The Conversion of Children

HEEE is a practical error very common among God's people. All of them profess to believe that the Holy Spirit may convert souls at any age, and that conversion cannot take place too soon; while yet they do not look for the conversion of children with the same lively faith that they manifest in asking and expecting the Holy Spirit to change those who are of riper years. The same warm-hearted believers who labour for the souls of older persons, and are, in the case of such, satisfied with nothing but conversion without delay, do not practically so feel and act in dealing with the young. They are satisfied if the young give attention to the truth, and if they seem not unwilling to retain in their thoughts what they learn. They do not press home the immediate, present acceptance of Christ on children as they would do on grown-up persons. They would go home from any other meeting disappointed, sad, and unsatisfied, if, night after night, souls were unawakened and unsaved, though attentive and interested; and yet, in the case of children, they can allow of delay—they can leave their Sabbath class or their family circle without alarm and without anxiety, though there be therein no symptom of real awakening, and no evidence of these young souls finding the Saviour.

One reason for the difference thus made in the case of the young is, with many, the misunderstanding of certain texts of Scripture—at least so we are strongly inclined to think. Thus, 1. One person quotes Prov. xxii. 6, "Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it." The person with whom this text is a favourite probably applies it thus— "Only teach the plan of salvation to a child, and show wisdom's happy ways to a child, and, though at the time the child be not converted, yet, when he is old, he will no doubt take the way you have taught him." But is this true? and is this the sense of the text? Very far from it. The Holy Spirit means to teach us quite another lesson by these words, viz., "Only be sure that you get the child in the way while still a child, and you need never fear in regard to that child's after perseverance." It is, "Initiate a child in the way" (see the Hebrew), or at the beginning of the way: get the truth introduced into his soul while he is a child, and rest assured that he shall go on as he has begun. It is a blessed text to encourage us to seek the present and immediate conversion of children. 2. Another person uses a figure, and soothes his conscience under lack of success, in his class or in his family, by saying, "Well, at any rate I am filling the water-pots with water (John ii. 7), so that there shall be the greater amount of wine at a future day, when at length the water is turned into wine by the Lord's miraculous power,

in the hour of conversion." Now this is only a figurative application of a text, and no argument at all . But, even using their own figure, how is it that they do not expect the turning of the water into wine to be immediate? "What is there in the passage to which they allude to warrant their waiting on till a distant time 1 Was not the water changed into wine in these water-pots in a single hour? Indeed, it seems that the change took place in the very act of filling the vessels. 3. A third person has much to say, in a doctrinal form, on the text in Philippians i. 6, "He that has begun the good work will perform it," applying the passage to feelings, impressions, interest awakened among the young in the course of common, weekly teaching. There is no conversion in such cases; but then it is alleged, "There is real interest felt, there is impression made, and so the good work is begun and, if begun, shall go on." We reply, there is a serious mistake here, for "The good work begun " means that conversion has taken place; conversion is the good work that begins the Christian life. Bead the context, and see this beyond doubt or dispute. The apostle says, "He that has converted you, placing you on Christ the foundation, will not forsake you, but will carry on the building to completeness in the day of Christ's appearing." So that this text is really an argument in favour of our not being content w&h anything in the form of mere impression, hopeful interest, conviction. We must see conversion-work, we must see salvation-work, we must see the Christian life really begun. And this applies to the case alike of old and young.

There is, farther, apart from and besides all this, a secret feeling on the part of many Christians that it is not so important, nor so great a service, to be the means of converting children as it is to be the means of converting adults. They have no scripture proof of this view; for "converting a sinner" means any sinner, young as well as old; and "turning many to righteousness" includes young and old; and "winning souls" limits us to no age. But nevertheless such persons feel, without putting their feelings into words, that it is a more palpable and evident gain to win an intelligent adult than to win his child to Christ. Now, this quiet persuasion, (appearing in their practice), may arise from the thought that these adults are of present value in society: their conversion will at once affect society; while the conversion of the young is at the time unfelt beyond the circle of the family and a few companions. But, on the other hand, they forget that young souls, brought to Christ in very infancy, will be exercising an influence, year by year, all life long, in all the different stages of their growth, and at length, on reaching manhood, will, by God's grace, mightily move for good their circle of society—over and above the consideration of the evils escaped and the ill that was never done.

