5 ways the gospel transforms your parenting – Part 2
Our goal is a kingdom that never ends, and our purpose in parenting is to see this kingdom revealed through our families.
3. 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.
4. The gospel reshapes parenting by providing us with a purpose larger than this life
A few years ago, parents were asked in a survey how they would know if they had been successful in their parenting. The most popular answers from parents were that successful parenting means raising children who are happy and who have good values. The response that landed closest behind these two had to do with whether the child was vocationally successful.1 If this survey rightly represents parents’ real priorities, fathers and mothers are focused on raising children who act good, feel good, and are financially successful.
Morality, happiness, and success aren’t bad, of course—but they make miserable goals for parenting. When these goals become our definition of successful parenting, the gospel is no longer shaping our day-by-day parental practices. Apart from the gospel of Jesus Christ, a focus on good morals tends to result either in self-righteousness or rebellion in our children. Financial success can’t guarantee lasting joy or peace, and what makes our children happy in the short term may not be what aims them toward Jesus Christ in the long term. None of these values lasts past this life. And yet, these are the dominant values in our culture when it comes to parenting.
Now, if children were nothing more than a gift for this life, a single-minded focus on children’s happiness and success might actually make sense. As long as the family’s frenetic schedule secures a spot for the child in a top-tier university, forfeiting intentional spiritual formation for the sake of competitive sports leagues and advanced-placement classes would be understandable—if children were a gift for this life only. Working round-the-clock would be plausible, provided that your children’s friends are visibly impressed with the house you can barely afford. If children were a gift for this life only, it might make sense to raise children with calendars that are full but souls that are empty, captives of the deadly delusion that their value depends on what they accomplish here and now.
But the gospel calls us to seek a purpose for our children that’s far larger than this life.
Even before humanity’s fall into sin, God designed the raising of children to serve as a means for the multiplication of his manifest glory around the globe (Gen. 1:26–28). A few bites of forbidden fruit, raising Cain as well as Abel, and a worship service that ended in fratricide took their toll on that first family—but God refused to give up on his first purpose to turn the family into a means for the revelation of his glory. God promised that, through the offspring of Eve, he would send a Redeemer to crush the satanic serpent’s skull and to flood the earth with glory divine (Gen. 3:15; 4:1, 25; Hab. 2:14). From the beginning to end of God’s plan, the family has been his chosen pathway for the defeat of the darkness, the revelation of his glory, and the passing of his story from one generation to the next.
What this means practically is that we should view our children in light of a larger purpose, as potential bearers of the gospel to generations as yet unborn. In God’s good design, our children will most likely raise children who will in turn beget more children. How we mold our children’s souls while they reside in our households will shape the lives of children who have yet to draw their first gasp of air (Ps. 78:6–7). That’s why our primary purpose for our children must not be anything so small and miserable as temporary success.
“For what does it profit someone if he gains the world world but loses his soul?” Jesus asked his first followers (Mark 8:36). When it comes to our children, we might ask a similar question: What does it profit your child to gain an academic scholarship and yet never experience consistent prayer and devotional times with his parents? What will it profit my child to succeed in a sport and yet never know the rhythms of a home where we are willing to release any dream at any moment if we become too busy to disciple one another? What will it profit the children all around us in our churches if they are accepted into the finest colleges and yet never leverage their lives for the sake of proclaiming the gospel to the nations?
In the beginning, God infused humanity with a yearning for eternity (Eccl. 3:11). If the scope of our vision for our lives or for the lives of our children shrinks any smaller than eternity, our thirst for eternity will drive us to attempt to fill the emptiness with a multitude of lesser goals and lower gods—including the fleeting happiness and success of our children. When the happiness and success of children becomes the controlling framework for life, parents expect their children to have, to do, and to be more than anyone else, and they are willing to sacrifice family discipleship and the proclamation of the gospel to achieve this objective.
I am not suggesting that successes in academics or athletics or vocation somehow stand outside God’s good plan. Learning and play are joys that God himself wove into the very fabric of creation. Although cursed in the fall, work was also part of God’s good design before the fall (Gen. 2:15; 3:17–23). And yet, whenever any activity—no matter how good it may be—becomes amplified to the point that no margin remains for family members to disciple one another or to share the gospel in the world around us, a divinely-designed joy has been distorted into a devil-spawned idol. Our purpose in everything that we do as parents should be to leverage our children’s lives to advance God’s kingdom so that people in every tribe and every nation gain the opportunity to respond in faith to the rightful King of kings.
