My pastor before I went to seminary used to tell me, “If you cannot explain your theology to a six-year-old, then you really don’t understand it.” Of course, he was overstating a point and encouraging me to think hard about God and his Word so as to best communicate sound doctrine to others. Yet there was another subtle point in his words: children can and should be taught theology.
R. C. Sproul models this for the church in his wonderful series of children’s books. Yes, this is the same R. C. Sproul of Ligonier Ministries, the author of more than sixty books, and one of the men whom God has used to influence an entire generation of pastors, teachers, and theologians around the globe. Known for his clear communication of Reformed theology and engaging defence of orthodox Christianity, Sproul has taken the time to communicate some of the wonderful, deep truths of God to children.
These four books were originally published in the order listed above. The King without a Shadow was originally published in 1996, and The Priest with Dirty Clothes was originally published in 1997 with Thomas Nelson but has been republished in 2011 with Reformation Trust. This newer edition contains new illustrations and an added “For the Parents” section. This now gives three of the four books (The King without a Shadow being the exception) the look and feel of a unified series. These three have the same illustrator, Justin Gerard, along with helpful guides for parents as the books are used as tools for the instruction and training of their children in a family context.
The King without a Shadow is an enjoyable story about God as the one true king over all the earth and the only king without the shadow of sin. It is a story of a small boy during the times of knights and castles who asks his king the simple question, “Where do shadows come from?” In seeking to find the answer to this question, the king is led to discover the truth about his own sin and God as the true king.
Although the story is well written and certainly communicates a profound truth in an enjoyable way, it is lacking in a few (mostly minor) areas compared with the other three books. First, the story is rather long with several portions being unnecessarily wordy. Younger children especially may find it more difficult to follow. Second, while the illustrations are of a high quality and quite enjoyable, their different style than the other three make this book seem not to “fit” with the others. Third, the story lacks the setting of a grandfather teaching his grandchildren. The other three stories are introduced by a grandfather answering a question posed to him by one of his grandchildren. This simple feature gives the stories a pleasant, family-feel to them and helps one see how teaching real theology to children can happen in everyday life. Fourth, this volume does not contain a “For the Parents” section and therefore lacks a helpful tool to assist parents in providing substantive instruction. Finally, of all the books, this story lacks a Christ-figure entirely. This really seems to be out of place and is the biggest weakness with this story. The story does teach a profound truth about the nature and character of God and even illustrates man’s sinfulness. Yet with no Christ-figure in the story, there is no real answer for human sinfulness nor an explanation of how sinful people can approach this “king without a shadow.”
The Priest with Dirty Clothes is the next story in this series. In it Sproul teaches children the truth of a text that is a personal favorite to Sproul: Zech 3:1–5. The important biblical doctrine of imputation is powerfully illustrated through the story of a priest who gets his very special garments dirty and cannot stand before the king until he is clean again. Children learn from this story that they can do nothing to rid themselves of the dirty clothes of their hearts (their sin), but Christ (the king’s son) can take their dirty clothes upon himself and give us his clean clothes (his righteousness). The story is set in the context of a grandfather telling his children a story that has grown out of an everyday occurrence: they’ve soiled their clothes by making mud pies.
The Lightlings was my first introduction to these books by R. C. Sproul. My wife and I purchased this book when our eldest daughter was six years old, our son was four, and our youngest was about two. We immediately fell in love with the clear communication of the message, the beautiful illustrations, and the great questions it stirred in our daughter’s heart and mind. We determined to get the other related books and read them frequently to our children. Our children are now nine, eight, and six and they love these stories. Moreover, we have noticed that the older they get the more they are able to understand and the deeper they are able to think about the truths communicated. It was a joy to read each of the stories to them again in preparation for this review and solicit their feedback.
The Lightlings vividly illustrates the story of original sin and mankind’s rebellion against God. Again it is set in the context of a grandfather answering an everyday kind of question from his grandson. In the story, God is pictured as the Father of Light who creates beings to image him and reflect his glory. These Lightlings rebel against him and find themselves living in darkness with no desire to seek the light. Only because of his love and grace does the Father of Light send his son as the light of the world and draws some Lightlings to himself. Children learn in this story that only through faith in Christ, by God’s grace, are they able to live the life God created them to live—a life imaging him and for his glory.
The Prince’s Poison Cup is my personal favourite. Essential gospel truths are communicated so clearly that my own soul is refreshed every time I read them to my children. Once again, Sproul sets this story in the context of a grandfather answering an everyday question from one of his granddaughters. This story powerfully depicts the reality of Christ taking upon himself the wrath of his Father, absorbing the full punishment due to the sins of his people so they can be the recipients of God’s mercy and grace. Here we have a king who sees his created people rebel and in disobedience drink of the very fountain, the only fountain, from which he had forbade them to drink. As a result, the people’s hearts grow hard, and they flee from the garden paradise to build their own city, “the city of man.” However, the king, who knew his people were going to rebel in this way, had already planned with his son that the son would go to the city of man and drink from the poisonous fountain of his father’s wrath. The son would die, but as a result the father promised to change the hearts of his people from stone to flesh and draw them to himself through his son. The king then raises his son to life again and keeps his promise by giving the people faith to come and drink of his fountain of life.
Each of the latter three books in this series has been illustrated by Justin Gerard. Gerard is a talented and capable artist who has managed to appropriately illustrate the meaning of the story with beauty and clarity. The illustrations in these volumes serve to add a special clarifying force in communicating the message of each story.
With the inclusion of the “For the Parents” section in each of the last three books, they become more than stories to read to your children. They are fully developed teaching tools. Parents can read the questions and accompanying Scripture passages to help them gain a better understanding of the doctrines taught. They can then ask their children the same questions or tailor the questions to their child’s age, helping them to think more deeply regarding the truths found in these stories.
Let us be thankful for the gifts God has given to his church, not least those who are gifted to help parents and other adults faithfully teach the wonderful truths of God’s Word, and especially the person and work of Christ, to children. We are indebted to R. C. Sproul for his careful communication that draws in children and adults alike. May we follow his example and teach children sound theology and present them with a compelling picture of the majesty of Christ in the gospel.