Today the Church is a spiritual nation, a family paralleling the original Israel God called in the Old Testament. Are God's expectations for the parents and children in the Church any less than what they were for ancient Israel?
The apostle Peter confirmed this fundamental principle when he declared at the end of his powerful sermon on the Day of Pentecost:
"Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call" (Acts 2:38-39).
The Impact of Acts 2:38-39
In this tremendously important statement, God confirmed His intent to work spiritually with three groups of people:
You—specifically, those repentant Jews Peter was addressing, of whom about 3,000 were baptized that day.
And to your children—their descendants who, even though they did not have the spiritual maturity for the weighty commitment of baptism that day, had the same promise given to them.
And to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call—of primary importance at the time, this meant God would call the gentiles, who were previously "afar off" (Ephesians 2:13, 17).
God's promise to the second category, "your children"—the offspring of the converted—is a special blessing. Under the Old Covenant, the children were included from its inception (Genesis 17:7). They were also present when the Old Covenant was renewed (Deuteronomy 29:10-13; Joshua 8:35). They were part of religious assemblies (Joel 2:16) and received God's promises along with the adults (Isaiah 54:13; Jeremiah 31:34).
Since the New Testament Church began primarily with Jews who understood their blessings through the Old Covenant, a logical question with the issuance of new promises under a New Covenant would have been, What about our children?
Matthew Henry makes some interesting comments to this perspective: "'Your children shall still have, as they have had, an interest in the covenant, and a title to the external seal of it. Come over to Christ, to receive those inestimable benefits; for the promise of the remission of sins, and the gift of the Holy Ghost, is to you and to your children,' v. 39. It was very express. (Isa. 44:3): I will pour my Spirit upon thy seed. And (Isa. 59:21), My Spirit and my word shall not depart from thy seed, and thy seed's seed.
"When God took Abraham into covenant, he said, I will be a God to thee, and to thy seed (Gen. 17:7); and, accordingly, every Israelite had his son circumcised at eight days old. Now it is proper for an Israelite, when he is by baptism to come into a new dispensation of this covenant, to ask, 'What must be done with my children? Must they be thrown out, or taken in with me?' 'Taken in' (says Peter) "by all means; for the promise, that great promise of God's being to you a God, is as much to you and to your children now as ever it was" (Matthew Henry's Commentary, Acts 2:37-41).
The children Peter referred to in Acts 2:39 are in a unique category. As Paul later wrote, "For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy" (1 Corinthians 7:14).
The word sanctification is "used of (a) separation to God" (Matthew Henry's Commentary, "Sanctification, Sanctify"). Something or someone "sanctified" is set apart in a separate category for a particular use. "Holy" comes from the Greek word hagios, which "fundamentally signifies 'separated' (among the Greeks, dedicated to the gods), and hence, in Scripture in its moral and spiritual significance, separated from sin and therefore consecrated to God, sacred" (ibid., "Holiness, Holy, Holily").
In families where either parent is a believer, by virtue of being called and chosen, God views both his or her unbelieving mate and children in a very special way. This verse does not necessarily say that unbelieving mates are called by God (especially in light of the term "unbelieving"), but they are in an unusually blessed position. They live with a converted person and are thus exposed, in a very close and personal manner, to God's way of life.
While the believer's conduct may be a powerful example for the unbelieving mate (1 Peter 3:1-2), he or she can usually go farther than just setting an example with the children, actively teaching them God's way and directly developing their understanding and relationship with Him. Without the influence of a converted parent, children in that household would be no different than others who in ignorance disobey God and lead spiritually "unclean" lives.
But because of the parent's conversion and relationship with God, such children are not as others. They are in a special category. Though not baptized, they are part of the "holy nation," the Church. Though they are not converted, they do have special access to the knowledge of the way of God.
If and when they become personally convicted of God's way of life and accept and respond to their calling, they, too, can receive the Holy Spirit as promised. Personal repentance must be deeply experienced; the lifelong commitment must be well understood; and the responsibilities of an "ambassador for Christ" must be accepted with spiritual gravity and maturity.
Competent counseling from a variety of spiritually wise people—ministers, parents and experienced members, for example—can greatly aid a young adult's development toward baptism.
