Is there a method of parenting so effective that it will erase the sin nature in our children?
- Short answer? “No.”
And if you don’t get this, it’s very possible that you’ll expect more from parenting than it can deliver. But here’s the tricky part: parenting matters! It’s possible to be a good parent or to be a terrible parent.
Parenting makes a difference!
- Yet how much is parenting meant to provide?
- How much can we actually do for our children?
I see too much formula thinking when it comes to parenting — especially among Christians. Formula in; product out! Or, so we hope.
- If only we had the right recipe!
- We want so much to believe that we can “get it right.”
- We want the proverb about parenting to be an ironclad promise, not a generalized observation.
You know the proverb: “Train up a child in the way he should go, Even when he is old he will not depart from it” (22:6). Or the proverb, “Discipline your children, and they will give you peace of mind and will make your heart glad” (29:17).
So what do I say to parents who are broken hearted over a wayward son and tell me they thought they did everything the right way in raising him? Is it possible to do a good job parenting and end up with wayward children? We are God’s children. Do we go astray? Does God have any wayward sons and daughters? We are all wayward children!
My personal journey
I have no doubt that I approach this subject very differently from when I had small children. Raising four children to adulthood has seasoned my thinking. More importantly, it has forced my theology to merge with my reality.
What does theology have to do with parenting?
Much more than most realize. And since you asked, let me explain.
- The human story started out as a good story. In fact, God said it was “very good.” “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). But God’s good beginning went bad.
- When the first humans rejected God’s loving rule and declared their independence from His authority, the good story (our story) went bad.
- And it got so bad that God said, “every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time” (Genesis 6:5).
- God brought swift judgment to clean up the earth but even after His judgment, in a sad moment of divine concession, God declared, “every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood” (Genesis 8:21, see: Life Under Divine Concession).
Another proverb tells us that, “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child” (22:15).
The apostle wrote, “just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). Ever since things went bad, each person has been born “dead in their transgressions and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). (Not born into a good family)
Our only hope is in God seeking us (and our children) for salvation because no one seeks after God (Genesis 3:8-9; Romans 3:10).
Most Christian parents know that they cannot “parent” their children into salvation.
But how much do they realize that salvation is God’s gift to mercy-pleading, chest-beating, self-confessed sinners? (see: Luke 18:9-14).
Most Christian parents don’t want to raise self-congratulating Pharisees who look on others with contempt. But they want their children to “be good.” So how can we raise them to do what is right without being proud of themselves or thinking that they can be good enough for God?
Christian parents want their children to experience God’s mercy and grace in Jesus Christ but they know they cannot “parent” them into this experience.
This is where things can get a little interesting.
The grace-story of the gospel enters when we personalizes the back-story of human depravity. So how do our children come to see and know that they are depraved — lost sinners in need of rescue? Can we lead them to make good and wise choices without believing that it gives them credit with God?
We lead them away from bad behavior yet want them to turn to God’s grace as the only hope of salvation.
Grace is not amazing to a list-building, self-righteous Pharisee.
Those who consider themselves to be generally good don’t plead for God’s mercy and go home justified by God. They don’t get it.
Their eyes remain blind until the God “who said, “Let light shine out of darkness, makes his light shine in their hearts to give us them light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ” (II Corinthians 4:6). Then they will realize that God has chosen mere “jars of clay” for His treasure and that He did this so that the “all-surpassing power is from God and not from us” (II Corinthians 4:7).
It can’t be from us! We are powerless.
- “…just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6).
- We can and should teach this to our children.
- But we must model it by daily leaning into God’s grace.
- Let them see you repent.
Always remember that only God can cause us to see the need for saving grace. God specializes in lavishing His grace on chest-beating, mercy-pleading, self-confessed sinners.
What am I saying?
Am I suggesting that our children must go out and behave wickedly to be ready for the gospel? No. And if you entertained this thought, you really don’t get it. Each one of us is born anchored to our heritage of sin. Apart from the intervention of God’s grace in Christ, as one writer put it, “Our teleology is our archeology” (Paul Zahl, Grace in Practice).
Total depravity or Pervasive depravity?
Human depravity is pervasive to our entire being from the moment we enter the world.
It knows no borders in the human being. It spreads to every atom. But this does not mean that we will always act as badly as we can. It means we will always (apart from God’s grace) be as bad off as we can be.
As parents, we must teach this to our children. We must point them to God’s solution when we discipline them for the wrongs they do. In all character training, we must tell them that only God can change our hearts. We correct behavior and address heart issues. Only God changes hearts and gives a new heart!
Tell them your story in the context of THE story.
- Start with God’s good creation. Tell them how and why it went bad.
- Expose our common connection to the back-story of human depravity.
- Lead them to understand the grace of God in Christ.
- They will take steps toward this. Don’t rely too much on them “accepting Jesus.”
Rarely do they really get it at a young age. Be patient, teach, invite but don’t assume that they’ve “accepted Jesus” and all is fine.
So what is the One thing a parent should not say?
When our children do sinful things, we should not say, “I can’t believe you did that!”
- We might ask, “What were you thinking?” or say, “That was very wrong of you!”
- But in saying, “I can’t believe you did that,” we risk minimizing what Scripture emphasizes about the depravity of our hearts.
- The gospel is good news because of how bad the bad news actually is.
- We all have the capacity to do very evil things. We all need God’s grace.
Believe this gospel. Live this gospel. Teach this gospel to your children.