This article was written earlier in 2022.
Children are an endless supply of sermon illustrations. Before I was a parent, I used kids to illustrate how we’re born sinful: You have to teach a child what’s right; you don’t have to teach him how to lie, kick, or steal. It’s true: We are born sinful, and children can be selfish. But after having a little boy, my emphasis has changed. It’s prevenient grace and the image of God that are most evident in his life.
Named After the Second Adam
The other night, my little boy gave me a gentle goodnight kiss on the nose and said, “I’m going to kiss your nose really gentle. Is it feeling better?” I had mentioned two days earlier that my nose was sore. He’s only two years old. When we have someone over for dinner (e.g., the last three Sundays), he sits next to them, talks to them, and loves on them. This past Sunday, he crawled up beside someone he barely knows and rested his little hand on theirs. He’s a partner with mommy and daddy in disciple-making. He asks daddy to read the Bible at the breakfast table. He assures me that he will pray for me.
My little boy’s name is Adam, and in the checkout line at the local grocery store, a Mennonite couple took interest in him. I quipped that we named him after the Second Adam, not the First Adam. The man quipped back, “We’re all named after the first Adam.” It’s true that we all still feel the effects of the First Adam’s sin. I affirm total depravity. But Methodists don’t view the human race as fundamentally lost. Christ has reconciled the world to God (Rom. 5:10; Col. 1:20; 2 Cor. 5:19), re-headed humanity as the Second Adam (Rom. 5:18), and poured out his Spirit on all flesh: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people” (Titus 2:11).
Children are born on their way to heaven because Jesus reversed the direction of the human race through his atonement.
My Adam wasn’t born on his way to hell. He was born on his way to heaven because Jesus reversed the direction of the human race through his atonement: “as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men” (Rom. 5:18). My son has been purchased by the blood of Christ, and at two years old, he is a partaker in the many unconditional benefits of Christ’s atonement. He’s justified, a child of God, adopted into his family, a Christian, an heir to the kingdom, and a member of Christ’s church. Because of Christ, we can look at our little ones and say, “to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 19:14).
Raising Children as Christians
Methodist parents can do more than dedicate their children to God; they can recognize their children as belonging to Christ and his church. In “God’s Gracious Provision: A Theological and Exegetical Defense of the Wesleyan Doctrine of Prevenient Grace,” David Fry writes on the pastoral implications of Wesleyan prevenient grace:
If we believe that infants are covered by the atonement of Christ, we ought to raise our children as Christians. We do not need to wait until our children are older to treat them as Christians. This does not mean we ignore their corrupt nature. And neither does it mean that there should not be a time when they consciously repent and exercise faith. But they may do this from within Christ instead of out of rebellion. Children tend to live up to the expectations we place upon them and enforce in them.
… we would be well-served to extend the previous point to a child’s membership in the church. That is, we should include the children in the membership of the church through baptism. In our own church, the children of members may be enrolled as members at their dedication or infant baptism. The point is that just as we want to raise them in Christ, we also want to raise them in membership with the church. At some point they will be faced with the decision of whether to remain a member. Yet, I believe retention of our young people would increase if we raised them fully within the membership (and, therefore, the accountability and discipleship) of the church.
This optimism of grace and child salvation helps to explain why the early Methodists (e.g., John Wesley, Richard Watson, Adam Clarke) and many of the early Holiness leaders (e.g., A. M. Hills, H. Orton Wiley, Daniel Steele) were strong advocates of infant baptism. I recently read a 1911 publication from God’s Revivalist Press in which W. B. Godbey wrote, “Infants have a right to baptism, for the same reason adults enjoy that right; i.e., because they are Christians.”
The recent move away from infant baptism is a symptom of a broader move away from classic Methodist theology and towards a Baptist understanding of salvation and the sacraments.
The recent move away from infant baptism is a symptom of a broader move away from classic Methodist theology and towards a Baptist understanding of salvation and the sacraments. Consider, for example, how Methodist theologian Thomas Summers viewed infant baptism as the implication of Methodist soteriology:
[Infants] are not baptized because their parents are believers in Christ. Their right to the ordinance is of a higher investiture. They claim by a nobler entail. Dying in infancy, they enter heaven, not on the ground of their Christian descent—the piety of their parents—but because of their personal connection with the Second Adam, by whose righteousness the free gift is come upon them unto justification of life. Upon the very same basis are they admitted to membership in the kingdom of grace and to baptism, as the rite of initiation into the Church of God. If there be any for whom Christ did not die; any for whom he did not purchase the sanctifying grace of the Holy Ghost; any whom he designed and decreed never to save: such are obviously ineligible to baptism, which is the exponent of those great benefits that flow from the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. But if he tasted death for every man; if the free gift has come upon all who are involved in the condemnation of the pristine offense: there can be no reason to justify the exclusion of any from the sign and seal of the divine mercy, except such as exclude themselves by their obstinate impenitency, and infants are not of that number.
Baptism does not guarantee anyone’s final salvation, of course, and yes, my son will grow up to commit sins: we all like sheep go astray (Isa. 53:6). He’ll need to repent, confirm his faith, and be fully regenerated. But he doesn’t need to wander far, and he can be restored quickly and fully. That’s why I nurture him in the Lord, reading Scripture, praying the Lord’s Prayer, confessing the Apostles’ Creed, and going over our catechism: I fully anticipate that he will grow up to serve the Lord, though I’m not naive to the fact of free will.
While experience should never drive our theology, I’m grateful for how my experience as a dad has confirmed my developing understanding of classic Methodism and its optimism of grace. When it comes to parenting my little Adam, the Second Adam makes all the difference.