Parenting is one of the most difficult, important, and rewarding tasks in this life. Particularly in a community that has been taught about the importance of childrearing, this can add to the pressure, fear, and disappointment when things are not going as we had imagined. But raising children well is a grace of God; it is one of the gifts the Holy Spirit gives to those who ask.
The Text: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother,” which is the first commandment with promise: that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.” And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord” (Eph. 6:1-4).
Children of the Kingdom
The Bible is clear that the children of believers are not future citizens of the Kingdom of God; they are presentcitizens of the Kingdom. “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God” (Mk. 10:14). Even this command to children to obey their parents, alongside all the other commands “in the Lord,” implies that they have a role to play in the Lord(Eph. 6:1). The Psalmist famously sings,“Out of the mouth of babes and nursing infants You have ordained strength, because of Your enemies, that You may silence the enemy and the avenger” (Ps. 8:2). Jesus also makes it clear that the faith of little ones is the exemplar for adults: “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3). Remember, David said, “But You are He who took Me out of the womb; You made Me trust while on My mother’s breasts. I was cast upon You from birth. From My mother’s womb You have been My God” (Ps. 22:9-10). Likewise, John the Baptist leaped for joy in Elizabeth’s womb (Lk. 1:41, 44). This is why Jesus gives such a stern warning: “… whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matt. 18:6).
The Culture & Counsel of the Gospel
Literally, the words “training” and “admonition” mean “culture” and “counsel.” This goes all the way back to the instructions Moses gave Israel as they prepared to enter the Promised Land: “You shall teach them diligently to your children, and you shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Dt. 6:7-9). We are to talk about God’s ways everywhere because His ways effect everything. To love the Lord with all we are is to love His lordship overall we are.
And we love His rule because it led to our deliverance: “When your son asks you in time to come, saying,`What is the meaning of the testimonies, the statutes, and the judgments which the LORD our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your son: `We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, and the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand… that He might bring us in, to give us the land of which He swore to our fathers’” (Dt. 6:20-24). The whole point of the law was to talk about God’s grace and freedom. The point of parenting is to celebrate God’s grace and freedom, and this means tons of confession of sin and forgiveness. We are Christians: this means we know what to do with sin. So the tenor of our homes must be joy.
The central task of parents is teaching obedience to God. We live in an arrogant and sentimental world that thinks it knows better than God’s Word. But young children must be taught from a young age to obey their parents. The same Psalmist who said he learned to trust God from his mother’s womb also said that he was conceived in sin (Ps. 51:2). Young children are not naturally inclined to obey, but they are designed to be taught God’s grace. “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; the rod of correction will drive it far from him” (Prov. 22:15). In the ordinary course of things, when Christian parents faithfully seek to drive foolishness from their children through spanking, God blesses children with wise hearts. “The rod and rebuke give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother” (Prov. 29:15). This is why regular, prompt corporal discipline is loving: “He who spares his rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him promptly” (Prov. 13:24). The rod, lovingly administered, is love, but the rod is not automatically love. Spanking in anger or frustration is not love; nor is it love to administer the rod long after an offense has been committed (worse the younger they are).
Related to all of this is the implied biblical advice: do not try to reason with young children. It doesn’t really matter how you feel inside, and feelings are often manipulative. Children must simply be required to obey right away, all the way, and cheerfully. They also don’t know how they should feel about sin; discipline is teaching them how to feel.And every trip to the “wood shed” (or wherever) should be accompanied by prayer, forgiveness, and full reconciliation/restitution (as age appropriate). Some toddlers will require battles of the will, and parents must commit themselves to winning. Sometimes this will require stretches of hours, days, or a couple of weeks of intense focus (dads, take initiative). Don’t give up; the peaceable fruit of righteousness is worth it (Heb. 12:11).
Conclusion: As a Tender Father
While Scripture is clear that children must be taught to honor and obey father and mother, and therefore, mothers have significant responsibilities in the training up of children (Prov. 1:8), Paul clearly singles out fathers here, instructing them not to provoke their children to wrath but to train their children in the culture and counsel of the Lord. We live in a father-hungry world because we live in a fallen world. None of our fathers were perfect, and some of our fathers failed significantly. Some of us are tempted to be harsh, and some of us are tempted to be indulgent. Some of us work too much, and some of us just don’t know how to relate well to our children.
So how can flawed men hope to be faithful fathers? The answer is that you must have a new father. The only good fathers in this world have a perfect Father in heaven. And His perfection is particularly evidenced in His pity: “For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is His mercy toward those who fear Him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us. As a father pities his children, so the LORD pities those who fear Him. For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust” (Ps. 103:11-14). Do you pity your children? Are you a tender father? This is not sentimentalism; this is Christian love. You cannot be a tender father unless you have the Lord as your Tender Father. But this is only possible by the Spirit of adoption: “For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father” (Rom. 8:15).
I’ll be speaking in Minneapolis this weekend. More details here.
New e-book Death by Baptism available here.