If you have wandered around at all online you have probably seen one of those silly articles that purport to offer a string of very British problems, most of them variations on the joke about two British people marooned on a desert island, rescued ten years later, and found never to have spoken to one another because they had never been properly introduced. Mark's article on Presbyterian parenthood put me in mind of such things: problems that arise from the very nature of the beast. That, of course, is not to suggest that there are no tensions or questions in a Baptist approach to the same issue: as a Christian parent, how do I deal with my children?
Mark's historical survey introduces some of the debates that have characterised Presbyterian discussions. My angle on those would, of course, be different, as I am not working from precisely the same set of convictions. I also appreciate and face some similar difficulties. At the same time, I believe that a Baptist solution to the problems is more scripturally simple and straightforward, as well as avoiding any danger of making baptism a saving ordinance, and avoiding discussions about the difference between actual and federal holiness, and what seems to be the more-than-mere-tension of not knowing whether or not something is true but still judging it to be so. I suspect that Mark would endorse many of the elements of my parenting (and I would doubtless do the same with regard to his). I also know his esteem for particular Baptists (probably Particular Baptists), whatever he may think of yours truly (no need to respond, brother - we try to keep things civil here).
However, I thought that it might be helpful to offer some thoughts from a Baptist parent trying before God to raise his children in a way that becomes my convictions.
My children hear the gospel in the family and in the church. Although I do not presume them to be disciples, there is a sense in which I "teach them diligently" the ways of God, and "talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up" (Dt 6:7). I want them to learn to see the world through God's eyes, as it were, defined by divine assessments and directives, so that they may respond appropriately, as the Spirit works in their hearts. I teach them, therefore, from the book of general revelation, so that they may know that there is a Creator who made them and to whom they are accountable, and from the book of special revelation, so that they may know that there is a Saviour from whom they may receive salvation. I am deeply conscious of the particular privileges that they enjoy growing up in a home where Christ Jesus is known and loved and proclaimed, and I urge them to improve those privileges by trusting in and serving the Lord Christ.
I explain to them the context, realities, invitations and demands and promises, and consequences of God's salvation in Christ Jesus. I tell them that whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved (Acts 2:21; Rom 10:13). I assure them that "the LORD is near to all who call upon him, to all who call upon him in truth" (Ps 145:18 cf. Rom 10.12). I urge them to do what any sinner should do in order to be saved: "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved" (Acts 16:31), emphasizing that "the Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance" (2Pt 3:9). I do so, confident that all that the Father gives Christ will come to Christ, and the one who comes to Christ he will by no means cast out, for it is the will of the Father who sent the Son that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have everlasting life; and Christ will raise him up at the last day (Jn 6:37-40). I would - in essence - insist upon the same gospel for my children as I would for anyone else.
In similar fashion to John Bunyan, I want to point them to Christ out of a sense of their own need of a Saviour. In dealing with the more specific problem of whether or not we should teach children forms of prayer, Bunyan answers:
My judgment is, that men go the wrong way to teach their children to pray, in going about so soon to teach them any set company of words, as is the common use of poor creatures to do.
For to me it seems to be a better way for people betimes to tell their children what cursed creatures they are, and how they are under the wrath of God by reason of original and actual sin; also to tell them the nature of God's wrath, and the duration of the misery; which if they conscientiously do, they would sooner teach their children to pray than they do. The way that men learn to pray, it is by conviction for sin; and this is the way to make our sweet babes do so too. But the other way, namely, to be busy in teaching children forms of prayer, before they know any thing else, it is the next way to make them cursed hypocrites, and to puff them up with pride. Teach therefore your children to know their wretched state and condition; tell them of hell-fire and their sins, of damnation, and salvation; the way to escape the one, and to enjoy the other, if you know it yourselves, and this will make tears run down your sweet babes' eyes, and hearty groans flow from their hearts; and then also you may tell them to whom they should pray, and through whom they should pray: you may tell them also of God's promises, and his former grace extended to sinners, according to the word.
Ah! Poor sweet babes, the Lord open their eyes, and make them holy Christians. Saith David, "Come ye children, hearken unto me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord" (Psa 34:11). He doth not say, I will muzzle you up in a form of prayer; but "I will teach you the fear of the Lord"; which is, to see their sad states by nature, and to be instructed in the truth of the gospel, which doth through the Spirit beget prayer in every one that in truth learns it. And the more you teach them this, the more will their hearts run out to God in prayer. God never did account Paul a praying man, until he was a convinced and converted man; no more will it be with any else (Acts 9:11). (John Bunyan, A Discourse Touching Prayer, vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2006), 635.)
