by John Brock
This article first appeared in FrontLine May/June 2003. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Have you ever heard any of the following statements? “The biggest losers in our Christian school are our church kids.” “The new converts in our youth group are on fire, but our so-called Christian kids are carnal and worldly.” “Half of the kids from Christian homes are probably not saved.” These negative comments are understandable because so many of those who Grow Up Born Again (GUBAs) are immature Christians whose lives seem to bear little spiritual fruit in contrast to those who were saved later in life.
The GUBAs’ passage to adult spiritual maturity often follows a predictable pattern. They were exposed to the gospel at an early age and made a profession of salvation. God used His Word to convince them of their sin and their need to receive Christ as their risen Savior in order to receive forgiveness through the blood of the Lamb. Childlike faith easily believes in the Deity of Christ, Heaven, Hell, the blood atonement, the Virgin Birth, the forgiveness of sin, and a loving God who offered and provided this great salvation by His grace. Skepticism, doubt, and pride tend to be adult sins. Childlike, unconditional faith is the model that Christ gives as an essential requirement for entering the Kingdom of Heaven (Matt. 18:2–4; Mark 10:15; Luke 18:17).
However, after a childhood conversion, most GUBAs grow slowly. Very young GUBAs cannot read the Bible without help. Childlike minds are unable to grasp advanced theological concepts. Thus they are taught and retaught basic Bible stories that Paul, Peter, and the writer of Hebrews called the “milk” of the Word (1 Cor. 3:2; Heb. 5:12; 1 Pet. 2:2). The Scriptural milk diet is necessary because young GUBAs are inherently immature, not because there is anything spiritually wrong with them. That is, they are normal children who must grow before they can mentally digest strong meat. Even Jesus had to grow in “wisdom and stature” (Luke 2:52). Paul, in 1 Corinthians 13:11, differentiated between the understanding of a child and that of an adult. These natural causes of immaturity automatically limit spiritual growth as well. Second Peter 1:5–9 indicates that if a person has not incorporated into his life such advanced concepts of maturity as virtue, temperance, patience, and charity, then certain spiritual deficiencies are automatic. Those listed are as follows:
- Unfruitful spiritual knowledge (v. 8)
- Spiritual blindness or shortsightedness (v. 9)
- Perceptual forgetfulness of our positional righteousness (v. 9)
The writer of Hebrews states that immature milk drinkers are “unskillful in the word” and that strong meat is for those who are of “full age.” Full age is further described as one who has practiced skillful discernment regarding right and wrong. The mature, spiritual believer has acquired convictions through experience and spiritual analysis. This, of course, would be highly unlikely in a GUBA who is younger than age ten.
Limitations on Discipleship for Children
Not only are GUBAs limited in manifesting adult spiritual maturity as a consequence of a spiritual milk diet, but they are also limited in the natural abilities needed for discipleship. Christ in Luke 14:26–33 indicated that discipleship requires the following:
- Loving Christ more than parents or one’s own life (v. 26)
- Bearing one’s cross and following after Christ (v. 27)
- Rational cost-counting analogous to building a tower or going to war (vv. 28–32)
- Forsaking all that one has for Christ (v. 33)
Clearly, Christ is teaching that if one cannot or will not do these things, then he cannot be a disciple. The abstract concepts of self-sacrifice and “cross-bearing” are advanced and beyond most children. Of course, children are unable to determine the number of troops needed for a battle or to calculate building costs accurately. By reason of mental immaturity they are unable to make such calculations, and hence, such commitments. In fact, Christ was teaching against mindless affirmation of fidelity, which is all too easy and childlike. Children’s commitments and promises, while endearing and commendable, are not backed up by comprehension of consequences.
Ask any Sunday school class, “How many of you would follow Christ to the death?” and all the children will raise their hands, none having any notion of the true cost of such flippant decisions. In addition to lacking the mental ability to count the cost, such young believers have little autonomy. They cannot pastor, be a husband or wife, nor can they make and fulfill many spiritual decisions (what church to join, where to attend school, etc.).
