How old must a boy be before he can take communion? What must your daughter do before she may be admitted to the Lord’s Table? These questions are becoming a burning issue in Reformed churches. Indeed, more and more people are beginning to question if there is any legitimate reason that a baptized child should be required to meet some sort of additional criterion before being admitted to the Lord’s Supper.
While that debate still awaits resolution, however, another question is often overlooked: If we assume that only “professing” Christians should be admitted to the Lord’s Supper, how old does that professing Christian need to be? What counts as a “profession”?
It is the purpose of this essay to deal with that question. I will argue that a young child whose parents have taught him to love and trust Jesus is a professing Christian and should be admitted to the Lord’s Supper. My concern is that we Presbyterians often assume that the statements of love for Jesus made by our young covenant children are somehow insincere and unworthy of consideration. We seem to think that the conversion experience and profession of faith of an adult who repents of self-conscious unbelief is the standard by which our young four- and five-year-old children should be judged. Thus, we insist on something else in addition to a profession of faith before we permit children to partake of the Lord’s Supper. Ultimately, we simply make children wait several more years before we will take their professions seriously.
But what does the Bible say?
Children & the Covenant Feasts
Blow a trumpet in Zion,
Consecrate a fast, proclaim a solemn assembly,
Gather the people, sanctify the congregation,
Assemble the elders,
Gather the children and the nursing infants.
Let the bridegroom come out of his room
And the bride out of her bridal chamber (Joel 2.15-16).
Here we find that God considers children, and even infants, members of His congregation. Furthermore, when He declares a fast, God expects the children to take part in some way.
Children were also included in the feasts of Israel, as well as the fasts. The Passover, for instance, was established for all the members of Israelite families without any age limit (Exo 12). Indeed, the inclusion of children at God’s feast was one of the bones of contention between Egypt and Israel. At one point Pharaoh would have let the Israelites go worship God if they had left their “little ones” behind with him (Exo 10.10). Moses had a different idea: “We shall go with our young and our old, with our sons and our daughters, with our flocks and our herds we will go, for we must hold a feast to the Lord” (Exo 10.9). The flocks and herds were needed for sacrifice (Exo 10.25), but obviously the children are simply considered participants with the adults.
Other examples of little children at sacred meals abound in the Old Testament. Children ate manna with their parents (Exo 16), which the Apostle Paul tells us was a sacrament (1 Cor 10.3). The children of priests partook of the portions from the altar with their parents (Lev 10.14). In addition to Passover, all Israelite children were invited to participate in the Feast of Weeks and the Feast of Booths (Exo 12.3; Deu 16.11, 14; 1 Sam 1.4). They also ate of the family peace offerings (Deu 12.6-7, 11-12, 17-18). God emphasized that all the congregation was invited to participate in such meals at the Tabernacle, including the children.
You are not allowed to eat within your gates the tithe of your grain, or new wine, or oil, or the first-born of your herd or flock, or any of your votive offerings which you vow, or your freewill offerings, or the contribution of your hand. But you shall eat them before the LORD your God in the place which the LORD your God will choose, you and your son and daughter, and your male and female servants, and the Levite who is within your gates; and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God in all your undertakings (Deu 12.17-18).
Why were children invited to eat along with their parents? Because God promised that the children of believers belong to the Lord just as their parents do. God promised Abraham “to be God to you and to your children after you” (Gen 17.7). The Psalmist reiterates this foundational promise, singing: “the lovingkindness of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear Him, and His righteousness to children’s children” (Psa 103.17).
“And as for Me, this is My covenant with them,” says the Lord: “My Spirit which is upon you, and My words which I have put in your mouth, shall not depart from your mouth, nor from the mouth of your offspring, nor from the mouth of your offspring’s offspring,” says the Lord, “from now and forever” (Isa 59.21).
The bottom line here is that the Bible promises believers that God will be their God, that He will give them His righteousness, and that His Spirit will not depart from them. What more could anybody ask for? Our children are clearly promised eternal salvation. They are declared to be Christians, nothing less.
Now, let’s be clear, these promises do not mean that our children will somehow end up in Heaven automatically whether or not they have faith in Christ. No, apart from faith no one will be justified. But they do mean that we ought not dismiss the fact that our small children love God and trust Jesus just as we have taught them to. Our little children are believers. We should take the claim of a child to believe in Jesus at face value. We should expect them to simply grow in the Faith from the time of infancy to adulthood. (For more on the authenticity of the faith of children, see “Children & Confession” below.)
