Why Am I Writing This?
Legalism is as deadly to parenting as it is to all other areas of Christian life. That is why I am writing this testimony–I pray that you will learn from my sins. Legalism is a destructive force in families that masquerades as good discipline, consistency, or even “good parenting”. Legalism is probably embedded in family traditions and culture. The concept of legalism I am using is simple: living with an emphasis on rules over God’s grace. God’s grace is his unmerited favor. His favor toward us appears in all of our lives, for instance, in the air we breath, the food we eat, and in the families, jobs, and homes that we have. God’s special grace on those who follow his Son appears, for instance, in the spiritual gifts he gives to Christians and of supreme importance his favor appears in the gospel of Jesus Christ and in giving his Son to die on the cross to pay for our sins so that by this amazing grace, through our faith, we may be saved from hell and live eternally with God in heaven. (ESV, Ephesians 2:1-10) If you have not placed your sincere faith in Christ, that is the first thing you can do for yourself and for your children, to the glory of God.
How are grace and rules related? Understanding and embracing God’s grace, in all its forms, and keeping Christ’s sacrifice at the forefront every day, motivates us to want to please and honor God. Isn’t that the attitude you want for your children!? Living by grace, we voluntarily seek to please and honor our Lord with every thought, word, and deed. We voluntarily seek to expand the ways we please and honor him. In doing so we freely live within an ever expanding universe of love for Jesus Christ and for his ways and for his thoughts. Because God is infinite, and we seek to live in his universe of righteousness, we have infinite freedom. Living by rules, though, we seek to know only the boundary established by the rules so that we can exploit every bit of space allowed by the rules. Our freedom is limited by the rules because rules are finite and rigid, and so only by exploiting all the space within the boundary can we maximize our freedom. In practice, we either edge as close to the boundary as possible–which is foolish(!), or we set up more rules to be sure we stay away from the boundary–which further reduces our freedom. Living by rules we find ourselves asking, “Am I allowed or required to do this?” instead of, “Will this please and honor my Lord?” Living by rules, we impose on everyone around us our personal interpretation of the rules. Living by grace, we know that God sheds his grace differently on each person and therefore we are humble, understanding, forgiving, and loving toward others. Can you see the implications for parenting?
When we enforce rules by discipline without teaching the gospel at the same time, we raise Pharisees. When we force obedience with the power we have as parents to apply unpleasant consequences, without teaching that parents are God’s selected ambassadors to our children, we teach fear of man rather than fear of God. When child training consists solely of rewards and punishments, we use the same techniques trainers use on dogs, we manipulate children to achieve our own desired results and, worse, we teach children to manipulate others to get their way. (The first people that children will manipulate are their parents!) We deny them the joy of knowing that “…you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him [Christ], having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” (Col 2:13–14, ESV). If you are a parent and these statements are hard for you to read and accept, you must read on. This testimony is for you.
Generations of Rules
When Brenda and I had our first child I decided to raise him by the same rules that my grandfather used to raise my father and that my father used to raise me. I loved and respected my parents–which has not changed–so it was an easy decision. If I could raise a son to be like my dad, I thought I would be a successful father! So I became the third generation of Robertsons who raised their kids with these rules: never lie; never cheat; never steal; pay your debts; and obey your parents.
These are basic and good rules–straight from the ten commandments. However I decided I should add another rule because I was a Christian parent (my parents became Christians after I left home). So I added, “Love and obey God.” This rule was for education only, not for discipline. When our second child was born, I decided to add the last rule: “Love and protect your brothers.” My father and I are only-children, so our parents did not think of this one, and I wanted my young men to be close and to stick together all their lives.
So all our kids memorized The Seven Rules from the time they could talk, and could repeat them on request:
Pay your debts.
Obey your parents.
Love and protect your brothers.
Love and obey God.
Breaking one of the first six rules was cause for discipline. The seventh rule was there only for instruction. I would not discipline my children when they failed to love and obey God. Even then I understood that I could not “train” them to be Christians. We also had two other types of rules that really paid off. These were great rules that I distilled these from what my parents taught me:
Store Rules: Be quiet; Stay with your parents; Don’t ask for anything.
Restaurant Rules: Be quiet; Sit still; Eat your food. Just as my father taught me, I taught my boys that if they asked for anything in a store they would NOT get it. But if they did not ask, sometimes they would get what they wanted–and I made sure sometimes to buy them the things I knew they wanted. Even as toddlers they behaved really well in restaurants and stores! Our rules seemed perfect to me. They had worked for two generations, and I was sure they would work for us. We enforced them as consistently as we could. When they broke one of the rules intentionally, I would calmly take them to our bedroom and explain what they did to break a rule. Then I would administer four or five swats hard enough to make them want to avoid another spanking. Afterwards I would talk to them for a few minutes as they calmed down. I’d wipe their tears and once more make sure they knew why they deserved a spanking and knew that I loved them. Then I would give them a hug and kiss and tell them that I loved them. I did not, though, take time to talk to them to teach them about sin generally and their sin specifically. I did not ask them what they wanted so much that they were willing to disobey God to obtain, and I did not show them that Jesus has something infinitely better for them than what they want for themselves. I had been taken “captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” (Col 2:8, ESV)
And Then We Grew Up
All seemed well until my children became old enough to think for themselves. Then they began to tell us that we did not listen to them. I could not understand that complaint. We listened all the time! They told us that we did not listen because we knew that we were always right. Again, I could not understand this complaint. Of course we were right! Never lie…obey your parents…love and obey God….these were God’s own rules–there is no way we were wrong. Yet our young men were trying to teach us something that I could not hear–that I needed to do more than enforce rules and apply discipline. I needed to have real dialogue with them, to listen to their hearts, and to teach them about sin and its only solution.
