Child-Like Faith and the Danger of Accepting Jesus into Your Heart

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It matters to me what a theological belief produces — fear or hope or peace or striving.

I used to dis paedobaptism because I thought it encouraged spiritual laziness. Kids would ride on the coattails of their parents’ faith, I thought; infant baptism would trick kids into thinking they had a relationship with God when instead they had only a relationship with the church. I thought the stereotypes of Catholics and Lutherans were true, that they based their salvation solely on the fact that a priest sprinkled water on them a week after birth.

I get the concern that paedobaptism produces apathy. For a while, that convinced me that paedobaptism was patently harmful — because I, as a kid, took my faith personally and seriously. I chalked that up to making my own profession of faith at the age of 7 and being baptized soon after.

But I’ve been thinking, recently, that there are fruits of paedobaptism that I find beautiful and relieving and holy, and aspects of credobaptism that are or can be harmful.

It boils down to this: how seriously do we understand Jesus’s command to believe as little children? 

Presbyterians always argued that the children of Christians were a unique case. Of course, they need to come into their faith as their own, and Presbyterians still require an intellectual assent via confirmation. But Christian kids grow up within the church, within the redeemed community. They are surrounded by the visible, particular graces of God. They are raised as Christians, regardless of their personal confession.

I’ve always felt that Christian kids were a unique group too — exposed to all the blessings and curses of Christianity. I remember telling my mom as a young teenager that I felt God calling me to preach the gospel to Christian kids, to church kids — kids like me, who grew up with Christianity all their life, but never understood the unconditional, accepting, gracious love of God.

We were — we are — a messed up bunch of kids, more or less. Many of us struggled with depression. Many of us were frantic and fearful — fearful of God, fearful of hell, fearful of not being enough. We were weary, psychologically strained, but we were passionate, and we cared, and we took our faith seriously.

We would find each other when someone was brave enough to say, “Hey, I doubt my salvation all the time” or “Hey, I’m not sure what I believe anymore,” and we would nod along, YES, EXACTLY, in all caps.

Our doubt didn’t come from lack of trying or rebellion. It came from bone-dry exhaustion.

And when you think of it, think of the psychological damage concepts like sin nature and damnation and hell can do when handled poorly. Think of what happens when you hear, Sunday after Sunday, that you need to make a personal decision for Jesus, that, in effect, you don’t actually believe in Jesus, even though you can’t remember a time you didn’t believe in Jesus.

Think of how horrible and twisted that would make you feel: You, little child, even though you believe Jesus, are damned to an eternity of conscious torture because you haven’t “accepted him into your heart.” You, little child, need to repent and believe, because the belief you already have as a trusting little one who sings “A little talk with Jesus makes it right” and prays every night and asks mommy deep, thoughtful questions about God, isn’t enough.

That, to me, is worthy of being drowned in a proverbial sea with a proverbial millstone around one’s neck.

***

I am eternally grateful to my mom who always encouraged us to make our faith personal while respecting our childlike faith.

She told me, once, of a child who asked her mother whether God hears her prayers. And the technical response, if you really believe that your child is damned until they have a personal relationship with Jesus, if you truly accept that God does not hear or honor the prayers of unredeemed sinners, that no, God does not hear or accept that child’s prayer.

My mom could not bring herself to believe that, much less tell her child that.

That stuck with me.

My adopted mom, my college mentor, also shaped my beliefs on this issue. Once, she was explaining to her girls that only people who believe in Jesus can receive communion.

“I believe in Jesus,” one of her little girls said.

This was not a come-to-Jesus moment. This was not a “profession of faith” culminating in the sinner’s prayer. This was not a walk down the aisle. This was what she had always believed, ever since she could remember.

And so my mentor allows her daughters to take communion in a Baptist church that requires that only people who believe in Jesus can partake. She honors their child-like faith.

I think those two mothers grasp the idea of faith more than the idea of pressuring a child who already believes to believe in a particular way, to express their belief in a particular way.

In the Orthodox church, infants are baptized, and infants receive communion. There isn’t even a “coming-of-age” confirmation class, or a concept that one must intellectually comprehend faith before becoming full members of the church or “Christians.” This is how it was in the beginning of the church, too.

Child-like faith was honored, because it is faith.