There are a couple of clauses that I have repeated over and over throughout my children’s lives, particularly when they’re considering vocational possibilities. What I’ve said to them is simply this: “I would rather have you on the other side of the world seeking God’s glory than in a house next door to me seeking your glory, and I would rather have you in a grave in God’s will than in a mansion resisting God’s will.” A few weeks ago, one of my children put these statements to the test.
Our oldest daughter had chosen counseling as her major before starting college, and she was halfway through her first semester of the degree. One afternoon, she met me at a coffee shop, and we began to talk about how she might use her education in the future.
“Dad,” she said after a few minutes, “did you know I’m not in the degree program I’m supposed to be?”
“No,” I said, with a bit of confusion. “What degree should you be in?”
“I’m supposed to be in missions, but I don’t know if I want to be that far from my family.”
This admission opened a door in our conversation, and we stepped through it ever so gingerly, exploring a calling that my daughter had sensed for some time. There were a few tears and a lot of questions, but in the end she settled on switching in her degree from counseling to global studies.
As we got up from our table, she said to me, “You always said you’d rather me be on the other side of the world in God’s will than to be right next to you outside God’s will, but I never knew if that was for real or not.”
The only honest answer I could give her was this: “Neither did I. But I hoped it was; I always hoped.”
God calls us—just as he called our father Abraham—to be willing to release every longing for our children’s safety and success for the sake of obedience to God’s Word (Gen. 22:2–18). Not every child will—or should—grow up to be a missionary on the other side of the world. But every child is called to place God’s kingdom first wherever they are, and every Christian parent is called to be willing to seek the spread of God’s kingdom above and beyond every earthly comfort or success. This attitude does not come to us easily. In fact, this willingness doesn’t come from us at all! Nothing less than the work of God through his Holy Spirit can create this willingness within us. And yet, what God asks of us in releasing our children to join his mission is no less than what he himself has already done in Jesus Christ: “He…did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all” (Rom. 8:32).
5. The gospel reshapes parenting by freeing us from the delusion that our value depends on our parenting
The longer I’ve been a parent, the more I’ve found myself taking refuge in one final truth about the gospel and parenting. The truth that has become my refuge is simply this: Because of the grace that comes through the gospel, God’s disposition toward me does not depend on how I perform as a parent. I did nothing to gain God’s favor, and there’s nothing I can do to keep God’s favor. Through faith, I have been adopted in Christ (Rom. 8:15-17; Gal. 3:26). Because I am in Christ, God the Father can never think anything less of me than he thinks of his beloved Son, Jesus Christ.
So what does this truth have to do with parenting?
Meditate for a moment on the implications of this truth: Because of the gospel, God’s approval of you doesn’t depend on whether you provide your children with everything that everyone else thinks they need. God’s approval of you doesn’t depend on how your children act in the checkout line at the grocery store. It doesn’t depend on whether your children grow up breastfed, potty-trained by two years old, classically educated, and protected from artificial preservatives. It doesn’t even depend on whether your children persist in the faith past the pomp and circumstance of their high school graduations. The good news of the gospel declares that God’s approval of you doesn’t depend on anything you do; it depends solely on what Christ has already done. All that any of us must do—which is really no “doing” at all—is to receive what God in Christ has already done.
The implications of this simple truth for parenting are staggering, and I desperately need to be reminded of these implications every day. Because we no longer have to prove ourselves right through our perfect performances, we can humble ourselves and ask our family’s forgiveness when we fail. When we feel overwhelmed as parents, we can cry out for help. When we say no to commitments that would consume our calendars and our souls, we can do so without the guilt and fear that grow out of our desperate yearning for others’ approval. We can be set free from our nagging desire to demonstrate our own righteousness by demanding that other parents measure up to our family’s standards. We can guide our children toward Christ from a foundation of joy and rest, knowing that God has already delivered to us everything that he demands from us.
There is no list of rules for gospel-shaped parenting, with items you can check off as you complete them. There is, however, Christ himself, who has given us his Word, his Spirit, his people, and his gospel. In all of this, our goal is not merely getting to the end of the day with the same number of children we had at the beginning of the day. Our goal is a kingdom that never ends, and our purpose in parenting is to see this kingdom revealed through our families.
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.