Have you ever wondered what biblical parenting really is? How can parents help their kids understand the Gospel in a natural way that isn’t forced or confusing? Can parents really expect the Gospel to change their child’s behavior?
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I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s been a surge of books on the market all about biblical parenting the past few years, with some people really trying to emphasize what it looks like to make the Gospel the central focus of parenting. As a Christian, I was thrilled to get my hands on a few of these books. (I’ve posted links to a few of these books at the end of the post, and you can check them out on my Resources page too.)
And I’ve got to tell you. They’ve become such a huge encouragement to me! So much so, that I’ve decided I can’t talk about being a boy mom without also dedicating an entire blog category to biblical motherhood and what that looks like.
But before you and I put on our boots and go digging for those little nuggets of gold, I thought I’d better take some time to at least try to define what gospel-centered parenting is all about.
This topic goes deep, though, and there is definitely no way to adequately cover everything with one blog post. So, rather than write you a novel, I want to try to take you on a bird’s-eye view survey of what gospel-centered parenting is all about.
What Gospel-Centered Parenting Is Not
When trying to define something, my pastor often starts his sermons with this little phrase, “First, let’s take a look at what [insert topic of the day] is not.” By looking at what something isn’t, it’s been remarkably helpful in clearing up misconceptions. So let’s spend a little time looking at what gospel-centered parenting is not:
It is not a “new” or “secret” or “undiscovered” method or fad.
This isn’t “9 secret things the Holy Spirit told me while I was sleeping” or “20 proven methods to get your kid to become a Christian and act right by the end of the week.” There is no list, no formula, no secret handshake, and no fancy methods. There is only the simple and beautiful truth of the gospel contained in God’s Word. Thousands of faithful, biblically-minded parents have been doing this for hundreds and hundreds of years.
It is not simply training our kids to “act right” and modify their behavior to fit our expectations.
In other words, it is not merely looking for outward submission, while the heart is left untrained and ignored.
It is not the old-school, authoritarian way that says, “Boy, I’m in charge here, and you better do what I say or you’re gonna get it.”
Gospel-centered parenting recognizes that God has created and called his creatures to live under authority. God expects us to exercise our God-given authority over our children with fairness, gentleness, consistency, tenderness, and wisdom–just the same way He exercises His loving Fatherhood over us in our lives for our good, protection, and growth.
Nor is it total leniency about everything your kid wants to do
A parent who lives in light of the Gospel loves their child enough to intervene in their child’s foolishness with discipline and training.
It is not a guarantee that your children will love and want to follow and obey God.
The Gospel is powerful, and is the means God uses to bring people to salvation, but not everyone responds to the Gospel, regardless how much they’ve heard it. I think we’ve all known great parents who raised children that rejected the faith. (And vice versa: children who became godly men and women despite their parents!)
So, What Does Gospel-centered Parenting Look Like?
In a nutshell, the Christian parent who wants to show her children their need for Jesus Christ as savior (the Gospel) will seize the opportunities of correction, discipline, and instruction with her children to lovingly help them evaluate their own hearts, recognize sin, and replace sinful thinking with the truth of God’s Word. There is never a guarantee that any of her children will one day become believers, but the parent has been faithful to present the Gospel to her children time and again, and rests in the knowledge that God’s Word is the wisdom that leads to salvation.
Our desire for our children is the same as Paul’s heart for Timothy when he said,
“You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness.” 2 Timothy 3:14-16
Our goal is to raise children whose hearts love Christ. We long that they would learn the Scriptures and the Gospel; that they would be convinced of what they have learned; and that they would continue in what they have learned.
We can do this by (1) valuing and cherishing the Scriptures in our everyday lives, (2) guiding our children to understand the motivations of their own hearts, and (3) helping our children to see their need for God’s grace in their own lives.
Valuing and Cherishing the Scriptures in Everyday Life
First and foremost, the value that we place on God’s Word is directly seen and understood by our children.
When our children see us moving our schedules around to make time to study God’s Word, memorizing it, and daily trying to live it out, it tells them that God’s Word is precious. It communicates that the Scriptures are the foundation for our lives, and everything we do and think builds upon that foundation. Similarly, when our children see our worship of God, they learn He is worthy of our awe and gratitude and devotion. When they see us take every difficulty and joy to God, they learn God is really the One to be trusted.
And of course the opposite is true as well. Despite what we say, if our lives don’t really cherish God’s Word, our hearts are not moved in adoration of Him, and our worries are much greater than our trust in Him, then we can be sure that our kids will not really see a great need for the Gospel in their own lives. If we are not convinced that God’s Word is actually true and reliable, then we will not have the confidence to help our kids trust the Bible.
We have to recognize that the way we live our lives, whatever kind of example that may be, is the main instruction we give to our kids. Our day-to-day lives speak volumes to them, louder than our words ever will.
Helping Your Child to Evaluate and Understand His Own Heart
In Matthew 15:18, Jesus told us that the things we say and do come directly from our heart. (“But the things that proceed out the mouth come from the heart”) (See also Luke 6:45) This is why it is so crucial to learn how to self-evaluate our own thoughts and motivations. When my son has done something wrong and needs my correction/intervention, this is a perfect opportunity to come alongside him and help him uncover the motivations of his heart that led to his sin. But how?
First, listen well.
