The Conversion of Children
Archibald G. Brown, April 30th, 1871, Stepney Green Tabernacle
"A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out: Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession!" Matthew 15:22
"It is not fitting to take the children's bread and throw it to dogs." Matthew 15:26
Our Lord had but recently left the land of Gennesaret and come into the coasts of Tyre and Sidon, when he uttered the words we have selected as our text for this evening's discourse. The incident that gave rise to them is well known — but not better known than loved; there are such sweet touches of nature and grace in it that the charm of the narrative never suffers by often repeating it — but it seems rather to unfold fresh beauties every time.
In a humble home on the coast of that region there was "a skeleton." Alas! where will we find the home that has none? Is there one represented here this evening that does not have its own secret sorrow and subject of constant grief? "The skeleton" of this abode was a daughter possessed with a demon. She whose birth was hailed with joy, and whose companionship in years to come, was anticipated by the mother with delight — now proves to be the sorrow of the home. Maddened by the demon, the child was the anguish, not the solace, of her mother's heart.
One day the news reached the darkened home that Jesus was wending his way towards that region. Hope for the first time shot a gleam of light through the thick gloom. The fame of Jesus had gone before Him, and His power to cast out demons had often been the theme of wondering gossip. The mother perhaps argued to herself, "if He is able to cast out demons, why not my daughter's?" The thought was quite enough to wing her feet with speed. At once she sets off, and journeys to meet the Savior.
O, who can fathom the deeps of her heart's desire, as coming near Him, she breaks out in that piteous cry, "Have mercy on me, O Lord, son of David!" Mark how the mother in her manifests itself in that brief prayer. She makes it a personal matter, "have mercy on me." Tell her, "poor woman, you have made a mistake; it is not you — but your daughter who needs the mercy," and she will answer "we are one, we are one; if mercy comes to her, it comes to me."
Again and again that mother, as she followed in the track of Jesus, repeats her simple prayer with ever growing earnestness. Jesus was her only hope. If she did not succeed with Him, she must return to the darkness of her home, only made deeper by the transient ray of hope. "Mercy — mercy — mercy!" she cries in tones that tell of concentrated agony. The disciples, who were not the most tender-hearted, were able to resist the pathos of the appeal. And Jesus, the ever loving, did not answer a word. Strange silence!! What can be its meaning? Christ reminds them that the object of His mission was the house of Israel, not the gentile world to which the woman belonged.
This answer is a worse rebuff than His previous silence. It seems to shut the door in the face of all hope. What effect does it have on the suppliant mother? The very reverse of what we would have anticipated. "Then" — on hearing this answer, "she came and worshiped Him, saying, Lord help me!" The apparent denial her request only increases her boldness; she comes nearer to Him than she had ever ventured before, and still pleads her case. Wondrous importunity!!
But her faith is now to receive a severer trial than any preceding one. The answer of our Savior was sufficient to have dashed the hopes and stayed the pleadings of any less resolute and believing soul. "It is not fitting to take the children's bread and throw it to dogs." "Dog," she might well have said. "He called me a dog — then farewell to hope."
But no! Rising, or rather stooping to the exigency of the case, she turns the rebuke into an argument. "In truth Lord, I accept the description and claim the dog's privilege, for even they eat the crumbs which fall from their master's table." It was enough. The grand faith that the Savior saw she had, was demonstrated. Now comes her reward. "O, woman, great is your faith — let it be to you as you will. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour."
I have thus tried very briefly to show the surroundings of our text. I desire now to take it apart from its connection. There can be no doubt that children's bread should not be thrown to the dogs, and in all probability the Lord quoted a well known proverb. It was evidently understood and acquiesced in by the woman. Leaving aside the beautiful settings of the text, and taking it as a truth by itself — I shall try and plead the children's cause.
And first I will show that in spreading the table, the children are not to be forgotten;
and secondly that care must be taken that what is placed upon the table is suitable for children, or in other words, "children's bread."
I. In spreading the table, children are not to be forgotten.By bread is unquestionably meant the means of grace. "These," says our Savior, "were specially provided for the house of Israel" rather than the gentile world. Taking the word in this sense, you will at once see the duty I am anxious about pressing home this evening. It is making special preparation or employing every means for the conversion of children. While the adult masses have brought to bear upon them all the means the church can command, the children are not to be forgotten — but are also to have their share. This, I venture to say, is dreadfully overlooked; comparatively little is done for the conversion of children as such.
