I’m so glad you mentioned children, saying, “When I sit with my two grandchildren on my lap, my Reformed theology gets undone. The last thing in the world I want them to hear about is total depravity. Rather, I want them to begin knowing how much they are loved, and that in their inner being, they carry the image of God.”
May I suggest that, in the Orthodox Tradition, even young children can experience God’s love for them very profoundly as they participate in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, in which they are fully included, and during which there is so much for them to see and do. Colorful icons of Jesus and His Mother, and of Saints and Angels, are all around to look at, and to kiss instinctively; watching the flickering candles, smelling the melting beeswax, feeling the warmth of their burning, and “helping” Dad or Mom to light one; touching and kissing the cross on the stand in the center of the church, close to the floor within easy reach; watching the deacon or priest, dressed in gleaming, beautiful vestments, walking around the whole church, swinging a censor with little bells jingling and pouring out a sweet aroma of incense and mysterious twirling wisps of smoke wafting higher and higher; making the sign of the cross with the right hand across one’s chest, just like the grown-ups do; and in general, sensing that being in church is very different from being anywhere else—and rightly so, since every church is meant to be an embassy of Heaven!
The beginning of the Divine Liturgy is dramatic for children, as the curtain in the middle of the iconostasis opens, the royal doors there also open, and everyone looks, and through the opening the priest or deacon comes out and begins the Liturgy with a loud, ringing proclamation: “Blessed is the Kingdom, of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit!” And all the lights in the church come on all at once! Back and forth goes the chanting of the prayers, alternating between the priest and the choir and anyone else who wants to join in. It may be a bit difficult for the younger ones to stay attentive, but without pews in the way (the traditional practice), they can sit on the floor, and feel a lot less constricted, with a better view of everything.
The reading of the Gospel is also dramatic, as the priest, and those serving with him, all come into the main part of the church, and the priest holds a glittering golden book (the book of the Four Gospels) above his head, and then he stops and opens it and reads from it loudly in a chanting voice, while altar-servers stand before him with lit candles. The procession with the holy gifts for the Eucharist is attention-getting as well, as the priest and attendants all come out of the altar area again, through another door in the iconostasis, each one carrying something: a big golden cup covered with an embroidered cloth, a little loaf of bread on a gold plate, a golden cross, and other things. And then the priest takes the cup and the bread up to the altar that’s covered with more beautiful cloth, and he places them there.
When the moment comes for partaking of the Eucharist, the priest comes out with the cup in his hand, and he calls out, “With fear of God, and faith and love, draw near!” And the people, adults and children intermixed, walk up, with reverence and dignity, in single file to the priest standing with the cup in front of the iconostasis—even the infants are brought up if they’ve been baptized—to receive the Body and Blood of our Savior, offered on a spoon from that cup, to share in the mysteries of the Lord’s grace that’s far beyond all human calculation and comprehension! How eager the children usually are to be part of this, to receive the same holy gifts in the same way all the adults do!
Most assuredly, it would seem, God’s love has indeed been conveyed to the children during such an experience as this! They may not have any words to describe it, but surely they feel welcomed, embraced, affirmed, respected—even honored—and loved. All their senses have been involved, appealed to, and indeed, ministered unto during the service. And what greater gift of love could their Creator and Savior, the Lord Jesus Himself, ever give them than His own Body and Blood, to strengthen them with His very life in this way?
Of course, as they grow older, the full expectation is that within the nurture of both their family and their church community, they will learn so much more about what happens during every Divine Liturgy through their ongoing participation in this ancient, unchanging (in all essentials) communal worship—the very same pattern of worship in which countless holy people, Saints known and unknown, have participated through so many centuries and in so many different cultures across the globe!
They will learn more about the limitless love of the Lord Jesus, Who loved them enough to bring them into existence, fashioning them with His own image indeed embedded in them—the same image which it was impossible for Satan, one of God’s creatures, to totally efface when Adam and Eve fell, since this image of God in them was the pinnacle of all the work of the Uncreated God in creating the universe.
Yes, as Eastern Christianity has always taught, the image of God in humanity was severely tarnished at the Fall; people became mortal, and prone to sin. But their inner nature was still inherently, innately good, so they did not have to sin; they indeed did not become totally depraved. Each person still retains the freedom of will to freely choose to worship and follow God and obey His commandments, responding personally to His love by loving Him in return.
But even as there remains so much to learn, is it possible that even before they can articulate anything about it, children may sense, in their own way, more about what occurs during the Divine Liturgy and God’s love suffusing it than many of us who have not preserved the innocence and purity of soul of childhood enough to perceive something of the mysterious depths of the divine grace that’s poured forth during the Liturgy?
And also, most assuredly, it would seem, the same Creator and Savior Who has healed, restored, and sanctified all of human nature through His Incarnation; Who has borne and atoned for the sins of all of humanity in His Crucifixion; Who has reopened the entranceway into Paradise, for all who desire to enter, through His conquest of death by His Resurrection from the dead; and Who lavishes His love upon humanity perhaps to the highest degree in this world during the Divine Liturgy—surely He, Who also said, “Let the children come unto Me,” will never turn away any who ever freely come to Him.
And for children who experience from their earliest memories such all-encompassing love—and such a vivid foretaste of the liturgical life in Heaven (described in Revelation, chapters 4 and 5; cf. Heb. 12:22-24)—bestowed upon them by God in the worship of His Church, it would seem that they would be more apt to continue to cling to Him in love during all the rest of their days on this earth, remaining in trusting expectation of ever closer communion with Him, in love, for all eternity.
P.S. If I may add, from the Orthodox perspective, the shift in preeminent emphasis in Western Christianity from God’s love to His power, which began in the late Middle Ages through the influence of Nominalism, and which raised severe doubts about God’s unconditional love and His unfathomable, unalloyed goodness, was one of the most tragic turns in the history of Western Christianity. It’s our understanding that this turn has much to do with why, in reference to God’s dealings with humanity, Reformed theology seems to be more concerned with vindicating God’s sovereignty and power, as seen in the doctrine of unconditional election (placing the mystery of why all are not saved in God’s heart), than with proclaiming His unconditional love for humanity and His desire for all to be saved (placing the mystery of why all are not saved in the human heart), as Orthodox theology does.
And it may be helpful for me to add that my wife, Dr. Mary Ford, carefully traces these developments in her book, The Soul’s Longing: An Orthodox Perspective on Biblical Interpretation.