Remembering the Father in Fatherhood: Biblical Foundations and Practical Implications of the Doctrine of the Fatherhood of God
We have a great deal of instruction from the Lord concerning fatherhood, but, frankly, we need more than instruction.
[Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the Journal of Discipleship and Family Ministry, 1.2. Click here for a PDF version of this article.]
We are privileged to have direct commands from God concerning fatherhood in Scripture. We are commanded to train and instruct our children in the ways of God without making them bitter (Eph 6:4). We are commanded (negatively) against provoking our children to the point of discouragement. Scripture teaches us to saturate our homes with the Word of God (Deut 6:7-8) and make sure proper discipline is meted out in order to lead our children away from dangerous folly and into the peaceful fruit of righteousness (Heb 12:7-11). Beyond these instructions, we have the Proverbs, compiled by a father whose heart burned to impart wisdom from above into the heart of his son (Prov 1:4-9). We have a great deal of instruction from the Lord concerning fatherhood, but, frankly, we need more than instruction. After all, even instruction manuals are typically illustrated. While we are indeed thankful for any directions we receive concerning child rearing, we could use more help. We need a model of fatherhood. We need to see fatherhood in action. Reading instructions is always made easier by seeing a living example. How much better would it be to have a living example of fatherhood? Thanks be to God, we have such an example. We have the perfect example to learn from now that we have become children of God. Now that the Sprit has helped us, we can cry out, “Abba, Father,” to the only perfect father knowable on the earth. We call the living God our Father.
The thought of calling God “Father” is almost unthinkable to many people, including Muslims. Born into the upper class of the Muslim society in Pakistan, Bilquis Sheikh later converted to Christ. In her testimony concerning her conversion, Bilquis Sheikh remembers how shocking it was when a certain Dr. Santiago first suggested that she address God as Father: “Talk to him as if he were my Father! The thought shook my soul in the peculiar way truth has of being at once startling and comforting” (1). You can read the remainder of Bilquis’s testimony in the book I Dared to Call him Father. My aim in this article is to shake our souls in the peculiar way truth has of being startling and comforting at the same time. Specifically, we who wish to call ourselves father have direct access to the perfect Father through Jesus Christ, his Son. If we know Christ, we know the Father–a truth both startling and comforting to us who hope to be (in an earthen vessel way) good fathers.
We have many fine examples of earthly fathers. Jonathan Edwards comes immediately to mind. So impressive was the outcome of Edwards’s parenting that liberal scholars in the early twentieth century used his family to argue for eugenics (2)! The Edwards family produced more than six dozen elected officials, including governors, senators, and Vice President Aaron Burr (who was Jonathan Edwards’ grandson by his daughter Esther). George Marsden writes, “the Edwards family produced scores of clergymen, thirteen presidents of higher learning, sixty-five professors, and many other persons of notable achievements”(3). A letter Edwards wrote to his daughter Esther is sufficient evidence of the wisdom and godly love he instilled in his family as their father. Esther had moved away from the family and had become ill. Suffering both from homesickness and bodily sickness, she wrote to her father for counsel. He replied, “Labor while you live, to serve God and do what good you can, and endeavor to improve every dispensation to God’s glory and your own spiritual good, and be content to do and bear all that God calls you to in this wilderness, and never expect to find this world anything better than a wilderness” (4). The profundity of Edwards in his ability to offer both a soft warning and a strong consolation to his daughter during her suffering is manifestly available to us who have access to him through his writings. We can learn from the earthly example of Jonathan Edwards.
A less theological example is the fatherhood example of Dick Hoyt. Dick Hoyt serves as a tremendous example of what it means to be a father devoted to his son. Dick was told that his son–a spastic quadriplegic–needed to be institutionalized because he would never be able to function properly on his own. Yet, Dick kept his son at home, working with his communication ability and keeping him in school. Dick’s son was able to let him know that he wanted to run in a 5k fundraiser for a high school classmate who had been injured. Dick actually ran the 5k pushing his son in a wheelchair in front of him all the way. At the conclusion of the race, Dick’s son told him that while they were running, he didn’t feel handicapped. That was all the incentive Dick Hoyt needed. He has now completed 68 marathons, 238 triathlons, and 6 ironman triathlons while pushing, pulling, and riding his son through every step, every swimming stroke, and every pedal.5 Dick Hoyt is undeniably devoted to his son in a way that few of us earthly fathers know. We can learn from this earthly example of fatherhood.