How is this? What is the cause for this strange omission, an omission which can hardly be denied by any careful observer? I think it is to be found in the fact that the church of God has a strange unbelief in the possibility of children being converted in their early days. The period when saving grace may be expected to work upon the soul, is postponed by too many until the attainment of adult years. It is inwardly believed, if not outwardly expressed, that the plastic nature of childhood must become hardened like a nether millstone, and that fair innocent life must be dragged through the muck and mire of adult sins, before it becomes a fit subject for the Holy Spirit to work upon. This error is, I believe, far more widely spread than most imagine. That children's conversion is not much expected, I will attempt to prove by three things:
First, it is discoverable in the kind of teaching they too often receive. Children are generally brought beneath the flashing lightning of Sinai, instead of the milder beams of Calvary. Their salvation one might often imagine was one of works rather than grace. While the sinner of riper years is pointed to the gloriously finished work of Christ, and told that no righteousness of his own can be of any avail, the child is told "he must be good — obey his teachers — love his parents; in fact, fulfill the law and virtually attempt to work out a righteousness of his own."
He is believed to be capable of understanding moral precepts — but not yet qualified for receiving spiritual truth. What is the qualification needed? Is it to wait until the world and sin have armed the soul with a coat of mail — until it has become initiated in the grosser sins of youth — until the naturally trustful disposition of the child has changed into the skepticism of manhood? Strange preparation!!! I am convinced that no missionary-society for the heathen would receive the support of the Christian public for one year, if their agents taught heathendom, as childhood is often instructed in our schools. The conversion of a heathen is more believed in, and therefore more directly sought, than the conversion of a child of a thousand prayers.
Secondly, another argument to prove my case is found in the subject being so ignored at our public Sunday-school meetings. What forms the staple subject of half the addresses you hear at these gatherings? Almost everything except the conversion of the children. That which generally takes the precedence of all else is the average attendance of children and teachers in the morning and afternoon. This average is usually carried out to a fractional or decimal nicety. We are told so many children and part of a child, so many teachers and fraction of a teacher — have been found in their places during the year. David numbering the people was never half so minute in his calculations! After this, you are almost certain to hear an oration about "the pernicious influence of the literature of the present day," or "the effect of the educational act on our Sunday schools," or "the necessity of improved ventilation in our schoolrooms." When these subjects have been duly elaborated, then, if there is time, the last ten minutes when everybody is moving, are devoted to "the importance of seeking the early conversion of children." This is, I am certain, no exaggerated picture of many a Sabbath school meeting.
At one meeting at which I was present, over one hour and a half was devoted to these subjects. During the whole of this time, the subject of conversion was never once mentioned. Many of our public meetings, if they proclaim anything, proclaim that conversion is looked at as one of the "extras" of Sunday school instruction. May God hasten the time when in this respect, "the first shall be last, and the last first."
Thirdly, another argument to prove my point is found in the amount of suspicion in which young candidates for church fellowship are held. There are many dear old saints of God who seem to have a wonderful horror of any church receiving a large number of young people. It is not, they imagine, a "solid" increase, whatever that may mean. Whenever they speak of them, it is always with a devout hope that they may turn out to be genuine. On the ground of their childhood, they are examined and cross-examined as few adults would endure. Test after test is applied, as if the conversion of the child was so strange a phenomenon, that it could only be admitted after evidence of more than ordinary worth. The child must be sound as a bell in doctrine, have all the five points at the end of its little fingers, and start in its life as a church member with an experience as rich and deep as a Christian's of half a century's standing.
I am certain I am not going beyond the bounds of truth when I assert that a higher morality and consistency is demanded from the youthful candidate for church fellowship, than is to be found in the lives of many of the adult members. Instead of being ever on the lookout to welcome with joy the children professors, there are many who seem to think it their special duty to put as many barriers in their way as possible, and then only receive them under protest, or with an apology. If some hoary-headed old drunkard comes forward and declared himself on the Lord's side, his conversion is more believed in, and he is more readily received into communion, than the little child who from its birth, has been the subject of thousands of earnest prayers. It is a sad but indisputable fact, that many churches are almost looked down upon and sneered at, because they consist, as these wise ones say, "of only a lot of young people." Many of our churches have yet to learn that, like their Master, it is for them to say with open arms, "allow the little children to come to me."
Having thus noticed this strange unbelief in the conversion of children, I will try and show its wickedness and folly. And in order to do so, I would remark first, that there is nothing in the word of God calculated to foster the error. In our ignorance, we often point the child to the man, and make the latter the model for the former — in scripture it is the very reverse. I never read of Jesus taking an adult and placing him in the midst of a group of children, saying "there my dear children, when you grow up to his size and become like him, you may hope to enter into my kingdom."
