My children recently became excited about limes when they learned they could sell limeade and make their riches. One day at my mother-in-law’s house, they found a large tray full of them. Large, richly green, beautiful limes—which they immediately started plundering. Jackpot.
Except they were plastic. A bowl full of limes holding out the promise of gallons of limeade, only decorative.
Many things can masquerade as the real thing but fail upon closer inspection. Jesus deals with this mismatch in a shocking episode in the Gospels: the cursing of the fig tree (Matt. 21:18–22; Mark 11:12–14, 20–25). In this inverted miracle we see precisely the stakes not only of failing to produce fruit, but of giving a fruitful impression and failing to back it upExamining the Episode
Jesus enters Jerusalem amid exultation from the masses gathered for Passover. In the morning, as he travels from Bethany, he spots a fig tree “in leaf.” At this point in late spring, most fig trees haven’t developed mature fruit (Mark 11:13). But this particular tree draws Jesus’s attention because it already has a full covering of leaves. It’s an early bloomer. Its foliage signals that it should have early figs.
With that expectation, Jesus inspects the tree. He is immediately disappointed. All leaves, no fruit. All expectation, no satisfaction.
In a shocking turn, Jesus curses the tree and makes it wither from the roots, never to yield fruit again. We are taken aback; this seems stunningly out of character for Jesus, the child-welcomer, compassionate healer, and storm-calmer.
What should we learn from this peculiar scene?
On the surface, it’s an object lesson on the power of faithful prayer (Matt. 21:20–22). But more is going on behind the scenes. The fig tree cursing, an enacted parable of sorts, is also a sober warning for us today—in at least two ways.1. Fruitlessness leads to judgment.
Throughout the Old Testament, Israel is described as God’s vineyard, tree, or planting (Judges 9:8–15; Isa. 3:14; 5:1–7; Jer. 12:10; Ezek. 17:2–10; 19:10–14). As any agrarian Israelite knew, the firstfruits of the harvest belong to God (Ex. 23:19; Neh. 10:35–37), which helps conceptualize their relationship to God: as his own special planting, they must yield spiritual fruit as his covenant people (Ps. 1:3; Jer. 17:8–10). Israel’s fruitfulness (literal or otherwise) is not the basis of their relationship with God, for it is God who gives fruitfulness (Deut. 7:13; 28:4). A lack of fruitfulness is a sign of God’s curse for their rebellion (Deut. 11:17).
This foundational metaphor for Israel’s spiritual health vividly blooms in the prophetic era. The time had come for God’s people to yield fruit that would bless the world (Isa. 27:6). Several times the prophets describe God as inspecting Israel for “early figs,” as a sign of spiritual fruitfulness (Mic. 7:1; Jer. 8:13; Hos. 9:10–17)—but he finds “no first-ripe fig that my soul desires.” So in two exiles (Assyrian and Babylonian), God pours out the curse of barrenness (Hos. 9:16), and Israel becomes a rotten fig (Jer. 29:17).
But all is not lost. God promises to one day replant Israel and produce healthy figs from her again (Joel 2:22; Amos 9:14; Mic. 4:4; Zech. 8:12; Ezek. 36:8).
With this web of background images, light bulbs would’ve immediately gone on in the minds of Jesus’s disciples as he re-enacted Israel’s history by cursing the fig tree.
Light bulbs would’ve immediately gone on in the minds of Jesus’s disciples as he reenacted Israel’s history by cursing the fig tree.
The fruitless fig tree draws us back to prior points in Jesus’s ministry, when God’s people were called to produce spiritual fruit (Matt. 3:8–10; 7:16–20; 13:8; Luke 3:7–9). Jesus has pursued the children of God with compassionate seriousness (Luke 13:34). And the Jewish crowds—gathering to celebrate God’s past act of redemption (Passover/exodus)—have just hailed Jesus as “king” while he leads a new exodus on a meaning-laden donkey (Zech. 9:9).
The eschatological restoration has arrived. Everything is lining up. Israel’s fruit will now be harvested; blessing will now pour forth. While the rest of the nations—the other fig trees—are not yet in season, this one tree is “in leaf.” And both Matthew and Mark, by “sandwiching” the fig tree episode, focus the lens on where it will all transpire: Jerusalem.