Yet, for all the devotion that Dick Hoyt has shown to his son, Rick, his devotion does not go far enough. It is not complete. The devotion that our heavenly Father has shown to his Son, Jesus Christ, is complete. It takes into account all glory and every joy in heaven and on earth. Our heavenly Father has, in fact, now given his Son the name that is above every name so that all will bow down in worship to him (Phil 2:9-11). Just as there is incompleteness in the example of Dick Hoyt, there is incompleteness in Jonathan Edwards, too. For all the wisdom that Jonathan Edwards was able to impart to his own children, his wisdom was, at best, borrowed from above, from the Father. As great as the greatest examples of fatherhood are for us on the earth, they pale in comparison to the singularly perfect example on display in the nature of our heavenly Father toward us who have been given the right to become children of God. Nothing should be clearer to the Christian father than the fact that he has a heavenly Father who is perfect. The Father Himself should instinctively be the preeminent source of our attempts to embrace fatherhood.
Yet, there has been a reticence in evangelicalism to exalt the fatherhood of God. In his book The Forgot- ten Father,6 Thomas Smail argues that Christians have abandoned the doctrine of the fatherhood of God as a consequence of liberal abuses of the term, on the one hand, and a charismatic emphasis of the Holy Spirit, on the other. John Armstrong agrees, saying that “over the last half century the church has experienced a wide-scale remembrance of the person and ministry of the Holy Spirit. In the process we have believed and preached a gospel in which the Father has been all but forgotten.”7 Smail’s work is an attempt to correct the excesses and return a rightful Christian emphasis upon the father- hood of God. Influenced by Smail’s work, Armstrong argues that it is time for Christians to carry the doctrine further into the practice of the church to bring about revival (8).
Biblical Foundations for the Doctrine of Divine Fatherhood
If there is to be a revival of emphasis on the doctrine of the fatherhood of God, such a revival must be grounded in and formed by Scripture. Only the Word of God lasts forever without fail. So, for our understanding of fatherhood, we turn to Scripture to explore the instruction on this practical doctrine. We need not look far to find allusions to fatherhood. God the Father speaks univocally with the Son and the Spirit in creating humankind, “Let us make man in our image according to our likeness” (Gen 1:26, NASB) (9). This “fatherhood” of all humankind becomes paradigmatic of all fatherhood, as is clear in the institution of family. In the marriage of man and woman, there is both a separation from fatherhood and an expectation of fatherhood. The man leaves his father and mother so that he and his wife might become father and mother. In this manner, fatherhood is never discarded; it is always honored. No one is alive without it. The first man, Adam, becomes a father, begetting a son in his own likeness (Gen 5:3), and originates the rich human tradition of establishing genealogies. It is not in this genealogical sense of fatherhood that we are able to speak of God as the Father of all. He is instead Creator of all human beings, and, as such, he offers care and provision for all ( Job 38; Isa 43:6-7). God, as Creator, is, in a generic sense, Father of all. Yet, this general sense of fatherhood is not what the Bible is pointing to primarily when it speaks of God as Father. Speaking of God as a universal Father in the liberal sense of the twentieth century is an extrapolation of social theory placed back over biblical interpretation in the same manner a jockey places blinders over the eyes of his horse–ensuring that the animal will see only a particular course straight ahead.
When the Bible speaks of the fatherhood of God, it speaks much more intimately than any generic, Creator references can imply. In Isaiah 43:6-7, for instance, God does speak generically, of his “sons” whom he created for his glory. In the clear context of that passage, however, God is addressing his children, whom he calls by the individual name Jacob, and he promises to deliver them from their enemies by giving the enemies to Jacob. In this way–in the way of blessing his chosen ones with salvation and deliverance–God will be glorified in these sons who come from afar, whom he created for his glory. The Old Testament makes plain that the Father has a unique, chosen love for his son, Israel. Nowhere is this clearer than in the biblical account of the Exodus.
The Exodus account begins with the Father commanding Moses to confront Pharaoh, telling the Egyptian ruler, “Let My people go” (Exod 8:20). There is no hint here of confusing the “My people” in the story. Nei- ther Moses nor Pharaoh believes that God means everyone under Egyptian rule. It is clear to all parties that by “My people” God means Israel. Israel–the offspring of father Abraham whom God chose for covenant relationship–are the people whom God calls “My people” (cf. Rom 4:17). God the Father, in love, turns the fatherless Abraham into the father of many nations. The “children” of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob are children of the promise which God made to Abraham. They are children of the covenant. As such, they are uniquely the children of God. He is uniquely Father to them, as is made plain throughout the Old Testament (Deut 1:31; 8:5; 14:1; 2 Sam 7:14; Hos 11:1).