When my children sin and ask for forgiveness from God, I assure them that the Lord delights to hear such prayers from the hearts of truly convinced sinners, and is ready to forgive those who come to him through Christ Jesus. I assure them that age is no bar to salvation, and that the Lord Christ welcomed people of all sorts and ages. If they have come to him in repentance and faith, then he will forgive them, and he will help them to live in accordance with it. I explain the difference that salvation makes, and what I would expect to see in the heart of a Christian boy or girl, a love for God, his word, his people, his holiness, that is in keeping with their circumstances and relative maturity. If and when I see those things developing in the heart and life of my child, I rejoice in hope. At the same time, I recognise that - because of the very nature of a child - there may be a measure of willingness to please Dad and Mum, and that they are in an environment in which they are largely defended against and protected from some particular outward pressures and temptations. And so I seek to train them and equip them, trusting that I will in due course see the measure of tried and tested spiritual understanding, maturity and development that gives me and them confidence that a true work of the Spirit has taken place. As and when that comes to an appropriate and demonstrable fruition - a credible profession of faith, which, for me, necessitates a measure of mental and emotional development and maturity - I hope to see them baptized (and, as every honest Greek scholar will inform you, which doubtless includes my erudite chum, Mark, that means immersion) as a testimony of their having been united to Christ by faith, identifying with him in his death and resurrection.
With regard to obedience, I emphasize that the commands of God are right and true, but that we need the grace and strength of the Spirit in order to obey. And so I do not hold back in making plain the things that God requires, urging them to understand that only in Christ are they able to obey from the heart in a way that is pleasing to God, and trusting that - if they see their own falling short of the glory of God - it will be a means of their casting themselves upon him for salvation. When they sin, I point out to them the dynamic of forgiveness that operates within the family, and trace out the parallels in God's readiness to forgive us.
I don't know whether or not my children can sing "Jesus loves me, this I know." I actually think it tends toward the twee, and tend not to teach them such stuff. Besides, I am not sure that they are ready for a disquisition on the kind of love with which the Lord may be said to love different people. I urge them to sing, and hope that the same sense of spiritual reality will impress itself upon them as they learn of God's glory and goodness. I urge them to consider whether or not the words that they sing are coming from their mouths or their hearts.
I want them to call upon the Lord as Saviour. I want them to pray in the light of God's gracious dealings with them as a benevolent Creator. I can honestly say that the most often expressed desire of my children in prayer is that the Lord would save them. I believe that the Lord answers that prayer from the hearts of even the youngest, and I prayerfully hope to see the fruit in due course that will prove that they were not simply parroting words, and that the Lord is indeed gracious to those who come to him.
I would be quite happy for my children to have a "boring" testimony - any variety of testimony, in fact, as long as it is a testimony of God's saving grace to a sinner. The dawning light of salvation may enter a soul suddenly, as when the curtains are suddenly thrown open on a summer morning, or more gradually, as when the curtains are left open and the gradually rising sun slowly floods the room with light. Either way, there is a passing from darkness to light. I would hope that my children will say, in essence, "One thing I know: that though I was blind, now I see" (Jn 9:25). I have known children from Christian homes who have been converted with very little trauma of soul, and some who have wrestled in agony. Some have turned against all they have known and fought hard before being cut to the heart; others have felt the deepest pangs of conscience despite an outwardly benign life, feeling the sin of their hearts. Some have simply, under the Spirit's influence, accepted the truth of the Christ who saves. Others have fought long and hard before being subdued. I simply ask that the Lord would do all that is needful to make my children his. "Daddy, am I really forgiven?" "My son, my daughter, if the Lord has drawn you to Christ with faith and repentance to trust in him for the pardon of your sins and peace with God, you are indeed."
This all makes sense to me as a Baptist, and I can do it all with a clear conscience and an earnest hope. It makes far more sense to me, the lines being more clearly and scripturally drawn, in accordance with my understanding of the Word of God, than the resolutions that Mark proposes. I am sure that other Baptists will have slightly different approaches or nuances, but I imagine that a number of them will have essentially the same approach. I think it is plain that there are points of overlap in the answers that Mark and I have given, even measures of common understanding and expectation. I would anticipate that, and am delighted with it. However, there are also some very significant and substantial differences, and I hope that this stimulates some thought and discussion.