The clear desire of all Christian parents is the spiritual wellbeing of their children. We want our children to be saved, to be part of the company of the redeemed. We yearn for the blessing of God’s covenant grace to be on our children.
While we recognize God’s sovereignty in salvation, this longing to see one generation follow another in knowing God motivates the training and instruction of our children. Psalm 78 captures it: “Things that we have heard and known, that our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders he has done. He established a testimony … which he commanded our fathers to teach their children, that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and teach to their children, so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep his commands” (vv. 3–6). Because we long for our children to know the grace we have known, we declare God’s mighty acts to the next generation (Ps. 145). We teach God’s ways so that our sons and our son’s sons will follow God (Deut. 6).
We want our children to have faith in God. But what does it mean to have saving faith? Starting with Martin Luther and further explicated by Philip Melanchthon and others who followed them, Reformed theology has traditionally used a threefold definition of faith as notitia (knowledge),assensus (assent), and fiducia (trust). Our major confessions of faith show this understanding. The Westminster Confession of Faith 14.2 maintains that saving faith joins believing in God’s Word, accepting Christ’s claims, and “receiving and resting on Christ alone” for all that salvation provides.
The answer to question 21 of the Heidelberg Catechism — “What is saving faith?” — provides perhaps the clearest description of saving faith found in any confession: “True faith is not only sure knowledge, whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in His Word, but also firm confidence which the Holy Spirit works in my heart by the gospel, that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sins, everlasting righteousness and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.”
As a parent who desires his children to exercise saving faith, I am concerned with all three aspects of saving faith. Therefore, my shepherding must intentionally promote notitia, assensus, and fiducia.
Notitia. Our English word notice comes from this Latin word. It conveys the basic informational content of the Christian faith. Our children must understand the basic content of the gospel. That’s one of the reasons the practice of family worship is so essential. There is truth to be known. It is not possible to exercise faith without content. “How are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?” (Rom. 10:14).
We know that knowledge does not save, but faith must act on knowledge. Faith is not a “blind leap in the dark.” If our children are to put their faith in Jesus Christ, we must provide reasons for faith. They cannot trust in Jesus Christ without knowing truth about Him. There is a corpus of knowledge about themselves, God, and God’s created order that they must know and in some sense understand if they are to be children of faith. They can believe only in that which they know.
This was the burden that drove Paul’s concern for the communication of truth: “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you — unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:1–4, emphasis added).
Without knowledge, faith is not possible since we must know something of the One in whom we are to believe. It is not enough to merely be sincere. Correct knowledge matters, yet knowledge is not faith.
Assensus. The common English word assent comes from this Latin term. To assent means to believe something to be true. It is possible to know (notitia) something and not personally believe it (assensus). Our children must both understand the content of the gospel and believe it. To know all the historical facts about Jesus Christ, to possess thorough knowledge of the facts about salvation, will do our children no good if they do not believe those facts to be true.
Saint Paul, in his defense before King Agrippa, asserted that Agrippa knew and even believed the facts about Jesus Christ. “King Agrippa,” asked Paul, “do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe” (Acts 26:27).
Yet mere knowledge and even assent to the truth, while essential, are not sufficient for our children to have saving faith. Knowledge enables our children to say, “Christ died and rose from the grave.” Assent takes the next step: “I am persuaded to believe that Christ died and rose from the grave.” According to the Reformers, these two are not enough. These two, someone has said, qualify one to be a demon; demons possess both right knowledge and even belief in its truth. One thing more is needed for saving faith.
Fiducia. The best English word for fiducia is trust. Our children must have knowledge, they must believe that it is true, and they must trust in it. It is one thing to know Christ died for our sins. It is another to add to that knowledge belief that Christ died for our sins. It is essential to take the next step, to place my trust in Christ to save me from my sins.
The difference is captured brilliantly by Charles Wesley’s hymn “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing”:
He breaks the power of reigning sin, He sets the captive free; His blood can make the foulest clean, His blood availed for me.
The final phrase captures the idea of trust. Our children can know and even believe that salvation is found in Jesus Christ, but “His blood availed for me” expresses trust, trust that is essential to saving faith. Saving faith involves internal change — regenerating grace — that enables our children to trust Christ for salvation.
There is an element of saving faith that is not merely an objective embrace of truths about God. It is not enough to say Jesus is the Savior of sinners. Our children must be able to say, “He is my Savior.” They must trust Him for salvation. They must embrace Him and rest in Him as He has freely given grace through His holy life and sacrificial death.
Trust in Christ alone for salvation is described in scores of Bible passages. The prophets often describe it as “turning to” God (Ezek. 33). John 1 explains it as “receiving” Him. In the Bread of Life discourse, Jesus describes it as “eating” Him (John 6). The writer to the Hebrews says in chapter 6 that we are “to hold fast” to the hope. However it is expressed, our children must trust in Jesus Christ if they are to be saved.
How does this impact shepherding our children? We must always set before them the gospel truth. Every family should have some intentional and structured times in which the children are taught about what the Scriptures contain. We must faithfully urge them to believe the things we have taught. Some basic apologetics will inevitably be essential as we persuade them to believe the truth.
None of this will be enough unless they entrust themselves to Jesus Christ. If they are to be partakers of eternal life, they must trust in this Jesus Christ who saves. Our children must receive Him, turn to Him, hold fast to Him, and rest in Him alone for salvation. Ultimately, the work of the Holy Spirit must transform our children into people who rest in Christ alone for salvation. Our role is to bring them the gospel and urge them to embrace Christ the Savior.
I used to tell my children about the man who watched a tightrope walker crossing Niagara Falls pushing a wheel barrow. After seeing the feat performed repeatedly, he was asked by the performer, “Can I walk across the falls pushing this wheelbarrow.” “Yes,” was the answer (notitia). “Do you believe that I can do it again?” “Yes” (assensus). “Would you jump in the wheelbarrow and let me push you across?” (fiducia). This is the question of trust.
Our children must know that Jesus is the Savior who died for sinners. They must believe that He will save sinners who come to Him. But to cross from death to life they must believe that Jesus is their Savior. They must get into the wheelbarrow. What they will find is that He is willing and able to get them safely to the other shore.