Calvary Road Baptist Church

“SUFFER THE LITTLE CHILDREN” Part 2

Matthew 19.14

 

I want to continue my introductory remarks from last week, as I gradually lead you toward the text I will preach on, which is Matthew 19.14: “But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.”

Since last Sunday was the day before the 34th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion on demand in the United States, the Roe v. Wade decision, I thought it appropriate at that time to rehearse our country’s recent history as it relates to our valuation of and treatment of children.

 

This morning we will look farther back in time. To give you a sense of perspective, let me read a marvelous insight from Today’s Apostasy, which was written by Dr. Hymers and Dr. Cagan:

 

Pilgrim’s Progress Shows How Modern Evangelism Changed

 

John Bunyan (1628-1688) is undoubtedly the most widely read Baptist of all time. The only book in English which has passed his Pilgrim’s Progress in sales is the King James Bible. Bunyan’s book is considered the finest allegory ever written. An allegory is not fiction, but a story which uses symbols or images to represent something which is true. In Pilgrim’s Progress Bunyan pictures a man going through his life on earth as a journey. This character, named Christian, passes through various trials and difficulties as he travels from the City of Destruction, through the world, on his way to the Celestial City.

The story begins with Christian crying out, “What must I do to be saved?” He awakes the next morning filled with great heaviness of mind. He walks about the fields in distress. At last he meets a man named Evangelist who tells him, “Fly from the wrath to come.” He asks, “Which way must I fly?” Evangelist says, “Do you see that narrow [Wicket] gate?” Christian says, “No.” “Do you see that light?” He then says, “I think I do.” “Keep that light in your eye,” says Evangelist, “and go straight up to it; so shall you see the gate, at which when you knock, it shall be told you what you are to do.”

Christian leaves the City of Destruction to find the narrow gate so he can enter through it and be saved. Notice that Evangelist does not have this man say a sinner’s prayer, learn the plan of salvation, or make a Lordship commitment. Instead, the Evangelist points him to Jesus, Himself.

Christian is now off on his search for Jesus. He carries a great load on his back, which symbolizes the weight of sin. His wife and children try to stop him as he leaves home to find Jesus. They give a loud wail and beg him to come back to the City of Destruction, but he runs away crying, “Life! Life!” Friends of his wife come after him and try to persuade him to turn back with them to the city. One of them is named Obstinate. He scoffs at Christian’s search for Christ. His companion, named Pliable, says that if the joys and blessings Christian speaks of are true, they appear to be worth searching for. Obstinate cries, “What! More fools, still! Go back, go back, and be wise.” When Pliable joins Christian in his search for Jesus, Obstinate declares, “I will go back to my place; I will not be one of such vain folks.”

Christian and Pliable go off on their search for Jesus. Soon the road they are travelling goes through a slough (sloo, a swampy marsh). Here they lay for some time, stuck in the mud, and sinking more and more in the mire. Pliable says this wallowing in mire has not brought him the happiness Christian spoke about, so he leaves Christian in the mud and goes back to the City of Destruction.

Wallowing in the slough, Christian is at last greeted by a man named Help, who tells him what the muddy marsh means. “When a man wakes up to a sense of his own lost state, doubts and fears rise up in his soul, and all of them drain down and sink into this place.” He then tells Christian how to get out of the mire and return to his search for Christ.

Next Christian meets Worldly Wiseman, a person only interested in earthly pleasures. This man gives worldly advice to Christian. He tells him, “I have seen more of the world than you. In the way you go, you will meet with pain. Pay no attention to what Evangelist tells you.” Then Worldly Wiseman tells him to go to a town called Morality and speak to a man named Legality and his son, Civility, and they will tell him how to get the load of sin off of his back without going through the narrow gate (i.e. without coming to Christ). So Christian goes out of the way to find Mr. Legality’s house to seek help in removing his heavy burden. He meets Evangelist on the way. Evangelist says, “What doest thou here, Christian?” Christian cannot answer. Evangelist goes on, “Art not thou the man that I heard cry in the City of Destruction?”

Christian: “Yes, dear sir, I am that man.”

Evangelist: “Did not I point out to thee the way to the Narrow Gate?” (Christ).

Christian: “Yes, you did, Sir.”

Evangelist: “How is it, then, that thou hast so soon gone out of the way?”