This expectation found its way into the inspired hymns of Israel’s worship: “From the mouth of infants and nursing babes Thou has established strength” (Psa 8.2). And again: “For Thou art my hope; O LORD God, Thou art my confidence from my youth. Upon Thee I have been supported from birth; Thou art He who took me from my mother’s womb; my praise is continually in Thee . . . O God, Thou hast taught me from my youth” (Psa 71.5-6, 17). “Yet Thou art He who didst bring me forth from the womb; Thou didst make me trust when upon my mother’s breasts. Upon Thee I was cast from birth; Thou hast been my God from my mother’s womb” (Psa 22.9-10).
It is important to realize that these inspired Psalms are not simply the personal testimony of the psalmist. They are not some sort of extraordinary event which we can regard as exceptional compared to how the children of believers ordinarily come to faith in Christ. No, these Psalms were the corporate hymns of Israel’s public worship. The whole congregation of Israel (including the children!-see Joel 2.15-16 above) sang these Psalms in the presence of the Lord. It would be entirely illegitimate to say that faith from the womb was only meant for some exceptional cases. The regular use of these Psalms on the part of the whole congregation of Israel shows that the salvation of children from the womb was the general expectation.
There are many hymns today about adult conversion from unbelief, yet there is not one Psalm which speaks of that subject. On the other hand, have you ever sung a modern Christian hymn that called for you to put yourself in the place of one who was regenerated in the womb? Our hymns show that we generally expect only adults to be converted. That general expectation is incompatible with God’s hymn book, the Psalter.
There is no evidence that any of this was changed by the coming of Christ in the New Testament. Jesus amply confirmed the Old Testament testimony regarding children:
And they were bringing children to Him so that He might touch them; and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw this, He was indignant and said to them, “Permit the children to come to Me; do not hinder them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I say to you whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it at all.” And He took them in His arms and began blessing them, laying His hands upon them (Mark 10.13-16).
Now, how do we justify measuring the profession of a young child according to the standards of older converts? According to Jesus, our thinking, like the thinking of the disciples, is precisely backwards! Children are the standard by which adults are to be judged. Little children raised from birth to love and trust Jesus must not be treated as if they don’t know God or are incapable of true faith.
Children & Conversion
The truth is clear: God wants us to regard our children as Christians. He does not want us to regard them as little unbelievers who need to be converted at some later age. There is nothing anywhere in Scripture about an “age of accountability” after which their profession of faith may be believed but before which is to be considered insincere hypocrisy.
However, there is a widespread notion among Christians, that our children need to be “converted”-experience a self-conscious time in which one “became” a Christian. Besides all the promises and statements of Scripture that I mentioned above (and more could be cited), we need to ask ourselves if we really know what we are saying when we demand a conversion experience from our children. What is it that our children need to be converted from?
Do they need to repent of refusing to believe the Gospel? I have never heard anywhere of a three-year-old or four-year-old child who tells his mommy or daddy that they are wrong when they say that God exists, or that Jesus died for their sins, or that the Holy Spirit lives in our hearts. To tell children that they need to “believe,” is a rather strange use of the word. By the grace of God our young children never know a time when they did not believe the Gospel! They need to be encouraged to persevere in their belief and grow up to be mature Godly men and women; they do not need their faith undermined by a parent who claims that they are actually unbelievers who have yet to demonstrate true faith!
Do they need to repent of denying the gospel by living in unrepentant sin? Of course, children are sinners, and need to be taught to continually repent and pray for forgiveness when they commit sins. But how can anyone accuse children of living in unrepentant sin? If you accused a professing Christian adult of such a thing, you would need to have evidence or else you would be guilty of gross slander. What did our children ever do to be lumped into the category of “hypocrite,” without any evidence whatsoever? Why should they be considered guilty until proven innocent?
Do they need to repent of trying to save themselves by their own good works? If we teach our children that they are sinners, and that God loves them anyway and sent His Son Jesus to die in their place, why would any child ever think that he can get to Heaven by being good enough? On the other hand, if we teach our children that, though they believe and trust in Jesus, they still need to do something more in order to go to Heaven, aren’t we actually teaching them that faith is not enough, but must be supplemented by some sort of additional work? (For other objections regarding children and salvation by works, see “Children & Confession” below.)
