As Grandpa Bob drove into the driveway he could see his 4-year-old granddaughter, Julie, and a couple of her friends playing in the backyard. It was almost Easter and he wanted to know how much these children knew about the Easter story.

Approaching the three little girls he asked, "Who knows why we celebrate Easter every year?"

One friend chirped up first: "Oh, that's when you go sit on the big bunny rabbit's lap and tell him what you want in your Easter basket."

Her second pal's answer was no better: "No, no, no! It's when you get a tree and hang eggs on it — and you wake up on Sunday and there's presents under it and..."

At this point Grandpa interrupted and gently said, "Those are good guesses. Julie, do you know why we celebrate Easter?"

Julie nodded her head. "It's when Jesus was crucified. He died, and His disciples put His body in the grave. Then, on the third day, the stone rolled away..."

Grandpa was really encouraged that Julie knew so many details.

"...And then the entire town would come out by the grave," Julie continued. "And if Jesus came out and saw his shadow, they knew there would be six more weeks of winter!"

Understanding the Message

Well, at least little Julie had a portion of the message right! Yet my experience tells me that, when they are told the story in a way they can grasp, children are capable of understanding the message of Easter. This holiday presents a great opportunity to tell children of their need for salvation.

Many children are able to comprehend and experience the grace of God at a very early age. In fact, many of the great leaders of the church became Christians when they were young. It was said of Polycarp, a second centruy church leader, that he walked with God for 86 years before he died at the age of 95.

How old must a child be before he or she can place saving faith in Jesus Christ? C. H. Spurgeon, the great English preacher, said, "A child who knowingly sins can savingly believe."

I was six when I began to understand my need for forgiveness. I recall becoming so aware of my sin that I would lay in bed and shudder — afraid to go to sleep at night for fear that I'd die and spend eternity in hell.

So one Sunday evening I told my mom that I felt it was time for me to give my life to Christ. And that night, with a huge lump in my throat, I walked down the church aisle in a public confession of my desire to make Jesus Christ my Savior and Lord. I look back on that commitment as the most important decision in my life and am thankful to my parents for their faithful instruction that led me to that point.

Regardless of age, children (and any person) need to know the following basics to become a Christian:

Children need to be taught who God is and how He loves them.

God is holy. He is perfect. We are not perfect.

God is just. He is always fair. We are not just in all our decisions.

God is omnipotent. He knows all there is to know. We are not all-knowing.

God is sovereign. He is in control. We are not in control.

God is love. He desires a relationship with us; that's why He sent His Son. We do not love others perfectly.

Will they fully understand? No. But children do not need to fully comprehend God's character to be able to believe. They need to understand that He is the Creator, unlike man, and that we are accountable to Him for our lives.

Children need to be taught about sin.

I don't think we talk enough today about sin and the penalty that accompanies it — hell. These are not popular concepts in our culture of tolerance.

Hell isn't in style today because it represents a couple of things that are repugnant to many people. It represents accountability to someone in authority — and we want to avoid authority. It also represents absolute eternal judgment. Many people have a difficult time believing in everlasting punishment because they prefer to think of God only as a loving father.

God is loving, but He is not tolerant. He is holy. His justice calls for an atonement (a payment, a penalty) for man's sins. Our children must have some understanding that their sins can keep them out of heaven. Their sins must be paid for. And that is what Jesus Christ did for us on the cross.

Children need to know that they can receive God's forgiveness through faith in Jesus Christ.

They need to agree with God that they are sinners and cannot reach Him by their own efforts, turn to Him in faith, and trust Jesus Christ to be their Savior and Lord (Ephesians 2:8-9).

I remember the night years ago when I was putting my daughter Ashley, then 7 years old, to bed. We started talking about the second coming of Christ — how all Christians would be caught up with Him in the air. Ashley frowned and asked about her younger brothers. "What about Benjamin and Samuel — would they go, too? They aren't Christians yet!"

Well, Benjamin was in the upper bunk and his head popped out with a worried look on his face. "Dad, I want to talk to you about how I can become a Christian!" Within 24 hours, Benjamin asked Christ to be His Savior and Master.

It's interesting that all six of our children indicated a desire to come to Christ before the age of 8. As you approach this Easter season, may I encourage you to prayerfully think about your children or loved ones in your family who do not know God's love and forgiveness? What better time to proclaim the good news?

Dennis Rainey is president of FamilyLife.