Am I going to die if I accept Jesus?" my 5-year-old daughter, Amelia, asked one day.
"You won't die right now," I reassured her.
As we talked more, I learned that she had recently heard the Gospel at church, and in her mind, that message boiled down to one simple message: "When you ask Jesus into your heart, you go to heaven." Apparently my daughter hadn't prayed to accept Jesus because she didn't want to die just yet.
We talked some more about what the Gospel really meant. Amelia was visibly relieved after our conversation, and she said that she wanted to pray to accept Jesus. So we headed downstairs so we could pray with her daddy.
Whatever our children's ages, we as Christian parents have an awesome responsibility to help them understand and respond to the Gospel. Coming to grips with the Gospel and their need for a Savior is key to our children's faith journey.
The Gospel message
Maybe your child knows several Bible stories by heart, or maybe he is just now learning basic truths of Scripture. Whatever your child's level of biblical literacy, establishing a core understanding of God's full plan for humanity — how these stories and truths are all linked together — is the first step.
That big story starts in the garden. For our kids to truly understand Jesus' sacrifice, they must recognize that God's loving relationship with humankind is drastically altered by the presence of our sin.
Teach your children that God created a beautiful world and then made humans in His image. According to Genesis, Adam and Eve had a relationship with God, but they chose to disobey His will for their lives. They hid because they were ashamed, recognizing that their disobedience separated them from God.
God is perfect and holy, and our disobedience — our sin — cannot stand in His presence. But God sought out Adam and Eve because He still loved them. He clothed them with animal hides, a symbol of how death is necessary to pay for humanity's sins.
For generations after that first act of disobedience, humans made animal sacrifices to pay for their sins. But God always had a better plan for forgiveness. He sent His Son, Jesus, to die and pay the penalty for our sins, to conquer death once and for all by rising from the grave.
Since all humans are separated from God, we all need to accept this gift of grace. John 3:16 says, "God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." Read this verse with your child, explaining that forgiveness is an unearned gift because of Christ's sacrifice for us.
One way to explain the need for a Savior is to ask your child to think about a child meeting someone important, such as the ruler of a country. But she has only one outfit, and she wears it all the time so it's torn, stained and has an awful stench. She wants to smell better, so she sprays herself with perfume. But now she smells worse — a stench covered by a sweet smell. She is in no condition to go before a king.
Whenever we try to fix our sin with our own effort, we don't remove the filth. We just cover up the problem. Confessing our sin and asking Jesus to save us means that the stains and smells are gone. He has paid the penalty. We are made clean. The separation is gone. We are fit to stand in the presence of the King.
Help your child understand that he, like all humans, has sinned and can't do anything good enough to make up for those sins. Help him also recognize that a simple "I'm sorry" isn't enough. Look for signs of genuine repentance, a personal response to God's free gift of forgiveness. As your child grows, your conversations on these concepts will grow deeper.
How to answer questions
"Where is heaven?"
"Does Jesus really live in my heart?"
Sometimes we lose sight of the value of our children's questions. They are an opportunity to explore the Bible together while building knowledge that strengthens their faith.
For younger children, it's important to keep terms and concepts as simple as possible. Take hell, for example. Without explaining complicated doctrine, address the reality of an eternity without God. Help your children understand that everything good comes from God. Talk about some of the "good" things that fill your life at home or at school. Next, consider the same scenario but take all the good away — all presence of God gone from a situation or place. What would school be like if only the bad or evil remained? Finally, multiply all evil joined together in one place for all of eternity.
As your children begin to grasp how the Gospel affects their lives, they will increasingly show more interest. Your child might exhibit genuine repentance over sin, which isn't just regret over getting caught and being punished, but more about wanting forgiveness. Pay attention for questions regarding heaven and hell, forgiveness of sins, the nature of God or other concepts. These all indicate that something is going on deep inside. Your child may be ready for the decision to trust Jesus as Lord of her life.
When that faith is obvious in your child, ask if he'd like to pray. Romans 10:9 assures us, "If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." If your child is ready, provide support either by having him repeat a prayer after you or by coaching.
Afterward, record the date and celebrate your child's decision! Continue to be deliberate in your support, even when doubts and confusion arise, trusting the Holy Spirit's work to continue the good work going on in your child.Ann Vande Zande is an author, teacher and speaker. She serves as a women's ministry head and has ministered to kids, teens and adults interested in growing their faith.