***

I’ve tucked in quite a few children who believe in Jesus without having accepted Jesus into their hearts yet. My little sister has a better prayer life than I ever maintained after I accepted Jesus as my savior. My mom made her a child’s book of prayers, a folder she has tucked between the slats of the bunkbed above her. She memorizes those prayers and prays them every night, adding her own requests. She has no fear of hell, no concept of damnation, no baggage of fear or striving. God is only love to her, and she doesn’t psychoanalyze her faith.

It brought me to tears, once, tucking in three little Presbyterian girls after babysitting them. “Dear Jesus,” they all began, screwing up their eyes. And then they rambled, as if he was there and he loved them and he heard them, but without expecting him to answer or wondering why they didn’t feel anything or doubting their worthiness.

I want a faith like that.

And then just the other day, when I finally reached the point in our Bible curriculum where I had to talk about God’s view of sin, and I said to the kindergartners, “We’re now afraid of God, now that we’re sinners, just like Adam and Eve were afraid of God. Do you ever feel afraid of God?”

“No,” they all chorused.

That’s Christian kids, for you — before they make a personal decision for Jesus.

***

And what of the personal decision for Jesus, accepting him in your heart?

I think there’s a huge difference between taking one’s faith seriously and personally and teaching a child to “make a personal decision for Jesus.”

The former encourages the child to grow in the faith she already has. The latter dismisses the faith the child already has.

And that has lifelong consequences.

When I accepted Jesus as my savior, I was seven years old. I was wandering around the front yard, between the fire hydrant and the crab apple tree, thinking about Jesus dying for me. It occurred to me that put Jesus there on that cross. My sins did that. My sins caused his flogging, and the blood streaming down his broken body, and the nails in his hands, and his dead weight sagging against them.

And I realized at the same time (this according to my mom, as I didn’t recall this myself) that even if I was the only sinner in the world, Jesus would have still died for me. He loved me that much.

I burst into tears, guilty and loved and broken and euphoric.

I ran into the house, told my mom, and we prayed something like the sinner’s prayer together. I was now a Christian. I was something different than I was before. I was saved.

And ironically, that’s when the fear started — the sleepless nights, the angst, the terror of God and hell and reprobation that still grips me to this day.

As I’m writing this, I can see my Orthodox priest shaking his head and repeating, “No, no, no” over and over again. “We don’t do that in Orthodoxy,” he would say. “We don’t have bloody statues of Jesus. We’re not supposed to work up our emotions or our pity or our guilt. That’s pietism, not faith. Faith is simply acknowledging the ineffable God who is.”

That makes so much sense, doesn’t it? My Christian community taught me to label a moment of pietism, of heightened emotion, as saving faith — the moment I became a Christian, when I passed from death to life. My eternal destiny, my relationship with God, all hung on that moment of faith.

But that sort of faith isn’t sustainable. My spiritual highs only resulted in existential crashes. I was chasing after a kind of faith that was untenable, and it produced nothing but guilt and striving and disappointment. It was exhausting to work up enough emotion and certainty, day in, day out.

That kind of faith has damned me, it has damned my friends, over and over again.

That is not of God. Can I just say that again? That is not of God.

The faith of the little child saying her bedtime prayers each night — that is of God.

***

I want to baptize my babies, for these reasons. I want to honor their faith. And I will never, ever teach them that they need to have a particular experience or a certain profession of faith to know God.

There are, certainly, people skating by on their infant baptism with zero cares about their spiritual life because “they were baptized” and that’s that. But I think I misunderstood the people who valued their infant baptism as essential to their salvation and spirituality.

I think placing so much emphasis on their infant baptism might be an acknowledgment of the faith they’ve always had, the grace they’ve always experienced, without any striving or accepting required.

That, to me, is beautiful.

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21 thoughts on “Child-Like Faith and the Danger of Accepting Jesus into Your Heart

  1. Laura Jinkins

    When I first began to read this, I wondered where you were going with it. I was a little concerned. But I actually find quite a lot to agree with… I remember when I “got saved” in second grade. That same worry, wondering if it “took,” sobbing by the side of my bed begging God to forgive me for all the horrible things I’d done in my eight years of life. And then worrying about my own daughter when she was a little thing — what if she didn’t ask Jesus into her heart??? She did when she was five. Whew! One less thing to worry about. But then how she struggled for years because our way of homeschool life wasn’t as conservative as the families with eight kids, with daughters who only wore dresses and didn’t even think about college. I was not a good mother in that I didn’t realize how much she struggled with comparison and worrying that she wasn’t “good enough”…

    She is finding her own way, building her own relationship with Jesus now and I’ve cried tears of joy that she’s cast aside a lot of the man-made nonsense that holds us back from a real relationship with God. I am working on the same thing – knowing full well that works don’t achieve anything, but you know what I mean. We’ve begun visiting a Presbyterian church after attending non-denominational churches for decades. I’ve discovered a reverence and peace in the structure and formality of the worship service, in the sermon. I’ve even stopped carrying my Bible there because something you said made so much sense — when I stop flipping through to find the scripture references, I actually hear what Pastor Alan is saying.

