Four and five year olds are great. I typically do not teach that age group in our church’s Sunday morning children’s program, in large part because I’m not smart enough. To explain something to a four year old seems much more challenging than explaining it to a forty year old. It’s as if you have to translate your words on the spot into a language they can better understand, complete with exciting voice inflection and tangible illustrations. I can’t even liven up the discussion with my dry sense of humor either – at best, it’s over their heads; at worst, it scares them. All that to say that my hat is off to anyone who teaches this age group – you are geniuses.

So even though I’m terrible at teaching preschoolers, I had a last minute opportunity to do so this past Sunday. The subject matter was Palm Sunday and Good Friday, and the main point was “Christ died for you” from Romans 5:8. Of course, the logical question on such a matter is, “Why?” I’m not sure preschoolers ask that “why” question, but simply knowing the fact of Jesus’ death and that it was “for me” is not sufficient. So at that point I tried to introduce the reality of sin – that we have all rebelled against God and are his enemies. This would lead to the fact that God’s wrath is justly on us, and we deserve the judgment of God on our sins, which is death. The hope then is to point them to the cross as the place where Jesus died in our place, taking the penalty for sin so that we might be saved from God’s wrath through faith in Christ. Of course, I need to explain all of this in a way that a child can understand.

So I began with the question, “Have you ever done anything wrong?” If you’ve never asked a room full of preschoolers that question, you have to try it. I’m not sure if they fall into a herd-mentality and just follow the lead of one individual or if they all truly agree, but the vast majority of children sitting crossed leg in that classroom said they had never done anything wrong. Nothing. I tried to press them a little because I have a three-year-old: “Maybe you’ve disobeyed your parents or been mean to your brother or sister….” One girl raised her hand – finally, a child who understands. “My brother is mean to me sometimes.” “Are you ever mean to him?” I asked. She shook her head no. I love preschoolers.

I love them, but the lesson, in many ways, was over. I continued to talk about who Jesus was and the fact that he had died on the cross, but the crucifixion makes little sense apart from the reality of being a sinner under God’s wrath. I can teach that Jesus was the ultimate example of love, giving his life for us so that we would follow him laying down our lives for others, all of which is true. And I can lay the ground work for them to understand the depth of the message of the cross as they grow in wisdom and knowledge. But unless I talk of Christ as the atoning sacrifice for our sins, “Christ died for us” loses its true depth of meaning. His death becomes unnecessary when it is infinitely necessary if we are to be rescued and restored.

I hope this doesn’t sound like a rant against teaching preschoolers about the death and resurrection of Jesus or anything deep. I talk to my own daughter about these things, and I firmly believe that God can open the mind and heart of a child to receive the truth of the gospel and be transformed by it. But that class was a reminder to me that a deep understanding of our sin before God is absolutely necessary for a correct understanding of the cross. To hold onto any self-righteousness is to not fully embrace salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. So my prayer, in love, is that God continues to open the eyes of these beautiful children to understand how sinful they are, so that they might fully and clearly see the depth of God’s love and the beauty of the cross. To see sin for what it really is, beyond just a mistake or a character flaw, is a work of God, and to then embrace the foolishness of the cross is a work of the Spirit – at any age.