What Christian parents often seem to forget is that, if we say our children are not yet converted, then we are claiming that they are God-haters on their way to Hell. There is no other option. Some people have tried to invent a third possibility by claiming that children are not sinners in God’s sight until they reach some unknown “age of accountability.” This lets them consider their children out of danger until about the time they make a profession of faith.
But this idea simply proves that necessity is the mother of invention. The “age of accountability” is believed simply because it is unthinkable to consider one’s children enemies of Christ and the Gospel for the first decade of their lives. There is no evidence for any such “age” in Scripture, before which they are not guilty of sin. On the contrary, “Behold I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me” (Psa 51.5). Again: “The wicked are estranged from the womb; these who speak lies go astray from the womb (Psa 58.3).
This inborn wickedness is simply the consequence of Original Sin. Adam and Eve did not fall for themselves alone. Just as their children would have enjoyed the benefits and blessings of Adam’s obedience, so they suffered the corruption and guilt of Adam’s sin. Adam’s children are born in his image as sinners (Gen 5.3). By Adam’s sin, death and sin have spread to all people because we all sinned in him (Rom 5.1214). There is no point in anyone’s existence, no age no matter how young, when that person is not ethically accountable to God. Either he is a Hell-bound sinner, or he is saved by grace. He is either in the Old Adam, or in the New Adam. If our children have not been incorporated into Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit then they are without God and without hope in the world. There are no other options.
And do we not believe that our children are incorporated into Christ? When a child is born to us, do we not rejoice? Do we not see with our own eyes our babies admitted into the Church by baptism? Do we not teach them to pray the Lord’s Prayer? To call God by the name of “Father”? Do we not smile when they learn to sing “Jesus Loves Me”? If our children are unconverted then all of this is totally wrong. We are simply giving them false confidence. It is blasphemy for an unbeliever to say the Lord’s Prayer and call God his “Father.” It is presumption for an unregenerate hypocrite to sing, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
When unthinkable tragedy strikes Christians, and a mother miscarries or a toddler dies, do we think that the child is now in Hell? Or do we trust in God’s promise that He is the God not only of ourselves but of our children as well? I once heard a caller to the “Bible Answer Man,” under an obvious weight of emotional stress, ask about his two-and-half-year-old. He was calling on the anniversary of her death in an automobile accident. His daughter, he said, prayed to Jesus and joyfully sang about Him, but he didn’t think she had ever knowingly “asked Jesus into her heart.” Because of this, the man was unsure that his child was in Heaven.
Thank God He has given us firm covenant promises which we can trust! We don’t have to suffer the sort of torment which other Christian parents put themselves through because they don’t understand the covenant. But let’s not undermine these precious promises with any false and shallow ideas about conversion which would deny Christ’s blessings to our young children.
Children & Confession
Of course, sometimes children raised as Christians don’t give us the answers that we expect of them. If we ask a four-year-old girl why she would be admitted into Heaven, she might say, “Because I go to Church,” or “Because I obey my parents.”
Now this may sound like the treason of works-righteous, but are we really understanding the child’s meaning when we interpret her words in such a way? After all, the only reason we can expect to inherit eternal life is because God, in His great mercy, has promised to give eternal life. But He has not promised to give eternal life to everyone. Only those who belong to Christ will benefit from what He has done. I often suspect that the child is simply explaining why she thinks she belongs to Christ. She is not explaining the meritorious ground of her justification (the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ), or the instrument of her justification (faith), but rather by giving reasons for believing that she is one of God’s people to whom the promise of eternal life has been given. And those reasons involve one’s membership in God’s covenant, the Church, and all the fruits which count as evidence that one is truly God’s child-including one’s obedience to the authorities God has appointed.
In other words, if Jesus asked the five-year-old girl, “Why should I let you into my Heaven?” her answer is, “Because you promised to let me in.” The mention of obedience and church attendance is evidence that the child is among those to whom Christ has made that promise. Our Confession of Faith recognizes this sort of answer because assurance of eternal life is based in part on the presence “of those graces to which the promises are made” (18.2).