    We are considering membership and in the little booklet the pastor gave us on membership in the Presbyterian church, it explains their views of infant baptism, and it made so much sense to me. They compare it to the circumcision of the Old Testament — a promise by the parents to raise their children in the faith. I felt guilt for making assumptions based on what I’d been incorrectly taught years ago. I also appreciate that they have communion only five or six times a year. It is such a sacred thing, to share in the Lord’s Supper, their view is that it should never become common. Another church we visited briefly has a communion table set to the side of the stage and people go up and take communion as they wish throughout every service. This bothers me greatly, that the Lord’s Supper is not even really acknowledged — it’s just there if you want it.

    The only bit of doctrine I struggle with as regards joining the Presbyterian church is their belief in election. I totally get that God knows everything — who will be saved, who will not be saved. But I cannot believe that He would choose this person over that one before they are even born. Doesn’t the Bible teach that it is not His will that any should perish? So wouldn’t each and every person be given a chance to follow Him? There has to be some element of free will, even with a God that is sovereign, or else we are all puppets and where is the joy in being loved by someone who has no choice in loving you?

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    • Bailey Steger

      Sorry, I went for a more shocker of a title. ;)

      It’s so fascinating to hear the same thoughts but from a MOTHER’S perspective. It never occurred to me how having the strong emphasis on “accepting Jesus into your heart” would strike fear in a mother for her young child.

      And oh, yes you ARE a good mother! You can recognize now the pain your daughter went through, and you validated it when you discovered that pain. That takes incredible guts as a mom, I think.

      As I’ve said elsewhere, Reformed theology was a big relief in comparison to Baptist/nondenominational theology. I loved the Presbyterian fellowship I had as a kid. Truly thoughtful people. I considered becoming Presbyterian for a while when in college.

      Yeah, I think predestination is one of those beliefs that is actually repugnant and problematic in some respects, but you justify it to yourself because you can’t around confusing passages of Scripture, and God IS sovereign and omnipotent, so it makes he should be in control of even our salvation. But I think predestination is based on a faulty understanding of Romans 9. Plus, I think that if you believe in predestination because of Romans 9, you have to believe in double predestination, which is even more problematic, to be consistent. All that to say, I see why people do believe in predestination (I believed it staunchly myself), but I’m also with you that it’s worrisome.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. villemezbrown

    This: “I want to baptize my babies, for these reasons. I want to honor their faith. And I will never, ever teach them that they need to have a particular experience or a certain profession of faith to know God.”
    I am so, so happy to hear [read] you say this. I think this is beautiful and moving and so important.
    I should probably clarify that I do not love this statement because I believe in infant baptism. It’s the last part I love about honoring your child’s faith experience. I am not in a position to speak on the infant vs. older baptism question. I will say that when your child goes through the milestones of your faith community, whatever they are, it will be an amazing experience for you as a parent.

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  3. Jasmine Ruigrok

    Gosh it’s sad you had to experience this, but I get it… Must make God’s heart sad too. It’s funny how the only thing we have to do to be saved is believe on Jesus, and that’s something you either believe, or you don’t. It doesn’t require some heightened spiritual experience. If a kid believes in Jesus, they don’t need any extra moment of realisation, but a gradually growing understanding and confidence in their walk with God. It’s a shame we’ve made it so complicated.

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  4. Rebekah

    I find reading your thoughts really interesting! Faith is something that grows differently and shows differently for each person, maybe even without us realizing. Do keep posting.

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  5. Abigail

    This is so beautiful and well-written. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I came to faith in Christ when I was only three years old, and because my “spiritual birthday” was so early in life, I never had to deal with the internal conflict of wondering if I had once believed in Jesus but wasn’t saved. However, I did struggle tremendously with guilt and fear, because I knew how often Christian kids later fell away from the faith. In late elementary school, I would pray the sinner’s prayer over and over again, hoping to be sincere and repentant enough that it would stick and I could have assurance of faith.