There is, however, a more serious mis-apprehension lying at the root of this undervaluing of early conversion. In reality, many godly people do look upon the conversion of children as a thing to be stood in doubt of. They scarcely believe that no child's conversion is so deep and genuine as that of an adult. They admit that all conversion alike is the work of the Holy Ghost, and that He does, when it pleases Him, convert children as well as adults. Still, they habitually ignore apparent conversion in children; they have a theory that children imitate old people, and that therefore these appearances are to be put down to imitation only. In dealing with such persons we say—

(a) There must surely be cases of real conversion among children, if the Word of God is to be our standard; for surely Ps. viii. 2, is written for all ages, and our Lord has commented upon it thus, in Matt. xxi. 16, "Have ye never read, Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings Thou hast perfected praise?" If "old men and children" alike are called on (Ps. cxlviii . 12) to praise the Lord, surely it is implied that they are alike capable of saving grace. Indeed, for one moment to suppose the matter otherwise would be to assert that the gospel is not suited to the souls of the young."

(6) There is a peculiar fitness (we might say, divine propriety) in the gospel being blessed to the conversion of children. The same Holy Spirit in all cases uses the gospel for saving souls; but, in applying it to children, He illustrates most notably two of its features, viz., its entire freeness (for what could a child give to

* A little girl's reply to the question, " When should children come to Christ?" was excellent. One scholar had answered, "At thirteen." Another, "At ten." Another, "At six. '* But her reply was, " Whenever they understand who God is."

God ?), and its amazing simplicity, which is so humbling to the pride of self-righteous man. "I thank Thee, 0 Father, that Thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes" (Luke x. 21, and as Jesus said this, "He rejoiced in spirit"). "Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, shall in no wise enter therein" (Luke xviii. 17). NothiDg was done by the babes or little children whom Christ blessed but this, they let Him lift them up in His arms without resistance, and received what He gave without offering Him any price in return!

(c) The drawing love of the cross of Christ (looking for a moment at the matter from man's point of view) surely appeals as readily and suitably to the hearts of children as to adults. Nay, is it not into the young heart that we might expect such kindness and love should find entrance, even if older souls were unmoved by it?

(d) The doctrine of the substitution of Christ for sinners, "the Just for the unjust," "the Shepherd for the sheep," is the very heart and essence of the gospel; and is not this the very truth of all others that finds entrance into the understanding of any child? We do not now speak of the heart or conscience, but of the understanding. Even a very child can be made to apprehend the meaning of Substitution—of the One for the many; just as the "Happy Mute" was made at once to see how the giving of one gold ring for thousands of withered leaves was an overpayment in exchange. Hence it is always this grand truth that we ought to press on the very youngest soul. We tell them, "You are sinners, exposed to God's wrath and curse, and you cannot save yourselves; but God's own Son can save you, by Himself bearing that wrath and curse." In some such form as this the Spirit brings in faith to a child's soul; and, once received, is not this truth the same in its effects on the young as on the old? Is not the text John i. 12 as true in the case of a child as in the instance of an intelligent adult , "As many as received Him to them gave He power to become the sons of God "?

Children ought to be dealt with, in regard to the duty of accepting Christ, as closely and seriously as older people. The difference, no doubt, is considerable in the method we take with the young and with the older. In the former case, we have no metaphysical difficulties to deal with. We find, however, the same need in both cases of being like Nathan in his parable; we need to look the old man and the child alike in the face, and say, "You are meant. Will you accept the Saviour who has saved so many by taking on Him their sins, and bearing their punishment?" Personal dealing is required; a dealing with them one by one.