What is stated in these Old Testament passages is on plain display in the Exodus itself. In the dramatic clash of power between God and Pharaoh, it becomes clear that the Father is demanding his right to nurture his own son. Pharaoh’s folly consists of denying the Father his son. In fact, Pharaoh’s consistent hardness toward God’s repeated pleas ends with one of the two power figures losing his firstborn son. The heavenly Father does not lose his son. Pharaoh is the foolish, hard-hearted loser at the end of the Exodus encounter. Though Pha- raoh had suffered through frogs and blood and hail, he had not yet reached the depths of his rebellious despair. The final verdict made clear that this encounter was ultimately about a Father and his son: “Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord, ‘Israel is My son, My firstborn. So I said to you, ‘Let My son go that he may serve Me’; but you have refused to let him go. Behold, I will kill your son, your firstborn'” (Exod 4:22-23, NASB).
Already, our minds are racing to apply this doctrineof fatherhood to our daily lives, as we recognize one aspect of the father’s task to confront every earthly power which holds our sons captive. Even as the Father fought a victorious encounter with the world’s most powerful man (and his so-called gods), so, too, we will be called to fight against those who would hold our children captive to the god of this world. It is a good application. Yet, we must be patient because more is left to unfold from the New Testament–much more. Though the Old Testament has indeed revealed uniqueness to the concept of fatherhood, we do not yet see a fully individualized access to the Father by the sons of Israel. Instead, we find a predominantly cultic (or communal) concept in operation. Israel as a group was considered to be the children of God. It is not made abundantly clear that individuals understood the full implications of divine paternity.
In his impressive, six-volume work, God, Revelation, and Authority, Carl F. H. Henry asserts that familial intimacy exists in passages such as Psalm 23, Psalm 27, Psalm 30, and throughout the book of Job (10). Yet, Henry explains these passages as having derived from the logical working out of the covenant rather than from any conscious or formulated theology of fatherhood. In other words, Israelites seeking to be faithful to the covenant were seeking God the Father as children should. They did trust his care, provision, and promises. But they did not have clear revelation concerning the Father. They had Moses and Abraham, but not yet Jesus. Consequently, they did not have the individual sense of fatherhood which we see revealed in the New Testament. As Henry concludes, “Divine fatherhood in the individual sense has no significance let alone sure place in the Old Testament religion” (11). Before we make our application, then, we must wait to see the full development of the doctrine of the fatherhood of God as it is disclosed in the New Testament.
No one doubts but that the New Testament books–particularly the gospels–explode with copious commentary concerning the fatherhood of God. The fourth gospel alone has 107 occurrences of the term Father relating to God (12). But the New Testament doctrine, as we have seen, is not a novel development; it is, rather, refined gold from the furnace of redemption,having gone through creation, curse, covenant, Exodus, conquest, kingdom, and exile. The fatherhood of God for his son never disappeared along the way. It simply waited for the arrival of God’s only begotten Son for its definitive declaration. In former days, God spoke to his people through prophets in many different ways, but now, he has spoken finally and decisively in his Son (Heb 1:3). The Apostle John agrees with the writer of Hebrews, “No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, he has explained him” ( John 1:18). Jesus Himself made this plain when he said, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father” ( John 14:9).
Jesus reveals the Father. This fact is laden with implications for every aspect of our lives, but it is particularly germane to us as fathers who are looking to the New Testament for help. We come to a place of quiet sobri- ety in which we realize that Jesus Christ opens for us a reality heretofore unknown. In times past, men knew of gods. The Babylonians had their creation myth complete with Marduk defeating Tiamat. The ancient Greeks had Plato’s Demiurge. Eastern religions had an uncountable number in the pantheon of gods involved in creation. Seemingly, every culture and people has explained creation in some way. So, it is no startling concept to hear of the Christian view of creation or of the Creator God. What is startling, however, is the accompanying truth that startled Bilquis Sheikh-namely, we know the Creator God as our heavenly Father. Christ has made him known. Islam–with its unyielding monotheism–knows nothing of God as Father. Even Judaism has not fully understood the implications latent in the covenantal language. It took the Incarnation of Christ to display–reveal, manifest, explain, exegete–the comforting truth of the “Our Father.” We have a heavenly Father. This reality, at first, is startling.
