“Daddy, you didn’t say anything about twisting people’s arms,” she said, and I discovered how dangerous it can be to make a list of rules for your child.¹

The year that we adopted our oldest daughter, she attended first grade at a nearby Montessori school. There, she had some struggles when it came to interacting constructively with other children. To be specific, when things didn’t go her way in a play-group, someone inevitably ended up hurt, and that “someone” was never her.

Not wanting to be sued by the school or by the parents of my daughter’s classmates, I made a list of practices that civilized people generally perceive as unacceptable ways to respond to one another. This list included the many activities that my daughter had already tried—hitting, kicking, punching, scratching—plus a few that she hadn’t yet considered but probably soon would, such as detonating thermonuclear weaponry on the playground. Each morning, I went through the list with her and pointed out how God calls us to value every person as someone created in his image. Everything went quite smoothly for almost a week. Then, on Friday afternoon, I received a call from the school.

“Your daughter has something that she would like to discuss with you,” the school administrator said. She handed the telephone to my child, and the first words that I heard were, “Daddy, you didn’t say anything about twisting people’s arms.” And she was right. I hadn’t included that action on my list, and I was reminded of the danger of making a list of rules. Once we make a list, it’s easy to assume that everything we should or shouldn’t do is included on the list. As long as we stick with the list, everything is fine—or so we think.

Rules are necessary but never enough

The assumption that keeping a list of rules can make everything right isn’t limited to arm-twisting seven-year-olds. “Human nature after the fall,” a German preacher named Martin Luther once pointed out, “is no longer able to imagine or conceive any way to be made right with God other than works of the law.”² Apart from the grace of God in Christ, every one of us tends to lapse into judging our lives and the lives of others by lists of rules and laws.

The problem is that no list of rules can ever lead us or our children to life.

This isn’t because rules are bad; it’s because we are bad (Rom. 7:12; 1 Tim. 1:8). Lists of rules and laws provide helpful guides to reveal our shortcomings and to restrain evil, but they can never produce the righteousness that leads to life (Rom. 4:13; Gal. 3:24). Only the gospel can fill our lives with true righteousness (Rom. 1:16; Gal. 3:6-9), and God gives us this righteousness through faith in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, completely apart from any human effort to check off the items on anyone’s lists (Rom. 3:21; 10:4-13). “The law,” evangelist D.L. Moody once pointed out, “can pursue a man to Calvary, but no further.”³

As followers of Jesus Christ, we understand the centrality of the gospel and the limits of the law. And yet, when it comes to parenting, it can be difficult to see how the gospel should shape our day-by-day practices of guiding our children. That’s partly because parenting requires a seemingly endless list of rules simply to increase the likelihood that our children survive childhood! If none of us made any rules for our children, our preschoolers would most likely spend their days picking their noses with paper clips, sliding butter knives into electrical outlets, and seeing how long the family’s hamster can survive in the microwave. Even when children and teenagers grow older, they need limits to keep them from pursuing foolish and destructive paths.

The problem is that, sometimes, these lists and limits can become the primary focus of our parenting—despite the fact that we’re fully aware that no law can produce lasting joy in this life or fruit that lasts past this life.

I want to challenge you to ask yourself one simple question: What might look different in my day-by-day practices of parenting if the gospel reshaped my perspectives and priorities?

Before we begin to unpack some possible answers, I must admit to you that I am not speaking to you as a master who has reached a final destination; I’m sharing with you as a pilgrim who is on a journey with you. As the father of children ranging in age from second grade to the second year of college, I am struggling day-by-day to allow the gospel to reshape my practices of parenting, and I am reminded daily that gospel-shaped parenting is difficult. It nails our pride-packed human agendas to a bloody cross and calls us to a purpose far greater than our children’s happiness or success. Perhaps most difficult of all, it requires us to see our children as far more than our children and to release their futures to a God who loves them far more than we ever could. With that in mind, let’s look together at four ways that the gospel can reshape our parenting.

1.The gospel reshapes parenting by Revealing who our children really are

To see how the gospel reshapes parenting, let’s first remind ourselves what the gospel is and what the gospel does. The gospel is the good news that God has inaugurated his reign on earth through the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. When we repent and rely on Christ’s righteousness instead of our own, his kingdom power transforms us, and we become participants in the community of the redeemed. United with Christ through his Spirit, we are adopted as God’s heirs, and we gain a new identity that transcends every earthly status. Husbands and wives, parents and children, orphans and widows, immigrants and citizens, the addict struggling in recovery and the teetotalling grandmother—all of us who are in Christ through the gospel become brothers and sisters, “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17; see also Matt. 12:50; Luke 20:34–48; Gal. 3:28-29; 4:3-7; Eph. 1:5; 2:13-22; Heb. 2:11; James 2:5; 1 Pet. 3:7).
So what does this mean for us as Christian parents?

It means that our children are far more than our children. Our children are, first and foremost, potential or actual brothers and sisters in Christ.