Christian: “When I had got out the Slough of Despond I met a man who told me that in a town near, I might find one who could take off my load. He got me at last to yield; so I came here.”

When Evangelist had heard from Christian all that took place, he said, “The just shall live by faith, but if a man draw back, my soul shall have no joy in him. Is not this the case with thee? Hast not thou drawn back thy feet from the way of peace? Give more heed to the things that I shall tell thee of. The Lord says, ‘Strive to go in at the strait gate to which I send thee, for strait is the gate that leads to life, and few there be that find it.’ Why didst thou disregard the Word of God and listen to Mr. Worldly Wiseman? The man whom he sent thee to, Legality, could not set thee free; no man has got rid of his load through him; he could only show thee the way to woe, for by the deeds of the law no man can get rid of his load.”

Christian to Evangelist: “Sir, what do you think? Is there hope? May I now go back, and strive to reach the Narrow Gate?”

Evangelist: “Thy sin is great, for thou hast gone from the way that is good, to tread false paths, yet will the man at the gate let thee through, for he has love and good will for all men. But be careful that thou turn not to the right hand or to the left.”

So he went on in haste, and could by no means feel safe till he was in the path which he had left. In time he got up to the gate. He gave three knocks and said, “May I go in here?”

The gatekeeper said, “Who is there? Where did you come from, and what do you want?”

Christian: “I come from the City of Destruction with a load of sins on my back; but I am on my way to Mount Zion, that I might be free from the wrath to come; and as I have been told that my way is through this gate, I would know, Sir, if you will let me in.”

The gatekeeper then flung back the gate as Christian went in. He then ran till he drew near to a place on which stood a cross, and at the foot of it a tomb. Just as Christian came up to the cross, his load slid from his back. Then Christian was glad, and said, “He gives me rest by his grief, and life by his death.”

 

The Great Baptist Author Speaks on Conversion

 

This sketch of “Christian’s” conversion has been simplified and reduced to a bare outline of what Bunyan gave in Pilgrim’s Progress. Originally “Christian’s” conversion experience covers about one-fourth of the book. It has been outlined here to show how the idea of conversion has been changed to mere decisionism in evangelical thought today.

If a lost person were trying to leave the City of Destruction and find relief from his burden of sin, what evangelical evangelist in our time would advise him the way Evangelist did in Pilgrim’s Progress? Few, if any, I fear, would point such a man to Jesus, Himself, who is the narrow gate to eternal life. Few, if any, evangelical evangelists would continue to point a man to Jesus, though the man’s family and friends pulled him back, though he went astray in a period of depression and hopelessness (the slough), though he were given false advice by the lost. Who, through all these events, would continue to point a lost man to Jesus? The vast majority of evangelical evangelists today would just have him say a quick prayer, or learn a couple of verses, or make a Lordship commitment.

Pilgrim’s Progress shows us that today’s “conversions” are quite different from those in the time of John Bunyan, in the seventeenth century. Read this classic again and ask yourself if you have anyone in your church with a testimony like “Christian’s”, or if you have ever even met anyone with such a testimony. Think over the fact that testimonies like this were common in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries. Then ask yourself, what caused this change if it wasn’t Finney’s decisionism?

One ought to remember that Pilgrim’s Progress consistently outsold all books but the Bible for two hundred years. It was read and loved by Wesleyans as well as Calvinists. All branches of evangelicalism embraced it as a correct explanation of Christian conversion. Why? Because salvation experiences like this were quite common before Finney changed conversion into decisionism.

What evangelical evangelist today would give the kind of advice, over a considerable period of time, that the evangelist gave in Pilgrim’s Progress? The evangelists of our day have largely turned away from the old paths. As a result, almost no one today has a conversion similar to Christian’s.

While we do not think that every convert must go through an extended period of doubt and uncertainty, we can know for sure, by the long popularity of Bunyan’s book, that this was quite often the case before Finney changed the meaning of conversion. Today, evangelical evangelists would pray instantly with the man in the story, or tell him that he had already been saved. Today, the average evangelical evangelist would demand a decision right then, on the spot, regardless of the man’s spiritual state. He would then give the man some false assurance, and leave him unconverted, awaiting Hell.

