Half-Way Christians

–October of 2006

Half-Way Christians

In the early 1600s the Puritans made the arduous journey to America to establish a pure community of like-minded Christians, a “City on a Hill.” As the first generation of these settlers began to die off, their congregational churches faced a membership crisis. Full participation, or membership, had been limited to the “Visible Saints” — those who had made a public affirmation of a conversion experience. In the early days, most Puritans testified to such an experience.  But as time passed, the fires of conviction did not burn as brightly in the hearts of the second- and third-generation Puritans. Fewer of them had a “conversion experience,” and even fewer were inclined to devote themselves to the principles of the church.

In 1662, the church leadership, to confront this crisis of faith, created the Half-Way Covenant.  It provided a partial church membership for the children and grandchildren of church members.  It allowed them the rite of baptism (which opened the door to civil privileges) without having to devote themselves to the strict principles of the church or testify to a “conversion experience.”   Within a generation these partial Puritans were complete worldlings.

History has proven that it is a daunting task for parents to hand down their faith to succeeding generations.  The Book of Judges graphically describes this challenge: “The people worshipped the Lord throughout Joshua’s lifetime and during the lifetimes of the elders who outlived Joshua. They had seen all the Lord’s great works He had done for Israel…. After them another generation rose up who did not know the Lord or the works He had done for Israel. The Israelites did what was evil in the Lord’s sight. They worshipped the Baals and abandoned the Lord, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of Egypt.” Succeeding generations have a natural tendency to accept the status quo and to lose the vision of the first generation. Too often the second-generation experience is a second-hand experience. The parent’s fervor for the faith becomes the children’s formalism and the grandchildren’s apathy.

This is more than a sad fact of church history.  It’s a tragedy of eternal proportions.  I have witnessed children who have grown up in the finest of Christian homes succumb to the subtleties of what one writer calls the “second generation syndrome.”  They conform to the codes and creeds of their religious subculture; they perform their Christian duties with sincerity; they speak the appropriate shibboleths with ease and familiarity; yet they lack the vital heart of basic Christianity.  Like the Rich Young Ruler, they are fine examples of religious conformity and moral integrity, but totally void of true spiritual life.

Every Christian parent wants more than anything else to have children who love and serve the Lord.  We all want to give them the benefit of the doubt and take them at their word that they are indeed Christians.  But both parents and pastors need to be very careful not to assume that because Johnny and Sally look the part they truly know God.  The new birth carries with it some unmistakable marks of spiritual life.  If these are not present, then well-meaning attempts to confirm children in the faith will never substitute for a true conversion.  God has no grandchildren.  Every generation must find God for itself and experience His saving grace. There are no half-way Christians in heaven, just totally lost ones in hell.

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