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Allie was having a rough night. She had already been disciplined once for slapping one of the pastor’s sons across the face, and she had just done it again, this time to his brother. Her mother was humiliated and frustrated. Allie was angry, ashamed, and hopeless as she sat in her room awaiting the consequences.
When her mom went to speak with her, Allie cried, “I don’t deserve to be out there with my friends.”
How would you have answered her?
Practically every parent on the planet has had a conversation with a child about the impropriety of hitting others. The question before Christian parents is not “Should I correct this behavior?” The question is “How does the gospel inform the way I correct my children?” Perhaps a more pointed question would be “How does my parenting differ from that of my Mormon neighbors down the street?”
In one of only two direct commands about parenting in the New Testament, Paul writes, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). Entire books have been written about this verse: how fathers can avoid provoking their kids and what discipline and instruction look like. But in all of our parsing of this verse, perhaps we’ve overlooked the most important phrase: “of the Lord.” This phrase would have shocked Paul’s early readers because Ephesian parents trained their children up in the discipline and instruction of the Greek philosophers. Paul tells Christian parents that we are to bring our children up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. What does that look like?
First of all, parenting that is “of the Lord” is dependent on grace. Because “salvation is of the Lord” (Jonah 2:9, NKJV), we know that we are incapable of transforming our children’s hearts or making them believe. So, rather than fussing, manipulating, worrying, and demanding, Christian dads or moms can rest in God’s grace, enjoy their children, and give up trying to do what only the Spirit can do.
Christian parenting is also transparent. As Christians, we know we are sinners. When it comes to righteousness before God, we are not superior to anyone, not even our children. We should never wonder, “Why would my child do that?” We know the answer: he or she is the child of a sinner. The gospel tells us that we are not warring against our children but rather alongside them, fighting sin together. It’s not us versus them but parents and children versus sin and unbelief.
Christian parents know the true function of God’s law in our children’s lives. God’s law makes them know their need for Christ, teaches believing children how to respond to the grace they’ve received, and makes them truly grateful for Jesus’ perfect keeping of it. But it does not make them good. Indeed, it cannot make them good, and we must stop expecting it to do so. Only Christ’s righteousness can earn the blessed benediction: “You are good.”
If our parenting is truly Christian, tethered to both the indicatives and imperatives of God’s Word, then we’ll need to pray. We’ll need to pray because we need help connecting the gospel to their everyday lives. None of us does this well.
Christian parents must flee from moralism and manipulation into the blood and righteousness of Jesus alone. We have to give them the gospel, graciously but relentlessly, so that they’ll know that there is a God who is as good as He says He is. Love them, discipline them, and tell them about Jesus.
Now, back to our opening vignette. Allie had just declared, “I don’t deserve to be with my friends.” How would the gospel transform her mom’s response?
Although her mom wasn’t thinking about the gospel and didn’t want to take time away from her company to correct her daughter or talk to her about Jesus, the Lord used Allie’s words to melt her heart.
“You’re right, Allie. You don’t deserve to be with your friends. But neither do I. I’ve been angry and embarrassed. I don’t deserve God’s good gifts either. But God is so kind, He doesn’t give us what we deserve. He gives us mercy instead. Do you know what mercy is, little one?” Allie shook her head no.
“Mercy is God giving you good when you deserve punishment. And grace is God just piling on all the good stuff you could never earn by being good enough. God can give us grace because His Son never slapped anyone. He can give us mercy because His Son was slapped in our place. Jesus has made a way for you and me to experience God’s mercy instead of His judgment. Isn’t He good?”
“You’re making me cry,” Allie whispered through her tears.
“Yes, God’s mercy is making me cry, too,” her mom replied. “Let’s pray together that the Lord helps us both remember His grace tonight.”
After discipline and prayer, Allie hugged her mom and said, “Mommy, now I know that God really loves me.”
Christian parenting isn’t a new method. It’s sharing the gospel you already know.