The Unrepentant Repenter – Jim Elliff

The following is the article my pastor referred to in his sermon Wednesday Night.

Do you have a continuous repentant attitude?

Or did you do that already?

The Unrepentant Repenter – Jim Elliff

The believer in Christ is a lifelong repenter. He begins with repentance and continues in repentance. (Rom. 8:12-13) David sinned giant sins but fell without a stone at the mere finger of the prophet because he was a repenter at heart (2 Sam. 12:7-13). Peter denied Christ three times but suffered three times the remorse until he repented with bitter tears (Mt. 26:75). Every Christian is called a repenter, but he must be a repenting repenter. The Bible assumes the repentant nature of all true believers in its instruction on church discipline. A man unwilling to repent at the loving rebuke of the church can be considered nothing more than “a heathen and a tax collector.” (Mt. 18:15-17)


Question and Answer Session – 2011 True Church Conference

Question and Answer Session

Bruce Ware – BW

David Miller – DM

Steve Lawson – SL

Jeff Noblit – JN

Q: How can we avoid a religion of dead works?

BW: We get to the point of dead works when there is a heaviness in doctrine without a heart embrace of the gospel. We also need to ignore wanting to be liked. We need to be offensive when we need to be offensive. Our approval is from God alone.

DM: When the preacher of the church diverts the attention away from the gospel to other things.

SL: We must keep the main thing the main thing. Keep the peripheral issues suppressed. We must cease reliance on pragmatic things and depend on the power of God. This was the problem with the church in Ephesus. See Edwards “Religious Affections” on this topic.

JN: A doctrinally sound and spirit-lead pulpit is necessary. There must also be church discipline. Doctrine must be taken seriously by the congregation.

Q: Can a church’s methodology undermine its sound theology?

SL: This can happen in evangelism, giving a false assurance of salvation. Using manipulative evangelism. The methodology cannot be man-centered. Doctrine and methodology should be guided by godly men. Strong preaching makes for soft hearts. Soft preaching makes for hard hearts.

BW: Training for a theological and biblical mind and heart need to be promoted in the church. Not just keeping people entertained and out of trouble. The whole of the program in the church needs to be focused in this. Equip the people to have the mind of Christ.

JN: What helps the most is preaching. More than classes. More than seminars. We need to know the answer to the question “How?”

Q: How do I learn to preach the gospel – be a gospel centered preacher?

SL: It is more caught than taught. Sit under strong gospel preachers. The text must be king. Don’t bring truths to the text, take truths from the text.

BW: Don Carson’s approach to historical-redemptive progression of revelation.

JN: The text has a limited fulfillment and an ultimate fulfillment.

Q: Who should we be listening to as an example?

SL: Jesus Christ. Adrian Rogers because of his bold authority. John MacArthur because of his Bible exposition. S. Lewis Johnson because of his expository style. Gary Thomas because he is articulate. John Piper because of his fervency, zeal and God-centeredness. But we must be careful trying to emulate anyone. We must be ourselves. Read Spurgeon. Read Whitfield.

BW: Brian Borgman because of his careful exegesis. Lee Tankersly because of his application.

Q: Excesses we look back on and cringe.

SL: Trying to have too many cross-references and losing sight of the text. Spurgeon said that the whole Bible called out to him every week “Preach me! Preach me!” Not having application for our doctrine.

DM: Not persevering with the text until your own heart has been affected. How should we expect others to repent unless we have done so ourselves?

BW: Balance – we need to be full of grace and truth. Truth without grace leads to harshness.



Comfort for Christian Parents of Unconverted Children – Jim Elliff

All Christian parents wish that God would show us something to do that would secure our child’s salvation, and then “we’ll do it with all our might” because we love our child so much. Yet, God has not made salvation the effect of somebody else’s faith; our son or daughter must come to Christ on his or her own. John shows us that all Christians are born into God’s family “not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, [that is, somebody else’s will] but of God.” (John 1:13)

Although salvation is the work of God and not something that we can do for our child, there is hope. Consider the following:

1. A true burden in prayer for your child is a gift from God. A persistent burden may indicate that God intends to give your child eternal life because authentic prayer always begins with God. Though we cannot be absolutely certain that we know all that God is doing, we should be optimistic if the burden continues.

2. The miracle of the new birth is no less possible to God if our child is attentive to Him or running away from Him. Our child is like all other children when it comes to God’s grace. He is dead spiritually whether he is in church or not, whether he listened well to the truths we tried to teach him or did not, whether he has some interest in God now or has none at all. He may be converted in the pig pen or the pew and we do not know in this case what is preferred by God.

3. God does hear our prayers. Though God has taught us that He chooses all who are His before the foundation of the world, He also taught us that we should pray, and not only pray, but expect the answer to our prayers. It is true that God is sovereign and it is just as true that He answers prayer. In fact, He could not answer prayer if He were not in control of all things.

4. We may have hope because of God’s election of those who will come to Him. Every child is on his way to hell unless God stops him. God’s election is our friend. We would have no hope for our child’s salvation without it, because no child would turn to Christ if left in the state of depravity (Romans 3:9-11). But given God’s election of people for Himself, we can be encouraged.

5. Your child has some clear knowledge of what it means to be a true Christian. The Spirit certainly may bring this to bear at any time if this is His chosen method. Though it is no less a miracle for a knowledgeable child to be converted than a child with little knowledge; God always uses the gospel seed in every conversion.

6. Your own disobedience in the past will not ultimately keep your child from becoming a believer. It is pointless to berate yourself for any wrong behavior on your part as if it were the reason your child is without Christ. This does not mean that we as parents should not repent and do better, and even admit wrong to our children. But the reason your child is without Christ is related to his or her own sin. Every parent is sinful and inconsistent. This has never been a barrier to God if He desires to save your child. Illustrations abound of children who come from far less godly families who are nonetheless converted to Christ. In fact, this may have been the case in your own experience.

7. Some children may need the experience of being away from parental care in order to face up to their own need for Christ. The sense of need for many may be discovered only in the context of difficulties. We should not be surprised if it takes some solo flying before a child learns that he or she really needs another as his pilot.

8. Remember that there are lots of people who have come to appreciate their history prior to coming to Christ. I’m not saying that these people would not have wanted conversion earlier, but that the pain of the their pre-conversion history has left them with compassion, understanding, knowledge, testimony, and a burden that they would perhaps not have had any other way. They’ve seen God’s wisdom in the timing of their conversion. This may well be so with your child. Paul said that there was a reason he was chosen to be converted even though he was a murderer, blasphemer and violent aggressor—so that people will see and have hope that God can save anyone.