For all the good we can say about a father, we should begin with the fearful acknowledgement that fathers can be a little bit scary. Typically (and by design) fathers are the more authoritative and demanding members of the family. Sons and daughters rightfully fear their fathers to a certain extent. The deep reverence children are supposed to possess toward their fathers is found in Jesus’ basic prayer instructions to his followers. He tells them to begin their addresses to their heavenly Father with “Let your name be holy” (Matt 6:9). We are commanded to sanctify or consecrate or “holi-fy” (if there were such a word) the name of our heavenly Father. Whatever we go on to say about the familiarity we have with our Father, we must begin such statements of familiarity with the startling reality that he alone is set apart in holiness. The Father must be allowed to stand alone in holiness. Such holiness in the Lord’s Prayer is an indication that our approach to the Father is more about honoring and revering him than it is asking for goods and services to be rendered by him. As Leon Morris puts it, “This prayer is not so much a petition that God will do some great act that will show everyone who and what he is, as a prayer that he will bring people to a proper attitude toward him. It expresses an aspiration that he who is holy will be seen to be holy and treated through his creation as holy” (13). Neither Morris nor we need to revert back to God merely as creator in saying such things about his name being hallowed. Rather, the point becomes for us the reality that we actually are able to approach the God behind the name that is set apart as supreme Creator and Ruler of the universe. It is the Creator God (and the Almighty Ruler God) whom we approach as Father. So, we must remember reverence when we cry, “Abba, Father.”
We should be clear about what we are saying with respect to fatherhood. We are not attempting here to begin with our earthly concept of fathers and transferring that idea to our heavenly Father. We are, rather, understanding that Christ reveals the perfect Father and, in so doing, instructs those who would approach this Father to do so with due reverence (rather than with a laundry list of wants, demands, or tests). This eternal reality–the reverence with which the divine Son approaches the heavenly Father–displays the norm by which we understand the reverence all fathers are sup- posed to receive. Certainly, no earthly father warrants the consecration due to God alone, but, still, God the Father is behind every other legitimate father on earth. Therefore, fatherhood itself is exalted, as it reflects the ultimate reality of the approachable God. Fatherhood is a holy endeavor.
What we see in the New Testament is that Jesus reveals the Father. We simply cannot begin with our earthly concepts of fatherhood if we hope to get to the right revelation of our perfect, heavenly Father. Though earthly fatherhood reflects the glory of the heavenly Father, it will never display him fully or rightly. Indeed, as strange as this may sound, we cannot even begin with the Father himself for our understanding of God the Father, for “no one has seen him.” Instead, we must look to Jesus Christ if we are to see the Father. In this sense, understanding fatherhood is impossible apart from devotion to Christ. No place exists in speaking of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man generically. The Father has children who are able through the firstborn Son to approach him. This is what Christ himself said: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through me” ( John 14:6). Fatherhood–rightly understood–begins with Christ. Preeminently, God is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Christ, then, reveals his Father to us. As Henry says, “The exclusive sonship that Jesus claims for himself is what enables all penitent sinners to experience moral and spiritual reconciliation with God. Jesus the ‘beloved Son’ in whom the Father delights . . . introduces alienated sinners to the Father’s love which they may share through his mediatorial work” (14). We come to the Father through the Son.
As we noted before, Jesus–the one who gives access to the Father–also gives instruction concerning our approaching the Father. He says we must begin with reverence and sanctity. Jesus, who knows better than anyone the depth of the separation between God and sinners, has made a way through his own death and resurrection for us to have access to the Father, but such access is neither casual nor broad; it exists because of Christ. Jesus has mediated the means by which we approach our perfect Father in Heaven, and Jesus says, “Approach with care because he is Holy.” With holiness as our groundwork for approaching the Father through Christ, we begin to see the glorious reality of the Father unfold, so that throughout his life, Jesus would com- mit himself to the will of the Father. As a child, Jesus separated from his earthly father and mother for a time because he had to be about his father’s business (Luke 2:49).15 During his public ministry, Jesus was devoted to the will and purposes of his heavenly Father ( John 2:4; Mark 3:31-35; Luke 11:27-28). And, at the end of his earthly life, Jesus famously prayed to the Father, “Not my will, but Yours be done” (Luke 22:42). As John makes plain, Jesus was always intent on accomplishing the Father’s will ( John 5:19). From his early journey to Jerusalem with his parents to his last journey to Jerusa- lem with his disciples, Jesus devoted Himself to do his Father’s will.