Thus, by reading Richard Baxter’s Treatise on Conversion and John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, one can see how conversion was changed into a mere decision by Finney and his followers in the mid-nineteenth century.[1]

 

To verify that this approach to the subject of conversion was applied even to little children before Finney’s dreadful influence was felt, I commend for your reading A Token For Children, which is published by Soli Deo Gloria Publications. Though it is only 141 pages, it is actually a combined reprint of two volumes published long before Finney’s terrible effect on evangelism. The first volume was written by an English pastor named James Janeway, and is an exact account of the conversion experiences, the lives, and the joyful deaths of several young children. The second volume is essentially the same kind of short biographical account of children’s conversions in New England, and was written by the very influential Boston pastor, Cotton Mather. Janeway died in 1674 and Mather died in 1728, about 100 years before Finney came on the scene.

As you read about the conversion experiences of those precious children, you are overtaken by the realization that such conversions are so rare these days that few pastors have ever witnessed such things even after years of ministry. We need to ask, why is it that child evangelism is so different these days? Read Janeway’s and Mather’s accounts and you will learn of children just as conscious of their sinfulness as was any adult convicted by the Holy Spirit, just as willing to strive to enter in at the strait gate, and just as committed to prayer and holiness after conversion as the most committed adult Christian you have ever known or read about.

How could this be? There are a number of factors: One of the factors would be technological. Imagine the attitude of a child who was exposed to sickness and dying. As recently as one hundred years ago many children had brothers or sisters taken from them by childhood diseases such as polio, whooping cough, diphtheria, influenza, tuberculosis, and smallpox. Children in those days were very familiar with death and dying, and they knew that there was no sure guarantee that they would live to adulthood. As well, with the state of medical care in those days, sick children were not so quickly removed from their families to hospitals as they are today. Therefore, most children then would have been in a position to actually see a brother or a sister, or a friend, who was sick and dying. Death and the uncertainty of life was no abstraction to children then, as it is today. Therefore, when you said to a child, “The soul that sinneth shall surely die,” the youngsters of those days had no difficulty envisioning such things happening to them.

However, the most important reason we see such a change in childhood conversions and the lack of seriousness toward spiritual matters these days has to do with the radical change in theology that has taken place. As Dr. Hymers suggests, Charles G. Finney’s tragic impact on evangelism cannot possibly be overstated. Not since Pelagius in ancient times has there been a more energetic advocate and a more effective spokesman for the unscriptural notion of self-salvation by means of a decision. But while Finney focused his attention on evangelism in general, and the training of other men to follow in his errant footsteps of leading sinners to false professions of faith and giving them false hopes of heaven, there was another man who was particularly effective in changing Christian America’s approach to evangelizing young children.

His name was Horace Bushnell (1802-1876), and he greatly affected orthodox views of the nature of children and the materials that were suitable for their spiritual instruction. Over the course of his career, Bushnell was particularly interested in ministry to children, and his writings directly attacked and, to a significant degree, overthrew the biblical approach to evangelizing children represented by Janeway and Mather. Bushnell disapproved of the “revivalism” of the Calvinists on one hand (their emphasis on crisis conversion after becoming awakened to their sinfulness and alarmed about their spiritual condition), while also being opposed to Finney’s decisionism (because of its shallowness and tendency to produce results that did not last). Yet it was Finney’s decisionism that prepared the spiritual soil of Christian America to be so receptive to Bushnell’s influence.

Thus, coming along on the heels of Charles Finney, Bushnell developed his own method for church growth, which he elaborated in his profoundly influential book Christian Nurture. The basic idea of Christian Nurture is “That the child is to grow up a Christian, and never know himself as being otherwise.”[2] What a startling departure from Bible truth, but one that still resonates in every Sunday School classroom and church auditorium in America. Christian Nurture was first published in 1847. A revised and enlarged edition appeared in 1861. Bushnell’s promoter, a man named Luther Weigle, praised it as a classic of American religious literature unrivaled except perhaps by some of Jonathan Edwards’ writings. Weigle’s discernment was obviously lacking, but there is no question that Christian Nurture was one of the most influential books in American religious history. I do not exaggerate when I insist that every youth ministry in the English-speaking world suffers from the effects of Christian Nurture.