9. You cannot save your child yourself no matter how hard you try. You are in a position of trust alone. This is good because it is the only way to please God (Heb. 11:6). Your rest in God, while simultaneously praying to the God who answers prayer, will be an encouragement to others in the same situation It will also help you respond to your child more positively, and will make your life far more joyful than your anxiety ever could.

10. Finally, remember that God has a purpose in all He does. We will one day rejoice that God has done a perfect job of ruling His universe. When we acknowledge this and put God even above our children, we will actually demonstrate to our child the way a Christian is to live.

*Read an expanded version of this article by clicking here.

Copyright © 2003 Jim Elliff Permission granted for not-for-sale reproduction in exact form including copyright. Other uses require written permission.


Seven Principles of Finance for the Believer – by Jim & Pam Elliff

Seven Principles of Finance for the Believer – by Jim & Pam Elliff

One of the most recognizable differences in the believer and the world he lives in is his unusual relationship to money and possessions. However, even serious believers sometimes balk at the seeming extremities in the teaching and lifestyle of Christ and the leaders of the New Testament church. Can we duplicate this New Testament lifestyle in our day?

This outline provides the diligent believer with some key principals preparing him/her for radical, other-worldly financial behavior. Alone, or if married, with your spouse, take some time for reading the Scripture texts and thinking through the obedient thing to do in each area. Then write out what you find. There is only one thing for you to do after this meditation … obey!

1. The Principle of Non-Attachment
I will purchase or receive nothing that I cannot give away.

And He said to them, “Beware and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions. Luke 12:15

Luke 12:32-34; 16:13-25; 1 John 2:15-17

What must be done to obey these verses?

2. The Principle of Liberty
I will owe no man anything but to love him.

Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. Rom. 13:8

Pro. 22:7

What must be done to obey these verses?

3. The Principle of Liberality
I will constantly seek to give away possessions for God’s glory.

For I testify that according to their ability, and beyond their ability they gave of their own accord, begging us with much entreaty for the favor of participation in the support of the saints, and this, not as we had expected, but they first gave themselves to the Lord and to us by the will of God. 2 Cor. 8:3-5

2 Cor. 9:7; Luke 6:38

What must be done to obey these verses?

4. The Principle of Recall
I will keep accurate records of God’s dealings with me financially in order to show others that God answers prayer and provides for His own.

Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven. Mat. 5:16

Prov. 27:23-27

What must be done to obey these verses?

5. The Principle of Security
I will save and invest only if God is leading, with the understanding that I will give it all away at His slightest instruction.

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and dust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But lay up your treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in or steal. Mat. 6:19-20

Prov. 28:8; 1 Tim. 6:9-11

What must be done to obey these verses?

6. The Principle of Compassion
I will not pray for someone’s needs financially unless I am willing to be the instrument God uses to meet that need if He should desire.

We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has the world’s goods, and beholds his brother in need and closes his heart against him how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth. 1 John 3:16-18

James 2:15-17; Luke 6:30, 38; II Cor. 9:6-15; Prov. 28:27

What must be done to obey these verses?

7. The Principle of Contentment
I will be content to live on whatever God chooses to provide, whether little or much.

Not that I speak from want; for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me. Phil. 4:11-13

Prov. 30:7-9; Matt. 6:24-34; 1 Tim. 6:8

What must be done to obey these verses?

Copyright © 1996 Jim and Pam Elliff
Christian Communicators Worldwide, Inc.
201 Main, Parkville, MO 64152 USA
Permission granted for not-for-sale reproduction in exact form including copyright
Other uses require written permission. Write for additional materials.


How Should We Get a Crowd for the Gospel? – Jim Elliff

The title expresses one of the two main questions concerning evangelism that are before us at this time in our history. The other question is, “What is the gospel?” That question has been discussed in relation to the Lordship controversy some years earlier, the current New Perspective issue, and the ongoing Calvinism/Arminianism debate. A lot hangs in the balance on these various viewpoints, and evangelistic practice is governed by which side you are on even if you are not aware that you have a position. In some senses, the above issues have proved to be valuable for believers, forcing us to wipe the fog off our doctrinal glasses. They move us forward in the same way that the earlier Councils pressed us toward definition, proper emphasis, and informed support.

The second question, the one found in the title, concerns getting the gospel to unbelievers: How should we draw a crowd for the gospel? This question has driven the church growth movement in its various forms, including the signs and wonders movement, the seeker-sensitive movement, and even the bus evangelism movement of the 70s, among others. It is a valid question. There can never be any fault in asking it. It is desirable that churches grow. Sadly, some resist these movements precisely because they have given up attempting to grow the kingdom in any earnest way. They fight as an excuse for their own lack of concern about evangelism. Those who ask this question—How do we get a crowd to hear the gospel?—are to be commended, even when they have not arrived at the best answers.

We know that growth of our churches by evangelism has to do with sowing the seed in every way possible, especially through preaching, or verbal means. This can mean preaching even to one person, as Phillip did to the eunuch. And it can mean writing. Special revelation, and indeed the actual knowing of Christ Himself, depends on this, for no one is known without communication. As one secular philosopher put it correctly, “Without language there is no world.”

Christ’s word to us, meaning the entire Bible, is His revelation of Himself. With the Spirit’s application, the word of Christ not only explains the truth, but also serves as the introduction to Christ for those whom God is drawing to salvation. All forms that are less verbal are only valuable for evangelism to the extent that they do say something in propositional form. Precisely because they are limited so severely in their ability to transfer information, we should not count on them for much real effect beyond some temporary emotional spasms.

But how should we get our audience? Are there legitimate and illegitmate means? Are there better and worse means?

Interestingly, as far as I can discern, there are no pat instructions in the Bible about the right and wrong way to gather a crowd to preach to. What we can glean must come from precedent. Precedent does not have the weight of command, as we all know. But it is not for that reason unimportant. For instance, we meet on Sundays because of precedent, and not command. But we don’t want to carry this further than we should. We have to ask, “Is the precedent there for a higher reason that was understood by those first practicing it—a reason which should also be assumed by us?” and “Does the situation today warrant the continuation of the precedent?” Many have little regard for precedent, believing instead that the Spirit has left the door wide open for any practice as long as it reaches the desired end. That one issue is at the essence of one of the most significant differences between us as evangelicals interested in evangelism.