Typical GUBA Development
After a child is genuinely saved, he often experiences limited growth for many years. During their teen years, GUBAs occasionally doubt their salvation. Because of slow growth, they have forgotten much about their positional salvation, often not even remembering their salvation experience clearly. They have been told, “old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (2 Cor. 5:17), but rather than understanding this positionally, they view their lives as much the same after salvation as before it. They have not experienced the autonomy to exercise convictions, so behavior is mandated and controlled rather than chosen. Because they have not lived through the transformed life of adult converts, they sometimes doubt their salvation.
As GUBAs reach adolescence, they begin to notice a great reservoir of unmade decisions relating to sex, worldly activities, and spiritual commitment. The maturation process has finally led them to realize their accountability for a host of spiritual issues and choices. As GUBAs realize their need for spiritual growth, these young people can now count the cost. They can make authentic choices of discipleship in response to the Holy Spirit’s convicting and a rational yielding of areas of their lives where they now have autonomy.
Many will call this experience “making sure of their salvation” or “dedication.” Frankly, the semantics are not as important as is the exercising of adult autonomy by making personal choices to follow Christ fully—a process we call progressive sanctification. The abstract concepts of a “living sacrifice” (Rom. 12:1) now gain meaning. At this point, genuine growth and outward change become the fruit of this passage to adult spiritual maturity.
Implications for Parents and Youth Workers
- Do not discount the authenticity of the childhood salvation experience (Matt. 19:14).
- Saturate children with the milk of the Word. But do not expect them to comprehend or digest strong meat when they are young (1 Pet. 2:2). Teach doctrine simply at first, then more fully as they mature.
- By example, show them the expectations of adult maturity (1 Tim. 4:12).
- Realize they are telling the truth when they “don’t see anything wrong with it” related to questionable or worldly activities. This is predicted of immature believers in 2 Peter 1:9.
- Give them evidence regarding “all things” and challenge them to exercise their senses to choose good things. Help them to develop convictions by forming your own based on solid evidence (1 Thess. 5:21).
- Accept spiritual childhood without labeling GUBAs as “spiritual losers” or “unsaved.” Spiritual fruit or lack thereof will be validated or revealed as they develop behavioral and spiritual autonomy (Luke 13:7, 8).
- One cause of immaturity is rebellion and foolishness. Parents must exercise firm discipline, including punishment that teaches sensitivity to sin and the need to repent (Prov. 22:15).
- Be there when children struggle with increased spiritual sensitivity and accountability. Many will need assurance of salvation or help with counting the cost and totally yielding to the demands of discipleship (Gal. 6:2).
- Send them to Fundamental Christian camps where they will be exposed to confrontational preaching related to salvation and discipleship. Camps have been blessed centers of spiritual decision-making because of trained workers and preachers knowledgeable in reaching teens with life-changing truths of God’s Word (1 Cor. 1:21).
- Encourage children and young teens with the truth that God can help them to develop into strong and spiritually mature adults and that, although they feel inadequate and unprepared now, as they follow Christ, they will grow into fit vessels that God can use (Phil. 1:6; 2 Tim. 2:21).
- Dogmatic Don’ts! Don’t let them work on Sundays or Wednesday nights or opt out of youth group meetings and activities (Heb. 10:25)!
Parents need not excuse sinful behavior in youthful believers, but they must realize that physical maturity is related to spiritual maturity. All indicators of mental capacity show an incredible difference between a six-year-old’s and a twenty-year-old’s ability to grasp abstract concepts (such as holiness, surrender, or discipleship). Elementary-age students’ abilities to discern are often pathetic, and they are easily deceived into agreeing with the last well-structured argument they hear. Parents play a vital role in protecting and lovingly educating their children.
Discussions of the doctrine of progressive sanctification typically lack any acknowledgment of physical and mental limitations as they relate to spiritual growth in children. A ten-year-old convert who accepted Christ at age five simply cannot attain the same level of spiritual maturity that we might expect from a thirty-year-old who has been saved for five years. Immaturity is a sin only when one ought to be mature (Heb. 5:12).
Dr. John Brock is Vice President for Academic Affairs at Maranatha Baptist Bible College, Watertown, Wisconsin.