In Reformed life we believe in the sovereignty of God in salvation, but it often seems we also believe our children will be converted provided they are brought up in the ‘right way’. I have three questions about that.
Is it biblical?
There is a long tradition that the children of believers are especially privileged with regard to salvation. Genesis 17:7 promises to Israel, ‘I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you…’. Paul appears to repeat this promise with regard to salvation to the Philippian jailor in Acts 16:31: ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved, you and your children.’
However, we shouldn’t assume that Genesis 17 promises spiritual salvation. It is a national covenant between God and Israel which consists of outward privileges, which could indeed be inherited. But not all Jews receive spiritual salvation. This is made clear by Paul in Romans 2:28‑29 when he says that a ‘true’ Jew is not only outwardly but inwardly so.
It’s equally a mistake to regard Acts 16:31 as a promise that God will give spiritual salvation to the children of all believers just as He formerly gave national privilege to the children of Abraham. Paul might simply be saying here that the children of the jailor are included in the invitation he was given: both he and they could believe and be saved. To know which interpretation is right one has to look at the general teaching of the New Testament, and there is only one other passage that might support the idea of what might be called ‘family salvation’:
the unbelieving husband has been sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is they are holy. (1 Cor. 7:14)
However, this passage is not a promise that God will do something at all, least of all save family members. Rather, it is a statement that God accepts the presence of unbelieving people alongside their believing family members in the life and worship of the Church. In ancient Jewish tradition it was held that an apostate husband rendered his whole family ‘unclean’ or ‘unholy’ so that they were banned from synagogue life and worship. Paul is simply reversing that rule to welcome unbelieving family members into Christian fellowship and worship.
Is it true?
There would seem, in fact, to be a simpler test of family salvation than debating the meaning of texts. If Acts 16:31 is a promise of God it must be true, and not sometimes but always. Is it? Has every child of every believer turned to Christ? If not, it would seem plain enough that God does not promise as much. Yet those who believe in family salvation tend at this point to grant that we cannot be certain that every child will be saved, but we can be regarding those of whom Proverbs22:6 is true: ‘Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.’ The trouble is twofold with applying this proverb to children being saved: first, no child can be trained to be saved when saving faith is the sovereign gift of God; second, the proverb is not about salvation but moral training. It teaches that childhood lessons will generally become lifelong convictions, and many unbelieving offspring of evangelicals have demonstrated that.
Of course, the children of believers are more privileged than others. They grow up under the sound of the gospel and under the influence and prayers of believers. These are ‘means’ that God uses to bring people to himself so it is entirely in keeping with his sovereignty that he might place his elect in Christian homes where through these means they will be saved. However, a sovereign God gives no guarantee our children are elect, even when they are brought up the ‘right way’. Children from the same home may go different ways, giving the lie to that idea. Even from the best of homes children rebel. Charles Wesley, for example, broke his heart over a son who rejected the Evangelical faith to become a Roman Catholic, largely because as a musician he loved the Catholic choral tradition.
There are many more examples from history. A great Baptist evangelist and pastor of the following generation, Andrew Fuller, led hundreds to faith but one of his own sons became a complete rebel. The saintly William Wilberforce witnessed all his children turn from Evangelicalism, one of them becoming such a fool with money that his debts were only paid off when Wilberforce sold up his house in old age to live thereafter with another of his sons. Later in the 19th century, the famous Evangelical leader Bishop J. C. Ryle would be devastated by a son who rejected Evangelicalism to become a leading liberal theologian. The same thing later happened to the 1904 revival leader, R. B. Jones.
More recent examples could include world-famous evangelical leaders whose piety is beyond question, but I hope the point is made. There is not a straight line between bringing up children the ‘right way’ and seeing them converted. If you have a rebel child, you are in good, if sad, company.
How can we cope if our children turn away?
My final question is about how to cope with the pain of having rebel children. I have known some parents echo Paul in willingness to be themselves accursed if it would win back a child. I have heard others wonder, however theologically wrong it may be, how they can be happy in heaven without all their children being with them. Some parents have confessed to me that they have almost lost their faith through years of apparently unanswered prayer.
I suggest we first need to deal with guilt. Parents will inevitably wonder if they drove away their children. If that it is true, the answer is not self-condemnation but repentance. But then there is false guilt. Every parent fails to live according to God’s standard all the time. Unbelieving children give that as their reason not to believe. Even if they mean it sincerely, they are wrong. Christ is the proof that Christianity is true, not us. And the fact is that unbelievers make excuses for themselves; in a Christian home the accusation of hypocrisy is remarkably handy for them. I have known wrecks of church families produce fine Christian children as well as exemplary families see their children rebel. Needless to say, we cannot make excuses for our sins on this basis and we may well need to sort out issues in our personal lives or relationships.
Meanwhile, we need to remain unconditionally loving to wayward children. Be sure of this: they will never be nagged into the kingdom of heaven, or psychologically drummed into the guilt we think they ought to feel. Worse still, beware of turning this issue inwards in self-pity, exchanging love for anger toward an unbelieving child. What they need to experience is the extravagant love shown to the Prodigal Son by his father, who welcomed back his son without a word of condemnation. The final word must surely be that we face a spiritual battle to remain faithful in prayer, even though it may not be answered immediately, or even in our lifetime.