Before we look at the precedent of Acts, we may well consider one biblical parameter that does add something to the discussion. It is the plain teaching of the Scripture not to “boast in men” and not to think of men “after the flesh.” When we invite a person to address our church who is advertised principally for some achievement other than his or her Christianity, are we doing this? We may be. Is this a means of boasting in the flesh? Is it deceptive? Aren’t we trying to trick people into coming in order to preach the gospel to them rather than for what the advertisement states? I don’t think it occurred to the apostles to think, “How can we catch these people off guard so that we can slip the gospel in somehow?” I have noticed that evangelicals will often settle for a very weak testimony from a notable person if he or she will attract people. I do believe that pride can enter in to this whole issue, and there are lines that we may cross if we are not more careful. On the other hand, I don’t want to say that a person notable for other achievements can never say anything about Christ. It is how we use this person before the church and the world that makes the difference.

The one thing you notice most glaringly in the book of Acts is that the apostles did not—to my knowledge not even one time—strategize about getting a crowd up to preach to. You do not find them saying to each other: “What can we do to get people to come out and hear us talk about Jesus?” This mindset is so alarmingly divergent from ours that it should arrest us immediately as we read the account.

I think the reason they did not do this was doctrinal. In other words, there was something that stood behind the precedent. They understood and had a huge appreciation for the doctrine of man’s depravity. This means, among other things, that any appeal to get people to come out for special meetings in order to be evangelized would demand devising ways to attract dead people (that is, to appeal to “the natural man” or “the flesh” on the level of the flesh). And they were unwilling to stoop to that level not only because it is out of character, but because they would not believe it could accomplish anything significant. They believed Jesus when He said, “The flesh profits nothing.”

When, as Jesus said, people are running from the light because of their nature, you have to do something spectacular to get them to hear the gospel. Perhaps blowing up water bottles and smashing concrete blocks would draw some unsuspecting souls—not to Christ, but to the event. They knew that. The Roman world was addicted to entertainment. So the church would have had to compete at a very high level, just as we must today, if we choose this means, and all for very little return except the getting up of the crowd itself.

Early believers also knew that God had ordained the means of preaching to save the lost. God has always made His elect able and willing to hear the propositions—that is, the words—of the gospel. As Jesus said, “the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life” (John 6:63, emphasis added). And as Peter later confessed to Jesus, “You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68, emphasis mine). That is why Paul insisted that it is “through the foolishness of the message preached” that God is pleased to save those who believe (1 Corinthians 1:21).

Was it the prerogative of the first evangelists to choose any other means? Why would they even wish to dilute that God-ordained method? We are image driven in our day, and verbal communication including data and propositions, is out (according to those who follow the trends). But is that really so? Certainly not in any universal way. My experience with university people and other younger people is exactly the opposite of “image driven” when it comes to truth. Cutting through all that is stamped on our culture, there is an ever widening circle of serious listeners and readers and thinkers. And they do not like the superficial. In fact, they are tired of it. If they want entertainment, they can get it; but when it comes to truth, they want it sincerely and without cloudiness.

All of this leads to one critical question: Is anyone really saved apart from the gospel presented in verbal propositions—in words? What if those who have been given the ability and willingness to listen—to think seriously about the verbal propositions of the gospel in our image driven age—are the very ones God is intending to save? After all, not everyone is given that ability. Remember Jesus’ words to the unbelieving Pharisees:

Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear My word. . . . But because I speak the truth, you do not believe Me. . . . He who is of God hears the words of God; for this reason you do not hear them, because you are not of God (John 8:43, 45, 47, emphasis added).

No doubt the association of the trivial with the serious, profound and weighty gospel was also a consideration. Why would they choose some silly way of drawing people that was not an appropriate fit with “the glorious gospel of the blessed God” (1 Timothy 1:11)? I’m reading between the lines here, admittedly, but I think it can be fairly safely assumed that the stunning and sometimes stultifying doctrines that came from the apostles lips played a part in their decision to evangelize in a correspondingly serious manner.

There were options available. Sports heroes, circus clowns, political wonders, and ballad singers could be found in that society. With so many becoming believers, surely some like these could be found with a testimony. But there is an amazing absence of any use of these people to draw a crowd. Nor did they put on shows of any type, even with ordinary people. There was no living Christmas tree in the early church. In fact, there was even a downplaying of the ceremony that so marked the Old Covenant. The early church was unadulterated and primitive in their declaration of God and Christ.

Again, please don’t think I’m implying any wrong motives if you have done these things. But we have to discuss it. We’ve all done some of this, most likely, even if we only attempted to draw young people with the longest hot dog on a Saturday night. It’s not a new thing. It’s only the degree that has changed. We’re better at entertaining than we used to be; and we spend a lot more money. And, we do pull in bigger crowds the better we become at doing it.

In an informal survey of Acts, I’ve found the following eye-opening data. Instead of arranging meetings to bring people to, the apostles used the following for the gospel:

• Miracles or phenomena were used approximately eleven times to open the door for preaching.

• Persecution, disputes, mob scenes, etc., were used approximately thirteen times.

• Synagogue (or temple) visits were employed for preaching the gospel fourteen or fifteen times, depending on the way you count them.

It is the last use, preaching in the synagogues, that demonstrates an actual strategy. The miracles were “apostolic signs” for the most part. I will not go into depth as to the reason why I say this, even though we believe God can heal today. But we should not make this a strategy. Suffice it to say, at a minimum, that we cannot produce miracles on call; they were given to the apostles and the early church for some specific reasons (one of which was that they identified the apostles with Christ so that their message would be received (Hebrews 2:3-4).

As for the second use, nobody can plan on persecutions as a strategy—indeed, who would want to? We should be ready as this happens, of course, as has been demonstrated in the Bible and throughout history. But it is not a strategy; rather it is a response to a situation that develops apart from our planning. There can be no question, however, that the use of the synagogues comprised a definite plan.

So they found opportunities to speak to the crowds that were already there.

There is a genius to this method. For one thing, it could be done no matter how small the church or apostolic band. Second, it took no props or money or PR. Third, there was always a crowd available. Fourth, their visits almost always created curiosity. Fifth, it was possible to do all over the Roman world, for synagogues were everywhere. Philo says that over a million Jews lived in Egypt, for instance. Sixth, it almost always caused a disruption of the religious consensus in the group. And this had to take place in order for the gospel to take hold.

Paul and the others were only following Christ in this pattern. When the gospel was only being preached to the Jews, Jesus went consistently into the synagogues to preach. When the Gentiles were to be reached following Pentecost, the pattern continued. This time, Paul (the apostle to the Gentiles) would find his Gentiles in the synagogues as proselytes to Judiasm. I do not want to imply that this was Paul’s only method, but it is the most obvious strategy that can be found in Acts. As soon as he was sent out he began this pattern and he continued it up to the end.