- Matthew: Jerusalem → Fig tree → Jerusalem
- Mark: Fig tree → Jerusalem → Fig tree
Except there’s no fruit. The fig tree, once again, has failed. The Passover celebration, the tumult, the crowds, the singing—it’s all a show. Jesus enters God’s house of prayer and finds it a “den of robbers” (Mark 11:17). Lots of action, lots of bustle, but no righteousness. Leaves, but no fruit.
So upon inspecting the fruitless tree, Jesus pours out divine judgment via two sign-acts: the future-pointing act of cursing the temple, and the enacted metaphor of cursing the tree.2. Think about your own figs.
But all is not lost. When the disciples ask Jesus to explain what just transpired, he pivots and talks about prayer. Why? Though they do not yet fully understand, they will be the new caretakers of God’s people (Matt. 21:33–45). They will be instruments by which Israel is transformed—when the Jewish nucleus of Christ-followers extends branches worldwide and brings forth fruit from all nations (beginning in Acts). And, as Jesus teaches here, they will do this by the power of faithful prayer.
Thus the fig tree cursing is not just about historical Israel. It’s about us. It’s about all the people of God throughout time.
The fig tree cursing is not just about historical Israel. It’s about us.
The Old Testament expectation that God’s covenant people bear fruit did not wither on that road between Bethany and Jerusalem when that poor fig tree met its expeditious fate. In fact, the mandate that God’s people bear spiritual fruit has actually intensified in the new era, not weakened (John 4:36; 15:2–16; Rom. 1:13; 6:21; Gal. 5:22; Phil. 1:11; 4:17; Heb. 12:11; Jas. 3:17). Not to earn God’s gardening affection—but to yield that which he has (re)made us to do.
Soberingly, this passage does not just remind us that a Christian by definition must produce spiritual fruit (even if only small early figs). It’s also about the threat of and temptation toward false pretenses of fruit.
The fig tree, like the bustling temple courts during Passover, was putting on a good show. And that made it all the worse. It’s one thing to lack fruit out of season. It’s another thing to lack it while pretending you have it.
So let us be warned.
Our personal lives can look like “in leaf.” Our leaves may look like those of a supermom, a winner, a perfect family, an A-team Christian with an overstuffed schedule of ministry activities. But the root may be withered. There may be no fruit of holiness and no intimacy with God. What’s worse—our leaves may even fool us.
And our churches can do the same. A church’s leaves may look impressive: booming attendance, capital campaigns, clever pastors, impressive music. But what will the Lord find upon close inspection? Will he find only leaves? Or will he find figs, too?
In this new video, Jeff Robinson—a senior editor for TGC and pastor of Christ Fellowship Church in Louisville, Kentucky—discusses the necessity of learning on the job in training for ministry.
Many hopeful men emerge from seminary eager to dive headfirst into ministry. Confident that seminary equipped them with the tools they need for the journey ahead, they find themselves discouraged when the realities of their first call don’t line up with what they came to expect from assigned readings and classroom discussions.
This book, with contributions from 15 veteran pastors, including Daniel L. Akin, Juan Sanchez, Phil A. Newton, and Scott Sauls, offers real-world advice about the joys and challenges of the first five years of pastoral ministry—bridging the gap between seminary training and life in a local church.
Armed with wisdom from those who have gone before them, young pastors will find encouragement to stand firm in the thick of the realities and rigors of pastoral ministry.
The following quotes caught my attention as I read Glen Scrivener’s outstanding new book, Long Story Short: The Bible in 12 Phrases (Christian Focus, 2018). Don’t miss this one.
