Second Generation Christianity

Ryan Goodwin


          Why am I a Christian? Why are any of us Christians, if we truly are? Some people are Christians because they were just born into a family that practiced this and that with regard to religion. It is the same reason why some people are Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, or Catholic. Others say they are Christians because they were baptized – infant baptism, adult baptism, sprinkling, etc. – as if baptism is simply an initiation ceremony into a lifetime fraternity. Still others are “Christian” because they believe in a historical Jesus and are members of a generally “Christian” society – in the same way that Muslims in Iran are members of an Islamic nation-state.  

          So why am I a Christian? I can only speak for myself when I say that there was, and still is, a lot of pressure on me to be a Christian, to walk in the footsteps of several generations of Goodwins, to pass on the tradition of Biblical worship. There has, naturally, always been a temptation in my life to doubt my faith. If I had been born into a different family, at a different time, would I still be the believer that I am? Of course, it is fruitless to speculate because one will truly never know the answer to a question as hypothetical as that. Perhaps instead of spending our time asking questions that have no answer, we should consider questions that always have an answer.

          Does one need to be born into a Christian family to become a Christian? Of course not. It is ridiculous to assert that. So what we must do is look into our own lives every day and examine why we live the way we do – indeed, self-examination is a key to strong faith (1 Corinthians 11:28, 2 Corinthians 13:5, 1 Thessalonians 5:21). If you are not a Christian, then ask yourself why. What is holding you back from accepting Christ and obeying Him? The question that I would like to focus our time on, however, is directed to those are professed Christians. Are you a Christian only because your parents are, and is this a dangerous attitude?

          I want to approach this question by first considering the doctrine of inherited depravity, one of the tenants of Calvinism, which teaches that we are born in sin with all the guilt of previous generations piled on our souls. I will then examine a line of thinking that I call inherited Christianity. Finally, we will reflect on some of the dangers of falling into the trap of second generation Christianity.

          The point that I want to make in all of this is that we are individuals. The Bible will make it very clear by the end of this study that we each must choose where we will stand, and that the strength and magnitude of our own faith is not determined by the faith (or lack of it) of our parents – so that when any of us says, “I am a Christian,” it will be the truth in the most meaningful way.


Inherited Depravity?


          It has been asserted for many years and by many religious leaders that we are born completely depraved, with the sins of Adam and Even beginning a process of utter despair throughout the generations of mankind. The Doctrine of Original Sin – We believe that by the disobedience of Adam original sin has been spread through the whole human race. It is a corruption of all nature-- an inherited depravity which even infects small infants in their mother's womb, and the root which produces in man every sort of sin. It is therefore so vile and enormous in God's sight that it is enough to condemn the human race, and it is not abolished or wholly uprooted even by baptism, seeing that sin constantly boils forth as though from a contaminated spring” (The Confession Of Faith, Article 15, The Christian Reform Church). But are we to believe that such a doctrine is true? Let us seek an answer in the Word of God.

          Turn with me to Ezekiel 18:19-20, “‘Why should the son not bear the guilt of the father?’ Because the son has done what is lawful and right, and has kept all My statutes and observed them, he shall surely live. The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.” The soul who sins will die in that state if unrepentant, which necessarily infers that one must actually commit the deed to be sinful. One who has never committed an evil deed cannot be called sinful. Either way, it is a very individualistic assertion. An evil person will receive recompense for his evil deeds, and a righteous person recompense for his righteous deeds. This is a very encouraging scripture for those who feel stuck in a rut, like their parents – in many cases, alcoholic parents will have alcoholic children, same with drug addiction, or poor eating habits. But even children who have grown up with alcoholics can grow up and make their own choice as to how they want to live (Ezekiel 18:10-18).

          Beyond that, friends, we are not locked into a lifestyle once we choose it! An alcoholic never has to stay an alcoholic, neither does a sinner of any kind. On the other hand, our salvation is not assured, either, if we let sin back into lives once we have removed it (Ezekiel 18:26-27).

          There is a comparison that can be made between two very different people, who both faced the same decision. “Josiah was eight years old when he became king… And he did right in the sigh of the Lord and walked in all the ways of his father David, nor did he turn aside to the right or to the left” (2 King 22:1-2). Josiah became king after the death of his father Amon, who was a cruel and godless man. But he was given a choice about which way he would live his way; live like King David from generations gone by, or live like his contemporaries? Ahaziah was given the same choice in 1 King 22:51-53, “Ahaziah the son of Ahab became king over Israel… And he did evil in the sight of the Lord and walked in the way of his father and in the way of his mother and in the way of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who caused Israel to sin. So he served Baal and worshipped him and provoked the Lord God of Israel to anger according to all that his father had done.”  Did these two men not have the same access to the records of Israelite history? They both knew about David and his righteousness, and both had evil fathers, but they chose completely different paths in life. We are not stuck because of the evil of our parents! We have a choice – and many people make the mistake of choosing the evil ways of their parents.