Viewed in this way, our relationship with our children suddenly takes on a very different meaning. I will remain the father of my daughters until death, but—inasmuch as they embrace the gospel—I will remain their brother for all eternity. As a parent, I am responsible to provide for my daughters and to prepare them for life; as their brother in the gospel, I am called to lay down my life for their sakes (1 John 3:16). As a parent, I help them to see their own sin; as their brother, I am willing to confess my own sin (James 5:16). As a parent, I speak truth into their lives; as a brother, I speak the truth patiently, ever seeking the peace that only the gospel can bring (James 4:11; 5:7–9; Matt. 5:22–25; 1 Cor. 1:10). As a parent, I discipline my daughters so that they consider the consequences of poor choices; as a brother, I disciple, instruct, and encourage them to chase what is pure and good (Rom. 15:14; 1 Tim. 5:1–2). As a parent, I help these children to recognize the right path; as their brother in the gospel, I pray for them and seek to restore them when they veer onto the wrong path (Matt. 18:21–22; Gal. 6:1; James 5:19–20; 1 John 5:16).

Your children and mine are also eternal beings whose days will long outlast the rise and fall of all the kingdoms of the earth. They and their children and their children’s children will flit ever so briefly across the face of this earth before being swept away into eternity (James 4:14). If our children become our brothers and sisters in Christ, their days upon this earth are preparatory for glory that will never end (Dan. 12:3; 2 Cor. 4:17—5:4; 2 Pet. 1:10–11). Children are wonderful gifts from God—but they are far more than gifts. Seen from the perspective of the gospel, every child in your household is, first and foremost, a potential or actual brother or sister in Christ. Whatever children stand beside us in eternal glory will not stand beside us as our children. They will stand beside us because—and only because—they have become our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Does this mean that, once a child becomes a brother or sister in Christ through the gospel, the parent-child relationship somehow passes away? Of course not! The gospel doesn’t cancel roles that are rooted in God’s creation. Jesus and Paul freely appealed to the order of God’s creation as a guide for leadership in the Christian community (Matt. 19:4–6; Mark 10:5–9; Acts 17:24–26; 1 Cor. 11:8–9; 1 Tim. 2:13–15). Far from negating the order of God’s creation, the gospel adds a deeper and richer dimension that fulfills God’s original design.

2.The gospel reshapes parenting by calling parents to become disciple-makers

So what happens when parents begin to see their children as potential or actual brothers and sisters in Christ? The writings of Paul provide us with a hint. The same apostle who called Timothy to encourage younger believers as Christian brothers and sisters also commanded fathers to nurture their offspring “in the discipline and instruction that comes from the Lord” (Eph. 6:4; see also Col. 3:21). In other letters, Paul applied these same two terms—discipline and instruction—to patterns that characterize disciple-making relationships among brothers and sisters in Christ. Discipline described one result of being trained in the words of God (2 Tim. 3:16). Instruction implied admonitions and guidance to avoid unwise behaviors and ungodly teachings (1 Cor. 10:11; Titus 3:10).

Seen in light of these texts, Paul’s command to nourish children in the “discipline and instruction” of Christ suggests that Paul was calling parents—and particularly fathers—to do far more than merely manage their children’s behaviors and provide their needs. As believers in Jesus Christ, we are called to relate to our children just as we would respond to non-believers in the world or young believers in our church, speaking the gospel to them and training them in the ways of Christ (Matt. 28:19-20). God’s creation and humanity’s fall have positioned parents as providers and disciplinarians. Through the gospel, Christian parents have been called to become disciple-makers as well.

This process of parental disciple-making is likely to look different in every household. In my household, it means a family devotional every Sunday evening, intertwined with daily prayers and weekly discipleship times with each of my children. In another household, it might look like a nightly family devotional combined with spiritual debriefings after movies and sporting events. In still other families, it could take the form of songs and Scriptures memorized in the car during morning commutes. The precise way that you disciple your children is negotiable; the practice itself is not. This is not to suggest, of course, that Christian parents should become their children’s sole instructors in Scripture! After all, the Great Commission to make disciples was given to the whole church as a calling to reach the whole world, including children (Matt. 28:19). Consistent practices of discipleship should, however, characterize parents’ priorities in every Christian household.

¹This chapter was developed from a transcript of my teaching session in Men’s Leadership School at the Jeffersontown congregation of Sojourn Community Church on February 24, 2016; some portions of that teaching session were drawn from Family Ministry Field Guide (Indianapolis: Wesleyan, 2011) and Practical Family Ministry (Nashville: Randall House, 2015).

²Martin Luther, “Tertia Disputatio: Alia Ratio Iustificandi Hominis Coram Deo,” Quinque Disputationes, thesis 6.

³D.L. Moody, Notes from My Bible (Chicago: Revell, 1895), 152.

Timothy Paul Jones serves as the C. Edwin Gheens Professor of Christian Family Ministry at SBTS. He is the husband of Rayann and the father of three daughters. The Jones family serves in children’s ministry and community group leadership at the east congregation of Sojourn Community Church.