    I always knew what I believed, but I always worried that I didn’t believe it enough, and measured my salvation according to visible morality in my life. This changed for good in ninth grade when I understood the Reformed approach to the gospel, which does not place emphasis on a single moment in time when you moved from death to life, but simply observes that you are living in repentance and faith. I love J.D. Greaar’s book “Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart,” and appreciate his illustration for understanding faith. When you sit down in a chair, you don’t analyze its structural integrity, engage in a period of soul-searching, sit down in the chair, and proclaim, “Today, I have sat down in this chair!” Rather, you simply do it. Often, you can’t remember making a conscious decision to sit there, but you don’t need to point at a moment in time to know that you’re seated. You can simply observe that you trusted the chair to hold you, and it is.

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  6. Jasmine Ruigrok

    Also going to throw in here that I think Christians care way too much what other Christians are doing. Who cares if you go for paedobaptism or older baptism? It’s between you and God. It’s not like you’re making your child a burnt offering. Too often we would rather play God than trust Him to work in each other. We’re all on a journey. A little encouragement that we’re doing okay, and that God can handle our questions would be nice. Christianity takes itself far too serious sometimes for followers of a God who invented laughter! (end vent)

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    • Bailey Steger

      I agree! What do you think prompts this abiding concern for making sure other people doing it right (besides their being busybodies, which I think is an uncharitable characterization)? I wonder if it stems from an insecurity about one’s own beliefs. If your faith hangs on knowing the right things (as we’ve discussed earlier), you’re going to be obsessed with knowing every little detail of the truth…which is so certain and true that it’s applicable to other people, which means you focus a lot on other people getting certain doctrines right. Perhaps that is also an uncharitable characterization.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Allison Caylor

    My story aligns well with the thoughts you’ve been working through. I was as young as four or five — I remember swinging in the front yard, imagining I was a Sunday school teacher, and carrying out a dialogue with myself in which the Sunday school teacher mentioned that she was a Christian. Then it hit me that I, Allison, was not “a Christian.” I sat wondering what that meant for a minute, then remembered that it meant you believed in Jesus. I think I said out loud, “Well, I believe in Jesus. I guess I should be a Christian.” In my childish mind, that meant going to talk with my parents about being baptized, which I soon was. I remember this only dimly, so by the time I was old enough to have more of a grasp of sin, hell, and redemption, I couldn’t have had any confidence on my thoughts at that time. Thankfully, by then my dad had been preaching that you don’t even need to know if you were saved at some other time to know that Christ is enough to save you. It’s his power that matters, your abandonment of your own merit, that matters, not a moment in time.

    So, back to the topic of childlike faith, at that time I believed God was real and good and loved me, and I wanted to be his. And as young as I was, that’s all I could’ve grasped. I knew the phrase “Jesus died for my sins,” but the only sin I could think of was sneaking Skittles when my mom wasn’t looking, so there was no way I could understand the incredible grace I’d come into so simply and trustingly. I guess as kids grow, they will learn sin. The Spirit will work in them to disgust them with the ugliness that rears its head in their hearts. Driving home that they’re desperately wicked and in danger of hell unless they do/feel/experience/say a certain thing is as horrible as you said.

    Of course you know I don’t then think baptizing babies is helpful, but I’ll leave that subject where it lies. :)

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    • Bailey Steger

      In these cases, it is SO important to emphasize God’s power to save you rather than your decision you made way back when. I had it explained to me that it wasn’t the 911 call that saved you as much as the paramedics who did the saving. Or something like that. :)

      Now I’m curious. Unless I’m reading into it (sorry, English major tendencies), you seemed to imply that everything you said has thus led you to think baptizing babies is not helpful: “I don’t *then* think baptizing babies is helpful.” I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on it, if you’re up for it!

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      • Allison Caylor

        I’m afraid that implication was a result of an unclear sentence, not my actual intent. The experience I described didn’t directly affect how I see paedobaptism. When I wrote, “I don’t then think baptizing babies is helpful,” I meant, “Though I share your belief that doubting children’s faith is horrible, it doesn’t lead me to the same conclusion (i.e., that baptizing babies is helpful).” Make sense?

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  8. Mandy PS

    I totally get where you are coming from–the fear that you aren’t saved and saying the prayer over and over.