The Bible tells us that we’re not a mistake or even just a pleasant surprise. We are wanted. We are the planned offspring of the God of love and he longs to share his life with us. (26)
If Adam was head over creation, Eve was the crown. (32)
The next time you say something deceitful, hurtful or proud, you cannot say “I don’t know what came over me.” Nothing came over you. Such sins come out of you. They come from a wellspring that is very dark, very deep and very old. You know it. We all feel it. Adam explains it. (32)
The hope is held out [in Genesis] that one day the Son would be a second Adam, born to answer the first. . . . And this second Adam would give us a second family to belong to—God’s. (39)
God’s first promise was for the man of heaven to descend and save us. Humanity’s plan is to ascend to heaven and “make a name for ourselves.” (44)
This is what we see in the burning bush: not a flame-proof tree but a flame-bound God—one who joins us in the furnace. What arrests Moses’s attention is not a heavenly spectacle but unfathomable love. He’s not the God that we expected. But he’s exactly the God we need. (60)
Nothing shows up my badness like a concerted effort at goodness. (71)
This is serious. We were created to share in the family life of God! Yet none of us live the life of God’s child. This means we don’t belong in the one household we were made for. It’s not so much that my law-breaking doesn’t belong to the life of God. I don’t belong. It’s not simply about broken rules, it’s about our broken humanity. The law shows up my disordered and dark heart. It reveals that I have no right to belong to God’s family. (72)
Just as the “Thou shalts” described the life of God’s Son, so the tabernacle described the death of God’s Son. And just as the commandments show us our sin, so the sacrifices show us our salvation. (79)
This is why the Bible’s teaching about the scapegoat is the reverse of our modern notions of scapegoating. When the Lord takes on the role of Scapegoat it’s not the oppression of the weak. It’s the willing sacrifice of the strong. (81)
As the Israelites came through the Red Sea, delivered from their slave-masters once and for all, they did not instantly enter the “good and spacious land.” In fact they walked out of slavery and into a desert. Here is the way to God’s promised future: God’s people are not teleported into ease and comfort; they are led through trial and testing. In fact the great majority of the books of Moses—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy—are set in the desert. (86)
Today, if a dictator is found to be killing off innocent members of his own country, the international community may give him four days, four weeks or even four months to stop. The Lord gave the Canaanites four centuries to repent of their evil—considerably longer than any other ‘just war’ ever launched. When God’s 400 years of patience run out he judges that culture through Israel. It’s nothing to do with nationality and everything to do with sin (Israel is judged similarly when it falls into the same evils). (90)
Everything about the Old Testament points beyond itself . . . to a future fulfillment:
Christ is the true fulfillment of the law—the Son of God who perfectly lives the Good Life.
Christ is the true tabernacle—the meeting place of God and man.
Christ is the true sacrifice—the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
Christ is the true priest—the Go-Between who carries us to God.
Christ is the true Joshua—bringing us into God’s promised rest.
Christ is the true king—the righteous Ruler who fights for our freedom.
And Christ is the true land—the dwelling place of God who invites us home. (122)
What we see in Jesus is what we get with God. (130)
Jesus’s cross and resurrection fulfills everything the Bible proclaims. There Jesus showed himself to be:
The true Offspring (or “Seed”), going down into the ground and springing up to new life.
The true Isaac, the beloved Son offered on the mountain but received back alive.
The true burning bush, the great I AM who enters our furnace to secure our redemption.
The true Passover Lamb, slain in our place to deliver us from judgment.
The true Joshua, fighting through the wilderness of death to bring us to his promised hope.
The true David, taking on our Enemy and gaining the victory.
