Teaching Doctrine to a Six-Year-Old
I've just finished writing a short book on justification. Lord willing, it will be published later this year by Crossway under the title Counted Righteous in Christ . In one section of it I ask, "Why would a pressured pastor with a family to care for . . . devote so much time and energy to the controversy over the imputation of Christ's righteousness? Well, it is precisely because I have a family to care for, and so do hundreds of my people." Here is part of the answer I wrote in Chapter One of the new book:
Yes, I have a family to care for. Four sons are grown and out of the house. But they are not out of our lives. In person and on the phone every week there are major personal, relational, vocational, theological issues to deal with. In every case the root issue comes back to: What are the great truths revealed in Scripture that can give stability and guidance here? Listening and affection are crucial. But if they lack Biblical substance, my counsel is hollow. Touchy-feely affirmation won't cut it. Too much is at stake. These young men want rock under their feet.
My daughter, Talitha, is six years old. Recently she and my wife and I were reading through Romans together. This was her choice after we finished Acts. She is just learning to read, and I was putting my finger on each word. She stopped me in mid-sentence at the beginning of chapter five and asked, "What does 'justified' mean?" What do you say to a six-year-old? Do you say, There are more important things to think about, so just trust Jesus and be a good girl? Or do you say that it is very complex and even adults are not able to understand it fully, so you can wait and deal with it when you are older? Or do we say that it simply means that Jesus died in our place so that all our sins might be forgiven?
Or do we tell a story (which is what I did), made up on the spot, about two accused criminals, one guilty and one not guilty (one did the bad thing, and one did not do it)? The one who did not do the bad thing is shown, by all those who saw the crime, to be innocent. So the judge "justifies" him, that is, he tells him he is a law-abiding person and did not do the crime and can go free. But the other accused criminal, who really did the bad thing, is shown to be guilty, because all the people who saw the crime saw him do it. But then, guess what! The judge "justifies" him too and says, "I regard you as a law-abiding citizen with full rights in our country (not just a forgiven criminal who may not be trusted or fully free in the country)." At this point Talitha looks at me puzzled.
She does not know how to put her finger on the problem but senses that something is wrong here. So I say, That's a problem isn't it? How can a person who really did break the law and do the bad thing, be told by the judge that he is a law-keeper, a righteous person, with full rights to the freedoms of the country, and doesn't have to go to jail or be punished? She shakes her head. Then I go back to Romans 4:5 and show her that God "justifies the ungodly." Her brow is furrowed. I show her that she has sinned and I have sinned and we are all like this second criminal. And when God "justifies" us he knows we are sinners and "ungodly" and "law-breakers." And I ask her. "What did God do so that it's right for him say to us sinners: you are not guilty; you are law-keepers in my eyes; you are righteous; and you are free to enjoy all that this country has to offer?"
She knows it has something to do with Jesus and his coming and dying in our place. That much she has learned. But what more do I tell her now? The answer to this question will depend on whether mom and dad have faithfully taught about the imputation of Christ's righteousness. Will they tell her that Jesus was the perfect law-keeper and never sinned, but did everything the judge and his country expected of him? And will they tell her that when he lived and died, he not only took her place as a punishment-bearer but also stood in her place as a law-keeper? Will they say that he was punished for her and he obeyed the law for her? And if she will trust him, the Judge, God, will let Jesus' punishment and Jesus' righteousness count for hers. So when God "justifies" her – says that she is a forgiven and righteous (even though she was not punished and did not keep the law) – he does it because of Jesus. Jesus is her righteousness, and Jesus is her punishment. Trusting Jesus makes Jesus so much her Lord and Savior that he is her perfect goodness and her perfect punishment.
There are thousands of Christian families in the world who never have conversations like this. Not at six or sixteen. I don't think we have to look far then for the weakness of the church and the fun-oriented superficiality of many youth ministries and the stunning fall-out rate after high school. But how shall parents teach their children if the message they get week in and week out from the pulpit is that doctrine is unimportant? So, yes, I have a family to care for. And therefore I must understand the central doctrines of my faith – understand them so well that they can be translated for all the different ages of my children.