Three times Paul wiped the dust off his feet and said that he was through with the Jews, but in the next town, he was right back in the synagogue. Even in Athens, after seeing the idols, his first response was to go to the synagogue. This eventually led to the Mars hill discourse, but it started in the synagogue. In other words, the synagogue was his default strategy, though he was available for anything God would bring about as a forum for preaching, even prison.

In these synagogues he reasoned with the people concerning Christ. A typical phrase is found in Acts 17:2-4:

And according to Paul’s custom, he went to them [in the synagogue in Thessalonica], and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and giving evidence that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you is the Christ.” And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, along with a large number of the God-fearing Greeks and a number of the leading women.

That is a consistent description of what he did. His evangelism was apologetic, but with people who had already settled some of the big questions. They believed in one God and embraced the Old Testament. He did not start with the pagan or the atheist, though I’m sure he encountered many. He thought it best to get to people who were religious moralists, with some basis for discussion. Paul could use the very Scripture they believed to prove his point about Christ.

The illustrations are numerous, beginning in Acts 13 to the end of the book. Almost every account has the same ingredients: Coming into a synagogue, reasoning with Jews and Gentiles there, presenting Christ using their Scriptures, experiencing some conflict of beliefs often ending in outright persecution, and the gathering of those who identified with the presenter and the gospel.

We cannot doubt that this is what he did, but we can doubt if this is a valid strategy for today. I will leave that for you to decide.

As to the larger question, “How do we get a crowd for the gospel?” we are helped here with a sensible plan, in my view.

In the negative we learn this: Don’t try to compete with the secular world in drawing the natural man to be evangelized. We all realize that God is so gracious that some have been converted this way. We all can point to cases. And we’ve all done it.

In the positive: Do strategize about getting believers into the crowds that are already there, especially into the religious groups where there is some basis for dialogue.

Let me add something else about the impracticality of event orientation to evangelism. It is not possible for most churches to carry this out successfully. In our world it takes something more than a musical from a twenty person choir or a “bathrobe drama” to accomplish this. I know that we can drag out a few relatives and friends who will dutifully come to our performance on Easter or Christmas, but is much really accomplished? The larger churches with the bigger budgets and more personnel will put on a better show, but in my experience it does not do much there either. I talked with one friend who was having an actual lion on stage for a production and was hoping this would draw a huge crowd. He finally admitted that not much actually comes out of all the decision cards that are signed at such events. When it is boiled down, if we are honest, precious little happens in terms of genuine evangelism.

Of course, those churches can say, “I like the way we do evangelism much better than the way you don’t.” But that doesn’t prove much. In churches that have thousands on the rolls who do not come, many of whom made professions of faith through such events, their own statistics tell the truth. The converts reaped in churches with a more truth-oriented, relational approach are on the whole more promising than those decisioned in event-oriented churches. The numbers often demonstrate that the percentage of true converts is much higher per capita, even if the church is smaller and the evangelism less impressive (according to our culture’s way of thinking). I’ve tried to show this in other articles and will not labor it now (See my “Southern Baptists, An Unregenerate Denomination,” at By saying this, I’m not excusing those churches where little or nothing is done in terms of evangelism. There is no justification for seeing biblical precedent regarding methods rightly while doing almost nothing in terms of actual evangelism.

In the end, it appears that Acts has this to teach us about evangelism. Don’t make the Sunday meeting an evangelistic day, but rather a believer’s meeting. When a lost person comes in, what he should find is not entertainment, but serious worship and biblical preaching (1 Corinthians 14:23-25). Use the main gatherings of your church to grow authentic and effective Christians.

But do evangelism vigorously outside by participating in groups that are already there. Life is simpler and evangelism is better this way, in my view. Small churches may do big things this way. If at all possible, go into the religious groups where the gospel is less prevalent and participate in their small groups. Be genuine and honest. Love them. Do what Christians always do when you are there: If you find other believers, strengthen them; if you find those without Christ, present the gospel to them. Ask questions, raise issues, build friendships, and prepare for some conflicts of belief. Even though religious moralists are steeped in toleration in our day, and are not like the opinionated Jews of Paul’s day, you will still find that presenting Christ as the exclusive way will raise opposition. Use it for the gospel. This is God’s plan to cause some people to side with the presenter.

Add to the above any other ways to enter in to groups, secular or religious, where serious discussions can result, even if it means joining the Harley club. Considerable effort should be made by leaders to help church members find a context where they can let the light of the gospel shine “in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation” (Philippians 2:15). Such contact with the unbelieving world is something to strategize about!

Copyright © 2006 Jim Elliff. Christian Communicators Worldwide, Inc. Permission granted for not-for-sale reproduction in unedited form including author’s name, title, complete content, copyright and weblink. Other uses require written permission.


Music in the Church: How Special Should We Make It?

Author: Jim Elliff

You could put the entire teaching about church music in the New Testament in a paragraph or two. Add to this teaching those spirited illustrations of corporate singing in heaven displayed in the last book of the Bible, when angels and throngs of people fill the air with thundering six to eight line choruses. When it comes to intentional instruction about music, however, there are really only four passages in the New Testament:

Speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord. Ephesians 5:19

Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. Colossians 3:16

Therefore, let one who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. What is the outcome then? I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the mind also; I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also. Otherwise, if you bless in the spirit only, how will the one who fills the place of the ungifted say the “Amen” at your giving of thanks since he does not know what you are saying? For you are giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not edified. 1 Corinthians 14:13-17

What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification. 1 Corinthians 14:26

That’s it. For all the millions of dollars spent on buying equipment, paying music leaders, crafting multi-level music programs, training choral leaders, and building buildings that accommodate elaborate musical presentations, these verses comprise a very tiny pedestal upon which to rest such a large elephant as the music program of the church.

With all this going on, you would think that surely under it all you would discover a solid foundation of Scripture to support such massive, expensive and time-intensive behavior. Sadly, however, very few churches think through what the New Testament teaches when forming their music strategy. What did churches of the New Testament, large or small, mature or new-born, do with music under the tutelage of the Apostle Paul?

“I Go Because I Like The Music.”

I’m guessing, but I doubt that anybody joined with the early believers because they liked the music. If they were looking primarily for music and show, perhaps the local temple would have been the better choice. The pagan temple worship that most people knew in those days included plays, dance, singing, and even parades, but the early believers appear to have never thought of emulating their kind of worship in order to attract such people for Christ. Early church music was no match for the extravaganzas temple leaders could put on. Unlike our churches today, early Christians didn’t even compete with them.