The true Israel, cursed and alienated then raised to a glorious homecoming. (136)
The piling on of grace upon grace is incredible. God had given us his Son. We killed him. In response God says, “I want to forgive you and offer another ‘family member,’ so to speak.” It was a case of: You’ve killed my Son; here have my Spirit! It would be like a Judge telling a condemned criminal that not only was he forgiven for killing his boy, the murderer could have his daughter’s hand in marriage too. Astonishing! (142)
Paul’s labors were aimed, almost exclusively, at establishing churches and his writings were intended, almost exclusively, to encourage churches. . . . Solo-Christianity cannot exist. A member of Christ needs to be a member of the church. (148)
Of all the world’s religious texts, the Bible is the only one that offers hope for these bodies and this world. Other religions may speak of an otherworldly paradise, but they don’t speak of the renewal of this creation. Only the Bible speaks of such an earthed and earthy future. And no wonder. Only the Bible speaks of the world loved into existence. Therefore it’s no surprise that the story which begins with family love, ends in feasting joy. (154)
Many people today fear “fire and brimstone” preaching. It seems that fewer people fear the ‘fire and brimstone’ itself. (158)
Previously in the “20 Quotes” series:
- Brian Seagraves and Hunter Leavine, Gender (The Good Book Company, 2018)
- John Onwuchekwa, Prayer (Crossway, 2018)
- Matthew McCullough, Remember Death (Crossway, 2018)
- Gustav Wingren, Luther on Vocation (Muhlenberg, 1957)
- Francis Grimké, Meditations on Preaching (Log College Press, 2018)
- Sam Alberry, Why Bother with Church? (Good Book, 2016)
- Jen Wilkin, In His Image (Crossway, 2018)
- Trevor Laurence, The Story of the Word (Wipf and Stock, 2017)
- Jonathan Leeman, How the Nations Rage (Thomas Nelson, 2018)
- Andy Johnson, Missions (Crossway, 2017)
- Alan Jacobs, How to Think (Currency, 2017)
- Tony Reinke, 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You (Crossway, 2017)
- Erik Raymond, Chasing Contentment (Crossway, 2017)
- Sinclair Ferguson, Devoted to God (Banner of Truth, 2016)
- Tim Keller, Hidden Christmas (Viking, 2016)
- Scott Sauls, Befriend (Tyndale House, 2016)
- Ray Ortlund, Marriage and the Mystery of the Gospel (Crossway, 2016)
- Jen Wilkin, None Like Him (Crossway, 2016)
- Tim Keller, Making Sense of God (Viking, 2016)
- Mark Dever, Understanding the Great Commission (B&H, 2016)
- Sinclair Ferguson, The Whole Christ (Crossway, 2016)
- Albert Mohler, We Cannot Be Silent (Thomas Nelson, 2015)
- Mark Dever and Jamie Dunlop, The Compelling Community (Crossway, 2015)
- Russell Moore, Onward (B&H, 2015)
- Rosaria Butterfield, Openness Unhindered (Crown & Covenant, 2015)
- Tim Keller, Preaching (Viking, 2015)
- Tim Keller, Prayer (Dutton, 2014)
- Kevin DeYoung, Taking God at His Word (Crossway, 2014)
One of the greatest evangelical Old Testament scholars of the last century died in 2016. J. Alec Motyer was an Irish theologian, perhaps best known for his magisterial commentary The Prophecy of Isaiah (1993) and for editing The Bible Speaks Today commentary series. Though a world-renowned scholar, Motyer committed his life to teaching ordinary Christians to understand and love the Old Testament.
And we certainly need his help. With the exception of a select number of psalms, a few passages in Isaiah, and a general outline of famous hero stories, our grasp of the Old Testament can be quite weak. Some have even said recently that the Old Testament is dying in certain churches. Why is this so?
According to Motyer, we’ve lost the “voice” of the Old Testament. Knowing that most Christians find it more than a little daunting, Motyer’s newest book (published posthumously) distills the Old Testament’s message into several themes—history, religion, worship, prophecy, wisdom, and theology (the revelation of God). These six themes make up 6 Ways the Old Testament Speaks Today, originally published as A Scenic Route through the Old Testament (1994).The Old Testament Speaks
Each chapter is an overview of a particular “voice” of the Old Testament (The Voice of History, The Voice of Religion, and so on). Each is also accompanied by one week of Bible readings with brief notes, along with the original daily readings and notes from the first edition in an appendix. Thus readers get an introductory chapter on a core theme in the Old Testament, accompanied by five weeks of daily Bible readings and expositional notes. This structure is particularly useful for daily devotions.
The Voice of History is an overview of the narrative of the Old Testament with special attention to how God’s mighty acts and moral character ultimately makes the historical record reliable. The Voice of Religion focuses on the themes of presence and sacrifice, while the Voice of Worship emphasizes what it was like to be a believer in old-covenant times. The Voice of Prophecy is about the great foundational truths the prophets inherited and applied, and their forward-looking message. The Voice of Wisdom is “a tract for our times,” with observations of daily life that show Christians how to apply God’s wisdom in the world (112). Finally, the Voice of God is about God’s character—his holiness, justice, mercy, and love—which is a summation of the meaning of the divine name.
Surprise and delight awaits us when we take up the Old Testament and listen to God speak.