In so completely accomplishing the work which the Father gave him to do, Jesus proved what he taught his followers, that the Father’s name is hallowed. So, Jesus’ entire life on earth never outgrew the opening of the Lord’s Prayer. And Jesus, because he so faithfully consecrated the name of his Father, ended up putting the Father on full display throughout his life. Pleasing the Father was the preeminent delight and purpose of the Son because the Father alone was set apart in his perfections. What the Father commanded was the great good of accomplishing his mission. Obedience was not simply good. It was Jesus’ privilege, purpose, and pleasure. The dynamic of the Father’s will and the Son’s obedient delight is evident in the prayer of John 17. The prayer in John 17 brings into particularly sharp focus the per- fect union of the Father and the Son (vv. 5-6) and spells out for the followers of Christ what it means to know the Father (vv. 1-3). John 17 is an intimate engagement between the only perfect Son and the only perfect Father ever known.
Because of the profundity of this prayerful encoun- ter between God the Father and God the Son, scholars have had some difficulty deciding upon exactly how they ought to refer to John 17. D. A. Carson notes that since the 16th Century the passage has frequently been called Jesus’ “High Priestly Prayer” (16). The prayer does offer unique intercession (v.9) for Christ’s followers. However, as Carson points out, the prayer might be bet- ter explained in other ways such as consecration. Says Carson, “The most widely adopted [view] is as follows: Jesus prays for Himself (vv. 1-5), for his disciples (vv. 6-19), and for the church (vv. 20-26)”(17).
The point is not to belabor classification of the prayer, but, rather, to say that this prayer at the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry was itself quite consistent with the prayer he taught his followers from the beginning. Indeed, Jesus confessed that he has “hallowed” the Father’s name by accomplishing all of the work which the Father gave him (v. 4). And, again consistent with the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus prayed throughout John 17 (at the end of his life) nothing other than “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done.” Those exact words are not always used, but the ideas contained in those words are abundantly clear. Everything about John 17 is for the Father to glorify the Son because the Son has glorified the Father. And the glorification largely consisted of the work the Son accomplished by setting apart a people who would receive the revelation of the Father. In other words, the work of the Son was to accomplish the will of the Father. The will of the Father was to reveal Himself to a group of people who would come to know him via the redemption accomplished by the Son. Glorification would ensue in the unity and harmony of worshiping wills as the children are drawn forever to the Father’s eternal home.
Therefore–and this is extremely important in understanding the fatherhood of God–Jesus prayed uniquely for the very people to whom he revealed the Father. “I do not ask on behalf of the world, but of those whom you have given me; for they are yours” ( John 17:9). Clearly, fatherhood is about unique revela- tion in relationship. In heaven, just as we find on earth, the term father makes reference to familial authority over particular children. Most of the people who were alive when Jesus walked visibly on the earth never came to know the Father. They were also excluded from this prayer (John 17:9, 14). Jesus prayed for his disciples and revealed to them particularly God the Father. Certainly, Christ did what he did publicly so that all men are without excuse for not following him. But the mission of Christ was a redemption mission to secure God’s people for his glory. The will of God is not open-ended. It is purposeful and directed, just as the determination we see when earthly fathers work to provide for their children. In Christ, it is accomplished. The children of God have an inheritance in the Father’s house forever on account of the Son.
Practical Implications of Divine Fatherhood
Looking to Jesus for our knowledge of the Father (and hence our most basic understanding of fatherhood), we find three unmistakable essentials of fatherhood. First, we understand that fatherhood is the source of identity. Second, fatherhood expects unity. Finally, fatherhood begets harmony. So, identity, unity, and harmony are primary elements on display in the father-son relationship of God. These three elements are displayed in the prayer of John 17, as Jesus acknowledges that his position as son has been given to him by his father (vv. 1-2). The unity between the Father and the Son is found in Jesus’ statement that he accomplished the work which the Father gave him to do (v. 4). And so, Jesus could then pray for the full harmonious effects of his sonship to be displayed as the Father glorifies himself and his Son (v. 5). Throughout the prayer, identity, unity, and harmony are on display. These three elements, then, might serve as our own fundamental framework for defining fatherhood. Perhaps more light on these three features of fatherhood will serve to help us apply this doctrine in our own families.
First, the Son’s identity is derived from the identity of the Father. In one sense, the concept of identity is the most obvious of all. Even in earthly terms, the father gives his name to his son, and the son continues to bear that name and even multiply that name through his own sons. Likewise, Jesus is given the name that is above every name (Phil 2:9). He is the only begotten of the Father. Jesus bears the name faithfully. It is the Father’s name which is hallowed, according to the Son. The Father is set apart in holiness. The Son makes plain that his task is to obey and faithfully represent his Father. This is, in fact, Jesus’ identity as much as it is his task. This reality of his identity led Christ to a confronta- tion with religious leaders in John 8. The Jewish leaders first asserted that Abraham was their father (8:39). Jesus doubted that possibility on the basis that they were not obeying Abraham, and they desired to kill Jesus. The Jewish leaders then sought the higher ground by claim- ing that their father was actually God himself. Again, Jesus displayed the dubious nature of their claim on the basis that they were rejecting the Father’s Son (8:42). Jesus made explicit in this verse what was sometimes less clear in the parables, namely, that “If God were your father, you would love me, for I proceeded forth and have come from God, for I have not even come on my own initiative, but he sent me.” Jesus confirmed that he honored his Father and that the Jews were dishonoring the Father because they were dishonoring the Father’s only begotten Son (Jn 8:49). These Jewish leaders retorted that they were serving their father, Abraham. Jesus, again, corrected them, explaining to them that they did not bear the image of God the Father: “You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father” ( John 8:44).