Many Christian people are not sufficiently aware of the importance of a personal question, whether the individual be old or young. I have seen an aged person struck as with an arrow on being solemnly asked, face to face, "Have you been born again?" and exclaiming, "Have / myself been born again! the question was never so put to my soul till now." I have known a young man brought to a stand at once by the personal question, "Do you accept Christ now 1" And so also I have seen a child strongly moved by such a direct appeal, though before listening only playfully. This seems to be the Spirit's favourite way of inserting the point of the wedge that is to split the cedar. Teachers and parents is it not worth trying this way 1

In the early part of this century there were Associations for Sabbath School Teaching in Edinburgh and elsewhere, consisting of warm-hearted men who delighted to show the Gospel to others. These directed their main efforts toward the conversion of children. "We have heard some of these old Christians tell how they never let the classes go without drawing out the Gospel from the lesson, and seeking to carry it home by apt illustrations. They were not content with sending them away to pray; they sent them to Christ on the spot. The result was that there were many brought to Christ at an early age in the Sabbath Schools. We have heard of even startling cases occurring, such as a case of clear evidence of conversion given by a child of four years of age.

But we ask again, why do many in our day regard with suspicion cases of very early conversion 1 1. One reason seems to be, they fancy that every manifestation of delight in and love to Christ is altogether a matter of feeling, and not of faith, in these children. Now, if it were so, they would have some good grounds for their scepticism. But then we assert that the evidence goes to prove the opposite; for these young people furnish full evidence of faith in the Lord Jesus; and we complain that they who doubt it have not taken sufficient pains to inquire. They get their data at second hand. They do not go and get acquainted with the cases by personal converse. 2. Another reason alleged for their doubt is, that these children do not manifest holiness in the way in which it is manifested by adults. Well, this is true; but children's play, and children's natural buoyance, should no more come in the way of our believing their real conversion, than should, in older people, their occasional engrossing care and anxiety about business. Children's conscientiousness in lessons, and fairness in playing games, and command of temper, may yield as true a proof of sanctification begun, as do the integrity of the adult, and his firm adherence to principle in matter of merchandise, it is quite true that in the case of a child we may more easily mistake feeling for faith than in the case of a grown-up person; but this only calls for patient attention and caution on our part; it does not discredit the reality of faith in the case of those who manifest it, and the evidences of whose faith we have opportunity of knowing.

Of late, in our country, an American minister, Eev. E. Payson Hammond, has done much to fix attention on the subject of early conversions. He holds, as fully as any man, that conversion is the work of the Holy Ghost, and he believes the sovereignty of divine grace as much as any other Calvinist; but he also believes that the Holy Ghost, in the exercise of gracious sovoreignty, is pleased to work by the gospel on very young souls, as really as on adults. And so ho sets himself to ply young souls with the gospel, and to insist on their immediate acceptance of it.

Several things in Mr. Hammond's dealings with children deserve special notice. One is, his firm persuasion that the gospel is "the power of God unto salvation" in the case of the youngest that has understanding. He goes to his meetings never doubting, and goes to work accordingly. He tells the gospel-story, presses it home, and calls for a present acceptance of Christ on the part of the children. He does not feel content with delivering his message, saying, "Now I have sown the seed, let us hope it may spring up some time after this." No, he looks for "God giving the increase" at the time, just as at Pentecost.

Another feature in Mr. Hammond's method is, the form in which he preaches the gospel. It is, in the main, that of Substitution. Not that he always, or even very often, uses that word; but that is his leading idea in setting forth the way of salvation. He perhaps starts with a text that involves that truth; then he brings in stories to illustrate his text, using illustrations which are not always perhaps quite solemn, but which always end in conveying the truth of substitution to the understanding and heart—if not also, at the same time, flashing into the conscience of the youngest the sin of refusing such a substitute as Jesus. The sum of his address is just this—

"Jesus, from His throne on high,
Came into this world to die;
That I might from sin be free,
Bled and died upon the tree.

"I can see Him even now,
With His pierced, thorn-clad brow,
Agonizing on the tree,
Oh, what love! and all for me.

"Now I feel this heart of mine
Drawn to love God's holy Son," &c.