Although I enjoy reading overviews of the core message of the Old Testament, the real value of Motyer’s book is his expositional comments on the daily readings. This is where the “voice” of the Old Testament really shines. In addition, Motyer often uses beautiful and sometimes humorous word pictures and illustrations in these comments—anything from comparing the Psalms to English and Australian postage stamps (56) to associating the pleasure of reading the Bible with modern advertisements of Bisto gravy (11). Here’s one from the final chapter on the Voice of God:
Instead of Columbus “discovering America,” suppose the American Indians had journeyed east to tell us about themselves and about the marvelous land to the west where they lived. The Old Testament is like that: it is not the account of human voyage of discovery, searching for God, but of God coming to tell us about himself. (121)
This quote and many others like it are just one of the reasons why I recommend 6 Ways the Old Testament Speaks Today. There are certain books I’ve read begrudgingly, thinking it might be a waste of time, only to be so edified I come away humbled and feeling a little ashamed. I admit that I approached this book with that attitude. But I’ve come away from reading it with a newfound appreciation for Motyer (a formidable Old Testament scholar), as well as a good book to recommend to other Christians.Knowing God
Motyer writes, “the men and women of the Old Testament often put us to shame by the reality, the personal quality, the joy, the exuberance, and the knowledge of God that are so clear in their worship and song” (55). I think this is a good description of Motyer, too, who shares a contagious desire to know and understand the God of the Old Testament. Surprise and delight awaits us when we take up the Old Testament and listen to God speak.
The pages of the Old Testament were never intended to be left untouched like dust on an old barn floor. The Old Testament was meant to ransacked.
After all, a failure to understand the significance of the Old Testament is first and foremost a failure to understand God. As J. I. Packer wrote a quarter-century ago, we believers are often content to know about God without knowing God. And knowing the God of the Bible means grasping his full counsel in the Old and New Testaments, not being satisfied with bits and pieces or general outlines.
We believers need a relationship with the Old Testament. We need to slay our tendency to read only the stories and psalms that are most familiar to us. We need to dwell in the Old Testament for an extended time, struggling to understand each book. We need to wrestle with God’s message like Jacob wrestled God, even if it means we come away with a limp. The pages of the Old Testament were never intended to be left untouched like dust on an old barn floor. The Old Testament was meant to ransacked. There are hidden treasures, after all (Prov. 2:4), and only by ransacking the Bible for all its worth does one understand the fear of the Lord, and “find the knowledge of God” (Prov. 2:5).
Throughout history Christians have wrestled with the question of whether Scripture teaches an age of accountability for salvation.
Some theological traditions argue for a specific age of accountability for infants and children, while others do not. Those who do assert a child isn’t responsible for the transmission of Adam’s sin to the human race until they reach a certain age.
Most Christian traditions teach that children enter the world fallen due to Adam’s sin, but some argue children are not guilty before God until they knowingly disobey God’s commands. If the child dies before reaching that age, he or she receives salvation based on Christ’s finished work. Once the child knowingly sins, however, they become accountable for their actions and have reached the age of accountability. At that point, salvation comes through conscious, active repentance and faith in Christ.
A related question is the status of those who are unable to respond due to the loss of various mental capabilities by no fault of their own.
How ought we to think about these questions?Five Biblical Truths
As with any theological question, we must turn to God’s Word for answers. Although Scripture is not exhaustive in answering every question we may ask, it is true and sufficient revelation (Ps. 19:7–14; 2 Tim. 3:15–17). Since no passage explicitly teaches an age of accountability, my reflections on this issue draw from a number of biblical truths.
Here are five points to consider.1. Scripture teaches twin truths, related to our sin and responsibility before God, that we must hold in tension.
As our covenant head, Adam represented the entire human race and in his disobedience brought sin into the world (Rom. 5:12–21). As a result of Adam’s sin, all humanity is guilty and corrupted, which leads to both spiritual and physical death (Rom. 3:23; 6:23; Eph. 2:1–3).
Although in Adam we stand under God’s judgment, we are also individually responsible for our sin (2 Cor. 5:10). On the final day, no person will be able to say they were unjustly condemned or will be able to blame Adam for their guilt. All humans are under God’s righteous judgment due to Adam’s sin and ours. The difficulty arises in applying the latter truth to infants or those who have limited capabilities due to living in a fallen world.2. God rightly demands obedience and devotion from each of his image-bearers, but those with more revelation are more accountable.
