How to Teach God’s Greatest Truths
I held his heaving body close to my own, willing his sobs to subside. “Sh-sh-sh,” I murmured. “It’s over. It’s okay. Mommy forgives you. God forgives you.”
But this time, he would not be comforted. The heart-wrenching tears flowed painfully down his 3-year-old cheeks, wetting his hands, his footie jammies, his concerned mother.
It wasn’t the slammed door that had necessitated this discipline session; it was the lie. “It was my sister’s fault!” he had yelled defiantly when I corrected him. Insistently, he stuck to his story until I reminded him that lying was much worse than disobedience in our home. He crumpled then, covering his face in his chubby hands, repeating, “I’m sorry, Mommy! Sorry, Mommy!” in anticipation of the consequences.
The consequences had been swift and sure. Now it was time to hug and forgive. I had asked if he wanted to tell God he was sorry, and he seemed eager to pray. The room was silent for a full minute as he clasped his hands, closed his eyes, and sat in stillness. I began to wonder if he were waiting for me to begin, when a meek voice whispered, “God . . . I’m so sorry.” Stillness again. I held my breath. “I LIED!” he repented, flinging his face into my chest as he wept in agony.
I tried to comfort him with assurance of forgiveness, that all was well.
But the criminal would not be comforted. Confused by this reaction, I pried his small face out of my chest, wiped it off with the side of my blanket, and looked earnestly into his eyes. “What is wrong, honey? Why are you so upset?”
He took a deep breath and answered earnestly, “Because I lied! I must be . . . punished.” The last word was barely a whisper, yet uttered with the ferocity and severity of a death sentence.
“You’ve been disciplined, and it’s over,” I reminded him gently. “You said sorry, and you prayed to God. Mommy forgives you; God forgives you. You don’t need to worry about this anymore. I love you!”
“No, Mommy,” he insisted. “God must punish me. I disobeyed God. He will throw all the disobedient into the fire.” And he began to sob as he concluded, “And that’s where I should go, because I lied.”
I sat in shock and disbelief for a moment, beholding the awful specter of a sinner beholding his state before a just God. I have never taught my 3-year-old about hell; my husband believes our young one developed his doctrine from listening to church sermons, his older siblings’ conversations, or our own discussions around the house. The extent of our teaching on sin to him had been, “Sin is disobeying, like when Adam and Eve disobeyed God. We disobey God when we don’t obey His Word.”
But though he is only 3, my son has already received many lessons in doctrine and theology that have prepared him to contemplate God’s simple—yet profound—plan of salvation.
1. Daily, my son sees examples of sin, consequences, and restoration.
Countless times in his three years of life, my little boy has disobeyed his parents. He has said “no” to Mommy; he has refused to eat his meal; he has played rather than clean up his toys; he has hit his siblings. These and countless other infractions are clear violations of his “first commandment with promise” from God, which is also the first verse he memorized as a toddler: “Children, obey your parents” (Ephesians 6:1–2, Colossians 3:21). He has learned that rebellion against his parents is in reality sin against the God who commanded him to obey them. Since each disobedience against his parents is followed by discipline, my son has learned that sin has consequences (Romans 6:23). His father and I strive to discipline him consistently so he knows what to expect as a result of his actions.
The most important part of the equation is restoration. When the little criminal, weeping, says “sorry” to Mommy and Daddy, we hug and kiss him profusely, drawing him into our lap and assuring him of our unchanging love for him. Most importantly, we encourage him to talk with his heavenly Father, to confess and repent to the One who was most wronged and who forgives abundantly (1 John 1:9). Finally, if a sibling needs an apology, a gentle prompting is made for restoration in that relationship.
2. My son realizes he is under authority.
At first, every baby and toddler wants to rule the world. Wise and loving parents may have quite a time bringing their child under authority. By his third year, my son realized that he must obey not only his parents, but also his Sunday-school teachers, the librarian, his older brother, his grandparents, the policeman, the grocery clerk . . . nearly every adult in the world! Then, it came as quite a shock to him to learn that even adults have to obey people. Mommy obeys Daddy, Daddy obeys his boss, church members obey one another . . . he found out that he may never rule the world. This was a blow to the little ego, but an important lesson for a young child. We must all remain under God-given authority (Romans 13:1).
3. My son already accepts the Bible as the authority for his life.
Daily, multiple times a day, he is read to from God’s Word. Breakfast and dinner usually end with family devotions. Many of our academic studies are covered with open Bibles besides textbooks or research materials. House rules are backed up with scriptural verses or principles. His father tries hard to make the Bible the most important rule in our home (Psalm 119:9, 2 Timothy 2:15).
4. My son experiences the riches of grace.
No 3-year-old appreciates it immediately, but gradually our son will notice that his parents don’t really make him repaint the entire wall he marked up; he doesn’t wash all the clothes he wears; he doesn’t pay the price of all his wrongdoings. His eyes are opened, little by little, to the grace and love by which he is surrounded, and he is humbled to learn of God’s riches toward him. As his parents give him delicious food, warm clothes, and a loving environment no matter how rebelliously he behaves, he sees a living demonstration of grace in his own daily life (Matthew 5:45). So when his parents point to the blessings of God toward all men, even the youngest of sinners can raise a small voice of praise.
That night in my bedroom, I invited my little sinner to run and get his picture Bible so Mommy could show him what God said about his disobeying. He eagerly brought it to my room. We snuggled under the covers as I turned to the beginning. I reminded him of our first parents’ disobedience in the garden. “That story makes me sad,” he said.
“It made God sad too,” I told him. “God wanted them to be with Him forever, but now they could not stay, because disobedience cannot be with God. God wants you to be with Him forever too. So God had a plan for them, and for you.”
I flipped ahead to the New Testament, and we talked about Jesus—His perfection, His miracles, His teaching, His deity. Then, we came to the cross.
“No!” my son protested. “Jesus didn’t die! He just went up to heaven!” His eyes filled with concern. I quietly shared the purpose of Jesus’s death, His taking our discipline in our place on that cross so we could be with God.
“But he isn’t dead. Didn’t he arose?” My son eagerly turned the page, looking for good news. “Look! Angels are saying He arose! Where is Jesus?” So we talked of His resurrection and His meeting with the disciples, and then the little guy was turning the page toward the ascension.
“See! I told you He went to heaven! Finally!”
Every time I share the gospel message with my young children, I end with this simple statement: Someday, when you are older, you will accept God’s gift of salvation for yourself.
“Someday, dear, when you are bigger . . .”
“I will go up to heaven,” he interrupted, making a rocket motion with his hands for emphasis. “And talk about this with Jesus!”
How to Lead Your Own Child to Christ:
- Pray for the Holy Spirit’s leading. Every believer will come to understand the gospel in God’s time; your child will accept Christ’s gift when he is ready. Though one of my children accepted Christ at an extremely young age, another deliberately put off the Spirit for years.
- Don’t rush the decision. Even at home, the child may want to hear the gospel message from beginning to end many times over months or years before accepting it. Keep the discussion frank, nonjudgmental, and gentle.
- Share the gospel simply, in terms the child understands. My father used the Romans Road to lead me to Christ at age 5. I usually share the story of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, drawing parallels to disobedience and punishment. Use examples from the child’s experience.
- Pray in faith (James 5:16). This is one request God delights in hearing and answering!