Christian children’s books abound with cute stories peppered with biblical morals. This is not altogether wrong, but can sometimes be misleading. Often bone-chilling biblical events are recast into palatable tales free from God’s wrath and the reality of sin and death. Such stories, after all, are scary and cause nightmares. For proof of this, simply type “Noah’s Ark, childrens” into the Amazon search line and see what you find. A story of judgement and God’s faithfulness becomes a story about lovable animals commingling on a cute little boat. Try the same search with “Samson,” “Gideon,” or “David and Goliath” and you are likely to have the same results. I haven’t written a children’s book before so I’m not pretending to understand the difficulties of communicating truth and distilling major concepts for a young audience. I don’t wish to discourage authors from creatively articulating biblical stories for young children, but faithfulness to the intent of the biblical message must be maintained. What I do hope is that authors maintain biblical truths and the redemptive story-line of Scripture while connecting with children on the literary level. To this end, there are several offerings which communicate biblical truth while maintaining the story arc of redemption available to parents and educators. Here’s a recent example.
So what about the atonement? How should we communicate the atonement to our children? The matter of understanding the effects and extent of the atonement reaches back to the days of the early church. Several views have emerged and been promoted over the centuries. For good or for ill, the atonement has been communicated in various ways through the pens of theologians and the words of preachers. So how has it been communicated to children? If you are a parent, have you stopped to think about how you talk about the work of Jesus on the cross with your children? Perhaps you are a Sunday school teacher or interact with children on some level at church. How have you taught the atonement? Have you broached the subject at all? I want to suggest three ways in which the atonement has historically been taught and relate those to how children should (or should not) understand the work of Jesus on the cross.
1) The atonement is an example of how to live.
The work on the cross can be communicated to children as a moral example to follow. Jesus shows us an example of love and sacrifice which should entice us to do the same. Peter Abelard promoted this idea of the atonement in the twelfth century. He saw the cross as a supreme example of God’s love for us, which in turn awakens in us a moral response. Theologically this is called the “moral influence theory.” Looking to Jesus on the cross is a moral compass for us and awakens proper morality in the heart of the sinner. Just emphasize the love of God and man will naturally amend their moral failings. To children, the cross becomes the moral standard to live up to. Jesus loved us so much that he died, now you should try and live as best as you can, or so the thought goes. While Jesus on the cross is a supreme example of love, its much more than a moral instigator. Natural man may have the capacity to be moral, but this neglects what the New Testament really teaches about who we are and what we need. We need a new heart. Reflecting on the cross may be able to coax feelings of guilt and shame which lead to adjusted morals, but it can’t produce a new heart. Only the Spirit of God can produce a new heart and free us to love him and love others in the way which honors God (Rom. 8:9; 1 Cor. 2:14; 2 Cor. 3:17; Titus 3:5) . Children need a new heart, not just a moral code.
2) The atonement is a picture of our sin.
Another way that the atonement can be taught is as a picture of how sin hurts God. Jesus’ death on the cross demonstrates God’s hatred of sin. He’s so upset that we’ve sinned. If only we wouldn’t have sinned, then Jesus wouldn’t have had to die. This view of the atonement causes people to focus on the pain and suffering of the cross, equating the suffering to the magnitude of our sin. In theological parlance this is called the “governmental theory” of the atonement. It’s main espouser was Hugo Grotius in the early 17th century. This view uses guilt and shame to persuade people to come to faith. For children, this can be all the more effective. Communicated in this fashion, the atonement becomes the ultimate guilt trip—children succumb to Christ based on shame not true contrition. When we present the atonement as a picture of what our sin does to Christ, we miss the fact that Jesus freely chose the cross out of joy for the Father’s will (John 10:15; Heb. 12:3). Surely we should grieve at our sin and the reality of the cross, but when we only focus on this we inevitably overemphasize the guilt and shame of our sin. Children who are guilted into Christ will inevitably be led away from him in search of freedom from that guilt. Such a view of the atonement, overemphasized, kills joy and destroys faith.
3) The atonement is a substitute for sin.
A final way in which the atonement can be taught to children is as a substitute for their sin. While the cross does give us an example to follow and provides a picture of the seriousness of our sin, children need to first understand that the atonement represents their reconciliation to God. As fallen human beings, we are all in need of redemption (Rom. 3:23; 6:23; 8:1-4). We have sinned against a holy God, as part of the fallen human race the effects of sin manifest themselves from birth. Children are no exception. They need to know that more than anything, they need redemption and a new heart before they can begin following Jesus. Regeneration precedes a life a faith (Titus 3:5). We must be adamant in teaching children that more than anything, Jesus on the cross is a substitution for their sin and the death he died is the death they deserve. This does not require morbidity, just honesty.
So do we communicate that the cross is an example to follow? Certainly! Jesus says to take up our cross and follow him, demonstrating that a life of discipleship is necessarily a life of suffering and sacrifice (see Luke 9:23). Do we talk about how the cross is a picture of our sin? Of course. Sin is serious business to God and the cross demonstrates that reality (see Col. 2:13-14). But these are aspects of the cross which should be highlighted after the foundation has been laid. Paul says this in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.” (2 Corinthians 5:21 NLT). This fundamental truth of the cross is the foundation for every other way we should understand the atonement. For children’s sake, we must focus on this prime element. If we neglect this, we present an incomplete picture of the cross to our children. The substitutionary atonement of the cross is not a concept reserved for theological giants—it is the fundamental truth of the Christian faith. This truth must be the groundwork for children’s ministry, parental discipleship in the home and any other place where biblical truth is taught to children. We would do well to make this the foundation of discipleship with our children.