There never is, with Mr. Hammond, the possibility of your mistaking or forgetting the grand end in view. To many a Sabbath School teacher—ay, and to many a minister—there is too much reason to fear that Mr. Cepil's story of himself is only too truly applicable. Mr. Cecil tells how, on one occasion, when labouring under trouble that caused him great suffering, and which baffled all ordinary physicians, he was guided to an illustrious physician, who at once told him, "There is only one remedy; do try it—it is perfectly simple," mentioning the medicine. Mr. Cecil was satisfied, and rose to go and got the medicine; but his physician pressed him to stay a little, and entered into conversation in a very fascinating style, till, engrossed with each other's company, the subject of the medicine was entirely set aside. On coming home, Mr. Cecil expressed to his wife his admiration of his medical friend —"Such a fund of anecdote! such a command of language!" "Well," exclaimed Mrs. C, "but did he prescribe for your case I" "Yes—but I have entirely forgotten the remedy! the charms of his manner and conversation put everything else out of mind." Now, we say, none of Mr. Hammond's hearers ever are in danger of being thus carried away from the remedy to the eloquence, or the delivery, or any secondary matter in the address.

Another peculiarity is the use he makes of hymns. In all his meetings there is much hymn-singing, all of these hymns setting forth the truth. This hymnsinging attracts the young to the meetings; it rivets the truth on their minds; it adds greatly to the liveliness of the meetings. And is it not true that the only time in the New Testament wherein we find the worship of children noticed is that time when that worship consisted of praise—" The children crying in the temple, and saying, Hosanna to the Son of David"? (Matt. xxi. 15.) The chief priests and scribes found fault; their pharisaical pride would have thrust children into the background, but the Lord Jesus was filled with delight at the sound of their voices in the templecourts.

Yet more. Mr. Hammond never dismisses such a gathering hastily. After his pointed gospel-address is done, he prays, and then asks all to remain for conversation who are anxious to find salvation. He has always with him (this is a part of his method) a goodly number of solid and fervent Christians, who are ready to take part in these after-conversations. And this part of his method has been remarkably blessed; as much, indeed, as anything else in his dealing with the young. It is apparently very much by this conversational-ineeting, in which you may see, all over the church or hall, lively believers engaged in most solemn inquiries with one or two souls whom the Spirit has touched, that very many are brought to decision. It seems to be the Holy Spirit's way to use this Nathanlike application of the truth to lead souls to own that the gospel is for themselves, and to admit, "I am the sinner to whom the Saviour speaks." The very circumstance, also, that so many at one time are earnestly engaged in the same solemn employment creates a healthful sympathy of feeling, and, in many cases, help souls to utter their difficulties and fears.

"We do not say that Mr. Hammond's meetings have no drawbacks; but these are the features of his method which we might safely copy. And perhaps it ought to be stated that his labours have been specially useful in bringing to decision young persons who have long before been in an awakened state, through the instruction and prayers of teachers and parents, but who would never speak out their mind. He is greatly blessed to startle such, and bring on a crisis in their spiritual history.

Shall we not, then, with all these facts before us, ask the Church of Christ to cherish this expectancy in regard to the conversion of children far more than has been done in times past? Have we not leaned upon our oars? Have we not slipped into the custom of showing to our Sabbath Schools and families what a great and glorious salvation has been provided, and what a gracious and mighty Saviour is ours, without sufficiently urging them to make all this their own 1 We have dealt with the adults and with the aged earnestly, taking no excuse, but insisting on their immediate acceptance of Christ; but we have not been wont to deal thus also with the very youngest who can understand. If the Lord works by instrumentalities, and if it is by suitable instrumentalities, then let us see that we are taking the right way to bring blessing to the young. As a rule, the Lord does not convert souls in the absence of means, and in the absence of appropriate and right means. In heathen lands, souls perish because no one there shows to sinners the way of life. In our own neighbourhoods, men and women die unconverted, if no one goes among them seeking to win their souls. And so in our Sabbath-schools and families children grow up unconverted, because they are not more personally dealt with. Are we not letting the souls of the young perish, if we do not rouse ourselves to take part in this personal mode of applying the truth?

Lord, sharpen our sickles when we go to reap Thy harvest among the young; for we have heard our Master say, "Have ye not read, Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings Thou hast perfected praise V