I know it’s easy for me to be so worn out by the fact that my boys are fighting again, or so-and-so did such-and-such again, that I fly off the handle in frustration and anger right off the bat. And this kind of behavior on my part never accomplishes anything good. At all. Instead, when I choose to just patiently listen, I now have a platform to begin instructing my child. (Kind of hard to talk about God’s Word through gritted, angry teeth!)
Ask your child probing questions that are aimed at his heart and attitudes.
This helps him to uncover his motivations for his behavior. Questions like, “Did you kick your brother because you were angry? Why were you angry?” “Are you putting your brother ahead of yourself, or are you being selfish?” “Does calling your brother stupid edify him or tear him down?” “What could you have done instead?” As a parent, we can’t 100% know our child’s motivations, but by helping him flesh out the answers to these questions, we are training him to understand his own heart and hold it up to the light of Scripture.
He will need this critical skill for the rest of his life.
Help your child to think rightly and apply the Scriptures.
One of the best ways Scripture helps us to think rightly is found in Ephesians 4:22-23 where we are taught that we are to “put off” sin and our former way of life and thinking, and instead, “put on the new self” and be “made new in the attitudes of [our] minds.” The word picture here is like taking off our gross, dirty, smelly clothes and then, instead of doing nothing and being naked, we put on a nice, beautiful outfit in its place. So instead of being prideful and unkind, for example, God tells us to “walk in humility and consider others better than yourself.” (Philippians 2:3) It’s not enough to just do away with sin; God tells us to replace it with the opposite of whatever our sin was. We do the work of helping our children uncover the sin in their behavior so that they can now identify what they need to “put off” and then “put on” in its place.
Guiding Your Child to See His Need for God’s Grace
I think this is the most important part of everything we attempt to teach and show our children.
Because, frankly, none of us will ever be able to live up to God’s standard of holiness.
And that’s the point of the Law given to us in the Old Testament. It shows what God requires, and it also shows us that none of us can keep it, not even on our best day. We are utterly hopeless to inherit anything but death, unless God intervenes. And the good news (the Gospel) is that He did intervene. Jesus offered his own sinless life in death so He could satisfy God’s justice on our behalf. That’s why we love Him.
Make the Connection
We have to make this final connection for our children in the midst of their struggles with their own sin. They need to see that, though their own sin has separated them from God and brought them a death sentence, Jesus intervened on their behalf by laying down His own life so that His righteousness could be credited to them. They must see that it is God’s grace and God’s grace alone that justifies them before God.
It’s All About Grace
We don’t ever want to leave our children with the misconception that doing right equals being made right with God. Otherwise, we will just be creating little Pharisees. We leave the door wide open to having them believe that the more gold stars they get on God’s Good Behavior Chart for the day, the “better Christians” they are. When the truth is, the more intimate a person grows with God, the more acutely aware he becomes of just how sinful he is. And all the more he cherishes the extravagant grace God continues to lavish on him.
Can you imagine the joy of having a Gospel conversation with your little one, a conversation they actually get because you’ve spent day in and day out training them towards an understanding of it? Their own life has become a living example to them of what sin looks like and how they are unable to save themselves from it. How beautiful and wonderful to be the one that brings them the good news!
What Happens When We Make the Gospel the Main Thing?
As it does with everything in life, the Gospel completely changes the way we parent our kids and the goals we set as parents. It takes the focus off of us, and redirects it towards God’s grace and love.
We are first focused on our hearts and motivations, instead of just our parenting methods. Success as a parent is measured by how diligent and faithful we’ve been in fulfilling our responsibilities–and not just whether we produced kids who “act right.” We understand that good behavior does not necessarily mean that our children love God. But since it is the heart that determines behavior, a love for God will bear the fruit of sanctification over a lifetime, and that will be our prayer for them.
We will view parenting as related to all of life, and not just a segregated part of life that we do when we are with our kids. Everything about our lives communicates to our children what is important. How we live. How we worship. How we value God’s Word. Even our marriage preaches the Gospel to our children. Our values will not merely be taught to our children, but also caught.
When we are in the habit of discussing God’s Word with our kids, the lines of communication will be open when they one day need our help to examine their questions about faith and God. They will be used to having rich conversations with us about faith and the purpose of life, and they will feel safe expressing their honest doubts and questions. This is such a wonderful opportunity to guide our kids to the right answers. (And it’s good to remember that we can’t teach our kids what we don’t know!)
A Few Very Helpful Resources
Ted Tripp coined the phrase “shepherding the heart” in his book Shepherding a Child’s Heart to describe what biblical parenting is all about. He gives a great summary of what it looks like to make the Gospel the central focus of parenting:
“I have used the phrase “shepherding the heart” to embody the process of guiding our children. It means helping them understand themselves, God’s works, the ways of God, how sin works in the human heart, and how the gospel comes to them at the most profound levels of human need. Shepherding the hearts of children also involves helping them understand their motivations, goals, wants, wishes, and desires. It exposes the true nature of reality and encourages faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.” (From Shepherding a Child’s Heart, p. 90)
I have found his book and several of the other books listed below to be like a breath of fresh air wafting through the stale room of parenting advice available today. Pop psychology may be right from time to time and new parenting methods may sometimes yield pleasant results, but only the wisdom of God’s Word and the Gospel has power to permanently change a person, from the inside out.
Check out a few of the books I’ve loved on this topic below.
And, let me know, what kind of biblical parenting examples have inspired you in your own life? What resources have you used and loved? I’d love to know!