Please do not think that, just because I am writing on parenting, I think I have parenting all figured out. The opposite is true. This article is the product of my own struggles to be a good dad who trains his boys in the way they should go.
Like all parents I have stood in utter dismay watching my children do the very thing that they had been disciplined for 30 seconds prior. And it seemed like the 100th time they had done it that day! I have grappled with the sense of guilt from having disciplined in anger or gone too far. I have felt a sense of hopelessness, not knowing what to do to correct a problem or how to curb a behavior. I am not a perfect parent.
Like all matters of life, parenting is a profoundly theological exercise. It is when we allow what we know about God, ourselves, and the gospel dictate our parenting that we see the results we so long for. A Christian parent’s responsibility is to bring the gospel to bear on a child’s life so that they might become disciples of Jesus. The question is, how do we do that?
Identifying the Problem
A good parent thinks properly about their child. When we bring that little bundle of joy home from the hospital, we think they are perfect. We act as if their lives are a blank slate of potential marked by complete innocent. But nothing could be further from the truth.
As a descendant of Adam, our children are sinful, fallen creatures with a bend towards evil. They are opposed to what is good, and at enmity with God. The Bible says we are born completely corrupted and utterly broken. It only takes a few months for parents to see the results of sin in their child’s life.
There is nothing innocent about a child, no matter how cute they are. They are bent towards evil and away from God. They are by nature children of wrath and under, not just the influence of sin, but under the righteous frown of God. In a word, your child is in a hopeless state.
We must think correctly about our children’s sin problem if we are to parent them towards God’s solution.
Identifying the Solution
I have one more piece of bad news. You cannot fix your child. You have no more capacity to fix their sin problem than you have capacity to fix your own sin problem. As a parent, there is something intrinsically wrong with your child that you can do nothing about.
The good news is that God has not asked you to fix your child. That is his job. Your job is to train or discipline them in the way they should go. In other words, your job is to lead them down the gospel path to the cross of Christ, for he is the only one who can fix what is wrong. Parents must remember that Christ is the only solution. Therefore, everything we do as parents should point our children towards Christ.
I find this principle liberating and game changing. It is liberating because it lifts a burden off my shoulders that I cannot bear. I cannot change my child’s heart. If I try to carry that burden, I will be utterly crushed by it’s weight. Only God has shoulders broad enough to bear that burden. So let him carry it!
But this principle is also game changing. It changes parenting from behavior modification to gospel influence. No longer am I trying to train my child to stop being annoying and only do things that are pleasant or moral. Rather, I am trying to reach the heart of my children with the gospel. I am trying to show them the excellencies of the grace I have received, in hopes that some day they will repent of their sin and believe in Christ . The shift in focus changes the way I parent.
Guiding our Children Down the Gospel Path
If parents’ job is to lead their children to the cross, how do we go about that? We still have a God-ordained responsibility to train our children in the way they should go. What does that look like? We accomplish this by doing with our children what God has done to bring us to a proper understanding of the gospel.
God begins the gospel process by giving us the Law. Long before God sent Jesus to be our Savior, he gave his people the Law. Law teaches us several things. It teaches us the holy character of God. It teaches us the difference between right and wrong. It teaches us that doing right is the duty of all men. More importantly, it teaches us that doing wrong offends God, violates his holiness, and demands punishment. Thus, the Law teaches us that we are incapable of keeping God’s standards, and therefore need more than right living to earn the favor of God. The Law is our tutor to bring us to Christ.
Good parents have rules. These rules exist to establish righteous living in the home. Yet no child can perfectly kept the law of the home. All children fail, and therefore must be disciplined. But as parents we must remember that discipline is not first and foremost so that they do not do that sin again, because they will. It is to cause them to look for a solution to their brokenness outside of themselves.
After Law comes grace. God knew when he gave the Law that no man could keep it. Thus, he established the sacrificial system to teach what he intended to do through Christ. Then at the proper time, God sent Jesus to be the spotless sacrificial Lamb who would deal with our sin problem. Through his death and resurrection, all who believe in him may be forgiven and have eternal life.
Parents should begin telling their children about God’s grace very early on. This theme should dominate the home. Bible time should point children towards Christ as the solution to their sin problem. Discipline is not retribution. Yes, it is consequences for wrong doing, but its goal is to show them love and how Jesus can and will deal with their sin for them, free them from its dominion, and give them a restored relationship with God.
Grace needs made visible. A few weeks ago, one of my sons was misbehaving. Its winter, so getting all that excess energy burned off can be challenging. As a result, they were in a lot of trouble and no matter what we did, we could not get them to calm down. With each mounting incident, my patience dwindled, and my correction became more severe. Nothing was working.
Finally, I sent him to the basement. I waited a few minutes, mostly because I needed to calm down, and then went to see him. He was sitting on a ball at the base of the stairs waiting for me. His head was hanging, and he refused to make eye-contact. He knew what was coming, and he was dreading it. I sat on the stairs and asked him what he did wrong. He told me, and I asked him what he thought should happen. He said he deserved the punishment that he always gets in these circumstances. In that moment, it hit me. This child needs to understand grace, not wrath right now; so I replied that he was right. He deserved punishment, but he wasn’t going to receive it. He looked at me in surprise as I told him I wasn’t going to discipline him. He knew he had done wrong and was sorry for it. I was going to forgive him and ask he stop behaving that way. He rejoined his brothers upstairs and, much to my relief, his behavior was greatly improved.
I learned more than he did in that interaction. I learned that my parenting needed to show more grace. I needed to be more like my heavenly Father in his dealings with me.
Children need law, but they need grace more. They need to see Christ as the solution to their sin problem. Where are they to learn all this? They learn it best from the bible. There is no substitute for the Bible in the home. It is through the foolishness of the word preached that men become saved. The Spirit takes the Word of God and applies it to our hearts. The best way to soften our children’s hearts to the things of God is to immerse them in the content of God’s word. This is how God ministers his grace to us. Why would it be different for our children?
Our parenting needs to demonstrate the gospel to our children. But all of us fail at times as parents. But where we fail, the never-failing word of God stands in the gap. The Spirit of God uses the Word of God to show our children that they are hopeless sinners. Yet the Spirit also uses the Word of God to show our children the all surpassing beauty and worth of Christ as the Savior of sinners and to awaken faith in them. If we truly believe this, we will make time to be in the bible with our children every day.
Parents are like training wheels. They guide and support while the child learns to ride the bicycle. But a day comes when the training wheels are taken away and our children must ride the bicycle of life without us. If we have trained them in the gospel, they will be safe in the hands of God. But if all we do is squeeze them into the mold of Judeo-Christian morality, they will struggle and probably fail. Our job as parents is to point them to Christ, remembering that he is the only one who can fix them. And we do this with humility, knowing that he is not just the only solution to their brokenness, but to ours as well.