          To teach a doctrine of complete, utter sinfulness at birth is to show a lack of Biblical understanding for the nature of man. Some will go to Ephesians 2:1-3 and pick out certain phrases without considering the context, or other relative verses. Especially notice verse 3, “Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.” What nature are we talking about here? First of all, we must understand that by nature mankind is pure in his thoughts, and it is individuals choosing to sin that brings corruption. By nature, people are equipped with a conscious that leads them to a basic understanding of the law – certainly a complete understanding, but a will to good nonetheless – “For when Gentiles, who do not have the Law do by nature the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves” (Romans 2:14). By nature, men and women understand the function of their bodies in pure, godly, and healthy reproduction (Romans 1:26). By nature, mankind has a basic understanding of decency and discretion (1 Corinthians 11:14). Sin is not human nature, friends, it is a second nature that we learn through continual practice. It becomes habit and can be called natural only in the sense that it is what we feel most comfortable doing. Over time, smoking can feel natural to a user, but is it in the nature of man to destroy his own body? Through practice, habitual lying can become the norm, but is it in the nature of man to deceive? Greed can feel natural, too, when a man’s appetite for wealth becomes insatiable. Lust only feels natural when we do not provide a pure outlet for those desires. Any sin can become second nature when we choose to make it a habit.

          Babies are not born sinful, or else Christ would not have commanded us to emulate them (Matthew 18:3). We are also told in Romans 7:9 that Paul was once alive apart from accountability to the law, but when he reached an age at which he chose to sin, then he was dead spiritually. Finally, in Romans 9:11, Paul makes a statement about Jacob and Esau in the womb, “For though the twins were not yet born, and had not done anything good or bad…” Children are not inherently evil because they are born into this world a clean slate. It is only when we grow up and allow sin into our lives that we become spiritually dead.


Inherited Christianity?


          Obviously we would not teach inherited depravity. But do we ever teach inherited Christianity? That is, do we ever, perhaps unwittingly, find ourselves thinking or believing that our salvation is assured simply because we fit some societal qualifications for the term “Christian?”

          We have to stop and ask ourselves, why are we Christians? I already mentioned that there are a few possible reasons why some people profess Christianity: baptized at birth or raised in a “Christian” family, belief in a historical Jesus, maybe the yearly observance of Christmas and Easter. Especially, as the case is in my life, think about how being raised in a Christian family has affected you or your children. Are you a second-generation Christian? Are your children? One of the greatest dangers that we face as second generation Christians is that our sense of religion is not an individual one – we are not Christians because we choose to be, but because it is inherited. Having been born into such a home, it is only normal and natural to pattern our lives after what we are used to experiencing. We never come to the point of conversion to the faith, just inheritance of a religion. Children, however, do not yet have the capacity to understand the Christian relationship. They lack the spiritual tools to be “converted.” Notice something about a verse that we have already, Romans 9:11, which describes how Jacob and Esau, being still unborn, had not yet done anything evil or good. A baby, therefore, as innocent as it is – completely unspotted and unspoiled in its nature and conscious – cannot be a Christian. Even children cannot be Christians because they do not understand the level of commitment that is necessary. Certainly, most any child of a certain age can read the words of Acts 2:38 (“Repent and be baptized… for the forgiveness of sins”) and repeat those words. Any child can read the Lord’s prayer, or recite passages in the Bible without ever understanding what they mean.

          Let us look at a Biblical example, to help us understand the application of these concepts. Directed to a young preacher by the name of Timothy, Paul wrote, “I am mindful of the sincere faith within you, which first dwelt in your grandmother Lois, and your mother Eunice, and I am sure that it is in you as well” (2 Timothy 1:5). Like many Christians, Timothy was raised in a household that supported and practiced the faith of the Gospel. Notice a few things about the character of this man, though. He is, first of all, faithful enough that others would notice – when Paul looks at the life and attitude of Timothy, all he sees is faith and good will. Timothy wears his “Christianity” on his sleeve, so to speak, so that there is no doubt that people will know what quality of person he is. Do we resemble this kind of attitude? Let us never find ourselves ashamed of the Gospel that is given to us (Romans 1:16). Second, Timothy never let the fact that he grew up around Christians minimize his faith. He did not take it for granted, as so many do of all the rich gifts given to us by our Lord and Savior. His faith was an individual one, not entirely based on the good influence of his mother and grandmother, but on his own desire to seek the Truth. He never simply took “mom and nana’s” word for it!

          “You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing fro whom you have learned them; and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:14-15). Once again, in Timothy we see an example of a man who grew up around Christianity but never let that condition affect his beliefs. He followed God because he put the individual effort into the study of the scriptures. Also, it is significant to note the root from which “wisdom” springs in this passage. Is it from the wisdom of his parents? Is it from the influence of a local priest or pastor? Is it from television that his wisdom comes forth? It is from an intense and individual study of the scriptures that wisdom comes! Timothy always looked to the Word for his wisdom, never trusting the wisdom of men (Acts 17:11).