Factors Affecting the Outcome
A called person is invited to understand God's way, accept His authority in his or her life, surrender to Him, be baptized, partake of the Holy Spirit, prepare for His coming Kingdom and inherit immortality at the first resurrection. However, the way that children who grow up in the Church are called will differ from what most adults experience.
A child's calling is gradual and becomes more personal as he or she grows and matures. This is often manifested in the many steps of decision making that increase as the child matures to a young adult. An adult's calling is likely to be more abrupt or dramatic (like the apostle Paul's in Acts 9). He or she will also bring a more worldly oriented perspective when entering into the Church.
Experience shows that, as with all people called, some young people who grow up in the Church relate to and respond favorably to God's way of life, while others do not. When should one consider that a child has an invitation to pursue God's truth and Holy Spirit? Does it only apply to the biological child of a converted member? What about a stepchild, foster child, grandchild or niece? What about the older teenager of a newly converted parent? What about the grown children of a recently converted parent? What about a young teenager whose parents have turned from the truth?
The Bible does not specifically address each of these situations, but does give a guiding principle to apply. Once more, it is found in revisiting the fundamental lesson of the tree of life.
Though invited to partake of the tree representing God's Spirit and the road to eternal life, Adam and Eve chose instead to take from the forbidden tree. Nevertheless, they had exposure to the tree of life; it was in full view to them, and they had access to it.
Similarly, when God calls people, they are invited to partake of His Spirit, the spiritual tree of life. Their degree of exposure to this tree of life is critical, especially for a young person developing skills in decision making.
Numerous factors determine the type and degree of positive exposure to God's way and work together to affect the eventual response of a young person to that invitation. These influences include but are not limited to:
Age—for example, an older child about to leave home perhaps will not have much exposure to the truth if a parent is called at that time in his or her life.
Influence of friends and peers.
Influence of popular culture (e.g., television, movies, music).
Personality, aptitudes, interests.
Example of parent(s).
Example of other family members.
Influence of the congregation—member and leadership examples, Sabbath services, church activities.
Amount and Quality of Instruction From Parent(s)
The greatest deterring factor, of course, is Satan the devil and his societal structure. As he did with Adam and Eve, he works mightily to persuade each person to reject God's bidding. Satan craftily aims his efforts at manipulating the negative sides of all these influencing factors. The parental or guardian role is extremely important for children, because those filling this role have the opportunity and responsibility to design a home environment that gives children maximum understanding of the way of God and protection from the influence of Satan's world.
For example, consider a child who grows up in a home where both parents are members of God's Church, but are unable to attend church services or fellowship with brethren. Furthermore, the parents are seldom seen studying the Bible or praying and give little religious instruction in the home. How much is set before this child's eyes that will help him or her choose to respond to God's calling?
On the other hand, consider parents who become converted when their child is very young.
They proceed to teach this child God's truths with a positive, encouraging approach, regularly praying together, conducting regular in-home Bible studies, and frequently discussing His plan and the wonderful blessings available both now and later in His Kingdom. They also attend weekly Sabbath services in a supportive, nurturing congregation. This child has a much greater opportunity to personally relate to and clearly understand the benefits and blessings God offers.
Without question, family and Church life profoundly influence children as they mature and make their decisions about whether or not they will follow God. For this reason, God speaks plainly about parental duty.
The Parents' Responsibility
The greatest positive factor in children's lives should be the parents. Fathers and mothers can exert a far more profound influence in their children's upbringing than any other factor. Sadly, all too many parents relinquish their God-given role to other persons or influences, which can bring about negative results.
In Proverbs 22:6 God instructs parents to "train up a child in the way he should go." This straightforward scriptural instruction leaves little room to wonder what God desires and expects. He clearly urges them to teach their children His way, expecting they will follow it. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia says of this passage: "'Train up a child' means more than to teach, and includes everything that pertains to the proper development of the child, especially in its moral and spiritual nature" ("Train; Trained," Electronic Database, 1996).
Notice Psalm 78:3-7: "Which we have heard and known, and our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children, telling to the generation to come the praises of the Lord, and His strength and His wonderful works that He has done. For He established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel, which He commanded our fathers, that they should make them known to their children; that the generation to come might know them, the children who would be born, that they may arise and declare them to their children, that they may set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep His commandments."
Paul added, "Do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord" (Ephesians 6:4).