The Jewish Temple worship was also highly skilled, choreographed and perhaps exciting to listen to, but, again, the early church seemed to by-pass that approach to winning people to Christ, or for designing their church life together.

In more recent days (yet long before Christian people used the words “Church Growth”), enterprising leaders sought to attract crowds to their churches with music. It was called “special music.” I once made up an entire verse of a well-loved solo piece in a large church which rhymed but didn’t make sense. Perhaps that could be called “special,” but not most of what happens in churches every Sunday. What we do each week in churches might better be called “routine music.” We should say, “Miss Roselle will give the routine music this morning.” It doesn’t matter if Miss Roselle wilts the flowers with her shrill soprano warble, the order of service demands “special music.” It is planned out and pressed into the agenda, even if you have to get the most ungodly church members to do it. How did the apostle Paul ever make it without special music prior to his messages?

But some churches offer more than a shrill solo. Some lay out a feast of music that is close to dazzling. Nobody announces that Miss Roselle will sing. She just does it—maybe with smoke rising up all around her. And many more do it after her. I cannot count the number of times in churches around our nation when I’ve heard music that was so professional, practiced, and polished that it would rival any ticket-only concert. Only the top musicians could be engaged to do it. Everybody else is “audience.” To be more truthful, Miss Roselle wouldn’t have a chance to warble among such musicians.

Often people join churches only when they “like the music.” For many people, that alone is enough to satisfy. Sadly, many churches are so music-driven that the teaching of the word is swallowed up in its ample motherly arms until it is nearly irrelevant. Three weeks without the full production, and the church building would be emptied.

Don’t mistake my concern for a lack of desire for excellence. I once thought I would give my ministry life to music. I know something about it. But it seems to me that we have gone to elaborate extremes before reflecting on what the New Testament has to say.

The New Testament on Music

So how should we integrate moving, meaningful, Christ-exalting music into our church’s life? What should we do or not do? I could suggest a thousand things off the top of my head (beginning with, “Have a talk with Miss Roselle.”). But what we need is not better ideas, but biblical ideas. Let me suggest a few things the Bible teaches. I believe these are among the most critical ideas, because these are all God has chosen to say about music to the New Testament church in the New Covenant. Be prepared for some radical concepts:

First, the verses above indicate that music should be about edification of believers. At least this is the emphasis in Paul’s writing. From John’s Revelation we see music employed for praise, but Paul is straight as an arrow about insisting on edification as his principal directive. Music is not all vertical. It keeps others in view. We are to “speak” to each other with music, and “teach” and “admonish” (warn) each other. It should go without saying that edification is not the same as entertainment, which makes people happy and excited, but often does not deal deeply with the soul in the way that the word “edification” implies. The simple music of a congregation, for instance, when seeking to teach each other through thought-provoking words and music, can be a potent tool for spiritual development. This concept alone might change the content and manner of your music experience.

Second, music is to be a way to “let the word dwell richly among you.” This means that good music is the “word” or the “message” musically presented. It is joined to the testifying word, the preached word, the taught word, the prayed word of God, in such a way that the time spent together becomes a baptism in the word of God. The music of the song carries “the word,” “the message,” or “the truth” of God on its wings.

Third, Christian music is often to be an offering to the congregation from a spiritually-mindedbrother or sister. Paul says “each one has a psalm” as if to say, individuals come prepared and spiritually ready to sing a psalm (or, by extension, a spiritual song or hymn) to the group for their edification; or perhaps they are to suggest their psalm to the group for corporate singing. This does not preclude thinking through a song beforehand as opposed to being entirely spontaneous, but when offered, it often will give the appearance of spontaneity in the meeting itself. I know it is entirely out of range for most of us to consider this idea at all, but I’m only reporting what I’m reading. In the early church, people made contributions of their gifts and talents for the building up of the body. It was part of what it meant to have body-life in the church. The meetings were more or less open to believers’ gifts—orchestrated by God; not chaotic. To think otherwise is to be more a child of the Reformation than the New Testament.

Fourth, by necessary assumption, coordination of the meeting, including all musical gifts, must have been the responsibility of the elders who were in charge of guiding the believers, under the headship of Christ. I don’t think they would have understood an “order of service” as a means of doing this. The people simply brought their gifts and made their contributions under the guidance of the Spirit, looking to the elders as leaders for shaping the meeting as needed. Wise elders may have curbed the excesses of some, or even refused to allow others to offer their supposed gift, but however they worked it out, their meetings were open for the sharing of gifts and talents under their sagacious oversight.

Fifth, though Paul did not rule out ecstatic singing (singing in the spirit without engaging the mind), he admonished the church to “sing with mind also.” The larger point being made is that what is sung must be able to receive the “Amen” from those who are there. He mentions the “ungifted” being among them. It must be, on some level, understandable to them also. Here Paul is not approving what he denies earlier in 1 Corinthians (that those without the Spirit cannot understand the things of God), but is only meaning that people need to hear intelligible words in their singing. I am not going to delve into this debated issue of praying in the spirit and the matter of tongues, or the issue of interpreting such speech, but I am only making the obvious comment: Our singing must be intelligible to have its greatest value. It is what is intelligible that is ultimately most edifying. Understanding is important.

Sixth, a variety of music forms may used. Whatever is meant by “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs,” we may at least note that this was not a “hymns only” church, or a “psalms only” church. I know there are arguments about these words from those who practice exclusive psalmody. Even so, I take the view that these represent varying forms of music found in the church. Who would argue that an emotive Scripture praise song done by memory is usually more appropriate during a heartfelt prayer-time, than the singing of even such a great hymn as “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”? We need variety.

Seventh, no music directors are seen in the early church pattern of worship. Paul highlighted in Ephesians 4 the human gifts to the church Christ left us: “apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.” Surprisingly, he did not mention “music directors.” When spiritual gifts are listed in 1 Corinthians, Romans and 1 Peter, nothing about a music gift is mentioned there either. Though I owe a lot to those music directors I enjoyed as a boy, and though there are some godly ones that I sincerely appreciate, the absence of such a staff position in the local churches of the New Testament documents is glaring. This is not to say that pastors who have musical gifts cannot do some wonderful things with music related to the church, but they should be pastors (elders, overseers) in every sense of the word. At the same time, musical gifts are not a requirement of pastoral ministry.


All I’m really saying is that, like a child in the park, we have run off in all directions related to music without consulting our Father for His wishes. For 60 years my uncle faithfully and lovingly brought his sister chocolate-covered cherries for Christmas. Only in her late 80s did she tell me privately that she never liked chocolate-covered cherries. He had never consulted her, but assumed his taste was hers. What if we like what we do for God, but God doesn’t like it at all? When our practice, as sincere as it might be, almost totally disregards the body-life design of God for the church spelled out for us in great detail in the New Testament, we surely are working against His intentions. Even if arriving at His view of the church means that we make major structural changes, would it not be right to do so?