Bushnell’s rejection of original sin and total depravity swept the liberal circles of his day. That does not surprise us. However, what is shocking is that many orthodox evangelicals of that day, including the famous-to- this-day Princeton theologian Charles Hodge (1797-1878), expressed a qualified approval for the book.[3] No doubt, Hodge’s and others’ qualified approval undercut the ability of other conservative Christians to resist the onslaught of Bushnell’s war against Christian orthodoxy. With such support for Christian Nurture, Bushnell “became instrumental in inaugurating the modern era of religious education”.[4] In his work, Bushnell opposed the evangelizing of children by pressing upon them their sinfulness, their spiritual deadness, and their need for thorough conversion. Bushnell also opposed books like a Token For Children, intended to evangelize such children.

No wonder, then, that Bushnell encouraged so many to grow up in formalistic delusion, thinking themselves saved when they were not. Ruth Bell Graham is a sad example that illustrates the effect of Bushnell. Though she grew up the daughter of medical missionaries to China, in her adult life she was once asked when she became a Christian, to which she responded that she felt she had always been a Christian. So much for the necessity of the new birth. So much for the inherited sin nature. “This is not to say that Horace Bushnell is responsible for all the evil in America today. It is to say that he had a much larger role in promoting the wickedly destructive force of theological liberalism than is usually realized today. The bitter fruits of Bushnell’s works like Christian Nurture were certainly not desired or expected by those evangelicals who endorsed some of his ideas. They were likely influenced by the Victorian era’s sentimentality about children, which blinded them to some degree to the liberalism implicit in Bushnell’s chief book.”[5]

Do you doubt the impact of Bushnell’s book on contemporary approaches to evangelizing children? Do you wonder why so many children walk to the front of the church auditorium with a smile on their faces after hearing a gospel sermon and responding to the invitation? Has it never caused you any concern that children who are supposedly convicted of their sins and want to be converted to Christ are so oftentimes flippant and smiling as they go to the “old fashion altar”? Such behavior would have been questioned in days gone by.

In His parable of the soils, Jesus said these words about one category of false professor in Matthew 13:

 

20     But he that received the seed into stony places, the same is he that heareth the word, and anon with joy receiveth it;

21     Yet hath he not root in himself, but dureth for a while: for when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, by and by he is offended.

 

“With joy receiveth it.” Why are Sunday School teachers, altar workers, and pastors no longer alarmed at even the possibility that such a reaction from a child might indicate either a failure to comprehend the seriousness of his condition or a presumption concerning his supposed conversion to Christ? Granted, some sinners recently come to Christ do rejoice and are exuberant. However, joy is no necessary indication of conversion, if our Lord is to be correctly understood. He was so understood before the days of Bushnell’s and Finney’s impact on American Christianity.

Here is another consideration. Despite comments about “picking green fruit” and the danger of being premature in urging someone to close with Christ, when was the last time a Sunday School teacher was warned by a pastor to go slower when dealing with youngsters? We know a child will do almost anything a grownup suggests. So why is there no concern about hasty sinner’s prayers and the resultant false professions that are so prevalent among children? As well, why do so many pastors typically assign the most inexperienced ministers (very young youth workers, fresh out of Bible college) in the church to the most challenging people to minister to (the church’s young people)? As well, when was the last time you heard of a youth pastor exercising wisdom and patience in dealing with a lost kid under serious conviction, rather than quickly urging him to pray a sinner’s prayer that might just leave him lost? I am sure there are pastors who provide intensive training and hands on supervision of youth workers in the task of reaching teens for Christ, but I do not know of any pastor who does.

To prove to you that Bushnell is the man responsible for this tragic turn of events that has resulted in us teaching our lost children to say “I love Jesus,” when the Bible clearly declares that they do not, I will read just a few of Bushnell’s comments from Christian Nurture.

On page 15 of his book, Bushnell argues that there is nothing worse than believing and teaching a child that he is incapable of loving God in his lost condition. Further, he challenges the authority of anyone who believes otherwise. However, does not Romans 3.23 declare, “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God”? As well, does not Psalm 58.3 teach us that children “go astray as soon as they be born, speaking lies”? Bushnell understood his Bible quite differently than Jonathan Edwards and Asahel Nettleton before him, and seems to be completely blind to the light shed by David in the Psalms and the Apostle Paul in his writings.

Listen to this quote from page 17: “Now, it is the very character and mark of all unchristian education, that is brings up the child for future conversion.” Therefore, you see, Bushnell was actually opposed to conversion and the need for repentance. Yet it is Bushnell’s views of evangelizing children that prevail in our day. How many parents will suffer their children to endure real conviction of sin without doing everything in their power to cut short the unpleasantness?

