In Elyse Fitzpatrick and Jessica Thompson’s outstanding book on parenting, “Give Them Grace,” they start out the book with the important distinction that there is a difference between being a Christian parent and Christian parenting.
Being a Christian parent is simply a father or mother who has been saved by God’s grace through their personal faith in Jesus Christ as their Savior who paid the penalty for their sin. Most Christian parents have a burden for the soul of their child and work hard personally or through Christian agencies (their church or a para-church organization) to put their child in a position to hear the gospel message. For too many, once they hear that their child has spoken a prayer, raised their hand, and can claim that they have Jesus in their heart, we all rejoice with the angels in heaven that they are saved.
I am not trying to diminish the work of the Holy Spirit upon the heart of a child for I agree with Charles Spurgeon who once said, “As soon as a child is capable of being damned, he is capable of being saved. As soon as a child can sin, that child can, if God’s grace helps him, believe and receive the Word of God.” However, it is a dangerous and even negligent for a parent at that point to assume that the gospel work ends there. Just as in my own personal life, I have discovered that leaving the gospel as only an entry point to the Christian life and moving on to “serious Bible study” led me to the realm of being a Pharisee. Not that Bible study in any way was bad, but I lost sight of how the gospel is the central message of the Bible. I grew in knowledge of the Bible but not as Peter exhorts in 2 Peter 3:18, “in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
Such a path for me led the way I parented my children. I taught them that God wants morality and that the real expression of our faith is in how good they were. The Christian faith is all about behavior and God is displeased with them when they misbehave and pleased when they behave. So as their father and God’s agent of authority in their lives, I was very displeased at their bad behavior (however I defined it) and so must discipline them, and I was very happy when they behaved (especially in public as it fed my pride in being a good father).
My children deserve the Christian faith Purple Heart medal for the wounds of moralism inflicted upon them. They survived my parenting because the particular grace of God touched each one of them as they grew in their own understanding of the gospel and the tenets of the Christian faith. Most of all they and their mother and father eventually grasped the truth that we all are radically sinful people who have a radical Savior who radically loved and continue to love us. So…they have recovered, and their mom and dad are certified recovering Pharisees living and loving in the grace of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
More recovery news to come…
“Give Them Grace” by Elyse M. Fitzpatrick and Jessica Thompson. Crossway; 2011
“Come Ye Children,” by Charles Spurgeon. Pilgrim Publishing, 1976
Christina Fox gets gospel-centered parenting. You don’t get to this overnight but it begins with the process that in your own heart, the gospel changes you. I have been away from writing on the blog for a while as other priorities have been pressing, but my plan is to present a series of how do we move from our natural, law-centered parenting to a more gospel-centered paradigm. Christina writes:
Cooking dinner, I hear the sounds of angry hearts bubbling over into stinging words. It gets louder, and soon someone is crying. Two boys come out into the great-room, red-faced, fists clenched, and both yelling at once. After multiple attempts, I finally gather that one had frustrated the other, who responded by kicking his brother.
I begin by saying, “Remember how Jesus said we were to treat one another?”
“I’m not Jesus!” my oldest responds immediately, his face scrunched up as his feet stomp the tile floor. He runs off to his room.
Sometimes, my children speak words that the Spirit has been trying to pierce into my heart for a while.
The pasta is boiling over. The water makes sizzling sounds as it hits the red glass cook top. I stare at it, knowing I need to leave the kitchen and talk through the conflict with them. I think of how quickly anger can overflow the heart, spattering burning hot drops of pain on anyone nearby.
Turning down the heat on the pot, I walk into the boy’s room, hoping to do the same with their anger. I find them both calm and playing with Legos. I get down on the floor, look my oldest in the eyes, and say, “I know you’re not Jesus.”
Deep into the Past
How often does a parent’s response to her child’s behavior imply that we expect perfection? The pharisaical heart has roots that dig deep into the past–back into childhood. A child can learn quickly the ways of self-righteousness. When they have behaved, they hear, “You’re such a good boy.” Over the years, they can grow to believe that the good they do comes from their own ability. When those beliefs take root, they can struggle with seeing their own sin. And perhaps even struggle with seeing their need for a Savior.
“Jesus called us to live as he lived. But he knows we can’t be perfect as he is perfect,” I tell my son. “That’s why he died for us, because we can’t do what’s right. Through faith in him, he gives us the Holy Spirit. We have his power living within us. That’s the only way we can ever obey. We need to pray and ask for his help.”
He nods his head, listening.
“When you don’t obey, remember that Jesus died for that disobedience. He loves you that much. When you feel the anger rising within you, pray and tell God you are angry. Ask him to help you to obey him.”
As a recovering Pharisee, I struggle with living as though I can earn grace. I know how the self-righteous heart can look down on those who don’t follow the rules. I don’t want my children to grow up with the heart of a Pharisee.
I do want them to know the holiness of God. I want them to know all that he expects, what he commands, and what glorifies him. I also want them to realize that they can’t perfectly obey him, and they need a Savior. I want their hearts to be grieved and humbled by their sin. I want them to run to the cross when they sin and remember his grace and mercy.
God’s grace covers even my parenting blunders. How grateful I am that his grace is greater than all my sin! I rest in his promise that he is at work in my children’s hearts despite my failed efforts. I trust in the story of redemption he is writing in their lives. And I look forward to that day when we will finally be like Jesus.