The main lesson, summarized, is that early New Testament believers purposefully abandoned choreographed, professional and elaborate musical presentations to the shadowlands of the temple age, and moved forward into the simpler, more fluid and flexible, leadership of the Spirit. Although I’m not sure exactly how all of this is accomplished, I would rather be attempting to go His direction than assuming I know better than God what He likes. With careful attention to the body language of the New Testament, and authentic trust in God, surely we can take steps, gradually if necessary, to return to this glorious simplicity, beauty and balance.

Copyright © 2009 Jim Elliff
Christian Communicators Worldwide, Inc.
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Childhood Conversion

Childhood Conversion

A woman came to humorist Will Rogers, saying, “I struggle with this problem. Every time I look at myself in the mirror, I’m proud.” He said, “Ma’am, that’s not pride, that’s a mistake!” Now I know that you are proud of your children, but you have never been as proud of a child as a woman I met who claimed that her five year old daughter had never sinned! She was serious. I realize that this woman was not doctrinally savvy, or even a believer, but how can she miss the obvious? That’s not pride, that’s a mistake!

God says children are born sinners. They are, sadly, not born in Christ, but in Adam. “As in Adam all die…”1 Cor. 15: 22. When David said that he was born in iniquity and in sin his mother conceived him, he was not describing an illegitimacy of his parent’s, but the true nature of every child. He was speaking of what we call “original sin.” Original sin is something that we should be able to see by mere observation. One police study on juvenile delinquency stated:

Every baby starts life as a little savage. He is completely selfish and self-centered: he wants what he wants—his bottle, his mother’s attention, his playmate’s toys, his uncle’s watch, or whatever. Deny him these and he seethes with rage and aggressiveness which would be murderous were he not so helpless. He is dirty; he has no morals, no knowledge and no developed skills. This means that all children, not just certain children, but all children are born delinquent. If permitted to continue in their self-centered world of infancy, given free reign to their impulsive actions to satisfy each want, every child would grow up a criminal, a killer, a thief, and a rapist. (Quoted from Reb Bradley, “Biblical Insights into Child Training.”)

If it is true, and it is, that there are “none righteous, no not one,” (Rom. 3:10) then my children are among those without inherent righteousness. And if they are without inherent righteousness, then they are in need of Christ and the salvation which He provides. This fact drives me. Though I believe in a growing moral awareness, but not an age of accountability, I am pressed with the weight of my children’s need of salvation. Surely you who are Christian parents feel what I feel.

Imagine this scenario. It is late at night when your seven year old daughter arrives home from her children’s meeting, announcing that she has “prayed the prayer” and is now a Christian. She produces a card which says that she has “invited Jesus into her heart,” complete with date and signature of an adult sponsor. What do you do? Have you ever asked the question, “Just how do I know if my child is ready to become a Christian, or really even understands what it means?” Or maybe we should be less dramatic and say that your child is now beginning to ask thoughtful questions about God. What are you supposed to think? How should you respond?

First note that your child’s questions about God should not necessarily be taken as an indication that God is at work in his or her life in any special way. It does prove that your child has normal intelligence. There is nothing at all unusual about his query; it is good to take advantage of that openness, but it is generally nothing more than normal inquisitiveness. Let me suggest that you prepare yourself by focusing now on three major aspects of God’s work in bringing children (or anyone) to Christ. Knowing what God is doing (and He alone makes Christians, after all) allows the parent to help his child avoid deception, and will give you much added confidence in “reading” the situation. The three activities of God are conviction, revelation, and regeneration.


Conviction is the work of the Spirit in bringing sin and the necessity of Christ home to the child’s conscience. Jesus said that the Holy Spirit convicts of sin, righteousness (that is, that there is only one righteousness and it is found in Christ), and judgment (see Jn. 16:8-11). In looking for conviction, we should avoid any preconceived ideas about how many tears or how much agony is appropriate and keep in mind that conviction is God’s tool to bring your child to a hatred of sin. God alone knows what it takes. That there must be conviction in the preparation for salvation is, however, a bedrock truth. It is in the development of conviction that the parent can play a most significant part. By carefully laying out the law (the demands of God on the conscience), by explaining the consequences of breaking that law, and by continually emphasizing the exclusivity of Christ in delivering the child from those consequences, the parent cooperates with the Spirit in this special preparation of the heart.

Sin is, after all, lawlessness (1 Jn. 3:4). It is necessary to know the law in order to know sin. However, it is the weight on the conscience in his breaking of the law that is true conviction. Paul thought of himself as blameless in relationship to the law for some time (Phil. 3:6), but when the Spirit brought home the nature of true covetousness (the most internal of the ten commands) something powerful happened to Paul which we could all hope will happen to our children. Note his narrative:

…I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law has said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire. For apart from the law sin was dead. I was alive once without the law [that is, he perceived himself to be alive], but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died. Rom. 7:7b-9

One of the most striking features of the teachings on children in the Bible, both Old Testament and New, is the emphasis on commandment and obedience. These admonitions to teach the commands to our children bring to the forefront the importance of conviction. It is through the law that our knowledge of sin is made lucid. Our forebears realized this need by their use of catechisms, almost all of which included the memorization of the ten commandments, plus a great deal of other vital material on the nature of God’s expectations. I’ll never forget the pain I saw in my oldest child some years ago as he cried softly in a well of true frustration about his inability to do what God commands. Sin was coming home to the conscience. And by disciplining them we augment that sense of sorrow for sin and may “deliver his soul from hell.” (see Prov. 23:13-14)

We can cooperate in the Holy Spirit’s convicting process by teaching our children the awful consequences of sin as well. Many leaders refuse to talk straightforwardly about hell with children, but I disagree with trying to soft-peddle on the subject of eternal judgment. My children began to learn about hell as soon as I thought they could comprehend the most elementary truths. How many times more important is it for them to fear an eternity in hell than being hit by a car in the road? If we go to great efforts to keep them out of the street, should we not go to even more pains to keep them out of hell? Hell is worse than being hit by a car, worse than poison, worse than rape, worse than abduction, worse than anything you can imagine. You say, “I fear causing my child to have nightmares!” I hope you understand that I too love my children and wouldn’t want them to unnecessarily experience mental trauma, but really, wouldn’t a week of nightmares be worth it if it delivered your child from the eternal nightmare of hell?