No, I neither read that nor anything like it; but I think I have read that once our Savior gathered his disciples together, after they had been quarreling with all the wisdom of adult saints as to who among them should be the greatest, and putting the little child in the middle of the jealous group, he said, "unless you are converted, and become as little children, you shall not enter the kingdom of Heaven. Whoever therefore will humble himself as this little child, is the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven." Mat 18.3-4
In the present day, we point the child to the man — but in the days of our Lord, He pointed the man to the child. We want to have the children more like men. Our Savior wanted to have the men more like children. If the Book teaches anything clearly, it teaches that children treated Jesus far better than adults did. The only triumphant procession our Lord ever had was chiefly through the little ones. As He rides meek and lowly upon an donkey, the Scribes and Pharisees scowl and frown at Him. The intellect and manhood of the gathering sneered at the Nazarene and refused Him homage. But in spite of all, our Savior had His ovation. From whom? Why, from the children! They were better than their fathers, and wiser than their teachers. They lined the road; they followed His course, making all the hills ring again with their joyous shouts. They press after Him into the temple; and that place — changed by adults into a den of thieves — never echoed with notes of truer worship, than when their childish voices shouted "Hosanna, Hosanna, Hosanna, to the son of David!" Mat 21.15
Of course, the sanctimonious hypocrites were greatly shocked and sorely displeased; so turning to the Master, they said "do you hear what these children are saying?" Yes, of course He did. His ears had been drinking in with pleasure their simple praises, and He means that they shall know it too. Listen to His answer to the children despisers, "Yes; have you never read: From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise?" Matthew 21:16
Standing out in bright relief to the general contempt with which our Savior was treated, is His reception by the children.
Remember also that there is nothing whatever in the nature of conversion to make a child's conversion improbable, or to sanction incredulity about its genuineness. The general objection is that "they are not old enough to make up their minds yet." This is a strange objection, and one which shows that the one who raises it knows but very little about what conversion is. I never knew an adult yet who was old enough to make up his mind to come to Christ. If conversion is the result of maturity of thought, then the objection may hold good; but if it is the direct work of the Holy Spirit upon the heart — the objection falls to the ground at once. Why not a child's heart, as well as a man's?
Conversion is no mere intellectual triumph, no result of a strong mental effort. It is a complete change in affections, mind, and life; and this change is by regeneration through the Holy Spirit. So far from "old enough to make up your mind" being any help in conversion, it is very often the greatest difficulty in the way of obtaining peace. The scripture says "With the heart, man believes unto righteousness;" and it is the head that more often perplexes the heart than helps it.
Have we not all during our Christian life come across keen, sharp, clever men, groping their way in spiritual things — but failing to find immediate peace because they were too proud of their intellectual wealth to drop reason, and believe with a child's faith? Certainly we have. The world by its own wisdom never has and never will find God. The most highly cultured person is as dependent upon the revealings of the Spirit, as the most unlettered and ignorant person.
Do you see, dear friends, the bearing of this fact upon our subject? If conversion is no triumph of the head — but a simple change of the heart, then childhood can prove no obstacle. Indeed, if anything, it is a help rather than a hindrance. If there is no more to be done in a child than in an adult, there is less to be undone. In both cases, a new building has to be reared from its foundation; but there is less rubbish to be removed in the one instance than in the other. The child's heart is clear of the sophistries which an unsanctified intellect has woven about the man's. So long as conversion consists in becoming "as a little child," there can be nothing in its nature to militate against the conversion of children. It rather places them on a vantage ground.
Bear in mind, moreover, that whatever is the nature of conversion, it is entirely of the Holy Spirit. I have already rather anticipated myself in the previous argument — but there is a difference between the two: that there was nothing in conversion itself that childhood might not have. This goes further. It touches the author of that conversion. I think there are not likely to be found here any who deny that regeneration is the work of the Holy Spirit, and His work alone. If there are, we have nothing to do with them this evening. We are speaking to those who hold that the blessed work of the third person of the Trinity is as necessary as the work of the Father or the Son.
Now granting that all conversion is of the Spirit, why should children not be converted? May not He who works in such a diversity of ways, also choose to work on a diversity of ages? Once you lift conversion out of the realm of man's work, into that of God's work — all difficulties disappear. None can be too old for Him, and none too young. The same Spirit that uproots with awful might the gnarled old oak tree of half a century's growth, can bend for His purposes the tenderest shoot that buds in spring. Let us be encouraged, then, to work for children's souls, seeing that there is nothing either in conversion's nature or in conversion's author, to exclude the little ones from being saved.