How should we deal with such confusion? How should we make sure that our children know the difference between a reason for assurance of eternal life and a reason for the meriting of eternal life? Very simply, we should try to explain it in an age-appropriate fashion. If the child says that she gets to go to Heaven because she goes to Church, we should not be shocked, but simply explain to her that people who go to Church get to go to Heaven because Jesus died for them. As the child grows and matures a more elaborate explanation can (and should) be given (one that explains why not all people who go to Church will get to Heaven, etc.).
It is a certainly true that a three-year-old believer will confess his faith differently than a thirteen-year-old. And a thirteen-year-old will confess his faith differently than a thirty-three-year-old. As the believer gets older his confession should become more comprehensive. But where in the Bible does it give us an age at which one’s confession is comprehensive enough to count as genuine, and before which it is regarded simply as rote and insincere? We have no more warrant for discounting the confession of a three-year-old than that of a thirteen-year-old, or even a thirty-three-year-old. All three of them could always mature further in the Faith and give a more comprehensive confession. If God says that He has prepared praise “from the mouth of infants and nursing babes” (Matt 21.16; Psa 8.2), then we are on rather dangerous ground claiming that the immature confession of faith of a child is not good enough to count as a genuine Christian confession. If we patiently get to know these little ones, we will find that they are believers, even if they can’t explain doctrines as well as we would expect from older children.
Another common objection to taking the confession of children as an evidence of genuine Christian faith is that young children will believe or do anything that their parents teach them, and that therefore their profession of faith is not to be regarded as sincere or authentic. But does such an objection make any sense? The reason why children believe whatever their parents teach them is precisely because they are quite capable of sincere faith! Furthermore, the Bible promises that the Holy Spirit is at work in our children (Isa 59.21). When parents train and discipline their child in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, there is more going on than a purely natural work. We are not simply conditioning our children by rewards and punishments. The Holy Spirit is also at work in the child’s heart. This expectation of the Spirit’s work in our children should affect how we view our children’s faith. When the Bible says that “every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God” (1 John 4.2), no exception is given for children under the age of five-years-old.
Finally, the fact that some children grow up and apostatize from the Faith is viewed as a reason for us to not take a four-year-old’s confession of faith seriously. But this also happens with adults who profess faith. The Bible tells us that Simon the Sorcerer “believed” (Act 8.13), but then fell away. Jesus told us that some in the Church will “believe for a while, and in time of temptation fall away” (Luk 8.13). The Bible does not give us some age after which we no longer need to worry about the possibility of apostasy. If we can take the profession of faith of an adult at face value, despite the possibility of apostasy, then there is no reason we should not also take the profession of faith of a child at face value.
How do we deal with the possibility that a child might apostatize in the future? The same way we deal with that possibility for adults. We exhort them to continue in the faith (Col 1.23), to grow and mature as Christians through the means of grace. We exhort them not to receive the grace of God in vain by turning away from the Gospel (2 Cor 6.1), but to hold fast to the Word by which they are saved (1 Cor 15.2). In other words, we exhort all professing Christians to persevere. But we do not treat people as virtual nonchristians until they achieve some level of commitment which makes them “real” Christians who no longer need to worry about persevering.
What is the Significance of Admission to the Lord’s Supper?
The Apostle Paul writes:
Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ? Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread. Look at the nation of Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices sharers in the altar? (1 Cor 10.16-18).
Here we see a couple of things. First of all, the Apostle Paul ties the Lord’s Supper to all the peace offerings, the Priest’s portions, and the three festivals of Passover, the Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Booths-for all of these involved eating from the altar. As we have seen above, in all of these situations, the children were participants in the sacraments.
Secondly, and more importantly, we see that permitting someone to participate in the Lord’s Supper simply signifies that the participant is recognized to be a Christian-to be part of the body of Christ. That is why we invite visitors from other denominations to participate in Communion with us. If they are members of Christian churches then they have a right to eat and drink with us. For us to only allow Presbyterians to have access to the Lord’s Supper would be to declare that we think all non-Presbyterians are unbelievers. Because it is the Lord’s Supper and not our supper, we know it would be highly offensive to Christ for us to cut off other Christians from the sacrament.
Now, according to the Bible, our children who have been raised to believe in Jesus are (at least!) as much Christians as adults are who believe in Jesus. They are members of Christ’s body, the Church. Thus, they certainly ought to be permitted to partake of the Lord’s Supper.