There is a very real sense in which there is no one or no thing to fear other than the God who can deliver both body and soul to hell (Mt. 10:28). May I suggest as well that you take all unnecessary horrors away from them by carefully monitoring what they see. I have great suspicions that the enemy of our souls would love to dull the acuteness of hell by images of violence and fear on television. Labor in cooperation with the Spirit for the depth of conviction which “produces repentance, without regret, leading to salvation.” (2 Cor. 7:10) For an illustration of this conviction, rarely seen in our day, look at young Spurgeon, who became the best known preacher of the nineteenth century:

For five years as a child there was nothing before my eyes but my guilt…Wherever I went, the law had a demand upon my thoughts, upon my words, upon my rising, upon my resting. What I did, and what I did not do, all came under the cognizance of the law. I seemed as if I was a sinner, and nothing else but a sinner…Was there ever a bond-slave who had more bitterness of soul than I, five years a captive in the dungeons of the law, till my youth seemed as if it would turn into premature old age?…When God the Holy Ghost first quickened me, little did I know of the precious blood which has put my sins away, and drowned them in the depths for ever. But I did know this, that I could not remain as I was; that I could not rest happy unless I became something better, something purer than I was; and, oh, how my spirit cried to God with groanings—I say without any exaggeration—groanings that could not be uttered!

I tried a long time to improve myself, but I never did make much of it; I found I had a devil within me when I began, and I had ten devils when I left off. Instead of becoming better, I became worse…Then I laboured to believe. It is a strange way of putting it, yet so it was. When I wished to believe, I found I could not. It seemed to me that the way to Heaven by Christ’s righteousness was as difficult as by my own, and that I could as soon get to Heaven by Sinai as by Calvary. I could do nothing, I could neither repent nor believe. I fainted with despair, feeling as if I must be lost despite the gospel, and be for ever driven from Jehovah’s presence, even though Christ had died. (Autobiography, Vol. 1, ‘The Early Years’, 1973, pp. 56-71)

In another place he said this about conviction:

I used to hear a minister whose preaching was, as far as I could make it out, ‘Do this, and do that, and do the other, and you will be saved’. According to his theory, to pray was a very easy thing; to make yourself a new heart, was a thing of a few instants, and could be done at almost any time; and I really thought that I could turn to Christ when I pleased…But when the Lord gave my soul its first shakings in conviction, I soon knew better… (ibid, p. 49)

Do we see such conviction today? I don’t think that most of our leaders or parents even consider at all the issue of conviction or the tilling up of the soil of the soul for the gospel seed. Unfortunately, some of our methodology prematurely “reaps” children and adults before conviction has a hold and makes many false converts.


There is a poem by the hymn writer, Joseph Hart, which goes in part like this:

Let us ask the important question
(Brethren, be not too secure)
What is it to be a Christian,
How may we our hearts secure?
Vain is all our best devotion
If on false foundations built.
True religion’s more than notion,
Something must be known and felt.

If the essence of Christianity is knowing Christ (John 17:3, Heb. 8: 11), then He must be revealed to us. It is one thing for your child to hate hell and another to love the Lord as One he knows. There is no Christianity without knowing Christ. And it is at this point where the parent’s hands are most tied. There is no way to make this happen. We can present the beauty of Christ and of the Father, we can demonstrate before our children the joy of knowing Him by the intimacy of our prayers, etc., but we cannot force the Revealer’s hand. Revelation is in the hands of the Revealer. In John 10, a passage that has knowing Christ the Shepherd at its heart, the sheep are said to know Him (“I know my sheep and am known by My own”, v. 14), however, not all are said to be sheep. “But you do not believe, because you are not of My sheep, as I said to you. My sheep hear My voice, I know them, and they follow Me.” (vs. 26-27).

Young Samuel ministered before the Lord (1 Sam. 3:1), but did not yet know the Lord (vs.7) before the Lord “called” him. The reason is that the Word of the Lord was not yet revealed to Him (vs. 7). Eli in this case did help Samuel to know that it was the Lord who was calling the boy, and gave him the proper response, which might indicate a place for the parent’s intervention in interpreting events. When Paul preached Christ’s cross in Corinth he said that to some it was foolishness and to others it was a stumblingblock, but it was the power of God unto salvation to the called (see 1 Cor. 1: 22-24). Here he is speaking of the effectual call of the Holy Spirit rather than the broader call of the preacher (i.e. “Many are called, but few chosen” Mt. 20: 16). This is another way to discuss this issue of revelation. One convert said, “Christ became as irresistible to me as my sin had been before.” Observation and counsel are important here, but you cannot play God’s part. Your child is not just signing a contract because he wants to close a good deal, but is meeting a person who has the power to reveal or not reveal. “Seek the Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near…” (Isa. 55:6)


Regeneration, or the giving of life to a dead soul, is the last of the three major categories we should look for. In some ways this is the most often misunderstood. It is important for the parent to realize that regeneration, or the new birth, when it is dealt with in a more technical way in the Scriptures is mentioned as preceding conversion. At other times the idea of regeneration and conversion are put together. In other words, God gives life to the dead soul (Eph. 2:1) unto repentance and faith. Without regeneration, the dead soul continues to run from Christ (Jn. 3), and does not seek God (Rom. 3:11). But when God grants this life it evidences itself in conversion, or repentance and faith, plus love for God and true holiness of life.

The early Baptist theologian, John A. Broadus, succinctly stated it in question form like this: “Does faith come before the new birth? No, it is the new heart that truly repents and believes” (Catechism of Bible Teaching). Richard Furman, another Baptist leader described regeneration preceding and producing repentance and faith in this way:

It is therefore, beyond all contradiction a supernatural change produced by the Sprit of God; and there is something in its nature which is mysterious and wonderful,…but however inscrutable…its effects are certain…Its effects will be, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ; a hatred to sin, and a love to holiness; supreme love to God, and unfeigned benevolence to men. (Conversion Essentials to Salvation, 1816, p.8, emphasis mine)

This becomes more easily seen upon examining the first chapters of John where the new birth is said distinctly not to be “of human decision” (1:13) and is, in effect, like the wind acting on the passive individual (3:8) However one believes about this, it is significant to note that no child, born in original sin, will ever get to heaven without this regeneration, or life from above.

Let’s make four admissions related to this matter of repentance and faith, or true conversion.