Lastly on this point, there is nothing in the lives of professedly Christian children to warrant unbelief in childhood's conversion. If you want specimens of coldness, prayerlessness, worldliness and selfishness, you must not go to a youthful band of Christians to find them. They seem to be the unhappy distinctions of adult years. Being fearless of contradiction, I assert that those who have ever had much to do with work among children, have found a piety in the little ones that makes many of us who are older blush. Their devotion and love to the Savior is as marked as it is beautiful. The young tree often has the most fruit on its boughs.
I wish that many of our members could keep their youthful piety, for it was far brighter than what they now have. Like Israel, they have declined, and there is a need to "I remember how eager you were to please me as a young bride long ago, how you loved me and followed me even through the barren wilderness." Jer 2.2. This truth receives sad confirmation from the many prayers we hear for "the return of our first love." Children's piety is no inferior kind — but will bear comparison with any. Too often it is higher in its infancy than in its manhood.
"But Christian children are children still." True, and so too, Christian men are men still. It is no more inconsistent for Christian children to play, than it is for Christian men to work. The one is as natural and proper for childhood as the other is for manhood. It would be absurd to unchristianize a man because he works hard all week; and it is just as absurd to call into question a child's piety because he plays. Suppose he does still love to play his childish games — is that a crime? I wish that no greater crime were ever done. Suppose that skipping rope still possesses a charm. Is that opposed to Christianity? No, let the children play. Grace can shine as much in a child's game as in a man's toil. Conversion sanctifies, it does not eradicate the child's childish nature.
There is one proof of the genuineness of child conversion that must be stated, and I hope those who are so fearful of their coming into church-fellowship will remember it. Children are not the ones who bring sorrow to the Church. In nine cases out of ten, church discipline is not upon children members — but adults. It has been so with us here; and most remarkable is the testimony given by the pastor of the largest church in the world. Mr. Spurgeon said some years ago, "I have, during the past year, baptized as many as forty or fifty children. And of all those with whom I talked on the subject of their conversion, I never proposed anyone for church fellowship with greater satisfaction than I have these little ones. Among those whom I had to exclude from church fellowship at any time, out of a church of two thousand seven hundred members, I never had to exclude one who was received into the church, while still a child."
Away then, with the idea that a converted child is a kind of "rare bird" only to be met with once or twice in a life time. Children can be converted as children, and this fact should lead the church to make direct and special efforts on their behalf. Do not let child's bread be forgotten, or thrown to the dogs as if of little value. I have only a moment or two left for my second point. I can only give you the outline and leave to your own meditation the filling up of details.
II. Care must be taken that what is placed on the table is children's bread.There must be suitability in food provided for children. There must be the same suitability in the means of grace employed on their behalf. It would be ridiculous to take a little one to a Mansion House banquet. In all probability the child would be overlooked and have nothing handed to it. And if bold enough to help itself, most likely the result would be illness. The strong foods and delicacies were not intended for childhood.
It is equally foolish to have but one service for adults and children. I rejoice that the old plan of packing the poor little things up in the darkest part of the gallery during the service time is fast passing away, and that the church begins to see the necessity for providing a special service for the children. While in the sanctuary, there should be a banquet of "fat things full of marrow;" at the same time, there should also be in the school room, a simple spread of "children's bread."
"Children's bread." Yes — not a loaf. What they have given them should be ready cut and broken up. It would be simple cruelty to put a loaf before a child and tell him to cut it for himself — most likely he would cut himself instead. So it is equally foolish and wrong to give little ones God's truth in the loaf, and leave it to them to divide it. They are not to be expected to "divide rightly," and no wonder if in their efforts to do so, they suffer some harm, the scar of which may be carried for years.
"Children's bread" — not crust. It is certain that the softest part of bread was intended by the Lord. It was bread that would break up in crumbs. In Mark's accounts of this same narrative, the woman is represented as pleading her right to the children's crumbs. It was bread so soft that their little fingers could crumble it up. See to it, you workers among children, that what you give them is soft and easy for the mouth. Don't let them break their little teeth now over what in years to come will be a delight. Forcing it upon them too soon, may create a prejudice that would never otherwise have existed.
And now to conclude — O, fathers — mothers — teachers — friends — up, and to the work of winning children's souls! Believe that as children they may become converted, and aim at nothing lower in your teaching. Do not go to the work without the expectation of seeing present results. Do not think that weary years must pass before you are privileged to reap a sheaf. Do not scatter the seed with faint hope, that it will be seen only after many days. Sow with one hand — and expect to reap with the other hand. Children can be converted — children can live in Christ — and children can die in Christ, with as sweet an assurance and as complete a triumph as the most aged saint of God. Labor then for these precious little souls. Employ every means to bring them to the arms of Jesus. Do not despise the humblest instrumentality, nor throw to the dogs a single child's crumb. Work while their hearts are tender. Plead with them while they are young.