The Reformed “Regulative Principle of Worship”
At what age should a child be admitted to the Lord’s Supper? One of the most notable facts in this debate is that the Bible does not tell us! From the time that an eight-day-old boy is circumcised, to the age of twenty when a man could go to war (Num 14.29), there is no age at which a child reaches some sort of stage of maturity which admits him to the feasts. It simply is not an issue in Scripture for the simple reason that young children were never denied access to the feasts to begin with!
Thus, different Reformed Churches have admitted children to the Lord’s Supper at vastly different ages. Some have waited for a profession of faith at the age of seven, and some have waited for the seventeenth year. Since there is no Biblical standard to which anyone can appeal, there is no common practice among Christians. Lacking an age at which one is to be admitted to the Lord’s Supper, we have been forced to make one up out of the imaginations of our hearts.
Some have begun saying that the age of thirteen, the time of the Jewish bar mitzvah, is the age when a child should be admitted to the Lord’s Supper. But there is no instruction about bar-mitzvah’s in the Bible. That is merely a Jewish tradition of men. And, in fact, in Judaism children have always partaken of Passover at young ages, long before they ever reach their bar-mitzvah. So not only is there no reason to resort to non-christian Jewish traditions, but those traditions do not support making children wait until the age of thirteen before they’re allowed to participate in the Lord’s Supper.
Why do some people feel the need to grasp at such straws in order to find a standard by which to know when a child can be admitted to the Lord’s Supper? The answer, I think, lies in the Regulative Principle of Worship. According to the Reformed understanding, we must worship God in the way that He commands in Scripture by precept, principle, or example. But there is no precept, principle, or example for us in this matter. If we are determined to hold back children from the Lord’s Supper until they reach a certain age, we then must be arbitrary in what age we decide upon. Scripture is deafeningly silent on the question, because Scripture is unaware of any such age.
Is A Double Standard Justifiable?
Throughout cultures influenced by Christianity, it became a slogan in times of hardship or emergency to abide by the rule, “Women and children first.” In a Christian society those who are weaker and more vulnerable are given special help to compensate.
Now, sometimes this rule does not apply. For example, a woman and a man who commit the same crime should receive the same punishment. Furthermore, physical requirements for fire fighters should not be relaxed for the sake of women, because that would endanger the lives both of the women and those needing rescue from fire. Thus, sometimes a good standard applied evenly will discriminate against weaker members of society. However, it is always the case that a weaker member of society should not be held to some higher or more strict standard than others. On Christian principles, such a practice would be positively perverse.
Now consider how we apply the traditional understanding of 1 Corinthians 11.27-31. We say we interpret this verse to mean that anyone who partakes of the Lord’s Supper must be able to “examine himself”–search his conscience–and “judge the body rightly”–understand what the bread represents. Now there is currently a debate going on as to whether the passage has been properly interpreted, and whether it was ever meant to apply to children. That is an interesting debate, but it is rather irrelevant to the way we Presbyterians actually apply the passage. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the traditional interpretation of the passage is correct: What actually happens in real life is that the passage is almost always applied only to children. Adults are permitted to partake of the Lord’s Supper whereas children put under additional requirements which hold them back from sacramental fellowship. These requirements would also hold back many adults from the Lord’s Supper if we ever bothered to apply them to grown-ups.
Consider a new adult convert who has just been baptized. That person would be permitted and even encouraged to partake of the Lord’s Supper that very day, even though he might only have the most rudimentary understanding of the Law of God or the meaning of the Lord’s Supper. One of our children could easily possess a better understanding of the Law of God and thus a better ability to examine his conscience; yet that child would not be allowed to partake. One of our children could easily possess a better understanding of the sacrament than a recent adult convert; yet the adult is admitted to the Table while the child is barred.
Consider visitors to our congregation from other denominations. We don’t bar visitors from the Lord’s Table do we? No, we tell them that the Lord’s Table is for all Christians. If they are members in good standing of an Evangelical Church, they are invited to join us in Communion. Thus, Baptists, who believe that the bread and wine are nothing more than symbols, or Missouri Synod Lutherans, who perhaps go to the other extreme, are permitted and encouraged to eat and drink with us. Meanwhile, our own children who have probably never even imagined such doctrinal errors are made to be nothing more than observers.