Sin is a failure to meet God’s absolute demand, and we knowingly disobey. Yet Scripture speaks of a greater accountability for those who know more of God’s revealed will (Matt. 11:20–24; Rom. 2:17–25). All people have the knowledge of God in creation and conscience—and this is enough to condemn us (Rom. 1:18–32). But those who have greater knowledge through God’s special revelation are even more culpable.3. Christ alone accomplishes our salvation and acts as our Redeemer.
By obeying God’s law for us as our new covenant head and paying for our sin as our substitute, Jesus secures our redemption. By grace through faith in Christ alone, we are justified before God. Apart from Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, there is no salvation.
This is true of Old Testament saints as well as new. By grace through faith, old covenant saints believed God’s promises that pointed forward to Christ (Gen. 15:6; Gal. 3:16). Thus Jesus Christ is the ground of salvation for all of God’s elect, and in normal circumstances we receive the benefits of Christ’s work by grace through faith in him. As applied to infants or those without full mental capabilities, if there is salvation for them, it’s never apart from Christ alone (John 14:6; Acts 4:12). The question hinges on the issue of conscious faith.4. Under normal circumstances, we only benefit from Christ’s work by repenting of our sins and trusting in him.
So what about these exceptional cases, such as infants or others who lack the capacity to believe? Scripture doesn’t explicitly address the issue; it only offers hints that God shows mercy in these cases. Appeal is often made to texts such as 2 Samuel 12:23, where David says he will go and be with his infant son who died. Yet it’s not a definitive text teaching infant salvation. Nevertheless, when all these “hint” texts are investigated and coupled with the truth that the Judge of all the earth always does what’s right (Gen. 18:25), we can unequivocally affirm—and take comfort—that our triune God, who is gracious, merciful, and just, will do what’s right in every case.
Although there is no explicit biblical text that teaches an age of accountability, in light of all these truths I don’t think it’s unwarranted to agree with many Christians past and present that in these “exceptional” cases, God will demonstrate his grace and mercy in Christ alone. Yet given the lack of explicit teaching in this regard, our greatest hope is to entrust ourselves to God, who always does what’s right for his own glory.5. While a combination of these hints and other truths leads us to find comfort in God’s mercy in the exceptional cases, we must not allow it to drive us beyond Scripture in ‘normal cases.’
For example, some Christians appeal to exceptional cases to justify salvation in normal cases of people who never hear the gospel. This is an illegitimate conclusion.
Or perhaps a Christian parent wrongly reasons it best not to tell their child the gospel, lest they bring condemnation upon them. This too is illegitimate. God commands us to teach our children the gospel as we entrust them to his gracious care. We must diligently teach our children God’s Word, praying he will open their hearts and grant them repentance and faith.
Even though the Bible doesn’t always explicitly answer our questions, it never fails to lead us to rest in the triune God, in whom all answers are found—our God who is for us and not against us in Jesus Christ.
- What Happens to Those Who Never Hear the Gospel? (Matt Smethurst)
“Ramona’s conscience was hurt, and a hurting conscience is the worst feeling in the world.”
My wife recently discovered that insightful line in the whimsical children’s book Ramona the Brave when she was reading it to our daughters.
Books for children sometimes mention the conscience in passing, but they usually don’t explain what it is and how it works. That’s understandable, because it’s a complex topic. A couple years ago my friend J. D. Crowley and I attempted to address it [read TGC’s review], but our target audience was adults, not children.
So I attempted to write my first children’s book (which releases this month): That Little Voice in Your Head: Learning About Your Conscience. Before I suggest how parents can teach their children about the conscience, I want to qualify upfront that I’m not a parenting expert. My confidence level in my parenting ability has consistently decreased as my children have aged; I’m increasingly desperate for God’s help to do what I cannot do on my own—transform the hearts of my children. I get in the way. I sin against God and my children by being impatient, irritable, and unkind, so I regularly ask God and them to forgive me. I don’t want to sound like I’ve got it all together and that you can too if you simply follow my advice.
With that caveat in place, here are seven ways parents can teach their children about the conscience.1. Talk to Your Children About the Conscience
Often the best way to teach children about something is to informally talk about it when it naturally arises. If you’re reading a book or watching a show together, you can stop and talk about how a character is or isn’t following their conscience—and why that matters.
