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True Piety in Children: Some Observations and Encouragements

Category Book Excerpts
Date June 11, 2024

The following excerpt is taken from Chapter 2 of Archibald Alexander’s Thoughts on Religious Experience.

It is an interesting question whether now there are any persons sanctified from the womb. If the communication of grace ever took place at so early a period of human existence, there is no reason why it should not now sometimes occur. God says to Jeremiah, ‘Before I formed thee in the belly, I knew thee, and before thou camest forth out of the womb, I sanctified thee.’ And of John the Baptist, Gabriel said to Zacharias, his father, ‘And he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb.’ The prophet Samuel also seems to have feared the Lord from his earliest childhood. In later times, cases have often occurred in which eminently pious persons could not remember the time when they did not love the Saviour and experience godly sorrow for their sins; and as we believe that infants may be the subjects of regeneration, and cannot be saved without it, why may it not be the fact that some who are regenerated live to mature age? I know, indeed, that many conceive that infants are naturally free from moral pollution and, of course, need no regeneration; but this opinion is diametrically opposite to the doctrine of Scripture, and inconsistent with the acknowledged fact that, as soon as they are capable of moral action, all do go astray and sin against God. If children were not depraved, they would be naturally inclined to love God and delight in His holy law; but the reverse is true.

Perhaps one reason why so few are regenerated at this early age is, lest some should adopt the opinion that grace came by nature, or that man was not corrupt from his birth. Some have opposed the idea that any are sanctified from their birth, for fear that mere moralists and those religiously educated should indulge the hope that they were born of God, although they have experienced no particular change in any part of their lives, as far back as memory reaches. But allowing that some may improperly make this use of the doctrine, it only proves that a sound doctrine may be abused. All the doctrines of grace have been thus abused, and will be, as long as ‘the heart is deceitful above all things’. There is, however, no ground for those who are still impenitent to comfort themselves with the notion that they were regenerated in early infancy, for piety in a child will be as manifest as in an adult, as soon as such a child comes to the exercise of reason; and in some respects, more so, because there are so few young children who are pious, and because they have more simplicity of character and are much less liable to play the hypocrite than persons of mature age. Mere decency of external behaviour, with a freedom from gross sins, is no evidence of regeneration; for these things may be found in many whose spirit is proud and self-righteous, and entirely opposite to the religion of Christ: and we know that outward regularity and sobriety may be produced by the restraints of a religious education and good example, where there are found none of the internal characteristics of genuine piety.

Suppose then, that in a certain case grace has been communicated at so early a period that its first exercises cannot be remembered, what will be the evidences which we should expect to find of its existence? Surely, we ought not to look for wisdom, judgment, and the stability of adult years, even in a pious child. We should expect, if I may say so, a childish piety – a simple, devout, and tender state of heart. As soon as such a child should obtain the first ideas of God as its Creator, Preserver, and Benefactor, and of Christ as its Saviour, who shed His blood and laid down His life for us on the cross, it would be piously affected with these truths, and would give manifest proof that it possessed a susceptibility of emotions and affections of heart corresponding with the conceptions of truth which it was capable of taking in. Such a child would be liable to sin, as all Christians are, but when made sensible of faults, it would manifest tenderness of conscience and genuine sorrow, and would be fearful of sinning afterwards. When taught that prayer was both a duty and a privilege, it would take pleasure in drawing nigh to God, and would be conscientious in the discharge of secret duties. A truly pious child would be an affectionate and obedient child to its parents and teachers; kind to brothers and sisters, and indeed to all other persons; and would take a lively interest in hearing of the conversion of sinners, and the advancement of Christ’s kingdom in the world.

We ought not to expect from a regenerated child uniform attention to serious subjects, or a freedom from that gaiety and volatility which are characteristic of that tender age; but we should expect to find the natural propensity moderated, and the temper softened and seasoned, by the commingling of pious thoughts and affections with those which naturally flow from the infant mind. When such children are called, in Providence, to leave the world, then commonly their piety breaks out into a flame, and these young saints, under the influence of divine grace, are enabled so to speak of their love to Christ and confidence in Him, as astonishes, while it puts to shame aged Christians. Many examples of this kind we have on record, where the evidence of genuine piety was as strong as it well could be. There is a peculiar sweetness, as well as tenderness, in these early buddings of grace. In short, the exercises of grace are the same in a child as in an adult, only modified by the peculiarities in the character and knowledge of a child. Indeed, many adults in years who are made the subjects of grace are children in knowledge and understanding, and require the same indulgence, in our judgments of them, as children in years.

To those who cannot fix any commencement of their pious exercises, but who possess every other evidence of a change of heart, I would say: Be not discouraged on this account, but rather be thankful that you have been so early placed under the tender care of the great Shepherd, and have thus been restrained from committing many sins to which your nature, as well as that of others, was inclined. The habitual evidences of piety are the same, at whatever period the work commenced. If you possess these, you are safe. And early piety is probably more steady and consistent when matured by age, than that of later origin, though the change, of course, cannot be so evident to yourselves or others.

