Sean McDowell | June 8, 2017

Do Christian Kids Really Understand the Gospel?

Do Christian Kids Really Understand the Gospel?

The longer I interact with Christian young people, the more I wonder how many truly understand the gospel. Of course, many know the story of Jesus, but this is far different from grasping the nature of the gospel. Let me explain.

One of the most common messages I give to students is called “True For You, But Not True For Me.”[1] In this talk, I define truth, discuss why it is so important, dismantle common objections against the existence and knowability of truth, and then help students understand the difference between subjective and objective claims.

Simply put, subjective claims are matters of personal opinion, such as ice cream flavor preference. You can have your favorite (which is true for you) and I can have mine (which is true for me) because the basis of the claim is the subject merely believing something. Subjective claims are internal and thus relative to the individual who holds them.

Objective claims, on the other hand, are about the external world. People can have different opinions about reality, but our beliefs don’t change it. Here are a few obvious examples of objective claims:

  • 2 + 2 = 4 (math)
  • George Washington was the first president of the United States (history)
  • A water molecule is made up of 2 hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom (science)

When I ask for participation from the audience, students rarely have trouble identifying these three claims as objective truths. But everything changes when I introduce an ethical issue, such as abortion. In fact, when I ask students to respond as to whether the morality of abortion is subjective or objective, typically 70-90% of Christian kids will say that it is subjective, like choosing an ice cream flavor. I have done this with other moral issues and the response is typically the same. What does this tell us?

For one, it tells us that our kids have been deeply influenced by our relativistic and individualistic culture. Students have imbibed nonjudgmentalism and are reluctant to tell others that they are wrong about moral issues. They have no problem making judgments about mathematical and scientific issues, but when it comes to morality, it’s all a matter of preference.

But with this said, I don’t believe students are actually relativists. In fact, I never believe someone who tells me he or she is a relativist. Why not? As C.S. Lewis observed in Mere Christianity, no one is really a relativist. People may claim to be relativists, but their lives will betray them. And further, the apostle Paul tells us that even people without the Law still know moral truth because it is written on their hearts (Rom. 2:14-16).

While Christian students do believe in objective morality, their confused response about moral issues being subjective leads me to wonder how many young Christians today actually understand the gospel. Do they really understand what it means to sin against a Holy God (whose character is the basis of the universal moral law)? Christian young people are not relativists, but I do wonder how many apply relativist thinking to their faith.

Think about what subjective morality would mean for the gospel: If morality is subjective, then there is no objective moral law. If there is no objective moral law, then there can be no sin. And if there is no sin, then there is no reason for Jesus to die as our savior. The gospel story rests upon the reality of an objective moral law, which we have all broken, and thus need redemption (Rom 3:23). If morality is subjective, the Christian story crumbles.

We must keep sharing the gospel with students today. But let’s not assume they really grasp it just because they respond with the right words. Rather, let’s help them see through the foolishness of moral relativism and clearly comprehend the reality of the objective moral law that is written on their hearts and rooted in God's character. When students understand the objectivity of morality, then sin makes sense. And when they understand (and experience) the reality of their own sinfulness, they are in position to grasp God's saving grace, which is the good news at the heart of the gospel.

Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, best-selling author, popular speaker, part-time high school teacher, and the Resident Scholar for Summit Ministries, California. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog:

[1] I am indebted to my friend and mentor Greg Koukl for his guidance in developing this talk.

Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author, popular speaker, and part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell, TikTok, Instagram, and his blog: