What are the bare-bone facts of the gospel? What is the minimum information needed to believe and be saved? While those questions may foster interesting discussions, they are not valid questions for developing evangelistic programs. Sadly, too many evangelistic efforts are based on answers to those questions.
In fact, many of the formulaic approaches to the gospel deliberately omit important truths like repentance and God’s wrath against sin. Some influential voices in modern evangelicalism have actually argued that those truths (and others, including Christ’s lordship) are extraneous to the gospel. They say such matters should not even be brought up when talking to unbelievers.
Other evangelical leaders, desiring ecumenical unity with Catholic and orthodox churches, suggest that important doctrinal issues such as justification by faith and substitutionary atonement are not really essential to the gospel. They’re in effect calling for a bare-bones approach to the gospel. Their ecumenical openness implies that virtually any kind of generic faith in Christ may be regarded as authentic saving faith. They ignore the fact that the New Testament condemns those who profess to believe in Christ while rejecting or twisting the doctrine of justification (Galatians 1:6–9). It seems many evangelicals are obsessed with finding out how little of God’s truth a person can believe and still get to heaven.
Applied to parenting, that approach has potentially eternal consequences. That’s why parents should resist the temptation to think in such terms. The sort of constant, faithful, diligent teaching required by Deuteronomy 6:6–7 is incompatible with a minimalist approach to the gospel.
The gospel is the good news about Christ. There is a sense in which the gospel includes all truth about Him. There’s no need to think of any aspect of biblical truth as incompatible with or extraneous to the gospel. In fact, since Christ is the sum and the summit of all biblical revelation (Hebrews 1:1–3), every truth in Scripture ultimately points to Him. And therefore none of it is out of place in evangelistic contexts. One could accurately say, then, that parents who want to be thorough in evangelizing their children need to teach them the whole counsel of God, taking care to show the gospel ramifications in all that truth. That, I believe, is the true spirit of what Deuteronomy 6:6–7 calls for.
No single formula can possibly meet the needs of every unregenerate person anyway. Those who are ignorant need to be told who Christ is and why He offers the only hope of salvation (Romans 10:3). Those who are careless need to be confronted with the reality of impending judgment (John 16:11). Those who are fearful need to hear that God is merciful, delighting not in the death of the wicked but pleading with sinners to come to Him for mercy (Ezekiel 33:11). Those who are hostile need to be shown the futility of opposing the will of God (Psalm 2:1–4). Those who are self-righteous need to have their sin exposed by the demands of God’s law (Romans 3:20). Those who are proud need to hear that God hates pride (1 Peter 5:5). All sinners must understand that God is holy and that Christ has met the demands of God’s perfect righteousness on behalf of sinners (1 Corinthians 1:30). Every gospel presentation should include an explanation of Christ’s sacrificial death for sin (1 Corinthians 15:3). And the message is not the gospel if it does not also recount His burial and the triumph of His resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:4, 17).
Highlight the Crucial Gospel Doctrines
Along with a commitment to be thorough, however, parents must also take great care to highlight certain truths that are particularly crucial to a correct understanding of the gospel. Here are some pointers that will help keep you on course:
Teach Them About God’s Holiness
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10). That is not speaking of a craven fear. It is not the kind of fear that regards God as capricious in His anger. Rather, it is a devout, reverential fear of offending God’s holiness, based on a true understanding of God as One whose “eyes are too pure to approve evil, and [One who] can not look on wickedness” (Habakkuk 1:13).
Show Them Their Sin
Be sure to teach your children from the youngest age that misbehavior is not merely an offense against Mom and Dad; it’s also a sin against a holy God, who demands that children obey their parents (Exodus 20:12).
Help educate your children’s conscience so that they understand they are accountable to God first, and then their parents. Teach them this with love and genuine compassion, not in a browbeating manner.
Teaching them they are sinners does not mean belittling them or tormenting them with constant verbal battering about their failures. The goal is not to trample their spirit by continually berating them. Instead, you need to instruct them tenderly and help them view their own fallenness from God’s perspective. They need to appreciate why they are drawn to sin, and ultimately they must sense their own need of redemption. Jesus said, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). How will your child turn to Christ if he doesn’t realize he’s sick?
Instruct Them About Christ and What He Has Done
Teaching your children about their own sin is by no means an end in itself. You must also point them to the only remedy for sin—Jesus Christ. He is the heart of the gospel message, so instructing them about Jesus Christ should be the ultimate focus and the design of all your spiritual instruction.
Explain Christ’s deity (John 1:1-3, 14) and His Lordship (Philippians 2:9-11). Explain that He became a man (Philippians 2:6-7), but maintained His sinless purity (Hebrews 4:15; 1 Peter 2:22-23) and became the spotless sacrifice for our sins (2 Corinthians 5:21), shedding His blood as an atonement for our sin (Ephesians 1:7). Explain how His death on the cross purchased our salvation (1 Peter 2:24; Colossians 1:20), and that He triumphantly rose from the dead (Romans 4:25; 1 Corinthians 15:3-4). And explain that He freely justifies those who trust in Him (Romans 5:1-2; Galatians 2:16), and that His righteousness is imputed to us (2 Corinthians 5:21; Romans 4:5-6; Philippians 3:8-9).
Tell Them What God Demands of Sinners
God calls sinners to repentance (Acts 17:30). Genuine repentance is not self-reformation or the turning over of a new leaf. It is a turning of the heart to God from all that is evil.
It’s helpful to stress that repentance is a heart-turning and should not be equated with any external action on the child’s part. In many modern evangelicals’ minds, the act of praying to invite Jesus into the heart has become practically a sacramental means of salvation. The same thing is true of lifting a hand in a meeting, or coming forward to the altar. But such external actions have no intrinsic saving efficacy. They are all works, and works cannot save. Faith—a repentant trust in Christ alone for salvation—is the one true instrument of our justification, according to Scripture. “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8–9).
It’s best to avoid all such emphasis on external actions, and keep focusing instead on the response Scripture calls for from sinners.
Advise Them to Count the Cost Thoughtfully
Don’t downplay the hard demands of Christ. Don’t portray the Christian life as a life of ease, free from difficulties and dilemmas. Keep reminding your kids that the true price of following Christ always involves sacrifice, and the prelude to glory is suffering. It’s true that Christ offers the water of life freely to all who will take it (Revelation 22:17). But those who do are making an unconditional commitment to follow Him that may literally cost them their very lives.
Here is why all the central truths of the gospel focus on the cross: It reveals how heinous our sin is. It shows the intensity of God’s wrath against sin. It reveals the great love of God in paying such a high price for redemption. But it also serves as a fitting metaphor for the cost of following Christ. Jesus repeatedly stated that the cost of following Him involves a willingness to sacrifice all.
Urge Them to Trust Christ
We began by noting that regeneration is the Holy Spirit’s work in the heart, and we cautioned parents not to employ artificial means or external pressure to coax a shallow profession of faith from the child. Nonetheless, there is an urgency inherent in the gospel message itself, and it is right for parents to impress that urgency on the child’s heart.
God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:18-20)