It is not uncommon to hear a well meaning parent or pastor suggest that children cannot handle portions of Scripture and should not be taught key biblical truths until they are older. A ministry leader made the following recommendation about delaying the teaching of topics such of morality, humanity, creation, government, family, and economics, “I would suggest a starting age of at least 11 since [the author] presents ideas for which younger children probably lack enough familiarity to reason through what he is saying.” That type of recommendation is opposite the pattern and priority of Scripture.
Paul speaks about the importance of the early years in salvation and spiritual growth when he said to Timothy, “and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15). The Psalmist states, “O God, from youth you have taught me” (Ps. 71:17). The early years are critically important and we must not buy into the lie that children are too young to handle the deep truths of Scripture and wait to teach children the whole counsel of God’s word.
James Montgomery Boice recognized that the habits of youth often become the habits of adulthood. He states, “The decisions of youth form habits that guide us from that point on and are hard to break. If we form good habits when we are young – reading the Bible, spending time in prayer, enjoying the company of God’s people, going to church, rejecting sin, and practicing to be honest and do good – these habits will go with us through life and make good choices later in life easier. If on the contrary we make bad choices, later we will find good choices harder to make and the bad habits nearly impossible to break.”
JC Ryle, an English pastor that lived from 1816-1900, has a strong warning for all parents and grandparents to heed, “What young men will be, in all probability depends on what they are now, and they seem to forget this. Youth is the planting time of full age, the molding season in the little space of human life, the turning point in the history of man’s mind. By the shoot that springs up we can judge the type of tree that is growing, by the blossoms we judge the kind of fruit, by the spring we judge the type of harvest coming, by the morning we judge the coming day, and by the character of the young man, we may generally judge what he will be when he grows up.”
JC Ryle continues, “I say it because experience tells me that people’s hearts are seldom changed if they are not changed when young. Seldom indeed are men converted when they are old. Habits have deep roots. Once sin is allowed to settle in your heart, it will not be turned out at your bidding. Custom becomes second nature, and its chains are not easily broken. The prophet has well said, ‘Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil’ (Jeremiah 13:23). Habits are like stones rolling down hill–the further they roll, the faster and more ungovernable is their course. Habits, like trees, are strengthened by age. A boy may bend an oak when it is a sapling–a hundred men cannot root it up, when it is a full grown tree. A child can wade over the Thames River at its fountain-head–the largest ship in the world can float in it when it gets near the sea. So it is with habits: the older the stronger–the longer they have held possession, the harder they will be to cast out. They grow with our growth, and strengthen with our strength. Custom is the nurse of sin. Every fresh act of sin lessens fear and remorse, hardens our hearts, blunts the edge of our conscience, and increases our evil inclination.
If you are discouraged by these comments due to an adult child or older family member who has not embraced Christ, then I want to remind you that there is always hope for transformation in Christ. The Scriptures are full of individuals who trusted Christ later in life such as the prodigal son who returned home, Nicodemus sought Christ to be born again when he was old, and the thief who trusted Christ at the end of life so no man may despair. If you are prone to worry, the Bible reminds you that the remedy is to trust God and bring your burden to the Lord in prayer (Phil. 4:6-7).
Research creates additional urgency as to the importance of the early years in the discipleship of young people. A survey from the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) found that 63% of individuals become a Christian between the age of 4-14, with the median age being 11. The same survey also found that 34% of individuals become a Christian between the age of 15-29. According to this study, 97% of individuals become a Christian before the age of 30.
A child’s beliefs, his or her worldview, is almost fully formed by the age of 12. Before a child becomes a teenager, his understanding of the world, views of God, perspectives about morality, convictions about Jesus, and a long list of other topics is nearly complete.
Delaying doctrinal training, abdicating discipleship to pastors or schools, or avoiding difficult topics is a recipe for spiritual disaster. It is important to note that beginning early is not a guarantee that a child will embrace Christ or live biblically as it is the power of the Gospel, not the correct methods that change hearts. However, we are wise to recognize and utilize the patterns and principles of Scripture and resources that help us shape the beliefs of the next generation.
James Montgomery Boice, Psalms, An Expositional Commentary, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing House, 1998), 977.
JC Ryle, Thoughts for Young Men (Nelson South, New Zealand: Renaissance Classics, 2012), 6.
JC Ryle, Thoughts for Young Men, 6-7.
National Association of Evangelicals, “When Americans Become Christians,” accessed March, 26 2019, https://www.nae.net/when-americans-become-christians/?inf_contact_key=3fe6d503a91e14eb09034cd02b6b233081cb00e0c63e6f917e88c5746d3481dd