Identity, it seems, requires that the offspring bear the name and imprint of the father. Bearing the name obviously involves more than just writing “Smith” on application blanks which ask for a name. Identity, in the sense in which we are speaking about fatherhood, requires an intentional name bearing which requires the offspring to display the character of the father. Thus, the offspring can be identified by his or her actions. When a group of leaders exhibit a willingness to lie and to kill, Jesus is able to point out to them that their father is the devil, a liar and murderer from the beginning. The pres- ence of an apple on the ground is a good indication that an apple tree is near. Likewise, the presence of deceit and murder reflects the presence of the devil, not God. Thus, reality demands that the son (or child) identify the father by his actions and desires. Jesus, of course, did this perfectly. We, of course, do not (so, James 3:8-12). Yet, we are not by our imperfections excused from the burden of reality. The Father expects the Son to identify him through his actions and desires on the earth. The perfect Son complies.
Our own identities as fathers must be exhibitions of the will and desires of the heavenly Father himself. Nothing is more important for an earthly father than that he be transformed by the renewing of his mind into the image of Christ, who himself is the image of God. The reason this transformation is so crucial is two-fold. First, this is our identity as Christians. We have received Christ and, therefore, have become children of God ourselves. If we hope to be good fathers, we must first be faithful children. Second, this is the only honest way to live before our children. If we are children of God, then acting in any manner short of exhibiting our Father’s will and desires is hypocrisy. The only way to be a Christian father is to display a great devotion to the will of our heavenly father. If we are not devoted to the Father, we will be hypocrites before our own children. As fathers, we must first realize we are children of God. That is our identity. Fathers must delight themselves in the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Unity and Harmony
From a very early age, we begin to ask our little ones, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” How many times has a child answered, “I want to be an obedient child who accomplishes my father’s will”? Probably never. The question is innocent enough as a reflection of our desires to consider the future well-being of the child. The question is good in that it forces the child to consider his or her own future. Undoubtedly, the question is reaffirmed daily by schools and counselors and relatives who assure our little ones that they can become anything they want to be–especially in America. The question may actually be evidence of our own imbibing the existential air of our surroundings, believing that the existing soul itself has the power to become its own preferred destiny. The question may affirm a course of self-exaltation which does not end with, “Not my will, but Thy will be done.” The question may reflect a hidden, un-Christian expectation that our children should leave our homes with the heart set on “My will be done.” We must instead teach our children first and foremost to unite their wills to the will of their fathers. How might this be done?
I know a wise young father who is seeking to train his three year-old to obey his will. I think he is modeling a biblical approach when he says to his son, “Isaiah, you may not play with that toy right now. Now is the time for you to eat your dinner.” When the three year-old protests, demanding to know why he cannot have his own way in this matter (and this three year-old is particularly adept at raising objections), his father replies, “Because I have authority in my house and over you, my son.” I think this is the correct response. It is more than a simple, “because I said so,” although even that might be the right response at times. Anyone who has heard the incessant, whining drones of a misbehaving three year-old will agree there are times when explanations should cease so that order might prevail. But in the instance of Isaiah and his dad, we find a model which we can follow. Isaiah’s dad has taught him three very important realities which will serve him well for the rest of his life.