    I was saved when I was five, and I am now convinced that was the moment of realization for me and say that was the beginning of my faith walk–the moment when my faith became my own. But I went through extreme doubt in my teen years because people kept saying things like kids that little don’t actually know what they were signing up for, and they usually do it because of familial pressure, and then suddenly everyone else who got saved around the time I did was admitting they weren’t saved and going forward again for new baptisms, and the like. It made me doubt my salvation.

    But I had never doubted. I had always believed. Yet when I told people I’d been a believer since I was five they would give me these looks of skepticism.

    And I definitely grew up in that sort of tradition, where you had to have this big resounding salvation moment. Whereas my moment was quieter. I was sitting in my kindergarten class (a private school) and the teacher asked if anyone had anything to talk to her about. And I was just sort of like (paraphrasing of course) I believe this stuff! Why not seal the deal? So that’s what I did with the help of my teacher. It wasn’t emotional or this sudden realization that I was a sinner. It was more like “I believe in Jesus….why wouldn’t I be saved?”

    The lack of emotion also led to some doubt for me later in life. Because doesn’t salvation have to be emotional? (Or so I’d been told)

    Honestly I didn’t feel more calm about it until I was an adult and talking to a co-worker. He said for some people salvation, or finding God, was like taking a train across Europe. You cross from one country to the next and you don’t exactly know when it happens. You just eventually realize you are in Spain.

    Sometimes we’re on the train and when it started we weren’t believers and then one day we wake up and realize we are and have been for a while. It’s quiet. It’s not necessarily emotional. It’s just a realization of “hey, I’m not where I used to be. I am in this new country now.”

    And for some of us we’ve pretty much always been in the “new” country. I think the emphasis on this whole “you have to have a big moment” is fundamentally a misunderstanding of Luke 15–the story of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son. Ultimately, 99 of the sheep *weren’t* lost. Nine of the coins were always in the purse. And the “other brother” was always with the father and in the father’s own words all that the father had was his. Some of us have been with the flock all of our lives. Yet because we never got lost and had this huge welcome home party, people act like we’re not really part of the family. And I think a lot of us Christian kids are those 99 other sheep. We don’t need to be lost to come home.

    We’re already home.

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    • Bailey Steger

      I would have been one of those people skeptical of five-year-old coming to Christ. But the normal testimony I heard accompanying such a young conversion was not like yours, which sounds genuine and plausible, but more like, “I learned that I would be thrown into hell and decided to believe in Jesus.” Even if it was genuine, the circumstances of that young conversion sounds really manipulated and contrived to me.

      I love your metaphors of the train and your use of Jesus’ parables. So accurate.

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  9. Justine

    Yes! I like this post. I was baptized as an infant (Reformed/Calvinist background). I’ve definitely seen infant baptism done wrong, with the whole, “You have to get saved! Accept Jesus into your heart! You are evil and condemned!” angle you are talking about, with the added pressure of “You were baptized as an infant and you have all the promises of God, so hell is going to be way worse for you than for the poor kids who are born into non-Christian homes.”
    I was not raised that way. The way I was taught was:
    God loves you enough to give you all these promises at your baptism. Since He loved you that much, you can be sure He will accept you. He already has. Yes, you need to have personal faith, but you don’t need to know when or how it started. If you believe now, that’s enough. You don’t need to analyze a specific time in your life to see whether your faith is/was sincere.
    Because of all this, we desire to get to know God and to obey Him because we love Him and we are thankful for what He’s done for us. We aren’t trying to earn His favour or trying to prove to ourselves or others that we are truly Christian enough.
    In this view, when going through a time when God feels distant, we don’t need to worry about whether we are actually saved or not. Instead, we realize that sometimes God tests us by “hiding” Himself from us. We need to keep faithfully seeking Him even when we don’t feel like it, because it is when we do things we don’t feel like doing that our true character is exposed.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. lotusgrapevine

    When I get nervous about that I just talk to him. He always speaks to me, we never have to worry about praying over and over again in fear of still not being saved. I honestly don’t recall what the adults told me as a kid. But I was “saved” maybe around the age of 6. The only thing I remember was asking him to come in my heart. I was in a kids church. But unfortunately I don’t recall what they have told us. The same God who made the galaxies and the seas and the beautiful big mountains, decided that he wanted you too. That’s enough proof right there to know that he loves us. And we should never feel guilty.

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