Consider elderly Christians. When was the last time someone was barred from the Lord’s Supper because he was senile and no longer possessed the mental capacity to “examine himself” or “judge the body rightly”? I think we all recoil from the idea that a great-grandmother should be kept from sacramental fellowship with the Church and Christ just because she has lost some of her mental abilities near the end of her life. We don’t excommunicate people for getting senile! But a child with even greater mental ability is made to wait until he meets some other greater requirement.
The point here is that, when it comes to adults, we all know what participation in the Lord’s Supper means: It means that the participants are Christians. Nothing more! It does not require a great deal of ethical or doctrinal understanding and never has. All an adult has to do to take the Lord’s Supper is not be engaging in unrepentant, scandalous sin. Thus, only children are actually made to submit to the rules which we tell ourselves are for everybody. Children, and only children, actually have to worry about some vaguely defined “level of understanding.” Only children actually have to reach some precise level of knowledge about the meaning of the Lord’s Supper.
We all know that we fence the Lord’s Table from unbelievers. But now we do more. What we virtually end up doing is fencing the Lord’s Table from unbelievers and children–as if they both belonged in the same category. Everything we profess to believe about God’s covenant promises to our children is severely undermined by this practice.
Are We “Judging the Body Rightly” When We Exclude Children?
As mentioned above, the “classic text” used in Reformed circles for keeping young children away from the Lord’s Supper is 1 Corinthians 11.27-29. According to the traditional view, children should not be admitted to the Lord’s Supper because a child cannot “examine himself” or “judge the body.” The problem here is that there is simply no evidence anywhere in Scripture that children are incapable of doing these things.
What I wrote above about the confession of a young child also applies to the self-examination of a young child. A four-year-old girl is capable of examining her conscience according to the capacity of her age. Yes, there is a difference between what a four-year-old can do and a fourteen-year-old can, just as there is a difference between the sort of self-examination a fourteen-year-old is able to do and what a forty-year-old is able to do. But there is no Biblical warrant for claiming that the four-year-old’s self-examination is insufficient. We could, with as much Biblical warrant (i.e. none) claim that only people twenty-five years old and up are “mature enough” or have reached the correct “level of understanding” to take the Lord’s Supper.
Likewise, there is no Biblical reason to claim that a five-year-old boy is incapable of understanding that the bread represents Christ’s body and the wine His blood. Of course, if some sort of exhaustive understanding is required of the nature of the sacrament, then we should all stop partaking. Even the great theologian John Calvin admitted that he could not completely fathom the mystery of the Supper.
Of course, 1 Corinthians 11.27-29 is still an extremely relevant passage for deciding whether or not young children should be permitted to partake of the Lord’s Supper. The Apostle Paul is warning the Corinthians that they are “sham[ing] those who have nothing” (1 Cor 11.22) because some people are gorging themselves at the Lord’s Supper while others are not being given anything. Thus, he concludes “So then, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another” (1 Cor 11.33). The Apostle Paul is telling the Corinthians that all members of the Church must participate in the Lord’s Supper!
If we deny the sacrament to some members of the Body of Christ then we are not judging the body rightly. Each one of us needs to examine himself to see if we are harboring in our hearts the idea that access to the Lord’s Supper is some sort of achievement on our part–something to which we have won the right while others have not. According to the Apostle Paul, this sort of thinking has no place in the Lord’s Supper. If we partake, without “waiting for one another,” then we are in danger of eating and drinking judgment against ourselves.
Conclusion: How should we then raise our children?
And it will come about when your children will say to you, “What is this service to you?” that you shall say, “It is a Passover sacrifice to the LORD because He passed over the houses of the sons of Israel in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but delivered our homes (Exo 12.26-27).
When your son asks you in time to come, saying, “What do the testimonies and the statutes and the judgments mean which the LORD commanded you?” then you shall say to your son, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt; and the LORD brought us from Egypt with a mighty hand. Moreover, the LORD showed great and distressing signs and wonders before our eyes against Egypt, Pharaoh and all his household; and He brought us out from there in order to bring us in, to give us the land which He had sworn to our fathers. So the LORD commanded us to observe these statutes, to fear the LORD our God for our good always and for our survival, as it is today (Deu 6.20-25).
Here we have two different questions which young children are expected to ask their parents: What does Passover mean? and What does this way of life mean? The answers which the parents are to give in response to these two questions are quite similar to one another: We do this because God saved us. That God had delivered Israel from Egypt was an objective historical fact. It was the object of faith for the Israelites and the surety of the promises God had made for the future.