First, Isaiah (even at the age of three) understands that all authority belongs to God. His dad has made him memorize Matthew 28:18, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth.” So, when little Isaiah is told–on the basis of his father’s derived authority–that he can or cannot do something, he is also taught that his little will must yield to that of his father. His father is teaching Isaiah to unite his will to that of the father who is above him. Second, Isaiah knows that his own father has a will that must be respected and that his earthly father is following the order prescribed by the heavenly Father. The heavenly Father has given all authority into the hands of Jesus. Jesus has all authority on the earth, and he affirms fatherly authority in the home; he expects fathers to do the will of the heavenly Father (Luke 11:28; John 15:7-11; Eph 6:4). Isaiah’s dad has taught him this from Matthew 28, and he has taught Isaiah that there is a higher authority than the author- ity of an earthly father. In this way, Isaiah is learning both from instruction and from example that our wills must be yielded to the divine will of our heavenly Father. And, third, Isaiah is already learning that in the Father’s will, he has limited authority now, but he is growing toward having his own home, his own family, and his own authority someday. Isaiah has already said to his dad, “When I get big, I will have kids, and God will give me authority, too, right Dad?” Absolutely right, Isaiah. Isaiah is learning to unite his will to the will of his earthly father. His earthly father is both teaching him and modeling for him the way a son unites his will to the father. Isaiah is growing up with both an identity and a unity rooted in biblical fatherhood. As fathers, we affirm the identity of our sons by helping them see that they should unite their wills to our wills. Together, our wills become one with the will of our Father who is in heaven. Together, we honor his name. Together, we unite under the banner, “Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven.” And so, whatever vocation is chosen by our children, it is chosen because we (parents and children) have discerned that this vocation is God’s calling. Obeying this calling is a form of uniting wills (those of the child, the father, and the heavenly Father). Such a unity of wills is our identity as children of God.
This unity of wills works itself out in the harmony modeled by Jesus in John 17. The third fundamental fea- ture of fatherhood is harmony. At the conclusion of his prayerful intercourse with the Father, Jesus prays that all believers will be united in the harmony of the heavenly unity found in the Trinity. The end result of this harmony is effective witness: “I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent me, and loved them, even as you have loved me” (John 17:23). In other words, father- hood’s fruit is revelatory harmony. Our homes ought to reflect the harmony of the Trinity. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one in will and purpose. Our homes ought to reflect that unity. It is the father’s responsibility to ensure that his home reveals the harmony of God himself. The father does this, as we have seen, by staying true to his identity as a child of God and by promoting through his teaching and his behavior the unity that exists within the Godhead. To put it a different way, the unity of the Godhead should be upheld in the harmony of the home. The father is responsible for making that happen. And how does the father make sure this harmony defines his home? He does this in two ways. First, he must live faith- fully to his own identity as a child of God, uniting his will to that of the Father through Jesus Christ. Second, he must actively demand–even enact–a unity of wills in the home so harmony will result.
This demand for a unity of the wills is a clarion call for fathers to take seriously the task of discipline. Discipline, as the three year-old Isaiah has taught us, extends from the heavenly Father to earthly fathers and from earthly fathers to their sons and daughters. The father of the home must insist that all persons in the home fol- low his will for the family. He demands such unity not because he has a hidden hint of Mussolini tucked away in his psyche; rather, he demands this unity because he loves his family, and he knows the greatest good for himself and for each person in his family is to obey the will of God. He understands the harmony (and consequent witness) which comes from wills united to the will of God. In short, he himself understands the love of discipline.
Hebrews 12 offers the child of God a promise that is, to use Bilquis Sheikh’s terms, both startling and com- forting. Granted, one does not typically read this prom- ise in any popular Bible promise books. But the promise is clear: “Those whom the Lord loves he disciplines” (Heb 12:5). Discipline is an expression of focused and particular divine love; it is reserved exclusively for the children of God: “He scourges every son whom he receives” (Heb 12:6). If one is loved by God, he will be disciplined by God. The nexus of discipline and love is inexorable in a fallen world. The reason this connection must exist between discipline and love is that the pres- ent course of this world is darkness and destruction. The rebellion of the natural man is so complete that he can- not know the way of God (1 Cor 2:14). Consequently, a radical reorientation must occur. The child of God must be transferred out of his natural domain and into the righteousness of the kingdom of God (Col 1:13-14). Our place in the kingdom as the children of God is not easily known. Like children, we must humble ourselves before our heavenly Father and learn from him what it means to be his children. He graciously guides us (by his discipline) away from the dangers and darkness of this present world and into the reality of what it means to be a child of the Living God. This is our identity in Christ: Children of God. And what child goes with- out discipline? Certainly not the children of God. God deals with them as sons, and sons are always disciplined by their fathers (Heb 12:7-10). Discipline does not have a negative connotation from God’s perspective toward men. It is positive.
