Are you a true Christian? Do you need to join a church to be one? Does your parents’ relationship with God make a difference in your own relationship with Him?
To explore this, let’s first consider an interesting piece of early American history. In the mid-1600s, several ministers in New England held a special conference to discuss youth and the church. They developed a doctrine called the “Half-Way Covenant.” We’ll briefly examine this concept in addressing a vital issue for today.
Just what makes a person a true Christian? Are the children of true Christians automatically true Christians also—or is more required?
To understand the Half-Way Covenant and why it matters to us, we need to know something about the Puritans. As Protestants in England, they were pleased that King Henry VIII had effectively separated England from the Roman Catholic Church in the 1500s. However, they believed that neither the king nor the Church of England did enough to remove unbiblical practices from their worship. They wanted to purify the church, which is why they were called “Puritans.”
Some Puritans thought they needed to separate altogether from the religious authorities of England and the rest of Europe, so they came to America to settle New England. They were determined to study the Bible and to obey it fully. (Those who settled Plymouth Colony in 1620 were Separatists who later became known as the Pilgrims. The Puritans who arrived the next decade to found the Massachusetts Bay Colony and other settlements were not initially as inclined to Separatism, but they eventually moved in that direction.)
The conversion experience
The Puritans did not believe that just anybody could join their church and be considered a Christian. There had to be an account of a “conversion experience”—wherein an adult who had a strong feeling that he or she had come to know God and His ways would then address the whole congregation to describe that experience and ask to join the church. Today, some call this “giving a testimonial.”
Joining the church was easier for the early colonists. They had a unique understanding of the Bible and were persecuted for it. They left homes and family to cross the ocean and carve a new home out of the wilderness in a new world! That gave them confidence in their Christian commitment.
By the mid-1600s, however, church membership began to decline. Historians call this “the Great Declension.” Not as many people were applying to join the Puritan church. It turns out that among the children and grandchildren of the original settlers, not so many were having the anticipated conversion experience. Most of them wanted very badly to have the experience, but they didn’t feel it—and certainly wouldn’t fake it!
Enter the Half-Way Covenant
While their parents or grandparents had courageously left Europe and built a civilization in the wilderness, what had those of this new generation done? They seemed to have just coasted into the way of life already established for them. Again, they wanted but didn’t have the expected conversion experience. So they weren’t sure if they really were Christians—something that many young people today also wonder about.
The Puritan church had a real problem. It needed young people to join its membership or it would soon fade away. So in 1662 ministers from across New England gathered to discuss the problem, and they devised the Half-Way Covenant. This teaching said that the children of church members would automatically become part of the church even without feeling a conversion experience, applying for membership and giving a testimonial—the hope being that participation would eventually lead to the full experience.
This kept the Puritan (later called “Congregational”) church going, but, as you might guess, Half-Way Covenant members’ commitment to the church tended to fade over time. Many were unsure of their faith because they had not felt some transformation or taken any special action as evidence of their commitment.
Halfway Christians today?
Not surprisingly, 21st-century young adults can have similar feelings.
The Bible teaches that children of Christians do have a special relationship with God and with His Church (Acts 2:37-39 Acts 2:37-39 37 Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said to Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brothers, what shall we do?
38 Then Peter said to them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.
39 For the promise is to you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the LORD our God shall call.
American King James Version×; 1 Corinthians 7:12-14 1 Corinthians 7:12-14 12 But to the rest speak I, not the Lord: If any brother has a wife that believes not, and she be pleased to dwell with him, let him not put her away. 13 And the woman which has an husband that believes not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him. 14 For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy.
American King James Version×). They are holy (set apart) to God because of their parents’ faith. Like those young Puritans hundreds of years ago, they may never have had to uproot their whole lives or endure persecution, but that does not make their relationship with God less valid.
Are you looking for a dramatic, emotional experience like those early American Puritans did? If you have already been taught God’s way, then in such expectation you may be waiting for something that will never happen. God already has your attention. He doesn’t necessarily need to turn your world upside down to call you to Himself!
Still, you should not make the mistake of the Puritan ministers. The Bible shows that to become a true Christian there is no halfway covenant. Your personal relationship with God the Father through your Savior Jesus Christ does not happen automatically with you doing nothing.
What to do?
Soon after Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection, the apostle Peter gave a powerful sermon. Those who heard it asked, “ What must we do? “
The answer was the same for everyone, young or old. It’s as true for us today as it was for them then. All must follow the same instructions: “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” (Acts 2:38 Acts 2:38Then Peter said to them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.
American King James Version×). That is what makes a person a true Christian (compare Romans 8:9 Romans 8:9But you are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.
American King James Version×).
Although the children of members in the true, biblical Church of God have a special opportunity to build a relationship with God, they still have to respond to Him themselves . (To learn more about that Church, request or download our free booklet The Church Jesus Built .)
How should you respond to God’s calling? How do you know when to respond?
The Puritans looked for an emotional “conversion experience,” and when their young adult children didn’t feel it, they just called them Christians anyway—without teaching them to do what the Bible says is required for all true Christians. God doesn’t require anyone to give a testimonial to convince other people that he or she knows God.
To truly be a Christian, you need to actually repent, be baptized and receive God’s Spirit . There is no halfway process even for the children of true Christians.
Clearly, however, baptism is not something to rush into. Every person needs to carefully make that commitment only when he or she is mature and ready. But if you think you’re not ready just because you haven’t felt some emotional, “religious” experience, please think again. World history is full of emotional experiences labeled religious. But the believing, spiritual act of humbly turning to your Savior with lifelong commitment is the far more profound and true experience of conversion to the Christianity of the Bible.
You can build a relationship with God that is not dependent on what anyone else, including your family, does. The fact that you are reading this and care about this message shows that your loving Father is giving you an opportunity for such a relationship—that He is calling you now!