          Finally, we see the disposition of a true Christian in 1 Timothy 4:15-16, “Take pains with these things; be absorbed in them, so that your progress may be evident to all. Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things for as you do this you will insure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you.” Timothy was never told to listen to anything but the scriptures for true knowledge and the keys to salvation. Indeed, salvation does not come through inheritance, it does not come through empty ceremony, it does not come by having a good family name. Salvation comes only by the grace of God when we each choose to serve the Lord and look to the Bible for the answers to all of life’s problems! Timothy is an example of a strong next-generation Christian who never took his blessings for granted. The real question is, do I?


The Danger of Second Generation Christianity


          As a second generation Christian, what dangers do I have to face? The greatest temptation is that I will look on my “religion” with contempt and take it for granted completely. While others are out there sacrificing family ties, or even their lives in some countries, just to become a Christian, I have had it spoon-fed to me all my life. What I must consider, though, is what kind of second generation Christian I will be. Am I going to follow the pattern of Timothy, or will I be like the Ephesians?

          As for the Christians in Ephesus, I want to look at a couple passages to exemplify the vulnerability of Christians from one generation to another. Ephesians 1:15-17 says, “For this I too, having heard of the faith in the Lord Jesus which exists among you, and your love for all the saints, do not cease giving thanks for you, while making mention of you in my prayers.” In the years 62 AD, which is about the time this epistle was written, Paul could not cease praising the Christians in Ephesus for their faith and devotion to the Gospel. Less than thirty years, later, a new group of professed Christians dwells in Ephesus. Of these members, the Lord says in Revelation 2:4-5, “But I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you, and will remove your lampstand out of its place – unless you repent.” In only one generation, less than thirty years, the church at Ephesus had lost their first love – they had forgotten about the difficult labors of their parents in establishing the congregation and standing strong for the Gospel. They had forgotten what it meant to be strong in the faith and to love the Lord with all their hearts! Do we ever find this happening to us? It can seem so distant, at times, to think about the debate over apostasy two or three generations ago. I sometimes find myself taking for granted the hard work that our parents and grandparents did to strengthen the church and draw a line in the sand. I forget that at some point, a forefather of mine split from a denomination and took up his cross amongst the true believers (John 4:23-24).

          An example of this same second generation mentality is found in Judges 2:7-10. In fact, one can read through the entire book of Judges and find examples of this concept! “And the people served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who survived Joshua, who had seen all the great work of the Lord which He had done for Israel… And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers; and there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord, nor yet the work which He had done for Israel. Then the sons of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord…” In only one generation, the people had degenerated from a God-fearing nation to a home of idols like Baal and the Ashtaroth. If this does not seem close to home, then consider the situation in the early 20th-century discussed by Donald Townsley, “The people of God were not familiar with the whole counsel of God. They were not studying for themselves as they should, and the issues that were troubling the churches were not being discussed from pulpits of most [churches]. As a consequence, members of the church as a whole had no convictions against many practices because they had never heard them discussed and just did not know whether they were scriptural or not” (Trends Pointing Toward A New Apostasy, 5).

          The danger for second generation Christians is to think that their religiosity is inherited – that they have been “going” to church so long that personal responsibility and study are no longer necessary. We often cannot grasp the great sacrifice made by new converts in splitting from their own religious traditions, having had our religion served to us since the day we were born. Christianity is not our own religion, our faith is not an individual one. Once again, we must ask ourselves why we are Christians. Beyond that, what kind of Christian are we going to be? Will I make myself a Christian after the heart of the Ephesians, who left their first love after less than thirty years? Or will I follow the example of Timothy, who searched the scriptures on his own, was converted to the faith, and kept it because of a personal relationship with the Savior? I am aware that these are tough questions, but I pose them to myself first and foremost. I am susceptible to temptations and there are times that I give in. For any second generation Christian, the answer to all of this is self-examination and sincere faith.


Solving the Problem


          My intention is never to leave a believer questioning his or her faith. Rather, once questioned, a true Christian will be strengthened by the temporary discomfort. To truly break the bonds of the “inherited Christianity” mentality, we must bear in mind the exhortation in Philippians 2:12-13, “So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” We must strive to work out our own salvation, individually. Christianity cannot be inherited just as much as depravity cannot be passed on from an evil parent.

          I hope this lesson has been encouraging to all of us. It has been to me. These are temptations that I face in my own life as a “second generation Christian.” My faith can be strengthened, though, because I know who my Savior is. We can all be strong Christians this day – not because we were baptized as infants, or because we have been going to “church” our entire lives, or because our parents are Christians and we feel obligated to them. No. We can all be strong Christians this day because Christ died for us, and gave us the Gospel, and wants everybody, individually, to obey and live a life for Him!