so you must talk, pray, and discern. Invite one of your pastors to talk with your child. He may see and hear things that you don’t.
Above all, keep putting the good news of gospel grace before your children. Talk about it in everyday life, in family devotions, and around the table after Sunday worship. Sing together, pray with your kids, and repent to them when you have wronged them. God’s Word never returns void, our labor in the Lord is not in vain, and in due time we will reap if we sow. Take every opportunity to show and tell your kids that Jesus is better than life.