The Little Engine That Could and Teaching Children the Bible?

The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper is a book known to most young readers and their parents. The story is classic: a broken down train is unable to deliver toys and food to children on the other side of a mountain. Three engines pass by and are asked to help but each--either too vain or too exhausted--refuses. A fourth train, small and unimpressive, agrees to help. In the end, it is the determined willingness of that little engine that saves the day.

Watty Piper’s plot is simple, clear enough for even a child to see. So when my five-year-old daughter explained the book as: “engines that didn’t help and one that helped,” I wasn’t surprised. She noticed a need in the book that one alone was willing to meet. Her summary was predictable but the words that followed were unexpected.

As she spoke, my daughter’s eyes suddenly grew large; she sat straight up and exclaimed: “Hey! I know another story like this one, the Good Samaritan!”

I was stunned. My five-year-old had understood the theme of a book and somehow connected it to a story in the Bible. She read The Little Engine That Could and recognized a tale that resembled the parable of the Good Samaritan, something I hadn’t even seen.

Teaching Children the Bible Without Instant Gratification

Days before this moment with my daughter, I spoke with a children’s Bible teacher who struggled to see the impact of her work. Her question to me was this: “will the children I teach remember their Bible verses in a year?”

Teaching the Bible to small children can sometimes feel unrewarding. Often, their squirms and fidgets don't offer us the gratification of their attention (or understanding) and we can be tempted to question the immediate value of our labor. But whatever the feeling, parents and Bible teachers of small children must persevere in their good work with hope, joy, and expectancy. Here’s why:

Teach Children the Bible - God Commands It

We teach our children, even the youngest, the Bible because God commands it. In both the Old and New Testament (Ephesians 6:4), God’s covenant people are directed to disciple their children in God’s Word. Deuteronomy 6:6-7 gives this admonishment: “And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.”

Christians are told to teach their children God’s Word. They do so, not solely at religiously appointed times but, within the routine of everyday life--sitting, walking, lying down and rising. The natural and ongoing discipleship of our children is the fruit of our own love for God and His Word (Deuteronomy 6:5).

Teach Children the Bible - God Can Use It

Paul tells his readers in Romans 10:12-13 that “the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches [without distinction] on all who call on him.” This means that, everyone (even children) who call on the name of the Lord will be saved. This is good news and yet it begs the following questions: how will our children call on Him in whom they have not believed? “And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching” (Romans 10:14)?

If the regenerating power of the gospel, conveyed through the Scriptures and applied by the Holy Spirit, is able to awaken even a child, then Christians instruct their little ones with the hope of their spiritual conversion in view (Romans 1:16). In short, God can use our Bible teaching for the salvation of our children. And if we should know the joy of their regeneration, then we continue in our faithful teaching, remembering that God’s Word is the primary means of His sanctifying work in the Christian (John 17:17).

Teach Children the Bible and Show Them Jesus

Charles Spurgeon writes this in his book, Come Ye Children: “The things that are essential to salvation are so exceedingly simple that no child need sit down in despair of understanding the things which make for his peace. Christ crucified is not a riddle for sages, but a plain truth for plain people.”

Often in our homes and children’s ministries, there is a temptation to “relax” Scripture for children. Perhaps we think that they are unable to understand “meaty” ideas and so we point them to quick moral applications and good behavior. This kind of Bible teaching however misses the intention of the Scriptures themselves, which is to bear witness of Christ (John 5:39).

The story of God’s redemption of sinners through the person and work of Christ Jesus is the best story we can tell our children. Let’s make sure that they hear it clearly in our Bible teaching. And may God, by His grace, make that narrative the framework from which they engage with all other stories.

My five-year-old read The Little Engine That Could and remembered the parable of the Good Samaritan. I was surprised and then immediately encouraged. I sat down next to her and explained this: we are sinners, incapable of helping ourselves. Jesus, in His gracious compassion, is willing to save (Luke 10:33).