My children’s book on the conscience is basically a series of conversations between a mom and her little daughter. It’s unrealistic to think that all your conversations will sound like the ones in the book, but the back-and-forth in the book models how some conversations might go.2. Listen to Your Children Talk About Their Conscience
“Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:34).
Listen carefully to what your children say, because their words are a window into their heart. Listen to what they think is right and wrong.
When do they think others are guilty of sin? When do they sense they are guilty of sin? Why? What do they think they should do about it? Do they need help calibrating their conscience in a certain area?3. Encourage Your Children When They Listen to Their Conscience
Sometimes children are convinced that something is wrong when it’s not inherently sinful, and they might confess such a “sin” to you. For example, your child might think that it’s sinful to walk in someone’s home while wearing “outside shoes” if you have a family rule about it. Your child might have a hard time visiting a home where they keep their shoes on. Maybe your child decided to keep their shoes on in the other house but felt terribly about it, and they might confess to you in tears. How should you respond?
At minimum, affirm your child for listening to their conscience and for sharing that with you. Encourage them. Praise them. Don’t scold them. To go against your conscience when you think it’s warning you correctly is always a sin in God’s eyes. As Mark Dever says, “Conscience cannot make a wrong thing right, but it can make a right thing wrong.” But then go on to help them recalibrate their conscience for their next visit.4. Exhort Your Children Not to Ignore Their Conscience
When you train and discipline your children, appeal to their conscience.
- “Listen to that little voice in your head.”
- “When that little voice in your head warns you not to do something, don’t do it.”
- “When that little voice in your head makes you feel sad for something you did, tell Mommy or Daddy about it. Don’t ignore that voice.”
- “How do you feel after you ________ [fill in the blank with a particular sin]? Does that little voice in your head tell you that was bad?”
(Not every child would describe their conscience as an actual voice in their head. Some just have a strong sense that something’s right or wrong. It’s an unshakeable impression or conviction.)
Tell your children that the conscience is a priceless gift from God they must not ignore. It can be a warning system that saves them from great harm. If your finger brushes the top of a hot stove, your nervous system reflexively compels you to pull back your hand to avoid more pain and harm. Similarly, the guilt your conscience makes you feel should lead you to turn from your sin to Jesus. God gave you that sense of guilt for your good. Don’t ignore or suppress it.5. Model Listening to Your Conscience by Asking for Forgiveness When You Sin Against Your Children
Parents are sinners, too. We regularly sin against our children—sometimes directly (e.g., being sinfully angry or impatient with them) and sometimes indirectly (e.g., sinning against someone else while they are looking on).
Every time we sin, it’s an opportunity for us to model repentance.
Every time we sin, it’s an opportunity for us to model repentance. You might say to your children, “Daddy was sinfully impatient with you. God convicted me, and my conscience won’t leave me alone. I feel sorry for what I’ve done. I’ve asked God to forgive me, and now I’m asking you. Would you please forgive me for being impatient with you?”6. Explain to Your Children Why Consciences Differ
No two people have exactly the same conscience. That’s why passages such as Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 exist. We tend to assume our own conscience is the standard that perfectly lines up with God’s will, but we all have blind spots where we need to recalibrate our conscience so that it functions more accurately. It was complicated enough explaining all that in a book for adults. How do you explain that to kids?
In my children’s book, I attempt to do that by contrasting the rules of one family with those of another. One family might require the children to wash their hands before a meal or to make their bed in the morning, and another family might not. The actions themselves aren’t inherently righteous or sinful. For family rules, a child simply must obey Ephesians 6:1: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.”7. Keep Reminding Your Children That Only Jesus Can Cleanse Their Conscience
Talking about the conscience can be a way to celebrate the gospel, because the blood of Christ purifies our conscience (Heb. 9:14). Jesus lived, died, and rose for sinners, and when we turn from our sins and trust him, we can draw near to God “with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Heb. 10:22).
My favorite way to exult in that truth is to sing a stanza from the hymn “Before the Throne of God Above.” Here’s what that looks like in my children’s book (the mommy is talking to her little daughter):
May God help you point your children to Jesus as you teach them about the conscience.