Teaching the Big Words of the Faith

December 15, 2022 Christa Petzold

When we teach children, we tend to simplify things. When we teach children about God, we want them to understand the truths we are communicating on their level in a way that is comforting, helpful, and life-giving for them. Today, I would like to propose that we use the “big words” of our faith when we teach our kids, preteens, and teenagers, whether that be in the home, in the church, or in a school setting. When it comes to terms like justification, sanctification, absolution, incarnation, Law, Gospel, atonement, resurrection, ascension, and so on, which ones have you taken the time to use and define with the young people in your life?

Math is a great example of an area where we teach the big words of the field early. We might start by teaching our kids that they can either “combine two groups of things together so they have more” or “take things away so they have less,” but we very quickly give them the terms for these operations. We teach them that they are doing addition when they put things together and subtraction when they take things away. This precision equips them to communicate with others and dispels confusion. By giving them technical terms and precise definitions as they grow in their knowledge of the subject, we also communicate to children that math is something significant that has been around for a long time, that there is more to know as they get older, that they will be studying it for years, and that they will understand it more and more fully as they go.

These same principles apply when teaching the faith. Kids need to know what they know. If you teach someone multiplication but don’t tell them, “This is called multiplication,” then they will not be prepared when someone asks them to multiply. When we teach young people the big words of theology, they know what they know.

An aversion to “church speak” waters down the tenants of the faith.

We have these words for a reason. Terms like trinity and justification came to be used because Scripture teaches with nuance and precision. As debates arose over the meaning of Scripture, language developed with the intent to express the truths of Scripture accurately. Sometimes we try to keep things simple because we don’t want people to feel intimidated or alienated by what they don’t know. This may be well-intended, but when we consistently keep things at a surface level, we forfeit the opportunity for growth. It can easily become a culture of avoiding theology altogether. Instead of offering a robust truth claim and being willing to explain it scripturally and answer any questions that arise, we’re offering a “Christian vibe.” Telling children “Jesus loves you” isn’t the Gospel. It’s a true statement, but it is not the whole story, and they deserve the complete picture with enough detail to spark their curiosity, lead them to ask questions, or answer the questions they already have.

Theological terms are like mini creeds. A creed is a symbol and summary of our faith—a declaration of what we believe the Bible teaches. When we say that Jesus is incarnate, the word incarnate encapsulates our theology of Christ’s coming. A child can understand that Jesus, as the Second Person of the Trinity, both existed forever with no beginning and also was born as a human baby. Likewise, children are capable of understanding the distinction between justification and sanctification. They are interested in and able to discuss the nature of the atonement. The more theology we teach our children, the better equipped they will be to read the Bible on their own and to understand it. As you learn and discuss God’s Word together, the Holy Spirit will work in their hearts to strengthen their faith.

Learning theology prepares young people for adulthood.

When we avoid or neglect teaching theology to our children, including these theological terms and ideas, we’re not adequately preparing them to engage with the other worldviews and ideas they will inevitably encounter. When they hear someone from a different denomination talk about grace, will they know enough to detect that their definitions of grace are different? When they encounter other religions or sociological systems, will they assume that the faith they were raised in was superficial and lacking because these new philosophies have their own languages and rules (and they never learned the language of their faith heritage)? Lamentably, young people who are raised in the Church often know just enough about Christianity to assume they know everything about Christianity. But they do not know enough to answer the most common questions and objections made by non-Christians or Christians from other denominations. We need to prepare them by giving them the most complete, coherent, and robust theology available to us.

The Holy Spirit equips you to teach God’s Word to your children.

Perhaps you are thinking, “That sounds nice, but I don’t know all that theology stuff myself. How can I possibly teach something I don’t know to my kids?” This is the beauty of God’s Word! Everything we need to know for salvation is easily grasped by children and adults alike. Yet Scripture is so packed with God’s wisdom that we can (and should!) spend a lifetime discovering more about our Savior. If we don’t know something, that is a wonderful opportunity for us to model curiosity and inquiry for our children. Tell them, “I don’t know,” and bring them along as you search for answers. Hunt through the books you have, reach out to your pastor with your questions, and show them what it looks like to love God’s Word. (See Psalm 119:127–131.)

A few days ago, one of my children confided in me after an episode of discipline, “Mom, after I did that, I felt scared that I would get in trouble. But then I also felt bad because I knew what I did was wrong.” I replied, “Yes, that makes sense. What you just described are the first two uses of the Law.” The child looked puzzled and asked, “What are the uses of the Law?” And I told them about the three uses of the Law, labeling them as the curb, mirror, and guide, and briefly explaining what each one was. They nodded thoughtfully. “Yes, that’s what it was. The curb and the mirror.” Then I shared the Gospel, that they were forgiven because of Christ, and the conversation ended. That night at the dinner table, they brought it up again: “We talked about the three uses of the Law today. What were they again, Mom? The curb . . . ?” Then our entire family had the chance to talk about the Law and its role in our lives as people forgiven and redeemed by Jesus. We talked about how the Law is good, even if it makes us feel bad, because it is God’s eternal Word.

If I had responded to my child’s initial statement with something like, “Yeah, that sounds normal,” and left it at that, we would have missed out on this wonderful opportunity for catechesis. Teaching the faith is in large part seizing every opportunity to talk to our children about Jesus. When we do this, we should not be afraid to be specific.

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