We have urged that understanding the doctrine of original sin is the key to Christian parenting. Mothers and fathers need to understand that their children are from birth both guilty and corrupt; they have inherited both condemnation and depravity. This unsentimental, open-eyed view of one’s children will help to ensure a disciplined home: parents will require first-time obedience; they will forbid backtalk, whining, and tantrums; and they will insist upon conformity to the family schedule and routines. Children will thereby quickly learn that they are not the center of the universe and all things do not exist to serve them. By saying these things we are saying nothing new, as can be seen by the language of the traditional baptismal vows.
Once the reality of original sin truly has sunk in, one is ready to follow through on the second and yet most important principle of Christian parenting: relying on God’s grace. Weaken the doctrine of original sin and one may settle for “Pelagian Child-Rearing” or “Arminian Child-Rearing.” In other words, if the impact of sin is not so bad, grace is not so needed. However, if sin’s corrupting effects are immediate upon conception and pervasive, an ocean of grace is needed if our children are to be savingly reared. This conviction lies behind the first parental baptismal vow as stated in the Presbyterian Church in America’s Book of Church Order:
Do you acknowledge your child’s need of the cleansing blood of Jesus Christ, and the renewing grace of the Holy Spirit?
This vow assumes what we’ve emphasized thus far: the doctrine of pervasive human guilt and corruption. What are parents acknowledging? Their child’s “need of the cleansing blood of Jesus Christ, and the renewing grace of the Holy Spirit.” Do they, as infants, really need all that? Indeed. Why? Because they are born guilty sinners, born selfish and demanding, born idolaters of self.
John Gerstner tells the story of guest-preaching at a Presbyterian church on the occasion of an infant baptism. He spied a white rose on the font. “What’s the meaning of the rose?” he asked. “It represents the purity of the child,” they answered. “Then what’s the meaning of baptism?” he countered. Exactly. Baptism assumes a person, infant or otherwise, needs the poured out and cleansing blood of Jesus Christ and the poured out and renewing grace of the Holy Spirit. Understanding the need of divine grace is vital to faithful Christian parenting. My child needs the grace of Christ: regenerating, illuminating, transforming, and sustaining. Likewise, the second vow:
Do you claim (or trust in) God’s covenant promised in (his/her) behalf, and do you look in faith to the Lord Jesus Christ for (his/her) salvation, as you do for your own?
Parents are pledging to look in faith for what? Salvation. Their child needs salvation. There are covenant promises to be claimed (Gen 17:7; Acts 2:39). They must be believed if the child is to be saved. The benefits of grace are received by faith: “by grace you have been saved through faith” (Eph 2:8). Taking the first two vows together, because I understand the human condition into which my child was born (original sin), I recognize his/her need of the benefits of Christ and the Spirit (salvation), and my responsibility to trust the promises of God in Christ. Okay? Then what?
Since these things are so, the parents must utilize the God-given means to bring their children to Christ. To trust the promises of God and do nothing is fatalism. To leave their salvation “in God’s hands” while abandoning the responsibility to guide them spiritually is sinful negligence. Hence vow #3 follows vows #1 and #2.
Do you now unreservedly dedicate your child to God, and promise, in humble reliance upon divine grace, that you will endeavor to set before (him/her) a godly example, that you will pray with and for (him/her), and you will teach (him/her) the doctrines of our holy religion, and that you will strive, by all the means of Gods’ appointment, to bring (him/her) up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord?
Notice the “humble reliance upon divine grace” that describes the context in which the vow is taken. Both the parents and the child need God’s grace if a child is to be reared properly. Parents promise to provide a “godly example.” This requires God’s grace. Parents promise to “pray with and for” their children. This too requires God’s grace. Parents teach them “the doctrines of our holy religion.” This also requires God’s grace. Parents promise to use “all the means of God’s appointment.” This requires God’s grace as well. We parents are weak and foolish, inconsistent and compromised. We need God’s grace if ever we are to rear our children faithfully. We need grace, and our approach is determined by what we call the “doctrines of grace,” of human depravity and God’s initiative in salvation. Grace shapes the whole endeavor.
Next time we’ll look more carefully at each promise of this third vow. For now we’ll merely note the concluding clause of the vow, the promise to “bring (him/her) up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” These two beautiful old English words, based on the KJV of Ephesians 6:2, have more recently been translated “discipline and instruction” (ESV, NASB), or “training and instruction” (NIV). They represent the negative and positive poles of parenting. Children need correction and teaching. Why? Because “foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child.” How is it to be removed? “The rod of discipline drives it far away (Prov 22:15). Previous generations understood this. “Spare the rod and spoil the child,” was a universally accepted piece of folk wisdom. It is also an authoritative piece of biblical wisdom:
Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him. (Prov 13:24)
If we love our children we will diligently discipline them. Properly applied discipline is even associated by Proverbs with salvation:
13 Do not withhold discipline from a child;
if you strike him with a rod, he will not die.
14 If you strike him with the rod,
you will save his soul from Sheol. (Prov 23:13, 14)
“Break their wills,” said John Wesley, “that you may save their souls.” John Witherspoon, the only minister to sign the Declaration of Independence (and a Presbyterian minister at that!) maintained that discipline should commence at 8-9 months and be completed by 12-14 months! He was concerned that discipline would become “too severe” if delayed. If that seems unreasonable, how about by age 3? By then, I would think 90% of all childhood discipline should be complete. The household should be calm, quiet, and happy, as opposed to an endless stream of whining, fussing, argument, and defiance.
With human beings there are countless variables. Rearing children is an art, not a science. There are no parenting cookie-cutters or formulas. Yet there are some universal principles to guide us. What do we need if we are to rear our children aright? Wisdom. Patience. Selflessness. Grace. Parents need grace and their children need grace, and the process must be grace-shaped if the goals of Christian parenting are to be reached.