If piety may commence at any age, how solicitous should parents be for their children, that God would bestow His grace upon them, even before they know their right hand from their left; and, when about to dedicate them to God in holy baptism, how earnestly should they pray that they might be baptized with the Holy Ghost – that while their bodies are washed in the emblematical laver of regeneration, their souls may experience the renewing of the Holy Ghost, and the sprinkling of the blood of Jesus. If the sentiments expressed above be correct, then may there be such a thing as baptismal regeneration; not that the mere external application of water can have any effect to purify the soul; nor that internal grace uniformly or generally accompanies this external washing, but that God, who works when and by what means He pleases, may regenerate by His Spirit the soul of the infant, while in His sacred name, water is applied to the body. And what time in infancy is more likely to be the period of spiritual quickening, than the moment when that sacred rite is performed which is strikingly emblematical of this change? Whether it be proper to say that baptism may be the means of regeneration depends on the sense in which the word means is used. If in the sense of presenting motives to the rational mind, as when the Word is read or heard, then it is not a means, for the child has no knowledge of what is done for it. But if, by means, be understood something which is accompanied by the divine efficiency, changing the moral nature of the infant, then, in this sense, baptism may be called the means of regeneration when thus accompanied by divine grace. The reason why it is believed that regeneration does not usually accompany baptism, is simply because no evidences of spiritual life appear in baptized children, more than in those which remain unbaptized.

The education of children should proceed on the principle that they are in an unregenerate state, until evidences of piety clearly appear, in which case they should be sedulously cherished and nurtured. These are Christ’s lambs – ‘little ones, who believe in Him’ – whom none should offend or mislead upon the peril of a terrible punishment. But though the religious education of children should proceed on the ground that they are destitute of grace, it ought ever to be used as a means of grace. Every lesson, therefore, should be accompanied with the lifting up of the heart of the instructor to God for a blessing on the means, ‘Sanctify them through thy truth; thy word is truth.’

Although the grace of God may be communicated to a human soul at any period of its existence in this world, yet the fact manifestly is, that very few are renewed before the exercise of reason commences; and not many in early childhood. Most persons with whom we have been acquainted grew up without giving any decisive evidence of a change of heart. Though religiously educated, yet they have evinced a want of love to God, and an aversion to spiritual things. Men are very reluctant, it is true, to admit that their hearts are wicked and at enmity with God. They declare that they are conscious of no such feeling, but still the evidence of a dislike to the spiritual worship of God they cannot altogether disguise; and this is nothing else but enmity to God. They might easily be convicted of loving the world more than God, the creature more than the Creator; and we know that he who will be the friend of the world is the enemy of God. Let the most moral and amiable of mankind, who are in this natural state, be asked such questions as these: Do you take real pleasure in perusing the sacred Scriptures, especially those parts which are most spiritual? Do you take delight in secret prayer, and find your heart drawn out to God in strong desires? Do you spend much time in contemplating the divine attributes? Are you in the habit of communing with your own hearts, and examining the true temper of your souls? No unregenerate persons can truly answer these, and suchlike questions, in the affirmative.

It is evident, then, that most persons whom we see around us and with whom we daily converse, are in the gall of bitterness and bond of iniquity, and, continuing in that state, where Christ is they never can come. And yet, alas! they are at ease in Zion, and seem to have no fear of that wrath which is coming. Their case is not only dangerous, but discouraging. Yet those who are now in a state of grace, yea those of our race who are now in heaven, were once in the same condition. You, my reader, may now be a member of Christ’s body and heir of His glory; but you can easily look back and remember the time when you were as unconcerned about your salvation as any of the gay, who are now fluttering around you. The same power which arrested you is able to stop their mad career. Still hope and pray for their conversion. But tell me, how were you brought to turn from your wayward, downward course? This, as it relates to the external means of awakening, would receive a great variety of answers. One would say, ‘While hearing a particular sermon, I was awakened to see my lost estate, and I never found rest or peace until I was enabled to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.’ Another would answer, ‘I was brought to consideration, by the solemn and pointed conversation of a pious friend who sought my salvation.’ While a third would answer, ‘I was led to serious consideration, by having the hand of God laid heavily upon me in some affliction.’ In regard to many, the answer would be, that their minds were gradually led to serious consideration, they scarcely know how.

Now in regard to these external means or circumstances, it matters not whether the attention was arrested and the conscience awakened, by this or that means, gradually or suddenly. Neither do these things at all assist in determining the nature of the effect produced. All who ever became pious must have begun with serious consideration, whatever means were employed to produce this state of mind. But all who, for a season, become serious, are not certainly converted. There may be  solemn impressions and deep awakenings which never terminate in a saving change, but end in some delusion, or the person returns again to his old condition, or rather to one much worse; for it may be laid down as a maxim, that religious impressions opposed, leave the soul in a more hardened state than before; just as iron, heated and then cooled, becomes harder. In general, those impressions which come gradually, without any unusual means, are more permanent than those which are produced by circumstances of a striking and alarming nature. But even here there is no general rule. The nature of the permanent effects is the only sure criterion. ‘By their fruits ye shall know them.’


Featured Picture: Edmund Bristow, 1787–1876, British, The Young Anglers, ca. 1845, Oil on panel, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, B2001.2.173.

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