The Church also bears certain responsibilities for spiritual child development. When Christ emphasized to Peter three times that he must take care of the people (John 21:15-17), twice He said to feed, or tend, "My sheep," while once saying, "feed My lambs."
Jesus commissioned the Church to make disciples (Matthew 28:19-20). What more fertile ground exists for making disciples than that of our youth who have already been called by God?
The entire Church must be involved in this work.
When the Calling Is Not Pursued
What about children who choose not to respond to God's calling? Are they headed to the lake of fire? Can they pursue God at a later time?
Those who do not respond to God's calling now have not necessarily forfeited their only opportunity to receive eternal life. Only God knows the heart or mind of each individual and when each person has had sufficient exposure to and understanding of His way of life. Since God does not treat people unfairly (Romans 2:11; Ephesians 6:9; Colossians 3:25; 1 Peter 1:17), those He deems to have not received an appropriate opportunity for salvation now will assuredly receive one later. Jesus Christ is the One who will perfectly decide such matters (John 5:22).
We do know this: Receiving the Holy Spirit requires repentance, which presupposes knowledge of and obedience to God's law (Acts 5:32), and leads to an intensely deep, personal relationship with God. If one has received the Holy Spirit and then rejects God, he is indeed in danger of the lake of fire. But if one has not yet sufficiently understood God's expectations so as to make an informed decision, God can and will continue to work with him.
God's calling is not merely a one-time event, but a process! It involves an ongoing interaction between a loving Father and His children.
Although it is highly ironic, sometimes temporarily rejecting God's calling lays the groundwork for accepting it later. Eventually, those who depart from God's way will walk into trouble, will experience the spiritual emptiness of the world and will be scarred by sins that could have been avoided. But this does not mean their opportunity for salvation is lost. Some truly do not comprehend the value of God's way, and the trials of life serve to make them more aware, receptive and responsive.
Experience can be at times an unkind, but effective, teacher; and its lessons sometimes create the maturity necessary for people to sincerely repent, return to God and renew and deepen the relationship with Him that they might have had when younger. The parable of the prodigal son is certainly an example of this.
So, if a young person decides not to accept his calling, can he or she pursue it at a later time? Life has shown this very thing often happens as youth temporarily leave God's way, only to repent and embrace it at another time. In fact, most people God calls, no matter what their age, go through some form of resistance to that calling. How many baptized adults, at some point in the process of coming to full repentance, delayed responding to God's call, for whatever reasons?
While we should never encourage youth to leave God in order to follow the prodigal son route —indeed, it is a tragic choice because of the inevitable penalties associated with breaking God's law—we must also recognize that some people do follow this unwise path.
God's commitment is this: "The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9). God works patiently with people—after all, they are His children too—and He will give everyone ample time to respond.
Conclusion and Implications
Are the children of members of God's Church "called" now? With the understanding that being "called" means being invited by God, the answer is, "Yes!"
Whether those children eventually choose to respond to this calling depends upon many factors, including the quality and degree of exposure to God's truth via family and congregational influences. If they do not respond immediately, it does not necessarily preclude them from future opportunity—either later in this age or in the age to come. God works with all people in the most appropriate way and at the optimal time to bring them into His family.
A converted parent really has but one course of action. He or she must follow Abraham's example by teaching his or her children God's truth with the expectation that they will understand God's way of life and choose it as their own.
Parents and all members of the Church must view children as genuine, respected participants of the congregation, hoping and expecting that they will become baptized fellow members.
The biblical perspective is always to encourage people to answer God's calling, as opposed to offering loopholes legitimizing no response. Implying that it is equally valid for a child not to respond to God now is a serious mistake. Just as Abraham "commanded" his children, God urged ancient Israel to respond to Him for their own good. He said, "I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live" (Deuteronomy 30:19). Because God's calling represents the best life available, children should be kept well aware of God's special invitation to them now.
Children are told to "obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right" (Ephesians 6:1). Both parents and the Church need to do the right thing by strongly encouraging our youth to value and walk through the magnificent open door God has given them.
God revealed through the prophet Malachi that "He seeks godly offspring" (Malachi 2:15). This is our children's special heritage and identity. This is God's desire and vision for our youth as He calls them, as He extends the marvelous invitation to partake of the tree of life and eternally serve in the Kingdom of God! UN