1. We must say that many, probably most, of those children that are supposedly being converted in our churches in the early days are showing no signs of conversion later in life. Think of all those who “made decisions” at Vacation Bible Schools, children’s programs, Sunday School emphases, etc., who are on our rolls yet have no real life in them at all. Is it not obvious to us that getting a child to make a decision about Christ in early years does not guarantee that they are believers at all? I have written about this elsewhere and will not take much time to support this argumentation, but it should be easy enough for us to see. The fallout is massive. Some who thought they were child converts, thankfully, have come to Christ later in their teen or adult years, sometimes without using the terminology or fully understanding the change that has taken place.

2. We also must admit that it is a rather easy thing to convince children to pray a prayer we call “the sinner’s prayer” (this prayer, by the way, is not found in Scripture), or to raise their hand, or sign a card, in response to a persuasive presentation of the gospel. I hope you understand when I say that I could get a fairly good response of supposed “new converts” from almost any classroom of children due to some persuasive skills. Whether I am getting these converts sincerely or not is not the question. I am only saying that children are easily swayed and convinced.

3. In the third place we should admit that we are often not even discussing repentance and faith with the children we are hoping to evangelize, but are rather using the unsupported terminology of “inviting Jesus into the heart,” a phrase and concept not found in the Bible. A better look at John 1:12 with verse 11 and Revelation 3:20 in context might reveal that the only verses we cling to for this methodology are not saying what we think they are. I am not saying by this that the Spirit of Christ is not “in” the Christian but that our invitation to come to Christ is different than the Bible’s.

4. In the fourth place I think we need to realize that the methodology often used in churches tends to encourage premature conversions. I mean particularly that the altar call system and the giving of immediate assurance as practiced by many is not a help in securing a sound conversion. This and the other issues above contribute to the struggle the Christian parent has in working though the issues of salvation with their children.

In the context of a nurturing Christian family it is often difficult to tell just when a child who is seeking God is truly converted. He may, in fact, deal with repentance and faith over and over again, seeking assurance. We know that there is a time in all their seeking when the believing child does truly convert to Christ from his sin and selfishness, but often that exact date is hard to know. For the adult conversion, it may be more easily discerned.

We have put a paradigm of exact dating on most conversions so that we tend to force whatever is happening in the child into a moment in time which he or she can remember, but the reality may be far more difficult to ascertain. For instance, my child has often prayed at night about his soul. I encourage this and often remind him and the other children, “Don’t forget to talk to God about your soul before going to sleep.” What I am looking for is not whether or not he has said some words in the right way that supposedly “bind” God to give him salvation. No, what I am looking for, and what he is looking for, is a changed life. He is looking for the signs of being made a “new creature” in Christ.

When we speak of assurance, we are speaking of that which we know because the evidence is clear. This is the heart of First John and the other passages dealing with this subject. The way to tell if you are a Christian is not to look at the sincerity of a decision, but to look at the change in the life. As far as I can tell, there is no teaching in the Word which says that you can be sure that you are a Christian by looking back at an historical conversion experience. “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life…” (1 Jn. 5:13, emphasis mine). What things? Those tests which make up the content of the epistle. In other words, one’s assurance should be based on discernible factors which can be tested.

Once, when my oldest was talking with me about how he could know if he were a true Christian, I explained the issue like this: If I gave you a seed to plant in the ground and told you it was a certain type of flower, you would not know for sure it was so, even it if began to sprout. You would know more when it put out leaves. And you would be even more sure when the bud appears. But you would know for certain when the flower blooms.” My son is quite hopeful that he is a believer, seeks God with his heart, listens to and reads the Bible, seeks understanding when the Word is preached, however, he is still not certain of the state of his soul. He is hopeful and so am I, but not resolved at this point, knowing that children must be particularly cautious. There is no sense of being held back, rather he is encouraged to do just what any person should do—repent and trust in Christ. After all, we are life-long repenters and life-long believers. He will know “the genuineness” of his faith (1 Pet. 1: 7) as he faces those maturing trials of life.

What about that child we mentioned earlier who announces he is converted after the children’s meeting? Our response to our child’s expressions that he is now converted should always be positive, encouraging and sincere. We should help the child see the basis upon which he can have assurance of new life rather than take it upon ourselves to offer him an immediate assurance not ours to give. Say something like this, “I’m thrilled that you are repenting and trusting in Christ. More than anything we want to know that God has really changed your life. The way we will know is if you continue repenting and trusting and if you act like a true Christian—that is, you have a new heart that loves to obey God. Sometimes we do not know that until we are in a place where it really costs us to be a Christian. Maybe you will not know it until you face the choice between your friends and Christ. Let’s see what God does. We’ll watch and pray about it. As questions come up, we’ll talk.”

In better days, when sound theology was more prominent in our churches, the leaders would often approach the child who was dealing with salvation like this. They would, first of all, assert that children could be converted. However, they would emphasize that the child’s ability to know if they are converted on a sound, biblical basis was not likely, due to the ease with which children are deceived. The child would have been encouraged, prayed for, and guided. There would be no push for baptism because the responsibility of the pastor was to baptize valid converts. The validity of this hopeful conversion was yet undecided. The parents understood this and were comfortable with the process because, in most cases, this was the practice among all of their child’s peers. There is nothing that could be done to “unsave” a truly converted child. This process would continue until the mid to later teen years.

As a result of this kind of leadership, no child was discouraged from seeking Christ, or from repenting and believing, yet the massive fallout of those who were deceived, as we unfortunately find today, was abated. In other words, children were not told that they were converted and would have to then wait some years before baptism. Rather, they were told, and I think rightly so, that time and maturity was needed in order to know if their hopeful conversion was genuine. At that discovery baptism would be as immediate as was the New Testament precedent.

Correcting our Mistakes

Leaders and parents must consider the benefits of returning to a better method of dealing with the souls of our children. To give assurance on the basis of praying a prayer or some other outward, immediate sign is sealing many in deception and makes them harder to reach in their adult years. Any casual look at the disparity between the rolls of our churches plus the numbers of supposed converts who do not even find their way on to our rolls against the actual changed lives being produced, should cause us to do some very serious thinking. In the manner of our great grandfathers who often exhibited such reasonableness and biblical wisdom, we should return to a method that both allows our active and vigorous pursuit of our children’s salvation, while at the same time protects against large scale deception.

You who are parents can begin this reformation now. If you have taken a more “decisionistic” approach to your children, placing hopes of salvation on the sincerity of a decision instead of on a revolutionary change of life, then you may still be able to return and correct your mistakes. Go to your child and tell him or her that you now understand things much better and can help him more. I find that children are eminently forgiving and able to understand our mistaken notions, especially when they were developed with good intentions.

Copyright ã 1997 Jim Elliff
Christian Communicators Worldwide, Inc.
201 Main, Parkville, MO 64152 USA
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Other uses require written permission. Write for additional materials.