On page 21, he argues against teaching children that they are sinners who need Christ. Listen to this quote concerning instructions that ought to be given to children: “He is not to be told that he must have a new heart and exercise faith in Christ’s atonement.” Bushnell’s sentiments fly in the face of Bible truth and historic Christian orthodoxy.

Most of us are familiar with Romans 5.12, where Paul comments on our inherited sinful nature: “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.” Now listen to what Bushnell writes in opposition to that: “For it is not sin which he derives from his parents; at least, not sin in any sense which imports blame, but only some prejudice to the perfect harmony of this mold, some kind of pravity or obliquity which inclines him to evil.” So you see, though he grants that children do get something from their parents, he denies that it is worthy of blame for the children. This is the heresy of Pelagius come back to us once again, denying the full impact of the Fall.

From the Bible we know that we love God in response to His love for us, First John 4.19, which we truly apprehend from the moment of conversion. Thus, the unconverted cannot really love God in the sense that we find it in John’s epistle. Bushnell advocated teaching children to love God. On page 25, he speaks of the child who “learned to love him so early.” However, conversion is not learning. You do not learn to love God. You learn that you should love God. A Christian can learn to love God more fully. However, loving God is not something that is learned, just as it precisely is not something that can be taught. You teach children they should love God, which is different than teaching them to love God. The lost cannot be taught to love God.

The final example that I have time for today is found on pages 36-37 of Christian Nurture. Here is what he writes as a criticism of the understanding of evangelism we orthodox Christians have: “Our very theory of religion is, that men are to grow up in evil, and be dragged into the church of God by conquest. The world is to lie in halves, and the kingdom of God is to stretch itself side by side with the kingdom of darkness, making sallies into it, and taking captive those who are sufficiently hardened and bronzed in guiltiness to be converted!”

Of course, Bushnell misrepresents the spirit of biblical evangelism by insisting sinners must be hardened and bronzed prior to conversion when the opposite it true, but he is correct in his understanding that the kingdom of God makes sallies into the kingdom of darkness to take captive those who respond to the gospel. Where he goes wrong as a result of his liberalism is in his refusal to admit that your children are sinners who are just as needy of Christ as are adults, and that the convicting work of the Holy Spirit though unpleasant to be experienced is yet glorious in its results.

Bushnell’s basic assumption was that the children of Christian parents are innocent and are only corrupted by their parent’s ignorance and inconsistency. While children are seriously affected by their parent’s sins, the Bible clearly shows them to be as much sinners as anyone, and as desperately needy of God’s saving grace as the worst sinner.

The real issues for parents concerning their own children’s conversion are two, as I see it: First, are you willing to grant that your children are as sinful as the Bible says they are, with a heart that is as desperately wicked and prone to lying as Jeremiah 17.9 declares? Many parents accept this in theory, but find it very difficult to put such theories into practice.

Finally, are you willing to observe your child suffering the convicting work of the Holy Spirit without trying to cut it short? Many parents find it very hard to see their child agonizing over personal sins and guiltiness in the sight of God without interfering with the Spirit’s convicting work to ease the child’s discomfort. This is because parents’ souls are tormented when they see their beloved child agonizing about the wrath of God and their own punishment in the lake of fire.

Mom? Dad? Are you willing to not only stand back while the Spirit of God convicts deeply and pricks the heart painfully, but to clearly stand on the Lord’s side of the issue while your child remains in his sins? Bushnell’s liberalism expressed itself in a sentimentalism that could not tolerate such a thing. Many parents have been so affected by Bushnell’s influence that they, too, are unable to tolerate such a thing.

Sadly, the impact of his unbelief, and his deliberate misinterpretation of very clear Bible passages to justify his distortion of the truth, is felt in almost every home and almost every church in America. It is in my mind the main reason we do not see the kinds of conversions of children these days that were so prominent in the days of John Bunyan, James Janeway, and Cotton Mather.



[1] R. L. Hymers, Jr. and Christopher Cagan, Today’s Apostasy, (Oklahoma City: Hearthstone Publishing, Ltd., 1999), pages 67-71.

[2] Horace Bushnell, Christian Nurture, (Cleveland, Ohio: The Pilgrim Press, 1994, reprinted from the 1861 edition published by Charles Scribner), page 10.

[3] Quoted in the Introduction of James Janeway and Cotton Mather, A Token For Children, (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1995), page xv.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

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