There are commonly 2 extremes as we all wrestle with this question. The first is the careless lack of discernment of many churches who have an alter call for 4-5 year olds, ask them to raise their hand if they love Jesus, then baptize them as converted followers of Jesus. The other extreme often results from the carelessness of the first.
This extreme prevents both parents and pastors to be willing to affirm whether or not a child is truly converted until they are adults and are completely independent of their parent’s authority and care. I believe a middle ground must be approached if we truly desire to discern clear biblical evidence that a child, teenager, or young adult has become a new creature in Christ.
Knowing we are not God and cannot see the heart, I believe there are still evidences we can see and know to help us discern a child or teenager’s conversion in a similar way we try to do the same with adults. In the spirit of Jonathan Edward’s 5 signs of true conversion, here are 5 evidences that I try to use as a template as both a parent and pastor in wrestling with this issue.
1) A growing affection and need for Jesus and the gospel.
2) A heightened understanding of the truths of Scripture.
3) An increased kindness and selflessness towards siblings.
4) A greater awareness and distaste for sin.
5) A noticeable desire to obey parents.
In my experience as both a parent and a pastor, I have found that age is not the most important gauge to determine true conversion, but to genuinely look for these evidences in an age appropriate manner. For example, we need to know that a child has a clear understanding of the gospel. However, that will be articulated by a 10 year old differently than it should a 16 year old. A desire to obey parents and a selfless spirit towards siblings will also show up differently in a 10 year old than they will in a 16 year old.
Nevertheless, they must be present in some way and I would strongly discourage any pastor or parent to affirm a child’s conversion without some kind of tangible evidence apart from their verbal profession. On the flip side, I would also caution you from falling into the trap I have in the past in regard to demanding more from a child than can be observed.
This is tricky ground I realize. So much as a pastor must be approached on a case by case basis. Many of us will be all around the spectrum, but the one takeaway from this post is be mindful to avoid the extremes that do exist on both sides. Find I nice seat in the shade somewhere in the middle as a starting point. Then, be wise, assess honestly, and pray that the merciful God who does regenerate adults, teenagers, and even children give you much discernment.