About this time God led me into biblical counseling as my primary service to the church. I began to counsel couples about marriage, and men about various problems and sins. Through the counseling ministry God taught me to depend on Him. I do not have answers for hurting people, but He does. I have no confidence that I can help people in the complex circumstances of life, but I have complete trust that God can do that through me. I pray every day to listen to His Spirit, to remember His words, and to speak His wisdom.
Often there are no easy answers, but I learned that at the core of every solution is greater trust in the Lord. Trust in God is what we most often lack–and what we most often need! We must make decisions and act every day based on our trust in the goodness and love of God and in the person and work of Jesus Christ. If we are not living according to our Christian beliefs, then we are not trusting God! If we are not making everyday decisions according to our faith in Christ and knowledge of His will, then we are not walking in the Spirit. Walking in the Spirit is possible only if we know who God is and we listen to Him, who Christ is and what Christ did for us, if we know who we are both in the flesh and in Christ, what sin is generally, and what our own sin is specifically.
Counseling forced me to think deeply and study the scriptures to learn about sin and how to help people with sin. Counselors can’t just say, “Stop it!” because besides being silly, it would do no good. Counselors cannot just point out the verses that call us to godly living and expect people to suddenly start obeying God. Believers sometimes want to stop their sin, but they don’t know how–meaning they don’t know to ask for the power of God’s grace. Sometimes they don’t want to stop because their faith is weak and some of their beliefs about God are wrong. People who are outside the church, who do not know Christ, often have a vague feeling that the church can somehow help them–and they are right. Christ’s church understands that all suffering comes from one or more of three sources: our own sin, the sin of other people, and from the fallen Creation. As we teach these things to people they learn how to live biblically–how to walk in the Spirit and to have joy and contentment in any circumstance.
Parenting With Christ
About now, you might guess that I soon figured out that these truths for counseling were also true for parenting. Nope. That did not happen until I read “Shepherding a Child’s Heart” by Tedd Tripp. When I read chapter eight, “Embracing Biblical Methods: Communication,” and then chapter nine, “Embracing Biblical Methods: Types of Communication,” it hit me. I had heard these words before–in counseling classes and counseling books! The goal of biblical counseling is similar the goal for parenting! Parents must teach their child about God–who He is, about His sovereignty and other perfections, and why they can trust Him. Parents must have frequent and deep dialogue with their children about their children’s feelings and desires and how to evaluate their feelings and desires by scripture. Parents must root and build up their children in Christ: “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.” (Col 2:6–7, ESV)
In this way parents encourage their children to develop a deep trust in Christ, parents teach them about their sinful desires and emotions, parents teach children how to deal biblically with those desires and emotions, and parents teach them to “abound in thanksgiving”! Parents must help children learn about the heart issues and sin that cause disrespect, selfishness, disobedience, fights, and other sinful behavior and attitudes. If parents discipline their children outside of a gospel context they put their children under the yoke of the law that Christ freed us from! In short, I learned that parents must parent with the gospel–with Christ. I was reborn as a Christian in 1978. In 2007 I was reborn as a parent and began to grow.
Our young men were then 18, 16, and 14. I wondered if it was too late to parent based on the gospel instead of based on The Seven Rules. I spent my first years as a parent convicting my children of their sin with rules. I disciplined them when they disobeyed and expected the discipline itself to teach them how to behave. However, I ignored their hearts where their desires and motives and attitudes reside. At that time I resolved to spend the rest of my years teaching my children how the gospel of Jesus Christ is not only the way to eternal salvation but also how Christ must guide their everyday life. I began to learn how to focus my parenting on Christ instead of on MY rules. God willing, I have the rest of my life to continue to teach these things to our sons. What our sons have accomplished in their lives so far, and the kind of people they have become, they have achieved in spite of the lack of grace in their upbringing.