God’s deliverance of Israel was a token of His great love for Israel, which in turn was the basis for Israel’s obedience. Moses explains it quite clearly:
For you are a holy people to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for His special treasure out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. The LORD did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but because the LORD loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers, the LORD brought you out by a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore that the LORD your God, He is God, the faithful God, who keeps His covenant and His lovingkindness to a thousandth generation with those who love Him and keep His commandments; but repays those who hate Him to their faces, to destroy them; He will not delay with him who hates Him, He will repay him to his face. Therefore, you shall keep the commandment and the statutes and the judgments which I am commanding you today, to do them (Deu 7.7-11).
Here again we see the faith of Israel: God loves us. God saved us. We must be loyal to Him; if we are ultimately unfaithful we will be cut off from His covenant. This motive is summarized in the beginning of the Ten Commandments: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt our of the house of slavery. You shall have no other Gods before Me” (Exo 20.2-3). Again: God saved us. We must be loyal to Him.
The Israelites were told to teach their children what God had done for them, and how they should respond in loving trust and grateful obedience. Every Israelite knew that God loved him because God loved Israel and he was a part of Israel. In the case of male children, they were made members of Israel by circumcision. Nevertheless, they knew they would not inherit the promises if they did not persevere in faith.
We see this same pattern in the teaching of Jesus, when He told the Eleven disciples:
I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does no bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it, that it may bear more fruit. You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you, unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me, and I in him, he bears much fruit; for apart from Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch, and dries up; and they gather them and cast them into the fire, and they are burned. By this is My Father glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples. Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love (John 15.1-9).
Jesus gives His disciples a similar motivation to that which He gave to Old Testament Israel through Moses: Jesus loves us. Jesus saved us. We must be loyal to Him. Jesus gave Himself for His Bride, the Church (Eph 5.25). Just like the deliverance of Israel from Egypt, Christ’s victory over Satan and Death through His crucifixion and resurrection is an objective historical fact. It is the object of faith for all Christians and the surety of the promises Christ has made for the future.
Now, we are told to teach our children what God had done for them, and how they should respond in loving trust and grateful obedience. Every Christian should know that God loves him because God loves His Bride the Church and he is a part of the Church. We have all been made members of the Church through baptism. Nevertheless, we know we will not inherit the promises if we do not persevere in faith.
Thus, a Christian philosophy of child-raising should be based on our objective standing in Christ’s Kingdom, conferred on us and our children through baptism. According to Deuteronomy 6. 20-25, when our children ask us about why we do certain things or don’t do certain things we should tell them about what Jesus has done for us: How He died for us and rose again and sent His Spirit to give His Church union and communion with Himself. How He providentially arranged for us to be made members of His Church through baptism and how He weekly renews His covenant with us–meets with us, forgives our sins, and feeds us with Himself. How we must respond to His great love and wonderful promises by believing them with a trusting heart, and by responding in grateful obedience all our lives.
According to Exodus 12.26-27, when our children ask us about the Lord’s Supper (the fulfillment of Passover) we are to tell them about how Jesus gave His body and shed His blood for us so that we might have His life. Notice that the answer given about Passover is extremely simple and brief. It could easily be heard and understood by a very young child. As our children mature in the faith we can give them more detailed answers to their questions. But the main point is that we celebrate the Lord’s Supper because He gave Himself for us and nourishes us with Himself. We love Him because He first loved us. Our little children need to hear that message over and over again from their parents.
The only way we can expect any child to have a firm faith is by giving him a firm foundation on which that faith may rest. If we make our children think that God’s favor in Christ is something which they need to attain, then we will greatly confuse them. Instead, we must teach them that they have been engrafted into Christ (Rom 11.17) by His great mercy to them. We must raise them to respond to God’s love and mercy in Christ by a life of faith and obedience, so that they remain in Him and He in them (John 15.4).
Our children need their faith confirmed by the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, just as much as we do. Indeed, if their faith is relatively weak, that is all the more reason we must reconsider our practice of barring these professing Christians-these our little brothers and sisters in Christ-from communion with our Lord. Even apart from God’s command that we admit all His followers to the Lord’s Table, our duty to raise our children in the nurture and admonition in the Lord requires us to admit them.