Discipline is not negative, but it does, apparently, hurt. Hence, the child of God must be commanded not to faint under the stroke of discipline (Heb 12:5); rather, the child must endure the scourging. The language here is that of harsh correction such as one would find in spankings or some form of corporal punishment. But the method is not nearly as important as the impact of the discipline. Such discipline is reserved to safeguard harmony, direct the will to unity, in order to affirm and establish identity. God disciplines his children just as fathers discipline their children. When a self-willed child goes against the good will of the father, discipline must follow. So much needs to be said here, but cannot be addressed in this article. Suffice it to say here that corrective discipline (as opposed to instructive discipline) is reserved for use when a child goes against the will of the father. Defiant behavior or rebellious actions are what we are speaking of here– not accidentally spilling milk or breaking a jar. Of course, such defiance can often be masked with a smile or even in the cloak of obedience, as when the son in one of Jesus’ parables assured his father that he would do all that the father said and then went away without ever lifting a finger to do the father’s will (Matt 21:30). Defiance takes many forms. The loving father will address all forms of defiance with indignant and unflinching love so the child will know his will is not in unity with the will of his father. The issue is not so much about right versus wrong behavior. The issue is that the father is not well-pleased, and the son must readjust his will to the will of the father. There is a breach of relationship, a broken harmony, and the break is a direct result of a defiant will seeking its own harmful way against the good will of the father. The father must act swiftly and sharply and lovingly before the defiant will leads the child further down the road toward destruction. So, the father disciplines the child whom he loves, just as our heavenly Father disciplines us whom he loves in Christ Jesus.
So much more could be said concerning discipline and a father’s love, but here we conclude by simply restating what we have come to see of our heavenly Father and his great love. The Father establishes the identity of his children. So, we fathers must understand that we give our children more than a name. We give them an identity. They alone of all the children on the earth are our children. Hence, we expect them to act and think accordingly. The will of the father, which is a good will anchored in the will of our heavenly Father, is para- mount in the home and should be the will to which the child unites. Finally, the uniting of the wills of fathers and their children in the home makes for a harmony that shines forth in a strong witness to the goodness of our heavenly Father whom Christ has made known. Christ makes him known to us. We make him known to the world through the harmony that flows from our unity of wills as children of God.
At the end of our child-rearing, if we have done our jobs well, we will be intimately closer to our own children as a result of the harmony that comes from wills united to the Father through Christ, his Son. Such a finish is what we desire. Setting our earthly children on the eternal course of the children of God is the highest hope of our parenting endeavor, isn’t it? Our wills are united to the will of the Father, and that is all we want from our children so that we may be able to end our time with them on earth anticipating our time with them in heaven. Listen to the way Edwards said it in his letter to Esther: “You are like to spend the rest of your life (if you should get over this illness) at a great distance from your parents, but care not much for that. If you lived near us, yet our breath and yours would soon go forth, and we should return to our dust, whither we are all hastening. ‘Tis of infinitely more importance to have the presence of an heavenly Father, and to make progress towards an heavenly home. Let us all take care that we may meet there at last” (18).
(1) Bilquis Sheikh and Richard H. Schneider, I Dared to Call him Father: The True Story of a Woman’s Encounter with God (Grand Rapids, MI: Chosen, 1978),13th Edition, July 2000, 49.
(2) Albert E. Winship, Jukes-Edwards: A Study in Education and Heredity (Harrisburg, PA: R. L. Myers, 1900).
(3) George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 500-501.
(4) As quoted in Iain Murray, Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1987), 402.
(5) Dick Hoyt was recognized by the 109th Congress in a special statement from the floor calling him “The World’s Strongest Dad,” by U.S. Representative John J. Duncan, Jr. (R-TN) on June 23, 2005. Richard Neal (D-MA) presented another resolution honoring Dick Hoyt and his son, Rick, on the floor of the House of Representatives on May 18, 2006.
(6) Thomas A. Smail, The Forgotten Father (Grand Rapids: MI: Eerdmans, 1980).
(7) John H. Armstrong, “Reformation and the Forgotten Father,” Reformation and Revival 7:2 (Spring 1998) 8.
(8) Ibid., 8-12.
(9) All Scripture verses are quoted from the New American Standard Bible Updated edition.
(10) Carl F. H. Henry, God Who Stands and Stays, Part Two, in God, Revelation, and Authority, Volume 6 (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1999), 309.
(12) Cameron, W. J., “Father, God as,” in Evangelical Dic- tionary of Theology, Walter Elwell, editor (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1984), 408.
(13)Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, PNTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1992), 145.
(14)Henry, GRA, Vol. 6, 313.
(15) I. Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Exeter [Eng.: Paternoster Press, 1978), 129, points out that “about my father’s business” is a legitimate translation, though Marshall himself prefers viewing the original as a reference to the temple.
(16) D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, PNTC, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 552.
(17) Ibid., 553.
(18) As quoted in Ian Murray, Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography, 402.