I have painted our family picture rather simplistically in order to make a point. I have not discussed the great love we have for our young men. I have not explained how we put them to bed every night with prayers and taped Christian stories. I have not described how Brenda read the bible to them as they grew from babies to toddlers into children. To my shame I let reading scripture to our boys mainly be Brenda’s task. (My excuse was that as an Army officer I was often gone for many months at a time and always worked long hours.) I have not described the many times I took them hiking or fishing or to feed the ducks, or played games, or took them on train rides in Germany, how we spent fun time in many ways to just be with them, and how we went to every soccer game, baseball game, and basketball game. I have not described the years when we did family devotions after family dinners. We taught our children right from wrong with a great committed love for them in our hearts and our actions. I know that our love for our young men covered many of our mistakes and sins. Even so, it is a testimony to the infinite love and wisdom of Christ that even the greatest love and attention of a parent cannot make up for raising children without making the gospel of Christ central to every aspect.
Please do not leave this article thinking that I believe all rules are bad. Absolutely not! The Seven Rules and the Store and Restaurant Rules are good rules! Children need rules to learn that there is a right and a wrong–to learn about sin. Rules and discipline, though, are not enough. Parenting in general–but discipline specifically–without the gospel is guaranteed to produce frustration in the parents and the children. If parents manipulate children by rewards and punishments alone, even with the best intentions, without helping the children to understand the sin in their hearts and how they can be free of the power of that sin by faith in Christ, then parents are not showing the fullness of Christ’s love and power to their children and they are not doing their duty as Christian parents.
I hope my sons remember the day I sat down with all three of them on our back deck and I told them much of what is in this article. I told them how it was sinful for me to discipline them without also teaching them to apply the gospel in every situation, and I asked for their forgiveness. I asked them to let their generation be the last Robertson generation raised this way. As commandments convict of sin but fail to provide a way to righteousness, and as commandments alone weight us down and steal our joy, parent-made rules and discipline do the same in the absence of the gospel. And the solution is the same–Jesus Christ and His gospel.
I hope my testimony has helped you to want to know how to parent with the gospel. This article alone will not suffice, but here are the books that helped me learn:
Give Them Grace, Dazzling Your Kids With The Love of Jesus, by Elyse M. Fitzpatrick & Jessica Thompson (Elyse’s daughter)
Shepherding a Child’s Heart (and separate workbook), by Tedd Tripp How to get at the heart issues that cause disobedience/disrespect, how to apply God’s grace instead of legalism (the most frequent parental mistake), and how to discipline your kids.
Thankfully, Our Justice Is Not Always God’s Justice! Do you think your children are too old now and that you have ruined them or allowed them to be ruined? If your children are almost teens or are teens and like me, you raised and disciplined your children during their early years without an emphasis on how Christ has defeated the sin that is in their hearts, and how Christ has all the answers they seek, be hopeful and know that your actions influence but do not determine how your children live their lives. We parents like to think our actions determine how our children turn out. There is one word for that thinking. Arrogance! Our perfect, infinite, sovereign, just, and holy God will hold your children responsible for their own decisions and for how they respond to your parenting. Indeed that is why parents must teach and influence their children to honor God and to follow Christ–because we know they will one day face the judgement of our just and holy God. But if you blame yourself beyond the normal influence of a well-intentioned parent, then you may commit the sin of thinking yourself more significant than you are and you may make the mistake of listening to Satan accuse you. The entire chapter of Ezekiel 18 is devoted to correcting this wrong thinking.
In Ezekiel 18 we see a righteous father with a sinful son, and a righteous son with a sinful father. In Ezekiel 18:20 (ESV) God says, “The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.” Through Ezekiel, God explains that if a righteous man turns to wickedness he will die, and if a wicked man turns to righteousness he will live. For this the Hebrews accused God of being unjust! “Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.'” (ESV Ezekiel 18:25) Thankfully, our justice is not always God’s justice!
Parent, here is what you must do for your teenagers:
Teach them the gospel of Christ and the doctrine of sin (if you do not know how, you must learn)
Join a gospel-preaching and gospel-living church.
Regardless of their age, love your children and always pursue them with the love of Christ. Especially persevere in pursuing them with love if they do not respond nicely to your love. “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing.” (ESV, 1 Peter 3:9) God pursues and saves us while we are still rebels against him: “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (ESV, Romans 5:8) Do the same for your children!
Trust our loving and merciful God and rest peacefully in His sovereignty because your children have always been in His hands anyway. Demonstrate to your teenagers your trust in God by not worrying about them. Care about them, but lean on Christ so you don’t have to worry. In Ezekiel 18:4 (ESV) God says, “Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine….” Do read the rest of Ezekiel 18 because there are some very hopeful words there for parents who are concerned for their children!
In Matthew 20 Jesus tells the parable of a master who hired workers in a vineyard at the eleventh hour (one hour before quitting time). By his generous grace, the master of the vineyard paid them the same as the workers who worked all day. When some of the workers complained that the master was not fair, the master said, “‘Am I not allowed to do what I want with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge me my generosity?’ So the last will be first and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:15-16 ESV) Again we see that our justice is not always God’s justice, and how glad we should be! I pray every day for the Lord’s generous grace for me and my wife and my children because I know He can make up for my sins and for the fact that it was late in the day when I began parenting by and with the gospel of Jesus Christ.